Self-Plagiarism and the Politics of Character Assassination: the Case of Zygmunt Bauman

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MirrorImagesBy Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux, Contributing Editor

In a recent study published in the Times Higher Education supplement, the world-renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman was charged with repetitive counts of “self-plagiarism”. As Peter Walsh and David Lehmann of Cambridge University claimed to have discovered, following an alleged meticulous reading of some 29 of Bauman’s works, “substantial quantities of material that appear to have been copied near-verbatim and without acknowledgement from at least one of the other books sampled. Several books contain very substantial quantities of text – running into several thousands of words, and in the worst case almost twenty thousand – that have been reused from earlier Bauman books without acknowledgement”. This recycling of prose, they argue, constitutes a monstrous “deception” on the part of the author, undermining one of the fundamental pillars of credible scholarship – the ability to cite with authenticating safeguards.

But what is really the charge here? Why would an emeritus reader at Cambridge University and doctoral student spend so much energy investigating and attempting to reveal questionable failures of another scholar? There was no doubt a personal agenda at work here (Walsh had already leveled such an accusation at Bauman’s work beforehand). That much is clear. This sordid affair however speaks more broadly to the tensions and conflicts so endemic to the neoliberal University today. It strikes at the heart of what passes for credible intellectual inquiry and scholarship, and reveals more purposefully the shift from engaging with the ideas that embody a life, especially one rooted in a quest for political and economic justice, to the penchant for personal attacks which seek to bring into question the character and credibility of respected authors. This is more than the passing of judgment from a moral position that is upheld by histories of elitism and privilege. It is tantamount to a form of intellectual violence wrapped in objective scholarship that plagues the academy. Within the neoliberal university not only has the personal become the only politics that matters when politics is even addressed, it has also become a strident form of careerism in which getting ahead at any costs mirrors the market itself.

Anybody who is familiar with Bauman’s tremendous corpus will appreciate the repetition in narrative and prose. This is especially the case in his latter works with his deployment of the metaphorical term “liquid”, which has been purposefully applied to many of the various facets of late modern societies – from economy, terror, weather, onto social and personal relations. The concern here however is not one of repetition as an act of plagiarism, as if the latter term is the only category to employ in this case. Its what Bauman embodies as a public intellectual and critical scholar who is less concerned with hierarchy and deference, than he is for offering a fundamental challenge to established doctrine. But then again this is a methodological assault, one that is purposely designed to camouflage both the authors’ politics and what actually counts in the relationship between scholarship and the need to address broader social issues.

Personally we have never once felt “deceived” by any of Bauman’s important works. Yes there is repetition. By why is that such an issue? There is of course much of be said for reading the same ideas with a different angle of vision and in a different context. But there is even something more critical at stake here, namely, the formation and subsequent authentication of “thought processes” and “regimes of truth”. Citations are deemed essential to academic practices in terms of pointing to authoritative sources of factual claims, while giving due credit to the labors of others. Leaving aside well-established concerns with the need to cite particular authorities as if this process is objective and certain (with the evident racial, gender and class bias this invariably produces), what is being further demanded here is the need to give due credit to oneself? Bauman thus being guilty of not citing, well, Bauman! Why we might ask is this necessary if not to simply further authenticates a system of intellectual propriety and policing that is less concerned with pushing forward intellectual boundaries, than maintaining what is right and proper to think. The lesson here is clear. For thinking to be meaningful whatsoever, it needs to conform to the set parameters and rules of the game. As Walsh openly admits in his defense, “Age and reputation should not exempt anyone from the normal standards of academic scholarship.” There is a curious if not revealing silence here regarding the history of power relations that define alleged “normal standards of academic scholarship.” After all, left theorists have been punished for decades in the academy for publishing either controversial political work or for not publishing in “acceptable” academic journals or publishing houses that just happen to be more often than extremely conservative and mirror the reigning ideology and professionalism of the academy.


Zygmunt Bauman. Photograph by Grzegorz Lepiarz.


Any student of the history of intellectual forms of violence will no doubt appreciate the discursive move being deployed here. The invocation of “the norm” is the surest way to suffocate different ways of thinking about and interrogating the world. Often sanctified in some universal regalia (as recycled here by Walsh’s all too familiar insistence), as if to indicate the natural and uncontroversial order of things, normalization is the mask of mastery for those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. What becomes proper to thought as such is already set out in advance, hence framing in a very narrowly contrived way what it means to think and act with a conformist diligence.

