I've received a number of requests to comment on the post: “Slavoj Žižek Responds to Noam Chomsky: ‘I Don’t Know a Guy Who Was So Often Empirically Wrong’” (http://www.openculture.com/2013/07/slavoj-zizek-responds-to-noam-chomsky.html).
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 the 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.
For example, in the Winter 2008 issue of the German cultural journal Lettre International, Žižek attributed to me a racist comment on Obama by Silvio Berlusconi. I ignored it. Anyone who strays from ideological orthodoxy is used to this kind of treatment. However, an editor of Harper’s magazine, Sam Stark, was interested and followed it up. In the January 2009 issue he reports the result of his investigation. Žižek said he was basing the attribution on something he had read in a Slovenian magazine. A marvelous source, if it even exists. And anyway, he continued, attributing to me a racist comment about Obama is not a criticism, because I should have made such remarks as “a fully admissible characterization in our political and ideological struggle.” I leave it others to decode. When asked about this by Slovene journalist/activist Igor Vidman, Žižek answered that he had discussed it with me over the phone and I had agreed with him: http://www.vest.si/2009/01/31/zizkov-kulturni-boj/. Of course, sheer fantasy.
It’s not the only case. In fact, he provides us with a good example of his practice in these comments. According to him, 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.
Accordingly, I did not expect much.
Žižek’s sole example is this: “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.”
Let’s turn the empirical facts that Žižek finds so boring.
Žižek cites nothing, but he is presumably referring to joint work of mine with Edward Herman in the ‘70s (Political Economy of Human Rights) and again a decade later in Manufacturing Consent, where we review and respond to the charges that Žižek apparently has in mind. In PEHR we discussed a great many illustrations of Herman’s distinction between worthy and unworthy victims. The worthy victims are those whose fate can be attributed to some official enemy, the unworthy ones are the victims of our own state and its crimes. The two prime examples on which we focused were Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in the same years. A long chapter is devoted to each. These are very telling examples: comparable atrocities, in the same region, in the same years. Victims of the Khmer Rouge are “worthy victims,” whose fate can be blamed on an enemy. The Timorese are “unworthy victims,” because we are responsible for their fate: the Indonesian invasion was approved by Washington and fully supported right through the worst atrocities, labeled “genocidal” by a later UN investigation, but with ample evidence right at the time, as we documented. We showed that in both cases there was extraordinary lying, on a scale that would have impressed Stalin, but in opposite directions: in the case of the KR vast fabrication of alleged crimes, recycling of charges after they were conceded to be false, ignoring of the most credible evidence, etc. In the case of ET, in contrast, mostly silence, or else denial.
The two cases are of course not identical. The ET case is incomparably more significant, because the atrocities could have easily been brought to an end, as they finally were in September 1999, merely by an indication from Washington that the game is over. In contrast, no one had any proposal as to what might be done to end KR atrocities. And when a Vietnamese invasion brought them to an end in 1979, the Vietnamese were harshly condemned by the government and the media, and punished, and the US turned at once to diplomatic and military support for the KR. At that point commentary virtually ceased: the Cambodians had become unworthy victims, under attack by their KR torturers backed by Washington. Similarly, they had been unworthy victims prior to the KR takeover in April 1975 because they were under vicious assault by the United States in the most intensive bombing in history, at the level of all allied bombing in the Pacific theater during World II, directed against the defenseless rural society, following the orders transmitted by Henry Kissinger: “anything that flies on anything that moves.” Accordingly little was said about their miserable fate, then or until today.
Cambodia scholars have pointed out that there has been more investigation of Cambodia from April 1975 through 1978 than for the rest of its entire history. Again, not surprising, given the ideological utility of the suffering of worthy victims, another topic that we discussed.
In these books and elsewhere we compiled extensive documentation showing that the pattern is quite normal: Cambodia under the KR (but, crucially, not before and after) and ET constitute a particularly dramatic example. We also observed that the pattern cannot be perceived, giving many examples and offering the obvious explanation.
What we wrote about the vastly more important case of ET, then and since, has been virtually ignored. The same is true of what we and others have written about Cambodia during the periods when they were unworthy victims, under US attack. In contrast, a considerable industry had been created, with much hysteria, seeking to find some errors in our review of the evidence on Cambodia under the KR and how it was treated – so far, without success. I am sure I speak for Ed Herman in saying that we’d be glad to have it reprinted right now, along with the much more important work on the unworthy victims, just as we were happy to review the facts and the storm of criticism a decade later.
