Plagiarism and self-plagiarism: A defense of Zizek

Detractors of Zizek have lately attempted to discredit his work on procedural grounds. The more serious accusations are related to plagiarism — including the famous case of the paraphrased white supremacist book review and now a more recent incident involving quotes in his book Violence. When the story broke, I offered a weak defense of the first incident, which seems to have been genuinely inadvertant. On further reflection, though, it seems to me that Zizek was using his friend’s material in the same way academics use material from their research assistants — and I doubt anyone checks over every detail of a research assistant’s work, because that would miss the point of having a research assistant. The second incident was literally just a copy-editing error, which could happen to anyone.

At this point, I anticipate some readers would say that, even granting these incidents were unfortunate accidents, Zizek’s frenetic over-production makes them more likely. And this brings us to another set of trumped-up complaints about his supposed “self-plagiarism.” Apparently he needs to write things fresh every single time he publishes, or else he’s doing something akin to the most serious ethical violation in academia. As I once ranted on Twitter, the concept of “self-plagiarism” is incoherent, given that he’s passing off his own ideas as, you know, his own ideas. There are reasons to object to the repetition, of course, but virtually every author who has written a large amount has “self-plagiarized” at some point — I will certainly confess to this horrible sin.

And now, the goal posts move yet again: the fact that Zizek repeats himself shows that he has nothing new to say. To that I’d say: okay, why don’t you try synthesizing Lacan and Hegel in pursuit of a unified theory of ideology, subjectivity, and ontology! Such a mammoth intellectual project will necessarily require intensive labor, working and reworking concepts and arguments. Sometimes similar examples are bound to come to mind in various contexts. Sometimes it will seem that a previously written passage can’t be significantly improved upon and can simply be reintegrated into a new whole. Everyone who’s met or talked to Zizek knows that he works obsessively, often skipping out of social engagements to get back to his room and write. His intellectual project is what is most important to him, and the amount that he is producing is realistic given his lack of teaching commitments and administrative work.

In essence, Zizek’s procedure here is no different in principle from that of Husserl, who wrote and rewrote voluminous drafts and was continually “introducing” the project of transcendental phenomenology. The one thing that has changed is that Zizek is publishing his drafts as he goes. Perhaps it would be better in some way if he would wait longer between publications, but you can’t blame a non-traditional academic for sticking with the method that gained him enough notoreity to elbow his way into the philosophical conversation despite his lack of a traditional position. You can’t blame him if publishers are willing to print the latest incremental updates to his project as he produces them, nor can you blame him if enough people are willing to buy the things to make it economically viable.

Nor, indeed, is it the case that he is simply repeating himself over and over. There is development and change over time, for those with the patience and investment to watch for it. If you don’t have the requisite patience or investment, you are under no obligation to keep reading his stuff, just as you’re under no obligation to paw through all of the Husserliana, or all of Lacan’s seminars, or all the iterations of Hegel’s lectures on philosophy of religion, or…. The fact that you’re tired of Zizek and don’t want to bother anymore isn’t proof of his intellectual bankruptcy — indeed, if you use your own understandable fatigue and wandering attention as grounds to discredit a major thinker and dissuade people from taking him seriously, then maybe someone is intellectually bankrupt, and it’s not Zizek.

Consider the possibility

Is this Left Forum panel a US propaganda psyop? I want to ask my comrades on the left to consider the possibility. After years of research, I have determined that conspiracy-based thinking is just the kind of obscurantism that thrives on the political right. The panelists seem determined to make a mockery of the left by going beyond the proverbial “circular firing squad” and accusing those they disagree with of being active collaborators with the enemy — effectively staging a Stalinist show trial that will confirm the worst suspicions of the persuadable mainstream. I’ll trace the origins of the Zizek Conspiracy Theory Industry to unhinged pseudonymous bloggers who now only talk to each other, having been blocked by all reasonable people. It is they who laid the groundwork for putting forth the model of 9/11 Truthers and Birthers as the pinnacle of hip “lefty” and “radical” thought.

