In my previous post I talked about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and how the purpose of magic is to make it possible to place people, arbitrarily, the kind of abhorrent situations that cause skepticism. Murder, torture, mind control, etc: for the most part I’m comfortable with how Rowling gives these sins magical life; I have more problems with how she treats those sins that are less abhorrent. Consider things like property and privacy and honor, and their attendant sins, theft and charity and voyeurism and exhibitionism and slander and boasting. How would magic affect these? And what is their relationship to skepticism, anyhow?
Honor is perhaps the least badly done. The Potter books are at least fairly critical of Rita Skeeter and her Quick Quotes Quill. But the quills themselves aren’t treated as particularly problematic. Wouldn’t the kind of power they give be even more socially dangerous than love potions and memory spells, since they affect not just one person, but the whole community?
Well, yes, and I think that’s why Rowling doesn’t explore the problem further: Rowling isn’t interested in magic that calls into doubt the standing of the community. A loss of honor’s skeptical correlation isn’t a personal/universal worry (“is there an external world?”, “do other minds exist?”), it’s a communal one: “what if the community is wrong?” The wizarding community being wrong is something that happens all the time, of course, but it’s never blamed primarily on magic, it’s blamed on the people who are wrong. Rowling doesn’t seem interested in how difficult magic would make it to build up enough trust to form a community in the first place, because she needs the community to be there already so that Harry can rebel against it.
In a related issue, the Potter books basically ignore the problem of privacy, and I can see why, but it’s not really an excuse. Potter-verse magic makes it possible to observe anyone at any time undetected; it’s perfect surveillance technology, and available to everyone, not just the government and big corporations. Really now–a handful of (fairly bright) teenagers were able to create a Marauder’s Map that was able to tell you the exact location of anyone within Hogwarts’ school grounds. What would stop a wizard a bit smarter from switching that map from “street layout” to “satellite”? How would the Ministry of Magic deal with magical peeping Toms? I’ve no idea. I’m not sure it could.
Privacy is a really complicated thing, and magically calling it into question raises a number of skeptical worries, but the most important one, maybe, is this: “what if the community makes up its mind?” Whenever we do something wrong we don’t want it to be found out because we want a chance to take it back; with privacy gone, we lose the gap between what we do and who people think we are. Does this just mean eliminating hypocrisy? Well, maybe, but hypocrisy’s not all bad, for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere. It’s a complex issue, in any case. And Rowling almost entirely ignores it.
And what about theft? That’s perhaps the most complex of all. With scarcity done away with (and thus commerce as we know it, though Rowling ignores this implication), theft only makes sense if what’s stolen has more than material value: if it’s an artifact, an artwork, a sentimental token. A relic. The theft of a relic is a strange in-between case. It’s not quite a crime against grammar, because even relics are objects and really can be owned, but it’s not just stealing money either (well, as if money were completely material!). Theft of magical artifacts plays a big role in Harry Potter, of course, but artifacts in those books seem to always gravitate towards their “proper” owner, as if by magic. There don’t appear to be spells to change an artifact’s owner; moral and magical and legal ownership are coextensive.
This is reassuring, but perhaps not very plausible. Mostly, I find it an unfortunate failure to explore what could have been a fascinating question: what happens when I’m forced to confront the fact that the things I care about don’t care about me? This isn’t a form of skepticism only because it’s true, because putting your faith in aesthetic objects has always been an absurd proposition. Except in the Potter-verse, it’s not; swords can chose their swordsmen, paintings can talk back to you, hats can tell you who you are. Which is charming, until it begins to seem horrifying: what is it like to be a person in a painting? Would destroying the painting be tantamount to murder? If so, is there any way for the painting-person to die a natural death? Or is the painting world a kind of hellish afterlife?
And that hat: why would you trust anyone other than God to know you that well, and to announce to the world who you were? To invade your privacy and make or break your honor? Harry Potter takes as an unstated premise the idea that we would let society do these things to us, without batting an eye. It matters who’s running the Ministry of Magic, of course, and when bad men get control of it, things get very bad–but the existence of that Ministry, and its simultaneously haphazard and absolute powers of propaganda, surveillance, and enforcement, aren’t up for debate.
[part 1 of this post found here]
I said, last time, that plagiarism is wrong in the same way deception is wrong; seduction is wrong in the same way infidelity is wrong; abduction is wrong in the same way apathy is wrong; murder is wrong in the same way suicide is wrong; torture is wrong in the same way opium is wrong; memory-erasure is wrong in the same way repression is wrong; remote-controlled action is wrong the same way rash action is wrong. And all of these sins are abhorrent in a way theft, for example, is not.
To pursue this Dantean system-building further: why isn’t theft abhorrent in this way? It might sound as if what I’m saying is that these possessions are fictional, and the sins are abhorrent because they reveal the fiction. But in fact I mean the opposite. Material possessions are fictional too–indeed, fictionality seems inherent in the idea of a possession. A possession is something I can give away, or have taken away from me, because it was never “really” mine. Immaterial “possessions,” we want to say, are really mine, but this, I argued last time, isn’t true either: they’re not mine, they happen to me. Possessions are a fiction agreed upon by the community, and theft is a crime against both the owner and the community. The sins I discussed last time aren’t either, at least not primarily; they’re something deeper, something like crimes against nature, or against grammar, or against God. This is what I mean by the word “abhorrent.”