It is not too surprising that no errors have been found. We did little more than review what was in print, making it very clear – as one of the commentators on Žižek quotes – that “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,” and a far simpler one. We wrote that we cannot know what the actual facts are, but suggested that commentators keep to the truth, and that they pay attention to the documentary record and the most qualified observers, in particular to the conclusions we quoted from US State Department intelligence, recognized to be the most knowledgeable source. Furthermore, the chapter was carefully read by most of the leading Cambodia scholars before publication. So the lack of errors is no great surprise.
Of much greater general interest is the fact that to this day, those who are completely in the grip of western propaganda adhere religiously to the prescribed doctrine: a show of great indignation about the KR years and our accurate review of the information available, along with streams of falsification; and silence about the vastly more significant cases of ET and Cambodia under US attack, before and after the KR years. Žižek’s comments are a perfect illustration.
As the reader can easily determine, Žižek provides not the slightest evidence to support his charges, but simply repeats what he has probably heard – or perhaps read in a Slovenian journal. No less interesting is Žižek’s shock that we used the data that were available. He “totally rejects” this procedure. There is no need to comment on a remark that gives irrationality a bad name.
The remainder of Žižek’s comments have no relation to anything I’ve said or written, so I will ignore them.
A question remains as to why such performances are taken seriously, but I’ll put that aside as well.
Since Noam Chomsky’s “Fantasies” (July 21, 2013) present themselves as a reaction to my reply to his interview with a critical dismissal of my work, a brief clarification is needed. What Chomsky refers to as my “reply” is a non-authorized and not accurate transcription of my answer to a question from the public during a recent debate at Birkbeck college in London. As it would be clear from a full transcription, at that moment I didn’t even know about Chomsky’s attack on me—I was just asked what do I think about his total dismissal of my work (together with that of Lacan and Derrida) as a case of fanciful posturing without any foundation in empirical facts and scientific reasoning, and I improvised a reaction on the spot. Chomsky’s remark that I “cite nothing” to justify my claim about his inaccuracies is thus ridiculous—how could I have done it in an improvised reply to an unexpected question? Probably to illustrate my disrespect for facts, Chomsky also dwells on the characterization of Obama that I wrongly attributed to him; there is no mystery about it, upon learning about my mistake, I unambiguously apologized—here is the text of my apology (from Harper’s magazine):
In attributing to Noam Chomsky the statement that Obama is a white guy who took some sun-tanning sessions, I repeated an untrue claim which appeared in Slovene media, so I can only offer my unreserved and unconditional apology.I would like to add that, even if the statement I falsely attributed to Chomsky were to be truly made by him, I would not consider it a patronizingly racist slur, but a fully admissible characterization in our political and ideological struggle. There are African-American intellectuals who allow themselves to be fully co-opted into the white-liberal academic establishment, and they are loved by the establishment precisely because they seem “one of us,” white with a darkened skin. This is why, I think, the statement I falsely attributed to Chomsky does NOT amount to the same as Silvio Berlusconi’s misleadingly similar characterization of Obama as beautiful and well tanned: Berlusconi’s remark dismissed Obama’s blackness as an endearing eccentricity, thus obliterating the historical meaning of the fact that an African-American was elected President, while the remark I falsely attributed to Chomsky, if accurate, would point towards the ambiguous way Obama’s blackness can be instrumentalized to obfuscate our crucial political and economic struggles.
I added the long second paragraph not to qualify my apology, but to make it clear that I never accused Chomsky of making a racist comment (as was Berlusconi’s quip). I find it a little bit mysterious why Chomsky dwells on this event which, if anything, proves my respect for empirical facts, i.e., my readiness to admit a mistake when I am empirically wrong! So is Chomsky ready to apologize when he reaches the lowest point of his attack in his claim that, in my reproaches to him concerning the way he deals with Khmer Rouge atrocities, I endorse the
distinction between worthy and unworthy victims. The worthy victims are those whose fate can be attributed to some official enemy, the unworthy ones are the victims of our own state and its crimes. The two prime examples on which we focused were Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in the same years. ... to this day, those who are completely in the grip of western propaganda adhere religiously to the prescribed doctrine: a show of great indignation about the KR years and our accurate review of the information available, along with streams of falsification; and silence about the vastly more significant cases of ET and Cambodia under US attack, before and after the KR years. Žižek’s comments are a perfect illustration.
