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.