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On Zizek and Plagiarism

[ 105 ] July 15, 2014 |

I concur with Michelle Dean:

And two: as a description of the intellectual process, this makes Žižek sound supremely lazy. Copying a summary is indeed a different thing than straight up stealing an idea, particularly if you’re cutting and pasting to criticize. But it still means Žižek was less than personally familiar with the book he’s holding up as a signature example of an evil trend. He’s not exactly setting a shining example of academic rigor, there.

All of these plagiarism panics, of late, share that laziness storyline. Is it just that hitting the top will do you in, make you a target for haters who will comb your work for harmless error? Is it the relentless demand to produce that comes with success that trips people up? Or is it that meritocracy is a total lie and lots of terrible, sloppy work can be so elevated by everyone’s genuflection to intellectual status that it takes years to discover it was constructed with all the finesse of your average Reddit hack?

I’ve been defaulting to that last explanation, myself.

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  1. Erik Loomis says:

    Well, if you spent as much time mentoring students as Zizek, you can see how he’d run out of time to come up with original material.

    • Anonymous says:

      To say again, seeing him work in proximity made clear to me, at least, that’s bullshit. He cares about his students and pays attention to them.

      On this, tho, there’s no real defense. Doesn’t matter how close it is or isn’t to plagiarism, or the nature of the original sources. He didn’t do the work. No excuse.

  2. Aren’t you stomping on SEK’s territory? :-)

  3. Jordan says:

    I found his third email kinda funny:

    If this is plagiarism, then quite a few academics I know are plagiarists.” Asked whether his other published work also contains passages written by friends or assistants, he responded, “NO, plus I NEVER in my life got or used a research assistant or ANY kind of paid academic help!”

    This is very common behavior! That I have never done before or since!

  4. Anthony says:

    How much is it genuflection to intellectual status vs ideological status. A lot of people in the comments are already crying conspiracy.

    • Manju says:

      Well, Michelle Dean recommends this article:

      Trend Report: “Bacon Shaming” on the Rise at Condé Nast

      Further investigation reveals that someone named “Bijan” (!!) “just got bacon-shamed in the condé caf”.

      Clearly Lady Ga Ga has arrived to have it out with Anna Wintour. That’s gotta be the final stage of History. No wonder everyone is so classless.

  5. ajay says:

    I have (unfortunately) had to deal with more than one case of plagiarism, and in pretty much every one this is the excuse that the plagiarist offered: “Oh, someone else did that, they sent it to me as their own work for me to use, how was I to know that they’d copied it? Woe is me, I have been betrayed by a trusted friend! The woman did give me and I did eat!”

    The response is always “It’s got your name at the top. That means you wrote it. If that bit is something your friend wrote, even if he wrote it specifically for your use, then it should have his name on it. If you were prepared to take credit for something your friend wrote, then man up and have the courage to take the blame for it.”

    • N__B says:

      I believe that excuse is officially known as “the Ron Paul.”

    • gmack says:

      I’ve never actually encountered this excuse (I’m on the academic integrity committee at my school, so I’ve gotten to hear lots of cases. Yay me!). The typical cases I see are the, “well, yeah, I looked at X website because I didn’t understand, and I guess I kinda sorta let it influence me.”

      In any case, I do think the comparison of the Žižek case with the undergraduate case is potentially misleading. There are several reasons why we care so much about plagiarism in the academy. One of the main ones, however, only applies to the professor-student relationship. I’m trying to evaluate the student’s performance, and I can’t do that if the work has been produced by someone else. This issue doesn’t really apply to Žižek because, after all, I’m not trying to grade his work.

      On the other hand, Žižek’s plagiarism here is egregious because it erodes key parts of the ethos that makes academic work meaningful (and perhaps even possible at all). Plagiarism is a big deal because (a) there needs to be some degree of trust between the author/scholar and the reader, particularly with regard to representing the arguments the author is discussing, (b) a curious reader might want to look at the argument/issues in greater detail by consulting the same sources the author did (this is connected to the issue of replicability in science), and (c) because it’s important to give credit where credit is due. In my view, anyway, the initial article Scott linked to gets this essentially right: This case is troubling not just because we wouldn’t let an undergraduate get away with it, but because it displays a level of academic laziness that undermines the kind of work that academics do. (A quick side note: I don’t write much about Žižek, but my work often operates in the same constellation of interests and authors he writes in; this is partly why I find his actions here so objectionable).

