Chomsky or Žižek: Can’t We Have Both?

by Greg Burris

“Disagreement is not the conflict between one who says white and another who says black. It is the conflict between one who says white and another who also says white but does not understand the same thing by it.”
—Jacques Rancière

About a year ago, a friend of mine suggested in passing that he would like to hear a debate between celebrity dissidents Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek. I assured him that such a debate would never take place and that, even if it did, the two intellectual titans would have nothing to say to each other. Although my first prediction was completely shattered by these thinkers’ recent flare-up, my second claim has turned out to be surprisingly accurate. That is, while a war of words has indeed ensued between the anarchist linguist and the communist psychoanalyst, the anticipated Great Debate is really not much of a debate at all. Both contenders seem to be speaking past each other, articulating their arguments in a language that the other does not care to comprehend.

Neither Chomsky nor Žižek is a stranger to intellectual quarrels. Both have had their fair share of debates and disputes with a range of personalities—from Alan Dershowitz to Michel Foucault in the case of Chomsky and from David Horowitz to Ernesto Laclau in the case of Žižek. Only recently, however, have the two so directly targeted each other. What exactly is the point of contention between these two radical thinkers? Apart from egos, what is actually at stake? And, most importantly, why should we on the Left even bother taking sides if doing so means eating our own at a time when our energies could be better directed towards any one of a number of ongoing political developments—perpetual capitalist crises, global surveillance scandals, drone assassination programs, the war on whistleblowers, and coups, revolutions, and counter-revolutions? Indeed, if the Chomsky-Žižek feud is only going to distract us from these dire realities, then perhaps it would be better to just forget about it.

As an admirer of both thinkers, however, I do not want to forget about it, and I think it is possible to productively engage this heated exchange in such a way as to avoid much of the bloodletting and to emerge on the other side with a better sense of how their seemingly opposed intellectual projects actually complement each other. After summarizing the debate and critically examining their positions, I will look at how both thinkers contribute to our assessment of on-the-ground politics by briefly turning to a real-life situation, Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. Thus, rather than falling lock-step behind either one or the other, I think we would do better to reconcile their apparent differences and thereby escape relatively unscathed from the cannibalism.  Given a choice between Chomsky and Žižek, then, our answer should come as a clear and resounding affirmation: “yes, please!”

The sparring match began when an excerpt from a late 2012 interview with Chomsky was posted on YouTube in June 2013. In it, Chomsky was asked to comment on thinkers like Derrida, Lacan, and Žižek. Without mincing words, Chomsky derided their work as empty posturing, juxtaposing their style and methods against the “empirically testable propositions” of more “serious” fields like the hard sciences. Chomsky singled out Žižek in particular as “an extreme example” of this tendency and even questioned whether Žižek’s work should be considered work at all.

Chomsky’s remarks quickly went viral and provoked heated debates across social media platforms. The next week, another YouTube video surfaced, this one taken from a question-and-answer session Žižek was conducting in London. After acknowledging his “deep respect” for Chomsky, Žižek criticized his empirical method of political analysis, even going so far as to joke that he “doesn’t know a guy who has been more empirically wrong” than Chomsky. Žižek then resurrected some old charges against Chomsky, bringing up his controversial writings on the Khmer Rouge and claiming that they demonstrate how any dry, empirical analysis inevitably misses the mark. Thus, Žižek’s main charge against Chomsky was that he remains remarkably aloof regarding the functioning of ideology.

Following on the heels of these comments, Chomsky and Žižek both penned open letters to each other in which they elaborated on their claims. In a letter entitled “Fantasies,” Chomsky vehemently denied ever committing any errors in his work on Cambodia and boldly claimed that he would “be glad to have it reprinted right now.” Going further, he suggested that by peddling such accusations, Žižek was duplicating the propagandistic narrative of the US government, focusing on the “worthy victims” of the US’s enemies and not the “unworthy victims” of its allies (for instance, in East Timor). Against Žižek’s charge that his work neglects ideology, Chomsky insisted not only that he recognizes ideology but that he has dedicated much of his life to combating its falsehoods.

