The Zizek/Chomsky Debate: a Pragmatist View

Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek are useful for fulfilling different kinds of needs.

Submitted by DaveH on September 6, 2014

Recently two major figures on the left have been embroiled in an argument through the press. One the famous linguist and critic of American foreign policy, Noam Chomsky, and the other, Philosopher and
Marxist/Lacanian, Slavoj Zizek. The roots of their debate began at least two hundred years ago. It is similar to the split between the rationalists and the empiricists, and it is along the lines of what we call the analytic/continental split today. There is a tradition that has made this split senseless: this is the American pragmatist philosophic tradition. Around the turn of the last century Willem James in his book Pragmatism addresses the rationalist and empiricist split in words that could just as easily apply to the debate Zizek and Chomsky are having. James says “few of us are tender-footed Bostonians pure and simple, and few are typical Rocky Mountain toughs, in philosophy. Most of us have a hankering for the good things on both sides of the line. Facts are good of course--give us lots of facts. Principles are good--give us plenty of principles. The world is indubitably one if you look at it in one way and indubitably many if you look at it another”(James5). James believes that both the rationalist and empiricist traditions exist because they serve different human needs. Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek are useful for fulfilling different kinds of needs. They may dismiss each other or worse, but there is little reason this means we, the thought consuming public, can’t take little bits from each of them.

From Analytic Philosophy we have gained a great reductive tendency. For example, Ryle in his Descartes myth accuses Descartes of describing the same act both mentally and physically, therefore saying the same thing twice and being redundant. The work of Ryle helped philosophy move quite productively away from the mind/body problem. Wittgenstein was responsible for the great linguistic turn in philosophy. The focus on language taught us a great deal about our meaning and so our world. Much of analytic philosophy is important because it parallels the work being done in the science departments. Chomsky gave us a science of langue. He gave us the claim that there may be a common biological framework for language. The reason such a man would be in contact with Zizek is owning to what Chomsky has referred to as his “other life”. Chomsky has also given us a long list of excellent books documenting U.S. imperialism as well as other social and political topics. Chomsky is invaluable to the American left. In fact, saying he merely gave us a long list of books is a vast understatement. It is more accurate to say he is the USA’s chief intellectual critic.

Continental philosophy is a movement named by Analytic philosophers. It was dubbed by Analytic philosophers in order to talk about philosophy outside of what they focus on. For this reason, it is a very wide umbrella and hard to make generalizations about. It differs from analytic philosophy in that it rejects the idea that science is the only way to understand phenomena. Heidegger for instance believes in elevating the metaphor or the poetic above the scientistic. This questioning of science is equally as important as its embrace in a society that looks to science for the quid pro quo of existence. There is, however, room and more importantly need for both ways of doing philosophy in relation to science. Continental philosophy also tends to be more historicist and literary and it is for this reason that someone like Zizek does not live double lives but his philosophy and politics are one and the same.

Slavoj Zizek does not have as an impressive a resume as Noam Chomsky. Despite what his list of detractors within the left have to say about him, though, Zizek has a decent amount to offer. Reading First Tragedy then as Farce is an unsettling experience. This is because Zizek hops from one topic to another from page to page..Zizek gives us no useful political plan to follow. When Zizek suggests something like returning to communism, it is short and unclear. It is an exhausting writing style, but it fits, in my opinion, what we can gain from Zizek. Slavoj Zizek should be read how Nietzsche is read, because like Nietzsche he is good for insights that are snippets of thought which aren’t connected to a larger schema. Let me give an example: Zizek claims “the true ecologist loves the garbage dump”(Examined Life, Taylor, 2008). Now, Zizek has a longer coherent theory behind this. It doesn’t much matter to us, the thought consuming public, if we take every word of this theory literally. The point is that we get bits of thoughts from this theory that get us thinking, not that there is a coherent plan to follow.

