It’s surely the most hilarious academic story so far this year: Slavoj Zizek, the most Marxist-chic of all Marxist-chic philosophers, has been caught plagiarizing an article from American Renaissance, a paleoconservative magazine-turned-website with an obsessive focus on what it calls “racial realism.” Left meets right—in spades! The story made Newsweek, which in a July 11 story called Zizek a “big scalp” for the conservatives who caught him in the act.
What is funniest of all are the labored efforts of mainstream left-of-centrists to raise more questions about Zizek’s exposers than about the 65-year-old Slovenian postmodernist and hot scholarly property who has garnered professorships of various kinds at prestige universities—ranging from the University of London’s Birbeck Institute for the Humanities (where he’s director), to the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland (where he teaches not just philosophy but “psychoanalysis”), to Princeton, Columbia, NYU, the New School for Social Research, and the University of Michigan here in the U.S.A. That’s probably because, well, Zizek is, for left-of-centrists, one of us, more or less, whereas his chief outer, Los Angles blogger and columnist Steve Sailer, is well on the right ideologically, although not so far right as American Renaissance, which can boast a coveted “hate group” designation from the winger-witch-hunting Southern Poverty Law Center.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Jackson Doughart of the Canadian National Post, in a July 21 article titled “The Fetish of Plagiarism-Outing,” sniffed that efforts such as Sailer’s were the “product of ‘gotcha’ journalism, made ever easier by Google, which can be as easily employed by the hack investigator as it is by the principled critic.”
But first, a few words about Zizek himself. Born in Ljubljana, Slovenia—then part of Communist Yugoslavia—in 1949, Zizek had a ho-hum decades-long career teaching at the University of Ljubljana (still one of his many faculty appointments), until he burst into international fame in 1989 with a book in English, obscurely titled (how could it not be?) The Sublime Object of Ideology. It was one of around 70 books, plus innumerable journal articles, that Zizek has published over the years that weave together the theories of French postmodernist celebrities such as Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan with classical Marxist analysis (although he claims to be a critic of Marx), the ideas of such Marxist acolytes as Theodor Adorno and Louis Althusser, warmed-over Freudian psychology (Lacan was the pioneer in that department), blasts at “neoliberalism” (the leftist sobriquet for free-market capitalism), and an ultra-intellectualized brand of film criticism immensely appealing to ultra-intellectuals although perhaps to few others.
These exploits of the mind have won Zizek a huge following, especially among impressionable graduate students and younger faculty at Western universities. There is now an International Journal of Zizek Studies, a 2005 movie, Zizek!, starring guess who, plus The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), each featuring a hirsute Zizek clad in rumpled and impressively proletarian-looking T-shirts and talking nonstop. (Zizek also contributes regularly to the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and other must-read periodicals for Britons with aspirations to the higher realms of thought. And Zizek’s status as an intellectual celebrity has given him at least three, possibly four beautiful wives, including an Argentine fashion model some 30 years his junior in 2009, and, most recently, in 2013, Slovenian journalist Jela Krecic, also a good 30 years younger and notable for her exclusive interview with Wikileaks titan Julian Assange, another leftist hero.
Zizek is famous for his convoluted and nearly impenetrable prose style—even by the bombast-tolerant standards of postmodernist discourse—in which “being difficult” is deemed a virtue, not a vice. Here is a Zizek sample, from an essay titled “The Interpassive Subject”:
According to the classic Althusserian criticism of the Marxist problematic of commodity fetishism, this notion relies on the humanist ideological opposition of "human persons" versus "things." Is it not one of Marx's standard determinations of fetishism that, in it, we are dealing with "relations between things (commodities)" instead of direct "relations between people," i.e. that, in the fetishist universe, people (mis)perceive their social relations in the guise of relations between things? Althusserians are fully justified in emphasizing how, beneath this "ideological" problematic, there is another, entirely different—structural—concept of fetishism already at work in Marx: at this level, "fetishism" designates the short-circuit between the formal/differential structure (which is by definition "absent," i.e. it is never given "as such" in our experiential reality) and a positive element of this structure. When we are victims of the "fetishist" illusion, we (mis)perceive as the immediate/"natural" property of the object-fetish that which is conferred upon this object on account of its place within the structure.
Uh, what? Not surprisingly, Zizek’s critics—and there are many of them—have accused the master of deliberate obscurantism and misinterpretation of his sources—if not outright leg-pulling.
