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The "violence" of Slavoj Zizek

Catchfire
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rabble.ca editor Derrick O'Keefe tipped me off to this assault on Slovenian philosopher and rock star Slavoj Žižek by John Gray in The New York Review of Books. Gray--the British Conservatives go-to philosopher--takes exception to what he detects is a current of violence undergirding Žižek's work. Highlighting a few passages which appear -- in the review anyway -- to support, praise or recommend the program of violence employed by Mao, Pol Pot and Hitler, Gray warns of the dangerous radicalism Žižek encourages even as he critiques it for its poststructuralist jargon and isolation from actual political practice. Interested babblers should read the whole article, but here are a few choice excerpts:

Quote:
While he rejects Marx’s conception of communism, Žižek devotes none of the over one thousand pages of Less Than Nothing to specifying the economic system or institutions of government that would feature in a communist society of the kind he favors....unlike Marx he does not aim to ground his theorizing in a reading of history that is based in facts. “Today’s historical juncture does not compel us to drop the notion of the proletariat, or of the proletarian position—on the contrary, it compels us to radicalize it to an existential level beyond even Marx’s imagination,” he writes. “We need a more radical notion of the proletarian subject [i.e., the thinking and acting human being], a subject reduced to the evanescent point of the Cartesian cogito, deprived of its substantial content.” In Žižek’s hands, Marxian ideas—which in Marx’s materialist view were meant to designate objective social facts—become subjective expressions of revolutionary commitment. Whether such ideas correspond to anything in the world is irrelevant.

Note Gray's quiet sneers at Žižek's philosophical approach ("But to criticize Žižek for neglecting these facts is to misunderstand his intent..."); it's typical of Gray's style thoughout.

Quote:
A celebration of violence is one of the most prominent strands in Žižek’s work. He finds fault with Marx for thinking that violence can be justified as part of the conflict between objectively defined social classes. Class war must not be understood as “a conflict between particular agents within social reality: it is not a difference between agents (which can be described by means of a detailed social analysis), but an antagonism (‘struggle’) which constitutes these agents.” ...

Žižek’s rejection of anything that might be described as social fact comes together with his admiration of violence in his interpretation of Nazism. Commenting on the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s much-discussed involvement with the Nazi regime, Žižek writes: “His involvement with the Nazis was not a simple mistake, but rather a ‘right step in the wrong direction.’” Contrary to many interpretations, Heidegger was not a radical reactionary. “Reading Heidegger against the grain, one discovers a thinker who was, at some points, strangely close to communism”—indeed, during the mid-Thirties, Heidegger might be described as “a future communist.”

If Heidegger mistakenly chose to back Hitler, the mistake was not in underestimating the violence that Hitler would unleash:

Quote:
The problem with Hitler was that he was “not violent enough,” his violence was not “essential” enough. Hitler did not really act, all his actions were fundamentally reactions, for he acted so that nothing would really change, staging a gigantic spectacle of pseudo-Revolution so that the capitalist order would survive…. The true problem of Nazism is not that it “went too far” in its subjectivist-nihilist hubris of exercising total power, but that it did not go far enough, that its violence was an impotent acting-out which, ultimately, remained in the service of the very order it despised.

What was wrong with Nazism, it seems, is that—like the later experiment in total revolution of the Khmer Rouge—it failed to create any new kind of collective life.

Yikes. Having read a great deal of Žižek, I had an idea of what Gray was up to here, and how he got this passage entirely wrong (and probably deliberately), but I'll leave Žižek to defend himself. Here is his response to Gray's invective:

Quote:
If I am repelled by John Gray’s review of my two last books ('The Violent Visions of Slavoj Žižek', New York Review of Books, July 12 2012), it is not because the review is highly critical of my work, but because its arguments are based on such a crude misreading of my position that, if I were to answer it in detail, I would have to spend way too much time just answering insinuations and setting straight the misunderstandings of my position, not to mention direct false statements – which is, for an author, one of the most boring exercises imaginable. So I will limit myself to one paradigmatic example which mixes theoretical dismissal with moral indignation; it concerns anti-Semitism and is worth quoting in detail [the above passage]

Quote:
The mutual implication is not between the Nazis and the Jews, but between the Nazis and their own anti-Semitic fantasy: "you take away the anti-Semitic fantasy, and the subject whose fantasy it is itself disintegrates." The point is not that Jews and anti-Semites are somehow co-dependent, so that the only way to get rid of the Nazis is to get rid of the Jews, but that the identity of a Nazi depends on his anti-Semitic fantasy: the Nazi is “in the Jew” in the sense that his own identity is grounded in his fantasy of the Jew. Gray’s insinuation that I somehow imply the need for the annihilation of the Jews is thus a ridiculously-monstrous obscenity which only serves the base motifs of discrediting the opponent by ascribing him some kind of sympathy for the most terrifying crime of the XXth century.