All I can say is that I simply agree with these lines (with the exception of the last sentence, of course). Not only do I agree, but I was making the same point repeatedly, even mentioning East Timor, as in the following passage from my Welcome to the Desert of the Real:
Why should the World Trade Center catastrophe be in any way privileged over, say, the mass slaughter of Hutus by Tutsis in Ruanda in 1999? Or the mass bombing and gas-poisoning of Kurds in the north of Iraq in the early 1990s? Or the Indonesian forces' mass killings in East Timor? Or…
The claim that I in any way endorse the “distinction between worthy and unworthy victims” is thus patently wrong. I only have to add that I see an important difference between Cambodia and East Timor. In the latter case, we were dealing with a foreign military intervention and occupation (Indonesia with the US support) whose aim was simply to colonize and exploit the occupied country, while in the case of Cambodia, violence was perpetrated by a politico-military organization of Cambodian people themselves mobilized by a well-articulated radical Millenarian vision (to erase the ideological past and build a New Man, inclusive of closing all schools, liquidating intellectuals, prohibiting all religions, and undermining family ties). Furthermore, one should also bear in mind that the US attitude towards Khmer Rouge cannot be reduced to a demonizing condemnation: to counter the increased Soviet influence after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime by the Vietnamese intervention in 1979, the US and China together supported the Khmer Rouge regime as the sole legitimate representative of Cambodia in the UN—all of a sudden, Khmer Rouge were not so totally bad… But this seems to me also a relatively minor point. What brings us to the heart of the matter is Chomsky’s accusation that I rudely misrepresent his position: according to me, he (Chomsky) claims
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.
For me, on the contrary, the problem is here a very rational one: everything hinges on how we define “ideology.” If one defines and uses this term the way I do (and I am not alone here: my understanding echoes a long tradition of so-called Western Marxism), then one has to conclude that what Chomsky is doing in his political writings is very important, I have great admiration and respect for it, but it is emphatically not critique of ideology. Let me indicate what I mean by this. What I had in mind when I spoke about his stance towards Khmer Rouge was, among other passages, the following lines from Chomsky’s and Herman’s “Distortions at Fourth Hand” from the Nation (June 6, 1977):
Space limitations preclude a comprehensive review, but such journals as the Far Eastern Economic Review, the London Economist, the Melbourne Journal of Politics, and others elsewhere, have provided analyses by highly qualified specialists who have studied the full range of evidence available, and who concluded that executions have numbered at most in the thousands; that these were localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and unusual peasant discontent, where brutal revenge killings were aggravated by the threat of starvation resulting from the American destruction and killing. These reports also emphasize both the extraordinary brutality on both sides during the civil war (provoked by the American attack) and repeated discoveries that massacre reports were false. ... To give an illustration of just one neglected source, the London Economist (March 26, 1977) carried a letter by W.J. Sampson, who worked as an economist and statistician for the Cambodian Government until March 1975, in close contact with the central statistics office. After leaving Cambodia, he writes, he 'visited refugee camps in Thailand and kept in touch with Khmers,' and he also relied on 'A European friend who cycled around Phnom Penh for many days after its fall [and] saw and heard of no ... executions' apart from 'the shooting of some prominent politicians and the lynching of hated bomber pilots in Phnom Penh.' He concludes 'that executions could be numbered in hundreds or thousands rather than in hundreds of thousands,' though there was 'a big death toll from sickness'—surely a direct consequence, in large measure, of the devastation caused by the American attack. ... If, indeed, postwar Cambodia is, as Lacouture believes, similar to Nazi Germany, then his comment is perhaps just, though we may add that he has produced no evidence to support this judgement. But if postwar Cambodia is more similar to France after liberation, where many thousands of people were massacred within a few months under far less rigorous conditions than those left by the American war, then perhaps a rather different judgement is in order. That the latter conclusion may be more nearly correct is suggested by the analyses mentioned earlier.... We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered. Evidence that focuses on the American role ... is ignored, not on the basis of truthfulness or scholarship but because the message is unpalatable.
I think the quoted passage confirms that my improvised resume of Chomsky's position about Khmer Rouge atrocities (“No, this is Western propaganda. Khmer Rouge are not as horrible as that.”) is a correct one. I do not agree in any way with those who accuse Chomsky of sympathizing with Khmer Rouge, although I find the parallel between Cambodia after the KR takeover and France liberated in 1944 very problematic. Did de Gaulle after the liberation of Paris order its complete evacuation? Did his government reorganize entire social life into collective communes run by military commanders? Did it close down schools? If anything, de Gaulle's first government was way too tolerant, (among other problematic measures) admitting legal continuity between the Vichy years and the new republic, so that all laws enforced by the Vichy regime (and they were numerous!) remained valid if they were not explicitly revoked. But apart from this particular point, I have some further problems with Chomsky’s and Herman’s old text.
