Is Žižek a copycat? Yes, please! — How copying is essential to Žižek’s writing style

It's the most boring scandal to ever rock the literary world: cultural philosopher Slavoj Žižek has been accused of plagiarism. Not only is the charge pointless and trumped-up, it's completely uninteresting.

What is interesting, however, is that fact that copying and various forms of plagiarism (including, most notably, self-plagiarism) are essential to Žižek's writing style. Since it stands peripheral to the concerns of this so-called “scandal,” I thought I'd get self-indulgent for a moment and quote for you from my recent book John Paizs's Crime Wave. This part doesn't have much to do with John Paizs's film Crime Wave, but it has everything to do with Žižek and copying:

As Hillel Schwartz displays, in The Culture of the Copy [(New York: Zone 1996)], copying as an aesthetic practice persists throughout and across cultures and periods, and is fundamental to the notion of culture itself (for cultures to exist, ideologies must repeat; as [Marcus] Boon notes, “even the ideology of individuality and/or uniqueness is mass-produced.” [Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010), 182.]) Appropriately, copying is not just the subject of cultural theories like Schwartz’s, but often part and parcel of theoretical practice itself, which repeats and modifies already existing ideas while literally reproducing the words of previous authors through citation. The writings of Slavoj Žižek, despite his antipathy for postmodernism, stand as exemplary of this postmodern literary practice of pastiche: Žižek will often copy the words of other writers, with variations he then notes and makes the subject of his discussion, and will even copy his own insights, structures of argument, and written passages from book to book. Moreover, Žižek presents himself not just as a student of both Lacan and Hegel, but also to some degree as a repetition of both. Žižek’s “return to Lacan” extends Lacan’s theory through a Hegelian lens (or vice versa), in the same way that Lacan’s “return to Freud” presented itself as a project that discovered, already latent within Freud’s work, various ideas of which Freud himself was unaware (in a sense, repeating Freud’s psychoanalytic procedure to interpret not dreams but The Interpretation of Dreams). Lacan presents himself as reproducing Freud’s work in a form supposedly more faithful to Freud than Freud himself could manage, before developments in other disciplines, and Žižek repeats this gesture by reproducing Lacan’s theories in a Hegelian light that Žižek proposes was already latent in Lacan’s work. Psychoanalytic theory, then, often presents itself as “continuing the master’s work” while extending and overwriting the original: copying or “doubling” is an integral concept both within the theory and in its historical development. Thus Žižek appears as a “tribute artist” who “covers” Lacan – himself a “tribute artist” who repeats Freud – who used to comment that all of his “original” insights were to be found, already, in Nietzsche – who, in a similar fashion, cited the influence of Dostoevsky. There are many political and rhetorical reasons for these kinds of gestures – including a diplomatic borrowing of authority under the cover of a concomitant ceding of authority, and as a modelling of the psychoanalytic method of “discovering” repression encoded in/created by the symptom – but such gestures are also, as Paizs’s work makes clear, artistic and aesthetic choices. As well, [Linda] Hutcheon would surely note, they are ironic gestures (in the psychoanalytic example, an ironic insistence on servitude designed to secure and display mastery).

It is also worth repeating one of my own citations of Žižek, from inside the book:

Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies [(London: Verso, 1997)], 121. As an example of how Žižek copies himself, the quoted passage and the paragraph within which it is embedded also appear in his Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences (New York: Routledge, 2004), 96. In the latter book, as is often the case in his writings, Žižek repeats the paragraph verbatim but begins to alter and expand his points near its end.

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