Dreams and Plagiarism

by John Holbo on July 16, 2014

Been traveling. Bit of jetlag. Woke. I had been having the most exciting dream and was at the most thrilling part when … I woke up. I couldn’t remember anything, except I had exited at a total cliffhanger point in a very elaborate story. Like knowing your favorite tv show has been cancelled before the final season, but not knowing what your favorite show is. I tried to go back to sleep, without hope, or success. Damn.

File this one in: annals of oddly objectless intentionally. Wanting to know how it ended.

Maybe I could start a Kickstarter campaign.

If only Joss Whedon had written and directed my dream, I’d have his fans on my side.

But he didn’t, and other people’s dreams are boring, I know. In other news: Zizek isn’t looking like an especially responsible scholar. I find the explanation that ‘a friend’ sent him a long passage cribbed from a white supremacist book review and told him ‘he could use it freely’, in addition to being insufficient, rather incredible. With ‘friends’ who trick you into plagiarizing white supremacists, who needs enemies?

{ 78 comments }

1

js. 07.16.14 at 3:02 am

With ‘friends’ who trick you into plagiarizing white supremacists, who needs enemies?

Oh, for fuck’s sake, Holbo. Michelle Dean already made this joke.

2

js. 07.16.14 at 3:18 am

Sorry, that maybe came off a bit too aggressive sounding. The thread for Bertram’s Gaza post has me a bit down maybe (not to mention Gaza itself!). Anyway, it’s true what I said: Michelle Dean has already made this joke.

3

John Quiggin 07.16.14 at 3:21 am

As regards scholarship, the worst of it is that (even on his own account) he’s giving a detailed description of the antisemitic content of a book he’s never read. Probably the book is exactly as described, but wouldn’t you want to check for yourself? What if his “friend” (or, more likely, the supremacist source from which he cribbed) was misrepresenting a perfectly innocent piece of work. As we’ve discussed here quite a few times, this happens a lot.

4

John Holbo 07.16.14 at 3:59 am

“Anyway, it’s true what I said: Michelle Dean has already made this joke.”

Who’s Michelle Dean?

But I can help you with this bit. “Sorry, that maybe came off a bit too aggressive sounding.”

No maybe about it. In English, “Oh, for fuck’s sake” comes off as slightly aggressive. In your future social interactions you will definitely want to keep that in mind.

5

Tyrone Slothrop 07.16.14 at 4:05 am

Oh, for fuck’s sake, Holbo.

6

Tyrone Slothrop 07.16.14 at 4:06 am

Sorry, possible sudden burst of aggression there…

7

John Holbo 07.16.14 at 4:07 am

I have now learned that Michelle Dean writes for Gawker.

http://gawker.com/slavoj-zizek-sorta-kinda-admits-plagiarizing-white-supr-1604590014

She indeed makes the same point that I do. But I wouldn’t describe it as a repeated joke. It’s a reasonable inference. It isn’t all that surprising that different people would independently come to it.

8

godoggo 07.16.14 at 4:11 am

Hey, Kevin MacDonald! Go 49ers!

9

John Holbo 07.16.14 at 4:23 am

John Quiggin is obviously totally right about how and why this sort of thing is unacceptable. First, it’s plagiarism. Second, if you read the Zizek paper, this bit is not so incidental. The paper is about a ‘new barbarism’, exemplified by a (really pretty awful) obituary of Derrida. But the alleged main academic exponent of this barbarism is discussed in the plagiarized bit. This Kevin MacDonald guy. If Zizek really thinks MacDonald is important for understanding what his own paper is about, he should have taken the time at least to read him.

10

Kindred Winecoff 07.16.14 at 6:02 am

FWIW, I would not be surprised to see more “revelations” of this sort appearing in the future. This is gossip, but Zizek seems to have something of a reputation among some of his editors for (ahem) “lax referencing”. I’ve known about it — the reputation, not any details — for probably four or five years. Apparently he’s been saved by fastidious editors more than once prior to publication.

Supposedly he’s not the only one with this problem among the academic, mostly-left, crew of political writers that are published by presses most CTers read. Or basically any other set of writers. I have a long-standing suspicion that a *huge* percentage (>25%) of pre-internet academic writing was plagiarized in some fashion.

Every now and then, when one of these stories pops up, I’ll revisit Hitchens’ little essay on the subject: http://tinyurl.com/oh4onpl. Accusations were made about him as well, of course, and he made them of others. It’s a large community.

11

godoggo 07.16.14 at 6:24 am

Yeah, for example there was that book I about hypnotism I tried to post about but it wouldn’t go through.

12

godoggo 07.16.14 at 6:32 am

There used to be a guy who always commented at DeLong’s blog who called himself Zizek. Whatever happened to him?

13

Phil 07.16.14 at 8:29 am

The dream thing is interesting. I’ve had dreams which seem to have been going on for half an hour or so when I’ve only been asleep for a minute or two – I think you dream the culminating scene and confabulate the back story. More eerily, on a few occasions (when a bit sleep-deprived) I’ve woken up with a complete, and entirely convincing, confabulated memory of the thing I was dreaming about – not “I’ve just dreamt I was having a coffee with Thomas Pynchon” but “I’ve just had a dream about that time I met Pynchon… let’s think, when was that again?” Reality dawned, but it did so slowly and reluctantly – those were good false memories…

(I did once dream I was friends with Thomas Pynchon. This wasn’t one of the false-memory dreams, although I did find I was thinking of him as ‘Tom Pynchon’ for several days afterwards. I think the source was Groucho’s letters, in which he says what fun he’d been having with his friend Tom Eliot.)

