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Chomsky vs Žižek
July 22, 2013 6:57 AM   Subscribe

People sometimes assume that because Chomsky is a leftist, he would find common intellectual ground with the postmodernist philosophers of the European Left. Big mistake. Slavoj Žižek Responds to Noam Chomsky: ‘I Don’t Know a Guy Who Was So Often Empirically Wrong’ Chomsky responds, "Žižek finds nothing, literally nothing, that is empirically wrong."

Here is a partial summary and some background.
posted by Obscure Reference (93 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Comparing Chomsky and Žižek is like comparing apples and rocks painted orange.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:07 AM on July 22, 2013 [13 favorites]


oh my this is going to be one helluva party.
posted by Theta States at 7:09 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think Zizek won this one. Chomsky is trying to kind of wave his arms around and hang complicity for East Timor on Zizek, when Zizek was not obligated to talk about East Timor, but just notes how Chomsky just totally blew it with the Khmer Rouge, and why he blew it. It really isn't that obscurantist to note that if a regime talks like a violent mob maybe they're really a violent mob.
posted by mobunited at 7:14 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


The left, like fission, continually splits apart.
posted by bodywithoutorgans at 7:15 AM on July 22, 2013


Man, I love it when people I like to read have public spats. It's wonderful.
posted by gauche at 7:17 AM on July 22, 2013 [6 favorites]




I'd be more inclined to call Chomsky an anarchist than a leftist (if by "leftist" is meant "socialist").
posted by seemoreglass at 7:25 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I thought all public spats were good public spats until this three-way squabble between Rushdie, John le Carre and Hitchens - they all came out the other side a little lower in my esteem.
posted by forgetful snow at 7:30 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Chomsky aint never had no time for the pomo
posted by memebake at 7:35 AM on July 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


Debate exposes weaknesses. Some bright young student somewhere is reading this and thinking to themselves, both of these old guys are idiots. Cracks are essential.
posted by bonehead at 7:36 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Chomsky is about to step off this mortal coil.

Where's the next generation of lefty American public intellectuals?
posted by notyou at 7:36 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Chomsky Vs. Foucalt Moderated by Hippy Liam Neeson.
posted by titus-g at 7:41 AM on July 22, 2013


Where's the next generation of lefty American public intellectuals?

Wherever they are, I hope they're not reading Zizek for inspiration.
posted by SollosQ at 7:42 AM on July 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


Chomsky: "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."
What I find disheartening about this, particularly as applied to Derrida, is the underlying supposition that unless a thing can be reduced to "principles" simple enough for a twelve-year-old to understand, it's not a thing worth understanding. What if, in fact, the work of reading a text was, in fact, more complex and unstable and uncertain than something that could adequately be reduced to a small number of simple principles? Chomsky doesn't seem to allow for that.
posted by gauche at 7:42 AM on July 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I thought all public spats were good public spats until this three-way squabble between Rushdie, John le Carre and Hitchens - they all came out the other side a little lower in my esteem.

Holy shit. That's... something.
posted by kmz at 7:42 AM on July 22, 2013


And, of course, Chomsky Vs. Everyone

"You are not the father of post structuralism!"
posted by titus-g at 7:45 AM on July 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think Chomsky is asserting the opposite, gauche -- once you clear away the verbiage, there's really nothing interesting there, and not anything that you couldn't explain easily to a 12-year-old.
posted by notyou at 7:49 AM on July 22, 2013 [24 favorites]


Fun discussion comments on The Guardian article in the last link.
posted by ovvl at 7:49 AM on July 22, 2013


Žižek is here aping a common right wing tactic of trying to discredit Chomsky by zeroing in on his mistaken judgment back in the 70s that western reporting on the Khmer Rouge was more propaganda than fact.

Žižek follows right along with conservatives in then treating the issue as representative of all the views Chomsky has expressed in dozens of books and umpteen articles on politics over the past half century.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 7:50 AM on July 22, 2013 [11 favorites]


Where's the next generation of lefty American public intellectuals?