But to call them all abhorrent is not to say that they’re of equal seriousness (if it makes sense to say that some sins are more serious than others). It’s to say that they’re things that can’t be done in the normal course of things; they’re a kind of magic. Once you get past the increase in material well-being, this is what magic promises: the ability to commit unnatural offenses, that is, to put people in situations where otherwise absurd skepticism would begin to seem justified.
And really, this is what J.K. Rowling’s Potter-verse is all about. The Dark Arts center, of course, on the Unforgivable Curses: Avada Kedavra kills, Imperio controls, Cruciatus tortures. Life, liberty, (un)happiness: most of us cannot imagine giving these away. That’s what makes taking them with magic so unforgivable: it puts the victim in an unimaginable situation. But love potions and memory spells? The Harry Potter books treat those with a great deal more leniency (in ways I often found rather disturbing), in much the same way that infidelity and repression may be troubling, but aren’t seen as evidence for skepticism, they’re just part of ordinary life. Abusing language, apparently, is so integral to ordinary life that it’s truth serums, not spells that aid in plagiarism or deception, that have to be regulated. It seems our words and our hearts and our memories are not quite as inalienable as our lives and our liberty and our sensations.
This First Things apology for an instance of plagiarism discovered in that magazine makes an intriguing observation: “Plagiarism is a sin against truth, not property. It’s first and foremost a kind of lying, not a kind of stealing.” And that seems right to me. The OED may define plagiarism as “literary theft”; but what’s that, exactly? It doesn’t mean stealing a letter, say, from someone’s mailbox; that’s not literary theft, it’s just theft.
“It means speaking someone else’s words and claiming them as your own.” So, this “someone else’s words”: how can someone own words? Aren’t words just a way of expressing concepts, and aren’t concepts universal? How can you own a universal? If you can’t own the concept “April” or “cruel” or “month,” how can you own the words “April is the cruelest month”? And if you can’t own words, how can you steal them?
Well, let’s take a step back. The OED also traces the word “plagiarism” back to “plagiary,” for which it gives this etymology:
< classical Latin plagiārius person who abducts the child or slave of another, kidnapper, seducer, also a literary thief (Martial 1. 53. 9), in post-classical Latin also (adjective) concerning plagiarism (15th cent.) < plagium kidnapping (see plagium n.) + -ārius -ary suffix1. Compare Middle French, French plagiaire (adjective) plagiarized (1555), (noun) plagiarist (1584), kidnapper (1603).
I like how Latin has a single word for plagiarism, seduction, and abduction. Just as there’s something odd about the idea that you could steal someone’s words, there’s also something odd about the idea that you could steal someone’s heart, or steal someone–not steal something from them, but just steal them. They’re all things that can’t quite be stolen because they can’t quite be owned in the first place. They can’t be owned in the normal sense of the word because they can’t be sold or given away; they’re inalienable, and it doesn’t make much sense to say you own something that you can’t get rid of. But of course we do say we own them. Language is funny that way.
We say it for practical reasons, of course; intellectual property may not be natural the way physical property is (or is usually taken to be), but it’s a useful legal fiction (at least until it’s not). And it would be difficult to talk about our hearts or our selves without saying whose loves and selves they were. But saying we own our words, or our hearts–or our pains, or our pasts, or our fates, for that matter; or even our selves–also seems intended to assert our agency in the face of our evident passivity. We want to ignore what our words mean to us, what our heart does to us, whether it hurts us, what has happened to us, what will happen to us. What made us who we are.
These assertions of agency are maybe necessary, but that doesn’t make them true. We find plagiarism and seduction and abduction abhorrent because they reveal to us that the assertions are false, and precisely by attempting to make the exact same assertions: “I own these words,” “I own these feelings,” “I own this person.” They’re attempts to take away what it’s impossible to take away, but what that really means, I think, is that they try to assert a possessor-possession relationship with an object that by its nature cannot be possessed, an object that’s not an object at all. Incidentally, this is, I think, the real meaning of Heidegger’s “authenticity” (more literally “appropriateness”). Something appropriate to me isn’t something I own, it’s something that happens to me.
In a Wittgensteinian sense, we might say, these are grammatical errors; which I can’t say without bringing to mind Stanley Cavell’s insight regarding the connections between grammar and skepticism and tragedy. So plagiarism is wrong in the same way deception is wrong; seduction is wrong in the same way infidelity is wrong; abduction is wrong in the same way apathy is wrong. Also murder is wrong in the same way suicide is wrong; torture is wrong in the same way opium is wrong; memory-erasure is wrong in the same way repression is wrong; remote-controlled action is wrong the same way rash action is wrong. And these pairs of practical sins correspond with various theoretical skepticisms: about language, about other minds, about meaning, about God, about the external world, about the past, about free will. Some of these connections may be less obvious than others, but I think they’re all quite defensible.