The Feud Continues: Noam Chomsky Responds to Žižek, Describes Remarks as ‘Sheer Fantasy’


Noam Chom­sky has issued a state­ment in reac­tion to our July 17 post, “Slavoj Žižek Responds to Noam Chom­sky: ‘I Don’t Know a Guy Who Was So Often Empir­i­cal­ly Wrong.’ In an arti­cle post­ed yes­ter­day on ZNet titled “Fan­tasies,”  Chom­sky says Žižek’s crit­i­cism of him is com­plete­ly unground­ed. “Žižek finds noth­ing, lit­er­al­ly noth­ing, that is empir­i­cal­ly wrong,” writes Chom­sky. “That’s hard­ly a sur­prise.”

The rift between the two high-pro­file intel­lec­tu­als began, as you may recall, when Chom­sky crit­i­cized Žižek and oth­er con­ti­nen­tal philoso­phers for essen­tial­ly talk­ing non­sense — for cloak­ing triv­i­al­i­ties in fan­cy lan­guage and using the sci­en­tif­ic-sound­ing term “the­o­ry” to describe propo­si­tions that could nev­er be test­ed empir­i­cal­ly. Žižek lashed back, say­ing of Chom­sky, “I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empir­i­cal­ly wrong.” He went on to crit­i­cize Chom­sky’s con­tro­ver­sial ear­ly posi­tion on Amer­i­can assess­ments of the Khmer Rouge atroc­i­ties in Cam­bo­dia. (To read Žižek’s com­ments, click here to open the ear­li­er post in a new win­dow.) In response yes­ter­day, Chom­sky said he had received numer­ous requests to com­ment on our post:

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 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.

Chom­sky goes on to recount an instance when he says Žižek mis­at­trib­uted a “racist com­ment on Oba­ma” to Chom­sky, only to explain it away lat­er and say that he had dis­cussed the issue with Chom­sky on the tele­phone. “Of course,” writes Chom­sky, “sheer fan­ta­sy.” Chom­sky then moves on to Žižek’s com­ments report­ed by Open Cul­ture, which he says are typ­i­cal of Žižek’s meth­ods. “Accord­ing to him,” writes Chom­sky, “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.”

Chom­sky devotes the rest of his arti­cle to defend­ing his work with Edward Her­man on the Khmer Rouge atroc­i­ties. He claims that no fac­tu­al errors have been found in their work on the sub­ject, and he draws atten­tion to a pas­sage in their book After the Cat­a­clysm, quot­ed last week by Open Cul­ture read­er Poyâ Pâkzâd, in which they write, “our pri­ma­ry con­cern here is not to estab­lish the facts with regard to post­war Indochi­na, but rather to inves­ti­gate their refrac­tion through the prism of West­ern ide­ol­o­gy, a very dif­fer­ent task.”

You can read Chom­sky’s com­plete rebut­tal to Žižek here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Emp­ty ‘Pos­tur­ing’

Slavoj Žižek Responds to Noam Chom­sky: ‘I Don’t Know a Guy Who Was So Often Empir­i­cal­ly Wrong’

Clash of the Titans: Noam Chom­sky & Michel Fou­cault Debate Human Nature & Pow­er on Dutch TV, 1971


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Comments (26)
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  • Ted Lemon says:

    I have to take excep­tion to your head­line here. It gives the impres­sion that the two intel­lec­tu­als are just call­ing each oth­er names. But of course the sub­stance of Chom­sky’s response is that Žižek has claimed to have found errors, but has­n’t actu­al­ly jus­ti­fied this claim. It’s unfor­tu­nate that Chom­sky goes on to use a pejo­ra­tive term to refer to Žižek’s claims, and even more unfor­tu­nate that you choose to men­tion that pejo­ra­tive, rather than sum­ma­riz­ing the sub­stance Chom­sky’s response. I sup­pose it draws more clicks, but pre­sum­ably any­body who’s fol­low­ing Open Cul­ture is at least a bit more dis­cern­ing than the aver­age surfer.

