chomsky zizek feud

Did Noam Chomsky Just Accidentally Provide a Warranted Response to Zizek?

chomsky zizek feud

In an interview published today, Christopher Helali from Pax Marxista talks with Noam Chomsky about Marxism and revolution before ending on the topic of Slavoj Zizek. But was the interview a ruse to get Chomsky to respond to Zizek in the first place?

Chomsky has been in an intellectual pissing match with Slavoj Zizek for some time now, calling him out for fabrications and claiming his theories were nonsense in a December 2012 interview.

As many have noted, Chomsky’s blanket rejection of critical theory as nonsense is getting suspiciously repetitive. There is, to be fair, a real debate to be had about obscurantism in academia and and the relation of theory and reality. That analysis has all been lacking from the Chomsky-Zizek debate. For a man who spends most of his time unfurling the lies told by US media with counterfactuals, it’s a little surprising to see Chomsky avoid any real analysis of Zizek’s theories.

When asked to comment on Zizek explicitly, Chomsky pulls out his old criticism of the Slovenian philosopher. At the end of the interview, the interviewer asks Chomsky to respond to a 2009 comment Zizek made about Chomsky in the New Statesmen.

CH: Slavoj Žižek, in an interview to the New Statesman in 2009 said, and I quote: “My friend told me Chomsky said something very sad. He said that today we don’t need theory. All we need to do is tell people, empirically, what is going on. Here, I violently disagree: facts are facts, and they are precious, but they can work in this way or that. Facts alone are not enough. You have to change the ideological background…I’m sorry…I’m an old-fashioned continental European. Theory is sacred and we need it more than ever.” How would you respond to Zizek’s claim?

NC: First of all, I quite agree that just spewing out facts means nothing. In our discussion here we haven’t just been spewing out facts, it’s within a framework, a frame of understanding, principles and so on. The European intellectuals he is talking about have a concept of theory, which in my view, is largely divorced from facts and from theory, in any serious sense of the notion.  It’s mostly big, complicated words that may be fun for intellectuals to throw around to each other but most of it, I think, is gibberish to tell you the honest truth. It’s not theory in any sense that I understand and I have been involved most of my life in the sciences where there are theories and so on.   So sure, if you can find a theory that has some real principles which are of some interest and you can draw conclusions from them which you can apply to interpreting the actual world around you then sure, that’s wonderful. If there are such theories, I am happy to see them. I don’t find them when I read Paris Post-Modernist talk. What I see is intellectuals interacting with one another in ways which are incomprehensible to the public and, to be frank, incomprehensible to me. So sure, let’s have theories that have some intellectual content, some consequences, can be refined, change and lead us to better understanding.

Chomsky is, for the most part, repeating nearly verbatim what he’s been saying about critical theory for years. In short, it’s a man claiming “What’s going on, this hurts my brain!?!?!” who incidentally studies the “super easy to understand” field of linguistics.

But despite Chomsky’s refusal to do so, there are real points of contention to be had with Zizek. Does Chomsky properly address ideology? Is there any positive political usage to Zizek’s ideology? Are toilets really the most effective vehicles for class struggle? And did Chomsky accidentally answer some of these questions?

Reading this interview, before the name “Zizek” is actually uttered, I became immediately suspicious. Helali begins by asking Chomsky about the revival of  “violent revolutionary praxis,” among “some theorists” to which he responds:

So again should we take our guns, go out in the street and start destroying Chase Manhattan bank. Well if you want to get killed in five minutes that’s a good suggestion. Other than that it has absolutely nothing to do with the world so there is not any point in even discussing it. I think it is a crazy idea myself, but quite apart from that it’s a bit like asking should we climb on an asteroid and attack the earth? Oh okay, maybe I don’t think it’s a good idea but why talk about it?

The interviewer continues to prod Chomsky on the Jacobins, revolutionary terror, and so on and so on. Is Chomsky being baited into responding to Ziek? Zizek has set out a (arguably) coherent framework on political violence, after all. And then the interviewer finally reveals that this was all probably about Zizek anyway.

CH: There was a recent article in January 2013 by Alan Johnston, writing for the telegraph and he accused Žižek of being a left-fascist, promulgating this view of totalitarianism and violence that is justified within the left tradition and something that we should reclaim in the twenty first century. How does this fascination with violence, terror and hegemony stem from the radical left tradition? Do you think that it’s a part of it or is it some offshoot?

NC:  You know, there are a lot of radical left traditions. The ones that made any sense, in my view, were not committed to violence except in self defense. So, if you manage to carry forward significant changes and progressive changes, maybe radical, institutional changes, and you start to function and there is an attack on them by former centers of power, by outside powers and so on, then you defend yourself. As I said, I am not a pure pacifist; I don’t think you should stop defending yourself when you are under attack, but under very special circumstances. The idea of overthrowing existing forces by violence is a very questionable one for pretty good reasons I think. People who talk about revolution, it’s easy to talk about, but if you want a revolution, meaning a significant change in institutions that’s going to carry us forward, rather than backwards, then it has to meet a couple of conditions. One condition is it has to have dedicated support by a large majority of the population. People who have come to realize that the just goals that they are trying to attain cannot be attained within the existing institutional structure because they will be beaten back by force. If a lot of people come to that realization then they might say well we’ll go beyond the, what’s called reformism, the effort to introduce changes within the institutions that exist.  At that point the questions at least arise. But we are so remote from that point that I don’t even see any point speculating about it and we may never get there. Maybe Marx is right that within parliamentary democracies you can use the institutions themselves to go to a sharp institutional change. In fact, I think there is some evidence for that. So for example, in the United States there are the beginnings of germs of what might be a real socialist or communist society like worker owned enterprises. It’s the beginnings of industrial democracy, you know popular democracy in all institutions. How far can it go, well you know, if it keeps going and there is violent resistance to it, then you can raise the question of using violence to defend it, but if it keeps going and it doesn’t meet violent resistance, then we will just continue it.

