Lucky beggars


So a Chinese multimillionaire invited “1000 poor and destitute Americans” to lunch in Central Park with the promise that each would receive 300 dollars. Far short of the 1000 invited actually made it into the event venue: an estimated 200-250 were at the lunch (with many more in line left outside), and, surprise, nobody received a dime.

Chinese millionaire Chen Guangbiao performs magic tricks during a lunch he sponsored for hundreds of needy New Yorkers at Loeb Boathouse in New York's Central Park

Mr. Chen performing magic tricks for the audience in Central Park. (“Surprise! There’s nothing there!” [source])

The multimillionaire in question, Chen Guangbiao, introduced plans for this “charity luncheon” by running a full-page ad in the June 16 New York Times (below). The invitation was issued to the “poor and destitute” — a phrase that seems tautologous until one remembers the distinction, once in regular use and made popular by Jeremy Bentham, between the indigent and the “merely” poor. Chen wanted his philanthropy to reach only the most bad off, those who had nothing — as opposed to, say, the single working mother. (The article about the luncheon episode that ran in the Times this week does not link to the original advertisement.)

Chen ad NYT June 16 2014

Who could not have foreseen that this ill-conceived and thoughtlessly executed scheme would be a flop? One vexing and as far as I know under-reported aspect of this stunt is how the Times in effect gained twice from this situation: once in running the ad of a clown or madman or both, and a second time in covering his antics.

In any event the number of major news outlets covering the luncheon, microphones and cameras at the ready, suggest that Chen’s exercise in philanthropic self-promotion could have been served without paying a cent. What were all the reporters hoping or expecting to see at the event? Were they there to witness the train-wreck that would inevitably unfold? Or — a possibility maybe even worse to contemplate — did they show up to capture the exultation and gratitude, the rapturous looks on the faces of the individuals who gained entry to this odd spectacle and collected their promised $300?

The recurring image of society’s poorest somehow also blessed by fortune has it seems an irresistible attraction. The lucky beggar comes up so often and resides so durably in the public imagination that it is hard not to see this entity as serving the function of wish fulfillment. This figure escapes the common (also fictive) distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor; instead, it reflects a universe that is theoretically indifferent, in which rewards are handed out through luck alone. (In the universe of the lucky beggar, impoverishment by chance may be implied but certainly isn’t specified.) Success and failure are distributed randomly, and the condition of having or wanting money simply happens by happy accident — as if poverty is not, for many minority, rural, and other populations prepared and in cases virtually assured by the economic mechanisms that ensnare them. The lucky beggar sustains a fantasy, perhaps, that beggars would be so lucky that beggary or even poverty itself would cease to exist. Yet it also welcomes an “it could happen to anyone” mindset that may rather sustain than alleviate poverty in the long run.

Late in 2012 the “Lucky Beggar Wallet” was introduced for sale by CB2, the hipper and more affordable branch of the Crate and Barrel retail empire. CB2’s ad copy read: “Inspired by the iconic blue and white coffee cup often seen in the hands of New York City panhandlers, this quirky wallet begs to be seen.” The wallet was quickly pulled after public complaint, though it remains for sale online.


The Lucky Beggar Wallet episode has in common with Chen’s exercise in self-promoting philanthropy more than its spectacular misdelivery; both posit the same imaginary figure. In each case the failure to launch of these schemes became a newsworthy item in its own right — as if the potency of the lucky beggar fantasy extends to feelings of disappointed expectation at being deceived. (Disappointment may indeed be as intrinsic here as the incitements of illusory promise; Pity would be no more.)  A seductive but prohibitive fiction, the lucky beggar is an appealing prospect but also mostly banished from sight. Perhaps what America finds intolerable in this figure is not its patent falsehoods but its kernel of truth: that with so few sources of security available, anyone who has “made it” today can only consider themselves the beneficiaries of blind fortune (lucky beggars, of a sort). That poverty is no longer exceptional, but ordinary. That there’s no such thing as a free lunch.


*Thanks to @hystericalblkns for first bringing the Chen story to my attention.


