Earlier this month we posted an excerpt from an interview in which linguist Noam Chomsky slams the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, along with the late French theorists Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, for cloaking trivial ideas in obscure and inflated language to make them seem profound.
“There’s no ‘theory’ in any of this stuff,” Chomsky says to an interviewer who had asked him about the three continental thinkers, “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. Žižek is an extreme example of it.”
Chomsky’s remarks sparked a heated debate on Open Culture and elsewhere. Many readers applauded Chomsky; others said he just didn’t get it. On Friday, Žižek addressed some of Chomsky’s criticisms during a panel discussion with a group of colleagues at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London:
Žižek’s remarks about Chomsky don’t appear until about the one-hour, 30-minute mark, but Sam Burgum, a PhD student at the University of York, has transcribed the pertinent statements and posted them on his site, EsJayBe. Here are the key passages:
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 emphasizes 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 demonstration 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 defense 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 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 “Angka,” an organization — not communist party of Cambodia — an organization. Leaders were nameless. If you ask “Who is my leader?” your head was chopped off immediately and so on.
Okay, 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 don’t need any critique of ideology, you reach 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.
First, more than ever today, our daily life is ideology. how can you doubt ideology when recntly I think Paul Krugman published a relatively good text where he demonstrated how this idea of austerity, this is not even good bourgeois economic theory! It’s a kind of a primordial, common-sense magical thinking when you confront a crisis, “Oh, we must have done something wrong, we spent too much so let’s economize and so on and so on.”
My second point, cynicists are those who are most prone to fall into illusions. Cynicists are not people who see things the way they really are and so on. Think about 2008 and the ongoing financial crisis. It was not cooked up in some crazy welfare state; social democrats who are spending too much. The crisis exploded because of activity of those other cynicists who precisely thought “screw human rights, screw dignity, all that maters is,” and so on and so on.
So as this “problem” of are we studying the facts enough I claim emphatically more than ever “no” today. And as to popularity, I get a little bit annoyed with this idea that we with our deep sophisms are really hegemonic in the humanities. Are people crazy? I mean we are always marginal. No, what is for me real academic hegemony: it’s brutal. Who can get academic posts? Who can get grants, foundations and so on? We are totally marginalized here. I mean look at my position: “Oh yeah, you are a mega-star in United States.” Well, I would like to be because I would like power to brutally use it! But I am far from that. I react so like this because a couple of days ago I got a letter from a friend in United States for whom I wrote a letter of recommendation, and he told me “I didn’t get the job, not in spite of your letter but because of your letter!” He had a spy in the committee and this spy told him “You almost got it, but then somebody says “Oh, if Žižek recommends him it must be something terribly wrong with him.”
So I claim that all these “how popular we are” is really a mask of… remember the large majority of academia are these gray either cognitivists or historians blah blah… and you don’t see them but they are the power. They are the power. On the other hand, why are they in power worried? Because you know… don’t exaggerate this leftist paranoia idea that ”we can all be recuperated” and so on and so on. No! I still quite naively believe in the efficiency of theoretical thinking. It’s not as simple as to recuperate everything in. But you know there are different strategies of how to contain us. I must say that I maybe am not innocent in this, because people like to say about me, “Oh, go and listen to him, he is an amusing clown blah blah blah.” This is another way to say “Don’t take it seriously.”