Plagiarism (and Zizek)

16/07/2014 § Leave a comment

Slavoj Zizek has been caught doing what looks like plagiarism. Because I comment on his work and use his theories from time to time (too much, some would say/have said), I thought I’d weigh in.

First, the incident does look like bad academic practice, or, if we are going to speak plainly, plagiarism:

Plagiarism (including being party to someone else’s plagiarism): copying or paraphrasing another’s work, whether intentionally or otherwise, and presenting it as one’s own.

Zizek presented someone else’s work as his own without attribution. Excuses notwithstanding, that’s what he did, and it is the sort of thing that we correct with students and junior researchers.

I will point out — not as an exculpatory comment, but merely an observation — that I might not be pure in this area, either. I do try to cite all sources and attribute all ideas. But, I might not have been perfect. Things that make it difficult: self-plagiarising, also known as recycling; overwork and working against deadlines; general sloppiness; working with co-authors who may have different standards; working on non-academic publications. Somewhere in the 150+ reports and papers I’ve written, there might be something suspect. Perhaps I am thinking in a very Roman Catholic way: we are all potential sinners.

One interesting thing about the incident is how it is being treated. Zizek is clearly being attacked, and with some glee. I will leave you to do your own web search, but the NPR post is good enough. Zizek is now, apparently, a ‘Famed Philosopher’. Usually, he is pretty obscure: Marxist, Lacanian, Continental philosopher — could he be any more a niche product?

The Facebook thread of the International Journal of Zizek Studies (there is such a thing, and I have published in it) has pointed out that the incident is being framed as a celebrity story — Philosophers Behaving Badly! Zizek, of course, is complicit in this. He has developed a persona as a ‘bad boy’ who won’t be contained by archaic ideas of what constitutes academic writing or proper philosophy. That is part of his challenge — it is a schtick he uses to beat on conventions.

Now, suddenly, ‘Buzz Bomb from Pasadena’ is playing on my inner jukebox.

Zizek’s fans have come to his defence. I think they need to be careful, but their behaviour is instructive. Look, the guy messed up. He passed off someone else’s work as his own, and that’s not cool. But the essence of being a fan is that the celebrity can do no wrong. I think, to some, Zizek is The Man With No Name, even down to the scruffy beard. The allure of TMWNN is that he knows. He knows right from wrong, he has a moral code that is internally consistent and impervious to the foetid world. He knows who’s being truthful and who is shining him on. He knows who needs to die.

Another name for TMWNN is ‘analyst’. The analyst is the One Who Knows, and Zizek is in the place of the analyst for his fans. They have just learned that his knowledge — a small piece of it, at least — is a bit of stolen flame. It isn’t really his own knowledge; maybe he doesn’t really know. Maybe there isn’t a One Who Knows. Maybe it is time for their analysis to end.

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