Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Composition/Decomposition

[Six years ago, as a demonstration, I wrote two five-paragraph essays: "Composition" and "Decomposition". I wrote them for the exercise, to demonstrate something formal. But I just reread them and kind of liked them in themselves. Here's what happens when they're combined into one.]

Composition is the art of constructing texts. In his classic, if somewhat forgotten, little handbook, Rhetoric and English Composition, Herbert Grierson points out that this can be understood on three levels: the construction of sentences, the construction of paragraphs and the construction of whole texts. But he also emphasizes the relation between these levels. Not only is the "the ideal paragraph" essentially "an expanded sentence", the work should always be guided by the same principles. At all levels, "coherence and the right distribution of the emphasis as determined by the purpose you have in view" are paramount. There is a sense in which style is just your "choice of words". Composition demands that we put words together, in sentences, paragraphs, and texts, to achieve a well-defined goal.

In a sentence, words are put together grammatically in your attempt to mean something by them. In isolation, words don't mean anything very specific; they do not convey a clear meaning. In fact, until a group of letters is positioned among other words, it is unclear even what language it belongs to. The word "hat", for example, refers to something you wear on your head in English but is a form of the verb "to have" in German. A word really only finds its meaning in the context of a sentence, and here its meaning is determined by usage. Usage is the governing principle of grammatical correctness and that is why the way you construct your sentences goes such a long way towards defining your style. What is often called "accepted usage" by grammarians and editors determines the effect that particular words have in particular combinations and in particular settings. The style of your composition, as you try to get the words to mean what you want to say, is your struggle with what usage (in your particular context) would have your words mean before you started using them. This struggle takes place first and foremost within the sentences you write.

If a sentence is an arrangement of words, a paragraph is an arrangement of sentences. There is obviously no grammar of such arrangements, but there are some principles to keep in mind. First and foremost, a paragraph should have a unified purpose. This means that all the sentences that are gathered in a paragraph should, at a general level, be about the same thing. They will not, of course, say the same thing, but they will each play a specific role in elaborating, supporting or illustrating a common subject matter. This, in turn, is but one part of the overall subject matter of the text. "The bearing of each sentence upon what precedes," says Grierson, "should be explicit and unmistakable." In an important sense, then, the text's agenda is not advanced (moved forward) within its paragraphs but between them. A paragraph slows down and dwells, as it were, on a particular element of the larger subject covered by the text.

Ultimately, a composition consists of a series of paragraphs. If you looked only at the topic sentences (usually the first sentences) of these paragraphs, you should get a good sense of how the text is organized and what it wants to accomplish. When writing a text, it can therefore be useful to generate an outline simply by listing these topic sentences and perhaps to organize them further using what will turn out to be section headings. You will here need to decide what the organizing principle of the text as a whole will be: a narrative plot, a logical argument, a call to arms, a set of impressions, etc. "It is," says Grierson, "an additional satisfaction if in an essay or a book you can feel at the end not only that you have derived pleasure from this or that part of the work, or this or that special feature—the language, the character drawing, the thoughts, the descriptions—but that as you lay it down you have the impression of a single directing purpose throughout". The reader should feel, as Aristotle also said, that there was a reason to begin exactly where you began and end exactly where you ended. The composition of the whole text depends on the way the paragraphs are strung together to achieve this single purpose.

Texts are constructed out of words, not ideas, as Mallarmé might say. Words are arranged into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into whole compositions. The correctness or rightness of these arrangements depend on their overall effect, that is, their aptness to a single purpose. This purpose, which gives the composition its coherence, makes demands of the text as a whole, and the demands of the text will make demands of the individual paragraphs, which will then pass further demands onto the sentences. It's really like any other construction project: the smaller parts must contribute to the larger whole; they must make themselves useful. It is often in working with the sentences that one discovers the style that is best suited to accomplishing the overall goal, always working under the general constraints of usage. It is also here that you might find a truly creative solution to the problem of writing, which can be a very complex problem because there are so many different reasons to write. Composition, in any case, is the simple art of solving it.

