Claude Roget: Philosopher or Fraud?

Was one of the most influential philosophers of our time an “audacious plagiarist”?

Claude Roget: Philosopher or Fraud?

Works Discussed

Claude Roget: Montmartre Mountebank by Louis Bloch
Order Is Terror by Claude Roget
Literature and Vacuum by Claude Roget
“Uncommunicative Modalities In Roget’s Anti-Texts” by Maurice Duchamp
Words: First Tools of Capitalistic Oppression by Claude Roget
Stratagems of Corporate Enslavement by Claude Roget
Decapitation and Capitalism: A Play by Claude Roget

Louis Bloch’s critical biography Claude Roget: Montmartre Mountebank denounces one of the most influential philosophers of our time as an “audacious plagiarist.” Bloch’s argument that Roget’s books leave an “embarrassing stain” on contemporary philosophy has generated both moral outrage against and spirited defense for Roget’s intellectual legacy — the Post-Linguistic school of philosophy. Devoted students have recently posted the legendary unabridged first editions of Roget’s works — which many believe are loaded with plagiarized passages — on the Internet, fueling debate over the extent of Roget’s originality.

Roget’s boyhood does little to suggest the later lady-killer and shameless self-promoter. Teachers described him as a “wall-flower,” and “silent as a stone.” His most marked characteristic as a boy was his constant fear of his mother’s purse, an overstuffed accessory that he would point at in shrill terror until she removed it from view. But after his father’s death in battle during the Algerian civil war, the embryo of Roget’s personality emerges. His grief gave way to a burst of extroversion, and an interest in debating and student government. In his high school debating club he developed a reputation for defending the most absurd theories, once arguing that the more cheeses a society (like France) produces, the more likely it is to experience civil unrest, in contrast with the politically stable but cheese-illiterate nations of Britain and the United States. But having discovered Marx in his senior year of high school, Roget saw France’s instability, cheese-induced or otherwise, as a state of affairs ripe for exploitation.

Roget rocketed to fame at the age of twenty-four during the violent May, 1968 campus convulsions in Paris. As a student protester, Roget quickly published the long manifesto Order Is Terror, which argued that since the social order in France was enforced by armed police it was inherently violent and oppressive. “If France truly believes in democratic principles,” he wrote “it must disband the army and police to let the will of the people rise to the surface unchecked.” Although reviews found Order Is Terror “abysmal” and “bereft of scholarship or thought,” in the climate of the campus convulsions it earned Roget an assistantship at the Sorbonne, where he has remained on the faculty to this day, despite not having taught a class there since 1987.

Even early in his career Professor Roget focused his energy more on producing works for publication than on teaching. Bloch, a former student of Roget, remembers him holding court with his admirers at a café:

Roget often said things he thought especially witty or insightful. Sometimes he would stop the conversation in mid-sentence, and hold up his hands to silence us while he wrote down what he had just said. He believed everything he said had relevance to some book he was writing. As his fame grew, some of us volunteered to serve as Roget’s scribes. We learned to watch his face for the discreet nod that meant he had just said something he believed worthy of preservation.

But there were still times when Roget was forced to take his own notes. Bloch relates one former lover’s claim that Roget took notes for his absurdist play Decapitation and Capitalism while they made love, scribbling even during her climax. Today it is not unusual for Roget’s dinner guests to see him switch on a pocket tape recorder to record his entire dinner-hour monologue after their small talk has ceased and he has seized the reins of the conversation.

Roget solidified his reputation in 1973 with the publication of Literature and Vacuum, which argued that all writing — from an infant’s pre-literate crayoning to King Lear — are of “precisely equal value,” and that only the dictates of race, class, and gender fool us into valuing literature over other forms of writing. But more than a critique of literature, Literature and Vacuum set out to show the appalling limits of language itself to represent reality. Consider:

Language always connotes itself self-referentially as a solipsistic meta-language, an infinite regress mediated by its own inherent linguistic modality about itself, which, ipso facto, is incommensurate with “reality” as hitherto described by post-Humean and pre-Heideggarian Western metaphysicians working within the epistemological straightjacket of murky and untestable neo-Kantian a priori propositions about our collective ψυχε [psyche]. Plato’s famous condemnation of poetry as dangerous to his Republic sprang from his insight that poetry has the effrontery to claim that it transcends language and says something “meaningful” about “the world” — rather than about other Words, as we now know. Science, by atomizing reality, makes no such claims of transcendence, but, through its mundane and joyless exactitude, manufactures the pervasive and comforting illusion that our absurdly arbitrary units of measuring “reality” — the meter, the Celsius degree, the hour, the color “blue” — are worthy nets with which to capture the slippery and incomprehensible flux that “reality” “really” “is.”

