Irving Babbitt: Originality, Imitation, Plagiarism

Irving Babbitt a critic influential in the 1930’s and earlier, a promoter of the New Humanism (neohumanism),  and an staunch opponent of Romanticism and of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in particular, wrote a memorable essay On Being Original which still resonates in our late era of  postmodern intertextuality, adaptation, and appropriation. Of late notions of plagiarism, indebtedness, influence, imitation, literary theft, etc. have become more and more apparent in a overly competitive and commercialize market. Last year even such philosophers as Slavoj Zizek was caught up in such scandals, with apologies that seem quickly qualified:

As any reader can quickly establish, the problematic passages are purely informative, a report on another’s theory for which I have no affinity whatsoever; all I do after this brief resume is quickly dismissing Macdonald’s theory as a new chapter in the long process of the destruction of Reason. In no way can I thus be accused of plagiarizing another’s line of thought, of »stealing ideas.« I nonetheless deeply regret the incident.

In the early part of the twentieth-century T.S. Eliot the poet of The Wasteland became famous for doing exactly that, constructing a poem or collage of extracts stolen from previous authors, poets, etc.. In fact he would even admit of great poets: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”. Of course for Eliot this was all part of his aesthetic of the Objective Correlative: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” So that these sets of objects were the quotes and theft of textual phrases etc. that would correlate with the particular emotion he sought to evoke.

Age of Quotes: Tradition and the New Critics Conservativism

For Eliot and the New Critics of the era this was just standard practice, and not something to be seen as inappropriate or morally dubious. In our era such a practice would end one’s career as an author. One would soon be twittered or bollixed out of the intellectual scene as a monstrous thief and plagiarist. So what’s changed? Why this new moral imperative? A part of it might be due to the infiltration within education and media of the notions of “political correctness”. But more to the point is that it goes back to an age-old battle between originality and imitation. In our late age can anyone be original? And what do we mean by Original to begin with, which brings me back to the essay by Babbitt.

Babbitt an avid advocate of tradition and conservative values fought against Romanticsm, Late Romanticisms: Decadence, Symbolists, Modernists, etc.. As he’d say in the opening paragraph: “There has been a radical change during the last hundred years in the world’s attitude toward originality. An age of conformity has given way to an age of self-assertion; so that nowadays a man makes a bid for fame by launching a paradox, much as he might have done in the time of Pope by polishing a commonplace. Then, even a person of genuine originality was in danger of being accounted freakish. Now, man a man passes for original who is in reality only freakish.”1 In fact the whole notion of originality was at this time bound to the conflicting politics of liberal individualism and Enlightenment ideas surrounding emancipation from the rules of a too rigid neo-classical education and hierarchy. On the one side of course were the aristocracies of France, the traditionalists of religion and power; and, on the other hand were the up and coming tribe of philosophes: Denis Diderot, Voltaire, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Claude Adrien Helvetius and many others. Above all there was the life and writings of the controversial Jean-Jacques Rousseau  who would have the greatest impact on the Romantic movement and its heirs down to our own postmodernism and beyond. Emile, or On Education would provide a generation of Romantics with the underpinnings of an aesthetic education, while The Social Contract would instigate many of the new ideas concerning democracy and political emancipation.

Aristotle and Imitation Theory

Aristotle had a theory of imitation that entailed the notion that a poet imitates not the surface of things but the reality embedded within. The painter imitates through form and colour, and the poet through language, rhythm and harmony. The musician imitates through rhythm and harmony. Thus, poetry is more akin to music. Further, the manner of a poet may be purely narrative, as in the Epic, or depiction through action, as in drama. Even dramatic poetry is differentiated into tragedy and comedy accordingly as it imitates man as better or worse. Aristotle says that the objects of poetic imitation are “men in action”. The poet represents men as worse than they are. He can represent men better than in real life based on material supplied by history and legend rather than by any living figure. The poet selects and orders his material and recreates reality. He brings order out of Chaos. The irrational or accidental is removed and attention is focused on the lasting and the significant. Aristotle by his theory of imitation answers the charge of Plato that poetry is an imitation of “shadow of shadows”, thrice removed from truth, and that the poet beguiles us with lies. Plato condemned poetry that in the very nature of things poets have no idea of truth. The phenomenal world is not the reality but a copy of the reality in the mind of the Supreme. The poet imitates the objects and phenomena of the world, which are shadowy and unreal. Poetry is, therefore, “the mother of lies”. Yet, Aristotle, against Plato, tells us that art imitates not the mere shows of things, but the ‘ideal reality’ embodied in very object of the world. The process of nature is a ‘creative process’; everywhere in ‘nature there is a ceaseless and upward progress’ in everything, and the poet imitates this upward movement of nature. Art reproduces the original not as it is, but as it appears to the senses. Art moves in a world of images, and reproduces the external, according to the idea or image in his mind. Thus the poet does not copy the external world, but creates according to his ‘idea’ of it. (see Aristotle’s Theory of Imitation)