So when Gray writes that “Žižek says little regarding the nature of the form of life that might have come into being had Germany been governed by a regime less reactive and powerless than he judges Hitler’s to have been,” he is simply not telling the truth: what I point out is that such a “form of life” would precisely not have the need to look for a scapegoat like the Jews. Instead of killing millions of Jews, a regime “less reactive and powerless than he judges Hitler’s to have been” would, for example, transform social relations of production so that they would lose their antagonistic character. This is the “violence” I am preaching, the violence in which no blood has to be shed. It is the utterly destructive violence of Hitler, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge, which is for me “reactive and powerless.” It is in this simple sense that I consider Gandhi more violent that Hitler.

I've mentioned this distinction before on babble, but basically Žižek sees a difference between what he calls "subjective" violence which is the usual person to person violence and "objective" violence, which is the bloodless violence pereptuated by state apparatuses or economic systems we inhabit. The former is "reactive and powerless" in the sense that an abusive father is powerless and weak, since there is something pathetic about someone who needs to beat a child under his care. Real power, Žižek would say, is the father or figure who just needs to look at his children to get them to do as they're told. That's the kind of power Žižek says we need to do violence against the structures which oppress us -- like anti-Semitism -- in a bloodless but truly powerful way.

Anyway, I was prompted to start this thread by Derrick, so hopefully he drops by to discuss. But I know there are many babblers who have strong opinions on Žižek, so we can turn this thread into a catch-all on the Slovenian wunderkind, a punching bag for postmodernism beefs, or a pointed discussion about the opposition opened up between Gray and Žižek.

Thoughts?

 


Comments

Unionist
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I don't know a lot about Žižek, but I do know for certain that he is deliberately provocative in his language. Maybe in his very being.

So - I think anyone who says things like: "I hate students, they are (as all people) mostly stupid and boring," runs the risk of being taken seriously and called out for it.

Likewise, saying Hitler was "not violent enough", and complaining that someone else is engaged in a "crude misreading" when they think he means it - well, maybe he should relax and speak in such a way that you don't need to have read everything he has written in order to understand anything he says.

Even you, CF, can't say with 100% certainty that Gray was deliberately misreading Žižek - can you?

Would Žižek still be Žižek if he tried to communicate in less theatrical fashion?

 


Caissa
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I started reading his Living in the End Times several months ago and put it down before finishing the first chapter. I may pick it up again but I found the writing very dense.


ygtbk
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When the average reader comes across the following:

Zizek wrote:

It is the utterly destructive violence of Hitler, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge, which is for me "reactive and powerless." It is in this simple sense that I consider Gandhi more violent than Hitler.

when he/she might conceivably know that Gandhi referred to his philosophy as "non-violence", he/she might wonder if Zizek knows what the word "simple" means.


Catchfire
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Provocative is quite right, Unionist (although note that the quote you give is from an interview, not from a published work) and he is also repetitive, often repeating whole stock paragraphs to make similar points about ideology and capitalism.

I can't say anything for 100%, but I'd bet my bottom dollar that Gray was reading Žižek antagonistically. I have issues with Žižek -- his above mentioned recycling habit, his love of the spotlight, his lack of new ideas since, say, For They Know Not What They Do Despite one of the most prolifc publishing records in philosophy) -- but he is one of the most active anti-capitalist voices in pop culture and I will take his side over the John Grays of this world every single time. And so on.


Unionist
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Oh, if it's Gray vs. Žižek, I heartily agree, CF.

I wish I understood this stuff better. I loved the Manifesto of the Communist Party, but both theory and practice seem to have been getting more, not less, complicated ever since. O woe!

 


Catchfire
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Unionist wrote:
I wish I understood this stuff better. I loved the Manifesto of the Communist Party, but both theory and practice seem to have been getting more, not less, complicated ever since. O woe!

