Saturday, October 18, 2014

Stories, Models, and Miracles

This one is for Andrew Gelman, with whom I've been having a number of interesting conversations about the sense in which models are to statistics what stories are to narratives. In the social sciences, we might say it depends on how we construe "the people": either as a "population" to be interpreted statistically, or as a "history" to be interpreted narratively. In the first case we build models and test them, in the second we tell stories and ... well, see how they go over. Models are beholden to probabilities, stories to plausibility. That sort of thing.

When I read about Michael Shermer's "anomalous" wedding music, I thought of Andrew right away. After all, he's been consistently critical of Daryl Bem's ESP research but he likes a good story as much as the next guy. So let me tell the story, and then explain what I think it has to do with our scientific models.

Shermer got married this summer. His fiancé, now wife, Jennifer Graf, had shipped her things to Beverley Hills from Köln, including a number of heirlooms from her grandfather, who had been very important to her as a child. Among the items was a transistor radio that Shermer tried and failed to get to work. Three months later, in the days leading up the wedding, "Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away." Then, on the day of the wedding, a strange thing happened: the radio suddenly started working, "a romantic love song wafted" from it. The next day, it stopped again, and it hasn't worked since.

The moral of this story, of course, is that any old radio will do. No, I'm kidding. It is, of course, as Shermer tells us, that Graf's grandfather was there with them after all, had in effect given her away. The moral, indeed, is, as she is to have said, "I am not alone." And, because Michael Shermer is a world-famous "skeptic" and champion of science, this story has additional significance. "[T]he eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave [Jennifer] the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well." The moral of the story, that is, is that, modern science and skepticism notwithstanding, it is possible for the dead to communicate their opinions to the living.

Charles Eisenstein, writing for the new-age magazine Reality Sandwich (which was founded by Daniel Pinchbeck, by the way), has declared Shermer's conversion a "miracle". (He is more impressed with the fact that this happened to Michael Shermer than that it happened at all, presumably because he believes this sort of thing happens all the time.) Perhaps, he suggests, this "portend[s] a fundamental transition. Perhaps it signals the unraveling of the epistemologic hegemony of science." Shermer is indeed among the more prominent ideologues of science, so maybe it does, but there's another sense in which this story, even when it happens to ordinary people might shake our scientific models "to the core".

Consider the common reaction in comment fields and skeptics' forums. Actually, consider Shermer's own remark (which his critics do little more than echo):

Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there's bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.

This is the point I want to emphasise. We have no working model of the causal mechanism here, but we have a story that gets its significance from the (unproven) premise that the dead can communicate with the living—that they care about us, and that they approve and disapprove of our choices. That's a powerful narrative with deep moral implications.

If a "belief in science" means that we must reject this interpretation of the story, impoverishing Michael and Jennifer's memory of their wedding, and diminishing the significance of their marriage vows, then surely science is a somewhat petty business. Indeed, it comes to function as a rather mean and spiteful god, preventing us from enjoying the wonders that befall us, robbing our lives of meaning. But if science will not step in here and rule out the spiritistic interpretation, then where does that leave us? Aren't we then always entitled to go with whatever interpretation feels right? The obvious counter-example that comes to mind here is vaccination, the case against which is based on coincidences between getting the shots and developing autism. If we believe the models that show us that vaccines do not cause autism, aren't Michael Shermer and Jennifer Graf likewise condemned to live in a world where their beautiful wedding story just ain't true? I, for one, don't have the heart to tell them.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why I Care About Zizek's Plagiarism

It is my view that plagiarism is a fact about the relationship between two texts, not the intention of an author or the process by which a text is made. Plagiarism can result from simple carelessness, which should embarrass the author, or from sheer mendacity, which the author should be ashamed of. The primary offence is not, in my view, to the original author whose work was plagiarised, but to the reader, who is being misled about the nature of the work before them and the works that are talked about in it.