Žižek, in turn, attempted to clarify his remarks on Cambodia, saying that his intent was never to smear Chomsky as a supporter of genocide. Against Chomsky’s accusation that Žižek was problematically focusing only on “worthy victims,” he indicated multiple examples from his own writings in which he too discussed the “unworthy victims” of East Timor. Going back on the offense, Žižek asserted that Chomsky does not really understand what is meant by the term ideology. He claimed that Chomsky fails to acknowledge the ideological background of his own position. That is, for Žižek, Chomsky does not arrive at his distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims from an objective analysis of the cold, hard facts. Instead, even the most seemingly objective analyses always involve a host of invisible biases, assumptions, and processes running unnoticed in the background.

Those following this debate often seem to fall clearly on one side or the other. Either they declare allegiance to Chomsky and denounce Žižek as a fountain of pseudo-intellectual dribble or they champion Žižek and claim that Chomsky simply does not get it. It would be far too easy here to reduce both thinkers to impoverished caricatures of themselves and to claim that for Chomsky the facts are all that matter while for Žižek the facts do not matter at all. Neither would accept such a vulgarized description of their own position, but from this debate, a few clear lines of demarcation separating their intellectual projects can certainly be drawn. While Chomsky—at least in his political work—operates most comfortably at the level of empirical data and relies on his encyclopedic grasp of the facts to assault his opponents, Žižek is more interested in the ways people comprehend those facts, in the symbolic laws and regulations that frame their understanding of the world. Thus, if Chomsky emphasizes facts, Žižek’s primary concern is the ideological framework colouring their interpretation.

Importantly, these two positions are not as diametrically opposed as they may initially appear. What we have here is not an irreconcilable contradiction but a case of different dimensions. In their remarks, Chomsky and Žižek simply do not inhabit the same plane. They are operating from different levels of abstraction, both of which, I claim, are important and necessary for political struggle.

Chomsky has built his entire reputation as a political dissident on his command of the facts. His writings resemble powerful weapons of empirical data. While Chomsky certainly recognizes the existence of ideology, it is always the ideology of his opponent—the propaganda of the government, the bias of the media, the posturing of the pseudo-intellectual. For Chomsky, ideology masks injustice. It camouflages unfreedom in the name of freedom, war in the name of peace, imperialism in the name of humanitarianism, etc.

While Chomsky should certainly not be confused for a Marxist, his approach to ideology bears a resemblance to the old Marxist notion of false consciousness, the idea that people have been deluded by the propaganda of their rulers and must be awakened from their slumber if they are to see the world for what it really is. As Chomsky puts it near the beginning of Necessary Illusions, “citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control.” Chomsky’s view implies a binary separation of the world into the realm of fact and the realm of myth. Here, one need only recall Chomsky’s influential propaganda model for the study of media, the Orwellian neologisms peppering his writings, or—more recently—his discussion of Tea Party protesters as people who have been “indoctrinated to hate and fear the government”. Chomsky thus situates his own position as being external to ideology.

Chomsky’s method for dismantling his opponent’s ideology involves assailing them with a seemingly endless series of facts and counter-facts, with data proving the propaganda false. There is indeed a great importance for this kind of work, but however necessary a fresh view of the facts may be, this approach is not always sufficient. Because Chomsky downplays or even ignores his own ideological presuppositions, he incorrectly presumes that facts alone can dismantle opposing viewpoints. While the facts may indeed be with him—as they almost always are—his political interpretation is not guaranteed by the cold, hard facts alone. There is no royal road between the facts and their interpretation. The stars may shine, but their light does not automatically bring the constellations with it. Importantly, Žižek is hardly the first to level this critique at Chomsky. As Edward Said commented in his review of Fateful Triangle, “The facts for Chomsky are there to be recognized […] [but his work] is not critical and reflective enough about its own premises” (“Permission to Narrate,” Journal of Palestine Studies 13.3 [1984]).