This leads to Sailer. In a tongue-in-cheek July 8 blog post for the Unz Review, an eclectic online collection of far-left and far-right commentary published by California businessman and sometime political activist Ron Unz, Sailer noted that in a 2006 article for a postmodernist journal, Critical Inquiry, Zizek had uncharacteristically deviated from his usual jargon-laden unreadability into a clear and lucid description of a 1998 book by Kevin MacDonald titled The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements. MacDonald, a retired psychology professor at California State University Long Beach, is a hero among the American Renaissance set because of his beliefs, expressed in a never-ending series of books and articles, that Jews, consciously or unconsciously, have engaged in a centuries-long project to undermine Western civilization. (Blaming Jews for everything that has gone wrong in the modern world is a preoccupation of many paleocons, including readers of the Unz Review.)
Zizek’s article was titled “A Plea for a Return to Différance (with a Minor Pro Domo Sua.)” (Note to non-postmodernists: the word différance is not a French misspelling; it’s a word invented by Derrida.) In a denunciatory summary of the ideas of MacDonald, whom he called “[t]he main academic proponent of this new barbarism,” Zizek wrote (or “wrote”):
One of the most consistent ways in which Jews have advanced their interests has been to promote pluralism and diversity—but only for others. Ever since the 19th century, they have led movements that tried to discredit the traditional foundations of gentile society: patriotism, racial loyalty, the Christian basis for morality, social homogeneity, and sexual restraint.
Sailer commented: “[T]he superstar professor achieves a higher degree of clarity while expounding MacDonald’s message than in any other passage I’ve read by Zizek.”
The next day, July 9, a blogger who called himself “Deogolwulf” (“deogol” means “secret” in Old English) connected Sailer’s dots. He pointed out that the Zizek passage had been lifted nearly word for word from a laudatory 1999 review of MacDonald’s book in American Renaissance written by a regular there named Stanley Hornbeck. Deogolwulf lined up in parallel fashion several passages from Zizek and Hornbeck that matched nearly exactly. Deogolwulf also pointed out that a quotation that both Hornbeck and Zizek attributed to Derrida actually came from John D. Caputo, a now-retired religion professor at Syracuse University who specializes in looking for religious themes in postmodernist theory.
It all makes one wonder how much Zizek actually knows about Derrida.
In a July 12 email to Critical Theory, a go-to website for all things postmodernist, Zizek issued what he called a “clarification”—written in a style so characteristically Zizekian that no one could accuse him of lifting it from anywhere:
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. . . . As any reader can quickly establish, the problematic passages are purely informative, a report on another’s theory for which I have no affinity whatsoever; all I do after this brief resume is quickly dismissing Macdonald’s theory as a new chapter in the long process of the destruction of Reason. In no way can I thus be accused of plagiarizing another’s line of thought, of »stealing« ideas.
One would think that after this incident Zizek’s star would have dipped ever so slightly. At the very least he was guilty of lazily relying on someone else’s summary of a writer he was denouncing instead of going to the source.
But no. Jackson Doughart’s National Post column provided an I-am-Spartacus excuse for Zizek: “To a certain extend [sic], we are all guilty of plagiarism to a degree; none of us creates the language used to write, or the subjects common to most popular magazines, blogs, and op-ed pages.” Slate higher-education writer Rebecca Schuman asserted that Zizek had been just another eminent scholar relying on a research assistant to “complete the most boring and least glamorous parts of scholarship, like . . . providing quick summaries of books.” She said she found it odd that Sailer and Deogowulf might be perusing back issues of Critical Inquiry and hinted that they might have had an inside tip from MacDonald, Hornbeck, or American Renaissance. (Sailer did not respond to my own email inquiry on this topic).
The most perturbed of all of Zizek’s supporters seemed to be Hollis Phelps, an assistant professor of religion at Mount Olive College in North Carolina. Confessing that he had “devoured” Zizek while in graduate school, Phelps, in a July 17 article for the online academic trade paper Inside Higher Ed, pointed out that postmodernist scholarship hadn’t caught up with the bedrock postmodernist axiom that there’s no such thing as an author anyway—so what was all this fuss about plagiarism?
[O]ur 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.
Now, that’s jargon that Zizek himself could have written—or “written.”