What of the debate between these two men? Chomsky’s original comments against Zizek were not very helpful to further our understanding of why we should embrace or reject him. He said “The scholarship just isn’t there (Veterans Unplugged, 2012)” and “the man is a clown (Veterans Unplugged, 2012).” These sorts of comments seem to come from a very narrow place concerning what constitutes a useful thinker. Likewise, Chomsky’s refusal to debate Zizek is part of a troubling tradition of analytic philosophers refusing to debate thinkers from the continent. Zizek’s response to Chomsky was, however, just as unhelpful as Chomsky’s initial comments. After defending much of the language that we have inherited from Marx, he attacks Chomsky for being slow to realize that the Khemer Rouge in Cambodia were dastardly. This also comes with the troubling sound bite “I don’t know of a guy who is more often empirically wrong then Noam Chomsky (Open Culture, 2013).” Zizek then goes on to say no hard empirical evidence was needed to realize how dastardly this regime was, “The point is not that you have to know, you have photo evidence of gulag or whatever. My God you just have to listen to the public discourse of Stalinism, or Khmer Rouge, to get it that something terrifyingly pathological is going on(Open Culture, 2013).” The first part of this comment builds an artificial wall between what is empirical and not empirical and second is a personal attack on Chomsky and is petty and unrelated to Chomsky as a scholar.

In the third and last series of these exchanges, Chomsky quite literally calls Zizek a liar. He starts by addressing Zizek’s comments that it took Chomsky a while to catch onto the Khmer Rouge being nefarious: “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
(Roar Magazine, 2013).”He also mentions something about a phone call that Zizek claimed once took place between them, saying this never happened. Whether a phone call ever happened and some of these other personal details are of no interest. Instead, let us take a look at what we can gain from this exchange. What is fruitful is the question of what constitutes something being empirical. When Zizek says the Khmer Rouge is pathological and you don’t even need to see the killing fields it brings up the question, in what ways are ideologies not things in the world to be observed? Marx believed Ideologies were a result of material conditions but they were not visible in the same way that human skulls in a Cambodian killing field are.

Although he avoids Marx’s terminology, Chomsky is not less interested in beliefs then Zizek is. They both as political philosophers deal with the space where thought turns to action or “Praxis”. Chomsky in fact responds: “[Zizek thinks that] 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? (Roar Magazine, 2013” but here Zizek means Ideology in the particularly Marxist sense of a dominate belief system tied to production and the totalizing nature of capitalism. In this sense Ideology and deaths under a brutal regime are both naturalistic. In this way Zizek’s project is not useless or even somehow more groundless then Chomsky’s.

We come, however, now to the less philosophical and more directly political question. What are the effects of both of these thinkers’ thought on the left? As well as the sub question, is the thought of one of them more helpful in our struggle against capitalism? The answer is: as far as we can find an objective place to stand, and I do believe when it comes to this question that is our duty, Professor Noam Chomsky is far more valuable. It is still a shame, however, that Chomsky accuses Zizek of the hefty charge of doing damage to the left “particularly in the third world(Veterans Unplugged 2012).” Then Chomsky does not back up this claim so we do not know why he thinks Zizek does so much damage.

The reason Chomsky is a more useful thinker when we are looking for the best plan for doing away with capitalism is because Chomsky’s syndicalism which he inherits from Rudolph Rocker. When it comes to the outline of a plan for doing away with our troubling economic system, it makes more sense to be a “Rocky Mountain Tough”(James 5). Rocker’s Syndicalism which Chomsky inherits seems to me to be the most appropriate response to the Soviet Union.

If we take Zizek’s communization theory seriously it seems all too easy that we could end up with another Napoleon or Stalin. The theory lacks the liberalism which Rocker thought so important, the idea that theSyndicalist solution will disperse power by having separate and spread out power centers. It seems Zizek hasn’t taken a far enough turn from Lenin who’s State and Revolution has influenced his thought. I am
not adverse to one quoting Lenin who had some useful things to say. Lenin’s project, however, unquestionably (whether inevitable or not) resulted in Stalin. Syndicalism just as clearly guards against this totalitarianism. It seems evident from what I have just laid out that Chomsky’s plan is a better one. This doesn’t discount many of the interesting and useful things Zizek says about Ideology, though and this should not stop us from reading and enjoying both thinkers.

1. James, William, Pragmatism
New York: Longman Green and co 1907

2. Zizek, Slavoj, Examined Life
Director Astra Taylor, Sphinx productions 2008

3. Chomsky, Noam
Veterans Unplugged December 2012

4. Zizek, Slavoj
Open Culture July 2013

5. Chomsky, Noam
Roar Magazine July 2013

6. Rocker, Rudolf Anarcho-Syndicalism
Martin seeker and Warburg Ltd, 1938