Indeed, for Roget, Man’s development of language represents regression in evolutionary terms:

Because a dog is more in tune with the magical, pre-linguistic world, the dog’s barking and growling — indeed, the sounds he emits during defecation — are far more “meaningful” and “poetic” than even the strongest passages in Proust or Dante.

A masterpiece of timing, Literature and Vacuum was just the book that a generation of philosophers weaned on Post-Structuralism was waiting for. Roget was quickly heralded as the Deconstructor-In-Chief of the Post-Linguistic Movement by Maurice Duchamps, Professor of Non-American Studies at the Sorbonne, who had become Roget’s intellectual valet. Duchamps’ seminal article “Uncommunicative Modalities In Roget’s Anti-Texts” launched scathing salvos at traditional philosophy, including his famous assertion that “those who still study the so-called Great Philosophers in earnest are like so many naïve children.” A flood of articles appeared heralding “The Post-Linguistic Movement,” many of which reverentially cited Roget’s work as sacred text. Despite his argument that “the linguistico-philosophical enterprise is hardly nobler than a good game of Scrabble®,” Roget started churning out wordy philosophical tomes at the dizzying pace of four per year for the rest of the 1970s.

Probably the most influential of these, Words: First Tools of Capitalistic Oppression (1979),was an eight-hundred page neo-Marxist interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth in Genesis, chapters 2–3. In it, Roget interprets the character God as playing the role of “the Original Capitalist Overlord” who falsely promised Man an earthly paradise, only to later condemn him to a lifetime of working the soil:

God deliberately places the serpent in Paradise to tempt Adam’s new “helpmate” (co-worker) into eating of the Tree of Knowledge (Words), casting Man into the linguistic prison from which he is yet to emerge. Later, when Man unifies to build the Tower of Babel, God senses a threat to his monopoly of ultimate linguistic power. So God confuses Man with a shower of strange tongues, dividing the workers for thousands of years. Capitalists from all ages have found inspiration from this example.

Despite a chorus of praise for Words: First Tools of Capitalistic Oppression, the burgeoning feminist voice in American academia roundly attacked Roget, now a fixture at NYU, for the perceived sexism in the work. They detected a latent homosexuality in the Frenchman, citing his praise of Adam’s idyllic life before the creation of Eve and the expulsion from Eden as an “infantile wish for a world without women.” Roget laughed off these charges as the “Words of sexless spinsters,” further envenoming a growing corps of enemies.

Painstaking in its linguistic analysis of Genesis (Roget devotes a long chapter to an analysis of the word “those”), Words: First Tools of Capitalistic Oppression represented the high-water mark of Rogetian scholarship. Having established his core tenet that “though everything is a text, all texts are meaningless,” Roget now turned his attention to analyzing the “meta-meanings” supposedly lurking within otherwise innocent-looking printed words all around us.

Thus, Roget expanded the scope of the Post-Linguistic school by applying its methods to “cultural artifacts” in our daily lives — letters, postcards, laundry lists, recipes, tax forms, and other of modern man’s “daily contacts with written language.” Roget saw a higher social validity to his studies than to traditional scholarship, which concerned itself only with elitist literary and philosophical classics. Thus, the books of Roget’s middle period of 1979–88, such works as Cryptography and Food Labeling; Stratagems of Corporate Enslavement; The ”List” as Archetype; Words: What Are They Good For?;and Calendar and Subtext, represent a neo-Marxian attempt to “bring philosophy to the common man” by analyzing everyday “Word encounters.”

Stratagems of Corporate Enslavement (1986), critiqued the corporation’s growing role in modern life. Roget posited a “Corporate Mother,” not unlike Orwell’s Big Brother, that will assume many functions of government and the churches. The first essay “The Sticky Note as Ephemeral Text” is typical of Roget’s approach. Consider:

Although regarded by office workers as a harmless, even useful, invention, the Post-It Note (also known as the “Sticky Note” and by other aliases) insidiously undermines the durability of written language. The written word, which in ancient times was etched in stone, or painstakingly written with a stylus or feather pen, stood for something permanent. Even more than the invention of the microcomputer with its blinking, ephemeral text, the Sticky Note screams the transience of its own message. It also communicates in a blatantly corporate manner. When looking at a Sticky Note, we never see the words alone; we see our words in the context of the modern corporate office, always as furthering some task for the Corporate Mother. Many workers now write a significant percentage of their lifetime written output upon this disposable medium — communicating only with themselves, isolated from their brother workers.