14

Phil 07.16.14 at 9:18 am

As for Zizek, I think his taxi’s here.

I commented on Twitter that Zizek’s response would be to quote Rik from the Young Ones – “It was a joke! And you fell for it, like the fascist you are!” I don’t think I was far out. That’s an appallingly feeble defence, advanced with predictably petulant – but worryingly sincere – conviction. And God help us if undergraduates ever get hold of the idea that incorporating chunks of somebody else’s text is OK, as long as you’re not passing them off as your own ideas. And, of course, using a capsule review of a book you haven’t yourself read is indefensible.

I want to focus on something I haven’t seen commented on, which concerns Derrida. Zizek’s article is something of a defence of Derrida against posthumous attacks, including those of this Kevin MacDonald character – who particularly enraged Zizek by treating Derrida as just one more subversive rootless cosmopolitan. But in his account of MacDonald, Zizek includes this passage:

Derrida followed the same tradition when he wrote: “‘The idea behind deconstruction is to deconstruct the workings of strong nation-states with powerful immigration policies, to deconstruct the rhetoric of nationalism, the politics of place, the metaphysics of native land and native tongue. . . . The idea is to disarm the bombs … of identity that nation-states build to defend themselves against the stranger, against Jews and Arabs and immigrants’”

This is a howler – Hornbeck (and hence Zizek) is quoting a quotation within MacDonald’s text, but it’s a quotation from John D. Caputo writing about Derrida, not from the man himself. So Zizek is reproducing his source’s error – and it’s an error about Derrida, who may have thought something similar but never expressed it in those words.

With defenders like that…!

15

rea 07.16.14 at 11:27 am

Plagiarism is such a capitalist, neoliberal concept, anyway. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs . . .

16

Harold 07.16.14 at 1:37 pm

I think for the sake of decency it should be made crystal clear that the anti-Semitic writer under discussion here is Kevin B. MacDonald, the U.C. Long Beach “evolutionary psychologist” and mischief maker, not Kevin MacDonald the talented film director, author. and grandson of legendary screenwriter Emeric Pressburger.

17

David 07.16.14 at 1:57 pm

What gives with the strange animus against Zizek at CT?

18

Wonks Anonymous 07.16.14 at 1:59 pm

Is the animus against Zizek really that strange?

19

David 07.16.14 at 2:05 pm

Yeah, especially if it is criticism from the Right of Zizek’s position, as it usually seems to be.

20

John Holbo 07.16.14 at 2:07 pm

“What gives with the strange animus against Zizek at CT?”

?

21

David 07.16.14 at 2:10 pm

I mean, JH, it isn’t the first time I’ve seen a hostile Zizek piece here. I don’t get what in Zizek’s weltanschaung would draw that much negativity from a nominally leftish site.

22

William Timberman 07.16.14 at 2:17 pm

If there is such an animus — it seems to me to less animus than bewilderment — it probably arises from a confusion between the standards used to judge academics, and those used to judge gadflies. If so, I would say that Zizek is as confused as any of his critics are. I find the guy’s riffs as fascinating as he himself is exasperating — at least some of the time — and so prefer to reserve judgment.

23

mud man 07.16.14 at 3:20 pm

The trouble with real life is that nothing turns out it turns into and you just have to keep going, or not.

It’s the Folk Process.

24

Anon 07.16.14 at 4:12 pm

I have a very low opinion of Zizek’s “scholarly” work (it sounds wrong to even call it that), but I think the animus against him is misplaced. It’sa category mistake, from seeing him as either a scholar, or a philosopher, or as a left journalist, when he’s closer to a court jester, a performance artist, or a comedian. He’s an intentional buffoon, because being a buffoon allows him to get away with saying truthful things the more serious and reputation-worried among us can’t say. The closest he gets to a philosopher is, perhaps, a classical Cynic, but the classic Cynics were also, rightly, not seen as “real” philosophers.

Now, I’m not convinced he’s a particularly good comedian or court jester, but he’s not a terrible one, and such animus toward even as a mediocre comedian seems ridiculous, paranoid, and petulant. Worst of all because he really is harmless, even if he wants to be or imagines himself to be dangerous. He is very influential over a small band of followers who have very little power or influence and probably little talent.

If I found out that Groucho Marx or Woody Allen or Bill Hicks were sloppy scholars, I wouldn’t be outraged, because they’re not supposed to be good scholars. You might say, but they don’t pretend to be. But that too seems to be to miss the joke, even if you think he hasn’t delivered the joke well. Stephen Colbert is also a sloppy journalist. Zizek is clearly a philosopher or scholar in the sense he is “playing one on tv”, playing the character in order to mock us in exactly the way Colbert plays the character to mock its kind.

Every interview I’ve ever seen of him makes this very explicit: it’s an endless series of self-flagellations and self-deprecations: “I’m ugly, messy, confused, I don’t know what I’m talking about, why do people think my opinion matters, I’m talking out my ass,” etc. It’s like the Groucho Marx bit: he both does and doesn’t want to be in the academic club, resents it for not wanting him but also wants to be in it to mock it. The attempted punchline seems to be: “I’m a buffoon and a fraud, but, philosophers and scholars, you’re mon semblable, mon frere.”

Again, I think his comedic talents are questionable, since if both his worshipers and detractors often don’t get the joke or recognize it’s critical truth, the joke isn’t well told. But animas against bad jokes is silly.

