Plagiarism and Leakology

Plagiarism is a concept best understood through leakology.  This pervasive cultural practice perversely lurks somewhere between seduction and sin, narcissism and insecurity, voyeurism and exhibitionism.  Although it is tempting to categorize the plagiarists’ actions as theft, their flagrant disregard for the definition of information as property undermines the Western logic of crime and punishment.  In 1902, William Dean Howells analyzes the peculiar nature of plagiarism in his brief essay, “The Psychology of Plagiarism,” by focusing readers’ attention on humans’ inability to both own information or its flows.  For this American literary critic, the terms crime and theft should not apply to plagiarism because the action “seems to deprave no more than it dishonors” (276).  He elaborates on the ways in which plagiarism, an act of concealment, is inextricably linked to subsequent acts of discovery.

If you take a man’s hat or coat out of his hall, you may pawn it before the police overtake you; if you take his horse out of his stable, you may ride it away beyond pursuit and sell it; if you take his purse out of his pocket, you may pass it to a pal in the crowd, and easily prove your innocence. But if you take his sermon, or his essay, or even his apposite reflection, you cannot escape discovery. The world is full of idle people reading books, and they are only too glad to act as detectives; they please their miserable vanity by showing their alertness, and are proud to hear witness against you in the court of parallel columns. You have no safety in the obscurity of the author from whom you take your own; there is always that most terrible reader, the reader of one book, who knows that very author, and will the more indecently hasten to bring you to the bar because he knows no other, and wishes to display his erudition. A man may escape for centuries and yet be found out. (Howells 276)

Howells’ precise delineation between the ways in which physical properties evade detection better than symbolic exchanges is epistemologically relevant for several reasons.

In particular, a physical property disappears in the rivers of market exchange, fluidly passing from locations and human hands with no regard of the traces that point towards its origins of development and production.  While we may seek to possess a material good, it’s value lies in its use—or the desirability of its acquisition for use.  On the other hand, the use of information itself, as a material good (let’s say a book of any kind), seems to lie in its rhetorical currency—does it enable consumers to exercise judgment, or expand their choices/range of decision-making?  The fact that plagiarism generates deliberation about character illustrates that the practice actually invents more information than it ever “stole.”  When a plagiarist attempts to “pass” information as one’s own, we may be tempted to equate this as “concealing,” but in reality this is an act of “revealing.”  Indeed, the plagiarist’s only “crime” is foolishness, if they actually believe they won’t get caught.  However, as part of a public that regularly spends it’s time and attention zealously persecuting ‘bad characters,’ the plagiarist actually exposes the perversity of property and ownership underlying logics of crime and punishment.

What is actually ‘taken’ from an author?  In rare cases, some plagiarist may temporarily receive fame and admiration, but as Howells’ realized over a century ago, they will inevitably be discovered.  In the contemporary dataquake, there are both numerous incentives to ‘fraudulate,’ as well as reveal fraud.  Regardless of whether a person is tempted to take some bytes out of the tsunamis of information saturating and absorbing them in the torrential seas, or they are relentlessly searching for plagiarism, both the plagiarist and her persecutors are searching for a tear in the ocean.  Their motivation is an emotional one—they are compelled to leak!  The plagiarist must reckon with a thirsty public.  Plenty seek out plagiarism to justify their own ‘good character,’ through the act of finding out ‘the cheater,’ and passing off their discovery as a ‘novel’ contribution to human thought production.  Nevertheless, it is the plagiarist that created that opportunity for participating in this psychosexual drama, and leaking/leaks play a central role in narratives emerging from these agents.

Who gets to be an author in our century, where writers are battling for the rewards of virality, pooling efforts in collaborative platforms and trying to be sharks in the data hydrosphere?   How does plagiarism play a role in the information warfare that stimulates surveillance economies of race and criminality, the police state and closed-system citizenry?  My next post will investigate a much ignored topic in discourses of plagiarism–its relationship to race.  I will draw on my experiences working at an HBCU for women to discuss why the academic integrity takes on an even greater significance when the students, to which it applies, may be ripe for accusations of fraud by virtue of expressing any eloquence that they claim ‘belongs to them.’  Indeed, the politics of leaking and authoring are richer when we consider black female bodies producing content.  Meanwhile, we should pay attention to Howells’ insights about the curious character of plagiarism and the leaky world, in which it lies.

Works Cited

Howells, William Dean. Literature and Life; Studies. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1902. Google Books. Web.