Chris Hedges may not be a public intellectual in the sense that Chomsky is (i.e. a linguist who holds forth on American foreign policy) but Hedges definitely seems to be channeling/doodling-hearts-around Chomsky a lot of the time.
posted by seemoreglass at 7:50 AM on July 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


As someone said to me on twitter when linking to this. In this rare instance, I agree entirely with both of them.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 7:53 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, see the top 100 public intellectuals poll for other contenders.
posted by seemoreglass at 7:54 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Noam Chomsky’s well-known political views have tended to overshadow his groundbreaking work as a linguist and analytic philosopher.

Is that true? I wouldn't have said so. I suppose his politics get more column inches.
posted by Segundus at 7:56 AM on July 22, 2013


Over the years, Chomsky's linguistics swerved away from the description of actual languages, to the assembly of theoretical constructs that mostly just refer to other theoretical constructs, all of which are designated by letters or terse symbols and punctuation.

Knowing this, I can't help but shake my head when Chomsky sneers at theorists who are supposedly full of empty words which don't really say anything. Physician, heal thyself.

(I don't know enough about Zizek to know one way or the other whether he's full of shit.)
posted by edheil at 8:00 AM on July 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I seem to recall a (maybe apocryphal) story that the Russians thought that there were two Chomskys, one a linguist and one a dissident writer, and that people were surprised to learn that they were the same person.
posted by seemoreglass at 8:00 AM on July 22, 2013


Also: "analytic philosopher"? It would be a surprise to a lot of philosophers that Chomsky did groundbreaking work in their field.
posted by edheil at 8:01 AM on July 22, 2013


(I don't know enough about Zizek to know one way or the other whether he's full of shit.)

I think even Zizek would agree that yes, he is.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:02 AM on July 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm an analytic philosopher of mind and cognitive science. I'd say Chomsky's work was groundbreaking.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 8:05 AM on July 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'd be more inclined to call Chomsky an anarchist than a leftist (if by "leftist" is meant "socialist").

He refers to himself as "anarcho-syndicalist", IIRC.
posted by crazy_yeti at 8:08 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think Chomsky is asserting the opposite, gauche -- once you clear away the verbiage, there's really nothing interesting there, and not anything that you couldn't explain easily to a 12-year-old.

I think he's asserting your first clause, the one in bold, but not the second. I read "Try to find ... I can't." to mean there's nothing in there to explain once you strip away the weird performative language, not even to a twelve-year-old. That the post-structuralists and postmodernists aren't even making claims as we might understand the term. (cf. Language Log's "Can Derrida be even wrong?")

But the problem, to me1, with that line of criticism is that the post-structuralist project is at least in part to suggest that the mere act of making claims is itself kind of problematic because language is not what we think it is, and that clear, simple statements are themselves an act of exclusion and even violence. So it kind of misses the point of the whole project to expect simple claims and principles. (I'm sure I'm not doing it justice, FWIW, and further aware that the act of attempting to explain this stuff in simple terms is not without a certain irony.)

Put it this way: you could explain Newtonian physics to a twelve-year-old and if they are reasonably bright they would get it, or at least most of it. But Newtonian physics are by no means the end of physics and are even misleading at certain scales. It's totally okay to teach Newtonian physics as a starting place because at a macro level, it mostly works and that's okay, but if you want to understand what is really going on with physical objects, there's a lot of complexity that might, in fact, just not be able to be reduced to a level where a non-prodigy twelve-year-old can understand it. But that doesn't mean there's no there to non-Newtonian physics. It means that the underlying phenomena that physics studies and models are weird and complex and often counter-intuitive. Why should the same not be true of language and text and discourse itself?

(Yes, it's an imperfect analogy because the claims of physics are testable and falsifiable and those claims, such as they are, of the post-structuralists are perhaps ... less so. That, too, is an attempt to impose the rules of one discourse upon another. Such an attempt may indeed be valid, but I think it's worth examining the assumption that the rules of scientific discourse are somehow applicable by default.)

1. Note that my grasp of the post-structuralists is an unfinished project that has by now thoroughly rusted over.
posted by gauche at 8:13 AM on July 22, 2013 [13 favorites]


Also: "analytic philosopher"? It would be a surprise to a lot of philosophers that Chomsky did groundbreaking work in their field.

