Monday, July 21, 2014


"Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know." (Ernest Hemingway)

"It's reassuring to know these things: right orientation, disposition, atmosphere." (Michael Andrews)

Sometimes we despair. The project does not go as well as we had hoped, or we run into a familiar sort of laziness, or both, and suddenly what needs to be done seems beyond our abilities, or not worth the trouble, or both. And when we consider, then, how it must be for everyone else, that every intellectual project depends, at some point, on overcoming this sort of difficulty, under these sorts of conditions, and is dependent for its completion on this sort of effort, made or not made by human beings as imperfect as ourselves, well, we're likely to lose all hope for the academic enterprise as such. It's at moments like these that simple activities can help. I always find it reassuring that I can do ten push-ups, for example. Or that I can run five kilometers in about half an hour. Or that I can write a 175-word paragraph of prose at will. "Do not worry," I tell myself. "One thing at a time. Easy it does it."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Zizek Owes Us a Rewrite

Adam Kotsko has posted a puzzling defense of Slavoj Zizek on the occasion of his plagiarism. I've been working on a post of my own about it, but Adam's post offers a good place to begin. Let's keep in mind, however, that we are talking about a verbatim transcription, with minor stylistic changes, that covers more than a page of Zizek's The Parallax View (pp. 301-303). The source is clearly Stanley Hornbeck's review of Kevin MacDonald's Culture of Critique. (Credit for discovering the plagiarism goes to Deogolwulf, with an assist from Steve Sailer.) Zizek has acknowledged the error in an email to Critical-Theory, so the facts aren't really at issue, but you can see for yourself using the Diff Checker. In what follows, I assume familiarity with the case.

I agree with Adam that what Zizek says happened is probably what did happen, but I don’t think I understand Adam's analogy to student writing. If a student handed in a paper and you discovered that a page or two had been lifted verbatim from a book review published online, and when you confront him with it he explains that he had a friend write that part of the paper because, well, he didn’t have time to read the book it is about (and it looks like his friend didn’t have time to write the passage either), would you just give him a rewrite? I think he would at the very least have to fail the assignment. And get a very stern warning about cheating.

It’s probably true that many established academics don’t write all the actual prose in their books, but I do think it remains the implicit norm. That is, you can’t defend yourself against criticism of a book you've put your name to by saying, “Oh, but I didn’t write that part of the book.” (This is true even where you have a co-author to share the blame with. You can't just unload it.) Zizek may not have passed off as his own something he and Adam would dignify as an “idea”*, but he has surely passed off Hornbeck’s work of summarizing MacDonald’s work as though he, Zizek, did that work himself. The fact that he disagrees with MacDonald does not make it better, but worse. Zizek is dismissing an author that he in any case implicitly, and in this case explicitly, claims to have read. ("...reading authors like MacDonald, one often cannot decide...") In his explanation of the plagiarism he is forced to admit that he hasn’t read MacDonald’s book at all. So this isn’t just stealing Hornbeck’s reading of MacDonald. It’s failing to observe a minimal standard of intellectual decency.

When I discussed this case with Campbell Jones recently, he pointed out something else. As in almost all other cases of plagiarism I'm aware of, the act of uncritically pasting someone else's writing (even if you think it's your friend's original writing) into your text will reproduce errors in your source that you might otherwise have caught. That's happened in this case in the quote that Hornbeck attributes to Derrida but which is actually John Caputo's reading of Derrida. (I have not been able to confirm that the mistake was introduced by Hornbeck, but from the chapters that MacDonald has available online it seems clear that it's not a mistake he would make. He lists Caputo's book in the bibliography, and a major part of his argument seems to be aimed at deconstruction.) That is, the Derrida quote is a misattribution, and one that, as Campbell pointed out, anyone who knows anything about Derrida should easily have spotted. (Derrida would never say, "The idea behind deconstruction is to deconstruct…") I assume that Zizek knows a great deal about Derrida. In the footnotes (where Zizek attributes all non-attributed quotations to MacDonald and so, by implication, attributes the misattribution to MacDonald), Zizek goes on to bring his critique of Derridean thought to a ridiculous "climax". Derrida goes from being a kind of Jewish conspirator (as construed by Hornbeck) to being an al-Qaeda sympathizer—or that's how it looks to me.

