The Parallel Text: A Symptom?
When I was very young and considered myself a sage, I scribbled relentlessly in the margins of all my texts. Shakespeare bore the brunt of my rapier wit, but Dickinson, and Elliot came in for their fair share. Later term papers weighted by heavy “borrowing” from these and other literary notables, received mid to high praise from professors, encouraging the elevation of my self-image as a creative writer, an innovative thinker. However, the truth is platitudinous: There is nothing new under the sun.
So if we accept the platitude, then we must accept that expressing others’ ideas as our own is inescapable. Cultures less inclined to individualistic worldviews hold that ownership of ideas is as ludicrous as ownership of air. But in the west we have a very firm grip on reality: ideas and air are commodities with a dollar value; therefore, copyright laws set out fines and penalties for violations, and if your tires need air, until recent law changes, you anted up twenty-five cents to inflate them.
Obviously, I’m heading toward the topic terrible: plagiarism. But along the way I want to stop at Cousin Marginalia. Let’s go metaphorical for a minute. What kind of game would tennis be if one player continually hit the ball over the net without the opponent returning it? One action doomed to be repeated with only slight variation. The exciting game of marginalia provides the reader opportunities to interact directly with the writer and to become involved in the creation of new ideas and arguments. What one voice serves up another must react to and that is exciting whether that reaction expands on the original or tears it down. After all, the reaction itself will soon receive the same treatment. Infinite comes to mind and infinite is too large to package and sell.
Today marginalia has a whole new to court to play on, and the notion of authorship is undergoing change as quickly as DSL can link us to the Internet. Cutting and pasting lifts the core ideas and puts them squarely into a new context with a new focus and only a hint that what was marginally in the mind is plagiarism on the page. Charges are made that hypertext is killing the author by unfixing and digitalizing his text–a text that should, according to copyright laws, be his domain alone.
Perhaps what we have to reconsider is much larger than the issue of plagiarism or the power of marginalia. Perhaps what we have to reconsider is our world view of ownership. What can we own? Once an idea escapes your brain and surfaces on paper or screen, is it a free agent to go to any other author with a use for it? And can you honestly say that you generated that idea and didn’t at first react to another’s in some margin of a magazine or book?