I agree that one should approach reports on humanitarian crises or genocidal violence in Western media with a great measure of skepticism: they are as a rule heavily biased due to political and economic interests. However, although Chomsky claims he doesn’t pretend to know what actually went on in Cambodia, the bias of his own description is obvious: his sympathies lies with those who try to minimize and relativize Khmer Rouge atrocities. This bias is ideology—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. And it is this bias which displays Chomsky’s ideology in selecting and ordering data, what he downplays and what he emphasizes, not only in the case of Cambodia but also in the case of post-Yugoslav war (his downplaying of the Srebrenica massacre), etc. To avoid a misunderstanding, I am not advocating here the “postmodern” idea that our theories are just stories we are telling each other, stories which cannot be grounded in facts; I am also not advocating a purely neutral unbiased view. My point is that the plurality of stories and biases is itself grounded in our real struggles. With regard to Chomsky, I claim that his bias sometimes leads him to selections of facts and conclusions which obfuscate the complex reality he is trying to analyze.
Today we know that the accusations against the KR regime were mainly true. Chomsky’s answer would probably have been that such heavy accusations have to be grounded in precise empirical facts, and that in the case of Cambodia back in the late 1970s such facts were sorely missing. While there is some truth in this claim (especially with regard to the devastation caused earlier in Cambodia by the US Army), I have again some problems with it. There is a thin line that separates justified doubt about media reports from comfortable skepticism which allows us to ignore or downplay atrocities. One can easily imagine a similar line of argumentation in the late 1930s about the Nazi atrocities or the Stalinist purges: we don’t have enough reliable data, we should not pretend to know what really goes on in these countries, so it is advisable to doubt Western press reports... (and in both these cases, as well as in the case of Khmer Rouge, later knowledge confirmed the worst fears). One may add that a similar tactic is used by companies and organizations which want to downplay the environmental or health risks (we don’t really know for certain about global warming, about the health risks of smoking…). So how can to decide in such cases? It is here that the analysis of ideology can be of some help—the point I made in my improvised reply to Chomsky:
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,” organization—not Communist Party of Cambodia—an organization. Leaders were nameless.
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. The Stalinist show trials were, of course, a brutal travesty of justice concealing breath-taking brutality, but to see this, it is not necessary to know the reality behind them—the public face of the trials, the puppet-like monstrosity of public confessions, etc., made this abundantly clear. In a homologous way, 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.
The same goes for liberal-capitalist violence, of course—I have written many pages on the falsity of humanitarian interventionism. One does not need to know the brutal reality that sustains such interventions, the cynical pursuit of economic and political interests obfuscated by humanitarian concerns, to discern the falsity of such interventionism—the inconsistencies, gaps and silences of its explicit text are tell-tale enough. This, of course, in no way implies that the disclosure and analysis of facts are not important: one should bring out to light all the details of their atrocious brutality, of ruthless economic exploitation, etc.—a job done quite well by Chomsky himself. However, in 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.
There is another more refined point to be made here. Often, one cannot but be shocked by the excessive indifference towards suffering, even and especially when this suffering is widely reported in the media and condemned, as if it is the very outrage at suffering which turns us into its immobilized fascinated spectators. Recall, in the early 1990s, the three-year-long siege of Sarajevo, with the population starving, exposed to permanent shelling and snipers’ fire. The big enigma here is: although all the media were full of pictures and reports, why did not the UN forces, NATO, or the US accomplish just a small act of breaking the siege of Sarajevo, of imposing a corridor through which people and provisions could circulate freely? It would have cost nothing: with a little bit of serious pressure on the Serb forces, the prolonged spectacle of encircled Sarajevo exposed to daily doses of terror would have been over. There is only one answer to this enigma, the one proposed by Rony Brauman who, on behalf of the Red Cross, coordinated the help to Sarajevo: the very presentation of the crisis of Sarajevo as “humanitarian,” the very recasting of the political-military conflict into humanitarian terms, was sustained by an eminently political choice (basically, taking the Serb side in the conflict). Especially ominous and manipulative was here the role of Francois Mitterand:
The celebration of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Yugoslavia took the place of a political discourse, disqualifying in advance all conflicting debate. ... It was apparently not possible, for Francois Mitterand, to express his analysis of the war in Yugoslavia. With the strictly humanitarian response, he discovered an unexpected source of communication or, more precisely, of cosmetics, which is a little bit the same thing. ... Mitterand remained in favor of the maintenance of Yugoslavia within its borders and was persuaded that only a strong Serbian power was in the position to guarantee a certain stability in this explosive region. This position rapidly became unacceptable in the eyes of the French people. All the bustling activity and the humanitarian discourse permitted him to reaffirm the unfailing commitment of France to the Rights of Man in the end, and to mimic an opposition to Greater Serbian fascism, all in giving it free rein.
