Saturday, July 27, 2013

Philosophical Pissing War - Slavoj Žižek vs. Noam Chomsky

chomsky-zizek-feud-continues

I've only been following this "dialogue" between Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky from the periphery, but Open Culture has assembled the various comments/responses in one post summarizing the exchange.

Here are the 4 articles about their feud, so far, as posted by Open Culture:
  1. Noam Chomsky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Empty ‘Posturing’
  2. Slavoj Žižek Responds to Noam Chomsky: ‘I Don’t Know a Guy Who Was So Often Empirically Wrong’
  3. The Feud Continues: Noam Chomsky Responds to Žižek, Describes Remarks as ‘Sheer Fantasy’
  4. Slavoj Žižek Publishes a Very Clearly Written Essay-Length Response to Chomsky’s “Brutal” Criticisms
For your entertainment, here the two latest summaries of the exchanges with links to the original articles, all of which come from Open Culture (those folks rock!):

The Feud Continues: Noam Chomsky Responds to Žižek, Describes Remarks as ‘Sheer Fantasy’


July 22nd, 2013


Noam Chomsky has issued a statement in reaction to our July 17 post, “Slavoj Žižek Responds to Noam Chomsky: ‘I Don’t Know a Guy Who Was So Often Empirically Wrong.’ In an article posted yesterday on ZNet titled “Fantasies,” Chomsky says Žižek’s criticism of him is completely ungrounded. “Žižek finds nothing, literally nothing, that is empirically wrong,” writes Chomsky. “That’s hardly a surprise.”

The rift between the two high-profile intellectuals began, as you may recall, when Chomsky criticized Žižek and other continental philosophers for essentially talking nonsense — for cloaking trivialities in fancy language and using the scientific-sounding term “theory” to describe propositions that could never be tested empirically. Žižek lashed back, saying of Chomsky, “I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong.” He went on to criticize Chomsky’s controversial early position on American assessments of the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia. (To read Žižek’s comments, click here to open the earlier post in a new window.) In response yesterday, Chomsky said he had received numerous requests to comment on our post:
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 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.
Chomsky goes on to recount an instance when he says Žižek misattributed a “racist comment on Obama” to Chomsky, only to explain it away later and say that he had discussed the issue with Chomsky on the telephone. “Of course,” writes Chomsky, “sheer fantasy.” Chomsky then moves on to Žižek’s comments reported by Open Culture, which he says are typical of Žižek’s methods. “According to him,” writes Chomsky, “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.”

Chomsky devotes the rest of his article to defending his work with Edward Herman on the Khmer Rouge atrocities. He claims that no factual errors have been found in their work on the subject, and he draws attention to a passage in their book After the Cataclysm, quoted last week by Open Culture reader Poyâ Pâkzâd, in which they write, “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.”

You can read Chomsky’s complete rebuttal to Žižek here.

* * * * * * *

Slavoj Žižek Publishes a Very Clearly Written Essay-Length Response to Chomsky’s “Brutal” Criticisms


July 26th, 2013


Fur has flown, claws and teeth were bared, and folding chairs were thrown! But of course I refer to the bristly exchange between those two stars of the academic left, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky. And yes, I’m poking fun at the way we—and the blogosphere du jour—have turned their shots at one another into some kind of celebrity slapfight or epic rap battle grudge match. We aim to entertain as well as inform, it’s true, and it’s hard to take any of this too seriously, since partisans of either thinker will tend to walk away with their previous assumptions confirmed once everyone goes back to their corners.

But despite the seeming cattiness of Chomsky and Žižek’s highly mediated exchanges (perhaps we’re drumming it up because a simple face-to-face debate has yet to occur, and probably won’t), there is a great deal of substance to their volleys and ripostes, as they butt up against critical questions about what philosophy is and what role it can and should play in political struggle. As to the former, must all philosophy emulate the sciences? Must it be empirical and consistently make transparent truth claims? Might not “theory,” for example (a word Chomsky dismisses in this context), use the forms of literature—elaborate metaphor, playful systems of reference, symbolism and analogy? Or make use of psychoanalytic and Marxian terminology in evocative and novel ways in serious attempts to engage with ideological formations that do not reveal themselves in simple terms?

Another issue raised by Chomsky’s critiques: should the work of philosophers who identify with the political left endeavor for a clarity of expression and a direct utility for those who labor under systems of oppression, lest obscurantist and jargon-laden writing become itself an oppressive tool and self-referential game played for elitist intellectuals? These are all important questions that neither Žižek nor Chomsky has yet taken on directly, but that both have obliquely addressed in testy off-the-cuff verbal interviews, and that might be pursued by more disinterested parties who could use their exchange as an exemplar of a current methodological rift that needs to be more fully explored, if never, perhaps, fully resolved. As Žižek makes quite clear in his most recent—and very clearly-written—essay-length reply to Chomsky’s latest comment on his work (published in full on the Verso Books blog), this is a very old conflict.

Žižek spends the bulk of his reply exonerating himself of the charges Chomsky levies against him, and finding much common ground with Chomsky along the way, while ultimately defending his so-called continental approach. He provides ample citations of his own work and others to support his claims, and he is detailed and specific in his historical analysis. Žižek is skeptical of Chomsky’s claims to stand up for “victims of Third World suffering,” and he makes it plain where the two disagree, noting, however, that their antagonism is mostly a territorial dispute over questions of style (with Chomsky as a slightly morose guardian of serious, scientific thought and Žižek as a sometimes buffoonish practitioner of a much more literary tradition). He ends with a dig that is sure to keep fanning the flames:
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. 
…………………. 
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 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. 
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, 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?
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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