This is a guest post by En Liang Khong*
Behind the left’s refusal to unite against the concept of plagiarism: we live in an age which is ever more eager to criminalise the mere act of reading and writing.
Plagiarism – one of the most serious accusations of academic fraudulence – is in a strange place these days. Once writing is filtered through the unprecedented architecture of the internet and the chaotic open-source logics of our era, the boundaries of plagiarism, literary sharing and collaboration are infinitely hazier. The insistence on privileging the clash of capital and labour may well veil a further critical confrontation within society today, that of intellectual property rights and an open commonwealth of knowledge. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek found himself unexpectedly subject to this powerful obsession with the plagiarism-fraudulence nexus earlier this year, in an episode that spoke volumes about the enduring domination of copyright and intellectual property that still runs through the 21st century.
To those wishing him well, Zizek is a superstar of left critical theory. The less sympathetic have called out his twinning of a violent rejection of liberal capitalism with pop cultural commentary – a place where Mao’s Cultural Revolution rubs shoulders with Kung Fu Panda – as the biggest distraction of all time. But the easy narrative surrounding Zizek’s writing, for admirers and opponents alike, is that he is a controversialist. Earlier this year, it emerged that passages from a book review that had appeared nearly 20 years ago in the white supremacist magazine American Renaissance, labelled a “hate group” by Southern Poverty Law Center, had been lifted verbatim by the philosopher.
The anonymous blogger “Deogowulf” posted a side-by-side comparison of a 1999 American Renaissance review of Kevin Macdonald’s book The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth Century Intellectual and Political Movements, alongside a 2006 essay by Zizek for the eminent journal Critical Inquiry. While the original text in American Renaissance initially led with “In The Culture of Critique, Kevin MacDonald advances a carefully researched but extremely controversial thesis: that certain 20th century intellectual movements – largely established and led by Jews – have changed European societies in fundamental ways and destroyed the confidence of Western man”, Zizek seeks only a marginal improvement on this by writing: “The main academic proponent of this new barbarism is Kevin MacDonald, who, in The Culture of Critique, argues that certain twentieth-century intellectual movements led by Jews have changed European societies in fundamental ways and destroyed the confidence of Western man.”
Beyond the charge of plagiarism itself, however, the response from Zizek and the editor of Critical Inquiry, W.J.T. Mitchell, missed the deeper point of the underlying politics of plagiarism. Zizek explained that the words in question had been emailed over by a friend, stating: “the problematic passages are purely informative, a report on another’s theory for which I have no affinity whatsoever… In no way can I thus be accused of plagiarising another’s line of thought, of ‘stealing ideas’.” Mitchell was far less coy in apologising for the fact that the writing under scrutiny “was indeed plagiarised.” But the problem of the passage would have been solved, Mitchell opined, if Zizek had merely placed the offending words in quotation marks.
This was the language of self-defence, when instead those on the left should have been on the offensive. Nowhere to be seen was the argument that the concept of plagiarism has historically been a hindrance to a more democratic world. Since Adorno’s concept of the culture industry, such exploitative interests have been increasingly challenged. But it has been the dawn of the digital network, as a great transformational leveller, which has allowed us to see how we might fight back, taking control of creation and dissemination of ourselves. And yet as the violations surge, we still invest ever more into the ideas of intellectual property and plagiarism.
Consequently, this century’s record of writers defending themselves from allegations of plagiarism has been one of varying shades of success. The French novelist Michel Houllebecq has successfully argued that his own literary style hinges on absorbing derivative elements, and in doing so, transcending them. But more instructive perhaps was the spectacular self-destruction several years ago when the New Yorker’s star writer, Jonah Lehrer, found himself the centre of attention for accusations of plagiarism and the fabrication of Bob Dylan quotations, no less. Lehrer’s literary suicide seemed an odd punishment to have to undergo, when Dylan’s actual sentiments and Lehrer’s pseudo-quotations were hardly mismatched. This was a source of incredulity for the New Statesman’s Yo Zushi. “Lehrer could easily have used bits from real interviews to make his point,” Zushi observed. “The perplexing thing is that he didn’t.”
The left is still visibly plagued by what exactly the progressive stance on plagiarism should be. In her recent book, The People’s Platform, the filmmaker Astra Taylor, who made her name with a 2005 profile of Zizek and then a deep involvement with the Occupy Wall Street movement, warns that networked technologies may not have ushered in cultural transformation so much as a new century of veiled commerce. Taylor claims to expose a veiled elite, but in doing so, she falls close do reappropriating the conservative line that creative labour is distinguished by incalculable nuances of imagination and expression. She wants us to return to traditional notions of cultural ownership, even as this century’s embrace of remix and circulation have irrevocably reworked the romantic idea of isolated creative labour, revealing it to be the obfuscation that it is, long used as justification for cultural monopolies. She approvingly cites Christopher Steiner’s anguished cry that “algorithms may bring us new artists, but because they build their judgement on what was popular in the past, we will likely end up with more of the same kind of forgettable pop.”
