Slavoj Žižek On 'Self Plagiarism' in The New York Times: What's the Big Deal?

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On September 4, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek titled "ISIS Is a Disgrace to True Fundamentalism." In it, Žižek asks, "[Are] the terrorist fundamentalists really fundamentalists in the authentic sense of the term? Do they really believe?" They do not, he argues:

If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by nonbelievers. Why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating. In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued and fascinated by the sinful life of the nonbelievers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation. This is why the so-called fundamentalists of ISIS are a disgrace to true fundamentalism.

The article is worth a read if you care about ISIS or global politics in general or if you just like Žižek. But this post is not about the article itself, but rather the terse editor's note the Times quietly appended to it the day after it was published:

After this essay was published, a reader pointed out that several sections had originally appeared, in identical or substantially similar form, in Slavoj Zizek's 2008 book, "Violence: Six Sideways Reflections." The New York Times does not ordinarily reprint material that has been previously published; Op-Ed contributors are asked to affirm that their work is original, and exclusive to The Times. Had The Times known that portions of the essay were copied from an earlier work, it would not have accepted the essay for publication.

Ruh-roh. The offending text is two paragraphs from pages 85 and 86 of Violence, available for free online if you have the wherewithal to Google it.

Borrowing your own words is a tricky issue. "[Self]-plagiarism occurs when authors reuse their own previously written work or data in a 'new' written product without letting the reader know that this material has appeared elsewhere," according to Miguel Roig, a professor of psychology at St. John's University. Writers and publishers tend to rank self-plagiarism as a lesser offense than—what should we call it?—"real" plagiarism? Still, they mostly agree it's a no-no. Wunderkind Jonah Lehrer was essentially blacklisted in the publishing world after he was caught recycling his own words—not to mention fabricating Bob Dylan quotations for his book Imagine: How Creativity Works—in 2013 .

But it is surprising that the Times would be, well, surprised to discover that Žižek is an avid recycler. Sharp-eyed blogger Jay Pinho in 2012 shed light on multiple instances of Žižek repurposing phrases from his books for use in newspapers and magazines, including such august publications as The Guardian and London Review of Books. If it's good enough for London Review of Books, surely it's good enough for the Times, right?

Žižek told Newsweek in a phone interview he doesn't see why the Times is upset. "What's the point of this?" he asked. "I simply must say I'm a little bit perplexed about the whole affair. Again, yes, I did use passages from myself but from an old book [of mine] which was a theoretical book, not from other mass media. So what's the big deal? I don't get it, I must say."

When asked about Jonah Lehrer, Žižek said, "I remember somewhere reading about that guy using his old columns and so on and so on. But I don't do this. What I do is use stuff from my books." And he insists there is nothing unethical about it: "For The Guardian and so on, I quite often did this. Because I've covered a lot of the topic in my books—of course published in much lower circulation—I thought, Well, why should I bother when I already have there a good formulation? I'm not stealing from anyone."

The Times, he said, contacted him after his article was published to confirm that he had reused material from Violence. "Of course," he responded. "Yeah, of course it's true," he said he told the Times.

But he also insists the Times did not inform him of its policy not to republish material or ask him to affirm that any part of his article had not been published elsewhere, contrary to what the editor's note appended to his piece says. "They didn't tell me," he said. "Nobody told me this." He did say he had signed a contract with the Times "years ago," but said he does "not have any long-term contract with The New York Times."

"What was a little bit unpleasant for me was the whole tone," he said of the editor's note. "Almost like they caught me again, I committed a crime or whatever."

The Times, Žižek said, should invest in plagiarism checkers if it is so insistent about only publishing original material. "[The] New York Times boasts about double-checking and so on and so on. But if you go online you know with all those plagiarism checkers they could have established that in 10 minutes….because that Violence book is available for illegal (but I don't care) downloading online."

"Years ago, when I published something with [The] New York Times I remember how fanatical they were with double-checking everything, all the data, all the sources from online and so on and so on. So this one really caught me by surprise. I don't get it," he said.

The New York Times said it has no further comment.

Note: An earlier version of this article did not mention Jonah Lehrer's fabrication of Bob Dylan quotes. That was bad, too.