On Drake; or, private media


In the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the co-existence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.            – D.W. Winnicott

Do people write appreciations of Drake anymore? A lot of the discourse about him is pretty negative these days. Just as Drake arrives as one of the undisputed leaders of contemporary hip-hop, his reputation seems to diminish considerably. Could Drake, of all people, require a defense?

Of course, one suspects that this kind of attention suits a figure like Drake just fine. It is not necessary for us, after all, to like Drake, so long as we keep hearing and listening to his songs. The Drake Product needs only to remain in the awareness of others; the specific content of our feelings is mostly irrelevant. In a review for the New York Times, Jon Caramanica calls Nothing Was The Same, Drake’s third and latest studio album, the definitive announcement of the “Tough Drake era.” Spin, presumably less taken with this new voice, calls the album “cold and isolated.” The braggadocio of the album’s first single, the anthemic “Started from the Bottom,” raised doubts of Rick Ross proportions about the authenticity of its narrative. With another of the album’s hit songs, “All Me,” Drake reaffirmed this stance of independent self-actualization: “Came up, that’s all me; stayed true, that’s all me; no help, that’s all me; that’s all me, for real.”

One of my recent blog posts was about Wordsworth; this post about Drake, which I guess could be considered a sort of companion piece, ventures a very few thoughts about another famous egotist. In a rather instrumental way I will make some thoughts about Drake lead to consideration of a broad and somewhat amorphous domain I’m calling “private media.” Social media has commanded attention now for so long that it feels at once inevitable and strange to attend to the nominally opposite “private sphere,” and to mediated practices of asociality or anti-sociality, esotericism or self-withholding. I think of private (“antisocial,” “nonparticipatory”) media as referring to a wide array of practices, products & platforms that make anonymity, singularity, or hermeticism central to the user experience or to the medium concept as such. In attaching this concept to Drake I obviously don’t mean to suggest that he or his music is any less “public.” I mean simply to mark Drake’s insistence on the irreducibility of private experience; and from this fact I make a (dramatically abbreviated) case for the relevance of this private sphere to understanding some aspects of hip-hop and other popular media.

“Private Media” was the subject of a panel I convened for the 8th Media in Transition conference at MIT last spring, with brilliant presentations by Natalia Cecire, Yohei Igarashi, and Stefan Helmreich (Tressie McMillan Cottom was scheduled to present but missed the conference due to illness). The conference title was “Public Media, Private Media,” and the panel was initially motivated by the question of what a “private medium” could actually be, given that most existing definitions of the medium emphasize its status as a channel for communication, and thus social in its structure. The medium concept typically presumes the existence of a public, without which there would be no need for the medium to exist. Nancy Baym and danah boyd speak to this widespread assumption when they write that the terms “Media and ‘public’ have always been intertwined.” Working somewhat against the grain of these associations, the panel was an early attempt to define some characteristics of private media practice, tracing its expression in objects as diverse as experimental poetry (Cecire), legal cases of search and seizure (Igarashi), and seashells (Helmreich), whose involuted forms offer a visual figure for the “private medium” as such. 

I want to claim now that Drake, spectacularly popular as he is, inhabits an interesting position in the much broader arena of what I’m calling private mediation. Characteristic of Drake’s work is the detailed reporting of private experience. The toughness and aggressive me-centeredness of Drake’s recent work is in one sense only surprising in the context of his extraordinary career. Drake is widely thought of as having opened hip-hop to a greater range of emotional depth, mainly through crooning love songs and stark confessions of emotional vulnerability. Mark Fisher calls Drake’s signature move “the transition from rap to singing, the slipping down from ego-assertion into a sensual purring.” The shift from rapping to singing may correspond to a shift in emotional register, as Fisher notes. Even in his raps, though, Drake moves with disarming rapidity between boasting and confession:

In person I am everything and more,I’m everywhere these other niggas never been before
But inside I’m treading waters steady trying to swim ashore (“Successful”)

As a singer too, Drake makes similarly rapid transitions between invocations of rap cliché and the confrontation with stark emotional truths:

I be yelling out money over everything, money on my mind
Then she wanna ask when it got so empty (“Headlines”)

These confessions and indications of emotional conflict have led Drake to be characterized as a guy who’d rather read you his diary than his bank statement.” The diaristic content of Drake’s work is more often offered in his songs through the medium of the telephone. The song “Marvin’s Room,” from the second studio album Take Care, is sung as if it were an extended late-night plaint over the phone to a former lover (“I’m just saying you could do better”). “Look What You’ve Done,” from the same album, ends with the recording of a voicemail message from his late grandmother. 

