Chomsky, Zizek, and Us

Chomsky answers a familiar question as he has often answered before. The supposed wisdom of Zizek, Lacan, etc. – answers Chomsky, (http://www.openculture.com/2013/06/noam_chomsky_slams_zizek_and_lacan_empty_posturing.html), is typically not wisdom but, instead, incomprehensibly dressed up long known, trivially obvious, or simply completely meaningless claims.  

Asked about his interest in Zizek's work Chomsky says it is "posturing" and he isn't interested in "using fancy terms and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever." He recommends trying to find non obvious practical implications of Zizek, once all the "fancy words are decoded," and admits that he cannot, at least not beyond "something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve year old."  

Indeed, Chomsky says he doesn't see anything in Zizek that would help people discover important phenomena and their causes. He adds that he knew Lacan and felt he was a "charlatan," "posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do." And Chomsky concludes his response by adding – "why this (type material) is influential, I haven't the slightest idea. I don't see anything there that should be influential." 

I am not going to neutrally examine the above observations from a recent interview and Zizek's response. I agree with Chomsky about the general issues – obscurantist work – and have written similarly, numerous times. Still, a reply from Zizek – there is one here: http://www.openculture.com/2013/07/slavoj-zizek-responds-to-noam-chomsky.html – someone I have never explicitly read, might be instructive. After all, you would think Zizek would make a case that his work is no more polysyllabic than it needs to be while also showing that it highlights important social relations that are not otherwise evident, perhaps by listing some. And he would make his reply understandable, offering it carefully and in straightforward language.  

However, instead, Zizek decides mainly to suggest Chomsky gets things wrong more often than anyone else Zizek knows – I guess to imply that Chomsky must be getting this wrong, too. But Zizek offers only one example of what he apparently thinks is Chomsky getting things wrong more than anyone else – and Zizek does so by repeating tired slurs that bear no relation to truth while offering no actual quotes from Chomsky, just asserted regurgitation of mainstream attacks on him. And so, unsurprisingly, Zizek reveals nothing that Chomsky got wrong even in that single case. Chomsky has addressed what Zizek wrote – http://www.zcomm.org/fantasies-by-noam-chomsky – and I see no need to repeat. The point worth making now, in any event, is that even supposing it was true (contrary to all evidence) that Chomsky gets lots of things wrong, one wonders how that would be remotely relevant to the observation that there is nothing much substantively worthy, and accessible, in Zizek's work.  

Next, however, Zizek says that Chomsky thinks current injustices are so blatant that we don't need to "critique ideology." This is strange. Apparently some friend of Zizek told him this was Chomsky's view. Seriously? Chomsky doesn't critique the myths, lies, and confusions, that are hammered at people to rationalize injustice? And even more to the point, he doesn't critique the institutions and broader range of factors that generate all of the myths, lies, and confusions? And again, supposing against all evidence that this was true – why would it be relevant in any event? I suppose Zizek is trying to suggest that one needs to be as obscure as he is to "critique ideology," even if it risks that some people, too lazy or too dumb, will mistake the product for babble. Chomsky can forego obscurity because he forgoes "critiquing ideology," except, of course, he doesn't. 

Considerable rambling, vacuous or incomprehensible, at least to me, follows – check it out for yourself – but then Zizek seems to say – presumably thinking that somehow this is a telling comment on Chomsky – that he, Zizek, doesn't think we are dealing with facts too much, so that we need to do more. Hello? One might claim about Chomsky, too many facts, but certainly not too few facts. I suspect that wasn't what Zizek meant to say – but how can one tell? And again, what is the point? Is the implication that to deal with facts we have to be polysyllabic and avoid logic? The easy way for Zizek to have argued that his prose is accessible and has substance, would have been for him to point to accessible prose in his major works, and summarize insightful substance. But there was no effort to do that.

Then Zizek tries to rebut the idea that he, Zizek, has influence by saying he wished he did, and, indeed, he wished he had power, so he could "brutally use it." What a strange turn of phrase coming from someone widely published on the left. I guess in this section, Zizek is indicating that he thinks Chomsky says Zizek's work lacks worth as a tool for helping understanding because Chomsky wants to squash a powerful approach that actually doesn't have as much influence as it should. My guess is that Zizek arrives at this strange impression because he knows it would be ridiculous to claim there is a lot that matters in his work, and that Chomsky is just too dumb or too lazy to discern it. Chomsky being dumb or lazy would be a very hard case to make. And of course Zizek doesn't want to admit there is very little substance in his work. So the self serving conclusion he arrives at is that Chomsky must see that substance and dislike it so much that he then tries to eradicate it by dismissiveness. I suspect Zizek may also soon suggest it is less malevolent – rather, Chomsky carries an anti postmodern ideology which prevents him from seeing the insights present. 

Here is how Zizek concludes his reply, as I found it quoted, so you can see for yourself how brilliantly, cogently, and insightfully he expresses himself: "So I claim that all these `how popular we are' is really a mask of… remember the large majority of academia are these gray 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. It’s 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 `Don’t take it seriously.'"

By my own narrow experience of the matter, I would say that Zizek is right that some people react to him by saying he is either a clown, entertainer, or buffoon. Not Chomsky – and not me for that matter. I don't find anything about Zizek funny. And since it is hard to conceive that he is literally incapable of thought and clarity – of course he can think and be clear – one is left grasping for a compelling explanation of a passage like what is above – not to mention passages when Zizek isn't trying to be clear, but, instead, is trying to be obscure. And even if we can come up with an explanation for Zizek being Zizek, there is still Chomsky's last comment to address, which implicitly asked why does anyone on the left publish Zizek, read Zizek, and even believe Zizek is some kind of powerful thinker whose words must be attended carefully?