25

John Holbo 07.16.14 at 4:19 pm

“I don’t get what in Zizek’s weltanschaung would draw that much negativity from a nominally leftish site.”

?

I obviously find Zizek’s views rather abhorrent and slipshod. Why is it surprising to you that my posts about him are negative?

26

David 07.16.14 at 4:22 pm

If all of that is “obvious” then why respond with a condescending question mark to my observation that this site has an anti-Zizekian view?

27

John Holbo 07.16.14 at 4:36 pm

“If all of that is “obvious” then why respond with a condescending question mark to my observation that this site has an anti-Zizekian view?”

Ah, it was intended as a question mark of sincere bafflement. I assumed you were referring only to the present post. There is obviously nothing over-the-top negative about the post. Just a few lines. A link and an expression of skepticism. Any academic with near-zero interest in Zizek might have posted as much. Hence my puzzlement at your initial comment.

Now that I know that you were referring, more generally, to my history of posting about Zizek, my bafflement remains but is transmuted into a different, equally complete form.

Given my known animus towards Zizek, surely the puzzle is why the present post is so brief and mild, not why it is so extremely negative. (Why am I bothering everyone with my dreams instead of going for the Zizekian jugular?) The answer is: I have stopped caring all that much. I’ve said my piece. I think Zizek is a fake and a fraud. Finding out he’s a plagiarist doesn’t make it all that much worse, honestly.

28

The Temporary Name 07.16.14 at 4:42 pm

What interests me is why the animus might be strange.

29

MPAVictoria 07.16.14 at 5:00 pm

What interests me is who is Zizek?

/Off to the googles!

30

John Holbo 07.16.14 at 5:24 pm

“But animas against bad jokes is silly.”

This is a crucial error. Comedy is serious business, and bad comedy needs to be exposed for what it is. A good deal of my animus against Zizek is rooted in this pious conviction! But in my old age it’s hard to keep up my piety.

But, yes, you are right: Zizek is a joker. And the form of the joke is ‘overidentification’, a la NKS:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neue_Slowenische_Kunst

He is very much a Colbert figure, insofar as he is playing Stalinist for outrage purposes. But he’s no Colbert, I’m afraid.

31

taraf 07.16.14 at 6:05 pm

“Given my known animus towards Zizek”

Wasn’t known to me. Is this because you’re a liberal?

32

Shatterface 07.16.14 at 6:35 pm

Mel Brooks doing Hitler is funny; Zizek doing Stalin, not so much.

33

Anon 07.16.14 at 7:31 pm

Do you mean “bad comedy” in the sense of comedy that has bad moral and political consequences? If so, then of course I agree: bad things are bad and serious things are serious. I meant “bad jokes” precisely: bad qua jokes. Animus towards unfunniness is silly.

If I interpret you right, then the question is: does Zizek’s comedy have bad moral and political consequences? Note that if you grant me this much – that he’s problematic as a comedian – it already gives us reason to at least question your claim that he’s “a fake and fraud.” (I’ll never understand this common form of overdetermination in academic philosopher’s condemnations: it’s quite sufficient if Zizek’s work is worthless and his influence bad, he doesn’t also have to be charlatan secretly trying to pull the wool over our eyes in order for us to dismiss him or fight his influence. It has a “and your mamma too” quality to it.)

It’s far from clear that his comedy has significant moral and political consequences at all, much less harmful ones. As I’ve ready said, in the academy his power and influence is pretty insignificant.

Outside of the academy his popularity seems to be among “more radical than thou”, young political activist types (his association with OWS, e.g.). Most of these are not, let’s be frank, readers, and so his atrocious writing isn’t much of an influence, and they’ll use him mainly as a figurehead for whatever political tactics they find the most attractive anyway, so he’s not going to influence their real political practice.

They might head his non-academic political proclamations, but those tend to be quite different in style and tone. They are, first of all, often rather clear in meaning, without the Hegel-Lacanian jargon. They are, secondly, often uber-critical in a way that doesn’t promote any particular political agenda. They take an “everybody’s wrong” “the left is just as bad as the right” form that while not particularly fruitful can’t be very pernicious precisely because it doesn’t sway action in any direction, leaving people to do what they would have anyway.

So, I doubt he has any impact at all at the end of the day. If he does have a moral and political impact, it might even be a somewhat positive one, the one a lot of comedy, even comedy that’s mediocre in its funniness has: the feeling of relief produced when someone says what they’re not supposed to say, is contrary for the sake of contrariness, and makes us take ourselves a little less seriously.

But as I made clear, I don’t think highly of his comedic skill (so the Colbert point needn’t have been made, even though Colbert is also mediocre). One reason I don’t think his comedy is successful is because it should make us take ourselves less seriously, see the Zizek in us. Instead it does the opposite, it makes us all become more serious, more convinced we are the untainted true Knights of Knowledge, and declare moral crusades on the grave threat to truth and justice that this fat, sloppy clown somehow poses.

34

MPAVictoria 07.16.14 at 7:48 pm

“even though Colbert is also mediocre”

100% wrong. 0% right. Check out his coverage of Citizen’s United. Nothing short of brilliant.