I want to say two things about this sentiment, which I deeply sympathize with -- in fact, I share it. The first I'll let Karl Marx say, since you let him in the door:

Quote:
I applaud your idea of publishing the translation of “Das Kapital” as a serial. In this form the book will be more accessible to the working class, a consideration which to me outweighs everything else.

That is the good side of your suggestion, but here is the reverse of the medal: the method of analysis which I have employed, and which had not previously been applied to economic subjects, makes the reading of the first chapters rather arduous, and it is to be feared that the French public, always impatient to come to a conclusion, eager to know the connexion between general principles and the immediate questions that have aroused their passions, may be disheartened because they will be unable to move on at once.

That is a disadvantage I am powerless to overcome, unless it be by forewarning and forearming those readers who zealously seek the truth. There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.

-- Capital Preface to the French Edition, 1872

If we want to break down capitalism, we need complicated ideas, and we need to strive to understand them. The most readable Marxist cultural critic ever, Raymond Williams, hypothesized that socialism, or any successful, ethical solution to capitalism would be more complicated than capitalism, not less. Of course, not everyone needs to understand everything about everything. As long as we're committed to simple, fundamental beliefs -- like, say, solidarity, fraternity and equality -- our specialists should be able to work collectively and co-operatively.

Second is the contention that Zizek is difficult, even opaque. He regularly writes in mainstream (or relatively mainstream) publications like the Guardian and the London Review of Books. Works like these aren't (necessarily) for those audiences, and his major works like The Sublime Object of Ideology certainly aren't. But the latter -- which are products of heavy research and philosophical study far outside the breadth of almost all readers, inform the former, and package them into palatable and convincing chunks which I think, at least, can reach a wide audience.

My main critique of Zizek is that he's gotten a bit lazy and hasn't done much deep thinking for many years. He's still a great reader of cultural texts (films, movies, tv) -- although even then he seems to be a bit outdated nowadays -- but he's basically using the same technique again and again with not much new thought coming out. It's a very superficial methodology and his critics (ideological and philosophical) are cottoning on to that and using it to attack his larger body of work.


Catchfire
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Noam Chomsky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Empty ‘Posturing’

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.

Žižek Responds:

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 emphasizes 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 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....

Okay, 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 don’t need any critique of ideology, you reach 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! It’s 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 let’s economize and so on and so on.”

My second point, cynicists are those who are most prone to fall into 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 maters is,” and so on and so on.

Chomsky responds to response:

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 – of course they exist in virtually anything that reaches print, even technical scholarly monographs, as one can see by reading reviews in the professional journals. And when I find them or am informed about them I correct them.

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.

For example, in the Winter 2008 issue of the German cultural journal Lettre International, Žižek attributed to me a racist comment on Obama by Silvio Berlusconi. I ignored it. Anyone who strays from ideological orthodoxy is used to this kind of treatment. However, an editor of Harper’s magazine, Sam Stark, was interested and followed it up. In the January 2009 issue he reports the result of his investigation. Žižek said he was basing the attribution on something he had read in a Slovenian magazine. A marvelous source, if it even exists. And anyway, he continued, attributing to me a racist comment about Obama is not a criticism, because I should have made such remarks as “a fully admissible characterization in our political and ideological struggle.” I leave it others to decode. When asked about this by Slovene journalist/activist Igor Vidman, Žižek answered that he had discussed it with me over the phone and I had agreed with him: http://www.vest.si/2009/01/31/zizkov-kulturni-boj/. Of course, sheer fantasy.

Boom boom boom


6079_Smith_W
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@ CF

Re: Marx's warning. I know Gurdjieff used the same technique in Beelzebub's Tales. But really, obscurity just to prove you have what it takes to get into the holy of holies does rather strike me as the heart of elitism. Give me parables any day.

Thanks for starting the thread; I know nothing at all about this guy, but think I will do a bit of reading, as there is often something to be learned from shocking philosophies, even ones which are paradoxical or seem to make no sense. It reminds me of Simone De Beauvoir's defense of the Marquis de Sade, which got at nuggets of truth while admiting all of his obvious flaws.

And regarding the Gandhi-Hitler quote, well when you have Nazi vogue in India (in part a by-product of Hitler's campaign to undermine British rule there) it does echo reality a bit, doesn't it?

(edit)

And the problem with challenging society to find more complex solutions is that in most cases they will opt for the simplest instead. Hell, all those Nazis had to do was call themselves socialist and promise people cars.

 


Catchfire
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Give me parables any day.

