New Topic?

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 24 Mar 1994 14:43:10 JST

John O'Brien notes that things have been slow on ANTHRO-L. Perhaps
we need a new topic. Here's one I'd like to hear some comments on.

Recently I circulated a draft of a paper I'm working on. The most
frequent negative comment was on my use of extensive verbatim quotes
from the sources I cited. I'm not bothered by the criticism. I, too,
learned from my highschool English teachers that an author has a
responsibility to paraphrase the material he uses and not to quote
unless there's a special point to make. Finding myself in a reflexive
mood, I wonder, however, why it is tht our present academic culture
includes these rules.

I know of at least two cases where quoting at length is not only
acceptable but normal. One spans the whole history of classical Chinese
literature, where a base text is quoted verbatim with comments added.
Successive authors reproduce the base text and previous comments and
add their own. The other is new and we're part of it. It is now
commonplace on the Internet to reproduce an original message when
making a comment on it, and not uncommon to find an original
message and comments nested two or three levels deep.

When I ask myself why this should be, the first hypothesis that comes
to mind has to do with access and convenience. Through most of
China's history books were scarce and an author writing a commentary
could not assume that his reader's would have access to the original
text. On the Internet we face a similar situation. Sure we could go back
to the archive files to search for an original message, but we're so used
to the instant gratification computers provide that we find it a nuisance
to do so.

A second hypothesis has to do with authenticity. On the Internet flame
wars frequently erupt when people feel they have been misread.
Quoting the message you're commenting on at least gives readers a
chance to judge for themselves whether they're willing to accept the
reading a comment implies. I image similar situation in classical
Chinese literature. Where the volume of texts is vast and the number of
subtly different readings enormous, having as it were the whole thread
in your hands when judging a new comment would certainly be very

Why, then, should the rules of academic writing demand that an author
demonstrate "control" of his material by "digesting" it in the process of
consuming and reproducing it? Why should we be taught that reading
quotes is boring and feel impatient, wanting the author to get on with
his argument?

Two thoughts come to mind: First, these rules work pretty well when
readers can be expected to command a knowledge of a small body of
canonical texts and to have both the leisure and easy access to libraries
needed to check questionable references. Then, it's boring indeed, to
quote something everyone should know anyway. Second, and more
seriously, isn't what we're talking about an ideology in which writing is
a form of intellectual property, authors expect to "own" their texts, and
plagiarism is the dirtiest of academic sins?

Consider recent critiques of ethnographic writing in which classic
ethnographies are lambasted for effacing the informants whose words
provided much of the data with which the anthropologist worked. At a
time when we're urged to let our informants speak for themselves in
voices of their own, why do we continue to cite our colleagues but insist
on replacing their voices with ours?

I think of Plato's dialogues and Leibniz' wonderful _New Essay on
Human Understanding_, where the text of Locke's essay is given to one
character and Leibniz' replies to another, again in the form of a
dialogue. If we're now being asked to treat our informants this way,
why not each other?

"Making Symbols is My Business"--John McCreery