35

John Holbo 07.16.14 at 7:59 pm

I think Zizek’s jokes are badly told and have, on the whole, a bad effect. The life of the mind is lived marginally worse, thanks to his energetic interventions. But he isn’t bringing about the downfall of Western civ. I quite appreciate the distinction between incompetence and charlatanism. I can’t prove. I don’t insist. Think what you like. He strikes me as rather self-aware, hence as right on the line. Per the quote above: “I’m ugly, messy, confused, I don’t know what I’m talking about, why do people think my opinion matters, I’m talking out my ass.” I think that’s about right. But he’s given to book-length bouts of sincere enthusiasm and self-conviction, obviously. He’s the Elmer Gantry of Stalinism, maybe, rather than it’s Stephen Colbert. (I was going to say he’s the Elmer Gantry of Lacanianism. But that’s Lacan!) The Hegelian World-Spirit as huckster, coming to cheat itself, as itself. In Melville’s “The Confidence Man” that works out pretty well as a metaphysical theme.

It’s true that at some point in the past I could have chosen to love Zizek for his rather unique, buffo qualities. Instead, I obviously chose to be aggravated by it all. So that’s on me.

36

The Temporary Name 07.16.14 at 8:22 pm

Note that if you grant me this much – that he’s problematic as a comedian – it already gives us reason to at least question your claim that he’s “a fake and fraud.”

It needn’t be either/or.

37

TM 07.16.14 at 8:24 pm

What MPAVictoria 33 said. And also: Stephen Colbert is NOT a sloppy journalist (re 24). He is actually both an excellent journalist and comedian and most everything he does is well researched. I have to take issue with the idea that comedians somehow can get away with sloppiness. If anything, the opposite is true: good political comedy or satire requires a great deal of hard-headed research. A good court jester doesn’t make up stuff. It is precisely in certain academic circles, as well as in conventional political punditry, that sloppiness is considered excusable as long as the lingo sounds right.

38

David 07.16.14 at 8:28 pm

So, is this more of an anti-Zizek thing or an anti Critical Theory/Continental Philosophy thing?

39

Anon 07.16.14 at 8:29 pm

MPAVictoria,

By funny coincidence, like you, I also believe I’m 100% right. I often believe this about my beliefs. Strange how that works.

“Mediocre” isn’t bad. In fact, in a world where almost everything is immensely disappointing, mediocre’s pretty good. Colbert has had some great moments. I know them all, because I’ve watched every episode. I’m always amused. And I also usually disappointed. Primarily because, although he’s a great writer and performer, Colbert always plays it safe. Not as safe as John Stewart, but safe. He picks only easy targets, and makes only easy points. Every critical joke is one tailored to receive huge bursts of applause and shouts of “brilliant” from a very clearly defined audience.

My one strong exception to this is when he took the risk of directing his comedy to a different audience: his performance before Congress about undocumented workers was truly brilliant.

Holbo:

“…he’s the Elmer Gantry of Lacanianism. But that’s Lacan!”

Word.

“I could have chosen to love Zizek for his rather unique, buffo qualities. Instead, I obviously chose to be aggravated.”

At one point, I’d hoped he’d hone the buffo and become a truly good popular, critical comedian. He’s not as good a joke-writer or performer as Colbert, but I appreciate that he takes risks and he attacks unpopular targets, such as attacking the left from the left. But he instead he keeps cranking out utterly worthless books and continues to play to his own stupid sucking up audience.

So rather than appreciate his buffoonery, I’ve tried just not caring about him. It has worked well overall, except that I can’t not care about the fact that his critics care too much about him. The Zizek’s too much with us, wasting our powers.

40

John Holbo 07.16.14 at 8:37 pm

Anti-Zizek, insofar as I’m only talking about Zizek. I don’t see how anything I have said in this thread could have a more general bearing. And that’s as it should be.

41

William Timberman 07.16.14 at 8:38 pm

In the course of 30+ years spent working in an academic library, I came to think of myself as a laborer in one of the last bastions of the last of the great Nineteenth Century taxonomies. In the early days, when I first realized the nature of the project I was contributing to, I was amused the way young people sometimes are when trapped in something with a great deal of etiquette but no visible horizons. Near the end of my career, I was much more ambivalent.

There’s no doubt that scholarship is something of a stiff-collar occupation, and sometimes more sensitive scholars bristle at the idea, when expressed by others, that their works are plodding, unimaginative, never manage to catch the iridescence of life in their well-considered nets…etc., etc. An unkind characterization this, if not always inaccurate. That unkindness is what irritates me about Zizek, as it irritated English philosophers about Nietzsche and Sartre. It’s not that he’s a parlor Stalinist — he’s far too capricious for that, or at least he’s far more capricious than any other parlor Stalinist I ever personally encountered — it’s that he’s disrespectful of things that ought to be respected, however plodding they may sometimes seem.

There really is something grand about, for example, the subject thesaurus of the Library of Congress, struggling mightily — in the days before computers — to keep up with the ever-changing map of human knowledge. The idea that once we get the last piece of evidence, the last chain of inference tested and nailed down, we’ll finally be fit to govern our divine inheritance ought sometimes to be mocked, but gently, never with the brutality our own impatience can tempt us to indulge in. The earnest striving of scholars is admirable, I think, even when a particular scholar forgets where he’s going.

42

Anon 07.16.14 at 8:39 pm

TM

“What MPAVictoria 33 said.”

Obviously MPAV’s view is the overwhelming consensus, so I doubt adding to the pile is necessary here. It won’t kill anybody, certainly not King Colbert, to let one small, objecting voice go unpunished.

“And also: Stephen Colbert is NOT a sloppy journalist (re 24).”

As I think the context made clear, I was referring to his character’s sloppiness, not his.

