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Repetition without difference

September 19, 2012

The following is a guest post by Elliott Prasse-Freeman. It first appeared at The New Inquiry.

‘Transform: Slit-Scan,’ from Form+Code in Design, Art, and Architecture by Casey Reas,
Chandler McWilliams, and LUST, Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.

The meteoric rise of comedian Louis CK’s show Louie reached its zenith during the infamous Dane Cook episode, in which the ostensibly-fictional narrative addresses a real feud: Cook’s alleged theft of CK’s jokes. The viewer can only suspect what kind of wrangling went on in the writing of the scene in which they confront each other, but it produces a remarkable economy of fame: in exchange for accepting that Cook did not intentionally steal CK’s jokes, CK gets to effectively destroy Cook as a comic:

You’re like a machine of success, you’re like a rocket, you’re rocketing to the stars, and things are getting sucked up in your engines, like birds, and bugs, and some of my jokes. I think you saw me do them, I know you saw me do them, and I think they just went in your brain, I don’t think you meant to do it, but I don’t think you stopped yourself either.

Seconds before CK delivers this devastating assessment, Cook complains about CK’s street cred against his own reputation as a sell-out—so one would think Cook would not stand for CK’s assessment.[i] And yet Cook allows the scene to happen. Perhaps being recognized as a “success” is more important than being called blind and amoral and willing to destroy all in your path. Maybe being called the latter only sweetens the appraisal?

I thought about this scene when 2012 Hot Plagiarism Scandal Summer[ii] descended upon us. Indeed, from Jonah Lehrer to Fareed Zakaria (and reportedly 125 Harvard undergraduates) it seems that people in positions of power, prominence, and prestige are lining up to take themselves down. What is going on? Besides temporal concentration, is there any connection between these events? Should we reflect upon plagiarism “as a society,” especially now that 98% of American college students admit to cheating?

The Scandal Conceals That There is None[iii]

Our society is defined by endemic cheating and plagiarism. And yet every time this behavior emerges explicitly we perform the “scandal” again. Why do we get so upset? Perhaps insight can be gained through a look at what Lehrer and Zakaria are actually up to. As two of corporate media’s pundit-journalists they are geniuses of banality, rewarded for cultivating, channeling, and parsing the dominant messages of power, re-packaging them with minor variations (in various tropes and narratives), and regurgitating them back to one another’s eager mouths.[iv] Given this, don’t “scandals” over “plagiarism” seem incongruous, even ridiculous? After all, their tribe all borrow from the same mediocrity-machine, and so what’s one “stealing” from another when they all know that the game is simply to produce this tripe, churn it out, and witness it flowing out of one mouth or another? How often can Friedman and Kristof write the same exact thing and hold any pretense that they are part of a creative enterprise? It’s repetition without difference.

As this blog’s host pointed out to me, the Harvard 125 got caught because of a repeated incongruity: a few of them put a space after the comma when writing the number “22, 500.” So, it was an empty space that betrayed their plagiarism. I would add that this emptiness sticks out; as such plagiarism is like stuttering—a form of speech that is empty in its repetition, breaking the expected and normal rhythms of communication, creating a sense of the uncanny,[v] that something isn’t right here.[vi] In contrast, it is telling that cheer-leading for imperialismcolluding with shadowy security agenciesdegrading and victimizing Others, and just this past week undermining popular movements and calling a religion savage do not strike us as uncanny. Instead, this is what the U.S. media is designed to do: produce the smooth and effectively-uncontested narrative of hegemony.

Perhaps it is precisely because plagiarism causes a little rupture that the response against it has been so furious. In a system where the pretense of orginality must be retained at all costs so the symbols and affects of the status quo can be reproduced, it is exactly this crossing the line (plagiarism!) which cannot be tolerated. So when the host of this blog wrote to me, “[Zakaria] goes down for this? The prominent brown advocate of the Iraq war—and proud self-hating brown paradigmatic figure for the past decade—this?” she is precisely correct: being wrong about a brutal and stupid imperial occupation that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths is not a real mistake; the mistake rather is in not maintaining an air of professionalism, of being a Serious Person, when you are doing venal, praetorian acts.[vii] Hence the extermination of the plagiarists. There is a form of systemic corruption where everyone has to be in the compromise together; in the muck, but pretending that it’s clean.[viii]

And so I’m inclined to say: leave those kids alone.[ix] Looking at the few details that have emerged in the case, their violation doesn’t seem like much, especially when compared to those they are forced to look to as role models. Indeed, those who wield material and symbolic power in America—the financial/political class—revel in institutionalized cheating. No bankers went to jail after swindling the world out of billions; Obama is rewarded by fawning hypocritical liberals for his lying (about drones), obscuring (about the gWoT in general), and eliding (whither hope, or change, or even the poor as an object of discussion, let alone intervention?) in a more artful way than the blunt George W Bush.