    • Ken says:

      Wait, the defense is “I didn’t copy X, I turned in Y’s work and he copied X”?

      Are we talking college, or nursery school?

    • CD says:

      I got this variant: my friend wrote the paper for me, and I think he set me up (the plagiarism was massive), because I stole his girlfriend.

    • ajay says:

      Just to clarify, this is not in an academic context, but a professional writing context.

  6. James E. Powell says:

    My experience on law review and my school’s secondary law journal provided piles of evidence in support of the third option, with occasional dashes of the second.

    A lot of people are required to write things in order to get or keep their phony baloney jobs. But writing well is very hard and very time consuming.

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      But writing well is very hard and very time consuming.

      I can’t speak for “writing well”… but apart from the hardness and the time-consumingness of any kind of writing, it doesn’t get any easier with practice.

      • Origami Isopod, Commisar [sic] of Ideology for the Bolsheviks says:

        Ehhhhh…. it’s very much a YMMV thing. I enjoy writing and editing, but, yes, doing it well requires time and effort.

      • Pat says:

        It depends on how well I understand the problem I have posed. If I’m not clear to myself on what I need to say, then it can take a long time to string words together.

  7. herr doktor bimler says:

    Suppose you take an essay in deconstructionist thought, and reverse the subject and the object in every sentence to obtain another essay in deconstructionist thought. Is that plagiarism? AFAF.

  8. DAS says:

    The sad thing is that the plagiarism here could have been so easily avoided: preface the blurb with

    as a favorable review, not surprisingly published in a journal noted for what might be charitably called less than enlightened views on racial issues, of McDonald’s work described it

    and then continue with the quote followed by an appropriate citation. And Zizek should, in his acknowledgements section, acknowledge his friend.

    Zizek should have known better. However, I see this kind of mistake from students disturbingly frequently, in part because they are taught that it is wrong to copy the works of others. Period. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from copying what other people say … but since they never were allowed to paraphrase someone else’s work and then cite the work, most students have no clue as to how to do that.

    • Autonomous Coward says:

      As my collegue DAS notes,

      The sad thing is that the plagiarism here could have been so easily avoided: preface the blurb with

      as a favorable review, not surprisingly published in a journal noted for what might be charitably called less than enlightened views on racial issues, of McDonald’s work described it

      and then continue with the quote followed by an appropriate citation. And Zizek should, in his acknowledgements section, acknowledge his friend.

      Zizek should have known better. However, I see this kind of mistake from students disturbingly frequently, in part because they are taught that it is wrong to copy the works of others. Period. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from copying what other people say … but since they never were allowed to paraphrase someone else’s work and then cite the work, most students have no clue as to how to do that.

      See how easy that was?

    • gmack says:

      This would have eliminated the plagiarism, but plagiarism is not the only academic sin at work here. Žižek cited and criticized a work that he hadn’t read. This is bad academic practice (I know most of us do this to some extent or other, but it’s really not a good idea). Leaving aside the plagiarism issue, how egregious is this? I haven’t read the whole article in question, so I can’t evaluate it fully. It depends on how important Žižek’s critique of McDonald is for his overall argument. If it does play a significant role, then the incident, even had he cited his sources correctly, shows a laziness that is rather disturbing. If it’s a minor throw-away, then it’s less problematic, but it is still a problem.

  9. Derelict says:

    Of course, the easy way to avoid charges of plagiarism is do to your own damn work!

    I suspect it’s the work part of that formulation that gets to people.

    • Aimai says:

      I think there is a lot of pressure on academics to pose as better read, more polymath, more wide ranging in interest , than theyvreally can manage . At the same time the academic star system rewards them for publishing more and more, faster and faster, while promoting themselves as a recognizable brand. There is a lot of exploitation and theft of other peoples work that goes on because some people are in a position to commodetize publications and some people aren’t.