Might we not insist here that the accusers follow their own demands for scientific veracity? Maybe they ought to conduct a qualitative study of his readership to see how many actually feel “misled” in the way they take as conclusive? Personally, we remain humbled and privileged to have come to know Bauman and his work. That he still has the energy, dedication and fight to challenge oppression and injustice should be the source for affirmation and not critique. We are not suggesting here that Bauman’s ideas should not be put under the critical microscope. They certainly should. But we need to be mindful of a much greater deceptions. The recycling of ideas and passing it off as original by claiming some positivist ascription of an “objective reality” is problematic enough. The pride taken by some in academia today to instigate forms of public shaming that is tantamount to a Stasi witch-hunt is unacceptable.

For what we elect to term the “gated intellectuals” of consumer laden capitalism–for whom every thought has to be new and packaged in a glittering endnote, preferably a shiny illumination and display of what might be called the culture of positivism or empiricist hysteria–Bauman has been charged with the alleged insidious crime of repeating some of his own work. Of course, we all repeat ideas in our work and some theorists such as Slavoj Zizek, make such repetitions central to how they define their work. We would argue that is a perfect case of strategic repetition. But, Bauman according to the academic police squad at Cambridge University has plagiarized his own work. We have read almost all of Bauman’s work, have taken endless notes on it, and always learn something even if some issues are reworked. Who doesn’t rework important themes in their work?

Bauman once explained how his writing is like walking into the same room through different door. This metaphor illuminates how he is not repeating tirelessly his work, he is building on it, expanding it, and endlessly trying to refigure its implications under changing circumstances. This charge against Bauman is truly despicable and is a reactionary ideological critique dressed up as a discourse about method and indebted to the tired legacy of depoliticized empiricism. What these guardians of orthodoxy really are afraid of is hearing his ideas over and over again, recognizing that they are reaching more and more audiences while modeling not what is euphemistically called scholarship but the role scholars might play as public intellectuals who address important social issues. Self-plagiarism of ideas is a preposterous idea. The willful plagiarism of policing methods to authenticate what is proper to thought and reproduces intellectual servitude; now that’s a problem, which demands our vigilance and needs to be critiqued!

The point is also further stressed by JPE Harper-Scott, who writing in Open Democracy notes, the real charge against Bauman is that his depictive self-plagiarism ultimately constitutes a ‘sin against capitalism, one of whose doctrines is that there must always be new things to sell so that the consumer can buy with confidence’. It is then as Harper-Scott rightly observes, part of a broader intellectual shift that cannot be divorced from the changing institutional settings in which the personal criticisms originate and assume the status of a “public concern”, even though at their ideological core is a desire to destroy anything of the commons.

Given that Bauman has no interest in being part of some quantifiable research assessment exercise (which has notably led to the valorization of positivist methodologies in the United Kingdom), these concerns with “self-plagiarism” only really matter in an age where thought has to become quantifiable like any other property. It is worth reminding that none of us own our ideas. They are always the product of many conversations that too often go unacknowledged. Ideas in this regard always belong to the commons. A much greater deception as such is the processes through which thought becomes objectified and commodified as though all previous thoughts and ideas are now obsolete. As such, these demands for “rigor” have less to do with understanding the contested genealogies of complex thought systems, than reference a domesticated term so often deployed to validate methodological approaches that end up conforming to the status quo. The parallels with Eric Dyson’s criticisms of Cornel West are all too apparent.[1]

There is a bankrupt civility at work here, disingenuous in its complicity with the intellectual forms of violence it authors and yet blinded to the moral coma it attempts to impose. What is abandoned in this particular case is the very notion that the public intellectual might have a role to play in resisting authoritarian politics and the tyrannies of instrumental reason that promotes isolationism over collegiality. This is the civility of authoritarian voices that mask their intellectual violence with weak handshakes; apologies for their necessary assassinations; forced smiles, and mellowed voices. Like the punishment dished out to a recalcitrant child, through discursive reason of instrumental rulings or outright public shaming, more “mature” (the authoritarian default) ways of thinking about the world must eventually be shown to be the natural basis for authority and rule. In this instance, intellectual violence undermines the possibility for engaging scholarship through the use of rigorous theory, impassioned narrative, and a discourse that challenges the unethical grammars of suffering produced by neoliberal modes of instrumental rationality that have overtaken the academy, if not modernity itself. What we are dealing with here is a kind of neoliberal violence that produces what Frank B. Wilderson III has called “the discourse of embodied incapacity.”[2]