It is lamentable that Astra Taylor reserves her ire for the original practitioners of the free culture movement, progressives who have long fought the stranglehold of intellectual property laws, blazing a path from the anti-copyright campaigns of the 1990s through to today’s open-source demands on creation. Taylor sees figures like Lawrence Lessig as so blinded by enthusiasm that they ignore the creeping commodification and economic inequity embedded in the privately-owned platforms that we use for this new free-sharing of information. For Taylor, the strongly held belief of that generation, that the digital sphere grants us new strategies by which we recontextualise, recompose and contribute, returning again and again to a cultural commonwealth, has been corrupted by an inability to see the ways in which networks profit from the convergence of commons and commerce. Taylor sees a strange neoliberal alliance of businessmen and progressive techno-utopians: “one group thinks freedom, the other profit”, but for Taylor, they are both sides of the same coin.
There is much to applaud in Taylor’s work, but there are also dangers in shoehorning the language of exploitation into the hazy, immaterial borders of social media. Such dangers manifest themselves in the act of forgetting the core principles that drove people like Lessig: a disgust that mechanisms of ownership criminalise the mere act of reading and commenting upon the world in which we live. We must return to the memorable term “second enclosure”, coined in reference to the 18th century privatisation of collectively managed land, to describe this more recent constriction of the cultural commons.
Why do we remain so confused about challenging the concept of plagiarism? Zizek, as an archetype and spiritual figure for the romantic left, reveals why we remain so conflicted in confronting traditional notions of fraudulence, caught between conservative and radical imaginations, and a psyche riddled with the anxieties of fraudulence. Zizek’s acrobatic style of writing is a waterfall of citation that weaves a contrapuntal pattern with the language beloved of university communists. In what might be seen as cynical and laboured attempts at infusing pop commentary with socio-political import, from discussing The Sound of Music to dancing with provocative quotations from Stalin or Lenin, Zizek ratchets up the rhetoric. Whether this gushing mode of inquiry, in its perennial drive to take a hammer to the high/popular culture binary, is genuinely illuminating, or merely acts as a series of empty signifiers, is unclear. But its purpose is manifest: social critique reaches its pinnacle, and imbues the left with a a relevance that seems to stretch beyond the academy. At the same time, Zizek’s crude disparagements, constantly smeared through with examples drawn from pop culture, have the potential to come away as excessively obnoxious. And in doing so, he opens himself up to criticism from the left. One paper proposed at this year’s Left Forum at Pace University was entitled “Zizek delenda est: Is Slavoj Zizek a US propaganda psyop?”. Adrian Johnston has similarly speculated that Zizek is implicated in a “deep cover” version of the Sokal hoax – the idea that his entire literary corpus is aimed at retroactively being unveiled as a big joke at the expense of continental philosophy and everyone involved in it.
Where do these anxieties of fraudulence emerge from? I like to think of such fears over real and imagined fraudulence as being akin to the bloodless psychological circle of the “fraudulence paradox” described by David Foster Wallace in his short story Good Old Neon: “My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people.” The narrator’s search for authenticity is constantly caught up in the realisation that each of his actions is ultimately an exercise in self-deception. But the point is that everyone is caught up in the very same paradox, and there is no ‘authentic’ way of being. The narrator’s belief that he is an imposter, and everyone’s participation in the self-deception, is a perfectly natural state of affairs. Petty attempts to distinguish plagiarists miss the point that we are all plagiarists. We always have been. It is just that the digital age has only made it all the more glaringly obvious.
Plagiarism as a symbolically violent, insurgent action subverts corporate culture. Given our particular anxieties of fraudulence and self-deception, don’t be surprised that we have stalled in recognising this. But there are others who have never shared this psychosis of the western left. We need only look to the history of the east to appreciate the contingency of the plagiarism construct. China has long carried a classical tradition of pedagogical copying, enforced by a 20th century Maoist rejection of private ownership. The novelist Yu Hua has described how this particularly Chinese predilection manifests itself under socialist neoliberalism as a “copycat phenomenon”. Yu narrates a chance encounter with a pirated edition of his novel Brothers. “No, it’s not a pirated edition,” the street vendor proudly informs him, “it’s a copycat”. And reform-era China’s unprecedented explosion of artistic emulation and innumerable plagiarisms promises to radically rewrite the art of copying.
* En Liang Khong is a submissions editor at openDemocracy and on the editorial collective at Red Pepper. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New Statesman, Frieze, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times and The New Inquiry.