If Chomsky is speaking at the level of facts, Žižek is concerned with the ideological framework in which they are interpreted. Importantly, this does not mean that the facts do not matter for Žižek; they are just not his primary focus. For this reason, Žižek’s critics have frequently sought to discredit him for factual inaccuracies. But while any mistakes at the level of empirical data are certainly unfortunate, Žižek’s contribution does not stand or fall on facts alone. For Žižek, as for other theorists, facts never speak for themselves. They are always already filtered and mediated by invisible forces. If Chomsky’s approach suggests that we fight myth with fact, Žižek rejects the possibility of making such a clean-cut separation between the two. The goal for him is not to escape ideology all together but to locate its cracks and points of failure—the exceptions which prove false ideology’s claims.

It is thus unsurprising that Chomsky can so easily outmaneuver Žižek on the topic of the Khmer Rouge. The realm of empirical data is Chomsky’s home turf, and when Žižek dares to venture there, his awkwardness shows. In this regard, Žižek’s claim that Chomsky is empirically wrong is nothing more than a silly provocation and should not be taken seriously. But what Žižek’s critics fail to recognize is how quickly the tables are turned. Indeed, when Chomsky speaks of ideology, his words cannot but seem clumsy and naïve to anyone acquainted with the work of Žižek or, more generally, the discourse of continental philosophy and cultural theory. For this reason, Žižek is right when he claims that Chomsky’s problem is far broader than Žižek himself. As he writes, “Our conflict is […] simply a new chapter in the endless gigantomachy between so-called continental philosophy and the Anglo-Saxon empiricist tradition.”

Thus, the debate between Chomsky and Žižek is not one easily resolved. This is not a question of one being right and the other wrong. This is a question of two thinkers operating at different levels of abstraction, and while Chomsky’s work functions best at the level of fact, Žižek speaks most fluently at the level of theory. To be sure, Chomsky undoubtedly remains one of the most astute political observers writing today, and it is probably no exaggeration to say that most of us on the Left stand directly on his shoulders. But by not properly engaging the background operations of ideology, Chomsky risks falling in a trap door which he himself set, making the same error of which he accuses his opponents. The danger encountered by Žižek is rather different. When his work neglects the facts, it risks becoming exactly what Chomsky accuses it of being: empty posturing. But, when grounded in strong empirical data, Žižek’s theoretical investigations can be truly inspirational. This is why his words have been received so enthusiastically not only by certain academic circles but by many activists working on the ground in places ranging from New York’s Zuccotti Park to Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Viewed in this way, the two thinkers do not necessarily contradict each other. Despite all the brouhaha, their intellectual projects can even be made to work together in a very productive fashion.

In order to demonstrate how Chomsky and Žižek, despite their squabbling, can be made to complement each other, I now turn to a developing story with which we should all already be concerned: the ongoing saga of whistleblower Edward Snowden and his revelations about NSA surveillance practices. Snowden’s leaks have already changed the entire framework of the discussion. Their impact has thus been seismic. Here, we are talking about facts, about the importance of new empirical data for our assessment of the contemporary moment. The introduction of these facts into the public arena has put the government on the defense. One need only recall how Snowden’s disclosures immediately revealed that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had outright lied to Congress. Glenn Greenwald and his editors at The Guardian have thus been wise in choosing to publish Snowden’s revelations gradually, thereby preventing them from so easily becoming yesterday’s news.

But look how quickly the discourse shifts. After an initial shock, power can rapidly appropriate new data for its own ends. As Herbert Marcuse put it in One-Dimensional Man, that which initially appears subversive can be “quickly digested by the status quo as part of its healthy diet.” Thus, government representatives are, for the most part, no longer disputing the positive content of Snowden’s claims. Rather, they are justifying them in the name of fighting terror. In this way, the site of struggle slips from one dimension to another, from the realm of contested facts to the realm of contested interpretations.