Much of this metaphysical battle between Aristotle and Plato would be at the core of two strains in philosophy down to Kant. It was Kant who once and for all internalized such debates and made the theatre of this conflict enter the Mind rather than the empirical world. This post is too short to go into the full details of Kant and his heritage, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

In his short essay What is Humanism? Babbitt shows his allegiance to Aristotle rather than Plato, and one gets a definite overview of where his allegiances lay. Even as he seeks out the etymology of the humanistic lineage he discovers: “Humanitas, says Gellius, is incorrectly used to denote a “promiscuous benevolence, what the Greeks call philanthropy,” whereas the word really implies doctrine and discipline, and is applicable not to men in general but only to a select few,—it is, in short, aristocratic and not democratic in its implication.” In fact as he’ll suggest the “humanist, then, as opposed to the humanitarian, is interested in the perfecting of the individual rather than in schemes for the elevation of mankind as a whole; and although he allows largely for sympathy, he insists that it be disciplined and tempered by judgment.” What he means by “individual” is not the demos, the common man, but rather the exceptional man, the aristocrat – after aristoi (Greek), a term that literally means “the best“, with the denotation of best in terms of birth, rank, and nobility, but also usually possessing the connotation of also being the morally best. The term in fact derives similarly with arete: the notion of excellence or supremacy (i.e., the best in arts, athletics, war, etc.) was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential. All of this bound to the ancient notions of tradition, custom, law, rules, norms, ethics, etc. Anything that fell outside of this are opposed tradition was barbarous and monstrous, part of the common rabbles mix of slave morality, etc.. So you can see how see how someone like Nietzsche in the 19th Century, a philologist tracing such issues in his Genealogy of Morals, and in opposition to Romantic Culture after his disillusionment with Wagnerianism, would reacquaint himself with such early aristocratic paradigms of tradition against what he perceived as the slave morality of modern bourgeois society.

Babbitt, too, would bewail this decadence, and seek to convey the ancient worldview within his writings. Against originality neo-classicism became the school of discipline and education, a return to the aristocratic ideas of excellence, eloquence, and mastery in art and life. The tyranny of discipline and tradition over individuality and originality became the central motif of Rousseau’s Romantic rebellion against the neo-classical world. As Babbitt would comment, for the Romantic Rousseau it was above all the emancipation of the “moi,” the ego, the ultra-individual which must be enacted in the arts and politics: “Away with stale authority, usage, and tradition, that would come between man and his spontaneity, and keep him from immediate contact with “nature” (LAC, p. 248). The point, as Babbitt, states, almost cynically is that for Rousseau all men should now become “original geniuses”. We see this Rousseauianism in such belated figures as literary critic, Harold Bloom, who in his book Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds would define the genius as the “mystery of the capacious consciousness,” which is “idiosyncratic and grandly arbitrary, and ultimately stands alone” in its originality and individual light.

For Babbitt all such talk of genius was absolute hogwash and should be portrayed as such. Yet, as Babbitt would admit such notions were actually a defense against the overpowering burden of tradition: “The danger of the man who is too assimilative, who possesses to perfectly the riches of tradition, is to feel henceforth that originality is impossible” (LAC, p. 254). Yet, the opposite became the staple of the era of Romanticism which felt originality should be totally free of the past and its traditions, that the poet, writer, artists of whatever stripe should forget the past and strike out on their own. Emerson’s early lectures are exemplary on this score. Yet, as Babbitt comments a “man who will break with the past in this way will think he is original when in fact he is merely ignorant and presumptuous” (LAC, p. 255). One of the problems of modern scholarship is that it has imposed upon itself a dubious need to enforce originality, the scholar of one candle digs up source documents so that he can show just how unoriginal an author or artists actually is, producing over and over the pirating and thievery of such artists of original thought and how they embellish their works with a flagrant disregard for their plagiarisms and appropriation, and adaptation of previous works into their own without so much as blinking an eye.