But is it really so simple? Grierson insists that good composition is characterized by "coherence and the right distribution of emphasis as determined by the purpose you have in view". But who are "you"? Grierson clearly assumes that the writer, operating somewhere well outside the text (somewhere beyond the page on which the words have been gathered) is in control of his (always his) expression. He would no doubt install the reader in the same space. But why, then, do these two subjects (of the same merciful lord) need a text? Couldn't "you" and "I" just talk to each other? Can't we all just get along? No, let us assume that the only "you" to speak of is the reader. Texts often crumble in our hands when we pick them up. If "composition" denotes how a text is "put together", "decomposition" might denote how they "come apart". If construction is about how a text is built up, how it is assembled out of words, sentences, and paragraphs, deconstruction is about how a text breaks down, how it collapses, as Derrida taught us. Decompsition is about activating the incoherence of the text, its excesses of emphasis, the indeterminacy of its always multiple points of view.

A text coheres if it is read charitably, that is, morally. Cued by markers that suggest the text wants to describe a place, or tell a story, or put forth an argument, we let our familiarity with space, time, or logic respectively, (and always respectfully) inform our reading. Herbert Grierson emphasizes the we have "knowledge by aquaintance" of these "orders of phenomena", that is, we are continually aware of these orders in going about our ordinary business. Coherence is an attribute of the surface of discourse. The first sign of the underlying incoherence of a text is therefore the superficial interference, or dissonance, that may be observed between spatial, temporal and conceptual orders. The story may at first seem plausible, but not in the place suggested. The arrangement of things in the room may be quite reasonable but how did they get there?

All sorts of embarrassing details lurk in the clash of orders that deconstruction brings to the fore. Most important, however, is the order that Grierson leaves out, or (more charitably) subordinates to the order of thought (logic): the order of emotion. Words and sentences do not just evoke thoughts, facts and acts, they also evoke particular feelings. Too often, writing makes too little or, in other literature, too much of the emotional response of the reader. It underestimates the indignation or overestimates the emphathy of the reader. And we, as readers, often much too easily play along. "[The] law of coherence is a heuristic rule," said Foucault in The Archaeology of Knowledge, "a procedural obligation, almost a moral constraint of research." It tells us

not to multiply contradictions uselessly; not to be taken in by small differences; not to give too much weight to changes, disavowals, returns to the past, and polemics; not to suppose that men's discourse is perpetually undermined from within by the contradiction of their desires, the influences that they have been subjected to, or the conditions in which they live.

To decompose a text is precisely to confront it, not with the "order of phenomena" normally supposed by the reader (to have been intended by the writer), but with the disorder by which the text is strangely disposed. It happens whenever we shamelessly insist on reading the text.

Deconstruction is a shift of emphasis while reading. It actively challenges the principle of composition: "coherence and the right distribution of the emphasis". We have just dealt with coherence; to better understand the decomposition of emphasis, consider two different ways of playing Bach. Wolfgang Sandner has said that Keith Jarrett plays Bach "emphasizing nothing, demanding nothing, concealing nothing and withholding nothing. In one word: natural." He cites the pianist himself in support of this thesis. "This music does not need my assistance," says Jarrett. "The melodic lines themselves are expressive to me." Compare this with what Sandner says of perhaps the most famous interpreter of Bach, Glenn Gould. "Obviously," writes Sandner, "he did not even trust his own analyses. He remained in search of clues. He spread the tones, loosened their coherence, emphasized side-lines and with his extreme tempi subjected the works of Bach to a kind of stress test."

There may be no better way to summarize the spirit of deconstruction: don't trust your own analyses but continue the search for clues; emphasize side-lines and read at extreme speeds (whether fast or slow); all in all, subject the text to a stress test. You can experience the difference by listening to their recordings of the thirteenth prelude in Book I of Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier. By slowing it down, and emphasizing the space between the tones, Gould is able to draw our attention to our own contribution to the music, our listening. It is important to keep in mind that Sandner is talking about two performances of the same composition, two "readings" of the same "text". The composer may have preferred one or the other, but there is no basic sense in which one is "right" and the other "wrong". Each reveals something about the composition. A "natural" emphasis may offer a great deal of immediate aesthetic pleasure, to be sure, but deconstruction is the pursuit of a more difficult beauty. Decomposition results from an excess of emphasis.