David,

Your question may have been for Holbo. But I’ll answer, for what it’s worth. I am pro-Continental philosophy and pro-Critical Theory. But I don’t consider Zizek a philosopher and I don’t consider him Critical Theory.

(I think any meaningful definition of Critical Theory–i.e., not broad to the point of being applicable to almost anything–would extend only to those relatively directly descended from Marx and the Frankfurt School. By implication it doesn’t extend to those, like Lacan and co., tarnished by the mostly disastrous experiment of late twentieth century French philosophy. Even the non-disasters like Foucault and Deleuze do not belong to “critical theory” in this sense).

43

Anon 07.16.14 at 8:48 pm

@35 “It needn’t be either/or”

True, which is why I only questioned the charged, not claimed it was false. My “overdetermined condemnation” comment was meant to apply here, too.

44

MPAVictoria 07.16.14 at 8:50 pm

“to let one small, objecting voice go unpunished.”

My you must be fragile for an internet comment disagreeing with your assessment of a comedian to feel like punishment. May I suggest a regime of yoga and green tea? It does wonders for me.

No one is saying you are not allowed to have your opinion, just that it is wrong.

45

Anon 07.16.14 at 9:02 pm

MPAV,

The tone of that comment may not have gone through. I was being silly and jokingly trying to mimic what I (maybe falsely?) took to be your fragile feelings about poor Colbert. You’re welcome to continue repeating that I’m wrong and in what percentage. My feelings won’t be hurt.

46

Anon 07.16.14 at 9:05 pm

TM

“If anything, the opposite is true: good political comedy or satire requires a great deal of hard-headed research.”

I agree, the point was that Zizek is a sloppy *scholar* and *philosopher*. He doesn’t need to be good at that kind of research to be a good comedian (which he isn’t anyway).

47

novakant 07.16.14 at 9:06 pm

100% wrong. 0% right.

Das Wahre ist das Ganze :)

48

Anon 07.16.14 at 9:13 pm

Novakant, I see your Hegel and raise you one Adorno: Das Ganze ist das Unwahre.

49

MPAVictoria 07.16.14 at 9:33 pm

“The tone of that comment may not have gone through. I was being silly and jokingly trying to mimic what I (maybe falsely?) took to be your fragile feelings about poor Colbert.”

I would have thought the “100% wrong, 0% right” would have made it clear I was joking. (Though I do disagree with you). I guess we both need our humorous intent meters recalabrated.

50

bob mcmanus 07.16.14 at 10:15 pm

37: “So, is this more of an anti-Zizek thing or an anti Critical Theory/Continental Philosophy thing?”

39: “Anti-Zizek, insofar as I’m only talking about Zizek. I don’t see how anything I have said in this thread could have a more general bearing. And that’s as it should be.”

What a careful specific normative boundary-marking answer.

Retrieving Framing Theory’s Empire pdf, from the primordial Internet Swamp

51

John Holbo 07.16.14 at 11:17 pm

Oh, you don’t need to retrieve “Framing Theory’s Empire” from the swamp, Bob. I’m proud of it. Everyone should read it, please! But the ‘this’ in ‘is this more an anti-Zizek’ thing didn’t refer to “Framing Theory’s Empire”. It referred to the post/this thread. This thread is about Zizek, not about ‘Theory’s Empire’. ‘Framing Theory’s Empire is about Theory, not about Zizek. Keep those things straight.

David was basically asking whether I was A) making a narrow point about Zizek or B) rather shamelessly hinting that all critical theory/continental philosophy is fraud, guilty by association with Zizek. My position is B.

I do think that most Theory is poor philosophy, and some of it is even downright fraudulent, though mostly not. But very little of it can be credibly accused of fraud on the bare basis that Zizek is clownish – even if one accepts the latter as a fact more or less in evidence at this point.

To put it another way, what you think is a suspicious thing Bob -

“What a careful specific normative boundary-marking answer”

- is, to my way of looking at things, a good thing. Our norm should be this: when making serious accusations, be careful and specific. The ‘border’ between those who can credibly be accused and those who cannot should be respected, to the extent possible.

52

ZM 07.16.14 at 11:53 pm

“David was basically asking whether I was A) making a narrow point about Zizek or B) rather shamelessly hinting that all critical theory/continental philosophy is fraud, guilty by association with Zizek. My position is B.

I do think that most Theory is poor philosophy, and some of it is even downright fraudulent, though mostly not.”

I would be interested if you can elaborate on the above?

I have sometimes found some theory works to be helpful – albeit mostly in combination with history works eg. Foucault’s The Order of Things works well in combination with Kelley’s History and the Disciplines: the Reclassification of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe etc.

I am not sure if part of the strangeness of continental philosophy to Englush readers is language and discourse based, as well as era- conventions based.

Reading Bakhtin I wish there were more footnotes for instance. Reading Foucault I puzzle at how he can engage some discursive modes in his writing when these modes are not normally engaged in English writing of similar genres/disciplines.

The other problem I find is that theory writing often mirrors the conventions of report writing in taking out the particular subjects/actors involved in the events or discourses under discussion. But this last convention is I think shared by most English language contemporary philosophy also?

53

Anon 07.16.14 at 11:58 pm

“I guess we both need our humorous intent meters recalabrated.”

