Zizek Strikes Back! Calls Chomsky Empirically Wrong

Slavoj Žižek at his home in Lubljana.

Since February, we’ve been covering the fallout of an interview Chomsky gave wherein he called Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek “charlatans.” Chomsky has recently, and in the past, berated critical theorists for being unable to offer empirically tested theories in plain language.

Chomsky noted  in his interview “Zizek is an extreme example, I don’t see anything in what he’s saying,” and continued to attack any theory that couldn’t be explained to a 12-year-old in five minutes. This is a surprising criticism to level against a man who makes a point of using toilets and Kung Fu Panda to explain his work, literally the only thing 12-year-olds care about. In a talk at Birkbeck College in London, Zizek responds to the charges leveled against him by Chomsky.

Chomsky, as we have noted, sort of sets Foucault aside, whom he claimed was intelligible when you sat him down and spoke with him. Still, Chomsky notes “I know that Foucault’s scholarship is just not trustworthy here, so I don’t trust it, without independent investigation,” which makes Zizek’s response to Chomsky all the better.

Open Culture came upon this audio from an event in London, where Zizek attacks Chomsky for stressing empirics. “I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong!” Zizek continues:

Let’s look… I remember when he defended this demonisation 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 defence 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.

You can listen to the whole event here, but we’ve clipped out the relevant portion and uploaded to YouTube below.

The comments are in regards to Chomsky’s alleged support of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. That article refers to a piece you can read at Chomsky.info, in which Chomsky discusses his thoughts on Cambodia.

Also of note, Zizek notes that a friend of his in the United States didn’t get a job because Zizek wrote him a letter of recommendation.

Hear everything in the embedded clip below.

Below is a transcript via the EsJayBe blog.

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 emphasises 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 demonisation 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 defence 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.

For example, concerning Stalinism. The point is not that you have to know, you have to photo evidence of gulag or whatever. My god you just have to listen to the public discourse of Stalinism, of Khmer Rouge, to get it that something terrifyingly pathological is going on there. For example, Khmer Rouge: even if we have no data about their prisons and so on, isn’t it in a perverse way almost fascinating to have a regime which in the first two years (’75 to ’77) behaved towards itself, treated itself, as illegal. You know the regime was nameless. It was called ‘alka’ [?] an organisation – not communist party of Cambodia – an organisation. Leaders were nameless. If you ask ‘who is my leader?’ your head was chopped off immediately and so on.

Ok, 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 dont need any critique of ideology, you reach automatically 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! Its 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 lets economise and so on and so on.”

My second point, cynicists are those who are most prone to fall in to 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 matters is… and so on and so on”

So as to this ‘problem’ of are we studying the facts enough I claim emphatically more than ever ‘no’ today. And as to popularity, I get a little bit annoyed with this idea that we with our deep sophisms are really hegemonic in humanities. Are people crazy? I mean we are always marginal. No, what is for me real academic hegemony: its brutal, who can get academic posts? Who can get grants, foundations, as so on? We are totally marginalised here. I mean look at my position… “oh yeah you are a mega-star in United States” well I would like to be because I would like power to brutally use it! But I am far from that. I react so like this because a couple of days ago I got a letter from a friend in United States for whom I wrote a letter of recommendation, and he told me “I didn’t get the job, not in spite of your letter but because of your letter!” He had a spy in the committee and this spy told him “you almost got it, but then somebody says ‘oh, if Zizek recommends him it must be something terribly wrong with him’”

So I claim that all these ‘how popular we are’ is really a mask of… remember the large majority of academia are these grey either cognitivists or historians blah blah… and you don’t see them but they are the power. They are the power.

On the other hand, why are they in power worried? Because you know… don’t exaggerate this leftist paranoia idea that “we can all be recuperated” and so on and so on. No! I still quite naively believe in the efficiency of theoretical thinking. Its not as simple as to recuperate everything in. But you know there are different strategies of how to contain us, I must say that I maybe am not innocent in this, because people like to say about me “oh, go and listen to him, he is an amusing clown blah blah blah” This is another way to say “dont take it seriously”.

