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An Empire of Signs

“We’re surrounded by signs, ignore none of them.” - Steve Erikson

By Anna M. Gibbs

When my father was a freshman in college, before he shifted his focus from ping pong to academic study, he submitted a year-end term paper that was largely someone else's work. It was the first and last time he plagiarized. The fear of getting caught was a powerful motivator in not doing so again, but the greater motivation was his realization that he had something to say, and that never again would he allow someone else to say it for him.

In other cases, plagiarism can occur by coincidence, produced merely by commonality of thought. What a terrifying thought—that your genuinely personal experiences are reproducible in other people. Our anxiety about being individuals causes us to police plagiarism in the academic field. And then we also have to worry about attacks of cryptomnesia, which occur when an old forgotten memory returns and is believed to be a new inspiration. I once read a friend’s poems, and a year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my own work with. A few months later I was talking with my friend about it. He was not an ignorant ass—and so when I said, "I know now where I stole it, but whom did YOU steal it from?", he said, "I don't remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anyone who had."

Even the originals are not original. There is imitation, model, and suggestion, to the very archangels, if we knew their history. I was born with words in my mouth —“Band-Aid,” “Q-tip,” “Xerox.” The world is a home littered with pop-culture products and their emblems. I can no more claim today’s cultural environment as “mine” than the sidewalks and forests of the world, yet I do dwell in it, and for me to stand a chance as either artist or citizen, I’d probably better be permitted to name it. Apprentices graze in the field of culture: It’s tremendously difficult to come up with new ideas in any given field until you know what has already been done there, because you will likely draw the same inferences based on what has been done before.

Plagiarism is not an ethical issue. It constitutes a procedural issue (copying another’s paper can get you expelled) and a legal issue (stealing chords from the hit 1963 song “He’s So Fine,” as George Harrison allegedly did, can get you a copyright infringement suit). But if the punitive system is not concerned with the ethical aspect of plagiarism, why, then, does plagiarism fill us with moral disgust?

In the children’s classic “The Velveteen Rabbit,” the Skin Horse explains to the Rabbit that the value of a new toy lies not in what it’s made of, but rather in how the toy is used. “Real isn’t how you are made…. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” The Rabbit is fearful: “Does it hurt?” Reassuring him, the Skin Horse says: “It doesn’t happen all at once…. You become. It takes a long time…. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” Seen from the perspective of the toymaker, the Velveteen Rabbit’s loose joints and missing eyes represent vandalism, signs of misuse and rough treatment; but for others, these are marks of its loving use. When a new work of art is created, the past is altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities—including the responsibility that my father discovered in his freshmen year.

Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself is stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it of our artworks? We may often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.


This column is entirely plagiarized. The idea itself for plagiarizing an essay on plagiarism was taken from Jonathan Lethem’s essay called “The Ecstasy of Influence.” This key of citations lists the sources that I pulled from. (Also note that I did revise bits and pieces in order to keep the tone consistent or better fit the word constraint.)

Title taken from a review of A Christmas Tale, a movie by French director Arnaud Desplechin. The review was written by Dennis Lim.

“When my father… someone else to say it for him.” - My father, Glenn Gibbs.

The ideas in “In other cases… academic field” - proposed by English doctorate student Chris Schlegel.

“I once read… nor met anyone who had.’” - from a letter written by Mark Twain to Helen Keller, in which he responds to her plagiarism scandal. The letter was published in the book “Mark Twain’s Letters.” I tweaked the situation slightly to make it more believable.

The first sentence of the third paragraph is quoted directly from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1904 essay, “Quotation and Originality.”

“I was born… ‘Xerox.’” Jonathan Lethem.

“The world is… pop-culture products…” Also from Lethem’s essay, but originally expressed by Kembrew McLeod, Freedom of Expression.

“… And their emblems. I can no more…” to “… permitted to name it.” Lethem.

“Apprentices ...field of culture.” Lethem.

“And it’s tremendously difficult…” to “… done before.” Bryn Huxley-Reicher, a sophomore in Cabot House.

“Plagiarism is not… moral disgust?” - more ideas from Chris Schlegel.

“In the children’s classic… loving use.” - Lethem’s essay. Lethem notes that this segment is a “mashup of Henry Jenkins, from his Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, and Michel de Certeau, whom Jenkins quotes.”

“When a new work… responsibilities.” - T.S. Eliot’s 1921 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

“Old and new… we all quote.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson, found in Lethem’s essay.

“Neurological study… of our artworks?” - Lethem.

The last line - T.S. Eliot.

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