I suppose, but it’s probably futile. Humorous Intent Meters are doomed to fail, since they must always calibrated to our own sense of humor, when they’re needed precisely when others don’t share our sense of humor. :)

54

Anon 07.17.14 at 12:01 am

William Timberman @40,

Might it be the case that while a lack of respect for things deserving respect is generally a vice, in specific cases it can promote other virtues? I tend to think that having “no respect for nothin'” sometimes contributes to real excellence in some pursuits, comedy being one of them. This is not to imply it isn’t still generally a bad thing, but that it’s not only bad and, in some instances, may in the evaluation of a person as a whole, be balanced out. Not in Zizek’s case, though.

55

Anon 07.17.14 at 12:08 am

Since theory with a capital T has been brought up, I can’t help trying to figure out something I’ve been curious about for ages. Could someone clarify more narrowly what people mean by that term? In philosophy the use of “theory” without any further specification means theory in the abstract, and so it would imply any kind of theory whatsoever, not the kind exclusive to humanities departments.

But when in other areas of the humanities people use it with the capital T it seems to indicate a paradoxically broad and specific class: broad because it might cover literary, philosophical, sociological, psychoanalytic, even mathematical and scientific theorists, but narrow because there’s pretty short list of usual suspects like Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, etc. Do all philosophers count as “Theory”? Do all theoreticians in the humanities and social sciences? If so, why is it so narrow in its focus on a few big names? What is theory in contrast to, since it’s not obvious that it designates the opposite of “praxis”?

I’m also curious if anyone knows where this usage came from. Who started it and when? What was the practical historical reason for repurposing such a generic term for such a narrow category in a narrow set of academic fields?

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John Holbo 07.17.14 at 12:11 am

“I would be interested if you can elaborate on the above?”

Click Bob McManus’ link! I edited a great book on the subject!

Now, I gotta go out and pick up pizza.

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MPAVictoria 07.17.14 at 12:14 am

@52. We can but try.

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William Timberman 07.17.14 at 12:24 am

Anon @ 53

Sure. Breaking crockery, assaulting sacred cows, etc., especially when done with malice aforethought, and in public, can sometimes be illuminating, but not everyone who considers himself an artist of the absurd is one in fact. Often enough, what we’re offered instead is a category error, which is more crime than art. If Zizek is guilty of such crimes, and the evidence suggests he is, he’s certainly not the only guilty party, not in these parlous times.

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ZM 07.17.14 at 12:40 am

Anon,
I think structure goes with praxis in the relationship that you seem to mean.

I think theory entered English in late Eluzabethan and Jacobean England, introduced from the Italian by John Florio. Florio’s use was broader, but commonest usage became more narrow in the more scientific sense you refer to. In history you tend to talk if historiography rather than theory. In anthropology you have ethnology (which is nomothetic theory if I remember rightly, and common to France because most French anthropologists of a degree in philosophy before going to anthropology), and ethnography (which is ideographic observations).

I think Karl Popper attempted to limit what the word ‘theory’ could apply to ie. Einstein’s work was legitimate theory but Marx’s work was not. The critical theorists obviously did not agree with this.

There are big names in theory who are generally associated with big almost all-encompassing theories, but there gas been criticism that there is too much distance between the big theories and the everyday observations most researcher’s work will generate. Something called Middle Range Theory is meant to fill the gap here I think.

John Holbo,
Thanks, will have a look.

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ZM 07.17.14 at 12:42 am

Sorry for the typos, must proof read :/

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GiT 07.17.14 at 2:45 am

“Since theory with a capital T has been brought up, I can’t help trying to figure out something I’ve been curious about for ages. Could someone clarify more narrowly what people mean by that term? In philosophy the use of “theory” without any further specification means theory in the abstract, and so it would imply any kind of theory whatsoever, not the kind exclusive to humanities departments.”

Well, there’s the inane semantic quibbling about the difference between “theories” and “hypotheses” that seems to come mostly from pedants latching on to a distinction they learned in their 6th grade science or math class or wherever and attaching some essential significance to a stipulated boundary between an axiom, a hypothesis, a theory, a conjecture, &etc; but that seems to be a different fight which has its roots in the reification of somethng Karl Popper or some other outdated philosophers of science once glommed on to. I think that’s different.

The “theory” vs “philosophy” split is also a sort of shibboleth for the so called “continental” vs “analytic” split and there reflects differences in canon, style, sociology, geography,discipline &etc. Those etceteras each have their own logic to them.

Canonically, you’ve got a sort of Kant/Hegel/Marx/Nietzsche/Freud vs Kant/Bentham/Mill/Russell or whatever thing going on, which seems sort of projected through something like the Frankfurt Institute vs the Vienna School. Different conceptions of the “history of philosophy” and what’s important (Russell or Popper or whomever on all those stupid illogical nonsense speakers vs Marx or Nietzsche or whomever on all those Bourgeois thinkers and English psychologists).

On that line the “theory” part comes from “Critical Theory” as the whole “eleventh thesis” approach to “philosophy” with the attached “Marxist” concern for history, sociology, &etc. WW1 liberal secularists as opposed to WW2 getting-to-be-post- Marxists.

But “Critical Theory” has its own ambiguity between “Frankfurt School” and “French Theory” or “Literary Theory,” with the Frankfurt School vs Paris ’68 as sort of separate organizing principles.

There’s also the institutional angle with “theory” being the in-discipline philosophy-of-insert-liberal-art-here vs “philosophy” being the out-discipline study. Political Theory vs Political Philosophy, Literary Theory vs Aesthetics, Historiography vs Philosophy of History, &etc.