But this is one of the strategies. You know there are so many strategies to counteract and the proof that we are not so impotent as innocent is how, did you notice how – against you now [Douzinas] and against me – this old line of “oh these are crazy half-clownish marginals” imperceptibly is more and more combined with the opposite line “we are dangerous. we advocate violence. we are preparing a new holocaust or whatever”. This is deeply symptomatic, this mixture of ‘we are powerless, innocent clowns’ to ‘these guys are really dangerous preparing a new terror’ and so on. Of course, my heart is with the second position, but that’s another story…

[Via Open Culture]

  • noel

    Zizek just can’t handle factual criticism.
    Zizek ,and his audience,are quite obviously clowns.

    • RogerMcC

      Zizek is indeed a clown but one who does amongst all the interminable verbiage quite often say things that are interesting and enlightening and show that he has some understanding of the world we actually live in.

      Chomsky on the other hand has generated his own mountain of verbiage without AFAICT ever saying anything entertaining or giving any sign that his understanding of the world has changed in the nearly 50 years since it was formed during the Vietnam War – his every book is either impenetrable linguistic theory (love to see him summarise Aspects of the Theory of Syntax to a 12-year old in 5 minutes) or basically the same tirade against American Imperialism.

      • noel

        “Chomsky on the other hand has generated his own mountain of verbiage without AFAICT ever saying anything entertaining or giving any sign that his understanding of the world has changed in the nearly 50 years since it was formed during the Vietnam War – his every book is either impenetrable linguistic theory (love to see him summarise Aspects of the Theory of Syntax to a 12-year old in 5 minutes) or basically the same tirade against American Imperialism”

        ^Nonsense. What a load of crap!
        I understand,though, how he could be “impenetrable” for someone like you.
        And I’m sure you do like to be entertained. Just keep watching FOX!!

        • RogerMcC

          Ah the perfect Chomskyite….

          To a true disciple anyone who fails to worship at his shrine can only be an actual Fox news viewer.

          As it happens living in England (just like Zizek who teaches at my old college) we don’t even get Fox and I only know of it at all from The Daily Show….

          And I’ve read Zizek who is if anything a much worse writer (although a much more entertaining speaker) than your beloved Noam so I know true impenetrability when I see it.

          But note I specifically referred to his real serious work on linguistic theory which is clearly written for specialist philosophers as being impenetrable to those not of that tribe – not the endless screeds on the iniquities of American Imperialism (which I believe are not even written but dictated to whoever his ever-present amanuensis is these days) and which are deliberately pitched at a low enough level for even the dimmest undergraduate.

          • noel

            Ah,the perfect disciple of the clowns of deception, worshipping at the shrine of bullshit.
            Hey Mister, do not try to apply your simple,ridiculous,lost methodology on me.You are the one who worships fools. Go peddle that crap somewhere else.
            So,goody for you! I’m so impressed that you don’t watch FOX. (As if I could really care a damn).
            ” (which I believe are not even written but dictated to whoever his ever-present amanuensis is these days) which are deliberately pitched at a low enough level for even the dimmest undergraduate”

            It does not matter at all what you “believe”. First you must learn how to think. Which you are showing yourself incapable of,especially since you cannot even understand those “endless screeds” which are,of course, deliberately pitched at a low enough level for even the dimmest undergraduate.
            which t a low enough level for even the dimmest undergraduateare,of course”,pitched at a low enough level.
            Oh well. Too bad for you.

          • RogerMcC


          • noel

            There is ,in fact, a price. Especially for ignorance. Even a higher price for hopeless stupidity. But most people will never understand this. And as I always have to say,…oh well.

          • RogerMcC

            Which is the very definition and allure of belonging to an apocalyptic cult – you and your little circle of true believers alone understand the truth and every attack however mild and reasonable draws you closer together in an ever-tightening solipsistic cocoon.

            Don’t get me wrong.

            As cults go Chomsky’s is a pretty good deal – you don’t have to offer up your adolescent daughters as handmaidens, remove any important organs, drink the poisoned Kool-Aid or die horribly in a blazing compound.