At the same time that Drake has made the reporting of inner experience a staple of his work, however, he highlights as well its difficulty (if not impossibility). The phone calls dramatized in “Marvin’s Room” and recorded in “Look What You’ve Done” represent, after all, missed connections rather than moments of successful communication. We think of music, to paraphrase Madonna (someone whose decades of pop success make her an authority on this subject), as art that invites us into a collective experience. Contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar and Lorde invoke the provisional coming-together of collectives made up of the disaffected and/or disenfranchised. Instead, Drake fashions an intimate public predicated on the irreducibility and inaccessibility of private experience. 

With these gestures, Drake dramatizes the two competing impulses that Winnicott, in the epigraph above, attributes to the artist in general: the urge to communicate and the urge not to be found. Drake’s genius sometimes turns on the reversibility of these two positions, at a point where the disclosure of inner experience meets the assertion of its inaccessibility. In the album of the same title, the phrase “take care” evokes intimacy and solidarity (“I’ll take care of you,” Rihanna sings in the refrain to “Take Care”) at the same time that it reminds us, with menace, of our own vulnerability (as in the closing lines of the song “The Ride”).  

“Art,” Stanley Cavell wrote in a famous essay on music, “is often praised because it brings men together. But it also separates them.” The outcomes may be indifferent for Drake, divided as the music is between the impulses of communication and self-concealment. One finds a small but telling example of this self-division in the spoken words that open “The Ride,” the final track of Take Care:  

I hate when – I hate when people say they feel me, man. I hate that shit. It’ll be a long time before y’all feel me – if ever.

If I feel you, I understand you, I sympathize with your situation. But Drake rejects the possibility of our identification; we can’t know or even imagine what it’s like to be him. The superstar musician is literally untouchable: “Walking through airport security with your hat down / Instead of getting a patdown, they just keep on saying that they feel you.” The trope of untouchability in “The Ride” at once cites (“Can’t Touch This”) and brings up to date the rapper’s conventional boast that he is so ahead of the game that competitors stand no chance. In literal and figurative senses, Drake declares his exemption from the necessity of being “felt.” Characteristically, though, Drake modifies the trope to make the expression of irritation stand at the borders of a claim to the incommunicability of experience (“I hate when…I hate that shit”). The testimony of inner experience asserts the impossibility of what the reporting of inner experience is conventionally expected to produce (the sympathetic union of the speaker with the audience). We are invited to share Drake’s feelings only to be reminded that Drake’s feelings can have no reality for us whatsoever.

This paradoxical stance of something shared and unshared, both public and private, is I think crucial to what we can (with equal alertness to paradox) call Drake’s private media presence. I am not the most qualified to answer how far these developments in the language of rap reflect or overlap with developments in the music industry today. It is at least striking to note how as the reach and influence of hip-hop has expanded dramatically, so too has the iconic object associated with its playback decisively shifted, from the boom box 


to the headphones.


Drake’s equivocal assertions of privacy raise questions barely addressed here too about race, power, and privilege. How many black men today are able to experience undisturbed privacy in an age of stop & frisk, “random” traffic stops and security checks, and mass incarceration? What factors influence whether and how a young black male will seek to go undetected in contemporary life? and how successful in this will he be? What vectors of class and prejudice determine whether a black man will experience the self’s inaccessibility instead as a condition of involuntary isolation, of being an invisible man in public circumstances? These questions too are bound up in Drake’s music and in hip-hop’s language of private experience.