      • Linnaeus says:

        My dissertation advisor attributes this in part to the lack of space, so to speak, for what he calls “lunchbucket scholars”. But he also thinks that’s a structural problem with no easy, if any, solutions.

      • Bruce Baugh says:

        Very true, Aimai. Every so often my social circle, including several professors and a bunch of folks with graduate studies and/or credentials, has some fun kicking around the topic of “stuff that you’ve never actually read”. There simply isn’t time to go through it all in any real detail without sacrificing a whole bunch of the rest of life.

        • Aimai says:

          There is also a lot of pressure–or should I say opportunity– to be the “economist who reads social science” or the “social scientist who can do math and reads economists” because the people in your academic social circle can’t call you on the second rate quality of your scholarship or your observations–they are too blinded by the glamor or your pretense. As you move out of your own field and start borrowing and repurposing stuff from other people that your colleagues are unlikely to have read it gets easier and easier to cheat–whether by borrowing without attribution or pretending that your observations are not borrowed in the first place. I think its a slippery slope for some people. (Not, I hasten to add, Zizek or Hedges. They straight up stole other people’s work to pump up their perceived productivity.)

          • rea says:

            There is also a lot of pressure–or should I say opportunity– to be the “economist who reads social science” or the “social scientist who can do math and reads economists” because the people in your academic social circle can’t call you on the second rate quality of your scholarship or your observations

            Or the lawyer who does philosophy . . .

            • Tyto says:

              Is that what they call it now?

              I guess Leiter particularly galls me because I had a LS professor who actually had degrees in philosophy and theology and applied them meaningfully to his teaching.

              And then, there’s the minor matter that Leiter is not a good human being…

        • Pat says:

          You could also include “stuff you read once and have since forgotten,” which grows larger by the day.

    • ajay says:

      Of course, the easy way to avoid charges of plagiarism is do to your own damn work!
      I suspect it’s the work part of that formulation that gets to people.

      For that reason, it’s actually the hard way to avoid charges of plagiarism. The easy way is to cite your damn sources.

      • Derelict says:

        That too. Although I tend to count that as doing your own work.

        When I’m writing freelance articles, I end up interviewing a lot of people, reading a lot of material in whatever field the assignment is in–and I often come across really great turns of phrase or pithy ways to encapsulate complex information. It’s not hard at all to write, “As Tbogg noted in his seminal America’s Worst Mother series, . . .” It lets me get that great chunk of someone else’s writing in there, and makes sure they get proper credit for it.

        At the academic end of things, when I’m editing dissertations I always keep an eye out for people lifting stuff without citation or attribution. In three years of doing so, I’ve only come across one clear-cut case. I flagged it when I returned the dissertation to the client, but I have no idea what the client did about it, if anything.

  10. pseudalicious says:

    Ugh, Zizek.

  11. rea says:

    From each according to his ability, to each according to his need . . .

  12. […] . . see also James Powell’s comment in the Zizek! plagiarism thread […]

  13. Another Holocene Human says:

    The last could explain the enduring popularity of the combined works of Platon. Not his Socratic dialogues but the stuff where he tells you how things outta be. That and his relentless kissing up to the wealthy elites who signed his paychecks. Although I don’t know if there was such a thing as signing paychecks back then but his paying gig was to tutor kings and other really rich dudes’ sons. I guess the fact that he was perving on said adolescents was a bonus. He and his other elitist tutor buddies then used to head down to the agora and snark on the “sophists”, proletarian philosophers who stood on the proverbial soapbox and philosophized for tips.

    Seriously, him and Aristotle both, Aristotle actually was not bad at all on humanities but his “physics” is a complete and utter joke and Platon on moral philosophy, theory of knowledge or his political science are just complete crap. Part of the deal is that the Catholic Church decided Platon rocked and most of the other material in Greek sucked so they saved his writings and translated them while they took a knife to any book that had any verse by Sappho in it because women can’t be poets argle bargle.