One can see how my perception of the Yugoslav conflict differs from Chomsky’s. However, I agree with the general thrust of his argument which is that one should analyze the depoliticized humanitarian politics of “Human Rights” as the ideology of military interventionism serving specific economico-political purposes. As Wendy Brown develops apropos Michael Ignatieff, such humanitarianism
presents itself as something of an antipolitics—a pure defense of the innocent and the powerless against power, a pure defense of the individual against immense and potentially cruel or despotic machineries of culture, state, war, ethnic conflict, tribalism, patriarchy, and other mobilizations or instantiations of collective power against individuals."
However, the question is: "what kind of politicization those who intervene on behalf of human rights set in motion against the powers they oppose. Do they stand for a different formulation of justice or do they stand in opposition to collective justice projects?" Say, it is clear that the US overthrowing of Saddam Hussein, legitimized in the terms of ending the suffering of the Iraqi people, not only was motivated by precise politico-economic interests, but also relied on a precise idea of the political and economic conditions of the post-Saddam Iraq (Western liberal democracy, guarantee of private property, the inclusion into the global market, etc.). The purely humanitarian anti-political politics of merely preventing suffering thus effectively amounts to the implicit prohibition of elaborating a positive collective project of socio-political transformation. Jacques Ranciere proposes here a salient comparison of human rights with charity donations:
... when they are of no use, you do the same as charitable persons do with their old clothes. You give them to the poor. Those rights that appear to be useless in their place are sent abroad, along with medicine and clothes, to people deprived of medicine, clothes, and rights. … if those who suffer inhuman repression are unable to enact Human Rights that are their last recourse, then somebody else has to inherit their rights in order to enact them in their place. This is what is called the ‘right to humanitarian interference’—a right that some nations assume to the supposed benefit of victimized populations, and very often against the advice of the humanitarian organizations themselves.
Consequently, what today, in the predominant Western public speech, the “Human Rights of the Third World suffering victims” effectively mean is the right of the Western powers themselves to intervene—politically, economically, culturally, militarily—in the Third World countries of their choice on behalf of the defense of Human Rights. My disagreement with Chomsky’s political analyses lies elsewhere: his neglect of how ideology works, as well as the problematic nature of his biased dealing with facts which often leads him to do what he accuses his opponents of doing.
But 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. What stands out is only the blind brutality of his dismissal—here is how he replies when, back in his December 2012 interview with Veterans Unplugged, he was asked about the ideas of Lacan, Derrida, and me:
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. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying.
And he goes on and on in the same vein, repeating how he doesn’t see anything to what I’m saying, how he cannot discern in my texts any traces of rational examination of facts, how my work displays empty posturing not to be taken seriously, etc. A weird statement, measured by his professed standards of respect for empirical facts and rational argumentation: there are no citations (which, in this case, can be excused, since we are dealing with a radio interview), but also not even the vaguest mentions of any of my ideas. Did he decode any of my “fancy words” and indicate how what one gets is “something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old”? There are no political references in his first attack (and in this domain, as far as I can see, I much more often than not agree with him). I did a couple of short political books on 9/11 (Welcome to the Desert of the Real), on the war in Iraq (Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle), on the 2008 financial meltdown (First as Tragedy, then as Farce), which appear to me written in a quite accessible way and dealing with quite a lot of facts—do they also contain nothing but empty posturing? In short, is Chomsky in his thorough dismissal of my work not doing exactly what he is accusing me of: clinging to the empty posture of total rejection with no further ado?
I think one can convincingly show that the continental tradition in philosophy, although often difficult to decode, and sometimes—I am the first to admit this—defiled by fancy jargon, remains in its core a mode of thinking which has its own rationality, inclusive of respect for empirical data. And I furthermore think that, in order to grasp the difficult predicament we are in today, to get an adequate cognitive mapping of our situation, one should not shirk the resorts of the continental tradition in all its guises, from the Hegelian dialectics to the French “deconstruction.” 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?
“Disagreement is not the conflict between one who says white and another who says black. It is the conflict between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it.”
About a year ago, a friend of mine suggested in passing that he would like to hear a debate between celebrity dissidents Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek. I assured him that such a debate would never take place and that, even if it did, the two intellectual titans would have nothing to say to each other. Although my first prediction was completely shattered by these thinkers’ recent flare-up, my second claim has turned out to be surprisingly accurate. That is, while a war of words has indeed ensued between the anarchist linguist and the communist psychoanalyst, the anticipated Great Debate is really not much of a debate at all. Both contenders seem to be speaking past each other, articulating their arguments in a language that the other does not care to comprehend.