For Wordsworth, what is private in the artist’s work can arise from a failure to communicate inner experience or to be understood, whether from “the inadequateness of our own powers, or the deficiencies of language.” But the artist’s asociality may just as plausibly derive from the rejection of a straightforwardly communicative role for language. One thinks of Dickinson’s famous eschewals of a public for her art, or Wordsworth’s account of the poet’s “peculiar language, when expressing his feelings for his own gratification, or that of men like himself.” In both cases, involuntary or voluntary, the notion of private media may be more broadly applicable to what Winnicott calls the “incommunicado element” of human subjects and human language. How this incommunicado element is translated into contemporary artistic and cultural practice — how popular media forms may support non-communicative ends alongside more obviously communicative ones — is a subject worth closer attention.


Of borrowed words on social media


A few weeks ago, when the Affordable Care Act went into effect and was fitfully launched, I had a thought that I thought would be mildly amusing to share on Twitter: what if, instead of working with government contractors at great cost to build the plagued website, Obama had simply gone through GoDaddy? Before tweeting I did a Twitter search for “Obama” and “GoDaddy” (which, if you don’t know, is the web hosting company famed most of all for its repulsively sexist SuperBowl commercials); and, well, it turns out that many others had tweeted more or less exactly the same thought.  So I abstained from adding one more variation on what had become a hackneyed and unoriginal theme for a joke.  (I’d say, “leave the jokes to the professionals” — but then again, Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel are professionals.)

This experience, and some recent instances on Twitter of word theft (or something like it), got me wondering about the status of borrowed words on the platform and on social media more broadly.  If you search “Twitter” and “plagiarism,” you will find plenty of people dissatisfied with the ease with which words are lifted and recirculated without attribution.  Twitter’s terms of service includes a copyright policy that emphasizes “the intellectual property rights of others,” and proposes a formal procedure in cases where copyright infringement is suspected.  Spend any time on Twitter, however, and you will encounter numerous instances of (largely) unnoticed, tolerated or simply overlooked, essentially unenforceable theft — that is, beyond the predictable but otherwise quite innocent levels of banality and unoriginality (such as in the instance above) that you will witness when thousands of people comment on any passing event of note. 

It is often observed (see “Further reading,” below) that the understanding of authorship and of what constitutes plagiarism is changing dramatically in the digital age — so much so that some scholars (Chandrasoma et al., 2004) question whether we should preserve the category of “plagiarism” at all.  The transformation in the concept of authorship is understood to be taking place largely as a byproduct of what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture.”  This phrase refers to the widespread transformation of cultural consumers into cultural producers, or (as one might more skeptically put it) to the increasing indiscernibility of production and consumption in the age of Web 2.0.  A participatory culture is one in which thresholds for cultural production are low and cultural objects circulate freely, often without regard to standards of single authorship.  Included in this domain are a wide variety of digital practices such as file sharing; participation on sites such as online bulletin boards, blogs, and social media; the culture of remix and mashup, widely assisted by the easy appropriation of digital materials; and a culture of collaborative, largely uncredited work, for which Wikipedia is one obvious model.     
In such a culture, it is generally agreed, plagiarism — though never a wholly transparent concept to begin with — loses some coherency in many teaching and learning contexts.  Like other cultural objects of sound or image, texts can be manipulated, appropriated, “remixed,” drawn from multiple sources, and collaboratively altered or produced.  If the 21st-century author is better understood as a collaborator with others and with systems of texts rather than an isolated individual producer of wholly original content, perhaps plagiarism has exhausted its utility as a concept.  Chandrasoma et al. go so far as to suggest that “students and staff do away with the notion of plagiarism altogether” (172), to embrace instead a more open-ended and context-dependent distinction between “transgressive and nontransgressive intertextuality.” 

Let us provisionally accept this substitution, ungainly as the terms are, and agree to consider tweets not as subject to plagiarism so much as to acts of transgressive and nontransgressive intertextuality.  Were I, having performed a Twitter search beforehand, to have gone ahead and tweeted a lame joke how Obama should have commissioned the site from GoDaddy, my act (I presume) would be one of the nontransgressively intertextual sort.  No authorial rights were harmed in the making of this (hypothetical) tweet.

