Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky Calls Jacques Lacan a ‘Charlatan’

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky appeared in a podcast on the site Veterans Unplugged back in December 2012 to give his thoughts about American militarism. When asked by the interviewer if he thought the work of Slavoj Zizek had any relevence, Chomsky started to rail against what he considers “fancy words” that mean nothing once they are “decoded”. “Zizek is an extreme example, I don’t see anything in what he’s saying,” said Chomsky.

Chomsky then took a swipe at Jascques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst.

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

You can listen to the full interview at Veterans Unplugged, the convervation of Zizek and Lacan starts around 6:20.

It’s actually not the first time Chomsky has made this claim about Lacan and other postmodernists. An alleged text from Chomsky has been circulating on usenet and the web since 1995 where Chomsky calls Lacan “an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan.” The interview seems to bolster the evidence that the 1995 text in fact originated from Chomsky. In the text, Chomsky speaks of his discussions with Kristeva, Foucault, and others.

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. When I proceed as I do in other areas where I do not understand, I run into the problems mentioned in connection with (1) and (2) above. So that’s who I’m referring to, and why I don’t proceed very far. I can list a lot more names if it’s not obvious.

 

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  • Nosherwan

    haterz gonna hate

  • James Fleming

    Totally agree with Chomsky on this, and he is not alone in his view on that kind of philosophy. Indeed Orwell wrote a great essay condemning that (even the language used among fellow marxists) and Trotsky himself highlights the need to speak in plain understandable terms.

    • Ingenjören

      There is however a very problematic assumption underlying this line of reasoning. It assumes that what is true is always easily accessible. This is usually the foundation people who attack the theory of relativity build upon. Since it is not intuitive and easy to understand, it must be wrong.

      • Simone deBeauvoir

        making it inaccesible however, is way more problematic for it has quite classists and colonialists undertones.

        • Ingenjören

          That though highlights the question: Is it a question of making things inaccessible or saying them as thruthfully as they can be said? If we go back to the world of physics, there have been many attempts at making quantum mechanics easily accessible. The downside is that almost all new-age misconceptions about quantum mechanics stem from the simplified explanations that people have made in their attempts at making quantum mechanics accessible.

          • Simone deBeauvoir

            i’m actually doing physics at uni, and i can tell you, aside the mystical undertones they are quite alright.

        • Cletis

          Pretty much the silliest objection to obscurantism that I’ve ever read.

          • Simone deBeauvoir

            you must be white.

          • Cletis

            Well, you certainly do present a compelling argument.

          • MetalTamponForYourAss

            You must be a filthy brown orangutan with pubes on your head

      • Davide

        The trouble with this objection is that Lacan, Derrida, Zizek and co. claim to be advocating for oppressed groups within society. The trouble is that their work is inaccessible to anyone but humanities grad students who have formal training in decoding the deliberately obscure language they employ. Pretty sure that quality of their writing on its own means a big chunk of the “oppressed” will never be able to understand it. Elitism, anyone?

        • Ingenjören

          Hmm, if I were to accept your argument at face value it would mean that any argument on behalf of infants, the braindead or animals is elitist since the people you advocate for are unable to grasp your argument.

          Also, whether their arguments are obfuscated in order to be harder to understand than is necessary another question altogether. What I critizise is the notion that any argument or system that is hard to understand must by definition be wrong.

          To claim that a theory (like the theory of relativity) is meaningless since it is hard to understand and therefore elitist, is in my opinion the worst kind of post-modern thought.

          • nessnes

            NOBODY IS SAYING THE THEORY OF RELATIVITY IS MEANINGLESS BECAUSE MORONS LIKE YOU CANT UNDERSTAND IT

          • nessnes

            people with advanced degrees in physics understand the theory of relativity. people with advanced degrees in philosophy do not understand french theory because it is meaningless

          • nessnes

            Most of the people who use french theory are not in philosophy departments but are in English departments, and they cite it not because they understand what it means (because it means nothing) but because it sounds like it means something that will lend their careers greater heft. Have you heard of sophistry?