            All you have to do is buy a few books (and it doesn’t really matter which ones as they all tell the same story of American iniquity with each successive volume just updating the examples given), perhaps just watch the occasional youtube video and occasionally defend the Master’s honour whenever it is traduced at sites like this.

            And as nobody can write millions of words about actual world events and be always and utterly wrong sometimes he even gets stuff right…..

          • noel

            No Roger. You are simply a mindless moron. You’re rambling incoherently,you poor fool.As I said, do not try to apply your simple,ridiculous,lost methodology on me.It can’t work because it does not apply to me. You are so hopelessly stupid,you’re like a retarded dog chasing its tail round and round.You will never learn,because you’re incapable of learning. As all true fasci…um..,I mean, “conservatives” (wink wink) are!

          • Durnik Aljosa

            Hmm…, to say that I like your comment would be an understatement….! 🙂 😉 hehe…

            Anyway.., I run this channel on Yu-Tub where I have plenty of powerful munition against idiocy like the one we happen to witness around here, now and then. Not that u look like someone in need of such help, to be frank. But maybe more for the random reader who wishes to learn something (hopefully). Here r a couple of links to the videos on my channel which I consider relevant to this site overall I guess… I will only post 2 links here.., but there’s plenty of similar stuff beside just this two videos, that can be found on my channel, worth watching…

            One goes : ” Plato Versus Aristotle – Economy and Philosophy ” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zMgsR23RFk

            And the Other: “Expertise On How Popular Opinion Is Controlled ” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4tbliIQcLs

      • noel

        He’s like the “Dr. Oz” or “Dr. Phil” of philosophy for all those who need so much to be entertained.

        Prof. Chomsky:

        As the reader can easily determine, Žižek provides not the slightest evidence to support his charges, but simply repeats what he has probably heard – or perhaps read in a Slovenian journal. No less interesting is Žižek’s shock that we used the data that were available. He “totally rejects” this procedure. There is no need to comment on a remark that gives irrationality a bad name.

        The remainder of Žižek’s comments have no relation to anything I’ve said or written, so I will ignore them.

        A question remains as to why such performances are taken seriously, but I’ll put that aside as well.

        Noam Chomsky

  • RogerMcC

    It’s Birkbeck with one c…….

    • Critical Theory

      Thanks, fixed.

  • econdemocracy

    Chomsky and Herman, writing in The Nation on June 25, 1977,
    where they describe Father Francois Ponchaud’s Cambodia: Year
    Zero as “serious and worth reading,” with its “grisly account
    of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their
    treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge” –cited in1985 article, The Chorus and Cassandra, by Christopher Hitchens, pointing out the many distortions and outright fabrications about Chomsky’s supposed “defense” of the Khmer Rouge (a copy of CH’s piece is at chomsky Dot info)

    • RogerMcC

      As you quote Hitchens in Chomsky’s defence here he is from somewhat later when he had finally liberated himself from Chomsky’s spell:

      “My quarrel with Chomsky goes back to the Balkan
      wars of the 1990s, where he more or less openly represented the “Serbian Socialist Party” (actually the national-socialist and expansionist dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic) as the victim. Many of us are proud of having helped organize to prevent the slaughter and deportation of Europe’s oldest and largest and most tolerant Muslim minority, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Kosovo. But at that time, when they were real,Chomsky wasn’t apparently interested in Muslim grievances. He only became a voice for that when the Taliban and Al Qaeda needed to be represented in their turn as the victims of a “silent genocide” in Afghanistan. Let me put it like this, if a supposed scholar takes the Christian-Orthodox side when it is the aggressor, and then switches to taking the “Muslim” side when Muslims commit mass murder, I think that there is something very nasty going on. And yes, I don’t think it is exaggerated to describe that nastiness as “anti-American” when the power that stops and punishes both aggressions is the United States.”

      Which was but one shot in a feud which Hitchens maintained to his untimely death and which some of us feel honour-bound to pursue as long as Chomsky and his legions of worshippers continue to poison public discourse.