It may have been a loosely worded: his work as an analytic philosopher and his groundbreaking work as a linguist.

I'm not familiar with Chomsky's work, but certainly he's well regarded in analytic philosophy by those I know, as airing nerdy laundry admits. A glance at his publication list too, shows him well established in the most prestigious philosophical journals there are: Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, The Philosophical Review, Mind, Journal of Philosophy, Synthese, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, and Journal of Symbolic Logic...

Over the years, Chomsky's linguistics swerved away from the description of actual languages, to the assembly of theoretical constructs that mostly just refer to other theoretical constructs, all of which are designated by letters or terse symbols and punctuation.

Knowing this, I can't help but shake my head when Chomsky sneers at theorists who are supposedly full of empty words which don't really say anything. Physician, heal thyself.


If you want to judge the substantiveness of Chomsky's linguistic work, it would probably be best to defer to those capable of making such judgments (namely: linguists).
posted by SollosQ at 8:14 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I should note that that is exactly as much time as I have going to bat for the post-structuralists today.
posted by gauche at 8:16 AM on July 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I like 'em both, but this is an especially silly spat. Žižek and Chomsky are not really comparable to one another, and neither one is pointing out anything exceptionally new or interesting about the other.

Chomsky has had a Sokal-oid attitude about Theory for a very long time. That's Sokal-oid, and not properly Sokal-esque: unlike Sokal, who was more measured, fair, and focussed in his critique than people remember or give him credit for, Chomsky really does think that just about all Theory is a load of cack through and through. He flatly labels the whole territory of Theory as unfalsifiable, nonsensical garbage. He had no patience for Lacan's work before. There's no reason to suspect that he'd suddenly find an interest in a Lacanian psychoanalyst's work now.

Contrast this with Sokal himself, who mostly stayed to the simple criticism that too many Theorists loved to cite scientific and mathematical concepts in ways which appeared ignorant, uncomprehending, inscrutable, and obscurantist. In Sokal and Bricmont's Intellectual Impostors, they restrict their criticism to just those parts of Theory in which scientific and mathematical concepts are invoked - they state upfront that they do not have the authority or the interest to state whether or not there is anything else worthwhile in these thinkers' works, as indeed that would also be thoroughly hypocritical.

So, Chomsky dislikes Theory, and this is nothing new or surprising. He does not even promote himself as any sort of professional critic of Theory, such as the aforementioned Sokal. To him, Theory is just something that does not interest him in the slightest. This is less of an intellectual argument than it is the equivalent of asking an opera singer what she thinks of jai alai.

I would have appreciated a much more modulated critique of Theory, Lacan, and how Žižek's fits into the whole scene. Theory is a huge topic, too huge to be wholly embraced without question or rejected out of hand. Lacan is the same way: he was sometimes a genius, and he was sometimes a charlatan. His work contains perfectly useful material, as well as some cigarette-wavey wheel-spinning (viz. just about anything involving so-called Lacanian topology). As for Žižek, I find him to be mostly quite comprehensible, relatively speaking, and it's always frustrating when people write him off as an obscurantist, rather than either just saying "enh, not my thing" or giving forth with a more detail-oriented critique, going over what's good and/or bad about his writings.

As for Žižek's remarks: Chomsky has been wrong about some things, and his wrongness has not always been totally innocent, but it is ludicrous to say that he has been any more wrong about things than any other public intellectual. (Also, for better and for worse, Chomsky loves couching facts in prevarications and possibilities, which technically insulates him from many "j'accuse!" moments which would otherwise be satisfyingly cathartic.)