  • David Kilmer says:

    Am I the only one who would like to see a pub­lic debate between these two?

  • Toby says:

    There is a prece­dent for a debate, of course:

  • Michael Corcoran says:

    In the audio com­ments Chom­sky says he would have lit­tle inter­est in hav­ing a talk with Zizek, and says he assumes Zizek has no inter­est as well. So I don’t see an actu­al debate occur­ring any­time soon.

  • Dellu says:

    I don’t know why Chom­sky spends his time respond­ing to a char­la­tan in the first place, while there are still many seri­ous sci­en­tif­ic and polit­i­cal issues to address.

  • Chuck says:

    I am learn­ing that intel­lec­tu­als can quote a lot of info but they don’t seem to like to get their hands dirty. I would rather hang around peo­ple who aren’t “intel­lec­tu­als” and like,to get their hands dirty.

  • herp says:

    It is dis­s­a­point­ing, in Zizek’s excite­ment, he did­n’t address the accu­sa­tion of char­la­tanism. Chom­sky is philo­soph­i­cal­ly igno­rant.

  • Louie Louie says:

    Judg­ing from the ambi­gu­i­ty of Chom­sky’s gram­mat­i­cal struc­ture, it sounds like the dis­agree­ment is nar­cis­sis­tic and self con­grat­u­la­to­ry. I would have to go back and read/listen to the Zizek, but then, isn’t every­thing he says nar­cis­sis­tic and self con­grat­u­la­to­ry, har har. But seri­ous­ly, to declare an all time win­ner, I’m going to go with either Sla­vok Chom­sky or Noam Zizek (is this thing on?).

  • Louise Louise says:

    Don’t get me start­ed…

    But seri­ous­ly, can you say cat­ty. I haven’t seen two grown men argue so vio­lent­ly about noth­ing since they for­got to fill the tro­jan horse with sol­diers, hehe­he, is this thing on?

    But seri­ous­ly, I think there’s some­thing going on behind the scenes here. Like there are Noams and Noam Noams, but what are the unNoam Noams!!!HELLO! IS THIS THING ON!!!!

  • William Large says:

    Why is the­o­ry only some­thing a sci­en­tist can do? I thought the word had a much wider appli­ca­tion than that? I am would rather talk about sci­ence, and what sci­ence does, than loose talk about the­o­ry.

    What is your inter­est in keep­ing this mean­ing­less argu­ment going. It does­n’t real­ly con­tain any­thing of any inter­est. They are nev­er going to agree are they?

  • Lubomir says:

    who’s Zizek?

  • Poyâ Pâkzâd (@PoyaPakzad) says:

    Thx for the men­tion. I could­n’t believe my eyes, when I saw Chom­sky’s ref­er­ence. Made my day to be hon­est.

  • Dan Donaldson says:

    @Louie Louie : “Judg­ing from the ambi­gu­i­ty of Chomsky’s gram­mat­i­cal struc­ture, it sounds like the dis­agree­ment is nar­cis­sis­tic and self con­grat­u­la­to­ry.”

    I’ve read this three times and I have no idea what you mean. It’s a bit like read­ing Zizek in that regard.

    At this point in his career, Chom­sky does­n’t have to defend him­self against slights regard­ing his abil­i­ty to read and under­stand things. He (and his inter­locu­tor) do need to address sub­stan­tive issues, and for him the sub­stan­tive issue is that Zizek is a shal­low, hol­low voice whose end­less pro­nounce­ments can’t be parsed for actu­al mean­ing. If Chom­sky says that he’s tried to do so, I believe that he has, because he’d rather defeat Zizek on the sub­stance of what he says. But if he finds no sub­stance, then “char­la­tan” is a fair use of the term.

    Zizek’s rejoin­der is com­plete­ly emp­ty; crit­i­cis­ing Chom­sky on issues unre­lat­ed to his thought. Zizek’s basic tool is to make Chom­sky’s pro­nounce­ments on the Khmer Rouge syn­ony­mous with approval: that was­n’t the case then, and cer­tain­ly not now, but if he made a mis­take, well at least he was mak­ing state­ments that can be held up against a stan­dard of ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty, unlike Zizek.