Retro Blogging Hits

John Holbo is nit-picking Zizek again. Man, this takes me back…

Concrete Practices

According to my version of Firebug, if you are reading this page from the United Kingdom it took approximately 2.63 seconds for you to receive the 63.4 kilobytes of data that constitute this page, with an empty cache. Doubtless there are numerous proxy servers and caches between myself and the WordPress.com server which may make the process faster, but according to Traceroute giving me raw data, the server of WordPress.com is in Chicago, Illinois in the United States. This is 3862.10 miles away as the crow flies but it is important to note by request does not travel a direct route. There 17 servers between myself and the WordPress.com server, and between the sixth and eighth hop on its journey, the data transfers from a server in Hampshire in the UK to a server in Frankfurt in Germany before returning to the UK for a few hops before going from here to one in Atlanta, Georgia in the US. This journey from Hampshire to Frankfurt is approximately 1,078 miles by road and would take you seventeen hours to drive – it takes 0.4 milliseconds. Our transatlantic jaunt takes 88.3 milliseconds or 0.0883 seconds, before heading out from there, after a spell, to New York, then finally reaching its destination. During this process there was 0% loss of information, the packets I sent from my computer here arrived in Chicago in perfect condition. This does not recognise the fact that another traceroute to this site could go by another route,  and does not include all the other operations that are part of my receiving of the webpage, for example, getting the images for the avatars from Gravatar.com, which apparently has some servers in Los Angeles, California, ten hops away.

Now, WordPress.com, which runs this site, runs on the GNU/Linux operating system (and Gravatar.com), the Nginx server using a robust version of WordPress MU, that depends upon both the PHP language and a MySQL database. In turn, the compilation and assembly of all these piece of software depend upon some kind of compiler, in this case, more than likely gcc, the GNU Compiler Collection. The browser I am using is Mozilla Firefox, the operating system Mac OS X, which has a kernel based on elements of FreeBSD that is called Darwin, all of which were compiled by this same compiler (note: Apple’s attitude to their kernel is problematic, there is no doubt). Everything I have mentioned in Open Source with licenses at varying levels of freedom, many of which are under the ‘free as in thought’ GNU license. In running Nginx, WordPress.com is unusual, but the open source software Apache run the majority (47.12%) of web servers on the internet. Let’s just take on example, WordPress MU. WordPress MU has 203,636 lines of code, but is being dissolved into WordPress itself which has 207,547 lines of code. Every line of this code has been written by a human being, an every line itself as been revised, checked, edited, refined. It is the product of literally thousands of developers, working together towards a common and freely available project. How is this not a community, with its difficulties, splits, problems, ethos and meetings both virtual and actual? Extending these estimations outwards to embrace every other element of open source software created in this single internet transaction makes the numbers dizzying. In 2001 Red Hat Linux 7.1 contained 30,152,114 lines of code, estimated to take a single person 7,956 years to complete. This number, by 2010, is probably far greater. Just as an example, in 2001 the Linux kernel was 3,377,902 lines of code, in February this year it is 12,990,041 lines of code. This does not even begin to consider the communities that came up with the TCP/IP protocol, XHTML, the PNG format – I could go on.

Now, tell me, how are any of these things, from the establishing of servers that allow internet transactions, or more vitally to the community practices that facilitate these examples of open source software, more often than not divorced from any profit motive, not ‘concrete’ practices of work in the same way that some kind of hand waving ‘localism’? Are they not at least as interesting and incredible versions of human interaction as running a back to the land farm?

Justifiable Inequality

In a co-authored Comment Is Free piece, Phillip Blond and John Milbank aver that we need the right kind of inequality. We can reportedly achieve this by carrying out a synthesis of traditional Tory and Leftist ideals, which would allow us to distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable inequality. The unjustifiable kind is based in race prejudice or in the nihilistic application of skill in socially useless activities such as investment banking — surely we can all agree on that. The justifiable kind is a form of class privilege that serves as “a way of providing the appropriate resources for the wielding of power linked to virtue. By virtue we mean here a combination of talent, fitness for a specific social role, and a moral exercise of that role for the benefit of wider society.”