Rather than focussing on discrete facts which Chomsky has gotten wrong, it would be more interesting to critique Chomsky's, well, theories. However, Žižek does not do this, and so his response is a wasted opportunity. For example, Chomsky's views on foreign policy often overemphasize the idea of the US as a malefic, rational, and purely avaricious actor. This, in my opinion, represents an often incomplete analysis. For example, claiming that the Iraq War had almost entirely economic motives ignores both significant pieces of real world evidence and the neoconservatives' actual stated views, not just to the public, but amongst one another over the years.

tl;dr those two should just kiss-fight, first man to blush loses, oh wait come on you guys, you both just lost even before the game began
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:17 AM on July 22, 2013 [26 favorites]


Chomsky shouldn't feed the trolls.
posted by zscore at 8:17 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Knowing this, I can't help but shake my head when Chomsky sneers at theorists who are supposedly full of empty words which don't really say anything. Physician, heal thyself.

Indeed. I find Chomsky calling anyone on just making stuff up, generating unfalsifiable theories, or just plain not being empirical enough completely hilarious.

#transformationalgrammar
#minimalism
#recursiononlyhypothesis
posted by yeolcoatl at 8:18 AM on July 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


cigarette-wavey

Like hand-wavey, but more continental
posted by theodolite at 8:20 AM on July 22, 2013 [16 favorites]


And, for anyone who is curious about Zizek: here's a great, jargon-free piece called "Trouble in Paradies" which he published in the most recent London Review of Books. I highly recommend it. The difference between Zizek and the Sokal hoax is that Zizek is in dead earnest.
posted by crazy_yeti at 8:20 AM on July 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


My impression was that Chomsky does not think very much of "analytic philosophy" either, or, at least, "philosophy of language" so-called.
posted by thelonius at 8:20 AM on July 22, 2013


But Žižek's response would be quite childish even if the things he said are true. I'm uninvested in the answer to that question, my point is that he simply attacks Chomsky on whatever grounds he finds convenient.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:23 AM on July 22, 2013


Where's the next generation of lefty American public intellectuals?

Frothing your latte.
posted by jonmc at 8:24 AM on July 22, 2013 [19 favorites]


Frothing your latte.

What's the point of this?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:25 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, the milk isn't going to froth itself.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:27 AM on July 22, 2013 [26 favorites]


I gratefully accept correction on the issue of whether Chomsky has done groundbreaking work in "analytic philosophy" -- apparently my conception of what counts as "analytic philosophy" was too restricted. It's not something I know that much about.

I stand by my characterization of Chomsky's linguistics work though, and I thank yeolcoatl for their support.
posted by edheil at 8:30 AM on July 22, 2013


Zizek's attack, at least in the links provided here, isn't much of an attack, blah blah blah, as it is a couple of off the cuff remarks (disappointing and off the mark ones at that; the whole point of Chomsky's KR project was to expose, empirically, some real world effects of power relations and ideology!) tucked into a much longer talk but maybe it would be interesting to read Zizek doing a deeper analysis of Chomsky's and Herman's 70s project, from Zizek's understanding of ideology and so on and so on.
posted by notyou at 8:31 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Over the years, Chomsky's linguistics swerved away from the description of actual languages, to the assembly of theoretical constructs . . .

Eh? If it swerved, it swerved before in PhD thesis (1955) and Syntactic Structures (1957).

WP gets it pretty right:
. . . he became interested in developing a linguistic theory using a non-taxonomic approach and based on mathematical formalism . . . a decisive break with the Bloomfieldian taxonomic structuralist tradition . . .

[He] compiled [the nearly 1000 typewritten pages long] The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (LSLT) [and] submitted just the 9th chapter as his doctoral dissertation. . . . Syntactic Structures, Chomsky's first published book . . . distilled the concepts presented in LSLT.
posted by Herodios at 8:32 AM on July 22, 2013


I froth my own latte, thankyouverymuch.


---------------
So, grinding my beans?
posted by notyou at 8:33 AM on July 22, 2013


Sticherbeast: Contrast this with Sokal himself, who mostly stayed to the simple criticism that too many Theorists loved to cite scientific and mathematical concepts in ways which appeared ignorant, uncomprehending, inscrutable, and obscurantist. In Sokal and Bricmont's Intellectual Impostors, they restrict their criticism to just those parts of Theory in which scientific and mathematical concepts are invoked.

