Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Literal Violence of Slavoj Zizek

I'm trying to work out an efficient way to present something I've just discovered about the text that surrounds the plagiarism of Jean-Marie Muller in Slavoj Zizek's Violence. If anyone else wants to have a look at it, suggestions are welcome. Basically, it turns out that almost everything from "The Muslim crowds..." on page 51 to " the universal law" on page 55 is self-plagiarised, drawing first on "The Antinomies of Tolerant Reason"* and then on two passages in The Puppet and the Dwarf, one in which Bataille is described as "strictly premodern", the other in which "the elementary matrix of the Hegelian dialectical process" is identified in a G.K. Chesterton quote. (I've provided links that get you as close as I can, you have to search from there.)

In none of these previously published passages does the Muller text appear, and yet he says exactly, i.e., verbatim, the same things. So, for example, both Bataille and Muller are "premodern" in the sense that they missed the "Kantian philosophical revolution, in which the absolute excess is that of the Law itself. The Law intervenes in the ‘homogeneous’ stability of our pleasure-oriented life as the shattering force of an absolute destabilizing ‘heterogeneity’." Like I say, word for word.

This passage appears in "The Antinomies" and Violence, with differences I've marked as edits to the former that produce the latter:

What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity to violence precisely because they speak? As already Hegel was [already] well aware, there is something violent in the very symbolization of a thing, which equals its mortification; this violence operates at multiple levels. Language simplifies the designated thing, reducing it to a “unary feature”; [single feature. I]t dismembers the thing, destroying its organic unity, treating its parts and properties as autonomous; it inserts the thing into a field of meaning which is ultimately external to it.

The irony of this is really remarkable. Zizek is telling us that Muller is wrong to think that violence is the opposite of language because what happens in language is always already anyway that a thing is inserted "into a field of meaning which is ultimately external to it". And that is exactly what Zizek has done to Muller's text, destroying its organic unity. Zizek's entire critique existed in advance of, and external to, Zizek's reading of Muller's text. All Zizek did was to insert quotations, paraphrases, and (though lets say this is still "alleged" and "contested") patches and plagiaries of Muller into his pre-written prose. He did not care what Muller was actually trying to say. He dismembered it. He treated its parts as autonomous, to be cut and pasted into his own prose to suit his own ideological ends.

That is, Zizek's treatment of Muller's text is a literally perfect example of Zizek's understanding of linguistic violence. But—irony of ironies!— this ultimately proves Muller's point. Zizek had to do literally no thinking to come up with his critique of Muller's position on language and violence, virtually no reading, and hardly any writing. Recall that Muller (even according to Zizek) thinks language has to renounce violence because its use "presupposes a minimum of recognition of the other." Well, Zizek (as I also argued in the Hornbeck case) does not display this minimum of recognition, this modicum of decency. In the end, then, it's a stretch to construe these four pages of Zizek's prose as language at all.** It's just violence: brute, unthinking, dumb, stupid, violence.

Whether this was committed by Zizek himself, his publisher, a copy-editor, or some gang of emailing "friends", I don't care. The effect is the same.

*I have to admit it's hard to follow Zizek's self-plagiarisms. Passages turn up in various forms, differently paragraphed, in different contexts. Sometimes undated. This is one example. It looks to me like it was published online around 2006, but the title is reused as a chapter title in Violence, though the material I'm talking about appears in a different part of the book. [Update: Two years ago, Jay Pinho pointed out this problem in Zizek's work. I agree completely with his assessment: "Slavoj Žižek’s sin is not in reformulating long-held ideas into new books, something many authors do. It is in copying (nearly without modification) large sections of other works of his without attribution, and while simultaneously presenting each work as an original piece of writing. The extraordinary pressure on today’s writers, ranging from promising young journalists such as Jonah Lehrer to world-renowned philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek, to maintain prolificacy in the age of shortened attention spans is surely to blame for the graying hairs of many an aspiring writer. But it is no excuse for repackaging something old as something brand-new."]
**[Update: It should come as no surprise that my critique of Zizek's language looks a lot like Orwell's critique of the Marxist writers of his day. For example: "The result is a style of writing that bears the same relation to writing real English as doing a jigsaw puzzle bears to painting a picture. It is just a question of fitting together a number of ready-made pieces." ("As I Please") And: "It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. ... it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking." ("Politics and the English Language")]
***[Update: It should be noted that some of the text that appears both in the "Antinomies" text and in Violence also appears in "Language, Violence and Non-Violence" an article published in 2008 in the International Journal of Zizek Studies. This would be around the time Violence was also published. It contains part of the Muller material.]


Anonymous said...

Hello, Michael here again:

Where was the "Antinomies of Tolerant Reason" published, that it is supposed to count as 'self-plagiarism'? Note that one of the four parts of the book has the title "The Antinomies of Practical Reason".

Thomas said...

Hi Michael, in the first paragraph I provide a link. Here is the URL:

In the footnote (*), I venture the guess that it was first published in 2006. And I also mention his re-use of the title. (The material I'm talking about appears in a different chapter.)

Anonymous said...

Michael says:

Yes, Thomas, the trouble is that this was not, as far as I can tell, published. The link, which in this case is correct, is to Žižek's website, not to a published work. I looked on Google Scholar and elsewhere, finding nothing, you make this charge without actually citing any publication, though perhaps one exists.

Anonymous said...

Michael again:

If the publication of unpublished works is 'self-plagiarism', then all publication is 'self-plagiarism'.

Thomas said...

I agree that you can't self-plagiarise unpublished work. But I don't think is Zizek's website in the sense in which this blog, for example is mine. As long as I note that it appeared here first, I don't have any rule against republishing stuff from this blog in other media. I consider this a place for first drafts of my thoughts.

But the problem goes a bit deeper. What the existence of the "draft" (a word I'll use only for the sake of argument) proves (to my satisfaction at least) is that the thoughts Zizek presents as reflections upon Muller have nothing to do with what Muller actually wrote. Zizek did not do any original writing to present whatever thinking he might have done about Muller's essay. Like I say, this leads (along with my own reading of Muller) leads me to suspect he didn't really think very hard about Muller before treating him like an spouter of "ideological commonplaces".

I've been posting these "charges" as they've occurred to me. And, though you may disagree, none of what we know about the sources of these pages was clear just from reading them. (Much was learned from the release of the MS, occasioned by my first post.) There's still a lot of murkiness. I'm working on it.