Academia


ZizekContinental philosopher and postmodern celebrity Slavoj Zizek was accused of plagiarising from, of all places, the white nationalist journal American Renaissance in a study of the anti-semitic theoretician Kevin MacDonald. Zizek offered this “clarification” to the Critical Theory blog…

…a friend told me about Kevin Macdonald’s theories, and I asked him to send me a brief resume. The friend send [sic] it to me, assuring me that I can use it freely since it merely resumes another’s line of thought. Consequently, I did just that – and I sincerely apologize for not knowing that my friend’s resume was largely borrowed from Stanley Hornbeck’s review of Macdonald’s book.

Copying another person’s prose is idle at best. What this explanation reveals, however, is that Zizek is guilty of something other than plagiarism. Consider what he wrote on MacDonald…

We should have no illusions here: measured by the standards of the great Enlightenment tradition, we are effectively dealing with something for which the best designation is the old orthodox Marxist term for “bourgeois irrationalists”: the self-destruction of Reason. The only thing to bear in mind is that this new barbarism is a strictly post-modern phenomenon, the obverse of the highly reflexive self-ironical attitude—no wonder that, reading authors like MacDonald, one often cannot decide if one is reading a satire or a “serious” line of argumentation.

Yet now he claims that he has not read him at all. If his explanation is correct, then, it seems that he relies on friends to give him evidence to bolster his ideas and lies in an attempt to make it look as if he found it. Those, it appears, are the epistemological standards of one of the most celebrated philosophers of our age.

The other possibility is that his explanation is bogus. Whether or not Zizek is a far right plant spreading ideas throughout the modern left; a CIA agent promoting black propaganda or a bearded Andy Kaufman in another European guise are theories that I cannot judge.

TintedA group of anti-abortion activists were protesting on the campus of a Californian university, with signs that included pictures of dead foetuses. Now, I do not think that adults have a right to be protected from images of abortions, slaughterhouses, research labs and other sites of unpleasant activities that they deem permissible. Others might disagree. That could be discussed. One professor, though, did not discuss it. She stole one of the signs and marched off, screaming, “I may be a thief but you’re a terrorist!” When the activists tried to confront her she pushed and, it’s said, scratched them. They are pressing charges.

The professor teaches gender studies, and two other such academics have defended her on The Feminist Wire. Their piece is a textbook example of the obscurantism that cultural studies can be infamous for. Dry, prolix and crammed with references it is nonetheless founded on a blatant mistruth: that the professor is the innocent victim of racial injustice. The activists are white, you see, and the professor is not. To these authors, then, the portrayal of the former represents “the fetishization of a pure white femininity” while the latter has been “constructed pejoratively through tropes of racialized criminality and violence”. Their problem is that they have no evidence of ethnicity being the focus of attention. The professor has been accused of crime, because theft is a crime, and violence, because shoving someone is violent, and it is no sin to give an accurate description of the facts.

Our authors attempt to sidle around the truth with a mess of verbiage. The professor was, they state, “challenging anti-abortion violence” and an “anti-feminist and white supremacist barrage”. What this means is that she stole a sign that displayed photos of aborted foetuses. One is entitled to regard such materials as “violent” and “white supremacist” but no one should feel obliged to take such eccentric definitions seriously. (This linguistic flexibility is a feature of the essay. Elsewhere, there is a dark reference to the “neo-conservative media”. Do they know what neoconservative means?) The professor’s act was “criminal”, they continue, inasmuch as ““criminality” has already been hegemonically defined: as any challenge to the protection of property, whiteness, and hierarchal regimes of race, sexuality, gender, and capitalism”. I assume this means that they think stealing from and pushing activists for causes they dislike should be allowed. Fair enough, but they cannot expect other people to agree.

Ask yourself this: if the anti-abortion group’s Latino-American director of campus outreach was stolen from and shoved by a white academic, would Conservatives respond? I think so. The hundreds of words that the authors devote to “radical critique”, as well as hundreds of thousands of others produced by theorists with similar views, evoke a bizarre freedom of inference, in which such authors interpret acts and words according to their ideological preconceptions without the slightest care for whether this reflects the truth; forming worlds that bear resemblances to our own while being strange and superficial on inspection. These are standards they promote to growing minds. This is sad.