Such a good book! This thread immediately made me think of Intellectual Impostures, a brilliant book for anyone who gets frustrated when scientific concepts are employed in wooly contexts for questionable reasons.
posted by memebake at 8:33 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


crazy_yeti, thanks so much for that link; I hadn't seen that piece.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:35 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


MisantropicPainforest What's the point of this?

I think jonmc is making the point that the next generation of 'public intellectuals' in the USA are likely to be working in Starbucks, cos the traditional career paths for them (tenure, etc) have all been dismantled.
posted by memebake at 8:36 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


What's the point of this?

It's the standard "asking if you want fries with that" zinger in relatively fashionable drag.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:37 AM on July 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


Also: "analytic philosopher"? It would be a surprise to a lot of philosophers that Chomsky did groundbreaking work in their field.

This is pretty misleading. Chomsky's earlier work is considered foundational in philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, on issues such as innateness, nativism, essentialism, etc. For example, his review of Skinner's 'verbal behavior' is fairly common reading in philosophy of mind courses that have a historical bent, and had a huge impact. Another example: the debate between Chomsky and Quine is also common reading, and again had a huge impact on the philosophy of language literature.
posted by advil at 8:44 AM on July 22, 2013


Also, I'm not really going to get into the evaluation of Chomsky's linguistics here, but one thing it is not is simple enough to be summarized and evaluated in a metafilter comment, and the attempts to do so here are pretty laughable. I honestly doubt we'll have any real full evaluations of it and its impact until some time after his death; he's simply too polarizing of a figure (even within linguistics) to get there right now. This doesn't mean there's any shortage of scorn in some circles though.
posted by advil at 8:48 AM on July 22, 2013


He refers to himself as "anarcho-syndicalist", IIRC.

I thought he was an autonomous collective?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:03 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


And. for the record, Zizek self-identifies as a "complicated Communist".
posted by crazy_yeti at 9:09 AM on July 22, 2013




If you want to challenge Chomsky on his own turf, consider cracking Challenging Chomsky: The Generative Garden Game (R.P. Botha, 1989).

There's a bit of Godel Escher Bach style here and some people like to skip over the italic text (or is it the roman text?). But he does a fair job of surveying and differentiating linguistics, generative linguistics, chomskyian linguistics, and Chomsky's linguistics (as well as providing ample space to critics of the aforementioned). He also looks at the rhetoric of Chomsky's responses to his critics.

Note: This book is about theoretical linguistics and linguistic theory, not po-mo theory or lefty politics.

You can access the full text here, or buy it wherever obscure books are sold.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:14 AM on July 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I thought he was an autonomous collective?

You're fooling yourself.
posted by The Bellman at 9:15 AM on July 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


And. for the record, Zizek self-identifies as a "complicated Communist".

I thought he was a Hegelian "materialist theologian."
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:15 AM on July 22, 2013


You guys are making me so happy to be out of university
posted by Hoopo at 9:18 AM on July 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


I am sad that people here so gleefully dismiss the field of formal anguage theory as "just a bunch of symbols." It gave you most of computer science, people!
posted by Nomyte at 9:19 AM on July 22, 2013


I think CS is more rooted in mathematics than linguistics. But math is "just a bunch of symbols" too ....
posted by crazy_yeti at 9:21 AM on July 22, 2013


Wherever they are, I hope they're not reading Zizek for inspiration.

Me too. I envision hordes of zombies all affecting the same nose-and-shirt-grabbing tic.
posted by kengraham at 10:04 AM on July 22, 2013


...And. for the record, Zizek self-identifies as a "complicated Communist".
...I thought he was a Hegelian "materialist theologian."


Too many Zizeks!
posted by thelonius at 10:13 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


See now this, right, is why the left never wins anymore. We are too busy fighting among ourselves to fight the actual enemy. Nothing can get done as no two left sides can seem to agree on what the correct outcome should be.

Chomsky vs Zizek? Jesus guys, are you actually both on the side of the poor and the fucking oppressed or what? If so, maybe work together and stop being such petty fucking assholes. Seriously, I love Chomsky's Political works, but this is fucking BS.
posted by marienbad at 10:13 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Too many Zizeks!

