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Zizek’s theory is precisely about nothing. But of course, this is a dialectical nothing. A negativity that is full of significance in an all-encompassing post-historical ideology where every ‘something’ is able to appear on account of being palatable by consumer / neoliberal (communicative) capitalism. And it is Zizek’s ability to meet with this ‘nothing’ that allows us to find the space outside of this consensus.

He provides us with some examples, for instance, did you hear the one about the man who went into a cafe and asked for coffee without milk? The waiter replies: sorry sir, we are all out of milk, but can I get you coffee without cream? Zizek argues this was fundamentally the correct answer as coffee without milk is not the same as coffee without cream, they are both ‘nothings’ but with a different identity. Or did you hear the one about the woman who took a glass of water to bed in case she got thirsty, but also an empty glass in case she didn’t? Again, this is a positive nothing.

This is also how we should interpret the (infamous) final lines of his book Violence:

“If one means by violence a radical upheaval of the basic social relations, then, crazy and tasteless as it may sound, the problem with historical monsters who slaughtered millions was that they were not violent enough. Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do” (2008:183)

This is why Ghandi is more violent than Hitler. The Nazis performed the horrific violence of the holocaust so that nothing may change (i.e. the ‘aryans’ could continue to benefit from capitalist relations) whereas Ghandi fundamentally challenged the very core of society. Therefore, in the final sentence of this quote, we need to put the emphasis on the ‘doing’ – it is an active nothing, a nothing that is full of consequence and potential, that we must perform (i.e. not simply inactivity).

This is also where I think Zizek is fundamentally different from Russell Brand (who I discuss here). Zizek is criticised widely for being a clown, yet this is precisely the way in which people (such as Chomsky) dont take his theory seriously. On the other hand, Brand is avowedly a clown and is taken very seriously (the revival of the left in some circles). They also differ because Zizek advocates a radical withdrawal into ‘nothing’ (an active non-participation) from capitalism, whilst Brand advocates the position of pseudo-activity that comes with left liberalism: keep acting rather than thinking. Brand looks like a spectacle and acts like a clown, but don’t let this fool you, he is.

This is why I think that Chomsky’s reply to Zizek’s reply to Chomsky… is fundamentally flawed. His article appears to demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of Zizek’s theory, because he continues to criticise Zizek for not being empirically rigorous. But how can you empirically measure ‘nothing’?! (Or ‘desire’ or ‘drive’ or ‘fantasy’ for that matter). It’s not that Zizek is against empiricism (at least, I don’t think I’ve ever come across this in his writing) but that this scientific counting and empirical proving which Chomsky advocates is more problematic than he realises: failing to escape the techno-scientific paradigm of capitalism.

This is why his point that Chomsky defended Khmer Rouge does not need to be correct to be an accurate criticism (Zizek made the charge and Chomsky denies it, but I haven’t read enough Chomsky to take a stance on this). It still stands that a reliance on empiricism for truth only allows appearance through an all encompassing ideology. In order to appear as empirical truth, it must appear as ‘something’ when what we really need to break out of this and into an alternate space is a dialectical nothing. Therefore, when Chomsky points out that “Žižek finds nothing, literally nothing, that is empirically wrong” (emphasis added) with his work, I wouldn’t be surprised if Zizek simply agreed!

We need to put my transcript of Zizek’s response (which has multiplied hits on my blog ten times over in a matter of days – who needs original thinking?!) in its proper context. His response was to a question… at the end of a panel… at the end of a two week summer school… constantly interrupted and cut short by the chair: Costas Douzinas. Is it any surprise that some sentences appear rushed? Or is it any surprise, to quote Chomsky again, that his reply did not “at the very least provide a few particles of evidence – some quotes, references, at least something”?

I also find it amusing that Chomsky criticises Zizek on his sources – a Slovenian magazine and a Slovenian journal (a bit US-centric and elitist, Naom?) – and yet has based his entire criticism of Zizek on an amateur transcript which I have written on a blog… which is full of inaccuracies… which was recorded unclearly… and which is out of context…!

Finally, to quote Chomsky’s defence once more, he argues that, back in the day, “we wrote that we cannot know what the actual facts are, but suggested that commentators keep to the truth”. However, the question is what truth or who’s truth he refers to here? I would guess Chomsky means scientific techno-capitalist truth, in which case he is completely subsumed by the very ideology he criticises. Here, there is no need for a theorisation of ‘cynical’ (manufactured) consent, because Chomsky gives his consent to ideology in the very language that he uses to criticise that system.

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8 thoughts on “Zizek: Alot of Fuss About Nothing

  1. The tragedy of the Chomsky Zizek tiff, is that the argument itself exposes the space wherein leftist political and philosophical dialogue has become contained.

    If we look objectively at the matter it is apparent that Chomsky dislikes the Zizekian showmanship, the admixture of serious philosophy and bufoonary. Chomsky’s quip that there is nothing of empirical or scientific substance in Zizek’s work is childish and perhaps belies an element of jealously at Zizek’s rock star status…

    However there is some merit to the argument that Zizek’s philosophy is largely contained within the coordinates of that same market that he is wont to criticize. Zizek whether he likes it or not is a product of and a servant to the market. The market will permit him to ‘go too far’, yet he is inevitably constrained from going far enough. He cannot move outside the market that has come to define him. The ultimate objective of the left is the destruction of the market in its present form. And yet what happens when the left allows itself to be defined by the market itself?

    Within the coordinates of the market the more popular a philosophy becomes, the greater its momentum the more refined by the market it becomes, and the greater its impotency.

    Therefore the momentum for any revolutionary or paradigm shift is lost as philosophy is processed by the market itself. Hence the substance of Chomsky’s claims.

    Zizek must sell his wares, Chomsky must become peeved when Zizek commands a greater popularity…., these are the rules of market engagement. The problem we face is how to liberate philosophy from this limited sphere. Unless this is accomplished we do nothing but continue to travel in circles and we remain victims of the same market that we are wont to criticize.

    For more on this please feel free to join me on my blog: drmdebrun.blogspot.com (Zeitgeist)

    • Hi Marcus, thanks so much for your comment.

      While of course I agree that all on the left are incorporated as part of the consensus in order to appear as coherent, I would also suggest that this is exactly Zizek’s main argument.

      Zizek would not deny that he is a ‘something’ and is only able to appear through the very system he looks to overcome, but hence his Hegelian theorization of the ‘nothing’ as a space of radical politics.

      I would definitely argue that Chomsky, with his reliance on the ’empirical’, is further contained within the ‘market’ than Zizek for the very reason that he relies on supposed neutral facts (which is, of course, never neutral and always politically charged).

      We are always in a contradictory position due to the all-encompassing ideology of the market which forecloses its own criticism in advance, hence why Zizek’s theory is so important.

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  5. I’m sorry to say this (because I’m an admirer of Chomsky’s earlier linguistic work), but I feel that over the years he has become increasingly more dogmatic, being unable to detach himself from his point of view when analyzing other ideas… He just doesn’t seem to really want to understand other opinions/other points of view.

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