People who sneer at the “fawning” eulogies of public figures they disliked will tut at critical obituaries of those they admired. So it is with Eric Hobsbawm, who is being praised for his tremendous works of history even as he’s being criticised for his communist beliefs. Left wing people on Twitter huff at such criticisms as if they’re dreadfully boring. This, perhaps, is easier than showing that they’re unjust. They aren’t.

Others, though, of different persuasions, seem to think Hobsbawm’s sympathies should lead us to view him with nothing but contempt. Michael Gove is being quoted as saying that “only when Hobsbawm weeps hot tears for a life spent serving an ideology of wickedness will he ever be worth listening to”. Gove is a man who’s claimed a war that led to the deaths and dispossessions of hundreds of thousands, and left its survivors with a corrupt government and a society torn by violence, was “a proper British foreign policy success” so I’m not entirely sure why he’s any more respectable. Even disregarding this, though: why do Hobsbawm’s opinions make him unlistenable? No one seems to bridge the gap between his sympathies for Stalinism and his being rightfully discredited. Their argument, instead, tends to be that nobody would admire him if he’d held other disreputable opinions. As this – rather more sympathetic – blogger says…

If Eric Hobsbawm was of the extreme right, his talents would not shelter him from derision and banishment from respectable intellectual circles.

Really? Perhaps not. Yet this wasn’t always true. By the late 1970s David Irving’s admiration for the Nazis was hardly a secret. His book Hitler’s War emanated a fondness for the Führer. Even after its publication, though, historians of the intellectual establishment like Taylor and Trevor-Roper could be found praising his work. It was only after the man’s scholarship had been discredited, first by Bird, Jäckel and others, then most damningly by Evans, that he came to be perceived in the light he’s now seen.

While Irving’s admirers should have scrutinised his books with greater care before praising them they were correct not to dismiss him on the basis of his views. Being opinionated doesn’t preclude one from being objective when it’s necessary, and the quality of those opinions shouldn’t lead us to deny ourselves the important products of that objectivity. Should Carlyle be forgotten for Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question? Should William Shockley’s views on race inspire us to avoid using devices with transistors? Clearly not. Truth is too valuable to be rejected because it emerges from a source that one dislikes. If somebody dumps a sack of pins across the floor there’s no shame in donning gloves and picking through to find the diamonds that glint within them.

I know too little about Hobsbawm’s work to offer a grand appraisal of his virtues and demerits. Yet it seems to me that there’s just cause to criticise him without being a fan of Joe McCarthy and to praise him without being fond of Joe Stalin.

I’ll say one thing for Sheikh Haitham al-Haddad: where he goes you can be sure of trouble. He crops up among clerics and speakers and around him you find all manner of demagogic theocrats. He’s set to address another Islamic student society: in Roehampton this time. The theme is the end of the world and they’ve produced this rather unpleasant advert…

So, what kind of man is prepared to appear with Haddad? Dr Khalid Fikry is less prolific than his comrade but intriguing regardless. A profile in the Arabic media reports that the doctor was educated in Egypt and was arrested by President Anwar Sadat as part of his crackdown on religious extremists. This leads me to suspect that he’s the Dr. Khaled Fekry who authored this fond tribute to Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Blind Sheikh and leader of the Islamic Group…

We never forgot you our dear sheikh and we will never forget you. Allah is your supporter and defender.

Rahman was a committed enemy of secularism whose group was founded with the purpose of establishing sharia law in Egypt. It waged a campaign of violence throughout the nineties that killed hundreds of Egyptians. Rahman also travelled to Afghanistan where he empowered the Mujahideen and befriended the now-notorious jihadists Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdullah Azzam. Later, in the US, even while denying the accusations of seditious conspiracy, he called on his fellow Muslims to “rise in God as one man” and warned, “Don’t take the Christians and the Jews as your friends”.  His life was devoted to the cause of righteous violence with the aim of upholding the laws of Allah, and he inspired countless Muslims to join him in this work. This is the “dear Sheikh” that Fekri rhapsodised about.

He also praises supposed “good people” among the Sheikh’s supporters, like Aboud Al-Zomor, who was arrested for conspiring in the assassination of President Sadat and later said it was because he was “standing against sharia, against its implementation and application”, and Ahmed Refai Taha, who led the group after Abdel-Rahman’s departure and is thought to have been involved in atrocities such as the Luxor massacre.