Insidiously, workers come to rely on the Sticky Notes in place of their own, now-atrophied, short-term memories. The Sticky Notes become the very medium of their thoughts, and soon they degenerate into white-collar crime, dropping the desired Sticky Notes into their pockets or purses. Wise companies do not discourage this practice, knowing that even in the home, the Sticky Note serves as a silent reminder of the ever-present demands of the worker’s Corporate Life. Subconsciously guilty for stealing the Sticky Notes, many workers compulsively think about their jobs, or even perform little tasks at home for their Corporate Mother. The Corporate Mother’s colonization of workers’ homes always begins with the footholds established by pilfered office supplies. The wise corporation even offers to install computers or other expensive equipment in their workers’ homes, knowing the salubrious effect this will have on the minds of even the most slothful employees.

Consider also Roget’s theory of the Business Meeting:

Modern business meetings concern themselves primarily with aggression and the affirmation of corporate hierarchies. Indeed, we are not surprised to learn that the origins of the modern business meeting lie in the gatherings of marauding 8th century Anglo-Saxon tribes — forbears of the great capitalist nations of Germany, Britain, and the United States. In fact, the English word “meeting” is itself ultimately derived from the Old English “mead,” [sic] the wine drank in “mead halls” (“meeting halls”) after the tribe’s successful conquests, as in the epic Beowulf. Are our espresso-slurping corporate chieftains any different after their latest mega-merger?

Despite the penetration of some of Roget’s analyses, his works grew even denser and more inscrutable than Literature and Vacuum — and it is doubtful that many common men whiled away their hours reading them. Dr. Nigel Tarreyton of Oxford lamented that Roget, who had once claimed to have destroyed the validity of both the American Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution in twenty-five pages, now “devotes twice that space to a label on a piece of fruit.”

He also continued to alienate his feminist critics. His persistent use of the word “Man” for humanity, and his silence on women’s issues, had made Roget an enemy of the feminist movement. Roget’s response was his only play, the avant-garde La Décapitation et le Capitalisme (Decapitation and Capitalism), a pilot for his revolutionary school of theater, “The Theater of Loathing.”

First performed in Paris at La Cartoucherie on September 11, 1989, Roget’s “spectacle of loathing” depicts a young woman (“The Woman”) behind thick dollar-sign ($) shaped steel bars, futilely reaching her hand out of the cage for a crust of bread. The bread, an impossibly large baguette, never fits through the bars despite the best efforts of The Woman. Meanwhile, her oversized rubber shoes are shaped like breasts, and at her feet snap huge lip-shaped, mechanical jaws, ostensibly representing her suckling children. The only man in the play (“The Man”) wears a black mask, and carries a large tapered club, unmistakably suggestive of a phallus (and indistinguishable from the baguette), with which he repeatedly urinates on the desired bread and beats the woman whenever he enters her cage. Minor variations on this theme occur throughout the play’s five acts. During the final scene, the stage is darkened, and The Man decapitates The Woman with the symbol-laden club: The Woman lets out a long, blood-curdling scream, sustaining it even while a symbolic female mannequin’s head rolls into the audience and up the aisle, triggering uncontrollable laughter even in Paris audiences.

The five-hour play ran for only two weeks in Paris despite lavish financing, and has never been re-produced. Its critical reception was brutal, and even Roget’s academic lackeys stayed uncharacteristically mute. Yet Roget remained convinced he had written a masterpiece, and continued to cite Decapitation and Capitalism in his own writing as an important work, comparable to the best plays of Beckett, Brecht, or Pinter. Although Roget may have intended Decapitation and Capitalism as an olive branch to his feminist critics, many of them saw it as Roget’s greatest chauvinistic outrage to date — albeit a coded one.

Other clouds were gathering around Roget’s reputation. By 1992, many American academics were envious of Professor Roget’s reputation and feather-light teaching load at NYU, and embarked on an intensive critical analysis of his books. Doubts arose that he alone could have possibly written one million words per year for the past fifteen years running. Some of his colleagues suspected most Rogetian research had been conducted by his graduate assistants.