“Theorists” are operate within the environment of their field and “philosophers” operate with the environment of mainline Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics (those are the “big three,” right?). “Theorists” are typically concerned more with mere texts like those simple “historians of philosophy” because their job is to reproduce knowledge of the foundational disciplinary canon while philosophers are much more like social scientists, doing “real” work and not just studying old books.

In-discipline “theory” each have their own histories. Cf. John Gunnell’s Descent of Political Theory, which tells a tale of Weimar German emigres vs 1950s behavioralists. or John(?) McCumber’s Philosophy in the Ditch, which has a similar something or other vs 1950s behavioralists thing going on. I don’t know where you find accounts of the decline of social theory in Sociology or Political Economy in Economics or the split between harder vs softer anthropology or however that gets divided up, but I assume they exist.

Those discipline specific kind of stories which situate the “ghettoization” of Political Theorists or Continental Philosophers of Social Theorists within their disciplines (intra-discipline divides) combine with the inter-disciplinary split. So “philosophy” aligns with “Political Science” and “Sociology” &etc proper with their serious veneer of scientificity (we use statistics and randomized experiments! It’s empirically sound!) while “theory” aligns aligns with “Political Theory” and “Social Theory” and “Literary Theory as the marginal subfields of the discipline proper (they just read books and make stuff up! But hey, somebody needs to teach “the classics” for our intro classes.)

So there’s a lot of stuff going on that all overlaps in ways that give the illusion of coherence but it’s really a big mess underneath, with “theory” meaning something like non-philosophers (but maybe some philosophers) who do philosophy but it’s not really philosophy – because it’s Marxian or is it Nietzschean or is it Derridian or is it German or is it French or is it History of Philosophy – and because it’s not Analytic or is it Scientific or is it Logical or is it English or is it just from someone not in a philosophy department…

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novakant 07.17.14 at 9:43 am

There’s a lot of “get off my lawn” hippie bashing involved.

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skippy 07.17.14 at 5:00 pm

crooked timber: come for the jokes, stay for the meta-deconstructionalist arguments about the jokes.

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Anon 07.17.14 at 5:58 pm

ZM, I had in mind a much narrower usage.

GiT, Thanks for the explanation. Every bit as confusing as I feared! :)

It’s too tangled really to have a short definition, but how is this for oversimple, rough and ready definition: “Theory” is philosophy as either done by or studied by either non-philosophers or ghettoized/border-disputed philosophers.

This would make sense of both its generality, since anything philosophical done by these thinkers counts, and its narrowness, since it’s primarily those whose status and proper field is disputed. That does seem to fit the usual suspects it’s applied to, who are either rejected as philosophers by many professional philosophers, like Derrida and Lacan, or seem to bleed into many areas of the humanities, like Foucault with history and structuralism or the Frankfurt School with sociology.

I do object to how the term is sometimes used to suggest that “continental philosophy” is de facto “Theory,” and that students or practitioners of Theory are de facto philosophers and continental philosophers.

As a continental philosopher, I distinguish, as do most of my colleagues, between continental philosophy as done by philosophers and by non-philosophers (for example, a literary theorist’s approach to, say, Marx or Nietzsche, and a philosopher’s approach), as well as between continental philosophy that I think merits ghettoization and that which doesn’t. So I don’t think continental philosophy should be subsumed by the category of Theory or even be presumed to be “on the side” of theory. (But this shouldn’t be read as a simple value judgment: not all continental philosophy is good philosophy, and Theory can be valuable even if it’s not philosophy.)

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TM 07.17.14 at 6:13 pm

39: ““Mediocre” isn’t bad. In fact, in a world where almost everything is immensely disappointing, mediocre’s pretty good.”

Disagree. Mediocre is a relative assessment. What you are saying is that Colbert is one of very few comedians who don’t totally suck. That actually makes him an outstanding comedian, not a mediocre one.

Btw it is nowadays common (at least in the US) to claim excellence for everything. People don’t seem to realize that by definition, it’s impossible for everybody to be excellent. Closely related is the lack of understanding of the fact that only a minority can be “above average” (for a normally distributed trait). I hear these confusions a lot in the context of education (as in “we need more excellent teachers”, “merely average is not enough”, “all our faculty are excellent”).

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Anon 07.17.14 at 7:21 pm

“Btw it is nowadays common (at least in the US) to claim excellence for everything…as in “we need more excellent teachers”, “merely average is not enough”, “all our faculty are excellent”).”

Agreed. I think this is an enormous problem in art and entertainment, where every week there’s a new absolutely “brilliant” or “genius” tv series or novel or record. In education, it’s less misjudgment than just good old fashione ideology: we need an impossible standard in order for the privatization of education to devalue teachers.

“Mediocre is a relative assessment. What you are saying is that Colbert is one of very few comedians who don’t totally suck. That actually makes him an outstanding comedian, not a mediocre one.”

In one sense, I’ve already agreed: I said “pretty” good, not good, to indicate precisely that he was only good by comparison to the disappointments. But that doesn’t make him outstanding. First, because there are a lot of comedians out there who are good/mediocre as he is. Second, because “outstanding” in actual usage means excellent, great, not just above average.

I think part of the difference of opinion here is that I measure mediocre by the median, not the mean. I think history’s best critical and satirical comedians are in a category way above Colbert, so he remains mediocre no matter how good he is relative to the mean. I have the same attitude about most contemporary artists, authors, philosophers, and so on. Measured by the mean, they’d come out high, but measured by the highest highs, they come out pretty low.