Consider some other examples of borrowed words on Twitter, however, and the line between transgressive and nontransgressive use becomes more difficult to define and defend.  Example one: some weeks ago, a joke (provenance unknown) about Miley Cyrus and Home Depot

circulated widely on Twitter — so much so that its frequent circulation without attribution became a widely-circulated complaint in its own right. (for instance here: Later, the “original” jest was modified to become a joke about Marina Abramovic: 

Having circulated thus far widely and without attribution as a joke about Miley Cyrus, had the format of the joke acquired the status of a meme, making it subject to legitimate (nontransgressive) reappropriation?  If that is the case, was its nontransgressive intertextuality only acquired by repeated unattributed recirculation of the earlier tweet?

Example two is an ostensibly more clear-cut case of plagiarism, in which a tweet in September by Twitter user @angry_prof

was in November tweeted word-for-word without attribution by @GradElitism:
What followed was like an episode from a modern-day academic morality play: an initial reply from @angry_prof, followed by a series of incensed and condemnatory tweets from users including @CrankyStudent, @[Shit]AcademicsSay, and @ResearchGosling — like @angry_prof and @GradElitism, all of these anonymous (as far as I know) accounts. What one witnessed in this case was a situation, both bizarre and I think only bound to become more frequent in time, in which at stake was the right of one anonymous account to own and be credited for words that had been purloined by another.  (Not knowing the creators of either account, I can’t exclude the possibility that @angry_prof and @GradElitism are accounts operated by the same person.) The charge of plagiarism or of “transgressive intertextuality” in this instance represented a case in which the claims of copyright were asserted, but independently of the individual legal persons which copyright exists to protect in the first place.  

It is hard to say how much Twitter is an engine of such transformations in borrowed language or a mirror that reflects changes taking place in the culture at large. At some level, of course, what these instances point to is nothing new: language is a common property, belonging to everybody and nobody; ideas are at base social, coming into being in relation to other words and ideas, and largely dependent for their intelligibility on what has been previously said and thought.  What Twitter and other forms of social media may make visible (for better or for worse) is the frivolity of any effort to “own” our words when language was never ours in the first place.

Edit 12/31/2013

I wanted to record two responses I received to this post. Quite a few readers, mostly from anonymous or pseudonymous accounts, came forward with further instances of plagiarism by one Twitter user mentioned in the post, @GradElitism. Quite unexpectedly, then, a piece on the difficulty of distinguishing between collaboration and plagiarism in social media generated, for a time, a heated reaction against the predations of one social media user. I asked @GradElitism to contribute his or her end of the story; along with a few other users, I was blocked by the account.

From Lee Skallerup (@readywriting), I was reminded that women and persons of color are often the victims of plagiarism on social media through the unauthorized borrowing of words by people in positions of authority and/or privilege. Lee pointed me to a recent case in which Twitter user @FeministaJones created a popular hashtag (#RacismEndedWhen; see the first use of the hashtag below) that was subsequently appropriated by some news media outlets without attribution to its creator. Loose standards for attribution on social media make it easier to get away with theft of this sort. As Lee (and Sarah Kendzior, see below) observed, real issues of power are involved here too, where words from marginalized individuals and groups are appropriated, and their voices marginalized still further in consequence.

Further reading 

Ranamukalage Chandrasoma, Celia Thompson, & Alastair Pennycook, “Beyond Plagiarism: Transgressive and Nontransgressive Intertextuality,” Journal of Language, Identity, & Education 3.3 (2004), 171-193.

Nicholas Diakopoulos et al., “The Evolution of Authorship in a Remix Society,” HT ’07 (September 2007), 1-4.

Lea Calvert Evering & Gary Moorman, “Rethinking Plagiarism in the Digital Age,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 56.1 (September 2012), 35-44.

Henry Jenkins et al., Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009).

Trip Gabriel, “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age,” The New York Times (August 1, 2010). 

Debbie Wheeler & David Anderson, “Dealing with Plagiarism in a Complex Information Society,” Education, Business, and Society 3.3 (2010) 166-177.