The Year of Writing Dangerously: Slavoj Žižek’s serial self-plagiarism

Left: section from the Guardian article. Right: section from The Year of Dreaming Dangerously.

On a personal level, I am quite fond of Slavoj Žižek. Although I have never met him, the eminent Slovenian philosopher and pontificator on all things human and Hollywood has been on and off my radar screen for roughly the past six years. I remember reading his book Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle for a political philosophy class during the fall of my sophomore year, an effort during which I oscillated constantly between utter incomprehension at the printed words and then wide-eyed awe as the intellectual fog was periodically pierced through by a searing line of wisdom.

I still remember the night he spoke at my school that same semester: as he was being introduced to a packed auditorium, he fidgeted maniacally like some sort of homeless intellectual on cocaine. This peculiar practice continued throughout the duration of his speech, which was entitled, “Why Only an Atheist Can Believe: Politics between Fear and Trembling.” Like so much of his writing, even this headliner revealed Žižek’s endless fascination with logical inversion: one almost pictures him reading bedtime stories to children, explaining how in fact it is fires that are safe and fenced-in backyards that are dangerous, and so on. For Žižek, up is — almost by definition — down.

So when I read several weeks ago that he had written a book on the populist trajectory of events in 2011, I immediately pre-ordered it online, expecting to receive it on its release date of October 9th, 2012. For whatever reason, Amazon.com shipped it early, and I began reading it several days ago.

In The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, published by Verso Books, Slavoj Žižek scores a solid blow against the hysterical zeitgeist of the West post-9/11 (page 43):

A century ago G. K. Chesterton clearly described the fundamental deadlock of critics of religion: “Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church…The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.” Does not the same hold for the advocates of religion themselves? How many fanatical defenders of religion started by ferociously attacking contemporary secular culture and ended up forsaking any meaningful religious experience? In a similar way, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will end by flinging away freedom and democracy themselves so that they may fight terror. If the “terrorists” are ready to wreck this world for love of another, our defenders are ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legitimize torture — the ultimate degradation of that dignity.

This is a valid point. It’s the kind of point he makes so clearly and succinctly, the kind I first came to appreciate during my sophomore year in college.

It’s also a surprisingly familiar one. Eight years ago, Žižek penned some uncannily similar thoughts in his book Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (p. 33-34):

Although the ongoing ‘war on terror’ presents itself as the defence of the democratic legacy, it courts the danger clearly perceived a century ago by G.K. Chesterton who, in Orthodoxy, laid bare the fundamental deadlock of the critics of religion:

Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church….The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.

Does the same not hold today for advocates of religion themselves? How many fanatical defenders of religion started by ferociously attacking contemporary secular culture, and ended up forsaking any meaningful religious experience? In a similar way, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will end up by flinging away freedom and democracy themselves. They have such a passion for proving that non-Christian fundamentalism is the main threat to freedom that they are ready to fall back on the position that we have to limit our own freedom here and now, in our allegedly Christian societies. If the ‘terrorists’ are ready to wreck this world for love of another world, our warriors on terror are ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalize torture — the ultimate degradation of human dignity — to defend it….

Here he is writing for the Guardian on January 25, 2011:

A century ago, Gilbert Keith Chesterton clearly deployed the fundamental deadlock of the critics of religion:

“Men who begin to fight the church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the church … The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.”

The same holds true for the advocates of religion themselves. How many fanatical defenders of religion started out attacking secular culture and ended up forsaking any meaningful religious experience?

In a similar way, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they end up flinging away freedom and democracy themselves. If the “terrorists” are ready to wreck this world for love of another world, our warriors on terror are ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are even ready to legalise torture – the ultimate degradation of human dignity – to defend it.

And here he is in June 2012, writing for the London Review of Books:

A hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton articulated the deadlock in which critics of religion find themselves: ‘Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church … The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.’ Many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they end up dispensing with freedom and democracy if only they may fight terror. If the ‘terrorists’ are ready to wreck this world for love of another, our warriors against terror are ready to wreck democracy out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalise torture to defend it.

And then in July 2012, writing a column for the Australian Broadcast Corporation’s Religion & Ethics site:

A century ago, G.K. Chesterton clearly deployed the fundamental deadlock of the critics of religion:

“Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church … The secularists have not wrecked divine things; but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them.”

Does the same not hold for the advocates of religion themselves? How many fanatical defenders of religion started with ferociously attacking the contemporary secular culture and ended up forsaking any meaningful religious experience?