Such character assassinations should not therefore be viewed in isolation or removed from political struggles. They point to the neoliberal assault on global academia that is now so pervasive and potentially dangerous in its effects that it is must be viewed as more than a “cause for concern”. While the system in the United States of America, for instance, has been at the forefront of policies that have tied academic merit to market-driven performance indicators, the ideologically driven transformations underway in the United Kingdom point in an equally worrying direction, as the need for policy entrepreneurship increasingly becomes the norm. The closures of entire philosophy programs signify the most visible shift away from reflective thinking to the embrace of a dumbed-down approach to humanities education that has no time for anything beyond the objectively neutralizing and politically compromising deceit of pseudo-scientific paradigms.

Instrumentalism in the service of corporate needs and financial profit now dominates university modes of governance, teaching, research, and the vocabulary of consumerism used to describe students and their relationship to each other and the larger world. One consequence, as the Bauman Affair shows, is that discourses, ideas, values, and social relations that push against the grain, redefine the boundaries of the sensible, and reclaim the connection between knowledge and power in the interest of social change too often become not only inconvenient but rapidly accelerate to being viewed as dangerous. But since there is little appetite to engage the ideas at any substantive level beyond the superficial, following an all too familiar move, criticism turns instead to questions of individual pathology and character deficiencies. This is a textbook power play.

Intellectuals are continually forced to make choices (sometimes against our better judgments). In truth there are no clear lines drawn in the sand. And yet as Paolo Freire insisted, one is invariably drawn into an entire history of struggle the moment our critical ideas are expressed as force and put out into the public realm to the disruption of orthodox thinking. There is however a clear warning from history: our intellectual allegiances should be less concerned with ideological dogmatism. There is, after all, none more micro-fascist or intellectually violent than the self-imposed thought police who take it upon themselves to be the voices of political and intellectual purity. Bauman’s pedagogy has always insisted the task of educators is to make sure that the future points to a more socially just world, a world in which the discourses of critique and possibility in conjunction with the values of freedom, and equality function to alter, as part of a broader democratic project, the grounds upon which life is lived. This is hardly a prescription for intellectual short cuts or taking the easy road, but embodies a life long commitment to a project which as Stanley Aronowitz has observed, continues to give education its most valued purpose and meaning, which in part is “to encourage human agency, not mold it in the manner of Pygmalion.”[3]

Figures such as Bauman remain important as ever. This is especially the case in the contemporary conjuncture in which neoliberalism arrogantly proclaims that there are no alternatives. Such an ethical disposition, as Foucault critically maintained, requires waging an ongoing fight against fascism in all its forms: ‘not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini – which was able to use the desire of the masses so effectively – but also the fascism in us all, in our heads, and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us’[4]. Precisely, in other words, the types of petty punishments and normalized practices of public shaming and violations that takes direct aim at the dignity and value of a fellow human.

Academics and public intellectuals not only have an ethical and pedagogical responsibility to unsettle and oppose all orthodoxies, to make problematic the common-sense assumptions that often shape students’ lives and their understanding of the world, but also to energize them to come to terms with their own power as individual and social agents. Higher education, in this instance, as Bauman continually reminds us, cannot be removed from the hard realities of those political, economic and social forces that both support it and consistently, though in diverse ways, attempt to shape its sense of mission and purpose. Politics is not alien to the University setting, but central to comprehending the institutional, economic, ideological and social forces that give it meaning and direction. Politics also references the outgrowth of historical conflicts that mark higher education as an important site of struggle. Rather than the scourge of either education or academic research, politics is a primary register of their complex relation to matters of power, ideology, freedom, justice and democracy. None of which are raised as issues in this latest intellectual assault.

