A blog post by Susan Blum on CaMP Anthropology -circulated on the linganth listserv yesterday – fleshed out an aspect of The Melania Trump Plagiarism Fiasco – now widely commented on and hilariously lampooned – that Speech Eventers will be well acquainted with, namely the “production format” of Melania Trump’s speech at the RNC in Cleveland. Many Speech Eventers, I know, will also reminded of The Drake Ghost Writer Fiasco, which resulted in dramatically different consequences for the accused. But forget about Drake for now.
Drawing on Goffman’s balkanization of the speaker (the key to solving a “production format” of a speech event), Susan Blum explains that in the case of Melania Trump’s speech, like that of many political speeches, Ms. Trump was the animator (having performed the speech) and the principal (the one responsible for the ideas expressed), but her speech writer, Meredith McIver, was the author, “the one who composes the text.” Blum goes on to raise a number of good questions that this parsing may help to sort out:
“Whose words were uttered? Who profited from them? Who is responsible? What are the moral and ethical obligations that accompany each role? What are hearers’ expectations and beliefs about these roles?”
If we take plagiarism as a given, and chop up the speaker along Goffmanean lines, good debates will surely follow the questions proposed. However, if we switch up the order, if we first observe how commentators are themselves answering these questions, and, second, assess the adequacy of Goffman’s production format as a heuristic, neither Goffman nor any hard and fast notions of plagiarism seem up to the task of describing the case. Let’s try.
It seems that for a good many commentators, regardless of who “composed” the words, Melania Trump was still in some way at fault: she plagiarized. And for many, Michelle Obama, in some way, suffered the injury, even if it is understood that she also used speech writers. In other words, even though Ms Obama did not compose the words, Ms. Obama is responsible for their composition; even though Ms Trump did not compose the words, Ms. Trump is responsible for their plagiarism (or at least taking the brunt of the public shame).
That, in these kinds of speech events, the animator becomes responsible for the authorship of speeches is in evidence in Susan Blum’s post itself when she suggests in the last sentence that Ms. Trump might have chosen to attribute the lines to Ms. Obama. Should Ms Trump not have attributed them to Ms Obama’s speech writer? Who, indeed, is Melania Trump quoting? Who is to be attributed?
In a sense, Ms Trump’s entire speech was plagiarized, as was Ms Obama’s, presented as if they composed the text when others did the job. In another sense, that kind of plagiarism doesn’t matter in this context, or indeed is expected.
Bakhtin might help here where Goffman doesn’t, he is, at least, more forgiving to the particularities of the case (and to Ms. Trump, –er, her speech writer). In a line that will be familiar to many, Bakhtin offers a different vision of the composition of any speech:
the unique speech experience of each individual is shaped and developed in continuous and constant interaction with others’ individual utterances. This experience can be characterized to some degree as the process of assimilation–more or less creative–of others’ words (and not the words of a language). Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including our creative works), is filled with others’ words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of “our-own-ness” …. These words of others carry with them their own expression, their own evaluative tone, which we assimilate, rework, and re-accentuate. — Speech Genres and Other Late Essays
I’m not here to bat for Ms. Trump (at least I hope I’m not), or her speech writer(s). But I think issues of culpability miss what is instructive about The Fiasco. Taking Bakhtin at his word, as it were, Ms Trump’s speech is a particularly stark example of what is generally the case: we always have the words of others in our mouths. Bakhtin, Ms Trump, Drake and his ghost writers, and university codes of conduct, all point towards the fact that the bar of originality (and the sin of plagiarism) are socially arranged, differ from event to event, speech practice to speech practice, and are subject to change.
All this invites a different sort of questioning, it seems to me: just what are the conventions for recognizing originality or plagiarism from situation to situation? What does it take to do “originality”? And what does it take to pull off the speaking task at hand? What kinds of speaking arrangements require high levels of conformity — or sameness — and how do these levels of sameness jive with expectations of originality? And who benefits from discrepancies?
When I go to mass (once a year) I don’t, obviously, think the priest is plagiarizing when he delivers the communion rites. With the Catholics, there’s only one way to go about that business. Communion rites serve a different function than what we normally expect of speeches. Ms. Trump’s speech suggests, dramatically so, that in Presidential nominee’s partner speeches there is a high level of sameness — a ritualistic quality — although still high expectations of “our-own-ness” when it comes to the choice of words strung together. It is telling that what is upsetting is the plagiarism, not the fact that she expressed the same values as the partner of a Democratic Presidential nominee.
The high level of sameness might be explained by the fact that, like the priest’s rites, Ms Trump’s speech is less about the “referential function,” to follow Jakobson’s model, than it is about phatic function, about rallying and uniting the parishioners, about making yourself identifiable as the nominee’s better-half, and about presenting yourself as someone who can be identified with.
Where else is this the case in political talk? And, in knowing this, what an be learned about deliberative dialogue, decision-making, and democracy in the formal United Statesian (and Canadian) political machinery?