As well as his interesting choice of friends Fikri seems to have an intriguing take on community relations. His speeches denounce Shia Muslims: castigating them as an “ignorant kaffir sect”. They are, he says in tones of awed disgust, “the greatest allies with the Americans, as well as with the Jew”. Shock horror! (Audaciously, despite these words, he’s tried to have a heretical Shiite cleric prosecuted for – get this – inciting sectarian unrest.)

These gentlemens’ presence is yet further evidence of how preposterous it is that it’s continually insisted that the claim that dangerous theocrats are preaching to students is an “absurd conconction”. Amandla Thomas, the spokesman of FOSIS, wrote that “a quick perusal of colourfully-themed “Islam Awareness Weeks” across the country…dispel such myths”. I’m perusing the leaflet for Roehampton’s, held last month, and their guest speaker was Abdulrahman Green, whose defence of wifebeating, endorsement of the deaths of adulterers and homosexuals and advocacy for a theocratic state we’ve come across before. Sorry, dude, but those claims are as mythical as marmalade, manatees and Margaret Thatcher and deserve more attention.

As for Fikry

Dr. Fikri was granted political asylum in Britain in 2005.

So was Abu Qatada. So was Anas al-Liby. So was Mohammad al-Massari, Omar Bakri Mohammad and Yasser al-Siri. Why did we spend months debating whether Raed Salah was allowed to come here for a holiday when such men are allowed to settle? I’m aware that some of ‘em were allowed in out of spite for enemies our government happened to share at the time but whatever the reason judiciousness must be restored. I wouldn’t let a man into my house, however miserable his circumstances, if I thought he might endanger me and my family. This principle should be extended to our borders.

The physicist Lawrence Krauss was interviewed in this month’s Atlantic magazine and had some harsh words for the study of philosophy…

[It's] a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can’t do, teach, and those that can’t teach, teach gym.”

Krauss later admitted that he was “being provocative, as [he] tend[s] to [be] every now and then in order to get people’s attention” and went so far as to apologise. Elsewhere in the interview, however, he’d suggested that if you’re writing for the public “the one thing you can’t do is overstate your claim, because people are going to believe you”. Really? Well – with this in mind it’s worth questioning his scorn.

Here’s a question I’d put to scientists who disdain philosophy: demonstrate that science is good. One might, of course, just point at light bulbs and say, “Look! Good!” This, however, is to elide goodness with wellbeing – a contentious maneuver – and doesn’t even account for areas of science that aren’t of real consequence to the general public. No, the answer this problems demands is that one concerns ethics and such scientists find such questions awkward because they can’t justify themselves with reference to empirical data alone. In a 1995 interview, Richard Dawkins admitted as much…

If I say something is wrong, like killing people, I don’t find that nearly such a defensible statement as ‘I am a distant cousin of an orang utan’.

The second of those statements is true, I can tell you why it’s true, I can bore you to death telling you why it’s true. It’s definitely true. The statement ‘killing people is wrong’, to me, is not of that character. I would be quite open to persuasion that killing people is right in some circumstances.

Why, it’s almost as if we need a discipline that involves analysing and prescribing concepts of right or wrong. We could call it “moral…”, er – “moral philosophy”!

Scientists may find themselves unable to avoid the relevance of philosophy even closer to the lab. Krauss’ latest tome, A Universe from Nothing, is an attempt to explain how “something” can be produced from “nothing” and argues that particles may have arisen from the laws of quantum theory. Dawkins greeted it by saying…

Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?,’ shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If ‘On the Origin of Species’ was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see ‘A Universe From Nothing’ as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.

Right. Yes. Except that as Edward Feser responds, the laws of quantum theory are not “nothing”. Krauss is aware of this, of course, but if he knows this means it’s not the “nothing” theologians have been pondering he never told Dawkins. The question of how matter could be produced from the void is a fascinating one and Krauss might answer it superbly but it isn’t that question. As galling as it is for some  scientists there are problems that cannot be solved with recourse to their justly acclaimed method and philosophy is useful in approaching them. As well as refining such concepts so we don’t have to make these tedious misunderstandings.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that the universe scientists detail for us seems, in many ways, a hideously bleak one. It arose, they tell us, thanks to unconscious quantum mechanisms and will linger in futile existence for millenia before breaking apart; ending the life of our bewildered, standardised species if hasn’t already expired. Whether that’s a fair account of our existential story is a matter for debate but as it’s a fair representation of the scientific view it shows why our perspective needs more than science. Some people get by without philosophies, sure – avoid worry and, to resurrect a phrase, enjoy their lives – but others of us need a more systematic defence of getting out of bed.