Neither Chomsky nor Žižek is a stranger to intellectual quarrels. Both have had their fair share of debates and disputes with a range of personalities—from Alan Dershowitz to Michel Foucault in the case of Chomsky and from David Horowitz to Ernesto Laclau in the case of Žižek. Only recently, however, have the two so directly targeted each other. What exactly is the point of contention between these two radical thinkers? Apart from egos, what is actually at stake? And, most importantly, why should we on the Left even bother taking sides if doing so means eating our own at a time when our energies could be better directed towards any one of a number of ongoing political developments—perpetual capitalist crises, global surveillance scandals, drone assassination programs, the war on whistleblowers, and coups, revolutions, and counter-revolutions? Indeed, if the Chomsky-Žižek feud is only going to distract us from these dire realities, then perhaps it would be better to just forget about it.
As an admirer of both thinkers, however, I do not want to forget about it, and I think it is possible to productively engage this heated exchange in such a way as to avoid much of the bloodletting and to emerge on the other side with a better sense of how their seemingly opposed intellectual projects actually complement each other. After summarizing the debate and critically examining their positions, I will look at how both thinkers contribute to our assessment of on-the-ground politics by briefly turning to a real-life situation, Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. Thus, rather than falling lock-step behind either one or the other, I think we would do better to reconcile their apparent differences and thereby escape relatively unscathed from the cannibalism. Given a choice between Chomsky and Žižek, then, our answer should come as a clear and resounding affirmation: “yes, please!”
The sparring match began when an excerpt from a late 2012 interview with Chomsky was posted on YouTube in June 2013. In it, Chomsky was asked to comment on thinkers like Derrida, Lacan, and Žižek. Without mincing words, Chomsky derided their work as empty posturing, juxtaposing their style and methods against the “empirically testable propositions” of more “serious” fields like the hard sciences. Chomsky singled out Žižek in particular as “an extreme example” of this tendency and even questioned whether Žižek’s work should be considered work at all.
Chomsky’s remarks quickly went viral and provoked heated debates across social media platforms. The next week, another YouTube video surfaced, this one taken from a question-and-answer session Žižek was conducting in London. After acknowledging his “deep respect” for Chomsky, Žižek criticized his empirical method of political analysis, even going so far as to joke that he “doesn’t know a guy who has been more empirically wrong” than Chomsky. Žižek then resurrected some old charges against Chomsky, bringing up his controversial writings on the Khmer Rouge and claiming that they demonstrate how any dry, empirical analysis inevitably misses the mark. Thus, Žižek’s main charge against Chomsky was that he remains remarkably aloof regarding the functioning of ideology.
Following on the heels of these comments, Chomsky and Žižek both penned open letters to each other in which they elaborated on their claims. In a letter entitled “Fantasies,” Chomsky vehemently denied ever committing any errors in his work on Cambodia and boldly claimed that he would “be glad to have it reprinted right now.” Going further, he suggested that by peddling such accusations, Žižek was duplicating the propagandistic narrative of the US government, focusing on the “worthy victims” of the US’s enemies and not the “unworthy victims” of its allies (for instance, in East Timor). Against Žižek’s charge that his work neglects ideology, Chomsky insisted not only that he recognizes ideology but that he has dedicated much of his life to combating its falsehoods.
Žižek, in turn, attempted to clarify his remarks on Cambodia, saying that his intent was never to smear Chomsky as a supporter of genocide. Against Chomsky’s accusation that Žižek was problematically focusing only on “worthy victims,” he indicated multiple examples from his own writings in which he too discussed the “unworthy victims” of East Timor. Going back on the offense, Žižek asserted that Chomsky does not really understand what is meant by the term ideology. He claimed that Chomsky fails to acknowledge the ideological background of his own position. That is, for Žižek, Chomsky does not arrive at his distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims from an objective analysis of the cold, hard facts. Instead, even the most seemingly objective analyses always involve a host of invisible biases, assumptions, and processes running unnoticed in the background.