I've always been bemused by this sentiment. I've never read a parable with a clear and easy answer -- any more than reading Plato or, indeed, Freud.


6079_Smith_W
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Cross posted with you, CF. There was a glitch that wouldn't let me edit.

And yes, I agree. But at least parables can be read and understood on many levels. Not the same as the problem posed in Kafka's Before The Law (speaking of simple parables).


knownothing
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These two need a tv debate.


Bärlüer
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Catchfire
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Resident rabble.ca egghead (well, actually, resident brilliant and eloquent thinker and writer) Thomas Ponniah invokes Žižek in his latest column, Slavoj Žižek on global protest

How do we explain the wave of rebellion occurring around the world since the financial crisis of 2008? In his typically brilliant recent article "Trouble in Paradise" (London Review of Books, July 18, 2013), the social theorist Slavoj Žižek notes that analysis of the demonstrations occurring around the globe face both an epistemological and an ontological dilemma. First, it is not obvious how to interpret the mobilizations. Second, and the second leads to the first, the marchers themselves are not entirely clear on what unifies them. Žižek notes that the answer to the second query depends on an ongoing political process; he himself contends that the common dragon that links far-flung mobilizations -- whether the Green Revolution in Iran, the protests in Greece, the Arab Spring, Taksim Square in Turkey, the uprising in Brazil, and Occupy Wall Street, is that "they are all reactions against the different facets of capitalist globalization. The general tendency of today's global capitalism is towards further expansion of the market, creeping enclosure of public space, reduction of public services (health care, education, culture) and increasingly authoritarian political power." Is Žižek correct?

Despite his many insights he misses a key aspect of the mobilizations: activists around the world are not simply fighting against economic deprivation, the enclosure of public space and the reduction of public services. More significantly, they are battling for their right to participate in determining economic priorities, choosing public space and influencing the content of public services such as health care, education and culture. The innovation of the protests does not lie simply in their criticism of neoliberalism, but in their escape from an illusion and their consequent demand for substantial participation in their political systems.


bloodied
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I'm ambivalent about Chomsky's critique of some of these thinkers....but I believe Chomsky has the obvious upper hand in this particular debate. He's quite right, I think. Note that he propounds on the importance of "facts" and "empiricism"....and then displays how Zizek has gone the other way of facts on the subject of Chomsky himself.

 

If you've ever read the debate between Chomsky and Ian Williams in Foreign Policy magazine (on the subject of Responsibility to Protect, and on East Timor) you can see how he effortlessly gets the best of his opponent there, too. I would't be too quick to debate the man, personally.


Unionist
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bloodied wrote:

If you've ever read the debate between Chomsky and Ian Williams in Foreign Policy magazine (on the subject of Responsibility to Protect, and on East Timor) you can see how he effortlessly gets the best of his opponent there, too. I would't be too quick to debate the man, personally.

This?

Noam Chomsky debates Ian Williams in Foreign Policy in Focus

Will read.

 


epaulo13
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..no matter how i feel about zizek's politics this speach is still one of my favourite. the occupy influenced him the minute he walked into their camp if not before. i saw it happen before in vancouver. hell i experienced it. anyway i thought he was really on.

Zizek joins Occupy Wall Street in New York-- 10/9/11

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdyMV1AKHGg


bloodied
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Unionist wrote:

bloodied wrote:

If you've ever read the debate between Chomsky and Ian Williams in Foreign Policy magazine (on the subject of Responsibility to Protect, and on East Timor) you can see how he effortlessly gets the best of his opponent there, too. I would't be too quick to debate the man, personally.

This?

Noam Chomsky debates Ian Williams in Foreign Policy in Focus

Will read.

 

 

That's it, yes.


Catchfire
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bloodied wrote:
I believe Chomsky has the obvious upper hand in this particular debate. He's quite right, I think. Note that he propounds on the importance of "facts" and "empiricism"....and then displays how Zizek has gone the other way of facts on the subject of Chomsky himself

Sure there's no way I would every debate Chomsky in person, but Zizek's point is good here: many on the left fetishize whatever Chomsky is referring to as "empiricism" to the point that they ignore ideological critique, which, one, we need more than ever, and two, Chomsky's "empiricism" hasn't helped him on more than one occasion.


bloodied
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Catchfire wrote:

bloodied wrote:
I believe Chomsky has the obvious upper hand in this particular debate. He's quite right, I think. Note that he propounds on the importance of "facts" and "empiricism"....and then displays how Zizek has gone the other way of facts on the subject of Chomsky himself

Sure there's no way I would every debate Chomsky in person, but Zizek's point is good here: many on the left fetishize whatever Chomsky is referring to as "empiricism" to the point that they ignore ideological critique, which, one, we need more than ever, and two, Chomsky's "empiricism" hasn't helped him on more than one occasion.

