The Fraudulence Paradox
by En Liang Khong
The superstar of left critical theory, Slavoj Žižek, faces allegations of lifting passages from a white supremacist magazine. The history of Zizek’s “fraudulences”, both real and imagined, is rooted in the anxiety of the romantic Left itself.
In his 2007 introduction to the writings of Mao Zedong, Slavoj Žižek denies any possibility of redemption in the “Fall” of revolutionary movements. “One of the most devious traps which lurk in wait for Marxists is the search for the moment of the Fall,” he warns. But the Slovenian critical theorist found himself on the brink when 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 Žižek 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”, Žižek 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.”
Žižek later explained that the words in question had been emailed over by a friend: “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 plagiarizing another’s line of thought, of ‘stealing ideas’.” In turn, W.J.T. Mitchell, the editor of Critical Inquiry, was far less coy in apologising for the fact that the writing under scrutiny “was indeed plagiarized.” But the problem of the passage would have been solved, Mitchell opined, if Žižek had merely placed the offending words in quotation marks.
Plagiarism – one of the most serious accusations of academic fraudulence – is in a strange predicament these days. Once writing is filtered through the internet and the open-source logics of our era, the boundaries that delineate plagiarism are hazier. The neo-Marxist insistence on privileging the clash of capital and labour only veils how the critical confrontation within society today may also be that of “intellectual property rights” and an open commonwealth of knowledge. The powerful obsession with the plagiarism-fraudulence nexus, that Žižek has found himself momentarily subject to, is just one part of the domination of copyright and intellectual property that runs through the 21st century.
What exactly was Žižek’s plagiarism violating? There are few clear answers to that. The spectacular literary self-destruction several years ago of the New Yorker’s star writer, Jonah Lehrer, might be instructive. Lehrer was caught fabricating several Bob Dylan quotations for his book Imagine, which was bewildering, since Dylan’s actual sentiments and Lehrer’s pseudo-quotations were hardly mismatched. “Lehrer could easily have used bits from real interviews to make his point,” the New Statesman’s Yo Zushi observed. “The perplexing thing is that he didn’t”. Meanwhile the French novelist Michel Houllebecq has proved more spirited in defending himself from allegations of plagiarism. Houllebecq argues that his own literary style hinges on absorbing derivative elements, and in doing so, transcending them.
The anxieties of fraudulence are rooted within the psyche of the radical left today. Žižek’s acrobatic style of writing is a waterfall of citation that weaves a contrapuntal pattern with the language beloved of university communists. In what are often cynical and laboured attempts at twinning pop commentary with socio-political import, Mao’s Cultural Revolution rubs shoulders with Kung Fu Panda, all dressed up in provocative quotations from Stalin and Lenin. Whether this 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 relevance that seems to stretch beyond the academy. At the same time, Žižek’s language also exists as a violent rejection of liberal capitalism and its triumphalist attendants: liberal democracy, political correctness, universal human rights and the hypocrisies of multiculturalism. It emerges out of a long tradition on the radical Left that has shaped itself via a counter-appropriation of the language of the enemy.
Žižek’s crude arguments of disparagement, 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 the full paranoia and conspiracy theories of the Left. One paper proposed at this year’s Left Forum at Pace University was entitled “Žižek delenda est: Is Slavoj Žižek a US propaganda psyop?”, which sought to uncover Žižek’s hidden history as a CIA operative. Meanwhile Adrian Johnston has already speculated that Žižek 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.
The Left’s anxieties over Žižek’s real and imagined fraudulences are 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 are ultimately an exercise in self-deception.
This anxiety that Žižek’s sweeping global popularity, celebrated in everything from Abercrombie & Fitch to Playboy, also comes with something more self-serving, is ultimately rooted in Marx’s dialectic of the free market. In the language of Marx, the unprincipled principle of free trade enforces “free competition within the realm of knowledge”, such that it opens itself to radical dynamics. But in the process, the boundaries between the promoters of revolution and the merchants of revolution are blurred too. And the enterprise of calling for a radical politics, like all else, ultimately becomes commodified. Whether Žižek is actually a plagiarist matters little, when his actual and imaginary crimes are already rooted in the Left’s fraudulence paradox.
Piece crossposted with New Left Project