This is not a broad defence of what goes on within the study of philosophy. There are, perhaps, no fields of research that emit more bollocks. (And that includes creative writing.) Yet scientists do themselves no favours by acting so haughtily. Their studies have the advantage of being more evidently justifiable, yes, with a clearer path of progress, but they’re also limited in their scope: in terms of what they can achieve evidentially and offer emotionally. Whatever disciplines might claim to have monopolised the field of human inquiry, their rightful colonies will always be restricted. This is not to denigrate any of them, it’s just that they have different tools with which to harvest from different parts.

You can say what you like about Valerie Solanas or Ted Kaczynski but they knew how to write an interesting manifesto. Trenton Oldfield, the man whose chilly dip into the Thames obstructed the 2012 Boat Race, has no such gifts. His screed is an attack on “elitism” that fails to define the term. Does he mean aristocratic privilege? The influence of the monied? Hierarchies of ability? Does he think there’s a difference? Who knows. He doesn’t say. But he seems to think the slightest human inequality is a force for evil. Even the rowers are sneered at for having the cheek to be more able sportsmen than others.

For someone who claims to be diagnosing the ills of our society his actual knowledge of it is slight. He rambles on about a part of the Thames…

…where Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minster of the Government lives with his family, despite his constituents living hundreds of miles away in post-industrial Sheffield.

Lest you feel compelled to pity the neglected residents of Sheffield Hallam I should note it’s among the wealthiest constituencies in Britain. I’m sure that if Clegg’s absence was a source of pain to them they could mop up the tears with a crisp twenty pound note.

While I’m unsure of the nature of Oldfield’s case against the current system I don’t even want to know what he’d like to replace it with. He asks…

…when hasn’t the pursuit of equality, not resulted in these long passages of tyranny being overcome, even if temporarily?

The “even if temporarily” carries more weight a sumo wrestler’s toilet. I don’t think the people dying in Stalin’s camps thought the first days after the revolution had made it all worthwhile. Nor the starving peasants under Mao or tortured farmers in Cambodia; the victims of Ceaușescu or Ho Chi Minh.

Oldfield saves the best ‘til last…

Heh.

I’m untroubled by this fellow’s antics in the Thames. It’d be a shame for people who enjoy the race if it was always being obstructed but as a once-off I’d guess it make the whole thing more exciting. (I suppose I should admit that rowing is only trumped by golf in my personal list of snoozers.) It’s the manifesto that creeped me out. Unless “Trenton Oldfield” is a disinformation agent – has anyone checked to see if bad news has been shoved beneath the carpet of reports on him? – it’s an eerie reflection of the cognitive insularity that one can sail through intellectual, yes, elites with, serenely assured of one’s own rectitude. Oldfield – unless, again, he’s Agent Trenton – presumably believes he’s a radical but the vagueness of thought and airy detachment from consequence are more suggestive of a dispiriting conformity.

From nutrition to anthropology, philosophy to science, my favourite bloggers are often those who can post in an informed and enlightening manner on substantive academic research. Inexperience and limited resources – oh, well, fine, perhaps ignorance as well – have often meant that I’m unable to explore studies without their navigation. This, however, happily, is not one of those times. Here’s a paper on a subject I’m well acquainted with…

The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute.

My n=1 research confirms the gravity of their findings…

If we assume the annual rate of teaspoon loss per employee can be applied to the entire population of Melbourne (about 2.5 million), an estimated 18 million teaspoons are going missing in Melbourne each year. Laid end to end, these lost teaspoons would cover over 2700km – the length of the entire coastline of Mozambique – and weigh over 360 metric tons – the approximate weight of four adult blue whales.

The quality of this research has inspired me to go into publishing myself. I’d like to study the rate at which sports equipment goes missing from my hometown’s leisure centre. Expect my “hockey stick” graph to be published soon.

 

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