Presumably we are to believe that there is some way of implementing this political program, despite the fact that no qualified judge of what is justified or unjustified equality seems to exist — unless we’re to imagine Rowan Williams or, probably even better, Benedict XVI handing down these moral recommendations — nor does actual existing class privilege serve to equip leaders for the exercise of virtue in public life as far as I can tell. The gesture is the same as with “Catholic social teaching”: bring together elements of left and right in some unprecedented mixture to prove your brilliance and ability to think “outside the box,” and provide no concrete means to get to this supposed utopia other than hoping that people’s hearts change and they suddenly start doing the right thing. It’s a pose, not a program, and its only possible concrete effect can be to support the right wing.

Overall, the article reminds me of a quote from the Communist Manifesto that I’ve used before in this connection: “Christian Socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.”

The theological critique of Nazism

I posted this as a comment to Ben Myers’ latest post, but since it’s somewhat off to the side of the post’s topic, it seemed appropriate to turn it into a fresh post of its own:

I say this as a great admirer of Barth, but I’ve always found the “theological” critique of Nazism to be weirdly disconnected from reality. For instance, Barth’s self-congratulation that the church somehow did the right thing insofar as a small sect of it rejected natural theology in the midst of Nazism strikes me as downright chilling. The test here is that you could take it the opposite direction: for instance, the lack of a viable natural theology produced a disconnect between the gospel and the world, which led to the unlimited rise of technological instrumentality that was then ultimately turned against the human race itself most horrifically in Nazism, etc. Or you could say that the artificial either/or of Christ or nature led necessarily to the embrace of natural “paganism,” etc. Or basically you could make up any “theological” cause you like and congratulate yourself for bravely coming down on the right side of the debate, but that doesn’t make what you’re saying relevant. If anything, wouldn’t it have been more immediately relevant and more obviously connected to Nazism if the church had staked its identity on the opposition to anti-Semitism rather than the somewhat obscure point of natural theology?

Ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome

It’s amazing to me how many theologians, particularly those within a general evangelical orbit, have ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome: the twin tendency to idealize and fetishize local church life and to denigrate their own role.

The recent financial crisis has given us a great term for this tendency: cognitive regulatory capture. All of the behaviors that Halden points out among theologians are, at best, equally prevelant among church members and especially leaders — I don’t recall any incidents of systematically covered up child molestation among theologians, for instance — and whatever faults they exhibit to a greater degree are probably due to their academic setting rather than personal failings. There are plenty of church members in good standing who faithfully donate the proceeds of underpaying their workers or gouging their customers, for instance, and I don’t think any academic theologians fall into that category.

And to act like theologians are unique in their lack of attention to the poor is appalling, in the face of the massive indifference displayed by the vast majority of church members. For every theologian who fails to visit the soup kitchen often enough, I’ll give you a pastor on a campaign to build a gym where his congregation’s children can play for like three hours a week.

Theologians should be exemplary in two areas. First, they should be exemplary in the degree to which they reflect intellectually on the gospel. I’d say that we’re on pretty firm footing here, on average — there are a lot of intelligent, reflective Christians out there, but few of them are going to reach the level of someone who earns a PhD, teaches, and publishes in the field. It’s elitist to say so, I know, but academic theologians really do consistitute an intellectual elite.

Second, they should be exemplary in their criticism of the church’s preaching and discipline. On this front, the attitude displayed in Halden’s post is amazingly counterproductive. Theologians don’t need to submit their judgment to the people in the pews or to the church authorities. They can’t force either group to do what they want, obviously — the lack of concrete power is the trade-off for taking up a reflective and critical role in the church — but they can and must deliver their criticisms as forcefully and persuasively as possible. Preemptively telling people they should totally dismiss theologians is arguably a rhetorical misstep in this context.

Overall, I think it’s crucial to avoid a kind of “Donatism for theologians” that would amount to little more than an ad hominem argument — by and large, theologians are perfectly capable of carrying out their theological duties while committing adultery or skipping church. (In fact, they may well have real theological reasons for avoiding church services as they currently stand! Is that simply impossible? One sometimes suspects that, for the “strong ecclesiology” crowd, it is.) Perhaps we can think of situations where immoral behavior would reach such a pitch as to undermine the theologian’s standing in both the academy and the community, meaning he or she could no longer effectively carry out that role — but those are extreme and rare cases. In the majority of cases, we should judge theologians simply as theologians, that is, according to the standards inherent to their particular role.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,218 other followers