In light of the recent NSA surveillance scandal, Chomsky and Žižek offer us very different approaches, both of which are helpful for leftist critique. For Chomsky, the path ahead is clear. Faced with new revelations about the surveillance state, Chomsky might engage in data mining, juxtaposing our politicians’ lofty statements about freedom against their secretive actions, thereby revealing their utter hypocrisy. Indeed, Chomsky is a master at this form of argumentation, and he does it beautifully in Hegemony or Survival when he contrasts the democratic statements of Bush regime officials against their anti-democratic actions. He might also demonstrate how NSA surveillance is not a strange historical aberration but a continuation of past policies—including, most infamously, the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) in the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s.

Žižek, on the other hand, might proceed in a number of ways. He might look at the ideology of cynicism, as he did so famously in the opening chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology, in order to demonstrate how expressions of outrage regarding NSA surveillance practices can actually serve as a form of inaction, as a substitute for meaningful political struggle. We know very well what we are doing, but still we are doing it; we know very well that our government is spying on us, but still we continue to support it (through voting, etc.). Žižek might also look at how surveillance practices ultimately fail as a method of subjectivization, how the very existence of whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and the others who are sure to follow in their footsteps demonstrates that technologies of surveillance and their accompanying ideologies of security can never guarantee the full participation of the people they are meant to control. As Žižek emphasizes again and again, subjectivization fails.

Importantly, neither of these approaches is wrongheaded. Both provide productive and fruitful avenues for further reflection and consideration. Indeed, political struggles never take place solely within one isolated site or at one level of abstraction. Rather, they take place seemingly everywhere and in multiple dimensions simultaneously. Thus, to deny ourselves access to the important contributions of either Chomsky or Žižek would be to engage in an exercise of self-mutilation, an instance of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Existing structures of power do not limit their operations to only one level of abstraction and neither should we. To meet these structures head-on, then, we must diversify our strategies. As a result, Chomsky’s astute political analyses and Žižek’s creative inquiries into the functioning of ideology can both be helpful. The debate between these two figures is thus a non-debate, and the choice between them is a false one. Why choose only one when we can just as easily have both?

Greg Burris currently lives in Santa Barbara, California where he is completing his doctoral studies. He has contributed essays to CineAction, CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, Electronic Intifada, Jadaliyya, Middle Eastern Studies, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and other publications. He would like to thank Laleh Khalili for drawing his attention to Said’s review of Fateful Triangle.

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First published: 05 August, 2013

Category: Activism, Philosophy and Theory, Vision/Strategy

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24 Comments on "Chomsky or Žižek: Can’t We Have Both?"

By Michael, on 05 August 2013 - 08:47 |

This is a silly and inane article, and well below the usual standards of NLP. The disagreements between them can be reduced to three issues.

1) Chomsky’s original charge that there is no substance to Zizek’s ‘theory’
2) Zizek’s claims about Chomsky and the Khmer Rouge, and Chomsky’s response on this issue
3) Zizek’s claim that Chomsky ignores the issue of ideology

The reviewer seems to notice that 3 is bullshit. He also notices that Zizek is wrong - outrageously so - on 2. On 1, he just assumes Zizek is right. This is not serious. It’s only in the second last paragraph that he even pretends to argue that Zizek has anything to offer here. And he proceeds to present Zizek’s allegedly deep insights in simple words, except for the last two, which means god knows what. To call any of this theory is ridiculous, and just validates again Chomsky’s point. If Chomsky is wrong, Zizek or his admirers should point to some theory which meets Chomsky’s challenge. They have not done so, and it is not hard to figure out why.

By Duncan Salkeld, on 05 August 2013 - 09:01 |

A very thoughtful and stimulating article. Thanks. Will recommend to my students.