So Chomsky has sort of actually responded to Zizek rather than ignoring his ideas. By Ghandi logic, does that mean Zizek has won?

Updated: You can listen to the full interview below:


Read the full article at Pax Marxista.

  • John_Milton_XIV

    What the hell has “Gandhi Logic” got to with it and if it does how does it make Zizek a “winner”

    “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it” Marx.

    The test should be in real-world material praxis.

    Figures such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Noam Chomsky, Roberto Unger put forward both a concrete analysis and a concrete and engaged political programme. Of course, there are also limits to thought and we would do better to look to e.g. Sub Commandant Marcos, Malalai Joya, Desmond Tutu, other real-world emancipatory movements too numerous and diverse to have space to list all of them here.

    (btw, and fwiw I myself am in closest agreement with Immanuel Wallerstein and others associated with his school of World Systems Analysis”.

    In direct contrast – indeed arguably, *antithesis* – Zizek (along with Derrida, Foucault, Badiou, Adorno et. al.) are merely high-handed and aesthete mandarins who drew all the wrong conclusions from such events as 1968 and so retreated into an aesthetic anti-humanism far worse than anything Marx could have imagined. The test for this, once again, is that not one of them is ever able to articulate a real-world political programme. This makes them worse than merely quietists. It renders both them and followers of their works and positions utterly opiated.

    For a far more important thinker and body of work, please see the work of Immanuel Wallerstein on “anti-systemic” movements and his historical accounting of the world-systemic revolutions of 1789, 1848, 1917, 1968. Wallerstein’s “Utopistics: Historical Choices for the 21st Century” is a useful introduction and starting point for his work.

    Wallerstein and Chomsky can attend such events as the World Social Forum and make a meaningful contribution and enact genuine solidarity with the oppressed people of the world. Roberto Unger can work in the Brazilian government and make a genuine contribution to the improvement of real, ordinary people’s lives. (always far from perfect, to be sure, but that’s what you get when you do real world engagement)


    I agree with the description of Zizek as a “Left fascist” inasmuch as that term refers to something along the Habermasian lines as outlined e.g. by Richard Wolin. i.e. aesthetic anti-humanism; anti-rationalism; high mandarin anti-politics.

    • David Hart

      This is a nice collection of assertions; care to support them with an argument? You claim that the test for the value of Zizek, Derrida, Foucault, etc. “is that not one of them is ever able to articulate a real-world political programme.” Setting aside the fact that none of these thinkers would ever claim that developing a positive political program is part of their job description, you seem to dismiss out of hand the practical value of ideological critique. To your Marx quote, then, let me reply with my own: “On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one.” Your position reduces critique to mere interpretation, while for Marx, critique is itself a crucial mode of political praxis. As Zizek would be quick to point out, the catastrophic failures of 20th century socialism were not due to the lack of a plan but stemmed, rather, from a failure to sufficiently think through the idea of communism in relation to the existing order of things. To simply “press on,” as Chomsky and others would have us do, without fundamentally rethinking our political categories is to simply repeat the mistakes of the past more cautiously and with less consequence.

      • John_Milton_XIV

        1/Thanks for your Marx quote. And more generally for that
        particular corrective point. Inasmuch it’s useful to think of such matters in
        such terms – “theory” meets “reality” and then shit happens – one might refer
        to it as a case of a priori “blue-print
        utopianism” without the necessary ability to self-correct.

        Not just communism but a fortiori the “one size fits all” model of Washington
        Consensus neo-liberalist globalization. And of Capitalism in general which
        operates under the universal law of infinite capital accumulation. Note well,
        in this context the success of nations which rejected this consensus: Brazil,
        India, China, (more contentiously, perhaps), Venezuela.

        (Although one should note that there were (failed) attempts to “reform” in the
        former Eastern Bloc. The former Yugoslavia had a limited market system.
        Gorarchev tried reform measures: too little, too late. The Chinese “mind” has always
        favoured pragmatism and disliked abstraction. They seemed to have adjusted the

        2/ You asked me for an “argument”. In my previous post I
        provided a link to an essay by Richard Wolin. He quotes from Habermas:

        “The young conservatives embrace the fundamental experience
        of aesthetic modernity – the disclosure of a decentered subjectivity freed from
        all constraints of rational cognition and purposiveness, from all imperatives
        of labor and utility – and in this way break out of the modern world. They
        thereby ground an intransigent antimodernism through a modernist attitude. They
        transpose the spontaneous power of the imagination, the experience of self and
        affectivity, into the remote and the archaic; and in manichean fashion, they
        counterpose to instrumental reason a principle only accessible via “evocation”:
        be it the will to power or sovereignty, Being or the Dionysian power of the
        poetic. In France this trend leads from Georges Bataille to Foucault and
        Derrida. The spirit [Geist] of Nietzsche that was reawakened in the 1970s of
        course hovers over them all”

        (More extended treatment of this question can be found in
        Habermas’ “The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.)

        Habermas rejects those who he refers to as “young
        conservatives” – and who Wolin refers to as “Left Fascists” – for their
        *whole-sale* rejection of the Enlightenment. Habermas points out that that Enlightenment
        reason already has built in mechanisms for self-correction.

        However Habermas goes nowhere near far enough. He does
        however articulate a concrete political programme that one can also examine which
        it is then possible to, if one is so inclined, reject or critique.

        This is: 1/ the German SPD; 2/ The *idea* of America as a democratic
        ideal; 3/ his recent meetings with the last Pope and their shared anxiety about
        the loss of “faith” in Europe. As Habermas has this concrete programme, one can
        put forward *real-world* reasons for criticizing his position.

