The anxiety (and celebration) of influence

Larry Lessig’s video in support of Barack Obama is making the rounds in the blogosphere. Scanning the transcript I found a comment entitled Andrew Sullivan which reads:

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

I’ve read that paragraph before. But not in the Lessig transcript. It comes from this Andrew Sullivan article in The Atlantic.

Why append it to the Lessig transcript? I think the anonymous commenter — who, however, chooses to identify himself or herself with the law firm Latham and Watkins — is drawing attention to the similarity between that paragraph and this one which does appear in the Lessig transcript:

So I want you to shut your eyes and imagine what it will seem like to a young man in Iraq or in Iran, who wakes up on January 21st, 2009, and sees the picture of this man as the president of the United States. A man who opposed the war at the beginning, a man who worked his way up from almost nothing, a man who came from a mother and a father of mixed cultures and mixed societies, who came from a broken home to overcome all of that to become the leader in his class, at the Harvard Law Review, and an extraordinary success as a politician. How can they see us when they see us as having chosen this man as our president?

Was Lessig’s paragraph influenced by Sullivan’s, which it’s reasonable to suppose he has read? My guess is that it was. If so, was the influence conscious or unconscious? My guess: unconscious.

This reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 New Yorker article on plagiarism, Something Borrowed, in which he recounts how one of his own New Yorker articles was pretty blatantly plagiarized by Bryony Lavery, the author of a play called Frozen. The incident prompts him to reflect on the nature of influence, and he muses:

When I read the original reviews of “Frozen,” I noticed that time and again critics would use, without attribution, some version of the sentence “The difference between a crime of evil and a crime of illness is the difference between a sin and a symptom.” That’s my phrase, of course. I wrote it. Lavery borrowed it from me, and now the critics were borrowing it from her. The plagiarist was being plagiarized. In this case, there is no “art” defense: nothing new was being done with that line. And this was not “news.” Yet do I really own “sins and symptoms”? There is a quote by Gandhi, it turns out, using the same two words, and I’m sure that if I were to plow through the body of English literature I would find the path littered with crimes of evil and crimes of illness.

Now here’s where it gets really twisty. In Something Borrowed, Gladwell refers to Lessig:

Creative property, Lessig reminds us, has many lives — the newspaper arrives at our door, it becomes part of the archive of human knowledge, then it wraps fish. And, by the time ideas pass into their third and fourth lives, we lose track of where they came from, and we lose control of where they are going.

See also several of Gladwell’s blog entries about a more recent case in which:

Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarizes a series of passages from Megan McCafferty’s teen novels “Sloppy Seconds” and “Second Helpings” for her debut novel: “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.”

On his blog, Gladwell initially makes the same sort of defense for Viswanathan that he made for Lavery in the New Yorker piece. Then his readers call him out, and he winds up agreeing with them that it was a different case.

But I digress. The real point here is that nowadays, even as ideas pass into their third and fourth lives, we don’t necessarily lose track of where they came from. A couple of years ago, Tim O’Reilly wrote a blog post entitled Act your way into a new way of thinking, which he said was “a fabulous quote from Richard Pascale’s book Delivering Results.” Tim added this postscript:

P.S. Very cool to be able to find the original source for the first quote via Google book search. As it came to me, it was simply labeled “Richard Pascale, Stanford Business School.”

At the time, I commented:

> Very cool to be able to find the original source”

And, to track the meme! From this it does appear Pascale is the original source:

Fascinating to see who cites him and who doesn’t.

Weirdly, I only just now noticed that both Tim and I wrongly attributed Delivering Results to Richard Pascale. In fact, the author is David Ulrich, not Richard Pascale.

But that doesn’t affect my point. Whether or not Lessig’s paragraph was influenced by Sullivan’s, the ways in which we influence one another are becoming more transparent, more traceable.

To complete this twisty excursion, I was looking up The Anxiety of Influence, by Harold Bloom, and found this eponymous blog posting from Lorcan Dempsey, in which he was surprised to find Bloom so prominent in the original WorldCat Identities tag cloud, and in which he cites a Tim O’Reilly post expressing similar surprise:

Who knew that as far as libraries are concerned, Harold Bloom is right up there with Brahms and Chopin. That’s one influential literary critic!

OK, I’ve reached my connection limit for now. But the fact that all these connections are traceable is a wonderful thing.

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11 thoughts on “The anxiety (and celebration) of influence

  1. I think within politics it’s also interesting because there is so much focus on talking points and staying on message. People find ideas and phrases that that catch the publics imagination and then bear repeating and become part of a larger message.

  2. RE: “act your way into new thinking”…

    I heard that advice from oldtimers in AA when I first got sober 12 years ago, and it was old then. In fact, a quick google of the phrase + “alcoholics anonymous” quickly finds this, attributed to one Mr. Curtiss in the NYTimes July 19, 1987. I highly doubt he was the originator.