It is important to publicly correct instances of plagiarism, especially in work that is influential. This is the main reason to discuss cases openly, as I do on occasion on this blog. Where it is possible to easily determine the facts, i.e., what appears on the pages of the two works involved, we should no more worry about "due process" or making "serious allegations" than we would when we criticise a writer for misreading Hegel or Lacan or, of course, Zizek. After making our concerns public, we can, of course, discuss them, and it is possible that the concerns turn out to be unjustified. As long as we make our claims with reference to the passages involved, all is well. Our readers are free to make up their minds.

Robert Sinnerbrink, for example, has said that Judith Butler "unjustly criticised Žižek for lapsing into a crude pre-Kantian ‘transcendental realism’ concerning the status of the Lacanian Real" (IJZS 2(2): p. 9). Similarly, I have said that Zizek failed to properly credit Jean-Marie Muller for the words and ideas he presents in Violence. I believe that proper sourcing would affect our reading of the passage and, indeed, undermine Zizek's claim that Muller is simply trading in "pre-modern Aristotelianism" and "ideological commonplaces". I suppose Butler could, as Zizek did with Muller, claim that her critique was altered by her publisher before publication and that she never meant to suggest that Zizek was crudely pre-Kantian. But this would still suggest something troubling, namely, that care was not taken in checking the galleys before publication.

The paragraph about the limits of desire is only one part of my critique of Zizek's use of Muller's "Non-Violence in Education". I think he present this text in a way that wildly distorts its meaning and, I suspect, its ideological function (I'm still working on that issue). Looking at Zizek's analysis, alongside the passages that he apparently self-plagiarised to produce it, suggests a very slapdash engagement with Muller's, to my mind, thoughtful essay. What Zizek has done is at least as "unjust" as what Butler may have done to Zizek, the major difference being that in order to show this it was necessary to bring to light at least one act of simple plagiarism, and another of less simple, but still problematic, patchwriting.

One of the frustrating things about finding an instance of plagiarism embedded in a passage one is already critical of is that it muddles the critique to point it out. And yet there is no way around pointing it out. The muddle is obvious from Eugene Wolters' closing remark in his dismissive post about the discovery this case:

So gross academic dishonesty? Probably not. Carelessness? Probably. What do you expect from a guy who has put out at least 3 books this year alone?

Whether or not this is an example of "gross academic dishonesty" is not the issue. (This is why it's so important to keep intention out of it.) I do, however, think we can raise questions about Zizek's basic intellectual decency, as I also did in the case of his assisted plagiary of a review of Kevin MacDonald. Like his treatment of movies he hasn't seen as examples of the ideologies he wants to critique, Zizek is here using texts that actually argue for their positions as though they are merely ideological proclamations. In the case of MacDonald, to whom he attributes a "new barbarism", he admits that he did this without reading MacDonald at all, relying on a friend's summary. In the case of Muller, his reading is so at odds with what actually happens in Muller's text that it's hard to know what was going on when he made those pages. The only charitable thing to assume is that he didn't read it very carefully.

That is, Wolters may be right that we haven't here caught Zizek trying intentionally to pass of Muller's ideas as his own (which I take it is what he means by "gross academic dishonesty"). It is sufficient that this is an instance of carelessness resulting from being way too busy getting published and not busy enough actually trying to understand the world in which we live. That's what I take away from this. Some people may not think of that as a reason to pay less attention to Zizek and pay more attention to other things. But at least now we have a more informed basis on which to make such a decision. For that reason, I am grateful to Nancy Porter for going public with her discovery.

It's also why I spend so much time talking about it. It helps us to read Zizek more accurately. It lets us form more justified beliefs about Zizek's more or less crude lapses into transcendental realism or idealism or ideology or whatever we think people should stay away from. Plagiarism obscures important facts from view. Correcting it brings them to light.

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.]