        3/ Immanuel Wallerstein draws upon the “complexity theory”
        of Ilya Prigogine. (see e.g. Prigogine “The End of Certainity.

        See Immanuel Wallerstein “Unthinking Social Science: The
        Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms”

        “The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the
        Twenty-First Century”

        “The Uncertainties of Knowledge”

        4/ I see Derrida, Foucault, Zizek as anti-humanist thinkers.
        The fact that they completely fail to articulate a political programme is due
        to they being also being *anti-political* thinkers. Which is a deeply
        conservative position.

        5/ And simply wrong. It is possible to actually work in the
        political arena and achieve progress. On this basis, I reject “anti-political” positions.

        6/ Once again see especially Immanuel Wallerstein:

        “The second continuing issue is the relationship between the reality of the real world and our perception of the reality of the real world. Hardly a new question, but one that has been central to debates of recent decades. My own position is once again quite clear in my own mind. There exists a real world
        which is the object of our scholarly observations. Else, why would anyone bother about writing about it? In any case, we all live in this real world every day and are thoroughly aware that we have to take it into account in everything we do. If we fail to do this, we are called “psychotic,” which means that we are unable to cope very well with the challenges that are constantly presented to us. On the other hand, it is equally clear to me that we only perceive this real world as though through a pair of glasses, and that the way these
        glasses are cut largely determines what we think we see. To say that reality is socially constructed seems to me self‑evident, provided we remember that the construction is truly social – that is, collective and not individual. But
        to insist at one and the same time that there exists a real world and that we can only view it through the social spectacles we are wearing creates a continuing dilemma for the serious scholar. It requires constant reflection on how our glasses have distorted our vision, and how we can improve the quality
        of the refraction. But each reflection on ourselves is itself subject to the same contradiction. It is this dilemma that has pushed me toward making epistemological
        issues central to my analyses.

        The third recurring theme, again not a new one, has been the
        relationship of intellectual analysis to political action, the ancient question of theory and praxis. I have already said that I personally see no conflict.Quite the contrary! But once again, I think of them as shoals to avoid. On the one side lies the false claim of disinterestedness that is the slogan so widely
        mouthed as the presumed indicator of scientificity. And on the other hand there is submission by the scholar to some political authority, authority of the state or of the parties, on the grounds of political loyalty. It seems to me that it is the duty of the scholar to be politically and intellectually subversive of received truths, but that the only way this subversion can be
        socially useful is if it reflects a serious attempt to engage with and understand the real world as best we can.

        The final theme is how to bring into a single analysis the
        fact that the world has continuing structures and that it is constantly changing. This is of course a second continuing epistemological question, and one to which I have given much attention from the beginning. It is a hard one about which to convince others that there is some kind of solution. Most of us
        tend to make our statements either in the form of truths that hold more or less forever or in the form of descriptions of unique situations. But no situation can be described as unique, since the words with which we describe it are
        categories which presume features common to some larger group, hence to some continuing structure that appears to be stable. And at the same time no truths hold forever because the world is of course inevitably and eternally changing.
        We have indeed to work with temporarily useful structures/categories that bear within them the processes by which they get transformed into other


        • John_Milton_XIV

          apologies for the formatting of above post.

          I have no idea what happened.
          I originally type on Micro word and then cut and pasted.

          • Connor Syrewicz

            Thanks for the great debate guys! Really awesome to see actual rhetoric on the Internet rather than a deeper entrenchment/ reifying of positions. Kudos!

        • David Hart

          Thank you for your thoughtful response. Interestingly, although I now have a much better idea of your philosophical-political orientation, I am more confused than ever as to why you view your position as deeply opposed to that of Zizek or Badiou. In your long quote from Wallerstein, I see little with which Zizek would take issue. To be sure, he would add certain qualifications to Wallerstein’s description of a “real” yet “socially constructed” world, but their basic orientation is quite similar. Badiou (and likely Zizek) would have a problem with Wallerstein’s position that “no truths hold forever,” but this point is fairly distant from the topic at hand.

          The main difficulty here seems to be the continuing misperception of Zizek, Badiou, and others in the “new communism” crowd as “postmodernist” or “post-structuralist” thinkers. This is very far from being the case, and although we often refer to groupings like “Derrida, Foucault, Lacan” when we speak of continental philosophy or “theory,” one should not make the mistake of thinking that they much in common, other than geography (Derrida and Foucault, in fact, are two of Zizek’s favorite whipping boys). It is interesting that you begin with a reference to Habermas’s “The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity,” as it is precisely that text with which Zizek begins his first English-language book, “The Sublime Object of Ideology.” On the whole, Zizek is in agreement with Habermas’s critical characterization of the trend, “from Georges Bataille to Foucault and Derrida,” which opposes Enlightenment reason and (arguably) tends toward quietism. What Zizek takes issue with in Habermas’s text is its refusal to confront Althusser and Lacan, which (on Zizek’s account) would provide a rather different perspective on the conservatism of Habermas’s own thought. From that starting point, he describes the project of “Sublime Object” thusly: “against the distorted picture of Lacan as belonging to the field of ‘post-structuralism’, (this) book articulates his radical break with ‘post-structuralism’; against the distorted picture of Lacan’s obscurantism, it locates him in the lineage of rationalism. Lacanian theory is perhaps the most radical contemporary version of the Enlightenment.” Now, we might criticize how successfully Zizek accomplishes that project, but it is certainly unjust to read his philosophical orientation as basically consonant with the aforementioned post-structuralists. In fact, we might characterize the entirety of Zizek’s philosophical work as a harshly critical reply to those thinkers; to the anti-rationalist, anti-Enlightenment bunch, Zizek screams, “You idiots forgot about Hegel!”

