MVP and the problem of mixed genres

Published by rudy Date posted on April 19, 2010

After some of his listeners had rudely—to my mind— posted in some Web site parallels between Manuel V. Pangilinan’s commencement address and excerpts from the addresses and remarks of some notables, Obama and Oprah, among them, he tendered his resignation as chairman of Ateneo de Manila University’s board of trustees, and returned the honorary doctorate degree the university had bestowed on him. I think it was totally unnecessary to do that but Pangilinan’s gesture to me is his way of refusing further participation in what is really unnecessary fuss over mixed genres. I really have no problems with a speech of the kind that he delivered; what I have problems with is the effort his critics took to embarrass him. So I will take up the subject of mixing genres.

When a fundamentalist takes Genesis and from its passages does some arithmetic to arrive at the day and the hour that God created the world, that is a case of mixing genres and that is what occasions so many fundamentalist pseudo-dilemmas. The now-anonymous writers of Genesis knew exactly what kind of literature they were writing, and so did their readers. But two thousand years later, what was not written as history has been read as history, and that is what has engendered so many unnecessary problems. The Gospels are themselves a specific type of genre. Why do the synoptic Gospels place Jesus’ death on the day of the Passover, and John, at the time, before the Passover, that the lambs were to be sacrificed? If the four were witnesses in a court of law, it would be relevant to ask who of the evangelists was lying, but they were not writing affidavits or depositions. They were witnessing to their faith in Jesus as the Christ! To recognize the Gospels as proclamation is to acknowledge their particular genre, and to avoid making demands of them that they were never intended to meet—such as giving an accurate chronology of events.

A law professor’s lecture is yet another type of genre. Unless he merely reads from a textbook—whether authored by him or by another (and, in the process, lulls his students to peaceful slumber)—the law professor will expostulate on provisions of law or jurisprudential doctrines employing an interesting mix of original remarks and explanations and passages—often entire pages—from distinguished commentators or hornbooks he considers authoritative and enlightening. When explaining such a common-place doctrine in tort law as res ipsa loquitur, there is really no need for the lecturer in law to guard against repeating what others have said or written on the subject before him. In fact, to do so would be to run the risk of passing on to the students some perilous explanation of the principle that might do them more harm than good in the Bar Examination. That is just the genre of a lecture in law. And it will often be the case that the lecturer will not acknowledge his sources—nor will there really be need to do so—because much of what is said is either common-place, or commonly discussed, or written about by various authors with a fair degree of unanimity!

That brings us to the genre of a commencement address. Is the speaker really expected to write a piece that has been scrupulously vetted against reproducing from others’ remarks or articles? A commencement speech is not a doctoral dissertation, even if the university confers an honorary doctorate on the commencement speaker. When a dissertation submitted in fulfillment of academic requirements for a doctoral degree reproduces substantially from other works, the eligibility of the candidate for the degree is rightly questioned, even when the source is acknowledged. After all, it is required of a doctoral dissertation that it constitute an original contribution to the discipline.

For one thing, the commencement address is one part of the graduation ceremonies one wishes to be done with, in the soonest possible time, especially when one sits among the rows of graduates. That is a precept I have always kept on those occasions that I have found myself invited as a commencement speaker. After all on graduation day, the candidates for graduation come to strut around in their academic costumes to be applauded by their admiring parents and guests, not to listen to some address. Of the listening, they had their fair share in the four years of matriculation in the university. At best, the commencement speaker is some distinguished personage courteously endured, and the unexpressed prayer of every graduate is that he keep his address short!

In fact, generally, commencement speakers are given ample latitude to choose their topics. There are no rules really for that genre of addresses known as ‘commencement speeches’, but one thing seems to be clear: There is no demand that a commencement speech announce new truths or that it consist in an original piece of literature, where ‘original’ means ‘heretofore unspoken or unwritten’. In fact, I find all talk of plagiarism in respect to a commencement speech rather misplaced, something akin to what logicians call a ‘category mistake’, applying a predicate to a subject of a category different from that to which the predicate meaningfully applies! A plagiarized dissertation, a plagiarized term-paper, a plagiarized report —all these are correct uses of “plagiarized”. But: a plagiarized lecture in law, a plagiarized pep-talk, a plagiarized commencement speech? That to me does not make much sense!

Since there are really no rules governing commencement speeches, then one must have recourse to what are known as “family resemblances” between them, and what emerges from a look at these resemblances is that commencement speeches are a mixture of motherhood statements, a charge to the graduates, prognostications of joblessness or, by contrast, optimistic announcements of the glorious dawning of a new day, perorations on the speaker’s pet peeves, or ruminations on some theme.

If Pangilinan found some of Obama’s paragraph’s striking and worth repeating, or if he found Oprah’s line’s captivating and he put all this together in a commencement address, why should anyone complain? That is just the genre of a commencement addresses. And to be fair to Ateneo de Manila University, it was not complaining either. In fact, it gallantly refused to accept Pangilinan’s offer to resign. It was the bloggers who posted the totally uncalled for—and really pointless—parallels between MVP’s commencement address and those of his supposed sources who were really rude, petty and confused about their genres.

One last point: In intellectual property law, “original” is compatible with “exactly the same as”. If by some happenstance, a lyrical writer today should write lines that are identical to any of Shakespeare’s sonnets, his lines would be ‘original’, entitled to copyright protection notwithstanding their identity to Shakespeare’s work.


AN APPEAL FOR MY CHOIR AND A MESSAGE OF THANKS: The Coro de San Jacinto and the Cagayan State University Chorale Ensemble performed at the Abbot Lopez Hall of San Beda College, Mendiola, on April 10, Saturday. I thank all who generously donated to the choir and who graced the concert with their presence. I am taking this choir to Rome soon. It is common for famed Filipino choirs to sing at foreign concerts but my choir is not a famous choir; it is a provincial choir that has nevertheless endeavored by dint of unremitting hard work to become as good as it can be. We are unique in that we are a blend of professionals and students who can come together once a week for rehearsals and sing in harmony, making age and generational differences irrelevant to the harmony that we are able to produce. We are supposed to leave in June. This has been our dream. Please help us bring it to fruition! –Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino, Manila Standard Today

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