      • noel

        Hitchens was a pompous,arrogant turd. He finally started cracking up when the Fascist Cheney-Bush junta and their little brown-noser Blair started up their imperialist wars on Mesopotamia.

      • econdemocracy

        This is very funny. The fact that Hitchens gave the reference is secondary at best here – the point is the reference itself to an article in The Nation which shows what nonsense it is to assert Chomsky did not have (strong) criticism of the KR. That’s the point here, but my not wanting to leave CH uncredited had led (predictably, I suppose) to bringing up CH’s later words, to attach Chomsky – laughable, this later CH being someone who, not only sharply misrepresents Chomsky own work on the Balkans (where he quotes the U.S. own analysis to make the point that the U.S. attack *increased* atrocities and suffering – hardly anything a sane person would characterize as a position in which Chomksy wishes to defend or brush atrocities under the rug – these being precisely what the west sadly did in the mainstream media) but even more laughable since CH was a strong defender of the now more than a little (even in the mainstream) discredited Iraq was based on lies, which CH waved the “patriotic” flag for quite strongly.

        The key is that even someone as pro-war as CH was able to, at least in his earlier form, able to look up a simple article in The Nation to demolish the claim Zizek now repeats uncritically. As to other comments that Chomsky just repeats the same stuff from the 1960s –obviously a fantasy based on something other than reading Chomsky, whose writing focuses on the facts at hand, facts he carefully documents with plenty of references but since they shed unfavorable light on western imperialism, war crimes, etc, those immune to hearing anything about such unpleasant realities allow themselves to hear it only as “he must be repeating 1960s stuff, since **I** know with doctrinal certainty that *today* the west is nothing but flowers and butterflies and roses and can’t be doing any war crimes or brutal imperialism, so any article that suggests that, I don’t have to look up the facts and references, I’ll just assume/hear that it’s just a repeat of 1960s criticisms” etc. Those who want to actually read what he actually says, Chomsky dot info is a good start. On 1991 Gulf War and related, http://www.chomsky.info/articles/199105–.htm (See “Deterring Iraqi Democracy” section there, on how Washington did exactly that, strengthening Saddam) but see also his pieces The Victors on Latin America, and Force and Opinion, as other good starting points for those who (unlike Roger) are open to learn what Chomsky actually says

        • RogerMcC

          I actually think its a perfectly valid intellectual move to deploy an old article in defence of Chomsky from someone who later become one of his most dedicated enemies,

          In fact if you really wanted to land a blow on Zizek you might look at his lavish praise for Alain Badiou (who he has described as a new Plato or Hegel) whose support for the Khmer Rouge was even more vociferous and long lasting than Chomsky’s.

          But again it is precisely that Hitchens and Zizek examine reality and change their political positions accordingly that make them interesting to me even when – as I think they both generally were/are – wrong on many key questions.

          While having sampled a selection of the 86 political books and many millions of words he’s had published I genuinely can see little evidence that Chomsky has changed his monocausal manichaean world view at all since the Vietnam War.

          And this along with his sheer repetitive prolixity accounts for his dramatic fall in real popularity and influence with the left since 9.11.

  • abolish

    Chomsky has responded. Zizek fabricated a conversation with Chomsky and is “completely in the grip of western propaganda”.


  • dan

    The writer of this article seems to have made the same mistake as many other commentators. From the transcript of the interview it is clear that Chomsky was NOT saying that any important idea should be explicable to a 12 year old. He was saying that when you demystify Zizek’s and other theorists ideas they carry no more sophistication than that which could be explained to a 12 year old. Lazy!

    • Lexy Triggs

      Agreed. The author is confirmed to be a man of sloth.

    • mole

      kant and bentham can also be explained to a 12 year old. so can marx, so can deleuze and guattari, so can chomsky.

  • Guest

    I know nothing about Zizek or the debate between him and Chomsky, but I will say after reading the transcript that for someone who is supposed to be highly regarded, he is pretty damn inarticulate, you know, and so on….

    • Jim

      Or maybe you just aren’t smart? Nobody ever seems to draw that conclusion when they don’t understand something. Chomsky is the king of this.