    Nor likely was Nido Qubein, who get credit for a minor variant at various “inspirational quotations” sites.

    In the first instance, searching w/in blogs or books won’t find the prior use, since much of AA lore is either oral or private; in the second, the slight paraphrase makes it less findable via quick searching.

    My point being, that although the influence of ideas is indeed growing for a variety of reasons (citation, replication, community formation, etc), the traceability and transparency of that influence may not be keeping pace…

  3. With the Google intent to make all of the universe searchable, is it not very probable that no matter what you do or say, there is someone who has said something that can be construed as similar or the same before. I like two vastly different people with points in this area. Yogi Berra who says something to the effect that, my son and I are similar but our similarities are different. And comedian George Carlin, who said something to the effect, no one has ever said this before, Please drop a piano on my leg. Of course, eliminating the premise in the process.
    The point is that with all the access to stuff and the ability to find tiny segments it is easy to say it existed previously. The attribution goes to those that make it the easiest to find.

  4. “quickly finds this, attributed to one Mr. Curtiss in the NYTimes July 19, 1987.”


    “I highly doubt he was the originator.”

    You’re probably right. What is searchable is by definition fairly recent. To Jim’s point:

    “The attribution goes to those that make it the easiest to find.”

    Yes. To find, and to link to. And as more and more is findable/linkable, there’s more than just attribution going on. We can say who uses which things in which contexts, for which purposes. We can identify groups and patterns of usage. We can observe how minds influence other minds.

    And maybe we’ll gain a greater appreciation for the synthetic and collaborative nature of all forms of thought and expression.

  5. Skewing slightly off the core topic, I have to disagree with the two statements about the mind of the “young muslim”. I donated to the Obama campaign, and hope he wins, but that kind of rhetoric is dangerously misguided.

    For starters, the militants are most active in assassinating and opposing leaders in muslim countries who have browner skin and more “muslim” credentials than Obama. That is, being a “muslim” leader much closer to the militant position than Obama is, is *no* safety from the wrath of the “young muslim”.

    Secondly, it’s easy to see what the svengalis of the “young muslims” would say. They would say, “America is proven to be a paper tiger, and with just a bit of terror they turn towards Islam; thus the terror works. More terror and they will submit to the Ummah!”. This is insanity, but no more insane than the other rationalizations these people use. The point is that the morons predicting that this would melt the heart of the terrorists are brain-addled.

    Having said that, I’ll return to topic by remarking that Stefan raises a good point :-)

  6. Jon, at some point some lazy Internet researcher will attribute the phrase “the anxiety of influence” to you (or even to me) instead of to Harold Bloom, who wrote a whole book about it. ;)

  7. A couple things.

    First, you write:

    > Was Lessig’s paragraph influenced by Sullivan’s, which it’s reasonable to suppose he has read? My guess is that it was. If so, was the influence conscious or unconscious? My guess: unconscious.

    For it to have been unconscious, he would have had to have forgotten reading the Sullivan piece, because if he remembered it, the resemblance would have been striking. But Lessig is very smart, and therefore probably would not have forgotten reading the piece. So it probably wasn’t unconscious.

    That doesn’t mean it was an unadulterated list from Sullivan. I’ve actually seen the same sentiment reflected before, over the last year or so. Simply restating something that has been, shall we say, ‘going around’, isn’t something that necessarily requires a citation.

    Second, the idea that you can “Act your way into a new way of thinking” is most certainly not unique to Urich or Pascale. It is actually a staple in psychology and has its genesis in people from the 1800s like William James and Soren Kierkegaard – whose “leap of faith” is the paradigm example of acting your way into a new way of thinking.

  8. “Simply restating something that has been, shall we say, ‘going around’, isn’t something that necessarily requires a citation.”

    Agreed. There’s also something different about a paragraph-length idea versus a phrase-length one. It would be hard to write “the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed” without citing William Gibson. But we lack a similarly punchy soundbite for this meme about Obama.

    Maybe Twitter’s great contribution will be to help us master the short form!

  9. ‘some lazy Internet researcher will attribute the phrase “the anxiety of influence” ‘

    I think about these effects all the time. For example there are a lot of pages out there that contain ‘John Udell’ but are about me. If you erroneously believe I am John not Jon, you’ll easily find evidence to support that belief, and you will in turn propagate it. Do these errors increase over time? It would make a fascinating study.

  10. A delayed observation. Today Marc Andreessen reported on a 2007 meeting with Barack Obama:

    He closes with this:

    “He said — and I’m going to paraphrase a little here: think about who I am — my father was Kenyan; I have close relatives in a small rural village in Kenya to this day; and I spent several years of my childhood living in Jakarta, Indonesia. Think about what it’s going to mean in many parts of the world — parts of the world that we really care about — when I show up as the President of the United States.”

    Which suggests that the author of this meme may have been — appropriately, I’d say — Obama himself.

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