It often assumed that good academic writing is rooted in a singularity of purpose. "The specialist," Grierson tells us, "need think of nothing in regard to style but clearness and precision." And he alleges a reason: both his subject-matter and his audience is given to him so his point of view is largely fixed in advance. He need only ensure that his style does not obstruct the audience's view of his subject. "Everything else is an intrusion, and an unnecessary intrusion, because he can count upon willing and patient readers who desire to study the subject". For Grierson, specialist writing is a particular way of establishing the point of view of a text, which in turn "determines everything". Since, following Aristotle, the point of view depends on the speaker, the subject-matter, and the audience involved, says Grierson, there is really an infinity of possible points of view for any text.

But he makes a crucial assumption. A given text, he notes, will have a single point of view; the writer can make a series of rhetorical decisions to, as it were, "fix" it. Deconstruction draws this assumption radically into question, beginning with the allegedly singular purpose of the writer; for even the most academic writers are torn, at least, between enlightening their readers and furthering their careers. This immediately suggests multiple audiences, but it also suggests that a text is about any number of things that are not mentioned in the abstract. Deconstruction attempts to chronicle the "wars of signification" that take place behind the often irenic facade of an academic text. What we might call "academic composure" is fostered by an illusion of the writer's singular purpose, namely, that his only intention is to instruct a "willing and patient" reader, one whose only desire, in turn, is "to study the subject". Once we drop this assumption the text begins to decompose.

The essential thing is to read the text. To deconstruct it, we loosen its coherence, redistribute its emphasis, and question the unity of its purpose. All of these are acts of reading. It is true that deconstruction demands that we set aside the usual obligations of reading; it demands that we read against what are often the clearly marked intentions of the author. But deconstruction should not be taken as a personal attack on the author. Grierson assures the writer that the text will be read in the light of the reader's "knowledge by acquaintance" of the basic orderliness of experience, that it will be read with a natural emphasis, that its readers, desirous only of study, will be patient and willing. Such assurances, when believed, produce a particular kind of text, and it may be a very good one. Every once in a while, however, we need as writers to see what our assumptions about the reader have actually accomplished. On such readings, the text will begin to come apart, sometimes like a collapsing structure, and sometimes like a mound of compost. We can use the results of such decompositions when we compose texts of our own.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Stories, Models, and Miracles

This one is for Andrew Gelman, with whom I've been having a number of interesting conversations about the sense in which models are to statistics what stories are to narratives. In the social sciences, we might say it depends on how we construe "the people": either as a "population" to be interpreted statistically, or as a "history" to be interpreted narratively. In the first case we build models and test them, in the second we tell stories and ... well, see how they go over. Models are beholden to probabilities, stories to plausibility. That sort of thing.

When I read about Michael Shermer's "anomalous" wedding music, I thought of Andrew right away. After all, he's been consistently critical of Daryl Bem's ESP research but he likes a good story as much as the next guy. So let me tell the story, and then explain what I think it has to do with our scientific models.

Shermer got married this summer. His fiancé, now wife, Jennifer Graf, had shipped her things to Beverley Hills from Köln, including a number of heirlooms from her grandfather, who had been very important to her as a child. Among the items was a transistor radio that Shermer tried and failed to get to work. Three months later, in the days leading up the wedding, "Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away." Then, on the day of the wedding, a strange thing happened: the radio suddenly started working, "a romantic love song wafted" from it. The next day, it stopped again, and it hasn't worked since.

The moral of this story, of course, is that any old radio will do. No, I'm kidding. It is, of course, as Shermer tells us, that Graf's grandfather was there with them after all, had in effect given her away. The moral, indeed, is, as she is to have said, "I am not alone." And, because Michael Shermer is a world-famous "skeptic" and champion of science, this story has additional significance. "[T]he eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave [Jennifer] the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well." The moral of the story, that is, is that, modern science and skepticism notwithstanding, it is possible for the dead to communicate their opinions to the living.

Charles Eisenstein, writing for the new-age magazine Reality Sandwich (which was founded by Daniel Pinchbeck, by the way), has declared Shermer's conversion a "miracle". (He is more impressed with the fact that this happened to Michael Shermer than that it happened at all, presumably because he believes this sort of thing happens all the time.) Perhaps, he suggests, this "portend[s] a fundamental transition. Perhaps it signals the unraveling of the epistemologic hegemony of science." Shermer is indeed among the more prominent ideologues of science, so maybe it does, but there's another sense in which this story, even when it happens to ordinary people might shake our scientific models "to the core".

