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Theft, pt. 1: stolen words and owned selves

May 19, 2013

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.

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