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!"


Andrew Gelman said...


I get your point, but to return to your title for a moment, does Zizek owe "us" anything at all? I can't see that Zizek owes us honest political analysis, any more than Adam Sandler owes us thoughtful movie acting.

Zizek is a creature of the news and entertainment media who's supposed to be delivering deep and provocative thoughts, but really it's too much work to do this, so he slacks off. But then it seems like a problem with the media that they continue to take him seriously.

I do think it's a bit different with scientists, as they get public support for their work, which in turn is generally supposed to be in some way in the public interest.

Ultimately I guess there's a continuum, with performers like Zizek at one end, hard scientists at the other, and non-rigorous academic scholars such as Karl Weick in the middle. I don't know if Weick owes "us" good work either, but it does seem to be to be an embarrassment that his subfield seems to take him seriously. Zizek, though, seems pretty much like an entertainer and nothing more. I agree that it's unethical and distasteful for him to be using other people's material, uncredited, in his act, but I can't bring myself to think of Zizek owes any integrity to us (as compared to his employers, or his publishers, or his readers (whoever they may be)).

Thomas said...

I think it's too much to say he's "nothing more" than an entertainer. As far I can tell he holds two academic posts, and is frequently a "visiting scholar" at academic institutions. Though he complains about them, he sometimes has students.

The Parallax view is published by MIT Press, i.e., a university press. So, maybe he doesn't owe me anything (I've given him the out that he can just accept that I won't take him seriously, which I'm sure he really minds!), but he owes his university employers and his students something.

Jonathan said...

I clashed with someone on facebook over this. Someone objected to holding Zizek to the same standards to which we would hold a student, pointing out that established academics can do things students can't. But, really, the point is not that he got help from the writing center on his campus or got his room-mate to proofread his paper. This is old fashioned copy and paste plagiarism.

Thomas said...

Yes, Zizek is only using the "my friend wrote it" as a way of emphasizing that he didn't intentionally steal it, and that he wasn't the one who made the mistake. But it's interesting that this use of "assistance" does actually embarrass him, it seems: 'Asked whether his other published work also contains passages written by friends or assistants, he responded, "NO, plus I NEVER in my life got or used a research assistant or ANY kind of paid academic help!"' Does this mean that if we had asked him a month ago whether there are any parts of the Parallax view that he didn't actually write, he would say, "Well, there' about page and half about MacDonald that a friend of mine wrote, but that's it"?

I don't buy it. It seems to me that this shows that "Zizek" is a committee, not a flesh and blood author.

Jonathan said...

By the way it is Critical Inquiry, not Critical Theory.

Thomas said...

No, "Zizek has responded to Critical-Theory via email. " (But I did forget the hyphen. Fixed it now.)

Jonathan said...

Right. I was thinking of where he published this originally, CI, not where he defended himself, Critical Theory.

Z said...

I once had a project for an edited book that I pulled because of I think related behavior from established scholars -- not plagiarism but this weird kind of double dipping. The oddest was a piece that came in very bad shape. I sent it back saying I couldn't do the editing because it wasn't fully enough written that I could see what the author wanted done with it, where they were really taking it, so would not be able to reliably finish it for them even if I wanted to. The response was to say sorry, their assistant had not gotten it right. This may have been some embarrassed cover story but it left the impression that an RA was actually doing the writing -- in the sense of the thinking as well as the composition. I never knew what to think after that.

Thomas said...

Yes, Z. We think: what's the point of making publishing a condition for flourishing if it's not demonstrating the actual ability, thought, style of the scholar whose cv is getting padded.