Where's LaBeouf?

“‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard.’ I believe it was Shia LaBeouf who said that,” quipped Jim Carrey at the Golden Globes the other day.

Someone always said it before. Maybe not exactly the same, but they said it.

Question is, when is it influence, when imitation, and when outright plagiarism? In the Introduction to the 1997 edition of his The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom writes:

Weaker talents idealize; figures of  capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But nothing is got for nothing and self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?

We lust for originality, but literal originality is impossible within society and its traditions. Again, it is impossible within language (or anything using language), which is, by nature and necessity, derivative.

What Bloom excuses in the “strong” artist, the appropriation of the past–of the extant, becomes inexcusable when not transformative, when too weak to consume its parent. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans on canvas created the way we now see those cans and, quite literally, eventually influenced the look of a new generation of cans. The Disney movie Aladdin “owes” a great deal to the much older The Thief of Bagdad which is itself an outgrowth of a silent film of the same name. Does anyone put Aladdin down for this? No. Instead, it is being made into a Broadway musical. Yet when a student, or a “weak” artist does the same thing, that person is pilloried.

But wait… there’s more. It’s extremely easy, using digital composition tools, to accidentally incorporate into the body of a text a passage one intends to offset as a quote. This seems to have happened even to luminaries such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. Could it happen to a student? You bet. And, as Martin Kich showed us recently on this blog, “cryptomnesia” (perhaps what led to George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” out of “He’s So Fine”) plays a role in creativity as well.

All creativity, once again, is derivative. It cannot be otherwise. When Ezra Pound said, “Make it new,” he was positing an “it” that already existed, not a new “it.” The confusion for the student–and for the artist–today stems from the difficulty in deciding just what is the dividing line between the old and the new. And, in today’s “Intellectual Property” context, when ownership shifts from one to the other.

All of which brings us back to Shia LaBeouf. He recently created a short movie called HowardContour.com that, it turns out, relies heavily (to say the least) on a Daniel Clowes comic called Justin M. Damiano but without attribution. It’s in a different medium, sure, but much of the structure and even many of the words and phrases are lifted directly from the comic.

Like many contemporary students when caught plagiarizing, LaBeouf seems to not know how to react. Sometimes he’s defensive, sometimes apologetic. He even claimed he is dropping out. Obviously, he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong–but ignorance of the law? It’s not a good defense.

I have no idea, of course, what the upshot of this incident will be. But I am surely going to bring it into my classroom. Maybe my students can learn from it enough not to imitate it.

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