Saturday, October 11, 2014

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?

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