Thursday, October 09, 2014

Now What?

Okay, I hadn't expected Zizek to blame his publisher. I've contacted Profile Books to get their side of the story. If Zizek's story checks out, then it's still not stellar scholarship (I've got a post coming about that) but also not, at least on his part, straightforward plagiarism. This makes the case a bit more complicated, but there are a few simple things not to lose sight of.

First, hopefully Zizek was given a set of galley proofs where the quotation marks had already been removed and the "weird" clarification about Weil introduced. Zizek must have missed this when correcting them. There are other differences between Zizek's copy and the published version. "Aggression" replaces "aggressivity" in one instance, and the published version leaves out a paragraph break at "This, of course, runs against..." Finally, there was clearly some type-setting left to do: the quotes Zizek marked with single quotation marks (where these were respected) were set off as block quotes in the book. So there must have been some additional proofreading/editorial work in the intervening time. It's disturbing that this was done "without [Zizek's] knowledge".

Second, yes, there are "more productive ways of spending one’s time than to search for plagiarisms in [Zizek's] work," and I don't actually spend much time at this at all. As he notes, and I acknowledge, I wait for others to find the examples, then I just analyse them. (I have a professional interest in scholarly writing, and plagiarism in particular.) Nor did Nancy Porter go looking for transgressions; the book had been recommended to her by a colleague and she presumably discovered the plagiarism because, as careful scholars do, she went back to the source, i.e., she wanted to read Muller in order to better understand Zizek's critique of him. Plagiarism in published scholarship doesn't usually get caught by surveillance operations. It gets caught in ordinary acts of critical reading, when two texts are set against each other and carefully compared as a matter of course.

Third, Zizek makes it sound like his copy proves there's nothing to see here. But the plagiarism is there in his published book, however it may have gotten there. It is an actual weakness of work that is circulated in his name. Obviously I did not have Zizek's original manuscript to look at before I pointed out the plagiarism on my blog. I did, however, search for an erratum on the off chance that the mistake had already been corrected; Zizek has, after all, had six years to do so. Now, should I have contacted him first so he could disabuse me of the idea that he had plagiarised? Well, the important thing is to make this public. After all, there might be many other readers like Nancy who discovered the problem but either let is pass, or just let it lower their opinion of Zizek's work (or, as Hollis Phelps suggests, their expectation of scholarship in general). There is a value in this kind of exposure: it publicly corrects an error in the published literature. Zizek should thank me!

There are at least three issues, each worthy of a post, that all this now raises for me. The first is about how Zizek engages with the Muller text. Like I say, even in his copy it's pretty weird scholarship, and I want to make clear why I think so. The second is how publishing pressures seem to be alienating scholars from their own work. The third is the more factual question: what really did happen here? If it is true that Profile removed Zizek's quotation marks and added a few words to the paragraph "without [his] knowledge" then that's pretty horrifying. I've said before that I don't trust his scholarship; maybe I should just say say I don't trust his books. They seem to be produced by a rather unreliable process, for which he doesn't hold himself responsible.


Jonathan said...

It would be worthwhile for someone to go through all of his works and see whether there are other cases. If there are two there are likely to be more, and he has also gotten into some trouble for "self-plagiarism."

Whether it's the most productive use of someone's time? Given that he has been influential and frequently cited himself, I think it would be worth while. Not for me you you, though.

Thomas said...

I'm personally more interested in the detailed analysis of individual cases. What Zizek does with this Muller text, even in his non-plagiarising draft is really telling. It shows us what "ideological critique" amounts, at least as he practices it. Maybe some people will still find his "reading" of people like Muller of interest after they know how it's done. That's up to them.