In the normal functioning of intellectual discourse we expect interlocutors to obliterate themselves before the alter of the Eternal Progress of Human Wisdom, that is, people should not feature amongst that which we praise, contemplate or idolize. That a particular person has offered us an idea is a purely contingent fact: he is merely at the right place and time to do it and has had the right mixture of experiences and education. It is indecent to suggest that any person should have a following: we ought to be fanatics for ideas, not for their ephemeral vehicles.
In aesthetics the analogous phenomenon is treated in the reverse: a particular body is beautiful; we should invest in the beauty of particulars (of paintings, music, etc.) and see universal beauty made concrete in their essential contingency (“only this face now, in this place, under this light, could embody beauty so”).
However intellectual obliteration and aesthetic apotheosis do not always stay separate. The mixing of these processes can reveal a great deal about our contemporary ideological commitments. As I type, two serendipitous discussions are taking part in (largely online) intellectual communities, under consideration are the sins of Richard Feynman and Slavoj Žižek.
In the case of Feynman the revelation (rather, revisiting) of his sexist, arrogant, self-aggrandizing character is an awkward contingency we’re told. He is only human. He is from a time where this was “normal”. His ideas and contributions are "eternal". In other words, in the case of Richard Feynman we can destroy his body but retain his name as the locus of his important contributions.
In the case of Žižek's possibly accidental plagiarism we find the opposite reaction. How could one expect more of a man with such cheap, meaningless contributions? A known communist and suspected anti-Semite, what more could we expect? Žižek is ugly! And we must throw everything away to save ourselves from the horror of his material presence.
We see Feynman sub specie aeternitatis and Žižek immediately in the moment where he presses CTRL-C, CTRL-V. The asymmetry here is deeper than just the defence. Supporters, against the wide-eyed replies to this easy dismissal of Feynman’s sexism, remind us how important his physics was and thus hide his body behind the green curtain whilst projecting Feynman diagrams on the wall to the detractors looking for courage. Against those people pointing out how trivial the plagiarism was, how Žižek was not appropriating the ideas of others but commenting on them, invectives are slung: we are collaborators, anti-intellectuals and defenders of the greatest of all intellectual sins.
Plagiarism is a particularly interesting sin to contrast against Feynman’s. For plagiarism the usual relationship between ideas and people is inverted: we are told to care greatly that it was the anonymous poster to a white supremacist journal who posted the ten lines of review commentary and not Žižek . This fact is much more important than the ideas themselves and we are obscene to disagree. In the case of Feynman his sexism is much less important than the ideas.
This fundamental contradiction is a hallmark of ideological obfuscation. A sexist culture permits us to separate a man from his name in one case and an anti-intellectual culture to indelibly attach it in the other. The contemplation of ‘Feynman’ must, sublimely, speak to the blossoming of intellectual achievement and ‘Žižek ’ its death.
To be very clear: I have always disliked Feynman: an anti-intellectual, sexist, self-aggrandizer. And I have always liked Žižek : a playful torturer of those who think they know “what’s going on”. A self-deprecating, intellectual, feminist neurotic. I see in myself an unstable mixture of the two (though, from Feynman hopefully only Physics and Pedagogy), but as far as any of us today would like to be known, we would prefer to have opportunistically included a book review than have treated women as subhuman. Since today we are morally better people, despite the blindness of contemporary scientistic apotheosis.
Nim Chimpsky says
Feynman’s alleged misogyny couldn’t be less relevant to his physics.
Zizek’s confirmed, lazy plagiarism of a secondary source is symptomatic of his intellectual charlatanism.
Anyone who rates Zizek as a great philosopher can’t be much more than an academic dilettante. Everyone please stop promoting this drivel. Or sum up his key ideas in a coherent manner. He can’t.
Michael Burgess says
Well I think your comment goes to prove my point about there being a double-standard. The intended question of the piece is: what is the proper relationship between ideas and the people who thought them?
I disliked the editorial question: “Why do we treat the sins of Feynman and Žižek differently?” because the answer is obvious: because they are different. It’s a fair question to take away from the article but one that I shouldnt’ve emphasized so strongly.
There seems to be a consensus that in the case of Feynman and other scientists that we should admire their ideas above and beyond them as people. For Zizek and other philosophers (“theorists” generally), the plagarism is taken as evidence of empty-headed thought, stealing or trivial resuse of others work; ie., the bankruptcy of the ideas themselves. That is, we shouldnt engage with his work because of who he is. In the feynman case we should ignore who he is and engage only with his work.
I have a hard time believing the premise of this post for two main reasons. The premise being that Feynman is forgiven for being sexist, but people want to “throw everything away” that Zizek has written for his (inadvertent?) plagiarism.