    • Peripatetikos Tis says:

      Wrong on just about every count, but don’t let that stop you ranting about the history of classical literature and philosophy. Maybe you should try reading the thinkers you so lazily dismiss, rather than waste your day babbling nonsense as part of the ochlos on a blogikos logos?

      • rea says:

        Yeah, Plato was from a wealthy, aristocratic family, and made a big point in his writings that it was foolish to pay someone for teaching philosophy, so the notion of him having a paying gig is a bit odd. He spent a big chunk of his time educating various rulers of Syracuse, but didn’t seem to get much compensation for it–on one occasion, he reportedly got sold into slavery for his pains.

      • brad says:

        Thanks for sparing me the need to say basically the same thing.

    • burritoboy says:

      1. Plato was from one of the wealthiest families in Athens. He didn’t need money.
      2. Plato openly depicts his trip to Syracuse (which is what you’re referring to in sucking up to kings) as a disaster. He barely escapes with his life. Far from recommending it, Plato warns other philosophers not to do it.
      3. The sophists give private lessons as well. Gorgias’ pupil Polus recommends them to Socrates, and suggests that Socrates should take them. Hippias gives private speeches too.
      4. Socrates is a proletarian. His father was a carver of inscriptions. His followers included Aeschines of Sphettus, who made his living as a cobbler (we have fragments of Aeschines’ dialogue Alcibiades).
      5. Plato depicts a Socrates who’s against the aristocratic junta of the Thirty. We shouldn’t forget that the Thirty was partially led by Critias, who was Plato’s close relative and who is not treated particularly positively when he appears in the Charmides and Protagoras.
      6. It’s the Orthodox Churches that is (depicted as) more neoPlatonic, the Catholic Church is Thomist – and Thomas Aquinas explicitly prefers Aristotle over Plato, calling Aristotle “the Philosopher”.
      7. That Aristotle was more important to the Church than Plato is evidenced by the following: the Church itself, under the direction of the regent of the University of Paris (Thomas Aquinas) undertook to translate as much of Aristotle’s work into Latin as possible. Aquinas’ close associate William of Moerbeke headed the project. Most of Plato’s work wasn’t translated into Latin until 200 years later, largely under the secular patronage of the Medicis.

      • rea says:

        Socrates is a proletarian.

        More like middle class–he was wealthy enough to afford hoplite armor.

        Plato depicts a Socrates who’s against the aristocratic junta of the Thirty. We shouldn’t forget that the Thirty was partially led by Critias

        It’s not clear the extent to which this is Plato spinning in his defense. Critias was one of Socrates’ pupils. Socrates’ perceived hostility to Athenian democracy was a big part of what got him killed. Aimai’s grandfather did some interesting writing on this . . .

        http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/socrates/ifstoneinterview.html

        • brad says:

          Turning to Stone, great as he was in other fields, for philosophical context is a large mistake.
          He had no ear.

          • rea says:

            What does ear have to do with it? And the context is a matter of history, not philosophy.

            • brad says:

              History and philosophy are one and the same in this context, the philosophical texts are more or less the only sources for the history, fragments and later Roman sources aside.
              Stone was a greater man than I, full stop.
              But he did not understand Plato in the least.

              • Aimai says:

                The question is–did he understand Socrates?

                • brad says:

                  There is no Socrates, for all intents and purposes. Maybe some in Apology (though it actually notes that Plato was himself not present), some half reflections in the introductory dialogues and the variations in whatever survives of other writers of Socratic dialogues, but the existence of the genre itself is a big clue that we should not confuse character with man. Barring discovering many new texts buried in an ancient dump in a desert somewhere, we simply don’t have the sources necessary to speak of Socrates with any actual specificity beyodn.
                  Much as this will pain some for me to say, I’d compare Socrates to a figure like Neal Cassady. Looking to the published fiction of Kerouac or Kesey or even (Robert) Stone to learn about the man will give you a sense of him, bits and pieces, but nothing resembling a clear picture.

                • brad says:

                  Gah, finger slipped in editing. To conclude my first graph;
                  …specificity beyond the basic facts that seem to be consistent among the various sources and accounts.