Those following this debate often seem to fall clearly on one side or the other. Either they declare allegiance to Chomsky and denounce Žižek as a fountain of pseudo-intellectual dribble or they champion Žižek and claim that Chomsky simply does not get it. It would be far too easy here to reduce both thinkers to impoverished caricatures of themselves and to claim that for Chomsky the facts are all that matter while for Žižek the facts do not matter at all. Neither would accept such a vulgarized description of their own position, but from this debate, a few clear lines of demarcation separating their intellectual projects can certainly be drawn. While Chomsky—at least in his political work—operates most comfortably at the level of empirical data and relies on his encyclopedic grasp of the facts to assault his opponents, Žižek is more interested in the ways people comprehend those facts, in the symbolic laws and regulations that frame their understanding of the world. Thus, if Chomsky emphasizes facts, Žižek’s primary concern is the ideological framework colouring their interpretation.
Importantly, these two positions are not as diametrically opposed as they may initially appear. What we have here is not an irreconcilable contradiction but a case of different dimensions. In their remarks, Chomsky and Žižek simply do not inhabit the same plane. They are operating from different levels of abstraction, both of which, I claim, are important and necessary for political struggle.
Chomsky has built his entire reputation as a political dissident on his command of the facts. His writings resemble powerful weapons of empirical data. While Chomsky certainly recognizes the existence of ideology, it is always the ideology of his opponent—the propaganda of the government, the bias of the media, the posturing of the pseudo-intellectual. For Chomsky, ideology masks injustice. It camouflages unfreedom in the name of freedom, war in the name of peace, imperialism in the name of humanitarianism, etc.
While Chomsky should certainly not be confused for a Marxist, his approach to ideology bears a resemblance to the old Marxist notion of false consciousness, the idea that people have been deluded by the propaganda of their rulers and must be awakened from their slumber if they are to see the world for what it really is. As Chomsky puts it near the beginning of Necessary Illusions, “citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control.” Chomsky’s view implies a binary separation of the world into the realm of fact and the realm of myth. Here, one need only recall Chomsky’s influential propaganda model for the study of media, the Orwellian neologisms peppering his writings, or—more recently—his discussion of Tea Party protesters as people who have been “indoctrinated to hate and fear the government”. Chomsky thus situates his own position as being external to ideology.
Chomsky’s method for dismantling his opponent’s ideology involves assailing them with a seemingly endless series of facts and counter-facts, with data proving the propaganda false. There is indeed a great importance for this kind of work, but however necessary a fresh view of the facts may be, this approach is not always sufficient. Because Chomsky downplays or even ignores his own ideological presuppositions, he incorrectly presumes that facts alone can dismantle opposing viewpoints. While the facts may indeed be with him—as they almost always are—his political interpretation is not guaranteed by the cold, hard facts alone. There is no royal road between the facts and their interpretation. The stars may shine, but their light does not automatically bring the constellations with it. Importantly, Žižek is hardly the first to level this critique at Chomsky. As Edward Said commented in his review of Fateful Triangle, “The facts for Chomsky are there to be recognized […] [but his work] is not critical and reflective enough about its own premises” (“Permission to Narrate,” Journal of Palestine Studies 13.3 ).
If Chomsky is speaking at the level of facts, Žižek is concerned with the ideological framework in which they are interpreted. Importantly, this does not mean that the facts do not matter for Žižek; they are just not his primary focus. For this reason, Žižek’s critics have frequently sought to discredit him for factual inaccuracies. But while any mistakes at the level of empirical data are certainly unfortunate, Žižek’s contribution does not stand or fall on facts alone. For Žižek, as for other theorists, facts never speak for themselves. They are always already filtered and mediated by invisible forces. If Chomsky’s approach suggests that we fight myth with fact, Žižek rejects the possibility of making such a clean-cut separation between the two. The goal for him is not to escape ideology all together but to locate its cracks and points of failure—the exceptions which prove false ideology’s claims.
It is thus unsurprising that Chomsky can so easily outmaneuver Žižek on the topic of the Khmer Rouge. The realm of empirical data is Chomsky’s home turf, and when Žižek dares to venture there, his awkwardness shows. In this regard, Žižek’s claim that Chomsky is empirically wrong is nothing more than a silly provocation and should not be taken seriously. But what Žižek’s critics fail to recognize is how quickly the tables are turned. Indeed, when Chomsky speaks of ideology, his words cannot but seem clumsy and naïve to anyone acquainted with the work of Žižek or, more generally, the discourse of continental philosophy and cultural theory. For this reason, Žižek is right when he claims that Chomsky’s problem is far broader than Žižek himself. As he writes, “Our conflict is […] simply a new chapter in the endless gigantomachy between so-called continental philosophy and the Anglo-Saxon empiricist tradition.”