By RI Centeno, on 05 August 2013 - 09:46 |

Well this writer doesn’t have much to say. his middle ground position is just an intellectual way to avoid taking sides. Zizek won, is that so difficult to accept?

By Michael N Moore, on 05 August 2013 - 12:22 |

No person can function without values and/or idealogy. To do so would be to become paralized. Today, one can become overwhelmed with facts by speding an hour on the Web. One needs values/idealogy to screen facts and one needs those values/idealogy to be adaptive to new facts. This is not easy.

By Flowerpot man, on 05 August 2013 - 12:32 |

Chomsky just thinks the popularity of theory serves power and simply produces more theorists, which is true!

By rippon, on 05 August 2013 - 14:28 |

“In light of the recent NSA surveillance scandal, ... Chomsky might [do this, and] Zizek might [do that].”

If one really wanted to compare, contrast and evaluate people’s output on a certain subject, it would make sense to consider what they *have* said, rather than what they *might* say, on that subject.

I come down on the side of Chomsky, as illustrated by the dismissal I have just expressed for the author’s preference for ‘theorising’ what people might say instead of simply examining empirically what they have said.

By Tony Shenton, on 06 August 2013 - 10:11 |

I am reminded of Terry Eagleton’s ‘Ideology: An Introduction’. According to Zizek, Chomsky cannot brand Pol Pot a Stalinist bigot ‘since that would imply some metaphysical certitude about what not being a Stalinist bigot would look like’ (xii, 1991). 

For Chomsky, the slaughter of over a million Iraqis was a terrible crime. According to Zizek, the issue can be set in other discursive frameworks and so there is no objective standards by which to judge the matter. 

By Tony Shenton, on 06 August 2013 - 11:09 |

“Chomsky downplays or even ignores his own ideological presuppositions”.

Really? Can you provide some evidence?

Furthermore, how can Zizek’s work be considered useful if he believes - as the author of the article claims, that there is no objective standard by to judge issues, only alternative frameworks?

By Warren, on 07 August 2013 - 07:11 |

Chomsky says Zizek is basically all puff and posturing and he doesn’t actually put forward arguments you can agree or disagree with. I struggled through Zizek’s Living in End Times last year. It was like walking through glue. Then in an interview Zizek said much of his writing is just blah, blah, blah. I agree.

By Ed, on 08 August 2013 - 10:53 |

“The disagreements between them can be reduced to three issues.

1) Chomsky’s original charge that there is no substance to Zizek’s ‘theory’
2) Zizek’s claims about Chomsky and the Khmer Rouge, and Chomsky’s response on this issue
3) Zizek’s claim that Chomsky ignores the issue of ideology

“The reviewer seems to notice that 3 is bullshit. He also notices that Zizek is wrong - outrageously so - on 2. On 1, he just assumes Zizek is right.”

I don’t believe the reviewer has ‘notice[d] that Zizek is wrong - outrageously so - on 2’. He has merely noted what Chomsky said on the matter.

More importantly, Zizek is not wrong at all, and certainly not ‘outrageously so’. He elaborated on the point in his follow-up, written comment, and what he said is perfectly true. I suggest you actually try reading what Chomsky wrote about Cambodia in the 70s, not what he has subsequently claimed to have written on the subject. In particular, I suggest reading the chapter on Cambodia in ‘After The Cataclysm’. If you read that book, knowing nothing else about the subject, you would certainly come away with the impression that reports of mass killing under the Pol Pot regime were wildly exaggerated. He didn’t just compare media coverage of East Timor and Cambodia; he made clear assertions about what was happening in Cambodia that proved to be wrong.

