Žižek vs Chomsky: Is a pointless spat becoming a meaningful debate?

A quick round up of this spat which was entirely a creation of the internet – the opening salvos were entirely asynchronous, throwaway remarks in public talks that were plucked from obscurity by diligent web editors seeking to avoid their real work (unlike this post obviously). It began with Chomsky:

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.

Then a related set of critical remarks began to circulate:

Then Žižek responded to Chomsky in a public talk at Birkbeck, transcription here provided by EsJayBe – see their site for the full transcription and the audio itself:

What is that about, again, the academy and Chomsky and so on? Well with all deep respect that I do have for Chomsky, my first point is that Chomsky who always emphasises how one has to be empirical, accurate, not just some crazy Lacanian speculations and so on… well I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong in his descriptions in his whatever! Let’s look… I remember when he defended this demonisation of Khmer Rouge. And he wrote a couple of texts claiming: “no this is western propaganda. Khmer Rouge are not as horrible as that.” And when later he was compelled to admit that Khmer Rouge were not the nicest guys in the universe and so on, his defence was quite shocking for me. It was that “no, with the data that we had at that point, I was right. At that point we didn’t yet know enough, so… you know” but I totally reject this line of reasoning.

For example, concerning Stalinism. The point is not that you have to know, you have to photo evidence of gulag or whatever. My god you just have to listen to the public discourse of Stalinism, of Khmer Rouge, to get it that something terrifyingly pathological is going on there. For example, Khmer Rouge: even if we have no data about their prisons and so on, isn’t it in a perverse way almost fascinating to have a regime which in the first two years (’75 to ’77) behaved towards itself, treated itself, as illegal. You know the regime was nameless. It was called ‘alka’ [?] an organisation – not communist party of Cambodia – an organisation. Leaders were nameless. If you ask ‘who is my leader?’ your head was chopped off immediately and so on.

Ok, next point about Chomsky, you know the consequence of this attitude of his empirical and so on – and that’s my basic difference with him – and precisely Corey Robinson and some other people talking with him recently confirmed this to me. His idea is today that cynicism of those in power is so open that we dont need any critique of ideology, you read symptomatically between the lines, everything is cynically openly admitted, we just have to bring out the facts of people. Like ‘this company is profiting in Iraq’ and so on and so on. Here I violently disagree.

Then Chomsky replies on ZNet, clearly donning his figurative boxing gloves at this stage:

I’ve received a number of requests to comment on the post: “Slavoj Žižek Responds to Noam Chomsky: ‘I Don’t Know a Guy Who Was So Often Empirically Wrong’” (http://www.openculture.com/2013/07/slavoj-zizek-responds-to-noam-chomsky.html).

I had read it, with some interest, hoping to learn something from it, and given the title, to find some errors that should be corrected – of course they exist in virtually anything that reaches print, even technical scholarly monographs, as one can see by reading reviews in the professional journals. And when I find them or am informed about them I correct them.

But not here. Žižek finds nothing, literally nothing, that is empirically wrong. That’s hardly a surprise. Anyone who claims to find empirical errors, and is minimally serious, will at the very least provide a few particles of evidence – some quotes, references, at least something. But there is nothing here – which, I’m afraid, doesn’t surprise me either. I’ve come across instances of Žižek’s concept of empirical fact and reasoned argument.

For example, in the Winter 2008 issue of the German cultural journal Lettre International, Žižek attributed to me a racist comment on Obama by Silvio Berlusconi. I ignored it. Anyone who strays from ideological orthodoxy is used to this kind of treatment. However, an editor of Harper’s magazine, Sam Stark, was interested and followed it up. In the January 2009 issue he reports the result of his investigation. Žižek said he was basing the attribution on something he had read in a Slovenian magazine. A marvelous source, if it even exists. And anyway, he continued, attributing to me a racist comment about Obama is not a criticism, because I should have made such remarks as “a fully admissible characterization in our political and ideological struggle.” I leave it others to decode. When asked about this by Slovene journalist/activist Igor Vidman, Žižek answered that he had discussed it with me over the phone and I had agreed with him:http://www.vest.si/2009/01/31/zizkov-kulturni-boj/. Of course, sheer fantasy.

It’s not the only case. In fact, he provides us with a good example of his practice in these comments. According to him, I claim that “we don’t need any critique of ideology” – that is, we don’t need what I’ve devoted enormous efforts to for many years. His evidence? He heard that from some people who talked to me. Sheer fantasy again, but another indication of his concept of empirical fact and rational discussion.

Accordingly, I did not expect much.

Before Žižek replies in a way which, for the most part, seems astonishingly reasonable and holds out the potential that this spat might be upgraded into a debate:

For me, on the contrary, the problem is here a very rational one: everything hinges on how we define “ideology.” If one defines and uses this term the way I do (and I am not alone here: my understanding echoes a long tradition of so-called Western Marxism), then one has to conclude that what Chomsky is doing in his political writings is very important, I have great admiration and respect for it, but it is emphatically not critique of ideology. Let me indicate what I mean by this. […]

My underlying thesis is here that no effective ideology simply lies: an ideology is never a simple mystification obfuscating the hidden reality of domination and exploitation; the atrocious reality obfuscated and mystified by an ideology has to register, to leave traces, in the explicit ideological text itself, in the guise of its inconsistencies, gaps, etc. The Stalinist show trials were, of course, a brutal travesty of justice concealing breath-taking brutality, but to see this, it is not necessary to know the reality behind them—the public face of the trials, the puppet-like monstrosity of public confessions, etc., made this abundantly clear. In a homologous way, one doesn’t have to know how Jews really were to guess that the Nazi accusations against them were a fake—a close look at these accusations makes it clear that we are dealing with paranoiac fantasies. […]

And he goes on and on in the same vein, repeating how he doesn’t see anything to what I’m saying, how he cannot discern in my texts any traces of rational examination of facts, how my work displays empty posturing not to be taken seriously, etc. A weird statement, measured by his professed standards of respect for empirical facts and rational argumentation: there are no citations (which, in this case, can be excused, since we are dealing with a radio interview), but also not even the vaguest mentions of any of my ideas. Did he decode any of my “fancy words” and indicate how what one gets is “something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old”? There are no political references in his first attack (and in this domain, as far as I can see, I much more often than not agree with him). I did a couple of short political books on 9/11 (Welcome to the Desert of the Real), on the war in Iraq (Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle), on the 2008 financial meltdown (First as Tragedy, then as Farce), which appear to me written in a quite accessible way and dealing with quite a lot of facts—do they also contain nothing but empty posturing? In short, is Chomsky in his thorough dismissal of my work not doing exactly what he is accusing me of: clinging to the empty posture of total rejection with no further ado?

I think one can convincingly show that the continental tradition in philosophy, although often difficult to decode, and sometimes—I am the first to admit this—defiled by fancy jargon, remains in its core a mode of thinking which has its own rationality, inclusive of respect for empirical data. And I furthermore think that, in order to grasp the difficult predicament we are in today, to get an adequate cognitive mapping of our situation, one should not shirk the resorts of the continental tradition in all its guises, from the Hegelian dialectics to the French “deconstruction.” Chomsky obviously doesn’t agree with me here. So what if—just another fancy idea of mine—what if Chomsky cannot find anything in my work that goes “beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old because” because, when he deals with continental thought, it is his mind which functions as the mind of a twelve-year-old, the mind which is unable to distinguish serious philosophical reflection from empty posturing and playing with empty words?

I wonder if the Verso editorial team have designs on making a book out of this yet. The only other winner is the academic blogosphere, with its newfound ability to mimic the internet more broadly and start fights through the force of brute connectivity.

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