Chomsky v Žižek: The Academic Rumble in the Jungle

Chommers Zizek

<boxing analogy> There has been some captivating intellectual sparring between two of the Left’s academic heavy-weights in recent days.</boxing analogy>

Round One

Since the original appearance of an interview with Veterans Unplugged in December 2012, in which Chomsky decried the ’empty posturing’ of Slavoj ŽižekJacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, an online back-and-forth has gained momentum between the MIT professor and his quarry.

As Open Culture transcribed, Chomsky claimed:

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. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.

Round Two

Žižek’s reply came during a recent panel discussion at Birkbeck, University of London. (You can get the audio by clicking here, and skipping forward to the 1 hour 30 mark.)

Žižek contested what he saw to be Chomsky’s misguided empiricism and his alleged scepticism regarding (in particular) the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, recumbent on that empiricism. Thanks go to esjaybe for transcribing:

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.

He continues:

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”

Round Three

The response continued at length (read it here). Over the weekend Chomsky authored a riposte, published on his Znet page, as ‘Fantasies‘. He began by saying: “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 … 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.”

Here’s an extract below, dealing with the example of the Khmer Rouge. You can read the full thing on

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.

New Chomsky book from Pluto

While we await a potential fourth instalment in this clash of politics and personality, we recommend pre-ordering Noam Chomsky’s latest book, On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare (Pluto, September 2013).

Click on the cover image for more information about the pre-order offer. (Headline: for the special price of just £10 including free UK P&P, 30 lucky people will receive a signed copy, and all pre-orders will come with free Pluto goodies)

Chomsky T02739

2 thoughts on “Chomsky v Žižek: The Academic Rumble in the Jungle

  1. Is the new Chomsky book actually a “book” (in terms of research and then proper layout) or just transcripts of interviews? There seems so have been a plethora of Chomsky books in recent years which are just interviews covering the same old ground.

    Hopefully it is the former, as I’d love to see Chomsky expand his theory of Terrorism covered in “Western State Terrorism” published way back in 1991.

    1. Hi Laurence,

      The new Chomsky book is based on new interviews, though it is much more than a straight transcript, having been drawn from in-depth conversations between Chomsky & Andre Vltchek that have been extensively edited, with Noam’s direct involvement in the editorial process. Our pre-order offer is giving the book away for £10, and free Pluto goodies (badges, bookmarks, pencils that sort of thing).

      All the best

      Pluto Marketing team

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