Consider the common reaction in comment fields and skeptics' forums. Actually, consider Shermer's own remark (which his critics do little more than echo):

Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there's bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.

This is the point I want to emphasise. We have no working model of the causal mechanism here, but we have a story that gets its significance from the (unproven) premise that the dead can communicate with the living—that they care about us, and that they approve and disapprove of our choices. That's a powerful narrative with deep moral implications.

If a "belief in science" means that we must reject this interpretation of the story, impoverishing Michael and Jennifer's memory of their wedding, and diminishing the significance of their marriage vows, then surely science is a somewhat petty business. Indeed, it comes to function as a rather mean and spiteful god, preventing us from enjoying the wonders that befall us, robbing our lives of meaning. But if science will not step in here and rule out the spiritistic interpretation, then where does that leave us? Aren't we then always entitled to go with whatever interpretation feels right? The obvious counter-example that comes to mind here is vaccination, the case against which is based on coincidences between getting the shots and developing autism. If we believe the models that show us that vaccines do not cause autism, aren't Michael Shermer and Jennifer Graf likewise condemned to live in a world where their beautiful wedding story just ain't true? I, for one, don't have the heart to tell them.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why I Care About Zizek's Plagiarism

It is my view that plagiarism is a fact about the relationship between two texts, not the intention of an author or the process by which a text is made. Plagiarism can result from simple carelessness, which should embarrass the author, or from sheer mendacity, which the author should be ashamed of. The primary offence is not, in my view, to the original author whose work was plagiarised, but to the reader, who is being misled about the nature of the work before them and the works that are talked about in it.

It is important to publicly correct instances of plagiarism, especially in work that is influential. This is the main reason to discuss cases openly, as I do on occasion on this blog. Where it is possible to easily determine the facts, i.e., what appears on the pages of the two works involved, we should no more worry about "due process" or making "serious allegations" than we would when we criticise a writer for misreading Hegel or Lacan or, of course, Zizek. After making our concerns public, we can, of course, discuss them, and it is possible that the concerns turn out to be unjustified. As long as we make our claims with reference to the passages involved, all is well. Our readers are free to make up their minds.

Robert Sinnerbrink, for example, has said that Judith Butler "unjustly criticised Žižek for lapsing into a crude pre-Kantian ‘transcendental realism’ concerning the status of the Lacanian Real" (IJZS 2(2): p. 9). Similarly, I have said that Zizek failed to properly credit Jean-Marie Muller for the words and ideas he presents in Violence. I believe that proper sourcing would affect our reading of the passage and, indeed, undermine Zizek's claim that Muller is simply trading in "pre-modern Aristotelianism" and "ideological commonplaces". I suppose Butler could, as Zizek did with Muller, claim that her critique was altered by her publisher before publication and that she never meant to suggest that Zizek was crudely pre-Kantian. But this would still suggest something troubling, namely, that care was not taken in checking the galleys before publication.

The paragraph about the limits of desire is only one part of my critique of Zizek's use of Muller's "Non-Violence in Education". I think he present this text in a way that wildly distorts its meaning and, I suspect, its ideological function (I'm still working on that issue). Looking at Zizek's analysis, alongside the passages that he apparently self-plagiarised to produce it, suggests a very slapdash engagement with Muller's, to my mind, thoughtful essay. What Zizek has done is at least as "unjust" as what Butler may have done to Zizek, the major difference being that in order to show this it was necessary to bring to light at least one act of simple plagiarism, and another of less simple, but still problematic, patchwriting.

One of the frustrating things about finding an instance of plagiarism embedded in a passage one is already critical of is that it muddles the critique to point it out. And yet there is no way around pointing it out. The muddle is obvious from Eugene Wolters' closing remark in his dismissive post about the discovery this case:

So gross academic dishonesty? Probably not. Carelessness? Probably. What do you expect from a guy who has put out at least 3 books this year alone?