Another Post About a Non-Issue in Lieu of More Productive Ways of Spending My Time

Well, at least part of the reaction to my post on Zizek's plagiarism of Muller in Violence is utterly predictable. I had not expected Zizek to shift the blame to his publisher, and I'm waiting to hear back from them to confirm his story, but I had expected both Zizek and his defenders to trivialise the case itself and, more generally, to remind us not to expect any better from "a guy who has put out at least 3 books this year alone." Eugene Wolters' post at Critical-Theory provides us with a, let's call it, "semi-official programmatic" statement of this reaction, which I became aware of through Adam Kotsko's tweet declaring my "accusation" to be "bullshit".

Wolters' post is instructive in several ways. Notice that he begins by answering the question "Who is this guy?" i.e., the guy making the allegations, i.e., me. (He gets my place of employment wrong, but that's not his fault. I seem to have forgotten to update my bio at Jonathan Mayhew's blog.) Indeed, the standard approach in plagiarism accusations is to make this about the plagiarist and the "accuser", rather than about the text, its source, and the readers. The point is usually that the accuser is an unknown while the accused is, well, "Elvis". Just in case someone is trying to decide whose side it might be more advantageous for one's career to take, I guess.

The next thing I noticed, and this sort of irritates me, is that (a bit like Zizek's reading of Muller, actually) Wolters makes it sound like I haven't considered the mitigating factors that he thinks makes this is a "non-issue". He quotes the plagiarised paragraph, acknowledges that it looks on the face of it "like blatant plagiarism", but then says that "things get a little fuzzier when it’s noted that Zizek cites Muller on the previous page." Notice that vaguely passive phrase "when it's noted". Actually I noted this already in my original post, predicting that Zizek's defenders would cite it as a mitigating factor. Of course, it doesn't actually excuse anything. If you quote someone properly, but then pretend to elaborate their point using their own prose (and translations of quotes from the French) presented as your original writing (and translation) you are, simply and, yes, blatantly, plagiarising them.

Now, if Zizek's story about how this happened is true, then it appears to be unintentional plagiarism, which, contrary to too much popular opinion, is not a contradiction in terms. Plagiarism is an objective fact about one text's relation to another. Intention has nothing to do with it. But we should keep in mind that, until we hear from Profile, we don't know whether or not there was a conscious decision behind it, made either by the publisher or the author. What we do know is that there's a referencing error on page 54 of Violence. And we didn't know that until Nancy Porter discovered it. So we should just goddam well thank her, rather than...

...bringing me to my next point, namely, this whole idea that Nancy and I must surely have "more productive ways of spending our time than searching for plagiarism in [Zizek's] work". Let me repeat what I've said all along. The only time I spent "searching" for this example was in sending an email to someone who publicly announced that she had another example of Zizek's plagiarism. While I don't know exactly how she found it, I imagine she found it by the ordinary method of reading Zizek's book, being interested in his argument, looking up the text he criticises to see if his critique holds water, and, necessarily comparing the two texts. Since we're talking about a verbatim transcription, you'd have to have a pretty weak reading memory not to notice the problem as you're reading the Muller text. Nancy's reading skills are apparently in at least ordinary working order. And that's just the kind of reading that normally exposes plagiarism. The usual method is not to spend a lot of time actively looking for plagiarism in someone's work. That only happens after several instances are discovered, and at that point it actually begins to make sense as a "productive" use of one's time. If an influential author's work is chock full of plagiarism, we want to know about it.

Now, it will be said that I'm certainly now spending a lot of time on this. But that doesn't really have anything to do with this specific case of plagiarism or even the quality of Zizek's scholarship. (Maybe we should stop calling him the Elvis of philosophy and start calling him the Warren Beaty/Mick Jagger of philosophy: he probably thinks this post is about him.) I have a long standing interest in the underlying craft of research, including the problem of plagiarism in published scholarship. Search this blog for plagiarism and you'll see his is not the first example I've dealt with.