          Zizek’s Hegelianism brings us to the issues of humanism versus anti-humanism and political versus anti-political thinking, as it was Hegel who taught us (long before Derrida) that such binary divisions aren’t particularly tenable or useful. You say that you see Derrida, Foucault, and Zizek as anti-humanist, and, if we understand “humanism” in its traditional, 18th century form, you are certainly right. For example, all three would take issue with certain aspects of Kant’s universal humanism, although they would do so on differing grounds. But then, any halfway sensible person would take issue with 18th century humanism, which was quite obviously eurocentric and, at times, overtly racist. I won’t delve into an account of Derrida’s version of humanism (which is certainly far more oriented toward ethics than politics) or Foucault’s anti-humanism (which is deeply political and has been put to much practical use). I will say, however, that with regard to Zizek and Badiou, these terms simply aren’t very useful. Both of them are very much “humanists” insofar as they believe deeply in the ideal of universal human emancipation, and both of them are “anti-humanists” in the sense that they reject ontological worldviews that center on the individual human subject. I simply don’t see the value of applying these terms to Zizek or Badiou (or, indeed, any thinker who has read their Heidegger well).

          You say that being anti-political is a deeply conservative position, and I would completely agree. However, I would still argue that there is a large difference between, on the one hand, being anti-political and, on the other, maintaining a certain intellectual distance from concrete politics. For Zizek and Badiou, it simply isn’t the task of the philosopher to offer directives for political action. They gladly offer support to emancipatory movements and vocally oppose political oppression, but they aren’t going to tell you exactly which causes you should support because they don’t think they’re very good at it! As Zizek often says, he doesn’t have “the answers,” but, as a philosopher, he thinks he can be helpful by leading us to ask better questions. To be clear, his position isn’t that there are no “answers” (the quietist, nihilistic position which he criticizes incessantly); rather, his position is that he’s much better suited to thinking out the big, abstract political problems than he is at knowing who we should vote for.

          Now, activist intellectuals like Chomsky and Wallerstein are all fine and good; I’m quite happy to see them engage in a more concrete way than Badiou or Zizek (Though a qualifier should be added here. While Badiou doesn’t lay out a political program in his philosophical work, he’s spent a great deal of his life marching in protests, speaking out for oppressed minorities in France, etc. Likewise, Zizek tirelessly shows up to just about any Leftist event that invites him and writes countless introductions for Leftist books; while the cynic views this as self-aggrandizement, the fact is that these books see more sales and these events are better attended if his name is attached to them.) On the other hand, Marx was right that we need a ruthless critique of everything that exists (a point Wallerstein also seems to make), and for that reason, thinkers like Zizek and Badiou have an important role to play. Indeed, Chomsky’s own career illustrates the need for this kind of work. Chomsky has held more or less the same political position (a position Badiou and Zizek do not oppose) for nearly half a century; he has written a shelf full of books exposing the realities that are concealed by neoliberalism, and they’ve been widely read. Chomsky has become the grand don of the American left, and yet, 50 years later, we are no closer to achieving his vision of society. Indeed, with regard to capitalism at least, we are far worse off. If the information is out there, if the truth has been exposed, why hasn’t much changed? The answer is that, by and large, people don’t care. We know very well that our 10 cent tube socks were produced in a south Asian sweatshop, but we set that knowledge aside, avoid thinking about it, and keep wearing the socks. If we want to change the situation with sweatshops, then, we have to understand why people don’t care, the mechanisms that allow them to not care, etc. That is, we require a much deeper understanding of the workings of ideology, and it is here that Zizek’s work tries to help us out.

          The good news is, of course, that we aren’t in an either/or situation. We don’t have to choose between activist intellectuals and leftist philosophers; we can, happily, have both. What I cannot understand is the unfortunate tendency among so many Anglo-American leftists to worship Chomsky and totally dismiss Zizek. It seems to me to display a reactionary close-mindedness that limits our critical resources and provides no benefit. Let’s not play the game of “us and them.”

          • John_Milton_XIV

            just a short note. Thank you for giving me a lot to (re) think about.

          • David Hart

            You’re very welcome. I enjoyed the debate.

          • Mindrapist

            I have enjoyed your thoughts. I agree Zizek is definitely one who reverses the anti-Enlightenment into an Enlightenment. He tries to realign our core values so that we no longer see as much joy in the predictable eternal return of the same of superego enjoyment, and paradoxically in all its monstrous forms, in order to prioritise other humans, we need to direct our violence at the Other. Zizek does not try to pose a clear and easy solution like there is no clear straightforward linear progression in a revolution, Zizek almost gets us to confront the revolutionary deadlock within the text itself. We aren’t just given an objective revolution to clear the ontological obstacle in our mind, we are given the ontological obstacle in its fullest extremity. Then to overcome it, we have to finally arrive at the knowledge that there is a gap in our presuppositions, and in this gap the potential for new unknowns. We have to while reading confront the same ontological deadlocks of the Stalinists, we have to face their same paradoxes, while in the book. For a generational society which is facing a huge list of issues, confronting ethical catastrophes of the past not from a position of moral superiority, but from a position that we could be committing the same ontological errors today, as they were in the ages of the past revolutionaries, is an extremely overlooked importance. Zizek bridges the ontological gap between ourselves the revolutionary deadlock of the past through the prism of phenomenology.

  • Richie Nimmo

    Chomsky’s argument vis-a-vis Zizek is simply that ‘the Emperor has no clothes’. And he’s right.