 

No doubt, and I certainly wouldn't suggest that Chomsky is always right; further, I wouldn't suggest that one adept at "winning" debates is therefore always right, either.

 

I only meant that, in this particualr case, Zizek made some remarks about Chomsky that were, in fact "empirically" false....and by that I mean objectively untrue--his remark about Chomsky saying something racist about Obama, for example--(though I think they were probably honest mistakes).

 

And yes, as I said, I"m not quite on board with Chomsky's seemingly blanket denunciations of what he terms "theory," in favour of what he terms "empiricism." First, because there's much to value in things that don't fall squarely into empirical thought, at least conventionally; and second, because the lines aren't always as stark and clear-cut as they may seem.


Slumberjack
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Quote:
Despite his many insights he misses a key aspect of the mobilizations: activists around the world are not simply fighting against economic deprivation, the enclosure of public space and the reduction of public services. More significantly, they are battling for their right to participate in determining economic priorities, choosing public space and influencing the content of public services such as health care, education and culture. The innovation of the protests does not lie simply in their criticism of neoliberalism, but in their escape from an illusion and their consequent demand for substantial participation in their political systems.

Isn't this like the pouring of jello into molds that one has brought for the occasion?


Catchfire
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While I like well the metaphor SJ, I don't see how it applies here. Can you elaborate?

bloodied wrote:
And yes, as I said, I"m not quite on board with Chomsky's seemingly blanket denunciations of what he terms "theory," in favour of what he terms "empiricism." First, because there's much to value in things that don't fall squarely into empirical thought, at least conventionally; and second, because the lines aren't always as stark and clear-cut as they may seem.

Quite right. What I always point out in these discussions is that Chomsky's bland dismissals of "theory" (by which he usually means ideological and methodological approaches derrived from French post-structuralism) are actually rooted in professional tiffs -- he is, of course, a linguist by trade and has had very much academic currency at stake in whether we take his theory about language and discourse from Cartesian Linguistics; or, if we take that of Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, etc.  Of course, most critics in the humanities have opted for the latter, at least to some degree, so it's hard not to read a bit of pettiness into his glib "oh that's just unempirical nonsense" refrain.


Unionist
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Ok, I'm a beginner in these matters, but can someone point me to an example of Chomsky's "blanket denunciation of what he terms 'theory' in favour of what he terms 'empiricism'" (bloodied - my emphasis) or his "bland dismissals of 'theory'"?

Actually, I would settle for a single quotation (in sufficient context) from Chomsky praising "empiricism".

By that, I do not mean quotations saying: "A valid theory must be able to successfully predict empirical outcomes." That's not a dismissal of theory. It's a simple statement of what scientific theory is.

 

 

 


Catchfire
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Here is the quote that is popular to raise as an invocation against poststructuralist theory (called here not quite accurately postmodernism). Aside from the obvious ad hominems, he even makes passing reference to his own activism, with the clear implication that the writers he mentions did not do those things (aside from their activism and numerous letter writing, Foucault, Lacan and Derrida were required to give public lectures of their work).

Noam Chomsky wrote:
So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I've been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain, as noted. Again, sorry to make unsupported comments, but I was asked, and therefore am answering.

Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I've met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible --- he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I've discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven't met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones --- the kinds where I give talks, have interviews, take part in activities, write dozens of long letters every week, etc. I've dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.

And then of course there's the first quote of Chomsky's in this very thread where he cites Zizek as an "extreme example" of theory (a bad thing, natch):

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.


Unionist
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So, Chomsky is scornful of what you're calling "poststructuralist theory" - saying it's "no theory whatsoever"? I'm actually entirely ignorant of what poststructuralist theory is (or postmodernism). I was just looking for clarification about an allegation above by bloodied, which you seemed to share at least in part, that Chomsky denounces or dismisses "theory" in general (as opposed to just alleging that some people are just posturing and talking gibberish and that in fact they have "no theory whatsoever") and that Chomsky (in bloodied's account) supports "empiricism". Unless there's more, it sounds to me like an inaccurate characterization.

