The Insufficiency of Žižek’s Response to Chomsky

So, there’s been a bit of a recent spat between Chomsky and Žižek. My source for this is this page and the sources it cites. Chomsky has said that “there’s no theory” in the work of figures like Žižek and Lacan, “not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all the work […] 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.”

So, in Žižek and similar figures, (1) there isn’t a theory that can be tested empirically. Further, (2) what is there, once the obscure terminology has been translated into plain everyday speech can be explained to a twelve-year-old in five minutes. It is, therefore, just posturing. Point 2 is a fairly typical Anglophone critique of “continental” philosophy and there is little surprising in it. It is, however, not worth engaging with and it is no surprise or crime that Žižek doesn’t. Point 1, however, is an assertion of the necessity for empirical method in theoretical investigation that, whilst also unsurprising and untenable, is a genuine argument and requires a proper response. Žižek’s response, however, does not really engage with this properly.

Before continuing, I must note that he makes two arguments against Chomsky. The second is going on the offensive, criticising Chomsky’s work directly. I’m not going to speak about this, not being qualified to arbitrate between the two figures. But the first response, the counter argument to Chomsky’s criticism, stays within the general territory of a disputation about method. Žižek’s first point is to pick up on a factual political situation that Chomsky was wrong about.

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.”

So, the first point is that, despite prizing an empirical method of testing theory against empirical facts (point 1 above), Chomsky personally finds himself stating empirically wrong things. Next:

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.

So far so good. Chomsky is forced in the position of saying that, given the evidence available, a sceptical position was the only rational one to maintain. Žižek “totally rejects” this line of reasoning and it sounds like we are going to get a critique of the empirical method. But, we don’t.

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.

This ends his argument, an argument which strikes me as odd. While he has started of “totally rejecting” the line of reasoning that says we need empirical facts before discerning the truth, his argument against Chomsky seems to only be that there were plenty of facts available already to discern the truth of Khmer Rouge. Perhaps there were no scientific statistics, but there was a discourse and certain events happening that we “just have to listen to” to know that something “terrifyingly pathological is going on”.

Now, this may well be a legitimate argument against Chomsky’s particular position on this particular issue. But it is not a critique of point 1: theories must be proven by facts, Žižek has no theories that can be tested against facts. At most, we can read Žižek as saying that the facts speak for themselves, but this is not a sufficient response since Chomsky can just say we need a theory to interpret those facts and if the theory adequately conforms with the facts we can assent to it. If Žižek does this, then he is a proper thinker. Good for him.

Žižek has not “totally disagreed” with Chomsky at all. He has accepted the way in which the latter has framed the debate entirely and just quipped at a point where the empirical Chomsky was not empirical enough. What was needed here is a critique of the presumption that all genuine discourse must conform explicitly to what we call the “scientific method”, a method designed specifically for predicting natural rather than human phenomena, a method resting on presuppositions that have been brought into question by the discoveries of phenomenology and historical philosophy.

It is one thing to respond to Chomsky by, to borrow an expression from Foucault, “spreading over everything a dust of facts” of which he was unaware. But, to do so only adds weight to his argument. And, while Žižek’s second set of arguments attacking Chomsky directly by emphasising a need to think about ideology and critique it and that we cannot just bring facts to the fore to counter political problems does seem to head in the direction of a critique of political empiricism, it is only a practical critique. Digging up facts doesn’t work, so we need something else. There is no essential criticism of Chomsky’s stance. And, further, Chomsky’s explicit argument was not about facts but about theory: theories are only theories when they are testable against empirical facts.

Chomsky was not saying, “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.” as Žižek has him say. What he was saying was that, even in the absence of actual facts, theory must be geared towards its proof or disproof by the presentation of possible facts. This is an untenable thesis, and it is disappointing that Žižek makes no attempt to counter it.

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