  • JimBob

    Maybe “real” analysis is not all that necessary. The critical theory as nonsense debate is well over, check out he Sokal Hoax from well over a decade ago. Even Erick Swyngedouw recently stated that “their is nothing more critical social theory can do.” Critical Theory is in reality the part of the academic machine. It is necessary to support lots of journals, conferences, etc…and it makes a lot of high paying careers. That really all it is about in the end, it is an academic subculture. And take note at what Andrew Ross has been doing since then, namely rather un-theoretical but rigorous and valuable ethnographic and activist oriented scholarship. I wish the critical academic establishment would take note. You might have a better way to spend your time than cheerleading for a bunch of overpaid performers. Chomsky really does not need to take any of these obscure critiques seriously. If he wants to debate them on philosophical grounds, that is fine. But as Rorty argued many decades ago, philosophy or critical theory are not representations of reality in anyway. Thus, critical theory is simply an aesthetic body of literature, like poetry. But nothing more than that.

    • blastpeed

      As is the case with Chomsky, dismissal without any indication you understand that which you wish to attack. Fail

      • JimBob

        You are exposing what critical theory is all about, namely “understanding” what is being said. I understand Zizek, Lucan, and Marx. None of these ideas are in reality all that complicated to understand if one takes the time to learn the jargon. It is far simpler than say generative grammar. That is at the core of what Chomsky is arguing, that in the end, critical social theory is shallow. Its shallow like advertising and pop culture because critical social theory is nothing more than a sales tool. Academia is as mercenary as banking, given that it is hard to argue that theory can really provide any meaningful emancipatory program that might transcend neoliberalism.

        • Centipede

          And yet, Zizek is heavily against the established academic hierarchy’s fundamental philosophical principles. And I find your claim that philosophy is not a representation of reality absurd. I’m going to have to reverse your claim and say philosophy is the ultimate representation of reality. And calling pop culture and advertising shallow is profoundly missing the point of how effective these forces are in shaping the way we act and think. This is why Zizek always uses examples from popular culture.

          “An example from popular culture has for me the same fundamental role as the Lacanian procedure of the passe – the passage of analysand into the analyst; the same role as the two mediators, the two passeurs. I think it’s not an accident that the Lacanian popular quarterly in France, as you probably know, is called L’Âne – the Donkey. The idea is that in a way you must accept a total externalization: you must renounce even the last bit of any kind of initiated closed circuit of knowledge. And precisely this is for me the role of my reference to popular culture. In this full acceptance of the externalization in an imbecilic medium, in this radical refusal of any initiated secrecy, this is how I, at least, understand the Lacanian ethics of finding a proper worth.”

          It is not that they create an illusion that stops us from dealing with reality, but that we deal with reality only through illusion itself. And language is one such illusion, and as such philosophy is a universal way of what Zizek calls ‘traversing the illusion’. Is emancipation’s path lead us beyond our cultural backdrop, or is any attempt to go beyond our cultural backdrop merely a cultural instinct in itself? Zizek here argues we should fully go into our abstract backdrop of reality to its full absurdity instead, ‘the best way to undermine ideology is to overthink it’, making it clearer to us what the inner antagonisms that are generating it are that make ideology potent in the first place. Is not society itself an attempt to resolve a series of abstract human antagonisms?

          • JimBob

            Rorty once asked: “When is one idea betterthan another? When it is more useful? Or when it is more true? Are we not going round in a circle here?”

            You might find Zizek or Lucan interesting as a Christian might find the bible to be, but neither of the claims has any weight, let alone “truth” claims. So yeah, Zizek’s work is nothing more than an aesthetic project, it is creative writing. As is any other body of fiction. Neither has any ability to make any claims that hold any real weight. So Zizek might help you make sense of your world, but it does not help the great majority of humanity make sense of ours. And you are free to keep on reading Zizek and Lucan to your hearts content. You can feel some sort of lofty self-satisfaction at having drudged through lots and lots of literature that is awfully tedious, badly translated (in english) and in reality pretty boring. That might feel like an accomplishment. But climbing mountains is an accomplishment as well as is translating Rumi. Your accomplishment of having toiled through obscure and abstruse bodies of literature does not mean that your accomplishment is any more meaningful than what other persons accomplishment. Having read those works, or better yet, using critical social theory to attempt to explain the world is for many a vocation, it is a clever method to ensure secure employment. That is fine and good, but it is no more meaningful or valuable than any other hustle.

            How do you if pop culture or advertising shapes the way we think? The one decision we can all make in life is WHAT to think. That is our choice. Some chose Christianity or the Kardashians, some Lucanian Psychoanalysis. But it is a choice. The tragedy of modernity lies in the illusions many of us chose. What critical social theory does not acknowledge is agency. Instead, everything is reduced to ideological domination. That is a sad delusion and an illusion you all chose in order to make sense of your lives, but you cannot make any universal claims that it applies to the rest of us.

            Philosophy is nothing more than a body of literature that “goes around in a circle.” And that is fine and good. That body of literature is interesting to some as sculpture or drag racing is to others. It pays the bills for many and supports the machine that is academia, again, an industry that is the single greatest example of the mercenary nature of modern capitalism. But the sad reality that critical social theory has not and cannot undermine the hideous machine in which it depends, if anything that proves its impotency in real politics.

            The choice we have in the actually existing world, those of us who are concerned about the socio-ecological injustices born by neoliberalism, is attempt to utilize the deeply flawed instruments that are actually available. In this area, critical social theory is of NO use. It is of no use because progressives or “radicals” do not need clever critiques anymore, they actually need a siren song and an alternative. The “left” tradition in its current state is not capable of producing an alternative because of the hegemony of critical social theory. Because the consequence of critical social theory is that radicalism has been reduced to an aesthetic subculture. Again, that subculture is fine and good, but it is nothing more than an obscure subculture just as Civl War Re-enactment is. Given that, Lucanian Quarterly (or whatever it is) and the decades of literature that has resulted from the hegemony of critical social theory is equal to Twilight Fan Fiction.