            • burritoboy says:

              All we have of a historical record is Plato’s Apology and Xenophon’s Apology. Both of these are philosophical – and not historical – works. Further, they’re both rhetorical works (Xenophon says in his own voice that Socrates was a benefactor to Athens). So, yes, ear for philosophy is what you need.

            • Manju says:

              So why do I keep hearing about the Philosopher’s Stone?

          • Brad, I recently read the book in question, and it’s not about philosophy, per se, but a careful look at the historical context of Socrates’ trial and what was written about it. Therefore, your objection doesn’t make sense.

            • brad says:

              And that’s one of a number of major, glaring, huge flaws in the work. As burritoboy says, the foundational texts are not works to be taken as history. There were a number of Apologies, there’s no direct reason to presume Plato intended to document so much as begin his own narrative with the character.
              I have Stone’s book, though I can’t find it nor have I read it recently enough to be fresh with it. But in over a decade of under- and postgrad work in philosophy, focusing on Nietzsche and Plato, I never once saw so much as a reference to it. Anecdote, but telling.
              It reminded me of a high end Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

              And derp, Plato was at the trial. He wasn’t around for the endgame. I barely slept last night, my bad.

              • brad says:

                After refreshing my memory a bit with the linked interview, I’d sum my problem with Stone as over Plato’s politics. Plato was no democrat, that is to be certain, but I think that, if anything, Republic is meant as a demonstration of the futility of expecting perfection in the worlds of men that politics encompasses and meant as an introductory work in a training wheels form of dialectic.
                Philosophy, to Plato, I believe, was a metaphysical religion in many senses of both words. Politics cannot be made perfect and ideal, it will always be contingent and arbitrary, like embodied life itself, and thus we are to turn away towards that which is always true.

                Not my views, but that’s what I was taught, and what I see rather plainly in the texts, and even moreso in the crucial, if real, seventh letter.

                • The Dark Avenger says:

                  As burritoboy says, the foundational texts are not works to be taken as history.

                  So, nothing in them is trustworthy in terms of Socrates’ life, the way he was portrayed in The Birds, etc.

                  Someone once said that some people had to be over-educated to reach a particular level of stupidity. I think this is an example of it, and I thank you for it.

                • The Dark Avenger says:

                  And the reason that Stone’s book wouldn’t have been cited in a work or paper about philosophy is because the subject is the political views of Socrates, not an examination of his philosophy as a whole.

        • burritoboy says:

          Critias listens to and talks to Socrates, and Socrates is undoubtedly close to his family (Critias, Glaucon, Charmides and Plato are all related to each other). But was Critias a student of Socrates? That’s not so clear.

      • elm says:

        Yes. The Catholic Church was (still is? idk) Aristotelian, not Platonic. Not knowing this calls into question the rest of the critique of Plato.

        Personally, I think Plato’s Republic was long, tedious, and less illuminating than it’s reputation suggested. Aristotle’s Politics is far superior, but that does not mean Plato is unworthy of being considered a classic.

        Finally dismissing Aristotle because his physics were wrong strikes me as akin to dismissing Da Vinci because the engineering in his doodles of helicopters and the like were bad.

        • Another Holocene Human says:

          Goethe’s physics was wrong too, yet lovers of Germanistik keep going on about it as if it’s somehow interesting. No. It’s not.

          I stand corrected on Platon’s biography. I still think he’s overrated and an obnoxious self-promoter to boot.

          How are the Catholic Church’s favorite fallacies (well, I guess that medieval notion that God being perfect must exist is on them) about the nature of the divine and the nature of reality, all of that natural law arglebargle, DeCartes’ dualism and so on, not Platonic?

          • burritoboy says:

            The scholastics were primarily followers of Aristotle, though Plato and Aristotle are in agreement on many topics. Medieval scholastics who wrote commentaries on Aristotle include: Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, William Ockham, Albert of Saxony, Oresme, Siger of Brabant, Bonaventura and most other prominent philosophers of the day. To my knowledge, no one wrote a commentary on Plato in Western Europe until the 15th century.

  14. NewishLawyer says:

    I’ve always said that politics is more like a circle and the far left and far right have more in common than they want to admit.

    I will use this as Exhibit A.

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