Recently, there was an interesting dig made at Slavoj Zizek from Naom Chomsky which you can listen to here:

The gist is that Zizek and Lacan et al are ‘posturing charlatans’ using ‘fancy terms’ and pretending to have ‘theory’ when they have no theory whatsoever (by which he means scientific empirical testable conclusions).

You can hear Zizek’s response here (from 1hr 30mins in) at a recent panel at Birkbeck in London:


But here is an “non-authorized and not accurate transcription” transcript of his response which I have typed up because I think it points to some interesting arguments against certain types of empirical research and the importance of theory (read my comments on this debate here):

What is that about, again, the academy and Chomsky and so on? Well with all deep respect that I do have for Chomsky, my first point is that Chomsky who always emphasises how one has to be empirical, accurate, not just some crazy Lacanian speculations and so on… well I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong in his descriptions in his whatever! Let’s look… I remember when he defended this demonisation of Khmer Rouge. And he wrote a couple of texts claiming: “no this is western propaganda. Khmer Rouge are not as horrible as that.” And when later he was compelled to admit that Khmer Rouge were not the nicest guys in the universe and so on, his defence was quite shocking for me. It was that “no, with the data that we had at that point, I was right. At that point we didn’t yet know enough, so… you know” but I totally reject this line of reasoning.

For example, concerning Stalinism. The point is not that you have to know, you have to photo evidence of gulag or whatever. My god you just have to listen to the public discourse of Stalinism, of Khmer Rouge, to get it that something terrifyingly pathological is going on there. For example, Khmer Rouge: even if we have no data about their prisons and so on, isn’t it in a perverse way almost fascinating to have a regime which in the first two years (’75 to ’77) behaved towards itself, treated itself, as illegal. You know the regime was nameless. It was called ‘alka’ [?] an organisation – not communist party of Cambodia – an organisation. Leaders were nameless. If you ask ‘who is my leader?’ your head was chopped off immediately and so on.

Ok, next point about Chomsky, you know the consequence of this attitude of his empirical and so on – and that’s my basic difference with him – and precisely Corey Robinson and some other people talking with him recently confirmed this to me. His idea is today that cynicism of those in power is so open that we dont need any critique of ideology, you read symptomatically between the lines, everything is cynically openly admitted, we just have to bring out the facts of people. Like ‘this company is profiting in Iraq’ and so on and so on. Here I violently disagree.

First, more than ever today, our daily life is ideology. How can you doubt ideology when recently I think Paul Krugman published a relatively good text where he demonstrated how this idea of austerity: this is not even good bourgeois economic theory! Its a kind of a primordial, common sense magical thinking when you confront a crisis “oh, we must have done something wrong, we spent too much so lets economise and so on and so on.”

My second point, cynicists are those who are most prone to fall in to illusions. Cynicists are not people who see things the way they really are and so on. Think about 2008 and the ongoing financial crisis, it was not cooked up in some crazy welfare state; social democrats who are spending too much. The crisis exploded because of activity of those other cynicists who precisely thought “screw human rights, screw dignity, all that matters is… and so on and so on”

So as to this ‘problem’ of are we studying the facts enough I claim emphatically more than ever ‘no’ today. And as to popularity, I get a little bit annoyed with this idea that we with our deep sophisms are really hegemonic in humanities. Are people crazy? I mean we are always marginal. No, what is for me real academic hegemony: its brutal, who can get academic posts? Who can get grants, foundations, as so on? We are totally marginalised here. I mean look at my position… “oh yeah you are a mega-star in United States” well I would like to be because I would like power to brutally use it! But I am far from that. I react so like this because a couple of days ago I got a letter from a friend in United States for whom I wrote a letter of recommendation, and he told me “I didn’t get the job, not in spite of your letter but because of your letter!” He had a spy in the committee and this spy told him “you almost got it, but then somebody says ‘oh, if Zizek recommends him it must be something terribly wrong with him'”

So I claim that all these ‘how popular we are’ is really a mask of… remember the large majority of academia are these grey either cognitivists or historians blah blah… and you don’t see them but they are the power. They are the power.

On the other hand, why are they in power worried? Because you know… don’t exaggerate this leftist paranoia idea that “we can all be recuperated” and so on and so on. No! I still quite naively believe in the efficiency of theoretical thinking. Its not as simple as to recuperate everything in. But you know there are different strategies of how to contain us, I must say that I maybe am not innocent in this, because people like to say about me “oh, go and listen to him, he is an amusing clown blah blah blah” This is another way to say “dont take it seriously”.

But this is one of the strategies. You know there are so many strategies to counteract and the proof that we are not so impotent as innocent is how, did you notice how – against you now [Douzinas] and against me – this old line of “oh these are crazy half-clownish marginals” imperceptibly is more and more combined with the opposite line “we are dangerous. we advocate violence. we are preparing a new holocaust or whatever”. This is deeply symptomatic, this mixture of ‘we are powerless, innocent clowns’ to ‘these guys are really dangerous preparing a new terror’ and so on. Of course, my heart is with the second position, but that’s another story…

This article was hyperlinked by Peter Thompson in The Guardian (19th July 2013)

Chomsky has replied to Zizek’s comments here (21st July 2013)

Zizek replies in detail here (25th July 2013)


26 thoughts on “Zizek’s Response to Chomsky

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  2. Can someone post a link, or provide some evidence to Chomsky defending, or downplaying the actions of the Khmer Rouge?

    My memory is that he contrasted the the atrocities in Timor with the atrocities in Cambodia, saying they were equally horrible, but the Indonesians were acting with US blessing, weapons and funding and therefore did not receive the same media coverage.

    While Pol Pot’s gang of murderers were useful to maintaining official US propaganda.

    I have no memory of Chomsky ever being soft on the Cambodian genocide.

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  4. Oh I’d pay for that as well. That would be very interesting to listen to. Anyhow, I find this debate pretty interesting to follow. Reveals quite a lot of underlying cultural differences. The “left” in Europe and the US is worlds apart….

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  7. I’ve had enough of this clown after 3 paragraphs.
    You know someone can’t hold a candle to Chomsky when they trot out the Khmer Rouge smear.
    In summary : “people don’t want facts whereby the conclusion leads to hardwork, so I babble on like a coke head, sprinkling my rants with pop culture references to make me sound hip.”

  8. There are errors in your transcript, for instance: ” you reach automatically between the lines” should be “read symptomatically between the lines”. But it’s not so tremendously important because the gist is clear anyway. Thanks for the interesting article.

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  19. Reblogged this on NeoBohemia and commented:
    I am reblogging this (one or two “gs”?) because I respect both men and I would hardly call either one of them “charlatans.” However, Chomsky is obviously a genius (in fact, I first heard of him through linguistics and had no notion of his political commentary) and Zizek is always very perceptive (except I can’t watch him and listen to him at the same time without fear of getting hit). It seems, however, to degenerate to the narrow point of what is the scientific method. I do believe that many Social Scientists suffer from “paradigm envy” and that their obsession with statistics is ludicrous, especially given how bad they are at it. Still, this is a worthwhile exchange between real thinkers, a rarity today.

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