Friday, November 05, 2010

To Discipline and Bully

Frank Fischer is a plagiarist. This is not something that Kresimir Petkovic and Alan Sokal are merely "alleging", nor is it something that they are "accusing" him of. It's a fact that they have demonstrated. It is a fact, for example, about pages 26-7 of his 2000 book Citizens, Experts, and the Environment, easily verified by reading them alongside page 139 of Alan Sheridan's Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth. That's the example that Tom Bartlett cites in his article on the case in the CHE, based on Petkovic and Sokal's report of their investigations. It clearly shows that Fischer has passed off Sheridan's work as his own.

Frank Fischer is also a highly respected scholar of public policy. Predictably therefore, his reaction to the publication of the facts was shameful. I use that word advisedly: he is clearly full of shame and rightly so. He ought to be ashamed of himself. In fact, already his reaction to the possibility of the publication of the facts about his scholarship was shameful. When Petkovic submitted his findings to a public policy journal, which then sent it along to Fischer, he threatened to sue Petkovic. As Petkovic rightly pointed out, it would be much more appropriate to sue the journal that made the editorial decision than the scholar that made the discovery. In any case, we'll see whether he makes good on that threat. If he does not, he has exposed himself as a desperate bully who hoped that a clearly weaker party would cower before his (phantasmagorical) projection of power.

Fischer's immediate reaction after publication, which was primarily to call the motives of Petkovic and Sokal into question, is also shameful. The facts speak for themselves and no personal motives are needed to explain going public with them. I, for example, didn't know who Fischer was until last night. I am now confident in calling him a plagiarist. My motives in doing so are strictly impersonal. I simply don't care why Petkovic and Sokal went after Fischer. They have chosen a perfectly good target (a scholar of some stature and influence in a field of some importance) and made a solid case for the shoddiness of his work. Petkovic and Sokal's work (which has taken a considerable amount of their time) makes us more informed readers of Fischer's writings, and, indeed, more informed analysts of policy. Their work is especially useful for PhD students who are struggling with the relationship between Fischer's analyses and the vast and often perplexing influence of Foucault on the social sciences.

Also predictably, the reaction of his scholarly community is shameful. Instead of adjusting their opinion of him in light of the evidence, they have distorted the evidence with a typical "nothing to see here, move along" sort of response, intended to assure Fischer's readers and students that everything is in order. "The essence of plagiarism is passing off someone else's work as your own," they say, "and Mr. Fischer did nothing of the sort: He clearly named the authors whose work he was drawing on." As Sokal has rightly pointed out, this is straightforwardly untrue. Fischer clearly did something of the sort, and there can in fact be little more dispute that he did something exactly like, say, passing off Sheridan's reading of Foucault as his own. Shame on them for lying in his defense (or, if this is not a lie but just a mistake, shame on them for defending him without looking at the basis of the charge). Shame on all sixty of them.

Fischer and his colleagues believe that Petkovic and Sokal should have dealt with this behind closed doors, using "due process". But Fischer had every opportunity to do all this in the privacy of his own office when he was informed about Petkovic's discovery; at that point he could have begun the painstaking process of checking through his self-admittedly "sloppy" work instead of making someone else do it for him. He could then have published a full re-evaluation of his own work. Certainly, no argument can be made for keeping what Petkovic and Sokal discovered about Fischer's books to themselves, or between them and Fischer.

This idea that charges of plagiarism are a "distraction" from real scholarship is truly outrageous. Identifying plagiarism, i.e. one kind of relation between two or more texts, is an act of practical criticism. To see this, consider the claim made by his defenders: "Fischer is an innovative thinker who has made a major contribution to the analysis of policy." This is a claim about Fischer's body of work relative to his field. It is therefore a claim one can only make on the basis of an adequate reading of his work that evaluates not just the quality of the thoughts he expresses but their originality, i.e., the "innovation" they suggest and "contribution" they make. The kind of detailed textual analysis Petkovic and Sokal provide is exactly the sort of reading one is (implicitly) committed to when one assesses the originality of a scholar.

What they have done is what I believe I have done (and am doing) in the case of a scholar in my own field. I have described this work as an attempt at what Harold Bloom calls "an adequate practical criticism" of "the anxiety of influence". In that light, it is interesting to note Fischer's alarm over the existence of this sort of scholarship:

[It] may do serious damage to academic culture. These are actions that could create a new environment of distrust and fear, in which self-appointed arbiters of scientific integrity initiate witch hunts against certain individuals and ideas in the name of righteousness. Many find it regrettable that The Chronicle of Higher Education has unwittingly facilitated this approach to academic judgment. One hopes that the anxieties about the impact of such attacks will not become a regular part of academic life. (My emphasis)

There is nothing arbitrary or self-appointed about what Petkovic and Sokal have done. They have discovered something about a number of texts and presented those results to the public. That's simply scholarship. Indeed, it would have resembled a "witch hunt" much more closely if they had gone directly to Rutgers University with their charges. Sokal has taken the opportunity to make a very important point, with which I fully agree:

Why did Kresimir Petkovic and I reveal our evidence to The Chronicle of Higher Education rather than, say, to the president of Rutgers University? The answer is that plagiarism is not principally an offense against one's employer—or even against the person whose words are plagiarized—but is rather an offense against the ethical norms of the scholarly community as a whole.

In fact, one hopes that this "anxiety" will provoke stronger readings (even if they must be misreadings) of Foucault in the future. Passing off another's twenty-year-old paraphrase as one's own "innovative" reading of the master will simply not do. It is shameful that a full professor at Rutgers, who threatened a graduate student in Zagreb with legal reprisals, now casts himself as the victim of "righteousness" when an equally established and respected professor steps in. Fischer is quite right that this is an "academic judgement", and Sokal and Petkovic are simply right to make it. Those who live in "fear" of such criticism do not belong in the academy.

Sorry Dr. Fischer, we cannot allow bullies to present themselves as victims. It makes for bad policy.

(See also Jonathan's post on this. And here's a follow-up on the anatomy of the "scandal".)


Jonathan said...

Great play of words on Foucault's title. I wish I had thought of that.

Great post too.

Thomas said...

Thanks. I pride myself on punny titles. On monday I'm doing a post called "Textual Promiscuity" about the sort of intertextuality that Fischer exemplifies. I was going to write that post anyway (as a follow up on XXX), but now I've got some fresh content.