          • nessnes

            But I’ll recant because actually there is some meaning to be found in most french theory, but its incredibly simple to understand once you’ve decoded the texts, which are written in intentionally obfuscating and verbose language. More to my point as to why literary scholars are more interested in it = heavy on style, low on content

          • Davide

            “When you spend time with a beautiful girl, an hour feels like a minute and when you sit on a hot stove, a minute feels like an hour! That’s the theory of relativity.” – Albert Einstein on his Theory of Relativity.

            “You haven’t understood a theory if you can’t explain it to your grandmother.” – also Albert Einstein, on science.

          • cinemaomyheart

            To show the awfulness of elitism in academia im going to do an Argument from authority, the irony…

      • Denis Del Râ

        Theory of relativity and quantum mechanichs can be explained in unequivocal terms. That is what is important, not that it is not intuitive or that it need some mathematical and physical background to be perfectly understood (just look at Einstein’s article “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, the english is crystal clear). I like to quote Boileau on this kind of conversation: Whatever is well conceived is clearly said, and the words to say it flow with ease. Too many people hide their lack of substance behind obscure and pretentious gibberish.

    • Rob Ford

      Try reading Heidegger or Wittgenstein and say that it is easy. No matter what , one of them is the greatest philosopher of 20 century. Hell try reading Spinoza, it

  • michael russell

    The more I learn about activism, the more I know that Chomsky is right in this argument. There is literally nothing you can take from Zizek into the public sphere, like at a town hall meeting, or even with a group larger than three people, because no one understands what they are saying. Zizek is a modern day Hegel but without his genius.

    • Critical Theory

      Subversive Film posted Zizek’s oldish response to Chomsky on their Facebook. You might find it interesting: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=520418438011335&set=a.319319848121196.87441.316666381719876&type=1

    • dsch

      Because the measure of philosophical worth is what you can bring up in a town hall meeting.

      • wulgus

        well what do you consider the measure of its worth?

        • dsch

          It’s not simple to answer in the contemporary intellectual milieu. But sure as hell Chomsky doesn’t know anything about it.

          • nessnes

            Saying “it’s too complicated” to everything is a bit of a cop out, wouldn’t you say?

          • dsch

            Holy thread-necromancy Batman! From your other posts on this page, it seems like you have an ax to grind. Yeah, it is a cop out, but only because I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain a few semesters’ worth of philosophy to those determined to remain ignorant. Your ignorance is not my problem.

          • nessnes

            Well you don’t sound very smart yourself and like you have your own axe to grind

          • dsch

            There is a continuous philosophical tradition that leads to “French theory.” At which point does it start to “mean nothing”? Shall we go back from the 60s? Does it all go wrong with Lacan and Derrida? How about Bergson? Sartre? Saussure? Or the Germans? Heidegger? Nietzsche? Freud? Kierkegaard? Hegel? Schelling? Kant? What about Spinoza? Or Descartes? Where do you draw the line? How do you justify it?

            This is your big chance to sound smart. Good luck.

          • nessnes

            Derrida is a Nazi. FUCK OFF

          • nessnes

            It goes wrong with Heidegger, if you must know. No problems before that.

    • edward johnson

      So philosophically flawed that I don’t even feel like pointing out what’s wrong with this comment. And anybody who can’t formulate their thoughts in a more reasonable way can invalidate Zizek as much as he/she wants because no one will take his/her theory seriously. Take your town hall meeting to your town people.

  • tooCents

    Chomsky is right. Consider the problems of our world now and read Chomsky and Zizek (and some others in the TAGS section to the right side of your screen…). Chomsky’s work brilliantly illuminates and clarifies and thus enables people to understand and defend themselves from corporate and government manipulation.

  • hekko

    chomsky sets his bar pretty low:
    “the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old.”

  • silver fox

    ever hear of the ah……pot/kettle theory? very inner- est- ing.

  • silver fox

    and you deleted my post….you mother fuckers. fuck Chomsky and this site. you are preterite.

    • Big John Stud

      “you are preterite” LOL alright, nice try

      • silver fox

        tiny dk john…..pssssssssssssssssss on your face john.

      • silver fox

        little dk john……..pssssssssssssss all over your face.

      • silver fox

        little dk john…..pssssssssssssssssss on your face.

  • Mojo

    #parklife