This is very unfair to MacDonald, whose work appears to be controversial enough on its own not to need to be read through the lens of what appears to be an pseudonymous white supremacist! This is a bit like getting your Nietzsche through a Nazi like Rosenberg and dismissing it, i.e., Nietzsche's thought, as "barbarism".

And this brings me to something that I find very confusing about this case. Zizek has used the description of MacDonald's work in a positive review as the basis of his dismissal of that work. But, precisely because the review is positive, we find Zizek (which is to say, Hornbeck, whose sentences Zizek has plagiarized), actively nodding along with and corroborating various parts of MacDonald's theory. This includes the critical gesture at the deconstruction of immigration policies. Hornbeck and MacDonald appear to be very critical of deconstruction and the Frankfurt school, personified by Derrida and Adorno respectively. As I read these pages, so is Zizek.

So, for example, when Zizek/Hornbeck writes that

For these Jewish intellectuals, anti-Semitism was also a sign of mental illness: They concluded that Christian self-denial and especially sexual repression caused hatred of Jews,

and that

this project has been successful; anyone opposed to the displacement of whites is routinely treated as a mentally unhinged hatemonger, and whenever whites defend their group interests they are described as psychologically inadequate—with, of course, the silent exception of the Jews themselves

I can really only get this to make sense as a way of agreeing with MacDonald about the excesses of post-modernism and/or critical theory. Zizek does not seem to me to be saying that MacDonald is wrongly accusing these intellectuals of "adopting what would became a favorite Soviet tactic against dissidents". Following MacDonald, he (Zizek) is accusing them of adopting those tactics (just as Hornbeck is). Now, as I read on, it seems clear that Zizek had intended the entire plagiarized passage as straight, objective exegesis of what MacDonald says, i.e., without spin.* It's just that Hornbeck didn't write it that way, and Zizek clearly hadn't read it closely enough to see that it couldn't, really, be read that way. It simply doesn't make sense if we don't read it as a sympathetic account of MacDonald's critique of Adorno and Derrida.

(To exaggerate the effect, imagine that Zizek had been describing MacDonald's work as "brilliant" and as "having demonstrated" and as "rightly pointing out" and "astutely noting" etc. but then ultimately dismissing it as "nonsense". Even if it could be done without violating the rules of logic, it would be a very strange rhetorical strategy, making it virtually impossible to interpret.)

Plagiarism is not just a crime against the author of the original text. It's an affront to the reader because it makes a shambles of the essential intertextuality of scholarship and punishes any attempt at close reading with confusion. So, instead of just saying that, since he is ultimately dismissive of MacDonald at the end, he has not stolen any important ideas, I think Zizek owes us at the very least the rewrite that Adam Kotsko (too charitably, like I say) would have demanded of him if he were his student. Specifically, I want to know, in his own words, what Zizek really thinks of (1) MacDonald, (2) Derrida, (3) Caputo, (4) Adorno and, somewhat urgently, what he thinks of (5) "Jewish intellectuals". Given that he has plagiarized a favorable review of the first that mistakes the third for the second and derides them along with the fourth by lumping them together in the thinly veiled racism of the fifth, he cannot, if he wants me to take him seriously, simply "regret the incident". He has to clean up the mess.

*NPR has a reaction from Zizek himself, which confirms what he also says in his email to Critical Theory. "As any reader can quickly establish, the problematic passages are purely informative, a report on another's theory for which I have no affinity whatsoever." He may think Hornbeck's prose is "purely informative" but this reader, like I say, can't very quickly establish that to be the case. Obviously I can't let this stand unrebuked either: "My friend not only agreed, he wrote those words for my use! Plus they are a resume of a book, not any creative development of ideas. So I really don't see a problem here." The friend did not, it turns out, write those words, he stole them. And it can't be true that only words that effect the "creative development of ideas" are protected from theft. Sort of like a rich man stealing two dollars from a beggar's cup and saying, "You call that money? And it wasn't even yours in the first place. Get a life!"

