Shia LaBeouf and the Joys of Plagiarism
by Florence Sunnen
Part of me wants to start this by saying “Ah, Disney Kids”, but that would mean talking about Shia LaBeouf the person rather than, as is my intention, Shia LaBeouf the public persona. (Shia the public persona seems to go back and forth on exactly how public a persona he wants to be.)
A lot of performers in today’s popular culture have seemed interested in upgrading their status as a performer lately: from performer to performance artist. Gaga, Kanye, and now Shia LaBeouf. The difference (as far as I am aware) between Shia and the other two is that Gaga and Kanye have limited their artistic endeavours to things that directly relate to who they are in the media: their music, the way they dress, their public-private lives and relationships – these things have all, to a certain degree, been made into performance art (or attempts thereof). Shia, on the other hand, went straight for the written word, and it pissed many people off, including me.
Fuelled by this anger (early morning anger lights the best fire under one’s ass, I find, a fire full of promise and potential) I read through a piece “written” (written or collaged from different sources is up for debate at this point) by Shia in The New Inquiry, as well as a number of interviews and short articles about his recent literary stunts. After a while, I began to see that I was less annoyed at Shia LaBeouf himself, as insufferable as he comes across, than I was at the many problems his behaviour fans up like a fine dust, problems it seems impossible for him, Shia the public person, to truly address.
On the surface of things, Shia the public person thinks plagiarising is the new frontier, and he wants us to know that that’s what he considers the duty of art, Art, especially writing, to accept. It is what he writes/collages/composes manifestos about, the concept he attaches to his persona like ornaments on a passed-out drunk uncle on Christmas day.
The longer one dwells on his approach to plagiarism, however, the more what he is doing seems to be, rather than accepting and glorifying the act of plagiarism and copy-pasting, a sort of rejection of the act of quoting itself. While the things he says in interviews never much diverge from the banal, standard answers given to talk-show hosts, he seems to have different aspirations in the written form; online persona Shia LaBeouf wants to make statements about art and the world, wants to reveal depth. In order to do so, he quotes, (without quotation marks, of course, as those would be acknowledging the original author’s ownership of those words, and that’s just so passé) pretty much indiscriminately, quer durch den Garten, writers, musicians, artists, etc. on whatever it is he – Shia the public persona – needs to say, or attach himself to.
The question remains whether the things expressed in other’s words, their meaning, are sentiments Shia the private person truly holds, or even fully comprehends, or if, like so many of the bots populating Twitter, he merely reacts to certain keywords in the sentence and the proceeds to lift it from its original context. (Shia the public person might object that there is no such thing as an original context and I would have to agree with him.) The rejection of the act of quoting comes in when we consider written interviews, such as this one, in which Shia answers questions using almost only quotes (which the editors of Bleeding Cool have in turn linked to their sources). What Shia the public person seems to want us to see, on a superficial level, is this: “I am living my own theory – I plagiarise in order to explain why I plagiarise.”
However, what this results in is the fact that Shia the public person can never be quoted, on anything more substantial than the superficial statements he makes in late-night interviews – not on his views on art, or culture, or even on plagiarism. If none of what he says is his own, he himself is unquotable: quoting the words and sentences he uses would only mean quoting someone else. In a sense, there can be freedom in this, a very 21st-century, ironic freedom, that of being able to say anything (as long as the sentences expressing it are provided by someone else) without being held accountable for it. If someone, critic or layman, quotes Shia from the previously mentioned Bleeding Cool interview, or perhaps from his #stopcreating piece he wrote for The New Inquiry, they are very likely to have quoted (doubly out of context) someone else.
Many of my past university professors would, at this point, hold up a finger and say, “that’ll teach you not to double-check your sources,” and they would be right, of course. But do we really want the act of reading to be one of such complete distrust that one cross-googles every sentence in order to ensure that it really was originally written by the person whose name is signed under the piece’s title? Do we want to forego the sense of immersion one gets from reading a good piece of writing without interruption, simply because we want to make a point about the importance of reading carefully/not taking every written thing at face-value? Is it the role of the art world to serve as a cautionary after-school special on how to deal with the infinite reproducibility of stuff on the interwebs?
Of course, Shia the public person would at this point find a quote explaining that authorship is fascism and, if he had any class, use the Futurama line “You can’t own property, man.” Or he would just say that it doesn’t matter who wrote it, and in what context, because putting the old in a new context is the only means we have of creating meaning at all, of being relevant in a time of autophagous attention spans, that we are tired, hyper-aware beings yearning for a break from our multi-layered methods of self-expression, so multi-layered that they are, at times, mere spirals into nothingness. Of course, I have no problem putting words into Shia the public person’s mouth because that’s what he has set himself up as: a parrot, using the voice of others instead of his own.
And this is the downside of quoting as practiced and advertised by Shia the public parrot: it implies giving up one’s voice, one’s responsibility – reducing oneself to a voice box, a speaker in the mechanical sense rather than the human sense, something another’s voice flows through. If we are responsible for nothing, stand for nothing (or, worse, stand for not standing for anything), then what is the point of using language in the first place? In Shia the public person’s case, of course (because he is still an actor, still a person in the public eye), it is quite simple: the fear of not existing at all.
It all starts becoming problematic if we consider Shia the public plagiariser’s (copy-pasted) position on the importance of choice, of framing, in plagiarism. The intention lies in the choice of which sentences we appropriate, much as it used to lie in the choice of words we made back in the olden days of writing things our damn selves. Because Shia has not used his own words to express this sentiment, this importance we should place on the framing and choice made, we might think this sentiment cannot be attributed to Shia the public person, but due to the very fact that he himself chose to use a particular sentence expressing that particular thing, Shia must now be held accountable for every word posted under his name. Because he chose to use sentences expressing the intentionality of framing, we can no longer understand his use of others’ words as potential irony.
If cropping and choosing are the only means we have left of being sincere, Shia the public person can, and should, be held accountable for every word he chooses to quote, and these words should be treated as if they were his own sentiments.In that respect, he had made irony impossible for himself, he has erased himself as nothing other than a bot, a mere choosing mechanism, and all the words he parrots are to be taken at face-value as there is no intention other than choice left in Shia the public person. In other words, he’s sort of backed himself into a corner. Then again, the hermeneutic method is a bitch in this day and age, and as someone conditioned to jump like Pavlov’s puppy at the faintest buzz of problems with identity, I would, of course, find these particular problems in what is mostly yet another venture into the world of performance for the sake of attention.
I suppose that’s the fun in art.
And now here’s an interview with Kenneth Goldsmith, getting it right.