          • Centipede

            You’re right my man one idea isn’t more true than another, every idea is a truth. Thought you could say is the aesthetic we use to build aesthetics, there is no ‘core’ to it, but a double illusion that just functions. This is where Zizek’s view of ideology comes in, not as the malevolent misinformation of the man but as the agency of understanding.

            His proposals are not about avoiding ideology, but accepting and negating it with reason… free open-minded subjective Philosophy that does not presume an empirical basis in a ‘truth’ makes people nervous because they think they are fundamentally biased by some kind of distortion, but its this looking for perspective outside of bias that causes the over-determinating effect of ideology in the first place. Thinking is derided in this way even though it offers valuable exercise to free you from the essential structures that confide society to its notional norms.

            You don’t accomplish this exercise of free thinking by mimicking books for the answer, it is only that someone who started out mimicking books is much more likely to stumble across Zizek. But this is why his writing is coded in such precise yet open-ended problematic language, so that you can’t read it quickly skim a hundred pages in an hour and extract the basic message to mimic so you can rally the people together. Every movement that simplifies a goal and rallies people up ends up betraying the original ideal of its siren song, and you can demonstrate this with Hegel’s syllogism A=A is false (by the time you’ve ever seen A, it’s become something else). I’m not saying you shouldn’t think about the best pragmatic thing to do in situation immediate social reality – my goal is to become a social entrepreneur – but that a siren song is nothing more than a catalyst to a person’s body of symbolic structure, which moves their thoughts around in a circle. We don’t just act but symbolically digest our acts – and do it more for the symbolic digestion like you pointed out with the pepsi ala Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism.

            The motto of counter-terrorism is “maximum impact through minimum input.” The most potent weapon of control is a symbolic norm. When I say mass media shapes the way we think I mean it shapes the symbols with which we constitute reality – when philosophers create new terms all the time people dismiss it as jargon simply because they don’t want to learn a new apparatus for judging reality.

            And I think the times are changing for when pure abstraction had no material gain…. I propose critical theory is probably the most important field of academia for 21st century, because now using the internet abstract concepts lose their pre-globalised-communication innocence. We can materialise abstract human concepts into actual society changing forms. One major obstacle being the paradox of intellectual property in capitalism, of owning something virtual that can be copied, the commodity of thought itself – therefore Zizek claims Bill Gates owns a part of public thought.

        • blastpeed

          You allude to an understanding (even as if the three mentioned thinkers are representative of the current climate), but the situation remains the same.

          • JimBob

            I have picked up on what really is one of the more pompous responses that you can possibly have in a discussion. “You allude to understanding…” Lucanian psychoanalysis or poststructuralism are really not all that hard to comprehend you know. It amusing how the entire project seems to be downing in cognitive dissonance, you all seem to privilege this body of literature and the knowledge it seemingly provides you. All from a body of theory that challenges the notion of a stable interpretations of the text. No to grand narratives except something like “Is not society itself an attempt to resolve a series of abstract human antagonisms?” No gang are more certain about their ideas than those engaged in critical social theory, all with the least bit of irony or awareness. It is an interesting hobby and a fine hustle, but nothing more than that.

          • blastpeed

            And again

          • David Hart

            I’ve come to realize that if someone uses a phrase like “I understand Zizek” (or Kant, Hegel, etc.), as if a philosopher’s body of work was simply an object that can be fully and finally “known,” I should should probably ignore whatever they say next.
            That said, I’d love to hear more about this “Lucan” guy.

          • JimBob

            You are making my point for me. Can anyone ever really understand Joyce or Proust? Those are works of creative fiction. How about TS Elliott or Yeats? What philosophy shares with fiction or poetry is that it is an aesthetic body of literature. It is fiction, creative writing, etc…but nothing beyond that. The world will keep spinning without the insights of Zizek or Lucan yet they are important to those that enjoy them. That is exactly why critical social theory is nothing more than an obscure academic subculture.

            It is all fine and good and you can all spend your time in theory land and hopefully get a good paying academic job out of it, that is you business. Just as many young aspiring math students will graduate into the world of Wall Street banking where they will live in a world of abstract finance. But your work is of no more utility to human welfare than the banker, you are both hustlers. Executives in marketing take objects and create meaning that will appeal to modern consumers, most of the time providing value to objects that have little real utility. Critical social theory is in a self-validating, self-organizing circle that is meant to keep the academic machine humming along. CST appeals to students and provides variety, it is an academic flavor that increases revenue for universities by ensuring continued growth of student enrollment. Increased enrollment = increased revenue. We all know that universities function as the chief institution for stratifying society. Many of the same social theorists who are critical of hierarchy set about to construct hierarchies that shape capitalists societies. The bulk of the cash that funds the social theory project is originated either by state subsidies or the debt of students. In most American universities the average debt of students is over 25k, with the lifetime cost of the debt equally over 250k. Much of the debt is sold on the secondary market and then many of the student loan firms provide kick backs to universities. This is obviously a reduction of an extremely complicated commodity chain, but needless to say, critical social theory is an important intellectual product for many departments in the social sciences and humanities. Individual departments NEED to provide intellectual products to students that are appealing enough to generate enrollment in that department in order to keep the revenue stream flowing. Critical social theory shares much with modern advertising techniques that long ago appropriated radical discourses. The ultimate goal is to get the student to take classes in a given department to generate revenue for that department. Buying Pepsi is rebellion as is buying books from Verso. But neither really is of course. Critical social theory is in a sense the bottle water of intellectualism.

            Useful (or in my opinion ethical) intellectuals will take on the ask of studying important issues to human welfare like climate change and economic inequality. Two areas that are enormously important to human welfare and in which critical social theory will never provide any valuable insight. Or they have abandoned critical social theory for other, more socially productive theories and methods. Either way, it is really comical to watch this kind of fandom.

