The Empty ‘Posturing’ of Žižek and Lacan?

This interview (via Open Culture) will perhaps divide opinion. It follows on quite nicely from John Searle’scomments about Foucault, Bourdieu and continental obscurantism which I found recently. Before I express a view, let me offer a preamble: I own and have read a lot of Žižek books, though the ratio between my owning and my reading of the book is quite telling. I also think that, contra his critics, he can actually write pretty well, though seemingly only in his shorter books i.e. he often doesn’t write well. But I’m also aware that I like Žižek in pretty much the same way I sometimes like going out to get extremely drunk. I like the way that reading a Žižek book involves (to me at least) being engulfed by a torrent of verbosity, with the rapid fire and often barely coherent patchwork quilt of names and ideas being interrupted by those occasional moments of startling lucidity which, in the unpredictable zig-zag between incoherence and insight, work to lend the experience a sense of profundity entirely out of proportion to the actual weight of the propositions being put forward in the text (not a million miles away from the way in which drunken intellectual debates can sometimes feel incredibly profound because they occasionally lead to the unexpected elaboration of preexisting positions in spite of  what is, if you’re honest, the generally low quality of the discussion). So I find it hard not to agree with Chomsky here:

What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing.

Or at least I agree with him up to a point. I don’t know enough about Chomskyan linguistics to substantiate the claim but I’m unsure as to what extent the positivist rhetoric is invoked here for effect and to what extent these are reflective methodological principles. Ironically, what knowledge of Chomskyan linguistics I do have comes largely, I think, from the eclectic (mis)appropriation of interdisciplinary concepts which characterises the work of cultural theorists (fair term?) like Žižek whom I occasionally feel compelled to read. But I do identify with the impulse to differentiate methodologically coherent theorisation, understood as part of a broader endeavour of collective knowledge production, from the kind of Theory represented by Žižek.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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