Illegal Tender

Bob Dylan, well known music troll, trolled the Nobel Prize committee by barely accepting his award for literature and then delivering a speech quite late that was nearly as odd as the speech Donald Trump gave on innauguration day. The two speeches are odd because they seem to get that there are expectations for the speech - all speeches have this. By expectations, I mean that for audiences is it way more important that a speech do things with words rather than say particular words or make particular claims. This is how you can tell the difference between a journalist and a rhetorical scholar: Journalists always talk about what was said, what they should have said, and what's really going on. Rhetorical scholars talk about what the speech did or didn't do, and how it was crafted to do something. We're not that interested in the particular truth or factacity of the content, mainly because it really doesn't matter compared to the relationship of the rhetoric to the audience, and vice versa. 

Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent. I'm not going to compare Dylan's speech to Trump's anymore than that. The point is that speeches are meant to do things, to meet particular expectations, and when they don't do that, people get really upset no matter how true, factual, or good the content might be.

Bob Dylan has been accused of plagiarising or at least getting the major content of his Nobel speech from Spark Notes on the different literature he was praising. The Slate piece does a good job of lining up the suspicious passages with the original Spark Notes' content (seems reasonable to think that Slate writers would have their old Spark Notes still readily available) to create a case of circumstance. 

The best part of this article is the bottom section where Slate asks some professors what they think of Dylan's speech. These professors happily contribute to the increasingly present and popular attitude that college, and professors, are fairly irrelevant to the world by pointing out that Dylan would get no credit for turning something like that in as an assignment.

Really? It's Bob Dylan first of all. Secondly, he has a Nobel Prize for Literature. Thirdly, what he says, whatever inspired it, is going to reach a massive audience of people that will be interested in his assemblage of things regardless of where he found them. Perhaps the fact that these professors so easily strip away context, ethos, situation, and exigence is the root of the sentiment that professors are not in touch with society, or are eccentric, or what have you.

Rhetorically, the speech is pretty brilliant for a couple of reasons. First is this great rhetorical device Dylan uses by praising the literature he likes in these very simple sort of terms. So simple in fact, they take on the rhetorical valence of synopsis, or summary. This is the connection to Spark Notes right here - he sounds like he's giving a short summary, because he is. 

Dylan is quite brilliant in this address not only because of the content but because he's turning it in "late" - this is also a part of the performance. It comes when he wants it to arrive. He provides his own views of "literature" that are limited and over simplistic. But the part that the professors miss in their comments is the part that should be front and center: 

By listening to all the early folk artists and singing the songs yourself, you pick up the vernacular. You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.

Here Dylan makes a direct case for what the professors consider plagiarism. He picks up the songs and plays them himself, as if they were his own. Such a pedagogy is not unfamiliar to the university (except for the professors-as-cops who absolutely love nailing students for plagiarism) where even in things like music or art students are encouraged to copy. 

More importantly, borrowing is a mode of rhetorical invention that Dylan considers to be literature, or responsible for the texts that he created that are now being termed "literature." In his letter of acceptance delivered to the Nobel Committee by the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, Dylan makes the point that he had never asked himself the question "Is my music literature?" until after he received the notice of the award. 

The major point here is that Dylan's rhetorical mode is that of combination, collage, sampling, and retooling - it's always been that way in his music. Instead of meeting the demand of the "fans" of the Nobel Prize by crafting some new and independent thought about the brilliance of global literature, music, or something, he provided what he has always done, recast and rework the sounds that are already out there. Dylan is very much aware of the impossibility - and the horror - of the "new thing." The English professor, limited to the classroom, a space where she or he can use power over others to discipline them into modes of writing and producing, valorizes this "newness" to the point of pursuing students who plagiarize to the point of expulsion. 

The metaphor of disciplinary plagiarism reminds me of countries that have unstable currencies and pass laws banning the use of foreign, stable currencies for transactions. Nobody listens or cares, and it just winds up hurting the government. In most daily interaction, people will use the foreign currency because it has value. Only in official circumstances will they follow the rules. Such a situation has a very large risk of further declining the value of the local currency, at least attitudnally, since now there is another reason to discount it.

Plagiarism is the most limited mode of engagement one can have with a text. In the university it is seen as little more than arbitrary discipline at best, and at worst is seen by students as an impossible demand to create something new. If "newness" was the academic standard, we'd all be unemployed. But the thrill of enforcing rules and demonstrating power is pleasurable and addictive. 

Instead of this mode of engagement, it would have been nice to see some deeper, more critical response with Dylan's speech "as literature" or "as exemplar of the literature that Nobel is honoring him for making." instead, professors seize the opportunity to display their irrelevant power instead of perform the important academic mode of "professing:" "Here is, in passionate detail, why intellectual work matters." Instead what we get is "rules is rules." Pathetic. 

Plagiarism, if taught at all, should be taught as a rhetorical mode of the academy, where one tips one's hat to those who have inspired her. This is the opposite of hip-hop or other sorts of musical sampling where the onus is on the listener to be conversant enough with the literature to "get it," to smile and nod when the sample appears, understanding what the rhetor/rapper is doing. Academia is the opposite, where the audience smiles and nods when they see the blatant footnote, or the citation marring the fluidity of the text. It can also be thought of as cooking, where at some restaurants the list of ingredients and their sources are provided (the vegetables come from such-and-such farm in this nearby city; the beef is grass fed from this ranch, etc.)  Such "sourcing" builds credibility for sure but more importantly it provides the aesthetic boundaries for the joyful and valuable experience to occur - nobody would want to attend a football game where there were no lines painted on the ground or goal posts set. Without those things, the experience is not apprehended, cannot be apprehended as such and the joy, the value, is an impossibility. This is why plagiarism is punished, because it makes the value, the joy, the benefit of the work an impossibility. 

But so many professors love to be cops it will never be taught this way. The near sexual thrill of "nailing students to the wall" for challenging the authority of the professor is too much joy to give up, especially if it means spreading that joy around. Professors are special; they won't let you forget it!