          • David Hart

            Exactly which graduate program in philosophy did you get thrown out of? Just curious.

          • JimBob

            Not philosophy and I didn’t get thrown out. I wish I would have been thrown out, I would wear it as a badge of honor. But I love your attempt to establish a binary opposition. Those that approve of critical social theory and those that do not. In your mind, if one is initiated, they could not possibly reject the entire enterprise on ethical or intellectual grounds. Either/Or, the limitations of language are on display! But I also love how you cannot address the realities of the modern academy and how those might contradict the faux radicalism of critical social theory. Perhaps the reality is that folks who read works of radicals are not necessarily all that ethical, perhaps not much more ethical than any other mercenary capitalists. After all, you could not possible acknowledge that your passion helps fuel the student debt bubble.

          • David Hart

            Ah, couldn’t get accepted to any grad programs, am I right? No, wait, I got it: you failed intro to philosophy, but you thought the assigned Rorty text was “cool.” Sounds about right.

            As to addressing the realities of the modern academy, I address them every day when I get up and go to work. I have no interest, however, in addressing your characterizations of the academy, given that they have precious little to do with reality. By the way, if you cited Gawker as a source in my class, I’d automatically fail you and encourage you to quit school. How’s that for reducing student debt?

          • JimBob

            Ha ha, hit a sour spot with you. You real function in life is to generate debt for banks. How does that feel David? You might as well work on mortgage loans, that is your actual function in this economy.

            Nope, got accepted and got funding offers for 4 different programs. Accepted one offer. Attended for while then left cause I realized graduate school is absurd and borders on a cult. I had experience outside the academy so I did not have fear of the unknown and I knew I could make a living without having to ruin young peoples lives due to academic usury. I simply did not want to sit in classes with kids who were going massively into debt and learning next to nothing useful. I did not want to feed that machine. If you do, if that that is fine but don’t kid yourself that you are on some higher mission vocationally speaking.

            You cannot find many journal articles on student debt or the academy and neoliberalism in any “radical” journals. Wonder why?

            Would you cite the Critical Theory Blog? In case you didn’t notice, we are on a blog shit head. But the Chronicle of Higher Ed or Inside Higher Ed or almost any meanstream publicaton cover the student debt issue extensively. Here is the original report from Moody’s

            But would Social Text or the like really hold that much more water than Gawker? I guess you buy into the hierarchy of knowledge production.

            I bet you teach at a JC…surely not what you wanted. : (

          • David Hart

            Am I bothered?

          • JimBob

            Probably not, you are a hustler after all. Liberating minds with radical praxis…ha.

          • David Hart

            Am I bothered though?

          • JimBob

            I am sure you are stuck (or will be) intro philosophy at a JC. At some point you will wonder why you devoted so much energy to such a fruitless pursuit.

          • David Hart

            But am I bothered? You see my face? Look at this face. Does this face look bothered?

            (I happen to teach at a public university, though I’d be proud to teach at a JC. Because, ya know, I have this crazy idea that higher education is beneficial to society. For one thing, it helps people learn to proofread.)

          • JimBob

            I do not subject myself to the arbitrary rules of language. Those are set forth to shape how we think, to reinforce power relations embedded in discourses.

            Who decides what is beneficial to society? To which “society” are you referring? Isn’t a critique of “society” what critical theory aims to do? So ultimately you think higher ed is beneficial to the very thing you you spend so much time critiquing. That makes a lot of sense.

            Higher education is not about “education.” Higher education is an institution that constructs hierarchy in American society. Dips like you decide who are the winners and losers through the grading and rating process. I happened to end up on the upside of that process but learned how arbitrary it really is when I was tasked with instruction and grading. Those who receive high marks and earn the right credentials go on and make lots of cash and lead public and private institutions. So you don’t really educate, you dispense knowledge and the more industrious students retain and regurgitate what is needed in order to receive a high grade. As a prize for that effort and the funds they contribute to the institution, they are rewarded a credential that allows them to seek employment.

            A real education is a very very different thing and the higher education industry plays little or no role in that process. David Foster Wallace pointed out eloquently in his talk, “This Is Water” that a real education occurs when you leave a university.

            The biggest irony of you critical social theory folks is just how intolerant you are of criticism (notice the ad hominem insults that you pepper in). Or more importantly, your inability to grasp what higher education has morphed into in recent decades, that it is central to the reproduction of modern liberal capitalism.

            But back to your question, about “who decides what is beneficial to society?” What is beneficial to a capitalist society? Obedient workers and that is what YOU produce. You produce the next generation of bourgeois that will manage society. All the critical insights you dispense in class have NO impact on the actually existing world. The irony being that the most promising students in your classes do not end up opposing society or neoliberalism in any meaningful way, rather they ensure its continued reproduction.

            The crushing reality of high debt and unemployment rates for recent college grads (especially philosophy majors) would give a reasonable or ethical person motivation to pause and reflect. Not you though, reflecting the reality that all is “radical’ criticism is nothing more than a hustle, a performance in order to achieve a secure, protected upper-middle class income. You differ little from a dentist.

          • David Hart

            It’s ok, really. I hear you, and I understand. You’ve had a lot of failures in life, a lot of people have let you down, and that makes you angry. It’s only natural. You’re filled with rage at your own socio-political impotence / irrelevance, so you rant against the ‘injustices’ of the world. On message boards. But it’s ok. I’m listening to you, JimBob, and I’m here for you. Let me be your shining star. Would you like a hug?

          • JimBob

            Sure, fuck face!

          • JimBob
          • Nathan J. Robinson

            What’s wrong with citing Gawker in a comments section? Is it not a slightly different context than a term paper?