First, then, why isn't Zizek's polysyllabic obscurity funny? For me, it is because this kind of writing about social relations, prospects, methods, etc., says to people that to be taken seriously you must talk and write obscurely – because doing so reveals that you are a thinker whereas writing and speaking plainly reveals that you are not. Zizek is a thinker, Chomsky is not. Lacan is a thinker, Bertrand Russell is not. And some people actually believe that, and start to emulate the stance, or to try to, at any rate. And then what happens? 

Well, a young student encountering faculty who consider obscurantism evidence of insight – let's say, Zizek, for example – tends to either become adept at group linguistic posturing, and to thus to rise in their field as a "thinker," or leaves the effort to think seriously about society behind due to not being willing to posture and preen or being psychologically incapable of it. These results – 1. becoming a posturer, or 2. leaving the effort to understand and think clearly about society behind – are each horrible. And this is no small matter. It means that among young people who are inclined toward seriously understanding society, perhaps on entering college or just picking up some books to apply themselves to useful thinking and communicating, a large number develop crippling habits or give up the pursuit as either incomprehensible or phony, or, perhaps worst, give up thinking they are not smart enough to proceed. Speaking for myself, I shudder to think what would have been the result had I encountered Zizek as a sophomore in college, instead of Chomsky, decades back.

Not only are such outcomes not funny, they are horribly disturbing. And there is a larger point, as well. If we want a movement that operates under the auspices of its members, a movement in which all participants know what is going on and why, and a movement in which all members are in position to have opinions and views and to support them equally with others – then we must have a movement in which ideas about what is wrong with society, about what we want for society, and about how to get what we want for society, are all expressed in language that is accessible to normal folks without special university training in advanced gobbeldygook. Chomsky certainly doesn't water down his messages, but he does express them in ways that normal folks can understand, albeit sometimes a person reading him has to overcome prejudices and prior expectations to do so.  

Suppose that Chomsky is wrong – and so am I – and Zizek does have powerful important insights about society now and in the future all through his major works, and about strategy that could benefit activists, too. If so, Zizek's manner of communicating destroys the likelihood that those insights will reach a wide audience who will then put them to use. I dare say, of all those who actually read Zizek – and this is not only about him, since there are many obscurantists around – very few if any utilize what he has written in their actual assessments of society or its future prospects. I have met many Zizek readers but none who noticeably use any Zizek insights, or advocate any, for that matter. My guess is, however, that most people who buy Zizek don't read Zizek and then not use something they thereby learned. Rather, I suspect that even among those who buy his books for the shelf, most don't even read Zizek beyond a few pages.   

So why do Zizek, and other writers like him, write and apparently also speak as they do? And why do many people think that there doing so is a mark of intellect and insight, rather than merely empty posturing?  

Just a few years ago, I think the word "narrative" was rarely if ever used. Now you can't read anything on the left – and to an extent even in the mainstream – without the word appearing not merely once, but often. How did that happen? It isn't the most disturbing case one could point out, by a very long margin, but it is indicative. People become habituated to hearing and repeating things that others often intone, particularly when the intoners have lots of credentials and status. Why? Because it marks the repeaters as having listened and heard the intoners, even if the repeaters often have very little idea what they are saying means or what value it has – precisely because, in fact, even the intoners have little idea of that in the first place.  

By roughly that pattern, I think students pick up obscurantist habits because to not pick them up suggests not paying attention, not understanding, not being knowledgeable, etc. But then, having picked up the verbal and writing styles to not look dumb or to be respected, comes a bigger problem. We are not what we eat. No one is a cucumber or radish. We are instead what we do. And this is so even when what we do begins as a masquerade. We adopt mannerisms to get by, or win praise. Then we start to rationalize them rather than to admit that they are just habit and masquerade, especially if we get good at them. Finally, the mannerisms are part of us. This is only a hypothesis about the trends, but it is worth considering. It suggests that Zizek is Zizekian, so to speak, because it works for his status in academia – where plain old radical truth gets one almost nothing back. Others, including students, emulate Zizekian behavior because otherwise they seem ignorant or dumb. Doing Zizek, however, makes us posturers without serious purpose, which behavior we then defend and even celebrate. 

And here is something empirical and interesting. The number of people powerfully influenced in their thinking and acting by Chomsky's writing and speaking so that the views they hold have roots in or were inspired by Chomsky's contributions dwarfs the number not only for Zizek, but I suspect for Zizek and all the other similarly polysyllabic writers and speakers combined. Yet I don't know anyone who talks or writes like Chomsky other than in the sense of trying to clearly convey evidence, reveal logic, and otherwise try be clear in their own ways. To me this contrast is interesting. 

In Zizek's case, there is a very unusual style – Zizekian posturing – without serious substance. The style is the message. People replicate the style, but do not imbibe and refine the message, which few if any even understand. In Chomsky's case, there is serious substance conveyed as clearly as possible by a straightforward style that hopefully conveys it as clearly as possible. The message is the message. People comprehend it and if it works for them, they use it. No one bothers much about the style.


And now comes the biggest question of all. If you are reading the exchange between Zizek and Chomsky, and if you are a Zizek reader/celebrator/publisher, what do you take from all this? Do you just brush it off as useless noise and return to reading Zizek (I bet very spottily), or return to celebrating Zizek (I bet without offering actual reasons for doing so), or return to publishing Zizek (I bet, well, honestly, merely because he sells). Or do you look twice, and judge anew?   

Leave a comment