To get a sense of the real absurdity of all this, just imagine for a moment a reworking of the United Kingdom’s Independent newspapers headline “Worlds leading sociologist accused of copying his own work” but instead of referring to Bauman the sociologist, we wrote of Van Gogh, Francis Bacon or Pablo Picasso the artist. Our indignation at the claim (which could be rightly made if one considers the use of the same techniques and repetitive imagery) would require no further justification on account of its patent idiocy and sensational provocation without any grasp of the form. Critical thinking is no different. Indeed as Bauman himself acknowledges in an aptly titled book The Art of Life, one of the most deceptive claims regarding politics, sociology and philosophy has been their reductionism into the realm of “social science”, instead of seeing them as an integral art form to the creation of new ways of thinking about the world and its poetic and creative modes of existence that cannot be so easily reduced into quantifiable matrix without stripping life of its all too human qualities.

The hidden structure of politics in these charges is the refusal of the gated surveillance academics to use their time figuring out how capitalism and its empiricist acolytes recycle the same dreadful ideologies about the market over and over again. Unlike Bauman’s work which uses deftly what might be called strategic repetition, the methodological embrace of citations and the obsession with repetition amounts to what Marcuse once called scholarshit–truly a crime against justice and social responsibility. This charge against Bauman is truly despicable and is a reactionary ideological critique dressed up as the celebration of method and a back door defense of a sterile empiricism and culture of positivism. This is a discourse that enshrines data, correlations, performance, and eschews matters of substance, social problems, and power. As Murray Pomerance points out plagiarism is a form of theft and we don’t steal our own work. On the contrary, we expand its reach; build on it, thereby making it more relevant as the contexts that produce it change. What these guys really are afraid of is hearing his ideas over and over again, recognizing that they are reaching more and more audiences. Theft has nothing to do with strategic repetition in the interest of clarity, expanding and deepening an issue, or building upon one’s own work. On the contrary, theft is about claiming false ownership, allowing power to steal one’s integrity, and engaging in those corrupt practices that erase any sense of justice.

In the world of gated intellectuals who thrive in a university landscape increasingly wedded to data banks, thought itself becomes another casualty of disposability. Metrics now merges with a business culture that has little time for anything that cannot be quantified. Matters of identity, justice, power, equality, if not freedom itself, are reduced resources for generating data, developing surveys, and measuring intellectual output. The value of what an intellectual such as Bauman writes or says is irrelevant in a neoliberal world in which the personal smear parades as a scientific understanding and the elevation of truth to the stripped down discourse of empiricism. Scholarship, intellectual output, engaging social problems in a variety of forms, all of these interventions travel in a variety of forms. It is the richness of the forms and the substance of the arguments that matter. The Cambridge surveillance team seems to have missed this point or is it more that they willfully buried it? Utilitarianism has always shared an easy space with contempt for intellectual and politically insightful work or what Richard Hofstadter once called the life of the mine. Maybe what is really at stake here is not the reworking of ideas, but a kind of hostility to critical pedagogy and modes of writing that push against the grain not once but over and over again. There is a kind of toxic ideology at work in this charge against Bauman, one that not only trivializes what counts as scholarship but elevates matters of surveillance and policing to a normalized standard of evaluation.

Certainly the authors of the pernicious article about Bauman could do with reading Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition to have a modicum of philosophical appreciation here – or better still, at least be honest about their own methodological plagiarism, which since the dawn of the humanities, continues to produce self-anointing thought police who operate more like micro fascists, policing what is acceptable to thinking, and whose all too political agenda’s are less concerned with the quality of the work, than condemning those who provide a fundamental challenge to their sense of privilege and their self-imposed illusions of grandeur. So a reality check is needed for the likes of Walsh and Lehmann. You are not standing on the shoulders of giants. You are but one entry in the employment inventory of intellectual surveillance.


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[1] Henry A. Giroux, “The Perils of Being a Public Intellectual,” CounterPunch (April 27, 2015). Online:

[2] Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White, and Black , (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), p. 30.

[3] Stanley Aronowitz, “Introduction,” in Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom (Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), p. 7.

[4] Michel Foucault, “Preface” in Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London, Continuum: 2003) p. xv


Brad Evans is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Bristol. He is the founder of the Histories of Violence project, which proudly features a series of lectures, dedicated to the work of Zygmunt Bauman (

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. Together they have recently published the book Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in Age of Spectacle (CityLights, 2015)

Simul-posted with CounterPunch.

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