Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Originality: Piety or Misreading?

I always enjoy the weekly columns by SNU professor Eli Park Sorensen that appear in the Korea Herald, for he manages to write complex literary critical articles that get published week after week because they are clear-headed and topical, such as this week's article, "Reproduction and the elusive quest for originality" (September 3, 2012) on the difficulty of being original. He notes two approaches to originality, one of these being "piety":
[P]lagiarism in fact is a rather pious activity . . . . When we encounter a text whose complexity is too great, a text impossible to improve, plagiarism is our only way to avoid desecrating it. In "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" (1939), Jorge Luis Borges narrates the story of a writer who . . . ends up writing chapters that are entirely identical -- word for word and line for line -- with the original text [by Cervantes]. Borges' text . . . is a hilarious misinterpretation of the notion of originality. In that sense, one might say, it remains faithful to the original text's hilariously mad notion of originality.
One could say that by remaining true to the original text, one remains original. This piety to one's predecessors characterizes Korea's Confucian culture and perhaps account for much of the plagiarism observed here in Korea, though Sorensen does not make this point.

But let us turn to Sorensen's identification of the other approach to originality:
[O]nly within a carefully demarcated domain is it possible to reach originality . . . . precisely because the notion of originality is only possible within a demarcated space . . . , a certain context -- that is, because it is conditional, and not absolute . . . . [An] original [work] . . . "corrects" the errors [of its predecessor] -- by misreading it. A strong misreading, that is to say, completes or perfects the precursor.
Again, though Sorensen does not make the point, this is a more Western concept of originality -- not fidelity to the original, but innovative departure from it, that constitutes originality! The departure, however, is not necessarily radical or absolute, says Sorensen, but often -- or usually -- just correction, completion, or perfection.

The context to Sorensen's article is obviously the recent Samsung-Apple legal battle over copying, though he doesn't mention this fight, and I have no inkling of what he would think about that. Note, however, that even the second approach above denotes no distant departure from the original for originality, so even by this criterion, Samsung might not have copied Apple.

Anyway, there will clearly be cultural differences as to what constitutes copying, so I don't expect that Koreans and Americans will agree, as we're already seeing in reactions to the recent ruling that Samsung copied Apple.

I might add that to my eye, Samsung did model its smart phone after Apple's iPhone, for example, but whether Samsung did this slavishly enough to amount to legally defined infringement of Apple's patents, I know too little to judge.

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