Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Answer from Profile Books in re Zizek

I've been in contact with Penny Daniel, managing editor and rights director at Profile Books, about the apparently inadvertent plagiarism of Jean-Marie Muller in Slavoj Zizek's Violence (Profile, 2008) that I blogged about earlier this month. Zizek, you might recall, blamed the error on his publisher, saying that his manuscript had been changed "without [his] knowledge" before publication. To me, this raised some questions.

The answer from Profile is a bit disappointing, but probably as forthcoming as can be expected. Daniel explains that they no longer have the page proofs or any other relevant files so, while she "can neither confirm nor deny what actually happened", and while it would be somewhat at odds with their "usual practice", it is probably true that a copy editor mistakenly formatted what should have been a block quote as a separate paragraph and thereafter inserted the description of Simone Weil as a French religious thinker "out of a desire to help the reader" without informing Zizek. She assumes that Zizek was given page proofs to review before publication and regrets that the error wasn't caught until now. I get the impression that it will be corrected in any subsequent editions of the book.

This will have to do, though it doesn't answer all my questions. There seem to be plenty of stylistic differences between what Zizek describes as "the last version [he has] of the complete manuscript (already copy-edited by the publisher)" and the printed version of the book, for example. I asked Daniel about this since it suggests that the manuscript Zizek has made public is not the last version that was seen by the eyes of a copy editor. Unfortunately, she had no further comment on the matter, citing, like I say, the fact that this all happened six years ago.

I'm working on a final post on this issue, which I'll probably post on Friday. For those who are interested, Adam Kotsko has in the meantime offered a defence of Zizek to keep the conversation going. I'll have some thoughts on his argument in my next post.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Grading Students and/or Reviewing Peers

I shouldn't pretend to be an expert about this, but I do talk to teachers regularly who struggle with the problem of grading student papers. It intersects with the problem of reviewing the papers that peers submit to journals, and, indeed, with the problem of evaluating what we read in general. (It also intersects with the problem of plagiarism, which I'll return to in another post.) Few people, of course, complain about good writing, and few are in doubt about what to do with such papers: enjoy them. It's the bad writing that gives people a pain. And the complaint I normally hear is that badly written papers are disproportionately time-consuming to grade/review. When they are published, they are, of course, simply time-consuming to read and understand.

To my mind, this complaint is rooted in the misconception that academic writers have the right and the power to waste their readers' time. If they write badly, on this view, a writer is always unilaterally making a draw on the reader's time and effort, about which the reader has no say. We are to imagine that the reader is powerless to stop reading when subjected to such treatment by a writer but nonetheless has full rights to gripe and complain when it happens. What is forgotten is that the harm is not being done by the writer to the reader but by the writer to his or her own damnable ethos, i.e., to the reader's opinion of the writer, i.e., to the writer's shot at a good grade or a publication. We have to remind the reader that he or she is in full control of how much time to spend in the company of an author and how to spend it.*

We have to level the playing field. All writers should be given a fair, equal shot at the reader's attention, whether as an examiner or a reviewer. Indeed, the well-written paper should, ultimately, get more attention (and that means more time) than the poorly written paper, but I'll return to that issue in a moment. The best way to level the field is to have a set of standards for what a paper should be able to accomplish in the first three paragraphs, or the first two pages, or the first 10 minutes of reading. You can have your own reading strategy, so I'm leaving this somewhat open. My actual advice, if you're interested, is to be pretty clear about what you want to be told in the first 600 words, what the conclusion should look like, what the literature list should contain (and how it should be set up). We can expect writers to have polished their prose especially in the introduction, so it's entirely fair to form an opinion about the writer's style based on the impression that the first few paragraphs leave you with. Is this a clear, lucid thinker? Is this a careful, conscientious writer?

Assignments vary in length and complexity, and the amount of time you're going to spend grading each paper will vary accordingly. But don't be ashamed about the fact the grade is usually determined already in the first few minutes. Sometimes, a student/peer will fool you, intentionally or not, but most of the time the quality of a paper's introduction actually is predictive of the grade it will get, or its publishability in a journal. What is important is that each paper you read has the same opportunity to impress you. If it squanders that opportunity by being sloppily written and poorly organized, so that when you run out of time you've learned very little about what is on the writer's mind, that's not your fault, nor the fault of circumstance. It's the incompetence or indifference of the writer that is to blame. And that is actually relevant for the grade. Spelling does, in that sense, count.

I said that good papers should, ultimately, get more attention than bad ones. How might that work if all papers are graded and reviewed in the same amount of time? This is where feedback comes in. There's nothing more unfair than the classroom in which the C students all get detailed criticism of their arguments and grammar, while the A students get a nice big A, a smiley, and one-word comment like "Brilliant!" "But, surely," it will be said, "the C students must be told where they can improve." Yes, of course. But so, surely, must the A students! Getting an A in a course or writing a publishable paper does not mean can't improve. It just means you're starting at a high level.

So here's my advice. Let detailed feedback, beyond the mere grade or accept/reject decision, depend on the writer's willingness to receive it. Give the student their A, B, C etc. in a quick and efficient manner, based on some pretty objective characteristics of the paper. Then, if the student wants to hear more, give them an additional assignment: have them rewrite the introduction into three, 27-minute paragraphs, or have them produce an after-the-fact outline. (That's if you're me; give them whatever small assignment you like.) Then meet with them and discuss it. The students who want to improve, no matter what their grade, will do the assignment, and now you have their full and specific attention. You can spend time on them without feeling like you're wasting it. The students who don't care (and they get all kinds of grades, I will remind you) will not do the extra bit of work. That's fine too. Everyone's happy.

In the case of a review report, you don't usually have an opportunity for this kind of interaction, of course. So I would suggest saving your detailed line-by-line criticism for a paper that you think should be published. If you are going to recommend a revise and resubmit, limit your feedback to the parts that should be reworked, and let the more detailed feedback come in the next round, after the author has demonstrated a willingness to do that work, and a basic comprehension of the need for it.

In short, my advice is not to resent the task of evaluating the work of others. One of the basic functions of academia is to give people an accurate sense of how smart they are in a particular subject. And there really are differences between people on that scale. For every domain of knowledge, at every level of education, there are those who deserve As, those who deserve Cs, and those who deserve Fs. Part of your job is to assign those grades as fairly and efficiently as possible. It's a perfectly legitimate business.

*This paragraph has been rewritten for clarity. (See comments.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


[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.