Assemblage

plagiarism

Assemblage [uh-sem-blij] refers to a text ‘built primarily and explicitly from existing texts in order to solve a writing or communication problem in a new context.’ The concept was first proposed by Johndan Johnson-Eilola (author of ‘Datacloud’) and Stuart Selber in the journal, ‘Computers & Composition,’ in 2007. The notion of assemblages builds on remix practices, which blur distinctions between invented and borrowed work.

Johnson-Eilola and Selber discuss the intertextual nature of writing, and they assert that participation in existing discourse necessarily means that composition cannot occur separate from that discourse. They state that ‘productive participation involves appropriation and re-appropriation of the familiar’ in a manner that conforms to existing discourse and audience expectations.

In reference to intertextuality (the shaping of texts’ meanings by other texts), Johnson-Eilola and Selber cite ‘The Social Life of Information’ by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. In this book the authors state that the meaning of and use for a text is directly influenced both by its source texts and the broader textual context in which in participates. Building upon this notion, Johnson-Eilola and Selber position assemblage as a style of composition situated within postmodernism. They state that ‘in a general sense, postmodern theories, and following them, cultural studies, offer a useful way of understanding assemblages (and the related process of remixing) as simultaneously social and textual structures.’ Johnson-Eilola and Selber suggest that texts should always be treated as assemblages since composition is often highly intertextual. They believe that composition should be undertaken as a problem solving activity rather than demonstration of original ideas.

The idea of assemblages is closely tied to the practice of remix. Remix, originally referring to a reworked song, has been extended to describe any significant alteration of media, most commonly film and literature. Johnson-Eilola and Selber claim that remix ‘can aid invention, leverage intellectual and physical resources, and dramatize the social dimensions of composing.’ However, they also recognize that ‘remixing as a form of composition inhabits a contested terrain of creativity, intellectual property, authorship, corporate ownership, and power.’ While the practice of remixing is often marked by legal issues, the authors acknowledge that remix is nevertheless becoming an increasingly common creative form. Assemblage and remix are also related to articulation. The sociological practice of articulation, as described by Antonio Gramsci and Stuart Hall, among others, refers to the appropriation of elements of culture by various social groups. Johnson-Eilola and Selber connect assemblage, remix, and articulation as examples of meaning being situated in a specific material and social context.

A central characteristic of assemblages is the challenge to established notions of originality. The traditional distinction between original and plagiarized material maintains that not only is original work superior in terms of creative effort, but that it is not derivative. Johnson-Eilola and Selber claim that such a distinction is based upon outdated notions of ‘the lone genius’ and is no longer practical in an academic setting. While they concede that ‘teachers no longer evaluate writing completely as an isolated, decontextualized artifact,’ Johnson-Eilola and Selber maintain ‘at least one set of social forces suggests to students that using citations and quotations from source materials will be valued less than their own original text, a situation that may encourage them to conceal their sources.’ The authors assert that despite shifting attitudes in academia, work produced by students at the scholastic and collegiate level is still evaluated in terms of its originality.

They find fault with the current evaluative process for two reasons. First, the authors find that evaluating students for their originality is ‘increasingly unrealistic in our postmodern age’ as this method is based on antiquated ideas of creativity. Second, they treat the idea of isolating a student’s unique composition from the inspiring source materials as unrealistic and futile. Johnson-Eilola and Selber refer to a 1993 article by Rebecca Moore Howard on ‘patchwriting,’ which describes a technique used by new authors. Patchwriting ‘involves copying from a source text then deleting some words, altering grammatical structures, or plugging in one-to-one synonym-substitutes.’ This technique can traditionally be viewed as a form of plagiarism, but it is considered useful for learning how to communicate within expert discourse. Johson-Eilola and Selber reference patchwriting in an attempt to demonstrate the practical uses of otherwise ‘plagiaristic’ practices, not to establish a connection between patchwriting and assemblage. While patchwriting can be a useful learning tool, it is completely distinct from assemblage. Assemblage is more than the systematic replacement of like terms, and is closer to the artistic style of collage.

For Johnson-Eilola and Selber, the ability to effectively contribute to academic or social discourse is what makes an assemblage valuable, not its ‘originality.’ Rather than claiming originality is not to be valued, the authors see it as fundamentally problematic and misleading as an evaluative concept. They suggest that academic evaluation be reconsidered with a new emphasis on affect: ‘What if the ‘final’ product a student produces—a text—is not concerned with original words or images on a page or screen but concerned primarily with assemblages of parts? Importantly, in this reconception, the assemblages do not distinguish primarily between which parts are supposed to be original and which have been found and gathered from someplace else; assemblages are interested in what works, what has social effects.’

In support for their argument against the traditional view plagiarism, Johnson-Eilola and Selber cite current critiques from other scholars. They refer to Price, who argued that plagiarism cannot be defined as a single concept, but is dependent upon the cultural practice and conventions in a given situation. They also acknowledge a presentation given by James Porter in 2006 at ‘CCCC’ (Conference on College Composition and Communication) In his presentation Porter described how plagiarism is sometimes encouraged in the academic community, offering examples of ‘ways teachers plagiarize all the time—among them, sharing syllabi (with plagiarized plagiarism statements!), using boilerplate text for administrative documents, and failing to acknowledge the bibliographic work of others.’

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