I take no stand on whether Chomsky is right, wrong, nasty, unfair, or whatever, with respect to Foucault or Zizek - I repeat, I know nothing about the subject. I was just quite surprised to hear Chomsky described as anti "theory" and pro "empiricism". I still am.

 


Slumberjack
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Catchfire wrote:
While I like well the metaphor SJ, I don't see how it applies here. Can you elaborate?

Quote:
How do we explain the wave of rebellion occurring around the world since the financial crisis of 2008? In his typically brilliant recent article "Trouble in Paradise" (London Review of Books, July 18, 2013), the social theorist Slavoj Žižek notes that analysis of the demonstrations occurring around the globe face both an epistemological and an ontological dilemma. First, it is not obvious how to interpret the mobilizations. Second, and the second leads to the first, the marchers themselves are not entirely clear on what unifies them. Žižek notes that the answer to the second query depends on an ongoing political process; he himself contends that the common dragon that links far-flung mobilizations -- whether the Green Revolution in Iran, the protests in Greece, the Arab Spring, Taksim Square in Turkey, the uprising in Brazil, and Occupy Wall Street, is that "they are all reactions against the different facets of capitalist globalization. The general tendency of today's global capitalism is towards further expansion of the market, creeping enclosure of public space, reduction of public services (health care, education, culture) and increasingly authoritarian political power." Is Žižek correct?

As an aside,  Žižek's invoking of capitalist globalization as the common thread that sews all of these events together into a neat little ball to punt around, as with Antonio Negri's interrogations toward locating a new form of identity politics, is well grounded in a Marxist reading of events.

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Despite his many insights he misses a key aspect of the mobilizations: activists around the world are not simply fighting against economic deprivation, the enclosure of public space and the reduction of public services. More significantly, they are battling for their right to participate in determining economic priorities, choosing public space and influencing the content of public services such as health care, education and culture. The innovation of the protests does not lie simply in their criticism of neoliberalism, but in their escape from an illusion and their consequent demand for substantial participation in their political systems.

This analysis supposes that the respective mobilizations were social democratic in nature, and that the goal is to apparently make a few adjustments here and there to the existing structure, or perhaps to superimpose some sort of global, oppositional resonance leading toward improved forms of governance.  From here he appears to have succeeded in analyzing precisely what the various concerns were around the world, a difficult enough task considering how daunting it's been for the uninitiated to glean such tangible facts.  And look, it all just happens to be in line with a particular form of politics nearer to his own way of thinking perhaps? If he had left it at 'escaping from an illusion' it might not have been as obvious a statement in support of social democratic identity politics within the existing system, which we already have enough complaints about as you know.  I find that it privileges, or attempts to capture, a central notion or idea of politics that was never announced as such.

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Quite right. What I always point out in these discussions is that Chomsky's bland dismissals of "theory" (by which he usually means ideological and methodological approaches derrived from French post-structuralism) are actually rooted in professional tiffs -- he is, of course, a linguist by trade and has had very much academic currency at stake in whether we take his theory about language and discourse from Cartesian Linguistics; or, if we take that of Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, etc.  Of course, most critics in the humanities have opted for the latter, at least to some degree, so it's hard not to read a bit of pettiness into his glib "oh that's just unempirical nonsense" refrain.

As far as I know, Chomsky has never offered an explanation as to how a federated form of anarcho-syndicalism can avoid the obvious pitfalls that have befallen political history.  In part, I believe this helps to explain why he has been so dead set against post-structuralism's inquiries with respect to subjects and subjectivity.  Derrida's Sign, Structure and Play must have driven him positively mad.


Slumberjack
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Joined: Aug 8 2005

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 “Today’s historical juncture does not compel us to drop the notion of the proletariat, or of the proletarian position—on the contrary, it compels us to radicalize it to an existential level beyond even Marx’s imagination,”

Well what is the proletarian position?  That we're all fine and dandy, and that all we really need are effective governing structures bearing our concerns in mind for a refreshing change of pace, that will help guide everyone toward their full potential as proletarians? And what of this fuller potential?  The petit-bourgeoisie and beyond?