Truman State University Career Talk for English Majors

I am excited to give a talk today about the “trans” power of English majors.  “What’s the “T” about English Majors,” will be an informal question/answer discussion with interested students seeking additional perspectives about the professional possibilities of the field.

To access materials relevant to this conversation, please visit: 

I will revise this entry after the talk to include reflections about this event.

Betty Boop’s Cultural Origins Reveal Links between Race, Gender, and New Media History

Call:  Madame Noire’s Featured Article:  Michelle Obama Still the First Black Lady?  Historical Figures You Didn’t Know Were Black.

Response:  This engaging article has its merits, but illustrates the problem with web styling data for an agenda. Recovering black history is VERY important to me, but sometimes this purpose poorly contextualizes facts and leads to inaccurate master narratives.

Was Betty Boop Black?

Betty Boop’s racial origins have created controversy for decades.  Some argue that her physical image has been “whitewashed,” and that she was ‘really’ a black woman (although she is a fictional character).  As part of popular culture and the vivid childhood memories of millions, Betty Boop is real enough for people to wonder about her creation.  Although race definitely plays a role in narratives about Betty Boop’s and cultural appropriation, it is actually related to the animated character’s voice not her image. Boop’s voice is inspired by Helen Kane, a plump white actress/singer whose famous song, “I Wanna be Loved by You,” was appropriated from the black Cotton Club singer Esther “Baby Esther” Jones. Baby Esther became part of the historical record of Betty Boop because Helen Kane sued Max Fleischer for copying her ‘unique style.’ However, she lost the case because Lou Walton, Jones’ theatrical manager, testified that Kane and her manager heard Jones’ signature “boo boo boo, doo doo doo,” style at a 1928 caberet. Walton produced a sound film of Jones, which caused Justice McGoldrick to conclude that Kane failed to prove that the song/style was original. Her $250,000 lawsuit was dismissed.  Despite Madame Noir’s attempt to clarify Betty Boop’s “black” origins, the image attached to Butler’s article is neither Jones or Kane. It’s a Russian model Olya, whose images are posted on Retro_Ladies’ Live Journal blog:


The Conflict between Appropriation and Ownership

I have always heard that Betty Boop was “black,” but wasn’t moved to verify that information until I saw this click bait article on my Facebook Feed. Furthermore, I’ve been teaching about the relationship between race and cultural appropriation discourses in a college argumentation course.  Our discussions about attribution, IP law, mimicry, minstrelsy, satire, ‘originality,’ viral videos, ‘twerking,’ capitalism, and the power of large music corporations suggest that creativity is undertheorized in American Culture.

Competing values of pop culture consumption and sole authorship/ownership reveals a racial subtext that connects the power of cultural representation to the capacity to both mainstream information and participate in the institutional structures and technological infrastructures that enable mainstreaming.  As contagion embodies social currency, the likeness of some person via their physical design and/or productions, accrues value based on the visibility, popularity, or virality of their creations.  Presumably, popularity is capable of generating monetary value.  We might assume that widespread visibility of some person and their production (even if this production is re-producing their physical image in artistic ways), implies widespread access to an image.  However, we may begin to find this connection troubling when we recall that image production and image circulation are systematically controlled by economic, political, social, and legal forces.

Although we frequently acknowledge that who gets to be seen is inextricably tied to limited access to technologies for image production and circulation, we readily accuse the dominant culture of marginalizing the rich epistemological, cultural, and technological contributions of historically oppressed groups such as women and people of color.  In adopting the language of dominant culture, and its discourses of power and politics–praising and blaming–we fail to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the reflexive histories of information technologies and cultural practices.  The consequence of failing to connect these histories is an obsession over racial attribution that comes at the expense of ahistorical accounts of technological development (and its legal consequences), which does not enable us to fully appreciate its tendency to expand the possibility of cultural contact and the documentation of alternative histories.

