There is a very particular type of disappointment that comes each time I realize a piece of bathroom wall graffiti is unoriginal and uncredited. The words hang in the air, without lovely little beginning or ending quotation marks, without a final, resounding authorial citation.
If the quote in question is not well known — an obscure indie song lyric, for instance — then the singer is forever denied recognition for her work unless a curious student happens to Google search it. In a stall of VLSB, for example, is a fantastic paragraph on perseverance without any name ascribed to it. Turns out, it’s the first part of Eminem’s “’Till I Collapse.” Eminem might not exactly fall under the indie category, but his music is just as unfamiliar to me. There is something so unbearably grating about his voice, coupled with his general promotion of violence against women, which makes his music too much for me. But I digress. Each time a Google search reveals a lack of originality, I wonder why it is so difficult to properly attribute another’s ideas.
At first the answer seems to be selfish egoism. Words without citations benefit the pen-holder, not the idea-maker. This reasoning might make sense on Facebook, whenever a citationless quote is posted as if it were the original work of the creator of the status. In the case of Facebook, because the status-poster-pen-holders are known people, I always tend to believe the worst in them — that they are blatantly attempting to pass off another’s idea as their own.
But on an anonymous bathroom wall, selfish egoism does not seem to be the neat and tidy reason why attribution is so rare. After all, the graffitists are just as nameless as the quotes they are writing, so there is no personal gain that comes from plagiarizing. Whoever anonymously Sharpied the Eminem quote obviously cannot take credit for his words. The answer is not pure laziness, either. Spending an extra three seconds to write down the singer’s name is no daunting task.
I think the reason why it is uncommon to acknowledge the writer is because words are more powerful when their source is unknown. Every author connotes certain feelings or previously held notions that are irrelevant to the quote at hand. If Einstein says that imagination is more important than knowledge, it is impossible to understand the quote by itself. Immediately we think of Einstein’s own knowledge, how he was the most brilliant thinker of the twentieth century, which makes his claim of imagination’s importance that much more significant. If Eminem says this whole inspirational piece on finding your inner strength, then readers such as myself might brush it off without considering the worth of his words.
At the end of the day, there is no real reason to attribute every idea to a particular source. Admittedly, this becomes problematic in academia, but it is important to keep in mind what Carl Sagan has to say on making apple pie from scratch: Nothing can be 100 percent original. The words Einstein says, the lyrics of Eminem’s raps — they’re all just influenced by those who came before. Every word in every language has already been spoken, so all we can do to be unique is make our own combinations and permutations of them.
After exploring wall after wall of bathroom graffiti, I have to believe that there is some value to be gained from ideas being faceless. It’s one of the reasons why some authors choose to write anonymously or under a pseudonym. Words have more meaning if we are not concerned with who said them. If we lived in a hodgepodge of thoughts, some coming from Average Joes and others from Einsteins and Eminems, then all we have to stand on is the merit of the thoughts and not the merit of the thinkers.