Update: Chomsky and Žižek

Since my last post on this, Chomsky and Žižek have replied to each other. I’m not going to spend long on this, but feel that since I decided to talk about what was, it is now clear, a preliminary stage of the argument I should say something about the more developed stage.

Chomsky’s reply does not say much about the original issue, whether or not Žižek’s work is true theory or just posturing, whether theory must confirm to potential verification by empirical facts. This is appropriate because Žižek didn’t spend much time on it either. It is largely just picking apart the things that Žižek said and alleging that the latter has a tendency to rely on unreliable sources.

Žižek’s second reply, although he seems to want us to consider it his first claiming that he was caught off guard in the first one and ‘improvising’ on the spot,  is largely a rebuttal of these accusations and clarifications of his preliminary critique of Chomsky’s work. Although this piece has been described as “very clearly written”, an assessment I would contest,  and is quite lengthy and covers quite a lot, it does not really say anything new on the issue of whether theory is essentially bound up with the empirical verification of propositions. There are however two noteworthy points.

First, he clarifies what he meant by ‘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.’

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.

He adds a further example, ‘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.’ This seems, to me, to confirm what I said in the previous post: Žižek is just saying that there are plenty of facts available without concrete statistics.

Second, while Žižek does start to tackle the original argument Chomsky made head on, he only engages with the less important point (point 2 from my last post).

I think that that the differences in our political positions are so minimal that they cannot really account for the thoroughly dismissive tone of Chomsky’s attack on me. Our conflict is really about something else—it is simply a new chapter in the endless gigantomachy between so-called continental philosophy and the Anglo-Saxon empiricist tradition. There is nothing specific in Chomsky’s critique—the same accusations of irrationality, of empty posturing, of playing with fancy words, were heard hundreds of times against Hegel, against Heidegger, against Derrida, etc.

Žižek is responding to the typical anti-continental philosophy slur, not to the more interesting and more serious argument that all theory must be grounded in empirical data. The dismissal of continental philosophy did not require a response, but it some how takes up most of the last section of the piece.

Žižek’s only real argument on this point is to say that the ‘continental tradition’ (a term that makes me cringe) ‘although often difficult to decode’ is very important and necessary ‘in order to grasp the difficult predicament we are in today’. He then finishes on a passing school yard slur that is no more respectable than Chomsky’s own:

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?

In short, neither figure has said anything that contradicts what I said in my last post. Chomsky hasn’t said anything justifiable, Žižek hasn’t criticised him. This is no “Academic Rumble in the Jungle”, as the publisher of Chomsky’s forthcoming book would have us call it, because there is no substantial debate occurring. All we have a catty sparring match.

I’m not citing the publisher’s boxing analogy because I don’t want it to trigger some sort of statistic. I already feel shamed enough for, in my own small way, contributing to the online suggestion that any of this is worthy of attention. The only thing to me that is worthy of attention in this debate is that it is not worthy of attention.

When Leibniz and Spinoza met in The Hague and debated for hours, no record was kept of their discussion. This was a grave cultural loss. Yet, that this spat has been recorded is not a prevention of a cultural loss. It is an indication of one even more grave. If this is the way that the academic heavy-weights of the left debate each other as we stand in the midst of  ‘the predicament we are in’  then the left is in trouble.

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