In a similar way, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight the anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will end by flinging away freedom and democracy themselves if only they may fight terror. If the “terrorists” are ready to wreck this world for love of the another world, our warriors on terror are ready to wreck their own democratic world out of hatred for the Muslim other. Some of them love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalize torture – the ultimate degradation of human dignity – to defend it.

Examples of Žižek’s extensive copying and pasting are numerous. In fact, he began his London Review of Books essay as follows:

Imagine a scene from a dystopian movie that depicts our society in the near future. Uniformed guards patrol half-empty downtown streets at night, on the prowl for immigrants, criminals and vagrants. Those they find are brutalised. What seems like a fanciful Hollywood image is a reality in today’s Greece. At night, black-shirted vigilantes from the Holocaust-denying neo-fascist Golden Dawn movement – which won 7 per cent of the vote in the last round of elections, and had the support, it’s said, of 50 per cent of the Athenian police – have been patrolling the street and beating up all the immigrants they can find: Afghans, Pakistanis, Algerians. So this is how Europe is defended in the spring of 2012.

Compare this to the following passage from The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (p. 13-14):

Imagine a scene from a dystopian movie depicting our society in the near future: ordinary people walking the streets carry a special whistle; whenever they see something suspicious — an immigrant, say, or a homeless person — they blow the whistle, and a special guard comes running to brutalize the intruders…What seems like a cheap Hollywood fiction is a reality in today’s Greece. Members of the Fascist Golden Dawn movement are distributing whistles on the streets of the Athens — when someone sees a suspicious foreigner, he is invited to blow the whistle, and the Golden Dawn special guards patrolling the streets will arrive to check out the suspect. This is how one defends Europe in the Spring of 2012.

Again, from the essay:

There are two main stories about the Greek crisis in the media: the German-European story (the Greeks are irresponsible, lazy, free-spending, tax-dodging etc, and have to be brought under control and taught financial discipline) and the Greek story (our national sovereignty is threatened by the neoliberal technocracy imposed by Brussels). When it became impossible to ignore the plight of the Greek people, a third story emerged: the Greeks are now presented as humanitarian victims in need of help, as if a war or natural catastrophe had hit the country. While all three stories are false, the third is arguably the most disgusting. The Greeks are not passive victims: they are at war with the European economic establishment, and what they need is solidarity in their struggle, because it is our struggle too.

And from The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (p. 13):

Two dominant stories about the Greek crisis circulate in the mass media: the German-European one (the irresponsible, lazy, free-spending, tax-dodging Greeks must be brought under control and taught financial discipline), and the Greek one (their national sovereignty is threatened by the neoliberal technocracy in Brussels). When it became impossible to ignore the plight of ordinary Greeks, a third story emerged: they are increasingly presented as humanitarian victims in need of help, as if some natural catastrophe or war had hit the country. While all three stories are false, the third is arguably the most disgusting: it conceals the fact that the Greeks are not passive victims; they are fighting back, they are at war with the European economic establishment and what they need is solidarity in their struggle, because this is our fight as well.

As I continue reading this book, more and more passages are jumping out at me as strangely familiar. Take, for example, this passage from page 46:

Some months ago, a small miracle happened in the occupied West Bank: Palestinian women demonstrating against the Wall were joined by a group of Jewish lesbian women from Israel. The initial mutual mistrust was dispelled in the first confrontation with the Israeli soldiers guarding the Wall, and a sublime solidarity developed, with a traditionally dressed Palestinian woman embracing a Jewish lesbian with spiky purple hair — a living symbol of what our struggle should be.

And then, from the Guardian article:

Some months ago, a small miracle happened in the occupied West Bank: Palestinian women who were demonstrating against the wall were joined by a group of Jewish lesbian women from Israel. The initial mutual mistrust was dispelled in the first confrontation with the Israeli soldiers guarding the wall, and a sublime solidarity developed, with a traditionally dressed Palestinian woman embracing a Jewish lesbian with spiked purple hair – a living symbol of what our struggle should be.

In fact, both the Guardian and Australian Broadcast Corporation articles are replicated to an astonishing degree in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. I conducted a side-by-side analysis of the Guardian column and the relevant section of the book and found precious little changed beyond cosmetic reshuffling.

Click for an analysis of differences between the Guardian article and The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. Changes are in blue.