In fact, what also interests me, and what I think is worth a great deal of my time, is the trivialising reactions to the discovery of plagiarism. There is a general trend—which was the subject of my patchwriting series of posts that will continue when this brouhaha is over—towards normalizing textual behaviour that has previously been considered deviant in scholarship. (Yes, I'm intentionally alluding to "perversions" of academic writing here. Zizek is a great example of the increasing "textual promiscuity" of intellectuals.) And this trend is worth engaging with if, as I do, one thinks it's taking us in the wrong direction, condemning us to error and ignorance, where accurate knowledge would otherwise be possible.

That is, I'm interested in Zizek's plagiarism precisely because it is an example of the lowering of scholarly standards. This "lowering of expectations" was of course made explicit by Hollis Phelps, whose post at Inside Higher Ed, not incidentally, was the one Nancy Porter had posted her comment about this example to. I don't want to read books expecting this sort of thing, and if that's what I'm supposed to do with Zizek, specifically, then it's certainly an argument not to read him. I guess it's everyone's own personal decision, but I, for one, am not going to stand idly by while the bar is lowered to his level.

How low is that level? Here I found Wolters' post outright laughable (I was going to say merely amusing, but I did in fact laugh out loud when I read it). First, acknowledging that Zizek probably doesn't understand what sort of document Muller's "text" is—recall that this is the essay that Zizek tells us "exemplifie[s]" "the predominant ideological approach" and has "acquired a semi-official programmatic status"—Wolters excuses this inability to notice that it actually had page numbers by pointing out that Zizek probably doesn't even know how to operate a computer. Second, like Phelps, he reminds us that Zizek is a busy man: "What do you expect from a guy who has put out at least 3 books this year alone?"

Let's put these two sources of error together in a little hypothetical anecdote.

Suppose Zizek had run Muller down with his car on his way to a speaking engagement. First of all, I think we would recognise that the actual accident is not a "non-issue". We'd expect Zizek to stop and see if Muller's okay. Failing that (Zizek may of course have more productive ways of spending his time), those of us who watched it happen would get involved. We'd call an ambulance, say, and make sure Muller was in good hands. Then, I think, we'd help the police find Zizek, right? We don't want dangerous driving like that to become acceptable on our streets. So we track him down and hold him to account. Zizek's attorney (a Mr. Wolters) now offers the following: "What do you expect from a guy who had three speaking engagements that day, was running late, and probably had a few beers just before getting into his car? Anyway, I can attest to the fact that he usually rides a bicycle and I question his basic ability to drive a car. Besides that, Basbøll’s charge evades almost entirely the accident itself and instead decides to accuse Zizek of being a problem drinker and terrible driver."

Sounds like a pretty good defence, right?

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Ideological Violence of Slavoj Zizek

"There is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made." (Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari)

Let's leave aside the question of plagiarism for a moment and assume that Zizek intended to mark all his quotations properly. What does his reading of Jean-Marie Muller tell us about his style of ideological critique? How, we might ask, does Zizek observe and analyze "ideology" in practice? How does he distinguish his own "critical" interventions from the "ideological" writings of people like Muller? How does he make his books?

When Zizek got caught passing off what he thought was a friend's email (which turned out to be a plagiary of a published piece) about a book he had not read as his own exegesis, Zizek and his defenders shrugged it off as no big deal. After all, they argued, he hadn't stolen anyone's "ideas", he had just borrowed their words in order to dismiss the ideas they represented. They did not think, as I do, that it was outrageous for Zizek to characterise the ideas of someone whose work he had not even read as "a new barbarism". Nor that it's a bit unfair to arrive this conclusion on the basis of a positive book review written by someone who, although anonymous, is probably a white supremacist.

In the Muller case we have a similar lack of basic decency. It's not wrong to call it violence, especially if we accept Zizek's basic argument that just because we're using words, rather than sticks and stones, we're not thereby outside the realm of violent action. Let's take a close look at how Zizek uses Muller's text to construct the ideology of non-violence.

