The slow death of originality? Thoughts on the self-plagiarisation of Slavoj Žižek

There’s an interesting article by Žižek on the Guardian website. It’s a little too pop-sociological for my tastes but it’s nonetheless an engaging read. However the first paragraph of the article is lifted verbatim from his The Year of Dreaming Dangerously:

During a recent visit to California, I attended a party at a professor’s house with a Slovene friend, a heavy smoker. Late in the evening, my friend became desperate and politely asked the host if he could step out on the veranda for a smoke. When the host (no less politely) said no, my friend suggested that he step out on to the street, and even this was rejected by the host, who claimed such a public display of smoking might hurt his status with his neighbours … But what really surprised me was that, after dinner, the host offered us (not so) soft drugs, and this kind of smoking went on without any problem – as if drugs are not more dangerous than cigarettes.


(Žižek 2012: 47)

It seems most of the subsequent article is contained within this chapter of the book. I think self-plagiarisation is rife within academia. I’m not condemning it – well perhaps I am a little bit – as the pressures underlying it are something I’ve encountered relatively early in my career. I’ve been conscious for a while in my work on asexuality that I’m not saying anything new. I’m just finding new ways to express the same thoughts, framed in response to a particular invitation. I’ve had two short books about asexuality planned for at least a couple of years now (one an introduction and overview of the literature, the other a popular[ish] look at the history of sexual culture through an asexual lens) but I’m not sure I’ll ever get started on them because I’m conscious of how egregiously repetitive they’ll be (to me at least). My point is that the invitations to publish can often outstrip the novel ideas & arguments which one is being invited to make public.

So I think the pressures towards self-plagiarisation are experienced widely. But I think Žižek is particularly prone to giving into them, as perhaps are all prolific authors. I’ve read a lot of Žižek books and I read a lot of his popular articles (I subscribe to the LRB and New Statesman and I read the Guardian obsessively). I frequently experience déjà vu when reading Žižek and have long suspected he reproduces large chunks of text between books. But I’ve never cared enough to look it up and this is the first time I’ve ever been able to place a regurgitated paragraph from memory.

Žižek has published at least 50 books since 2000. If Žižek’s self-plargisation is a rife as I suspect it is then I see this as a reductio ad absurdum of the capacity to publish 50 books in 15 years. However I’d hate to go too far in the other direction. I think repetition of arguments is inevitable and often desirable. I think the creative process is fundamentally iterative and a continued struggle to say what we’re trying to say is integral to clarifying what we think. I also think the imperative of ‘publish or perish’ makes repetition to some extent unavoidable. But where is the line to be drawn? I’m honestly not sure and this post is not intended to be as condemnatory as some might take it to be. I intuitively feel there’s something slightly rude about regurgitating your own prose verbatim without citation. But I’m equally resistant to drawing abstract boundaries between (acceptable) repetition and (problematic) self-plagiarisation that don’t take any account of the specificity of discipline and intellectual trajectory. Given these conflicting intuitions, I’m not sure whether this tendency, rooted as it is in structural changes within higher education, definitely threatens originality, though I suspect that it might. Perhaps we need the Niall Ferguson index to metricise our way out of this incipient dilemma:

There is a ratio that really would be good to have as a metric of the seriousness of a public intellectual. It is the ratio of words read to words written. Ideally, I would say, that ratio should be between 100 and 1000 to 1. But in the case of the Invincible Krugtron, I begin to suspect it has now fallen below unity. (When he does read a book, he mentions it in his blog as if it’s a special holiday treat.)

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