Betty Boop and the History of ‘New Media’

In sum, the Betty Boop Race Controversy offers a place to investigate links between race and cultural appropriation. The impulse to say, “Betty Boop was *really* Black,” comes from a genuine place.  It matters whether or not she was black or black-inspired because cultural appropriation is a major criteria affecting constructions of racial identity.  One way to recognize who is “white,” in addition to fair skin and light-colored eyes, was the person’s ability to successfully appropriate black aesthetics by converting its tendency to spread into the categories of “profit,” “sole ownership,” or “public domain.”  Either white people could literally own black cultural production, and financially benefit from it, or no-one owns it.  It’s just ‘for everybody.’  Jason Rodriguez’s ethnographic study, “Color-Blind Ideology and the Cultural Appropriation of Hip-Hop,” comprehensively investigates the way an explicitly black phenomena–the Hip Hop music scene–became progressively dominated by young white audiences, who felt they had a “right” to both consume and produce the music because it didn’t ‘belong to anyone.’  This race-neutral interpretation of property affects both land and intellectual property law (See K.Greene’s Copynorms).  As slaves, blacks’ categorical status as property and the subsequent struggle to be recognized by the law as a (property-owning) citizen, has excluded this group from attaining the access needed to ‘equally’ compete in American society.  Cultural recognition determines public opinion regarding your ‘right to access,’ (do you deserve to even be in this space?)  and the degree to which it’s ‘your own fault,’ (do you deserve nothing) that your social mobility is limited.  American history’s erasure of women and racial/ethnic groups such as blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians as CREATORS, HISTORY MAKERS, PHILOSOPHERS, and/or STORYTELLERS makes any critical person skeptical about the ‘originality’ or ‘authenticity’ of a mainstream image/phenomena.  On one hand, If Kane didn’t decide to sue Fleischer and Paramount, etc. for their use of “her voice,” we wouldn’t be able to delineate between disproportionate access to the legal means necessary for *owning* creativity and its exclusionary function (tied to its history of excluding).  The law leaked on its inability to recognize everyone as equal under the law.  Did Jones know that films of her would be used to prevent her appropriator from earning money from her productions?  Or did she just think it was cool she was being filmed at all?  Where was Baby Esther’s lawsuit against Kane?  Against Fleischer?  Was her right to own ‘her music,’ mentioned during the litigation, at all?  Nevertheless, the fight for ownership uncovered the fact of Baby Esther’s distinctive style.

After researching Betty Boop’s origins, her mystery led us to *both* the history of blueswomen and their cultural influence, as well as some of the ways in which technological politics influences rhetoric–the creative processes that make both innovations of language, history, science, and technology possible.  If film was not “new media” during the 20th century, we would not be able to quickly recover information about Esther Jones.  The fact of film as a ‘new media,’ situated within the context of popular print media (e.g. the newspaper and periodical) raises questions about the relationship between media development, cultural attitudes, and jurisprudence. The news article’s title, “Films Shown in Court,” seems provocative because it reveals a major conflict in judicial rhetoric–how credible were films as evidence? How would the film shape legal decisions? How would film technology affect historical records, and the logging of cultural memory? How would film intersect with a burgeoning music recording industry and its contribution to the enforcement (and growth) of IP law?

Sources: “The Boop Song is Traced: Witness in Helen Kane’s Suit Says Negro Girl Originated Style.” NYT (May 2, 1934) and “Films Shown in Court: Used to Help Justice Decide Kane’s $250,000 suit.” NYT (April 24, 1934) via Proquest Historical Newspapers.

Battle For The Net

A Note from Battle for the Net:

If you woke up tomorrow, and your internet looked like this, what would you do? Imagine all your favorite websites taking forever to load, while you get annoying notifications from your ISP suggesting you switch to one of their approved “Fast Lane” sites.Think about what we would lose: all the weird, alternative, interesting, and enlightening stuff that makes the Internet so much cooler than mainstream Cable TV. What if the only news sites you could reliably connect to were the ones that had deals with companies like Comcast and Verizon?On September 10th, just a few days before the FCC’s comment deadline, public interest organizations are issuing an open, international call for websites and internet users to unite for an “Internet Slowdown” to show the world what the web would be like if Team Cable gets their way and trashes net neutrality. Net neutrality is hard to explain, so our hope is that this action will help SHOW the world what’s really at stake if we lose the open Internet.If you’ve got a website, blog or tumblr, get the code to join the #InternetSlowdown here: else, here’s a quick list of things you can do to help spread the word about the slowdown: Get creative! Don’t let us tell you what to do. See you on the net September 10th!

via Battle For The Net.

14 Google Tools You Didn’t Know Existed

14 Google Tools You Didn’t Know Existed.

I appreciated this snapshot of various ‘lesser known’ Google applications.  Google’s generative greatness offers numerous pedagogical benefits.

Some of these possibilities include:

  • Teaching definition/evaluation
  • Teaching correlation/causality
  • Assessing Trends
  • Inventing markets