Whether or not this is an example of "gross academic dishonesty" is not the issue. (This is why it's so important to keep intention out of it.) I do, however, think we can raise questions about Zizek's basic intellectual decency, as I also did in the case of his assisted plagiary of a review of Kevin MacDonald. Like his treatment of movies he hasn't seen as examples of the ideologies he wants to critique, Zizek is here using texts that actually argue for their positions as though they are merely ideological proclamations. In the case of MacDonald, to whom he attributes a "new barbarism", he admits that he did this without reading MacDonald at all, relying on a friend's summary. In the case of Muller, his reading is so at odds with what actually happens in Muller's text that it's hard to know what was going on when he made those pages. The only charitable thing to assume is that he didn't read it very carefully.

That is, Wolters may be right that we haven't here caught Zizek trying intentionally to pass of Muller's ideas as his own (which I take it is what he means by "gross academic dishonesty"). It is sufficient that this is an instance of carelessness resulting from being way too busy getting published and not busy enough actually trying to understand the world in which we live. That's what I take away from this. Some people may not think of that as a reason to pay less attention to Zizek and pay more attention to other things. But at least now we have a more informed basis on which to make such a decision. For that reason, I am grateful to Nancy Porter for going public with her discovery.

It's also why I spend so much time talking about it. It helps us to read Zizek more accurately. It lets us form more justified beliefs about Zizek's more or less crude lapses into transcendental realism or idealism or ideology or whatever we think people should stay away from. Plagiarism obscures important facts from view. Correcting it brings them to light.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Literal Violence of Slavoj Zizek

I'm trying to work out an efficient way to present something I've just discovered about the text that surrounds the plagiarism of Jean-Marie Muller in Slavoj Zizek's Violence. If anyone else wants to have a look at it, suggestions are welcome. Basically, it turns out that almost everything from "The Muslim crowds..." on page 51 to "...as the universal law" on page 55 is self-plagiarised, drawing first on "The Antinomies of Tolerant Reason"* and then on two passages in The Puppet and the Dwarf, one in which Bataille is described as "strictly premodern", the other in which "the elementary matrix of the Hegelian dialectical process" is identified in a G.K. Chesterton quote. (I've provided links that get you as close as I can, you have to search from there.)

In none of these previously published passages does the Muller text appear, and yet he says exactly, i.e., verbatim, the same things. So, for example, both Bataille and Muller are "premodern" in the sense that they missed the "Kantian philosophical revolution, in which the absolute excess is that of the Law itself. The Law intervenes in the ‘homogeneous’ stability of our pleasure-oriented life as the shattering force of an absolute destabilizing ‘heterogeneity’." Like I say, word for word.

This passage appears in "The Antinomies" and Violence, with differences I've marked as edits to the former that produce the latter:

What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity to violence precisely because they speak? As already Hegel was [already] well aware, there is something violent in the very symbolization of a thing, which equals its mortification; this violence operates at multiple levels. Language simplifies the designated thing, reducing it to a “unary feature”; [single feature. I]t dismembers the thing, destroying its organic unity, treating its parts and properties as autonomous; it inserts the thing into a field of meaning which is ultimately external to it.

The irony of this is really remarkable. Zizek is telling us that Muller is wrong to think that violence is the opposite of language because what happens in language is always already anyway that a thing is inserted "into a field of meaning which is ultimately external to it". And that is exactly what Zizek has done to Muller's text, destroying its organic unity. Zizek's entire critique existed in advance of, and external to, Zizek's reading of Muller's text. All Zizek did was to insert quotations, paraphrases, and (though lets say this is still "alleged" and "contested") patches and plagiaries of Muller into his pre-written prose. He did not care what Muller was actually trying to say. He dismembered it. He treated its parts as autonomous, to be cut and pasted into his own prose to suit his own ideological ends.

That is, Zizek's treatment of Muller's text is a literally perfect example of Zizek's understanding of linguistic violence. But—irony of ironies!— this ultimately proves Muller's point. Zizek had to do literally no thinking to come up with his critique of Muller's position on language and violence, virtually no reading, and hardly any writing. Recall that Muller (even according to Zizek) thinks language has to renounce violence because its use "presupposes a minimum of recognition of the other." Well, Zizek (as I also argued in the Hornbeck case) does not display this minimum of recognition, this modicum of decency. In the end, then, it's a stretch to construe these four pages of Zizek's prose as language at all.** It's just violence: brute, unthinking, dumb, stupid, violence.

