The Chomsky-Žižek beef shows why political action needs theory

A weird debate has been playing out between two of the left’s most well-known thinkers. I have to admit that Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek‘s often catty exchange holds some of the same celebrity-feud appeal for me that the Jay Z/Nas rivalry once did, and I’m discussing it now at the risk of sensationalizing it. I’m doing so anyway, because there’s actually a lot of substance to the back-and-forth that sheds light on what might be the fundamental problem for political thought and action today. 

An important leader of the left once wrote that, “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement.” At its core, I think the disagreement between Chomsky and Žižek is a disagreement about whether – and in what sense – this is really so. Beneath the mudslinging, the crucial question is this: What can philosophy do, and what role should it play in a project of mass mobilization and radical transformation?

Although Žižek had voiced criticism of Chomsky as early as 2003, the spat began in earnest last December when Chomsky was asked in a radio interview for his take on both the importance of theory in Žižek’s work as well as some of Žižek’s major influences, including Jacques Lacan. Chomsky’s reply:

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. Žižek is an extreme example of it.

The argument here is twofold: On one level, Žižek’s writing is full of jargon so as to obscure its real meaning, which isn’t very complex or sophisticated at all. But the simplistic ideas behind the jargon aren’t even useful: In order to be “serious”, theory must be theory in the scientific sense, that is, “empirically testable propositions” that can be measured and falsified.

Chomsky doesn’t give an example of a particular theory of Žižek’s that could be explained to a 12-year-old, but his comments are actually fairly typical of the major rift within Euro-American philosophy through the 20th century and into the 21st: It’s the complaint most often lodged against philosophers in the so-called continental tradition by “analytic” philosophers.

The terms “continental” and “analytic” are misleading, of course: Some of the analytic tradition’s central figures were natives of continental Europe, and today most philosophy departments in the US, the UK, and continental Western Europe are dominated by analytic philosophy. Conversely, the continental tradition is rich with insightful analysis, and especially since the 1970s, has exerted a huge influence on the humanities – including film theory – at British and US universities. The category of “continental philosophy”, moreover, is so broad as to include schools of thought that have little in common on key questions. 

As it’s usually understood, the analytic-continental split revolves around questions about what philosophy can, or should, do: Does philosophy have to limit itself to “empirically testable propositions” if it is to tell us anything reliable about the world, or does philosophy, on the contrary, need to pose abstract questions about our being in the world if we are to understand and change it? Although Chomsky doesn’t consider himself a philosopher, he has grappled with this tension before, most famously in his televised 1971 debate with Michel Foucault

When asked about Chomsky’s criticisms during a panel discussion in July, Žižek begins by replying to Chomsky’s personal attack in kind: “With all deep respect that I do have for Chomsky…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”.

By way of an example, he refers to an unspecified piece of writing by Chomsky on the Khmer Rouge, in which Chomsky presents evidence that Western media reports of atrocities between 1975 and ’79 were largely fabricated. “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.'”

What Žižek takes issue with here aren’t Chomsky’s facts. And he certainly doesn’t claim that the facts are irrelevant, or totally subjective interpretations of an unknowable reality. Rather, he argues that laying out “the facts” doesn’t tell the whole story: “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.” In other words, “the facts” themselves aren’t enough if we want to understand why things change, and why they stay the same: We need a critique of the ideology that structures our entire reality.

Tellingly, in a short piece responding to Žižek, Chomsky mostly deals with the question of facts, insisting the chapter was reviewed by leading Cambodia scholars before its publication, and that to this day, no errors have been found. His essay is clear and well-argued, but he seems to miss Žižek’s point – that the disagreement is about methodology rather than facts.

Chomsky does, however, insist that he’s spent quite a lot of time critiquing ideology; and if by ideology we mean the lies the ruling class tells to justify and cover up their crimes, then he’s absolutely right. But as Žižek points out in his written response to Chomsky’s rebuttal, for him (and the long tradition of “Western Marxism”), ideology means something quite different. Ideology, rather, is “a set of explicit and implicit, even unspoken, ethico-political and other positions, decision, choices, etc., which predetermine our perception of facts, what we tend to emphasize or to ignore, how we organize facts into a consistent whole of a narrative or a theory.”

What Chomsky neglects, according to Žižek, is ideology in the sense of implicit bias and ordering principle, rather than explicit doctrine of the elite. Žižek quotes at length from a 1977 Nation article by Chomsky and Edward Herman in which he discerns Chomsky’s own ideology at work. His point is not that Chomsky sympathizes with the Khmer Rouge, but that his implicit biases (against US imperialism, for example) led him to lend more credence to those who downplayed the Khmer Rouge’s human rights abuses. 

Some of the theory that Chomsky dismisses as both too simplistic and too obscure may, in fact, be both of those things. But the basic project of critical theory, including Žižek’s, is to examine an empirical reality that can’t be fully explained, much less challenged, by only dealing with “empirically testable propositions”. While it’s essential to show how and why the government and corporations kill, exploit, and lie – something Chomsky does brilliantly – the task Žižek takes up seems to me to be just as crucial:

[I]n order to explain how people often remain within their ideology even when they are forced to admit facts, one has to supplement investigation and disclosure of facts by the analysis of ideology which not only makes people blind to the full horror of facts but also enables them to participate in activities which generate these atrocious facts while maintaining the appearance of human dignity.

Readers of this blog know that while I spend a lot of time looking at the reality of power today, I always come back to the question of why people accept and participate in the violence without which that concentration of power would be unthinkable.

Chomsky is known for critiquing the way the media manage public opinion by defending and covering up state and corporate wrongdoing. And yet, systemic injustice and elite criminality are discussed openly in even the most mainstream films, TV, and print media. We have more agency than we know: We aren’t just automatons whose obedience depends on “the truth” being kept from us. If we were, then learning the truth about torturemass murdereconomic exploitation, and ecological catastrophe would radically change our attitude towards power. Empirically, it hasn’t.

It’s precisely our human capacity to fill in the raw materials of reality with our own subjectivity – and how and why we’ve learned to write it off – that I want to continue to explore here. Whether it’s our action or inaction, conscious or unconscious, that’s at work, the fact remains: We’re irreducibly responsible for it.

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3 thoughts on “The Chomsky-Žižek beef shows why political action needs theory

  1. Pingback: No post this week | The Red Fury

  2. Pingback: Violence reconsidered | The Red Fury

  3. You’ve done a great job explaining what all the fuss is about. It’s quite disturbing to read personal attacks being exchanged between the left’s two influential thinkers. Who started it all? Chomsky’s belittling of Žižek’s work is truly unfair and unfounded. Why doesn’t he engage Žižek in a long-overdue and consequential discussion over the role of ideology in our private and public lives? Chomsky has an incomparable understanding of the inner workings of American imperialism around the world, but precisely because of that he tends to dismiss the role others play in shaping events and policies. A stark example is his attacks on Mearsheimer and Walt’s work for arguing that America’s unconditional support of Israel is the result of the relentless and effective lobby in the United States, which makes any criticism of Israel’s policies a political suicide.

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