  • Davis Goodman

    Zizek attacks Chomsky for being empirically wrong at times in the past instead of defending how is work is empirical at all. And so Zizek entirely misses the point. At least Chomsky’s work is empirical at all. It can be tested. It can be demonstrated wrong. It can be demonstrated right. And it’s true Chomsky has been and is terribly wrong at times. Zizek cannot defend himself from Chomsky’s attacks because there’s nothing empirical about Zizek’s book length rants and musings. It cannot be tested empirically right or wrong. So instead of defending his meaningless slush he misdirects the Chomsky’s critique. Chomksy: Your writing is not empirical. Zizek: Oh yeah…well you’ve been wrong in the past. Chomsky: True. And your work is still non-empirical meaningless slush. Zizek: Oh yeah…well you’ve been wrong in the past.

    • mole

      Chomsky’s an analyst and Zizek’s a philosopher. no philosophy is empirical, but theory is empirically indicative of future trends in politics etc. Bentham’s writings in the 18th/ 19th century caused utility calculus to be the primary method used by state and economic actors when making decisions in the 20th! Hegels writings in the 18th century were responded to by Marx thoughts and Marx’ writings in the 19th century, well you know how that turned out.

      none of those three writers were in a traditional sense, empirical.

      The irony is that any one in the theoretical tradition accepts chomsky’s assertions about the imperialism of the united states as fact. It’s true! of course i’m not supposed to make generalizations about this, it’s not in the academic tradition, but everyone understands that the united states is engaged in bad things, however, zizek understands that a state with power will inevitably engage in bad things so that criticism is meaningless.

      saying zizek’s work is meaningless is just a false assertion, you have to at first understand that what he’s saying is quite simple, but the western tradition demands it is made logical by layers of logos and reference. zizek basically says that humans are all illogical, and human systems are dysfunctional, and asserts that cynicism plays into the hands of state power, and that the only true political action is like immediate or, it’s very, very hard to simplify, but it’s revolutionary! so a zizekian reading of chomsky is that because chomsky tells us the US is bad, but lacks an ideological alternative to the US, his followers do nothing about imperialism. don’t vote, its a sham! and i’ve yet to see a chomsky rally. so chomsky is in a sense playing into the ideology of capitalism, without even understanding this.

      it’s in that awkward middle space between the complex and the simple, so it inspires average minds to it’s causes. zizek just gets too involved in theory here to say anything like this, but if you actually understood his ideology in addition to chomsky’s you’d understand where the engagement was.

      • Davis Goodman

        Your last four paragraphs make a million times more sense than anything I’ve ever read by Zizek. You see…it is possible to write something that comments on the modern condition in a coherent way. Lots of writers do it every day. You can do it. Why can’t Zizek?

        When anyone tells me: “you see…in order to understand this you first have to…” then either the person is inserting an idiosyncratic layer of meaning into someone elses work that does’t exist, or the person is correctly qualifying the work of an author that should have been qualified by the author himself.

        • mole

          Zizek explains what i say in much greater detail in his earliest books which rely heavily on Lacanian thought and psychoanalysis as a whole. I understand where you’re coming from and it’s frustrating, but i’ve seen how all of the most progressive continental philosophers are derided because to understand their work you have to do the ordeal and read Kant and Nietzsche and Marx and Lacan and Badiou and blach blach blach blach . no one makes the same claims about Habermas even though his most dense theory is infinitely less approachable then Zizek.

          Really, Zizek is the most conservative of any of those “french theorists” that chomsky was criticizing, he isn’t afraid to be intolerant and critical of non-Western thought and practice, and he defends the Enlightenment, which Foucault and Derrida started an awful trend of bashing. He’s considered a postmodernist but he’s calling for re-modernization. Zizek derides traditional liberals like Chomsky for not defending the Leftist alternative to capitalism while deriding capitalism. I have to disagree fundamentally with Zizek on his Marxism, and Chomsky on his syndicalism, but i agree with Zizek on his analysis of capitalism more than Chomsky’s because it is more complex.