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Blogs, Books and Papers

I often ask myself why I, who find it so easy to write a blog a post, have such difficulties writing books and scholarly papers. It's important here to keep in mind that the blog post is a relatively new academic genre. (A journalistic blog post, by the way, is a different kind of writing than an academic blog post.) Perhaps my cavalier attitude about blogging comes simply from the lack of any clear, commonly accepted standard. We don't really know what it is yet, so we don't know how to do it well or badly. Recall that the name of the barrier to writing that derives from our unwillingness to do something badly is Vanity. There is a general feeling around blogs that if you don't like what you're reading it's your own damn fault. After all, you're basically reading someone else's diary. Sure, he left it open on the desk for you to see, but still, in a sense, nobody asked you to read it and certainly not to form an opinion about it.

Well, obviously, that's not really true. Many blogs these days are written to be read by others and in order to influence their thinking. We bloggers can't say we don't take any pride in our work. We do. We look at our stats. We promote ourselves in other social media. We like being talked about. And yet, even with all those occasions for my (formidable) vanity to express itself and block my writing, I don't seem to have any trouble communicating in this medium. Why not?

I have to two theories, which may both be true. First, a blog post makes entirely differently demands of its readers. It is generally short and self-contained. It may, certainly, be importantly related to some context, but the reader is expected to either recognize that context or just be serenely untroubled by the content of the post. The reader can, often, also engage directly with the post (in the comments) or might write a post on their own blog in response. There's something conversational and, therefore, ephemeral about the act of reading. You're just trying to understand the post well enough to respond within the hour. Or not. There's no presumption that you're going to have to spend a long time reflecting on the post, digesting it.

When writing books and papers, by contrast, I feel that I owe the reader a richly textured, multi-layered literary and intellectual experience. I am myself too often disappointed with books and papers that have too little content or too little form.

The second important difference between blog posts and other kinds of writing is that it is written directly to the reader. There is no editorial oversight. (This is absolutely crucial, in my mind, to the definition of a blog. I was recently approached about contributing to a collective blog but my interest was strongly dampened when I was told that each post would have to be approved before posting.) There are all kinds of good things to say about editorial oversight, but the whole point of blogging is to be able to speak your mind directly, without the task of getting it past someone. (There may always been an "implied editor", however.)

When writing something that has to pass through an editorial process I always feel like I'm placing the editor himmerherself at risk. There's always that kind of criticism of crappy papers that openly wonders "how this garbage got through peer review", etc. So part of what blocks me as a writer is the idea that it's not just my reputation that is at stake. I wonder if that sounds strange.

An Anxiety of Influence

While writing my posts on how to write a humanities paper, I'm working on a paper about a literary hero of mine, which I don't want to jinx by saying too much about before I've got the first draft finished. But I thought, also for my own sake, that I'd try to make explicit a kind of schema of its outline.

In a disastrous speech, the novelist A announced that the notion of N was the key to solving our political problems.

N was first proposed by B as a principle of literary criticism.

In this paper, I will show that the reinterpretation of N as principle of political and cultural analysis is the key to understanding A's oeuvre.

[B's work is generally seen as iconic for his time.]

B used N to critique H, but misses the mark precisely because H was all about N.

We can find an understanding of N in C, who was well aware of B's work.

We can find an understanding of N in D, who was also aware of B.

A was heavily influenced by by C and D.

We can also find a version of N in the writings of E, who was a close associate of B, and whose work was infamously political. (After the disastrous speech, an associate of A compared him to E.)

In A's pre-speech writings, there are clear traces of N.

In A's political writings and other speeches, the concept of N is clearly the organizing principle.

The concept of N remains relevant to an understanding of our current problems as understood by A.

Clearly, N provides a key to understanding A's career.

So I've been fleshing this outline out these past few mornings, and I've now got 5000 words. By the time I'm finished (hopefully this week sometime) I'll be up at around 8000. I have a couple of readers in mind to send it to. It's such an old idea of mine. It feels good to finally put it down on paper. I don't know why I've put it off for so long.