Thus, the debate between Chomsky and Žižek is not one easily resolved. This is not a question of one being right and the other wrong. This is a question of two thinkers operating at different levels of abstraction, and while Chomsky’s work functions best at the level of fact, Žižek speaks most fluently at the level of theory. To be sure, Chomsky undoubtedly remains one of the most astute political observers writing today, and it is probably no exaggeration to say that most of us on the Left stand directly on his shoulders. But by not properly engaging the background operations of ideology, Chomsky risks falling in a trap door which he himself set, making the same error of which he accuses his opponents. The danger encountered by Žižek is rather different. When his work neglects the facts, it risks becoming exactly what Chomsky accuses it of being: empty posturing. But, when grounded in strong empirical data, Žižek’s theoretical investigations can be truly inspirational. This is why his words have been received so enthusiastically not only by certain academic circles but by many activists working on the ground in places ranging from New York’s Zuccotti Park to Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Viewed in this way, the two thinkers do not necessarily contradict each other. Despite all the brouhaha, their intellectual projects can even be made to work together in a very productive fashion.
In order to demonstrate how Chomsky and Žižek, despite their squabbling, can be made to complement each other, I now turn to a developing story with which we should all already be concerned: the ongoing saga of whistleblower Edward Snowden and his revelations about NSA surveillance practices. Snowden’s leaks have already changed the entire framework of the discussion. Their impact has thus been seismic. Here, we are talking about facts, about the importance of new empirical data for our assessment of the contemporary moment. The introduction of these facts into the public arena has put the government on the defense. One need only recall how Snowden’s disclosures immediately revealed that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had outright lied to Congress. Glenn Greenwald and his editors at The Guardian have thus been wise in choosing to publish Snowden’s revelations gradually, thereby preventing them from so easily becoming yesterday’s news.
But look how quickly the discourse shifts. After an initial shock, power can rapidly appropriate new data for its own ends. As Herbert Marcuse put it in One-Dimensional Man, that which initially appears subversive can be “quickly digested by the status quo as part of its healthy diet.” Thus, government representatives are, for the most part, no longer disputing the positive content of Snowden’s claims. Rather, they are justifying them in the name of fighting terror. In this way, the site of struggle slips from one dimension to another, from the realm of contested facts to the realm of contested interpretations.
In light of the recent NSA surveillance scandal, Chomsky and Žižek offer us very different approaches, both of which are helpful for leftist critique. For Chomsky, the path ahead is clear. Faced with new revelations about the surveillance state, Chomsky might engage in data mining, juxtaposing our politicians’ lofty statements about freedom against their secretive actions, thereby revealing their utter hypocrisy. Indeed, Chomsky is a master at this form of argumentation, and he does it beautifully in Hegemony or Survival when he contrasts the democratic statements of Bush regime officials against their anti-democratic actions. He might also demonstrate how NSA surveillance is not a strange historical aberration but a continuation of past policies—including, most infamously, the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s.
Žižek, on the other hand, might proceed in a number of ways. He might look at the ideology of cynicism, as he did so famously in the opening chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology, in order to demonstrate how expressions of outrage regarding NSA surveillance practices can actually serve as a form of inaction, as a substitute for meaningful political struggle. We know very well what we are doing, but still we are doing it; we know very well that our government is spying on us, but still we continue to support it (through voting, etc.). Žižek might also look at how surveillance practices ultimately fail as a method of subjectivization, how the very existence of whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and the others who are sure to follow in their footsteps demonstrates that technologies of surveillance and their accompanying ideologies of security can never guarantee the full participation of the people they are meant to control. As Žižek emphasizes again and again, subjectivization fails.
Importantly, neither of these approaches is wrongheaded. Both provide productive and fruitful avenues for further reflection and consideration. Indeed, political struggles never take place solely within one isolated site or at one level of abstraction. Rather, they take place seemingly everywhere and in multiple dimensions simultaneously. Thus, to deny ourselves access to the important contributions of either Chomsky or Žižek would be to engage in an exercise of self-mutilation, an instance of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Existing structures of power do not limit their operations to only one level of abstraction and neither should we. To meet these structures head-on, then, we must diversify our strategies. As a result, Chomsky’s astute political analyses and Žižek’s creative inquiries into the functioning of ideology can both be helpful. The debate between these two figures is thus a non-debate, and the choice between them is a false one. Why choose only one when we can just as easily have both?
Greg Burris currently lives in Santa Barbara, California where he is completing his doctoral studies. He has contributed essays to CineAction, CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, Electronic Intifada, Jadaliyya, Middle Eastern Studies, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and other publications. He would like to thank Laleh Khalili for drawing his attention to Said’s review of Fateful Triangle.
Πηγή: New Left Project
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