First, it’s not made clear why Feynman is sexist. In the post on The Curious Wavefunction, Feynman is described as sleeping with younger women who were students at the university where he taught, trying to pick up women in bars (in a problematic way? no detail is given), having affairs with married women, and lying on the beach and watching women. Why are any of these things sexist? The only thing listed that sounds overtly sexist is Feynman’s “portrayal of a woman in a physics lesson as a clueless airhead”. On the other hand, we hear that Feynman “came to the aid of a female professor filing a discrimination suit at Caltech.” The one that really got me was the one about lying on the beach and watching women. How on earth is that sexist? If Feynman was catcalling the women on the beach, that would certainly be sexist. But simply watching attractive women? Feminist, lesbian women do the same thing. Feminist, straight women (and gay men) watch men on the beach. People like looking at attractive people. I must be missing something here, because this and the other items on the list don’t make sense to me as instances of sexism.
Second, I don’t see anyone saying we should dismiss Zizek’s work or Zizek as a thinker because of his (inadvertent?) plagiarism. People on the Reddit post that was linked to seem pretty equanimous in general. Even of the few people who are angry about the plagiarism, I don’t see anyone saying we now need to throw away all of Zizek’s writing.
Michael Burgess says
There’s been an interesting mixture of reactions to this, some quite genuinely bemused. So perhaps I will add some context:
I think my reaction is largely due to the specific order of articles I was reading before I wrote the piece. First I read a one about Feynman and then the Slate article on Zizek. The difference is astounding. And both articles appeared in the same on-line communities. In terms of the injury either have done to their disciplines by their actions, you know, I do think Feynman should be treated with much less reverence.
After reading the article again, even before posting here, I knew it was too unbalanced – but I thought, one must be allowed a rant from time-to-time.
And you know, I do think the interplay between the two social processes is interesting. How we come to expect individuals to be “absent” from their ideas in many cases.
Heidegger would have been a much better case study than Feynman, admittedly. Since its very easy to find people reacting “aethetically” and “intellectually” and to see the unfolding of discourse along these lines.
(And you know, as a person with a great interest in the philosophy of physics i’d thought i’d turn the screw a little on Feynman for excommunicating it. And I have invested as much as anyone in feynman’s work – having all of his books, and watched everything, and the last module I finished at university was QFT. So perhaps there’s also an element of disillusionment. )
“There’s been an interesting mixture of reactions to this, some quite genuinely bemused.”
Some people are “bemused” by the repeated unsubstantiated accusations of sexism.
Sexism is not the absolute barrel bottom of moral turpitude, but it’s still a serious enough charge not to toss around casually. Do you understand why an objective reader might be wanting you to retract that accusation, given that your Exhibit A showed nothing of the sort?
Do you even understand that it showed nothing of the sort?
You are what you do and not what you say/write. If you’re trying to get at the ‘truth’ of a thing, such as physics or philosophy the only path is empirical. The human detritus and drama is useless and will disintegrate into nothingness as time passes. The work stands by itself, if you enter into an experience or study attempting to understand it with some sort of sociocultural bias/filter you’ll probably be misled or miss something. Zizek’s most important work IMO revolves around ideology, ‘The Sublime Object of Ideology’ is excellent and altered my day to day existence.
Bruce Adam says
Strangely enough, Feynman did some outrageous plagiarizing himself. The lecture which he somehow mislaid so that it wasn’t included in his collected lectures but instead posthumously published , as “The Lost Lecture ” ,with copious notes, was a fraud.
The entire proof, which in this lecture Feynman presents as his own , was actually the work of James Clerk Maxwell.
I have a copy of the identical proof in a book by Lord Kelvin , from the 1880s. He of course has the decency to give full credit to Maxwell.
I always thought that Feynman’s preference for arranging academic meetings in burlesque joints and strip-bars indicated a desire to subject the other party to maximum distraction. It didn’t really occur to me that he might be a sleaze as well.
There is good (anecdotal, at least) evidence Feynman was sexist:
– he called a woman “worse than a whore” because he thought it would increase his chances of sleeping with her.
– when his wife interrupted his mental calculus, he would break furniture and yell at her; i.e., he used physical intimidation to control her behaviour.
– He lied about his age in order to sleep with undergraduates.
– He called certain women in his class “airheads.”
– when he was in Japan an attractive young woman came to his hotel room and his immediate reaction was: “Oh boy, a prostitute!” But she was just there for some banal aspect of her work as a hotel employee.
The above, to me, strongly suggests that Feynman was an aspiring – and sometimes actual – womanizer, who occasionally disrespected women, and sometimes physically intimidated his wife. Most people I know would call him sexist based on these stories (if they are true).
Some evidence is more ambiguous to me:
– He checked women out at the beach
– He frequented strip clubs.
As stated above, looking at people you find attractive is not sexist; it seems fairly universal. Some would argue going to strip clubs is undeniably sexist – but then again, straight women, and gay men, and others, go to strips clubs… so it’s kind of unfair to single out Feynman and call him sexist merely because he was a heterosexual man.
And then there is evidence that Feynman was anti-sexist:
– he came to the aid of a female colleague at cal-tech
– he encouraged his sister to study physics.
