A week ago, the New York Times ran an article about the curious case of Helene Hegemann, a seventeen-year-old author whose first book, Axolotl Roadkill, landed at number five on Der Spiegal’s best-seller list and was a finalist for the Leipzig Book Fair fiction prize, which comes with a $20,000 prize purse.
It’s now been revealed that sections of Axolotl Roadkill were copied from other published sources, most notable a novel, Strobo,” by Airen. But (dramatic twist!), it appears that the judges panel for the Leipzig Book Fair had been informed of the plagiarism charges before Hegemann’s book was selected as a finalist and decided they didn’t matter.
When these accusations surfaced in the press, Hegemann did not duck, but acknowledged that copying had taken place. However, she claimed she didn’t see the problem, after all, she was “mixing” the work of others, not copying it, “putting it in a different context,” and “[t]here’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”
Hegemann’s defense leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On the one hand, she claims the shield of remix and appropriative culture, while with the other she waives away the responsibility of the remixer to acknowledge original sources by claiming ignorance of citation practices. For me, this case is troubling but clear cut. Sources must be cited OR MUST BE OTHERWISE OBVIOUS (as in the case of an image of Mickey Mouse or a corporate logo). Especially if you are pulling verbatim text from an identifiable author, you must cite. To not cite is not to remix, but to attempt to pass off another’s work as your own, which *is* intellectual theft. (and for the purposes of this blog, I am talking only about verbatim copying, which is alleged, and substantiated in this case. We can talk about stuff like hyper-referentiality later.)
One of the defenses she offers is that of recontextualization. How could she have been copying when she was placing the material in a new context? However, due to the lack of proper citations, there is no recontextualization actually happening in this case! If the audience cannot recognize what has been borrowed, then they cannot recognize when it has been recontextualized. This argument relies on the recognizability of what is being borrowed, which was not apparent in this case.
And then there is that last quote, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway…”
Hegemann obviously completely misunderstands the arguments made against the cult of complete originality and the canonization of the Inspired Artist. Regardless of the relative quality of her book, she does herself, and the remixing generation she claims to represent, a disservice by denigrating the authors’ she borrowed from, because to not acknowledge them is to cut them out of the creative equation. You have destroyed the social and cultural value of remix if you refuse to involve those creators you have pulled from.
There was a video released a few weeks ago by normative, which examined the art of remix from just this social perspective. The social phenomenon of remix is just as important as the artistic creations it allows to be created. To remove a work of remix from its social web of influences and referents is to deny that it is an act of remix, and instead condemn it to being merely intellectual theft.