In response to their obscenity, it is tempting to paint bankers and the elite political class as actors conscious of their manipulation and malfeasance. Certainly many of them are. But most are probably more like Cook: sucking stuff up in their engines, churning up society in their wake as they secede to the stars.[x]

[i] Maybe because Cook’s star has waned since “2000 and six” he is willing to sell some more of himself to get back in the public eye.

[ii] That’s trademarked. Don’t even think about plagiarizing it.

[iii] A paraphrase of Jean Baudrillard from Simulacra and Simulation: “Before, the task was to dissimulate the scandal; today, the task is to conceal the fact that there is none.”

[iv] This is why, despite his courageous and insightful daily assaults on America’s foreign policy hypocrisies, Glenn Greenwald’s insistence that there’s a standard “journalist” ethos to which these corporate hacks must (or can) return seems to misunderstand the way this machine functions. Indeed, the hacks do not aspire to be “journalists” of the ideal Edward Murrow type. Is Greenwald aware of this? Is he thinking it’s better for him to “act as if” the hacks actually mean to be doing journalism (rather than propaganda), as such using that conceit to hold the hacks to standards that don’t empirically exist but through his intervention might be performed back into existence? This is a constant dilemma in the era of the open secret: it is better to “tell it like it is” or to “act as if it’s not”? Probably, to mimic the OS-era itself, it’s better to do both: to tell it like it is—”this is what a venal hack would do!”—and then simultaneously declare: “But you aren’t hacks, are you?” We must be aware and not be at the same time.

[v] This is akin to Zizek’s glitch in the matrix.

[vi] As such, plagiarism is not quite a form of difference, not difference in itself, but rather mere rupture or negation; that said, for those who perceive that the glitch is uncanny, who are able to take the next synthetic step to make use of it as potentially productive, that moment can become a singularity where difference can be made to materialize, within which dissent, critique, politics, etc. occurs. This allows us to return to the stutter: for Deleuze, “to write is to become other, to stutter in one’s own language, to push language to its limits, and to invent a collective ‘people to come'” (cf, “He stuttered,” Essays Critical and Clinical). Deleuze encourages a deployment of the stutter to invent difference and use it to intervene in the world.

[vii] A slightly tangential example that nonetheless deserves mention is the tragicomic Norman Finkelstein/Alan Dershowitz affair. There is an entire Wikipedia page devoted to the idiotic back-and-forth between them over the latter’s alleged plagiarism, idiotic because it completely obliterates Dershowitz’s call for collective punishment against Palestinian villagers for actions by militants (collective punishment can be regarded as a form of terrorism: political communication that intentionally violates non-combatant civilians to coerce them into internalizing a demand—in this case repudiating violent responses to occupation by their co-oppressed). In stark contrast to the plagiarism debate which swirled around his call, Dershowitz’s unconscionable and indefensible demand for destruction of civilians’ homes has not generated its own Wikipedia page, nor even a mention on Dershowitz’s site. So Harvard has a famous full-time faculty member who abuses his position, destroys people’s careers, calls for states to commit mass atrocities, and so on—but his crime, that which we “can’t tolerate” (meaning that we can tolerate it as a scandal), is that he copied some of Joan Peters’ misquotes.

[viii] Referenced here is the essay “Too stupid to fail” in The Baffler which is described by editor John Summers as “about wrongness as a form of social mobility among public intellectuals and pundits and columnists […] You must have been blatantly wrong about a major event in order to demonstrate that you’re cool, that you’re a member in good standing of the A-team.”

[ix] Full disclosure: after spending seven years at Harvard (two years of which were spent as a resident advisor of Harvard undergrads), I should recuse myself on the assessment of Harvard kids or risk sounding just ridiculously opportunistic and self-serving.

[x] A phrase which combines CK and Arundhati Roy (“vertical secession”). Even in neologisms, it doesn’t hurt to footnote, kids.

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