If there’s one thing being a teacher has taught me: ours is a world of C+, B-, and B. Anyone crowing on a frequent basis about As and Fs, about geniuses and garbage, is in denial.

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John Holbo 07.17.14 at 7:33 pm

Everyone seems to have been too polite to take note but, upthread, I said the opposite of what I meant to say:

“David was basically asking whether I was A) making a narrow point about Zizek or B) rather shamelessly hinting that all critical theory/continental philosophy is fraud, guilty by association with Zizek. My position is B”

Just to be clear. My position is: A!

But feel free to employ a hermeneutic of suspicion. Regard the quote as a fatal, revealing, Freudian slip on my part. Everyone should have a hobby, and it’s funny when people very carefully say the opposite of what they mean.

Carry on.

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TM 07.17.14 at 9:16 pm

66: no real disagreement with that.

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William Timberman 07.18.14 at 1:21 pm

John Holbo @ 67

We noticed, but thought it best to let you and your muse discuss it in private — in the hope, perhaps, that you might someday be willing grant us the same indulgence.

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Ogden Wernstrom 07.18.14 at 4:18 pm

I dreamt that I ate some pizza, then fell asleep and dreamt every episode of The Colbert Report, while experiencing heightened awareness of all internet traditions. Then I awakened (from the dream-within-a-dream) to be served papers on a copyright-infringement claim, reading “All your dreams are belong to us”. Luckily, those papers transmogrified into a fire-breathing, molten-lava-regurgitating dinosaur that could not fly.* But I could fly – as long as I did not look down and realize that I can’t fly. I got away with only a small burn to the roof of my mouth.

If dreams contain messages, I suppose that one was something about the power of cognitive dissonance. Maybe it was only an admonition not to eat so close to bedtime. I’m not sure if the dinosaur was a placeholder for Anon or ZM or….

Anon:

I know them all, because I’ve watched every episode.

Holbo:

Now, I gotta go out and pick up pizza.

Revised theory of dream meaning: Do not read CT so close to bedtime. Also, I likely suck as a comedian. The lava had a mozzarella-like stringiness – sometimes a dinosaur is just a pizza.

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Ogden Wernstrom 07.18.14 at 4:20 pm

*I apologize for the redundant, “dinosaur that could not fly”. If I dreamt a fire-breathing reptilian that could fly, I would have classified it as a dragon.

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JPL 07.19.14 at 11:25 am

From the OP:
“File this one in: annals of oddly objectless intentionally.”

I guess you must have meant, “… oddly objectless intentionality”. That makes an interesting oxymoronic sense. “Wanting to know how ‘it’ ends” without knowing what exactly “it” is. It’s sort of like entering a room and forgetting what it was you came in there to get. Your dream took place in the real world, we would admit from our external point of view, but it had only a first person existence, but exist it did. The story and cliff-hanger point in your dream was an object for you but nobody else, so you and any other person can not both of you think about that one and the same object. Concretely, behind your closed eyelids you experienced electrical light patterns, and your sleeping neurons interpreted them as events in a story. When you are awake and thinking about a character in a story you are writing, that character is an intentional object for you, but it can take on an objectivity when others also talk about it (one object, two references to it). Something to think further about.

BTW, when you said (@51 above) that “my position is B”, I thought you were being admirably forthright, although I don’t think your attribution would be applicable to “all” continental philosophy, but your actual expression was more interesting and drew a laugh.

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Peter Erwin 07.20.14 at 10:55 am

*I apologize for the redundant, “dinosaur that could not fly”.

Ah, but “dinosaur that could not fly” is not actually redundant; it just means a non-avian dinosaur. (The dinosaurs which could fly are the only ones which survived the K-T extinction.)

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John Quiggin 07.20.14 at 11:05 am

Thanks to this thread, I finally feel as if I understand my entirely negative reaction to Zizek (of whom I only became aware relatively recently) and the contrast with that of his longstanding fans.

It’s like starting to watch a much-loved comedy show after it has jumped the shark, and the original creators have passed off most of the writing onto uncredited assistants. Later, the assistants start phoning it in, cribbing script ideas from other shows and so on. Fortunately, such shows get cancelled in the end.

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Ogden Wernstrom 07.21.14 at 3:34 am

Peter Erwin @73:
1. I suppose it would have been more understandable to say I apologize for the redundant, “fire-breathing…dinosaur that could not fly”, since none of the flying dinosaurs is known to have breathed fire. (I will not accept references to Duane Gish as a source of reliable information about dinosaurs.)

2. It was my dream. You do not get to define the parameters.

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LFC 07.22.14 at 5:26 pm

GiT

“Theorists” are typically concerned more with mere texts like those simple “historians of philosophy” because their job is to reproduce knowledge of the foundational disciplinary canon while philosophers are much more like social scientists, doing “real” work and not just studying old books.

I’m not a political theorist but I bet more than a few of them would object to the statement that they just study old books and reproduce the disciplinary canon and don’t do “real” work.

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Anderson 07.22.14 at 5:55 pm

“because their job is to reproduce knowledge of the foundational disciplinary canon”

I have no idea how anyone thinks this is a definition of what “theorists” do.

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LFC 07.22.14 at 7:43 pm

@Anderson,
Well, the description does *kind of* apply to *some* people who “do” political theory in pol sci depts, i.e. maybe to some Straussians and some others — but even those people wd prob say they’re “interpreting” rather than “reproducing” the canon — so in short, yes, it’s far from an exhaustive or adequate description for political theorists in general.

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