I'm totally going to write a children's book called The Berenstain Bears and Too Many Zizeks!
posted by gauche at 10:14 AM on July 22, 2013 [4 favorites]




Too many Zizeks!
Two, three, many Vietnams!
posted by Abiezer at 10:42 AM on July 22, 2013


crazy_yeti But math is "just a bunch of symbols" too ....

Ah but the difference is we mathematicians don't pretend our field is anything other than just a bunch of symbols. We're fully behind the just a bunch of symbols perspective. Proud of it, even.
posted by yeolcoatl at 10:43 AM on July 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


and so on and so on...
posted by lslelel at 10:43 AM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


seemoreglass: "Also, see the top 100 public intellectuals poll for other contenders."

Fareed Zakaria. LOL...
posted by symbioid at 11:00 AM on July 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I just wanted to point out that THEORY is not = POSTMODERNISM is not = POSTSTRUCTURALISM.

I don't know if Zizek would really fit in the last two of these categories. Here are some of his projects: recovering the Christian project of universal emancipation; recovering the Cartesian subject; bringing back Hegelian dialectics; and in general, trying to recuperate Marxism via Lacan. When you strip away Zizek's style, which does feel "post-structuralist," most of this is stuff that a pomo grad student in the early '90s would scoff at.

Every time there's a Zizek post up, Mefi posters complain about how he's an obscurantist--which always mystifies me since he's writing regular op-eds in the London Review about Kung-fu Panda! In fact, he seems like the contemporary theorist that would be most amenable to the tastes of Mefi: he loves science fiction and superhero novels and movies and even did a whole documentary where he riffs of The Matrix, David Lynch, etc. He's less like the Sokal hoax--in that he's not really appropriating science fiction--than he is like a theorist equivalent of a contemporary science fiction writer: he's interested in the ideology and worldview of things like transhumanism, rather than their purported fact.

For example, Chomsky's views on foreign policy often overemphasize the idea of the US as a malefic, rational, and purely avaricious actor. This, in my opinion, represents an often incomplete analysis. For example, claiming that the Iraq War had almost entirely economic motives ignores both significant pieces of real world evidence and the neoconservatives' actual stated views, not just to the public, but amongst one another over the years.


What I thought was smart about this comment is that Zizek is all about ideology--exactly what's omitted in this account of Chomsky's critique!
posted by johnasdf at 11:21 AM on July 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


This whole Chomsky v Zizek thing is a continuation of Chomsky's ongoing and long-standing spat with what he calls "theory." He really means "Continental theory" or "poststructuralism," though, since Chomsky himself is a linguistic theorist (many of the left who only know Chomsky through his pop leftist books like Manufacturing Consent don't know this).

And Chomsky has seen *his* lingustic theories lose currency or undergo necessary revision in the face of new scientific evidence while, of course, the theories of Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and now Zizek basically run the show when it comes to radical interpretations of culture and power.

So he always adopts this rhetoric of "theory" as if it's some nebulous, ahistorical object that he only now just noticed and not the exact thing he has been arguing with for decades. That is, he has a horse in the race and he's losing.

I have problems with Zizek too, but I feel it's very disingenuous of Chomsky to always act as if he's not deeply invested in the debate and instead tries to score what to me look like cheap points. And it's quite easy to take cheap shots against a Lacanian, because you know your audience doesn't have to have read (and probably hasn't) any of the material to think your jibe is a good one ("He doesn't even believe 'the real' is real!" and so on).
posted by Catchfire at 11:27 AM on July 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


All I see is two otherwise smart, educated people arguing back and forth, rather than try and recognize the intersubjectivity that is sitting right in front of them, and thus work together to arrive at one or more greater truths. Not that much different from the rest of us whenever we let our egos and fears get the better of ourselves.
posted by polymodus at 11:48 AM on July 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think CS is more rooted in mathematics than linguistics. But math is "just a bunch of symbols" too ....