As Babbitt himself will say of this: a royal road of reputation for originality is to impugn the verdicts of the past, – to whitewash what is traditionally black or to blackwash what is traditionally white (note: he is not meaning by white or black any notion of racism). I’m reminded here of the battle between Harold Bloom and his teacher, Northrup Frye – author of Fearful Symmetry (a study of William Blake), and the literary structuralist work of its era The Anatomy of Criticism. Northrup Frye following an almost hermetic and neo-Platonic notion of transmission and emanationism, believed that literary inheritance was a benign process of appropriation and adaptation to current modes of life and being. This notion would harbor a closeness to tradition and its classical transmission from generation to generation. While the opposite is true for Bloom who developed an idiosyncratic system of Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Romaticism, and a strange amalgam of literary tropes to circumvent tradition and produce a creative and innovative sense of competition and denial of tradition and transmission. For him their was an eternal war between generations that discovered itself through repetition and difference (almost Deleuzian!).

For Babbitt it all came down to one issue, we’ve lost the “art of reading”:

…as a general rule, the humane man (or woman) will be the one who has a memory richly stored with what is best in literature, with the sound sense perfectly expressed that is found only in the masters. Conversely, the decline of humanism and the growth of Rousseauism has been marked by a steady decay of the higher uses of the memory. For the Greeks the Muses were not the daughters of Inspiration or of Genius, as they would be for a modern, but the daughters of Memory. (LAC, p. 268)

Recently Nicholas Carr in his bestseller Is Google Making Us Stupid? His basic argument that the blip culture of the internet compared to our transitioning book culture is changing the way we read and rewiring our neurocircuitry in the process to our detriment. Carr ventures that the cognitive impact of the Internet may be far more encompassing than any other previous intellectual technology because the Internet is gradually performing the services of most intellectual technologies, thus replacing them. Carr finally contends that the prevalent style of presentation for much of the Internet’s content may significantly hinder the capacity to concentrate due to the many distractions that often surround the Internet’s content, in the form of ads and obtrusive notifications. Additionally, he claims that these detrimental effects on concentration are compounded by traditional media because they are gradually adopting a style of presentation for their content that mimics the Internet, in order to remain competitive as consumer expectations change.

Carr also theorizes that the capacity to contemplate may diminish as computer algorithms unburden an Internet user’s brain of much of the painstaking knowledge work — the manipulation of abstract information and knowledge — that was previously done manually. In comparing the Internet with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s management system for industrial efficiency, Carr makes the point that back then some workers complained that they felt they were becoming mere automatons due to the systemic application of Taylorism — a theory of management that analyzes and synthesizes workflow processes, improving labor productivity. Carr selects Google as a prime example of a company in which computer engineers and software designers have applied Taylorism to the knowledge industry, delivering increasingly robust information that may have the effect of minimizing opportunities to ponder ambiguities. Additionally, he argues that the Internet’s dominant business model is one that thrives as companies either collect information on users or deliver them advertisements, therefore companies capitalize on users who move from link to link rather than those who engage in sustained thought. Of course there have been many who have disputed his argument as well.

Plagiarism as Late Capitalist Disease?

In our time in such works as Martha Vicinus’ Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age, as well as judge Richard A. Posner’s The Little Book of Plagiarism one discovers that our source hunters and scholars of the one candle of common thieves have resurfaced in an age of rampant capitalism, when every last word and phrase comes under the scrutiny of even software programs for Plagiarism detection. Even such modern authors as Alex Haley, Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, James Frey, and Kaavya Viswanathan have all been accused of plagiarism and ostracized if not blacklisted.

In fact viewing Zizek’s own admission we realize one of these very faultlines in our time:

With regard to the recent accusations about my plagiarism, here is what happened. When I was writing the text on Derrida which contains the problematic passages, a friend told me about Kevin Macdonald’s theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send [sic] it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend’s resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck’s review of Macdonald’s book. (These passages are also taken over in Part III, Chapter 1, of my book The Parallax View.)

What’s sad is that such a rationalization by a popular philosopher seems disingenuous and actually speaks to our accelerated culture of speed. He seemed too busy to be bothered by checking the source attribution, and more worried (I’ll assume) with getting the book done and published (a deadline?). We’ll assume he’ll not overlook such problems in the future. Yet, Zizek was a part of that “death of the author” world, and was adamant on defending the Subject against such relativism and nihilism, so one wonders how even such a radical idealist and transcendental materialist could allow himself to fall into that trap? This “not knowing” of source attribution seems flimsy at best. And, I’m a defender of his philosophy, but one should never need to apologize to begin with, it should not have happened. This shows both a sign of weakness and a possible pattern. Is this our current world trend? Or should we admit that in an age of total memory loss and objectifying of our symbolic culture into the datastores and encyclopedic riches of intertextuality on the web will such personalism even hold water in the coming centuries? One sees a day when private ownership of data will become a thing of the past once book culture becomes – if not a thing of the past, at least a codified and tradition based system of reference and part of a new classicism. While the supposed originality and innovative spirits instead of becoming idiosyncratic enter anonymity of the Open Source community of sharing and collaboration. (I don’t see that happening too soon accept in small circles of artists and scholars, software and sciences).

