A revolt against the tyranny of citation

Chevrolet-Citation-84David Shields will soon come out with a book called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. The book is a collection of aphorisms loosely united by themes like art, truth, meaning, and death.  As I understand it, Shields’s original intent was for the book not to include any citations. He wanted the aphorisms (some of which are by Shields, but others of which are due to sources from the ancient Greeks to the 20th Century) to stand alone, without provenance, so the reader would have to guess (or Google) in order to know who said what. However, Shields’s publisher wouldn’t allow this. So, I believe, the book is going to be published with citations. (Shields discusses some of this stuff here.)

While it seems like Shields is doing philosophy of some kind, he isn’t doing the sort of philosophy I do.  So I’m not really qualified to comment on all of this.  But I have gotten a chance to check out the “DIY” version of the book, which reflects Shields’s original intention, and it’s interesting.  It is true that not knowing who wrote what you’re reading subtly changes its effect on you — you think more about why this or that passage was selected for inclusion, and less about what the words are really supposed to mean.

Anyway, I would like to know about the ethical implications of Shields’s original plan to publish aphorisms without citation. We ordinarily think there is a moral requirement to cite others’ work. But why? If this requirement exists only to ensure that you don’t pass others’ work off as your own, then it doesn’t apply here (since Shields readily acknowledges the second-hand nature of the aphorisms). But if this requirement exists to ensure that original authors get an acknowledgment that is their due, then presumably the requirement would apply to Shields as well as anyone else.  After all, you can’t ask Plato for permission to use his work without citation.  (But then of course you can’t ask Plato’s permission to translate his work, either — yet we go on doing that.)

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One thought on “A revolt against the tyranny of citation”

  1. It’s not just a matter of nodding your cap in the direction of the original author. The method of academic writing is designed to make your steps easy to trace, so that others can follow your argument in the way that scientists write up experiments that can be recreated.

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