Now in the context of the time, you can understand why he got it wrong; many of the reports about mass killing came from refugees in camps that were run by the Thai military, so there was some reason to be skeptical about how free they were to describe their experiences; and there was a full-blown propaganda campaign to justify US war crimes in Indo-china by presenting the aftermath of the communist victory as a genocidal catastrophe, in Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam alike. Chomsky could just acknowledge that he got it wrong, and point out the hypocrisy of establishment intellectuals who huff and puff about what he wrote, but never said a word about the support Reagan and Thatcher gave to the Khmer Rouge in the 80s, or about the genocide in East Timor. That should be enough for any honest person. But to still be carrying on like this more than thirty years later, simply pretending that he didn’t write what he wrote, when it’s all there in black and white for anyone to look up, is unworthy of him. So when he accuses Zizek of being a charlatan, and of being an apologist for the crimes of western states (‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy victims’), does he really expect Zizek to refraining from pointing out that Chomsky’s own empirical standards when it came to Cambodia were lacking a certain something?

By James Arnold, on 10 August 2013 - 18:39 |

I think we can tell the seriousness of Ed’s accusations by the fact that he quotes nothing from any of Chomsky’s writings. Same as Zizek, and indeed many who level this slur at Chomsky.

By Robert Hutton, on 11 August 2013 - 04:15 |

The funny thing is that within theory Zizek takes a similar position to other theorists as Chomsky takes to him.  Throughout Zizek’s work he attacks everything except a strict Leninist understanding of the world as being products of a liberalizing ideology which is preventing us from acting as some fantasized unified proletariat.  Both authors use the “false consciousness” model, it is only that Chomsky believes that false consciousness is formed out of hidden and distorted facts and Zizek believes it is formed out of liberal individual subjectivity.

(Zizek may have written or said some things which contradict this summary, as he’s more than a bit of a contrarian, but it is the overwhelming tendency of his work.)

By Mike Robinson, on 11 August 2013 - 09:31 |

Zizek does indeed quote from Chomsky’s writings (as reproduced below). I am a huge admirer of  Chomsky, but Ed is completely on point in drawing the distinction between what Chomsky actually said at the time and his post hoc justifications. And Zizek is completely correct in  laiming that Chomsky has no analysis of ideology. This doesn’t mean Chomsky’s empircal analyses are of no value—far from it—but his contemptuous dismissal of “theory” really does demonstrate a remarkable arrogance.

From Chomsky’s and Herman’s “Distortions at Fourth Hand” from the Nation (June 6, 1977): 
Space limitations preclude a comprehensive review, but such journals as the Far Eastern Economic Review, the London Economist, the Melbourne Journal of Politics, and others elsewhere, have provided analyses by highly qualified specialists who have studied the full range of evidence available, and who concluded that executions have numbered at most in the thousands; that these were localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and unusual peasant discontent, where brutal revenge killings were aggravated by the threat of starvation resulting from the American destruction and killing. These reports also emphasize both the extraordinary brutality on both sides during the civil war (provoked by the American attack) and repeated discoveries that massacre reports were false. ... To give an illustration of just one neglected source, the London Economist (March 26, 1977) carried a letter by W.J. Sampson, who worked as an economist and statistician for the Cambodian Government until March 1975, in close contact with the central statistics office. After leaving Cambodia, he writes, he ‘visited refugee camps in Thailand and kept in touch with Khmers,’ and he also relied on ‘A European friend who cycled around Phnom Penh for many days after its fall [and] saw and heard of no ... executions’ apart from ‘the shooting of some prominent politicians and the lynching of hated bomber pilots in Phnom Penh.’ He concludes ‘that executions could be numbered in hundreds or thousands rather than in hundreds of thousands,’ though there was ‘a big death toll from sickness’—surely a direct consequence, in large measure, of the devastation caused by the American attack. ... If, indeed, postwar Cambodia is, as Lacouture believes, similar to Nazi Germany, then his comment is perhaps just, though we may add that he has produced no evidence to support this judgement. But if postwar Cambodia is more similar to France after liberation, where many thousands of people were massacred within a few months under far less rigorous conditions than those left by the American war, then perhaps a rather different judgement is in order. That the latter conclusion may be more nearly correct is suggested by the analyses mentioned earlier.
... We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered. Evidence that focuses on the American role ... is ignored, not on the basis of truthfulness or scholarship but because the message is unpalatable.

