Žižek, Plagiarism and the Lowering of Expectations
The renowned philosopher's unacknowledged borrowing is disappointing, Hollis Phelps writes -- but are our expectations about originality and citing others' work outdated?
As a graduate student, I devoured the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek’s essays, articles, and, books. I did so in part because I found his analyses of the ideological subjective mechanisms underpinning the functioning of contemporary capitalism generally compelling, and more specifically relevant to my own work. I admired his theoretical acumen, but also what seemed like the sheer breadth of his knowledge.
Žižek, in other words, seemed to me at the time to know almost everything, and he was able to use that knowledge for theoretical gains. Although I, too, wanted to do what Žižek did, I was also painfully aware of my shortcomings. I would never know as much as he seemed to know, meaning that my contribution to “scholarship” would likely remain forever slight. Žižek was a superhuman genius, one of those rare individuals who could do it all; me, I was -- and remain -- a mere mortal.
Last week Žižek was accused of plagiarism for an article he originally published in 2006 in the journal Critical Inquiry. The article, “A Plea for a Return to Différance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua),” discusses Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements.
As numerous blogs and media outlets, including Newsweek, have discussed, the conservative blogger Steve Sailer first called attention to the article on July 9, noting that “it’s striking how much more opaque Žižek’s prose suddenly becomes when he switches to elucidating what are, presumably, his own ideas, such as they are." Later that day, a blogger gave more teeth to Sailer’s claim, posting a side-by-side comparison of Žižek’s article with Stanley Hornbeck’s review of MacDonald’s book, which had appeared in 1999 in The American Renaissance, a far-right publication known for featuring and advocating for overtly racist views.
As someone who has followed and admired Žižek’s work I was initially disappointed, to say the least. Finding out that one of your favorite authors has plagiarized is the intellectual equivalent of learning of the infidelity of one’s partner. I also, however, wasn’t surprised. Four years out of my graduate program and now in a full-time faculty position, my views of scholarship and its production are less naïve than they once were. To be blunt: it’s simply impossible for someone who keeps Žižek’s schedule, which includes various appointments and a rigorous, international lecturing schedule, to singlehandedly read and research broadly and publish as much as he does. Whether in the form of research assistants or, as appears to be the case in this instance, plagiarism, the actual production of scholarship often depends on others, whose work often remains largely unacknowledged.
Žižek himself seems to indicate as much in his response to the allegations. In response to a request from the website Critical Theory (not really known for its love of Žižek, it is worth pointing out) for comment on the allegation, Žižek expressed “regret” over the incident, but explained it as follows: “When I was writing the text on Derrida which contains the problematic passages, a friend told me about Kevin MacDonald’s theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send [sic] it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend’s resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck’s review of MacDonald’s book.”
Cite too much, and your work is derivative; cite too little, and you get accused of not knowing the literature, sloppiness, or in some cases plagiarism.
If my Facebook feed is any indication, many have not found Žižek’s response satisfying -- and I’ve seen more than a few make the comparison to what students say when they’re accused of plagiarism. It’s unsatisfying because it strikes us as dishonest and unconvincing, something that someone says after being caught because there is nothing better to say.
My question is why we find that response unsatisfying. Putting aside Žižek’s intentions and “what really happened” (which we can’t, of course, know), I would suggest that underneath a lot of the dissatisfaction among fans and critics are unrealistic expectations of what it means to be a scholar and to produce scholarly work. What is unsatisfying in Žižek’s response, in other words, is not the lame passing of the buck to his “friend” but the fact that Zizek relied rather heavily in this instance -- and likely in numerous others -- on the work of someone else.
“That’s what citations are for,” someone will say -- “that’s the whole problem with what happened here.” True, Žižek should have cited his source here, and given his reliance, probably should have just put quotation marks around the whole section in question. But it’s worth pointing out that even if Žižek had done so, he would have been criticized for relying too heavily on “secondary sources” for his argument. In other words, “real” scholarship places a value on uniqueness and novelty, which requires a careful balance when it comes to citation practices. Cite too much, and your work is derivative; cite too little, and you get accused of not knowing the literature, sloppiness, or in some cases plagiarism.
Yet this balance often conceals the fact that we rely on “secondary sources” all the time without necessarily citing them (who hasn’t looked up something on Wikipedia -- without citing it -- to get some bearings?). Conversely, we often pad our arguments with citations to things we haven’t read well or at all. Not only because that’s what's expected but also because doing so allows us to cover our arguments with a supposed mastery of a literature that is virtually impossible for any one person to master. Whoever says that he or she hasn’t done as much either is lying or hasn’t published.
Despite all the talk in the humanities over the past few decades about the death of the author, the inexistence of the subject, the collective production of knowledge, intertextuality, networks of information, and so on, our publication practices and expectations haven’t caught up.
In practice, our notions of scholarship continue to assume an autonomous, substantial ego who is the author of his or her works; when that ego does acknowledge its debts to others, it does so only by citing other autonomous, substantial egos. “Theft” is a good critical concept that helps to destabilize power structures and explain the production of subjectivity -- until, that is, someone steals ideas from someone else.
All of this is not really to defend Žižek, nor is it to suggest replacing current scholarly conventions with an “anything goes” approach. In raising questions surrounding the accusations against Žižek and his response, I’m not necessarily advocating for plagiarism.
I am, rather, saying that the whole affair raises issues in how we understand the production of scholarship. We’re all mere mortals, so perhaps it would be best to lower our expectations with regard to what we do, really acknowledge our debt to others, and allow practice to catch up with theory.
That applies especially, I think, to the “star academics” who shape current discussions and fields, like Žižek. Despite the charges of plagiarism, I still admire and find value in his work, so I’ll continue to read what he has to say. That’s not to say that I’m not disappointed -- I, like other admirers, am, so I might take what he has to say with a few more grains of salt. But such disappointment is a good reminder that we’re all mere mortals, Žižek included.
Hollis Phelps is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Mount Olive. He is the author of Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-theology (Acumen 2013).
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