This is in Feynman’s favour. But, then again, do good deeds negate bad deeds? Who was the “actual” Feynman: the man who called women “whores” and “bitches” in hopes they would sleep with him, or the man who defended his female colleague from discrimination in the workplace?
I don’t know, but either way his contribution still stands.
As for Zizek: I don’t know anything about his work. But, if his work is good, then one instance of plagiarism won’t hurt it. Even if his work is bad, once instance of plagiarism doesn’t meant everything he’s written is stolen.
Many physicists with a public profile, seem to me to be silly individuals. Krauss is an example, recently in one podcast he actually said that philosophers have to listen to him, but he doesn’t have to listen to them.
These physicists are also huge Feynman fanboys and have inherited from Feynman his irrationally negative attitude towards “philosophy”.
I’m actually beginning to think that people like Krauss are charlatans of a sort, no matter what their contributions to some narrow area of theoretical physics might be.
Michael Burgess says
> I’m actually beginning to think that people like Krauss are some of the biggest charlatans of our age,
I’m already there as you can see. I think studying physics and philosophy extensively speeds up the process.
By the way I actually tempered my claim that “people like Krauss are some of the biggest charlatans of our age” to “people like Krauss are charlatans of a sort”. But your reply was faster than me.
Michael Burgess says
I get email updates.
I think Krauss et al. are happy to call others charlatans when they profit from pontificating on subjects they know very little about and dupe their audiences into thinking they know a great deal about.
On my philosophy of physics course at undergrad the first tutorial was on Krauss with the question something along the lines of “is this something we take seriously?” and the answer, very quickly: No.
It has all the hallmarks of a similar straight physics session on motion. We begin with an article by some person rambling about perpetual motion and we all quickly conclude it’s nonesense; that they’re a charlatan.
As far as I can tell Krauss’ (et al.) rants against philosophy bear as much understanding of philosophy issues as cranks rants about perpetual motion do about physics.
Karl Young says
I agree with the basic premise of this piece that, to the extent possible, one should try to evaluate and appreciate (or not) ideas as independently of their delivery method as possible. After all in terms of individuals they never develop or present those ideas in a vacuum and discerning exactly what percent influence derived from which source seems a pretty silly exercise.
I love(d) and hate(d) both Zizek and Feynmann. Zizek’s iconclasim is great but his populist attempts to deliver very complicated arguments seems a little silly some times. And while Feynmann’s sexism was annoying, it was his bad faith regular guy schtick that really got to me. He was tremendously self aggrandizing and wanted people to think of him as a brilliant oracle while always feigning humility. On the other hand he was in fact a brilliant, creative, funny, and probably personable (I don’t know I never met him) guy. And funny you discussed Krauss’s inanities above, as another thing that annoyed me terribly about Feynmann was his naive materialist poo-pooing of philosophy. One of the stupidest comments I thought he ever made was something like “they can’t even tell you what an electron is”. I would have loved to have asked him whether an electron was a thing that registered on a phosphorescent screen, the right or left chiral solution to the Dirac equation, the lightest Fermion field,…
Wayne Schroeder says
Ok Karl, now you have got me going on the whole issue. No one understands quantum physics except maybe one person: Feynman. I’m not the first to believe or say that, especially among those on the front lines.
Likewise, no one understands Lacanian-Hegelianism like Zizek. He is a true devotee to Lacan and has taken his understanding of Lacan beyond philosophy to psycology, to the teaching of reality as developed by Lacanian psychotherapy to the application of philosophy. Yes that involves deconstructing capitalism as the Big Other, but that is still not primary deliverance.
Now that we have gotten the important things out of the way, should we really talk about personal issues in the same vein?. I call bullshit on that.. (Insert something obscene here).
Karl Young says
Well, Wayne, I pretty much agree with you, except for the Feynman comment; even he didn’t understand quantum mechanics (I believe he even said something to that effect), though your point is taken that he may have been the most qualified to try. And I would refrain from my bullshit if Feynman hadn’t written inane popular books and Zizek would refrain from his popular philosophy columns in the Guardian. Are we hoi poloi only restricted to speak about quantum field theory (I can sort of approach discussions of Feynman’s technical contributions) and Lacan’s original works and excluded from any discussion of these “secondary” offerings, obscene as that may be ?
Wayne Schroeder says
Karl, I think rather the reverse, that we should talk all we can about Feynman’s understanding of quantum mechanics and Zizek’s Lacanian-Hegelianism. Can we just bypass the personal pejorative (to which I invoke the obscene), as applicable as that may be?
Karl Young says
Well Wayne, I certainly didn’t consider being a bit critical of their popular works pejorative, but I take it that you feel that regardless of what they write (and regardless of how far from their acknowlegdged academic expertise that writing is) discussing anything but quantum mechanics and Lacanian-Hegelianism re. Feynman or Zizek is strictly off limits.