By Brian D, on 11 August 2013 - 12:53 |

Very good article from Greg Burris in contrasting - and attempting to reconcile - these two different approaches. Chomsky’s take on “ideology” is made clear in his linguistic & “hard” scientific writings, in which he is also deeply critical of the “social sciences”. As Professor Christopher Wright (the anthropologist & activist) puts it:

“Chomsky respected science, especially mathematics and physics. By the same token, he was deeply suspicious of the so-called ‘social sciences’, regarding them as patently ideological. Chomsky dreamed of ridding linguistics of such contamination.”

And again: “For Chomsky, the only channels of communication that are free from such
ideological contamination are those of genuine natural science.”

This comes up repeatedly in Chomsky’s linguistic work - the notion of transcending the irrational “contamination” of ideology through adhering to “hard” empirical science. And at the other extreme is a certain view in postmodernism which sees science itself as “just another form of manipulative ideology”.

Not touched upon by Burris (it’s a bit outside the scope of his article) is another approach entirely - the one that’s emerging from 2nd generation cognitive linguistics, pioneered by the likes of George Lakoff. This is another way of looking at “facts” and “ideology” within a larger frame of how our brains actually process both together (not inseparably) in conceptual frames. This study of frames is itself empirical science, of the type that Chomsky would find difficult to dismiss (in the way he dismisses postmodernist theory & much social science). And it has huge implications for political and media activism.

By James Arnold, on 11 August 2013 - 13:18 |


You’re right on one point: Zizek did quote the above, after he had made his slur publicly with no references to Chomsky’s work, and which the above quote in no way supports. There is nothing in what you quote to suggest that Chomsky is minimising Khmer Rouge atrocities, which was Ed’s—and Zizek’s—central claim. The specialists Chomsky and Herman cite did indeed say what they are reported to have said. This suggests a range of opinions about what was occuring, within which Chomsky and Herman are explicit that they “do not pretend to know where the truth lies”, but demonstrate that only the most extreme views are filtered through to the US media.

On Zizek and “theory”, I think Michael’s comment above still applies: “If Chomsky is wrong, Zizek or his admirers should point to some theory which meets Chomsky’s challenge. They have not done so, and it is not hard to figure out why.”

By Justin, on 11 August 2013 - 15:47 |

The article kinda goes downhill after the Ranciere quote. It’s set up very nicely but then just kinda peters out without saying anything significant. If the goal of this article is to demonstrate how Zizek and Chomsky’s work can be productively married, it fails to do so. For anyone already familiar with this debate and both their work, nothing all that significant is said here besides the SAID quote, which I find to be extremely true of Chomsky’s and essentially speaks to Zizek’s criticism of Chomsky’s understanding of ideology. When it comes to the political arena however, Zizek’s theory falls markedly short of Chomsky’s exceptional knowledge and analysis of historical facts/events. 

By MIchael N. Moore, on 12 August 2013 - 12:23 |

This is interesting in that Chomsky’s radical empiricism seems to diverge sharply from the thinking of C. Wright Mills, who tried to get the “science” out of Social Science.

“The modern esteem for science has long been merely assumed, but now the technological ethos and the kind of engineering imagination associated with science are more likely to be frightening and ambiguous than hopeful and progressive.… In the meantime, philosophers who speak in the name of science often transform it into ‘scientism,’ making out its experience to be identical to human experience, and claiming that only by its method can the problems of life be solved. With all this cultural workmen have come to feel that ‘science’ is a false and pretentious Messiah…”
C. Wright Mills – The Sociological Imagination (1959), page 16

By Michael N Moore, on 12 August 2013 - 13:32 |

For those who do not live in the imperial center, I think that it is important to remember that C. Wright Mills was hounded into an early grave for his frank and confrontational writings.