Whether this was committed by Zizek himself, his publisher, a copy-editor, or some gang of emailing "friends", I don't care. The effect is the same.

__________
*I have to admit it's hard to follow Zizek's self-plagiarisms. Passages turn up in various forms, differently paragraphed, in different contexts. Sometimes undated. This is one example. It looks to me like it was published online around 2006, but the title is reused as a chapter title in Violence, though the material I'm talking about appears in a different part of the book. [Update: Two years ago, Jay Pinho pointed out this problem in Zizek's work. I agree completely with his assessment: "Slavoj Žižek’s sin is not in reformulating long-held ideas into new books, something many authors do. It is in copying (nearly without modification) large sections of other works of his without attribution, and while simultaneously presenting each work as an original piece of writing. The extraordinary pressure on today’s writers, ranging from promising young journalists such as Jonah Lehrer to world-renowned philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek, to maintain prolificacy in the age of shortened attention spans is surely to blame for the graying hairs of many an aspiring writer. But it is no excuse for repackaging something old as something brand-new."]
**[Update: It should come as no surprise that my critique of Zizek's language looks a lot like Orwell's critique of the Marxist writers of his day. For example: "The result is a style of writing that bears the same relation to writing real English as doing a jigsaw puzzle bears to painting a picture. It is just a question of fitting together a number of ready-made pieces." ("As I Please") And: "It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. ... it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking." ("Politics and the English Language")]
***[Update: It should be noted that some of the text that appears both in the "Antinomies" text and in Violence also appears in "Language, Violence and Non-Violence" an article published in 2008 in the International Journal of Zizek Studies. This would be around the time Violence was also published. It contains part of the Muller material.]

Another Post About a Non-Issue in Lieu of More Productive Ways of Spending My Time

Well, at least part of the reaction to my post on Zizek's plagiarism of Muller in Violence is utterly predictable. I had not expected Zizek to shift the blame to his publisher, and I'm waiting to hear back from them to confirm his story, but I had expected both Zizek and his defenders to trivialise the case itself and, more generally, to remind us not to expect any better from "a guy who has put out at least 3 books this year alone." Eugene Wolters' post at Critical-Theory provides us with a, let's call it, "semi-official programmatic" statement of this reaction, which I became aware of through Adam Kotsko's tweet declaring my "accusation" to be "bullshit".

Wolters' post is instructive in several ways. Notice that he begins by answering the question "Who is this guy?" i.e., the guy making the allegations, i.e., me. (He gets my place of employment wrong, but that's not his fault. I seem to have forgotten to update my bio at Jonathan Mayhew's blog.) Indeed, the standard approach in plagiarism accusations is to make this about the plagiarist and the "accuser", rather than about the text, its source, and the readers. The point is usually that the accuser is an unknown while the accused is, well, "Elvis". Just in case someone is trying to decide whose side it might be more advantageous for one's career to take, I guess.

The next thing I noticed, and this sort of irritates me, is that (a bit like Zizek's reading of Muller, actually) Wolters makes it sound like I haven't considered the mitigating factors that he thinks makes this is a "non-issue". He quotes the plagiarised paragraph, acknowledges that it looks on the face of it "like blatant plagiarism", but then says that "things get a little fuzzier when it’s noted that Zizek cites Muller on the previous page." Notice that vaguely passive phrase "when it's noted". Actually I noted this already in my original post, predicting that Zizek's defenders would cite it as a mitigating factor. Of course, it doesn't actually excuse anything. If you quote someone properly, but then pretend to elaborate their point using their own prose (and translations of quotes from the French) presented as your original writing (and translation) you are, simply and, yes, blatantly, plagiarising them.

Now, if Zizek's story about how this happened is true, then it appears to be unintentional plagiarism, which, contrary to too much popular opinion, is not a contradiction in terms. Plagiarism is an objective fact about one text's relation to another. Intention has nothing to do with it. But we should keep in mind that, until we hear from Profile, we don't know whether or not there was a conscious decision behind it, made either by the publisher or the author. What we do know is that there's a referencing error on page 54 of Violence. And we didn't know that until Nancy Porter discovered it. So we should just goddam well thank her, rather than...