Actually, as my university's linguistics program had little to no generative linguistics in its curriculum, I made my first acquaintance with Chomsky's notion of grammar and the Chomsky hierarchy in a theoretical CS elective. Apparently he made a huge contribution to computational theories of language processing.
posted by ipsative at 12:27 PM on July 22, 2013


google returns this on Chomsky & computer programming.
posted by bukvich at 12:31 PM on July 22, 2013


Serious question. Why not just say "philosophy" instead of "theory"?
posted by thelonius at 12:59 PM on July 22, 2013


Might be a turf problem with the philosophy department.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:28 PM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The proper reply to Chomsky and Anybody is "Chomsky and who?????"

Oops my prejudice is showing. But, it's empirical.
posted by Twang at 1:37 PM on July 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I skimmed, but thought Chomsky looked like he was winning--from Manufacturing Consent, I don't ever remember him saying the KR weren't bad, just that they got attention and East Timor didnt.

I don't know what Comsky said about Derrida, but unless its just that his writing can be a bit overly complex, it's probably wrong IMO.
posted by whatgorilla at 2:14 PM on July 22, 2013


As for Žižek's remarks: Chomsky has been wrong about some things, and his wrongness has not always been totally innocent, but it is ludicrous to say that he has been any more wrong about things than any other public intellectual.

Yeah, but you're missing the point. Chomsky claims that he couldn't have known what the Khmer Rouge were up to because he didn't have data. Zizek is saying no, we did have the data — the public discourse and internal logic of the regime — but Chomsky's empiricism treats it as basically arbitrary and meaningless. The point is that Chomsky's wrongness is an outcome of his views about "theory".

My first thought about their exchange is that it is basically meaningless and will simply generate a rehashing of tedious debates about the Sokal hoax and post-structuralism. But now I think there is an important and interesting debate to be had. The propaganda model of ideology that Chomsky has popularized is so simplistic, it has actually misled generations of activists and set back public understanding of ideology by decades. We are years away from freeing ourselves from his distortions, and a public debate with Zizek would attract lots of attention and be a great step forward.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:46 PM on July 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


"we did have the data — the public discourse and internal logic of the regime ... but Chomsky's empiricism treats it as basically arbitrary and meaningless."

That doesn't make a ton of sense. There's no reason "empiricism" can't treat public discourse as data— in fact if it's public it couldn't be more friendly to empirically-oriented theorizing.

"Internal logic" sounds like it could be private, or mysterious, or something, but it's probably just a fancy way of talking about beliefs and motivations, something any idiot allows for.

I'm arguing about this b/c even though I agree Chomsky made a bad call in the Khmer Rouge case, and hasn't owned up to it particularly well, I don't see any pattern in the failure. There's no reason to tar the man's gigantic, humunglazoid corpus with it.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 3:28 PM on July 22, 2013


Expanding on what AlsoMike has said:

Chomsky's analysis is always tied to history and that history is the basis of his empiricism and he will always wait until something happens in order to comment on it. This is very pragmatic and creates very concise ideas about the world.

Zizek's theory (or any theory for that matter) doesn't rely on the pragmatic empiricism, it can't. The idea of the pragmatic empiricism is what is driving the ideology that Zizek is warning us about.
posted by Divest_Abstraction at 3:32 PM on July 22, 2013


Chomsky Vs. Foucalt

Foucault On Obscurantism: ‘They Made Me Do It!’
posted by homunculus at 5:14 PM on July 22, 2013


"Contrast this with Sokal himself, who mostly stayed to the simple criticism that too many Theorists loved to cite scientific and mathematical concepts in ways which appeared ignorant, uncomprehending, inscrutable, and obscurantist. In Sokal and Bricmont's Intellectual Impostors, they restrict their criticism to just those parts of Theory in which scientific and mathematical concepts are invoked - they state upfront that they do not have the authority or the interest to state whether or not there is anything else worthwhile in these thinkers' works, as indeed that would also be thoroughly hypocritical. "

Eric Lott's Disappearing Liberal Intellectual actually does a pretty good job of savaging Sokal's overreach with that book, pointing out that aside from a few bows to restraining themselves on literary theory, Sokal and Bricmont are part of a larger post-war revanchist assertion against identity politics, and that there's more than a few gaffes within Intellectual Imposters.