The key issue here is that, in all of the above cases, Žižek’s articles, essays, and books are presented as original pieces of work. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, the Guardian, the London Review of Books, the Australian Broadcast Corporation’s Religion & Ethics site, and The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Žižek’s words run around in circles, endlessly quoting himself without attribution, adaptation, or citation. And these instances stand in stark contrast to the ones in which Žižek’s re-appropriations were noted correctly, as in his April 24, 2012 article for the Guardian, which noted at the end: “This article is based on remarks Slavoj Žižek will be making at an event at the New York Public Library on 25 April, ahead of publication of The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (2012).”

Self-plagiarism is something of an ambiguous crime, but it is a far different matter when committed across separate publishers who, presumably, assumed they were receiving original pieces of writing. I could have cited even more examples of Žižek’s self-plagiarism from various works (for example, that was not the only London Review of Books essay he would later re-appropriate), but I think the general picture is already quite clear. And given Žižek’s extensive bibliography, it is quite possible that the extent of the recycling is far greater than I have so far discovered.

Upon noticing the enormous amount of copied material in Žižek’s works, I conducted a brief Internet search to determine to what extent this was already a known issue among his most devoted fans. I am certain, given the many examples I have found, that his self-copying is relatively well-known within the passionate community of Žižek readers. And, unsurprisingly, I found a commenter on the Perverse Egalitarianism blog who, on June 15 of this year, wrote:

What surprised me most with regard to editorial side of things is that there is no acknowledgment to other publishers, even when whole chapters are lifted from his other books. The example I have in mind is the Fichte chapter, which is the same as the one found in Mythology, Madness, and Laughter, which was published on Continuum. It seems quite cheeky of Verso to do that. The two contributions by Zizek in The Speculative Turn are also incorporated into LTN. Many passages from The Monstrosity of Christ are reprinted in it too. I know that self-plagiarism is a grey area, and even if Zizek doesn’t care, Verso should. The lack of a bibliography also frustrated me — Verso did the index, so why not the bibliography?

To put Žižek’s self-plagiarism in context, it is helpful to recall the case of Jonah Lehrer from earlier this year. It is easy to forget that, even before the full-blown scandal erupted around his lies, Lehrer had already been embroiled in an earlier kerfuffle involving self-plagiarism as well. One of the numerous instances included the following duplication from a Wall Street Journal article to a New Yorker one. Here is how Lehrer began his article for the Journal:

Here’s a simple arithmetic question: “A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs 10 cents. This answer is both incredibly obvious and utterly wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and $1.05 for the bat.) What’s most impressive is that education doesn’t really help; more than 50% of students at Harvard, Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology routinely give the incorrect answer.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, has been asking questions like this for more than five decades. His disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way that we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents, Mr. Kahneman and his scientific partner, the late Amos Tversky, demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on mental short cuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. The short cuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether.

Although Mr. Kahneman is now widely recognized as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, his research was dismissed for years. Mr. Kahneman recounts how one eminent American philosopher, after hearing about the work, quickly turned away, saying, “I am not interested in the psychology of stupidity.”

And here is a section from the New Yorker piece:

Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

For more than five decades, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, has been asking questions like this and analyzing our answers. His disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents—reason was our Promethean gift—Kahneman, the late Amos Tversky, and others, including Shane Frederick (who developed the bat-and-ball question), demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether. Asked about the bat and the ball, we forget our arithmetic lessons and instead default to the answer that requires the least mental effort.

Although Kahneman is now widely recognized as one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, his work was dismissed for years. Kahneman recounts how one eminent American philosopher, after hearing about his research, quickly turned away, saying, “I am not interested in the psychology of stupidity.”

The New Yorker, upon being informed of the self-plagiarism, immediately included apologetic notes at the top of affected Lehrer articles, such as the following one for the above piece: “Editors’ Note: The introductory paragraphs of this post appeared in similar form in an October, 2011, column by Jonah Lehrer for the Wall Street Journal. We regret the duplication of material.”

Again, the issue in this case was not simply that Lehrer borrowed from his own earlier works, but that he did so a) without the knowledge of his publishers and b) without, therefore, a disclaimer to the readers.

(Speaking of disclaimers: I have also been published on the Australian Broadcast Corporation’s Religion & Ethics site for a piece adapted from a post on this blog. Of course, the editor, Scott Stephens, was fully aware of the original post, which is why he had wanted to adapt it in the first place. And I had also explicitly mentioned, in another blog post, the adapted nature of the published piece, calling it a “slightly revised version” of my original writing. [The published iteration is also, I think, a far better one thanks to Stephens’ editing.] The published piece also included a note at the bottom linking to my blog. Nevertheless, I should have insisted on including an explicit notice of the adaptation in my blurb at the bottom of the published piece as well, which I did not do.)

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.

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