...bringing me to my next point, namely, this whole idea that Nancy and I must surely have "more productive ways of spending our time than searching for plagiarism in [Zizek's] work". Let me repeat what I've said all along. The only time I spent "searching" for this example was in sending an email to someone who publicly announced that she had another example of Zizek's plagiarism. While I don't know exactly how she found it, I imagine she found it by the ordinary method of reading Zizek's book, being interested in his argument, looking up the text he criticises to see if his critique holds water, and, necessarily comparing the two texts. Since we're talking about a verbatim transcription, you'd have to have a pretty weak reading memory not to notice the problem as you're reading the Muller text. Nancy's reading skills are apparently in at least ordinary working order. And that's just the kind of reading that normally exposes plagiarism. The usual method is not to spend a lot of time actively looking for plagiarism in someone's work. That only happens after several instances are discovered, and at that point it actually begins to make sense as a "productive" use of one's time. If an influential author's work is chock full of plagiarism, we want to know about it.

Now, it will be said that I'm certainly now spending a lot of time on this. But that doesn't really have anything to do with this specific case of plagiarism or even the quality of Zizek's scholarship. (Maybe we should stop calling him the Elvis of philosophy and start calling him the Warren Beaty/Mick Jagger of philosophy: he probably thinks this post is about him.) I have a long standing interest in the underlying craft of research, including the problem of plagiarism in published scholarship. Search this blog for plagiarism and you'll see his is not the first example I've dealt with.

In fact, what also interests me, and what I think is worth a great deal of my time, is the trivialising reactions to the discovery of plagiarism. There is a general trend—which was the subject of my patchwriting series of posts that will continue when this brouhaha is over—towards normalizing textual behaviour that has previously been considered deviant in scholarship. (Yes, I'm intentionally alluding to "perversions" of academic writing here. Zizek is a great example of the increasing "textual promiscuity" of intellectuals.) And this trend is worth engaging with if, as I do, one thinks it's taking us in the wrong direction, condemning us to error and ignorance, where accurate knowledge would otherwise be possible.

That is, I'm interested in Zizek's plagiarism precisely because it is an example of the lowering of scholarly standards. This "lowering of expectations" was of course made explicit by Hollis Phelps, whose post at Inside Higher Ed, not incidentally, was the one Nancy Porter had posted her comment about this example to. I don't want to read books expecting this sort of thing, and if that's what I'm supposed to do with Zizek, specifically, then it's certainly an argument not to read him. I guess it's everyone's own personal decision, but I, for one, am not going to stand idly by while the bar is lowered to his level.

How low is that level? Here I found Wolters' post outright laughable (I was going to say merely amusing, but I did in fact laugh out loud when I read it). First, acknowledging that Zizek probably doesn't understand what sort of document Muller's "text" is—recall that this is the essay that Zizek tells us "exemplifie[s]" "the predominant ideological approach" and has "acquired a semi-official programmatic status"—Wolters excuses this inability to notice that it actually had page numbers by pointing out that Zizek probably doesn't even know how to operate a computer. Second, like Phelps, he reminds us that Zizek is a busy man: "What do you expect from a guy who has put out at least 3 books this year alone?"

Let's put these two sources of error together in a little hypothetical anecdote.

Suppose Zizek had run Muller down with his car on his way to a speaking engagement. First of all, I think we would recognise that the actual accident is not a "non-issue". We'd expect Zizek to stop and see if Muller's okay. Failing that (Zizek may of course have more productive ways of spending his time), those of us who watched it happen would get involved. We'd call an ambulance, say, and make sure Muller was in good hands. Then, I think, we'd help the police find Zizek, right? We don't want dangerous driving like that to become acceptable on our streets. So we track him down and hold him to account. Zizek's attorney (a Mr. Wolters) now offers the following: "What do you expect from a guy who had three speaking engagements that day, was running late, and probably had a few beers just before getting into his car? Anyway, I can attest to the fact that he usually rides a bicycle and I question his basic ability to drive a car. Besides that, Basbøll’s charge evades almost entirely the accident itself and instead decides to accuse Zizek of being a problem drinker and terrible driver."

Sounds like a pretty good defence, right?