“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.”
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 ).
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.