Chomsky’s setting in the scientific ghetto appears to have made him a durable figure despite the political forces arrayed against him. His own survival depends on keeping a non-ideological profile because he and Finkelstein are the top political targets of the US forces of imperialism, Zionism, and endless war. These two men undermine the primary directive of the US imperial center, which is to define all anti-Zionism as merely an extension of European style anti-Semitism and all imperial conquests as beneficial to their victims. Everyone opposed to war and imperialism should be supporting these two.

By James Arnold, on 12 August 2013 - 18:02 |

Michael N Moore,

Chomsky’s “American Power and the New Mandarins” is much closer to C. Wright Mills’ analysis of the faux-scientific neutrality of the technocratic intelligentsia.

James Arnold

By Ozgun Topak, on 13 August 2013 - 15:00 |

Well-written article. It is hard to understand why some commentators are so angry with it -perhaps because eventually the article is on the side of Zizek? 

Critical Theory cannot simply concern itself with the analysis of the empirical. One also needs to theoretically elaborate on what lies beyond the empirical (ideologies, etc). This is what Zizek does; and Chomksy fails to acknowledge. But Chomsky is right to point out that the empirical material that Zizek draws on (simply some movies and newspaper reports he collects from here and there) is weak. Therefore, one needs both: theoretical elaboration + serious empirical research. 

By Vladimir Gusev, on 14 August 2013 - 05:35 |

Chomsky and Zizek are like quantum and wave representation of the same thing. I agree!

By Sean Ryan, on 28 August 2013 - 03:47 |

Check out my take on Zizek vs. Chomsky and cannibalism amongst the Left’s intellectual elite:

By Joan B., on 30 August 2013 - 08:56 |

Good article. I completely agree with the general idea: the need of making Chomsky and Zizek complementary.

What I am completely unable to understand is why Chomsky, who so often shows his awareness of the inherent limits of Reason (he praises Kant, has almost claimed that psychology has not progressed that much since Plato, etc), why is it that he dismisses so vehemently the, let’s call it, “hermeneutic” approach, which deals precisely with these limitations? Zizek is quite right in pointing out that the real problem traces back to the historical confrontation between continental philosophy and empiricist tradition. But in fact, at the most basic level of ideas, I think Chomsky is not that far away from Heidegger, if the appropiate elements are taken into account. I’m quite sure this must have been noticed by some researchers. Chomsky is very far from saying that science even makes contact with human affairs and human experience. Of course, Chomsky must see existencialism, hermeneutics, and so on as a kind of unjustified introspection, but I don’t understand why can’t he appreciate the general direction of their inquiry.

Finally, I don’t think that “radical empiricist” is an adequate label for Chomksy, as has been said in some comments; but I do think he sometimes should pay more attention to the ideological complexity of our societes. Are ALL problems in Ecucation, for instance, due uniquely to the manipulation by the power? What is there really underlying manipulation, after all? Isn’t it ourselves who, aware of the huge problems which we don’t even know how to start to face, prefer to be manipulated? Etc.


By Dan, on 22 October 2013 - 20:55 |

Hello All, hope you are well.  

I am only speaking from personal experience, and have very little time for circular academic conflict, so please be charitable toward my lack of sophistication.

I would like to say that one of the things I find so  important about the political writing (and, really, speaking) that Chomsky does is it’s accessibility.  The lack of outward theoretical complexity, combined with his assuredly factual manner, combined to empower and educate me as a young activist and dissident in a conservative and under educated place.  His command of the facts as a tool for social transformation led me to fantasize about having such knowledge, from which grew desire, from which grew action….

So, through the clear-headed presentation of Chomsky I embarked on a quest for subaltern knowledge which is deepened, and understood, through theorists including Zizek.  



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