          • Sam Iam


    • David Hart

      As someone working in a field related to critical theory, I’d really like to know where the hell all these “high paying careers” are. If you seriously believe that people publish academic journals for the money, then you’ve clearly never spent any time working in the academy. Thus, your opinion is invalid.

      • JimBob

        A tenured professor is a high paying career relatively speaking. So is an editor at Sage Publications or Wiley Blackwell. They publish in academic journals for lots of reason and money is most certainly one of them. Academic publishing is a lucrative business for the publishers and it would be very easy given digital technology to subvert that entire system, yet the “radicals” cannot seem to do that. More publications means tenure, moving up the ranks from assistant to associate professor, getting a side gig as an editor for an academic volume, etc… Actually, I have spent time outside of the academy then inside the academy, that is how I have come to learn just how insular and delusional the critical social theory hustle really is. Again, I love how insistent you are on what is “valid” or “invalid,” reflecting you have learned little from the literature and thinkers you hold so dear.

        • freecountryaintit

          This is stupid. Nothing is done in our society unless there’s money in it, whether it’s academic, political, or corporate. How is it meaningful to decry academic careerism compared with the tens of trillions of dollars absconded from public funds into corporate tax havens? Put properly into perspective, your criticisms are woefully trite.

          • Sam Iam

            Yes, but the corporate tax haven people don’t claim to be lovers of truth and disinterested in material rewards. It is the hypocrisy which upsets people.

      • Sam Iam

        There is no money in publishing articles. There is good money in becoming a tenured-professor, which requires the publishing of articles.

    • Sam Iam

      Word. It is a separation between revealed truth, e.g. religion, cultural theory, forms of philosophy, poetry, art, etc, and empirical truth, e.g. the sciences. Revealed truth can be interesting and beautiful (meaning poetry and art, not cultural theory) but it doesn’t tell you anything, at least anything specific enough to act upon, about the way the world works or should be organized.

  • blastpeed
  • Raymond

    I wonder what this whole priority with changing the world through academics or whatever came about. Why can’t we think just because, you know, we like to think. Maybe I just like to read and think and enjoy reading other readers think about thinking or whatever. Because that’s why I read critical theory. I have absolutely no pretensions to the idea that it will somehow change the world, though I believe it has (I don’t think anyone can really disagree with this) though maybe not for the better or for the worse. But I do believe that it could change me, and that it has. I am not saying it changed me in the way religion changes people or in the way that reading fiction changed me (that did change me in that other more profound way). But reading critical theory has made me a much more critical thinker and reader. There is so much I just never considered before. It hasn’t answered any questions for me, not even one. In fact, the opposite is true. it made me doubt almost everything I thought I knew. But it did teach me how to ask better questions. And more importantly for me, how to ask more interesting and intellectually compelling questions. Because though I believe it has changed me and I suspect it’s possible it did so for the better, I have never read philosophy for that reason. I read it because I like to think. Because I enjoy thinking the way people enjoy playing sports or going to the gym. And reading philosophy gives me a mental workout. I don’t need to have a PhD in physics or chemistry to get that workout, I just need to open up a book and read words on a page, and that my friends is the real value of philosophy and critical theory. At least for me.

  • red allover

    Chomsky is a life long anti-Communist activist, from an upper middle class background. He enjoys proclaiming that he has always fought what he calls “Leninist tyranny”–that is, rule by the working class.
    I don’t think Chomsky’s fans understand the right wing nature of his linguistic theories. On nature vs. nurture, he comes down solidly on the side of nature.
    His Platonic belief in an inborn, universal, uniquely human, language learning ability is the opposite of the behaviorist insight that language comes to children from outside themselves, from their culture, as explained brilliantly, for example, by the great Soviet Marxist psychologist, Lev Vygotsky.
    The promotion of Chomsky’s theories was one part of the post WWII conservative trend. Just as, in literature, a single essay by James Baldwin was considered to have destroyed the reputation of Richard Wright, so was an essay by Chomsky said to have discredited B.F. Skinner. In the same period, the religion-promoting Abraham Maslow was elected president of the psychological association, while the former head, the materialist Behaviorist James Watson, had to find work in advertising agencies.
    Does any of this matter in the real world? Indeed.
    The (hopefully, temporary) demise of the potentially powerful Occupy Wall Street movement was most emphatically, directly caused by the poisonous, middleclass, anarchist theories that forbade them participating in the political system, would not let them work with labor unions or run 99% candidates. Marxists, by contrast, have always run candidates and used the system to discredit the system, educate the public & organize the workers.
    “A revolutionary movement is not possible without revolutionary theory. “–LENIN

  • Sam Iam

    I think Chomsky’s point is that there is no methodology through which Zizek’s, and similar cultural theorists, arguments can be verified or invalidated, so why bother discussing them. Unless you have a well defined, formulaic method of inquiry through which hypothesis can be tested, we are really just discussing peoples’ opinions… somewhat like trying to have a discussion about religious tenants from which we can move forward and progress in our understanding. By design, these arguments do not provide understanding from which we can accrete new knowledge and further our studies. They are consciously and intentionally beyond verification or negation. It is essentially secular theology.

    If people want to have these discussions in Parisian coffee-shops, be my guest. If they want to pretend that this “posturing”, as Chomsky calls it, is a legitimate field of academic inquiry, on par with physics and chemistry, I don’t see how they are going to provide the same advances in understanding without formal methodology and empirical evidence.

    All of this is, as Chomsky discusses, humanities mimicking the sciences. The sciences have complex and far reaching theories, methods upon which those theories can be validated or invalidated, a peer review process to ensure that the theories/principles are sound, etc. The humanities have created all of these intellectual institutions, but they are devoid of a real methodology or a real finding of fact or refutation of non-fact. This is all done so humanities can partake in the prestige which has, rightly, be bestowed upon the sciences for their concrete achievements visible to all.