The further you go in …

by Henry Farrell on March 18, 2010

So, when Michiko Kakutani (the daughter of the famous mathematician btw) writes an article “deploring the tendency”: of modern culture towards semi-coherent mash-ups of other people’s work, and the article is itself a semi-coherent mash-up of the work of other people (mostly themselves deploring semi-coherent mash-ups), is she being obtuse, quite brilliant in a self-undermining way, or something else entirely? I genuinely can’t figure it out.



Biba 03.18.10 at 5:16 pm

Well I think Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.


Vance Maverick 03.18.10 at 5:31 pm

Kakutani is strange — a prodigious text-processor without clear strengths as a writer. Her reviews can be useful at times, but seldom actually interesting (not to get into questions of accuracy or taste). This mashup of mashups is of a piece with her daily work.

Who was it that published a magazine piece on plagiarism, within the last ten years or so, consisting entirely of quotations? One of the Jonathans?


tps12 03.18.10 at 5:38 pm


Doug K 03.18.10 at 6:31 pm

being self-consciously brilliant is my guess. Any way, it’s not very entertaining or interesting unfortunately. The Harper’s article is much better. I found Kakutani’s article merely tedious and difficult to read: the Harper’s assemblage was unsettling with the variance of voice and style, but full of meat; maybe it matters who is quoted and at what length.


John Quiggin 03.18.10 at 10:09 pm

An oddity in the piece is the reference to ‘several prescient books by Cass Sunstein, 55, which explore the effects of the Internet on public discourse’

I originally thought this must be an allusion to a book called 55 that Sunstein had turned out (even I am impressed by his output volume and the range of topics he manages to cover), but it appears that either Kakutani or the sub has decided that Sunstein’s age needs to be reported, in the manner usually reserved for car crash victims and similar.


LFC 03.18.10 at 10:44 pm

1) @5 — If you look again at the paragraphs surrounding the Sunstein reference, you’ll see that Kakutani gives the ages of several other authors she quotes, so either she or an editor decided the ages were relevant; it’s not specific to Sunstein.
2) I wouldn’t call this article “semi-coherent.” It’s a bit tedious and full of quotes (including from her own earlier review of Lanier’s book), but the argument is coherent. I don’t entirely agree with it, but that’s something else.


sg 03.18.10 at 11:24 pm

maybe she’s giving ages because only youngsters do the mash-up, and she wants to prove it through her sources?


Tom 03.18.10 at 11:53 pm

I’ll take the author’s claim at face value-that she meant it when she said the Internet has dumbed-down public discourse, literature, etc. If so, then at most she’s found a correlation between the problem noted and the rise of the Internet- but hasn’t proven that the Internet caused it.
Of course it could be irony- attacking ‘semi-coherent mash-ups’ with a semi-coherent mash-up is at the height of cleverness, I’m sure.


ben w 03.19.10 at 5:10 am

Digital mashup culture is older than we thought!

As is this debate! (What little I’ve read of that book is fantastic, btw, and it has some truly atrocious 19thC centos in an appendix).


ben w 03.19.10 at 5:14 am


John Quiggin 03.19.10 at 6:19 am

Ms Kakutani, 55, shows an exceptional interest in the views of pundits her own age or thereabouts, according to John Quiggin, 53, of Australia (at this point I should audition for one of those odd walk-on parts in US news stories, where a randomly selected individual is introduced to illustrate whatever point the story is making).


blah 03.19.10 at 8:11 am

The short and simple answer is that Kakutani is not a very good writer. She fails spectacularly whenever she tries, as here, to write something beyond the conventional review.


laura 03.19.10 at 1:37 pm

I couldn’t make heads or tails out of her review either. It was useful though, because she mentioned a couple of books that I hadn’t read yet.


Brett 03.19.10 at 4:13 pm

I hadn’t realized that she is the daughter of the mathematician Kakutani. Thanks for the factoid, although I’m not sure how I’ll ever work it into casual conversation.


PJ Rodriguez 03.19.10 at 6:30 pm

As an example of incoherence, she mixes unauthorized appropriation of works with authorized remakes.

Clueless is an appropriation of Emma</em. Star Trek is an authorized remake. A jukebox musical like Jersey Boys was created with the permission of the Four Seasons themselves. What does that have to do with hip-hop sampling? Not everything based on or inspired by something else is a mash-up.


tomslee 03.19.10 at 8:31 pm

Tom Slee, 50, says this is a little harsh.

Much of journalism could be called mashups, especially outside investigative journalism, but that’s the nature of the beast. Yes, it’s a bit of a dog’s breakfast, but I found it an interesting dog’s breakfast. She references all those she draws from and provides some interesting connections along the way.


gmoke 03.19.10 at 10:15 pm

Ursular K LeGuin has a short piece up on Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion at

Might be more coherent than Kakutani.


Matt McIrvin 03.20.10 at 3:32 am

I remember reading her reviews a lot back in the 1990s, and noticing that they always seemed to give her the egregiously bad books because it was so much fun to watch her tear them apart. That was pretty much her specialty at the time.


Matt McIrvin 03.20.10 at 3:41 am

I’m not sure Le Guin’s distinction is precisely the right one. A large part of what’s being stolen in plagiarism cases is credit. And that applies even in the case of scientific information like physical theories-maybe especially so, since reputation is a central currency in academic communities. I can use a physical theory as I see fit, but if I claim to be the originator of the theory when I wasn’t, there will and ought to be hell to pay.


bianca steele 03.20.10 at 3:58 pm

Le Guin is from a prominent academic family and would have known about the latest theory from an indepth standpoint very early, but when this shows in her critical writing is where I now like it least. Part of this is annoyance at my younger self’s ignorance and my totally misunderstanding what she was saying as a result.


bianca steele 03.20.10 at 4:07 pm

And the basis of her post–“information is naturally free”–is certainly, I think, theory-based.


James Schmeling 03.21.10 at 12:41 pm

One thing find interesting is that in the visual arts this is called “appropriation art” and is recognized as a viable, though sometimes controversial, art form. But in the written word it goes to plagiarism in the general press, and only in the arts committees and prize judging is it recognized. Funny how some of the examples were only recognized as appropriation or hommage by the committees and not the authors though.

In the visual arts, I think of Sherrie Levine and After Walker Evans, and then the further After Sherrie Levine ( on the web, but there is a long tradition.

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