His first task, of course, is to make sure that his readers don't think of Muller as a philosopher or critical thinker in his own right. Zizek is not treating Muller as an interlocutor, an intellectual equal, someone with whom he is in dialogue, but as someone who merely mouthes official dogma, an ideologue. Accordingly, he introduces Muller's "Non-Violence in Education" as "a text written by Jean-Marie Muller for UNESCO". Interestingly, even in the endnote to this sentence, he does not tell us the date that it was written nor the occasion upon which UNESCO requested it, nor what kind of document it is. (Indeed, his recent "clarification" in IJZS suggests that he does not know what kind of document is, describing it as an unpaginated "web manuscript", which you can confirm for yourself it is not. It is a document published by UNESCO.) He does not mention that the director general of UNESCO wrote a preface, nor, though he'll call me naive for pointing it out, does he note the disclaimer clearly printed on the copyright page: "The ideas and opinions expressed in this book are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of UNESCO." What is interesting here is that Muller's basic rights as an individual who holds his owns opinions are simply elided in Zizek's "ideological"** reading of a text that explicitly asserts them.

A page later, Zizek suggests, without an argument of any kind, that Muller's text "acquired a semi-official programmatic status". I've been trying to find information to support that claim, but have so far come up empty. It's possible that it's true, but it strikes me as Zizek's burden to prove it, not his reader's.

Finally, let's consider the actual act of interpretation that Zizek subjects Muller's text to. As I've noted in a previous post, it's a bit strange that he locates Muller's "starting point" on page 22. It's stranger still that the question Zizek raises ("But how can one wholly repudiate violence when struggle and aggression are a part of life?") and then dismisses Muller's answer to (without quite acknowledging that this indeed Muller's way of phrasing both the question and the answer) is actually dealt with by Muller on page 10, i.e., 12 pages before the "starting point" that Zizek proceeds from. Zizek is turning a flesh-and-blood philosopher, with whom he could engage in serious discussion, indeed, a philosopher who has in fact already anticipated and engaged Zizek's position, into a straw man to be ceremonially slain, a punching bag to focus his critical rage upon. Comparing the substance of the two texts, I doubt he'd fare very well if he stepped into the ring.

What follows, then, is the "problematic paragraph", either as a quote, as Zizek [says he] originally intended, or as the plagiarism [he claims] his publisher apparently preferred. It's a nicely written piece of prose (as usual, Zizek's plagiaries make better reading than his own sentences) and elegantly incorporates two quotes from Simone Weil (marred only by Zizek's or his publisher's insistence on explaining who Simone Weil was to us). Those quotes are important because Zizek will play on them later. But not before he pronounces Muller/Weil to be stuck "firmly within premodern Aristotelian coordinates" that he, Zizek, will be happy to take us outside of with the help of Lacan. As far as I can tell, both Muller and Weil's vision has a much broader horizon, they are by no means as dominated by what Zizek experiences (subjectively) as ideology as he thinks. It would certainly be worth a serious inquiry. It's only by radically caricaturing the text under discussion, eliding essential facts about it, and distorting the disposition of the argument that Zizek can come off as smarter than Muller, and Muller can appear to be the unthinking mouthpiece of UNESCO, UNESCO the soulless embodiment of ideology.

In short, as in the case of his plagiarism of Hornbeck's review of MacDonald, Zizek gets someone else to do the exegesis (the legwork) identifying a position. He then arrives on the scene, Lacan in hand, to pronounce it deconstructed. That's ideological critique. I.e., ideology masquerading as critique. Violence passing itself off as language.

*The document appears to be an English translation of pamphlet original published in French. A PDF of the French text can be downloaded from the UNESCO Database, where an English version that seems more typeset for publication than the version Zizek cites can also be found.
**Zizek positions Muller's text as an example of the "predominant ideological approach to violence" (page 53).