Catchfire
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Unionist, bloodied and I are responding to the Zizek v Chomsky debate upthread where he knowingly uses "theory" (disdainfully) as shorthand for French poststructuralism which does a number of things: dismisses poststructuralism as groundless (elaborated in the other quote I just gave you), implies that Chomsky is not operating from a distinct theoretical model, just "facts" or "empiricism," and also conveniently forgets that Chomsky was very much part of the debate from which poststructuralism emerged. So no, Chomsky isn't just critiquing posturing, he's dismissing a whole school of thought that has taken some academic real estate away from his own theories -- and he's doing it without acknowledging what he has at stake in the outcome of that dismissal.

@Slumberjack, ahh I see. Yes, although I think he's just saying that what is common about the various protests (I don't think he's calling them social democratic, in fact, the opposite) is that it's not that they are asking for this or that political program, but that they want a voice in how the program is composed or even in the discussion as to whether there will be a program at all (or some other alternative).


Slumberjack
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Catchfire wrote:
I think he's just saying that what is common about the various protests (I don't think he's calling them social democratic, in fact, the opposite) is that it's not that they are asking for this or that political program, but that they want a voice in how the program is composed or even in the discussion as to whether there will be a program at all (or some other alternative).

When I first read it maybe I paused too long at stages on some of the familiar wording.

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More significantly, they are battling for their right to participate in determining economic priorities, choosing public space and influencing the content of public services such as health care, education and culture. The innovation of the protests does not lie simply in their criticism of neoliberalism, but in their escape from an illusion and their consequent demand for substantial participation in their political systems.

I would have never guessed that one of the objectives of Occupy and of the many revolts around the world in recent years was that they felt left out of their political systems, and that they were out there because they wanted in.  My understanding was that in North America, Europe, and certainly Africa and the Middle East, rumour circulated of a mass determination that it was no longer of any use to talk within the respective political systems, from whence no noise whatsoever echoes on their behalf if it doesn't sound like static.  As for reasons, everyone or group brought their own.


bloodied
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Unionist wrote:

So, Chomsky is scornful of what you're calling "poststructuralist theory" - saying it's "no theory whatsoever"? I'm actually entirely ignorant of what poststructuralist theory is (or postmodernism). I was just looking for clarification about an allegation above by bloodied, which you seemed to share at least in part, that Chomsky denounces or dismisses "theory" in general (as opposed to just alleging that some people are just posturing and talking gibberish and that in fact they have "no theory whatsoever") and that Chomsky (in bloodied's account) supports "empiricism". Unless there's more, it sounds to me like an inaccurate characterization.

I take no stand on whether Chomsky is right, wrong, nasty, unfair, or whatever, with respect to Foucault or Zizek - I repeat, I know nothing about the subject. I was just quite surprised to hear Chomsky described as anti "theory" and pro "empiricism". I still am.

 

Unionist, wittingly or not, you've correctly assessed that I haven't exactly given the spat any serious reflection. I simply believe that Chomsky has been more dismissive than is warranted. But I use "believe" not rhetorically, but literally; the fact is that I have read Chomsky extensively, and admire him very much....whereas I know next to nothing about Lacan, Derrida, Zizek et al.


bloodied
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Catchfire wrote:

Unionist, bloodied and I are responding to the Zizek v Chomsky debate upthread where he knowingly uses "theory" (disdainfully) as shorthand for French poststructuralism which does a number of things: dismisses poststructuralism as groundless (elaborated in the other quote I just gave you), implies that Chomsky is not operating from a distinct theoretical model, just "facts" or "empiricism," and also conveniently forgets that Chomsky was very much part of the debate from which poststructuralism emerged. So no, Chomsky isn't just critiquing posturing, he's dismissing a whole school of thought that has taken some academic real estate away from his own theories -- and he's doing it without acknowledging what he has at stake in the outcome of that dismissal.

 

Just to clarify my thoughts a little, I wasn't at all suggesting that Chomsky has a personal stake in the spat in the way you've described in your last sentence. I see no reason not to take Chomsky's remarks at face value, rather than assuming he is affronted by a supplantion from Continental intellectuals...which, frankly, I don't think has happened anyway.

 

With all due respect, I sense a whiff of the sort of personalzied psychologizing that characterizes so much of the anti-Chomsky criticism: like Camille Paglia asserting that Chomsky's "anti-Americanism" has as its genesis "father issues." (But then, I do consider Paglia to be a charlatan, provocative without much substance.)

 

For whatever reason, few, if any, public intellectuals have so often been the targets of attacks that seek to direct attention away from Chomsky's points, and onto the man's supposed personal and petty weaknesses.


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