So Jonah Lehrer plagiarizes himself. How novel. Not.
Artists and authors of all stripes have been re-purposing and re-using their own stuff for millenia. Hell, 2/3 of Picasso’s oeuvre is largely the same. (Well, Paloma, time for Daddy to go to work. Different day, same naked fat chicks on the beach. C’est la vie!) Of course, ‘journalism’ is different. One must not re-use any material without proper attribution, of course. So his crime is one not so much of copying as in not informing people that he was copying.
Now I have really enjoyed Lehrer’s work. He has some great ideas on how humans ‘operate’, including his recent book on ‘creativity.’ I don’t condone this failure, but as Dr. Manhattan might say, “I understand, without condoning or judging.” Ironically, some of his best writing has been about the affects of technology on how we think. And I believe he has been hoisted on his own petard.
Point Number One: Look, it’s a cut n’ paste world. You know that. Even though he now is employed by the New Yorker, how many of us really read ‘long form’? Life is now a cyber-Cliff Notes. ‘Research’ is done on-line. Then Ctrl-C/Ctrl-Ved into a Power Point. Change some sentences around and Voila… instant term ‘document’. That’s Lehrer’s generation. I don’t want to imply that this creates a lack of understanding or originality. Lehrer has demonstrated an ability to do some really great work.
Point Number Two: Nobody has enough truly original material to last a lifetime. From Bach to Einstein to Orwell to Picasso, all of us have a finite number of good ideas. If we’re a musician or painter, the best we can do (like Bach or Picasso) is keep re-working the same basic themes in ever more skillful and sublime ways. If we’re writers like Orwell, we keep going by processing the never-ending supply of current events. Or you can do what I do justa ’bout every motherfuckin’ day. I listen to what I do and react like Beethoven walking through the woods: I start screaming and tear up the pages.
Point Number Three: We live in an Ad driven world. Blogs? Tweets? Timelines? They are all about doing something constantly new to keep the almighty Google appeased. It has to be new, New, NEW!
Point Number Four: You can do a column of genius a week like Bernard Shaw or Twain or Orwell. You can even do a pretty good column three times a week like those guys at the New York Times. But you cannot write a crazy original, wonderful column (…errrr.. ‘blog’ )every day. You’re gonna run out of ideas. So you’re gonna start ‘plagiarizing’ somebody; either unconsciously or intentionally.
But again, web sites operate on ‘freshness’. Because they are Ad-driven. The beast must be fed.
I don’t believe that Lehrer intentionally ‘copied himself’. I think the combination of his generation, his choice of material and the constraints of trying to blog daily make this sort of thing inevitable. I don’t know if the New Yorker will ‘make an example of him’ or not, but we’d better get used to it.
I started writing Detroit because I’ve seen this cultural trend coming for a loooong time. I got sick of the short attention spans and the insatiable drive of ‘the web.’ But rather than be constantly searching for something cool and new, I realized, as Ecclesiastes tell us, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” The well of great art and literature and ideas is so deep and vast. Any desire one could have for new ‘content’ can be just as well satisfied by looking in the library as searching Youtube. So I have no need to pressure good talent like Mr. Lehrer into writing any more than he has the capacity to do well. I’d rather pay him for one good, original book every three years than insist on something hit or miss on deadline.
And as for my own work, I’d rather take my time. Not because every note is so damned precious. But rather because I catch me taking the easy way out on an almost daily basis. It’s real work to not ‘self-plagiarize’ these days, either because of the convenience of ‘Ctrl-V’ or just because we are such creatures of habit. It takes real (cough, cough) ‘Discipline’ to come up with something original; especially as one reaches a certain age. As Adrian Belew famously sang, “I repeat myself when under stress. I repeat…” 😀