He was relying on a copy of a copy, a friends rendition of another scholar’s work rather than actually taking the time to read that scholar’s work (Stanley Hornbeck’s review of Macdonald’s book). In our age of bits and databytes, or twitters, and accelerating culture we seem to have lost the art of reading along with our memory. We’ve become so dependent of externalized sources online and otherwise that we are essentially losing our “memories” and our “minds” to the great big Other of Symbolic Culture. And in such a world where an author no longer reads books, but rather discovers bits of data here and there among the light fragments of a thousand thousand refracted sites and online texts, an intertextual world acting more like a rhizome with no beginning or ending we have yet to catch up to it. We seem to fall back into our older legalese and want to continue to harbor illusions of property, propriety, authorship, and economic, social, and private rights over date that once it enters the collective mind and memory has become detached from any such real world. Everything is ideal now in such a planetary irrealism. Yet, as we know the very breakdown and abstractions that have lead to this also fail to account for the very real contradictions that reach into the ideal with material roots in peoples need to hold onto their commodity and memories as private and singular, idiosyncratic and individual. We still live in a world bound to Rousseauism and the Romantic Era Individual for all the labors of Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, etc. who espoused the death and banishment of the author… The author lives in the very presumption of originality and the legal and economic power over and ownership of the text-as-private-property.

Anon Culture

Yet, I’ve also seen a resurgence in anonymity, too. There has always been authors of anonymous works. gnOme books publishes anon poetry and tracts from several well known and unknown authors in continuation of this tradition on non-ownership etc.: “gnOme is a secret press specializing in the publication of anonymous, pseudepigraphical, and apocryphal works from the past, present, and future.” As John Mullen asks in Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature: Why did so many authors want to be anonymous–and what was it like to read their books without knowing for certain who had written them?  “Today we have forgotten that the first readers of Gulliver’s Travels and Sense and Sensibility had to guess who their authors might be, and that writers like Sir Walter Scott and Charlotte Brontë went to elaborate lengths to keep secret their authorship of the best-selling books of their times. But, in fact, anonymity is everywhere in English literature. Spenser, Donne, Marvell, Defoe, Swift, Fanny Burney, Austen, Byron, Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, Tennyson, George Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Doris Lessing–all hid their names. With great lucidity and wit, Anonymity tells the stories of these and many other writers, providing a fast-paced, entertaining, and informative tour through the history of English literature.” – John Mullan

If we think on it most of Shakespeare’s plays were never published in his lifetime, but were merely part of the King’s Company property, and only after his death were these plays brought out in portfolio form: it was prepared by Shakespeare’s colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell. The contents of the First Folio were compiled by Heminges and Condell; the members of the Stationers Company who published the book were the booksellers Edward Blount and the father/son team of William and Isaac Jaggard. The Jaggards were printers as well as booksellers, an unusual but not unprecedented combination. William Jaggard has seemed an odd choice by the King’s Men, since he had published the questionable collection The Passionate Pilgrim as Shakespeare’s, and in 1619 had printed new editions of ten Shakespearean quartos to which he did not have clear rights, some with false dates and title pages (the False Folio affair). Indeed, his contemporary Thomas Heywood, whose poetry Jaggard had pirated and misattributed to Shakespeare, specifically reports that Shakespeare was “much offended with M. Jaggard (that altogether unknown to him) presumed to make so bold with his name.” (see First Folio) The printing of the Folio was probably done between February 1622 and early November 1623. The printer originally expected to have the book ready early, since it was listed in the Frankfurt Book Fair catalogue as a book to appear between April and October 1622. The first impression had a publication date of 1623, and the earliest record of a retail purchase is an account book entry for 5 December 1623 of Edward Dering (who purchased two); the Bodleian Library, in Oxford, received its copy in early 1624 (which it subsequently sold for £24 as a superseded edition when the Third Folio became available in 1663/1664). There have and remain disputes among scholars of the order and attribution of the plays and authorship, etc. to this day.

Maybe someday plagiarism will become a thing of the past, along with the late capitalist system of economics that supported it. But that remains to be seen…


  1. Babbitt, Irving. Literature and the American College: Essays in Defense of the Humanities. National Humanities Institute; 3rd Edition edition (January 1, 1986)



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