  • Vince says:

    I’m feel­ing Open­cul­ture is being a bit biased in recent posts regard­ing the ana­lyt­ic-con­ti­nen­tal divide…

  • Dublin says:

    Truce. I need them both :

    - Chom­sky for Under­stand­ing
    — Zizek for Enter­tain­ment

  • Vince says:

    I think the exact oppo­site. Curi­ous.

  • Sloane says:

    Chom­sky did have a ‘the­o­ry’ once but seems to have left it behind.  It was called Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent, basi­cal­ly an argu­ment for an NPR or a BBC as opposed to pri­vate media with its com­mer­cial bias­es.  It is couched in a sci­en­tif­ic pos­i­tivist for­mat.

    Now he mere­ly writes one darn fact after anoth­er, often with the rhetor­i­cal ges­ture of quot­ing the facts from the ene­my, the Finan­cial Times etc.  It would be as if Das Kap­i­tal mere­ly list­ed fac­to­ry con­di­tions, with­out explain­ing how peo­ple come to believe or are forced into accept­ing these con­di­tions as the nat­ur­al way of life.

    Zizek’s prob­lem is some­times com­part­men­tal­iza­tion: this is meta­physics, eg, con­cept of non-all; this is pol­i­tics, health­care; and this is Lacan. His books tail off into digres­sions, and dead ends, ok the tv is laugh­ing for me, nice, but so what. An ency­clo­pe­dia in three parts would be nice.

  • dirkin says:

    it’s fun­ny: I was excit­ed by the prospect of Zizek when I saw his doc­u­men­tary on film. then, the more I read or heard him say, the more I lost inter­est. I’m real­ly suprised that Chom­sky even both­ered to com­ment on him at this point… lol!

  • Sloane says:

    I did not find that analy­sis at Znet help­ful.
    He repeats this notion that an indif­fer­ent 12 year old is the bench­mark for some­one who has spent decades study­ing French, Ger­man, Ital­ian, and Eng­lish phi­los­o­phy. Would you expect that of any oth­er aca­d­e­m­ic group, rock­et sci­en­tists? Medics? Map mak­ers?

    The whole thing is a con­fu­sion of roles, Chom­sky has the role of a jour­nal­ist, he does not read phi­los­o­phy, sci­ence or the­o­ry. He was a sci­en­tist, but that is in the past, it was a dif­fer­ent sci­ence any­how, lin­guis­tics. It is in fact Chom­sky who pos­es as the philoso­pher! And why not since he’s very good at it.

    Now Zizek also does jour­nal­ism and with­out those poly­syl­lab­ic words like “mar­malade”. I’d defy any­one on here not to under­stand them.

    Inevitably in his philo­soph­i­cal writ­ings terms of art, ref­er­ences to com­plex authors etc., will appear, and it is expect­ed that cer­tain the­o­ry is already under­stood by the read­er, like a basic knowl­edge of phi­los­o­phy or access to such work. But you should not expect pure clar­i­ty about mat­ters that are in their very real­i­ty mud­dy and abstract.

  • Sean says:

    Check out my take on Zizek vs. Chom­sky and can­ni­bal­ism amongst the Left’s intel­lec­tu­al elite:

  • slutocrat says:

    there is a big lie going on.nnn

  • says:


    Your link is empir­i­cal­ly wrong! The cor­rect, ortho­dox one, on ZNet is this:

  • James Briggs says:

    Chom­sky’s polit­i­cal state­ments are nei­ther sci­en­tif­ic nor emper­i­cal. They serve a use­ful pur­pose snd that is we must con­stant­ly look at both sides, Chom­ski’s polit­i­cal state­ments are suposed to be part of sny debate.

  • Chris says:

    Well said! The ambi­gu­i­ty of his gram­mat­i­cal struc­ture? WTF? It sounds like Jor­dan Peter­son wrote that com­ment.

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