(Lott's book is a pretty fun hatchet job in general, if you've ever tired of Boomers getting all grumpy about identity politics or whatnot.)
posted by klangklangston at 5:59 PM on July 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


airing nerdy laundry: The skepticism towards continental philosophy has negative real world effects: people's work doesn't get published, departments aren't funded, journals aren't published and so on. And that sucks, so proving that continental philosophy is a valid, interesting and useful field of study is important, for the professionals.

But as an interested amateur, it doesn't directly affect me. So if some people on the internet don't find continental philosophy to be worthwhile? Too much jargon? As far as I'm concerned, that's their problem. It's working fine for me.

Too often these conversations are framed so that people interested in continental theory are asked to justify themselves to the skeptics. But why? At least here, we don't need your permission.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:18 PM on July 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


This whole debate seems pretty cooked up, editorially. Chomsky repeats his long-standing disparagement of critical theory. Zizek mentions Chomsky a little while later, very lazily (and uncharacteristically for Zizek, whom I rather like) citing the stupid old slander about the Khmer Rouge. Chomsky (rightfully, I think) reiterates for the nth time why he ever talked about the Khmer Rouge at all. Some people write articles about all this. Everyone's biases are in bright neon, flashing into the darkness.

I would, however, enjoy seeing a proper debate between Chomsky and Zizek, although I don't think it's possible, because I think Zizek is perfectly described by Chomsky's phrase, "a perfectly self-conscious charlatan," although in a different sense than he meant it about Lacan. Zizek has some pretty interesting, insightful, hilarious and valuable things to say, although from a very different perspective than Chomsky, but he refuses to ever come out and state his simple position — and for a specific reason, not just because he can't, like Chomsky would accuse him; namely, for Zizek, stating a simple position would mean ossifying his view of the world and falling into the worst snare of ideology. Zizek's entire rhetorical style is about challenging our views of the world and keeping us on our toes. This is a fundamentally different project than the one Chomsky engages in.

In conclusion: when the heck is Pervert's Guide to Ideology going to be available on video? Seriously.
posted by cthuljew at 10:25 PM on July 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


Zizek's entire rhetorical style is about challenging our views of the world and keeping us on our toes.

You have to have a lot of faith in the motives of someone with this kind of thinking, because the end product is only very slightly different from straight up trolling.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:30 PM on July 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I tried reading some Zizek, I really did. and sometimes I really enjoyed myself. Then there's stuff like this:

"The problem with Hitler was that he was “not violent enough,” his violence was not “essential” enough. Hitler did not really act, all his actions were fundamentally reactions, for he acted so that nothing would really change, staging a gigantic spectacle of pseudo-Revolution so that the capitalist order would survive…. "

What?

Zizek is entertaining. Foucault is a really difficult read, but he's extraordinarily useful. I have no idea what to do with Zizek other than to chuckle.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:31 PM on July 23, 2013


That's a pretty simple, if oddly written, sentiment that ties in with fascism's ideology of endless war. Zizek there is redefining the essence of violence to imply revolution, which is dubious, but the quote itself seems pretty digestible if you know the tenets of fascism.
posted by klangklangston at 2:08 PM on July 23, 2013


In a black and white world made up only of polar opposites, the opposite of a Revolutionary is a Reactionary; Žižek is trying his best there to keep Hitler cleanly categorized as the latter so as not to taint his own ideology, which is the former.

It's bullshit, basically.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:19 PM on July 23, 2013


So, here's a link to Zizek's reply to Chomsky's "Fantasies". I think it very strongly reinforces what I said in my previous comment — both that Zizek is a reasonable dude and that this entire "debate" was cooked up by lazy editors.
posted by cthuljew at 3:51 PM on July 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


Oh, also, I have to take back what I said about Zizek bringing up Cambodia, because he was doing it for a very specific reason, not just repeating the thing that liberal academics always talk about re Chomsky "supporting" the Khmer Rouge.
posted by cthuljew at 4:28 PM on July 25, 2013


Wow. Žižek's response was really, really good.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:43 PM on July 25, 2013 [1 favorite]




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