A self-appointed body of fifty professors from the United States and Britain, calling itself the Committee Against Corruption in Academia (CACA), began to check Roget’s footnotes, evaluate his research, and validate the originality of his most obfuscated passages. They also demanded that Roget produce the rough drafts of his works, a request he “wouldn’t dignify” by honoring.

After a two-year investigation, CACA met in New York in August 1994 to compile its findings. Rumors circulated that some of Roget’s former students had discovered meaningful chunks of their old term papers lurking deep within his mammoth works. Some of Roget’s former student “scribes,” who had once dutifully transcribed his every café utterance, now claimed that long passages of his mumbling had been inserted into the late chapters of his works verbatim. Pages of staggeringly Germanic complexity from Hegel, Leibniz, Spengler, and Schopenhauer had also been included without attribution. And Roget’s newest bête noir, Professor Katelyn Nokin of Michigan State, who had unilaterally spearheaded an independent probe into Roget’s personal life, unearthed some three-hundred female students with whom Roget reputedly had had sex (apparently without satisfying). Nokin was especially scandalized by Roget’s rumored practice of demanding a hot breakfast the morning after a rendezvous, and then badgering all of his mistresses (even unlettered prostitutes) to solve ancient philosophical paradoxes that still baffle specialists.

And yet CACA’s final report, which was sure to lead to Roget’s total disgrace even in France, was never to appear. A closed-door session of CACA’s central committee unanimously resolved to drop the matter after three days’ heated debate. Yet a few committee members later leaked the motivation behind CACA’s last-minute silence: Nearly all professional philosophers had been praising Roget in their own publications for years. A full expose would reveal that they themselves had scarcely read his works. In the “publish or perish” world of the contemporary university Roget seemed only an extremely effective practitioner of what so many other professors were trying themselves to accomplish.

Roget himself had not been idle during this mortal threat to his reputation. He had busied himself weeding out the most hideous verbal excrescence and shameless piracy from his works, and had published much slimmer second editions, sometimes at less than half their original length. And the first editions, which were largely unavailable off-campus, began mysteriously disappearing from the shelves of university libraries. Librarians purchased the slimmer, plagiarism-free second editions, effectively concealing the evidence of Roget’s scholarly crime from future students. Even more perversely, the first editions became collectors’ items, a process that accelerated their disappearance from campus libraries.

Roget became reclusive after his near destruction by CACA. He claimed, in a carefully orchestrated 1996 interview with Der Spiegel, that the only accusations that had ever “hurt” him were that his works were “insincere.” He claimed to have recently spent four weeks on holiday in the Australian Outback, getting in touch with his inner Man, and developing a “personal primal scream” to “affirm [his] own post-linguistic nature.” Asked about his plagiarism, Roget replied: “Authorship is a bourgeois illusion. No one owns The Words.” He claimed that the verbatim passages from his undergraduates’ term papers had been included in his works intentionally in order to bolster his theories of The Death of the Author, and the “inherently communal nature of language.”

Roget’s Legacy

The sheer size of Roget’s collected works makes assessing his legacy problematic. His groundbreaking research into vanity license plates and food labels brought an immediacy and relevancy usually lacking in contemporary philosophy. Works such as Literature and Vacuum and Words: First Tools of Capitalist Oppression displayed unprecedented linguistic acuity, even while they paradoxically argued that human language was by now a blunted instrument, less “true” than vibrations emanating from insects or dolphins. Yet the researches of CACA unearthed a hurried and less scholarly Roget, absent-mindedly or otherwise including thousands of words of writers as varied as Kant and his own undergraduates without proper attribution. The careful scholar must sift through mounds of Roget’s lifetime logorrhea in order to find the nuggets of original wisdom lurking within. Yet for these it is perhaps worth the whiff of plagiarism and perhaps chauvinism that engulfs them.

Despite the condemnation of Roget’s plagiarism, his works have been too influential to perish. Literature and Vacuum, Words: First Tools of Capitalistic Oppression, Calendar and Subtext and several other books will be read as long as philosophy is taught in universities. In fact, Roget’s first editions are now available on the Internet, and in a recent plagiarism case at the University of Ohio, school officials found that seven students had downloaded Roget’s work for inclusion in term papers as their own. So perhaps Roget was right after all: the words return full circle.


First published in The Satirist

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