Sunday, 21 July 2013

Empty Posturing : Chomsky and Zizek.

'What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing....Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying'. Noam Chomsky on Zizek

'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'. Slavoj Zizek on Chomsky.

A spat between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek has apparently broken out. Though of almost no importance to most people-and Chomsky has not really argued with Zizek but merely dismissed him as not having anything of importance to say-those who regard them as gurus do seem to think it is important.

However, both Chomsky and Zizek have something in common: they attempt as intellectuals to reach a broad audience by providing those disillusioned with the way the world is with a way to rationalise global problems as mostly, if not wholly, the fault of the West. By realising this, 'we' can change the world for better.

Even so, Chomsky's books are always interesting for those too lazy to glean the facts and interpret them for themselves in the manner Chomsky does. To a point he does teach scepticism and how to challenge received opinions in the media ( or 'public diplomacy' ) especially in relation to foreign policy.

However, it is not really necessary to read more than a few of Chomsky's books. He repeats the same ideas about US Imperialism and the supposedly unmentionable horrors it perpetuates as being justified by the power of money, mandarins and the media in a way that seem rather commonplace now.

At least, that is the thrust of Zizek's challenge when he writes of Chomsky ( or 'critiques' him ) thus,
'His idea is today that cynicism of those in power is so open that we don't 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’'
So basically Chomsky is a bit boring these days. For one such as Zizek, who wants to bandy about Theory and enthuse people-especially youth-towards a revolution, Chomsky seems to satisfy a market for smug know-it-alls whilst only Zizek can truly energise them.

The Stance on Egypt.

Indeed, it is noticeable that Chomsky has not yet taken a stance on the recent military takeover in Egypt as it is unclear what US policy is because Washington has no idea how to respond. Many radical leftists have backed the military takeover as a means to facilitate the ongoing unfinished secular revolution.

Chomsky lauded the Arab Spring of 2011 against Mubarak and pointed out he had been backed by the US and Britain. Neither of them have yet had any opinion of the military takeover of July 2013 because it does not fit the usual narrative that the US is to blame for suppressing a true revolution.

In fact, opinion is still divided as to whether the military takeover has snuffed out the revolution or is a stage in its unfolding or whether the military takeover is a coup or not. Maybe it is both. As for Zizek given how sanguine he was about the Arab Revolutions, the silence now may reflect the fact he got in wrong back then.

For in 2011 Zizek offered nothing of interest on Egypt either apart from the usual parochial European ideological perspectives about the 'revolution' conforming to a universal pattern that otherwise bored consumers could buy into. They could get excited about a revolution abroad applying to their own dull societies.
'The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society'.
That exalted claim has since been completely discredited by the course of events in Egypt. The uprising was particular to Egypt and its society has tended towards becoming more polarised in cultural terms by those wanting a secular version of revolution against a rival Islamist led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Given that Chomsky has always been sympathetic to direct democracy and popular will in the developing world when it is directed against US backed governments that denied it, as was the case in Egypt before 2011, it seems curious that he too has no opinion on it as Washington itself is not explicitly taking sides.

Chomsky, Zizek and Cambodia.

Of course, Chomsky has no obligation to state an opinion on the military takeover in Egypt. It could be argued that he is waiting for the facts to come out before he declares his viewpoint upon it. And it is on that basis that Zizek attacked Chomsky for his position on the Khmer Rouge in the 1970.

It's more interesting that both Chomsky and Zizek have tended to view the Khmer Rouge according to their propaganda use. Unlike Chomsky, who first played down Khmer Rouge atrocities only to emphasise them  more later when the US cynically backed Pol Pot after 1979 as a counter to the Vietnamese, Zizek has in the past been more positive.
“The Khmer Rouge were, in a way, not radical enough: while they took the abstract negation of the past to the limit, they did not invent any new form of collectivity.”
Whether the victims of Pol Pot's slave state thought the Khmer Rouge was a bit unenthusiastic about its revolutionary Year Zero project does not seem to have been factored in to this 'analysis'. And Zizek then thinks he has the moral high ground in accusing Chomsky of being wrong with regards Pol Pot.

The reason for that is it provides Zizek with a means to 'critique' the contradictions in Chomsky the better to advance himself as the Lodestar of True Revolution over his rival. To Zizek, Chomsky's lumbering attempts to get the facts led him to only change his mind when the facts of Pot Pot's mass killing came out.'
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'.
Clearly, people do need to know the facts about the Gulag and the actual history of the Khmer Rouge as well as taking in the nature of the pathological 'public discourse'. Yet to both Zizek and Chomsky the main issue has always been to fit the facts to the prescriptions of a creed of revolutionary hope for Westerners.

As regards a catastrophe such as Cambodia in the 1970s, there is something callous and slightly sinister about seizing on the nature of Pol Pot's regime to make partisan polemical points as opposed to understanding how a complex variety of factors allowed such a calamity to occur.

It also should be said that one important factor behind the Khymer Rouge was the influence of violent radical Western revolutionary ideas of the same kidney that Zizek is offering. Indeed, along with another theorist, Alain Badiou,  Zizek extols the emancipatory terror of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

At least Chomsky has never actively lauded totalitarian regimes as opposed to simply regarding them as a distraction from the question at hand; that citizens in a Western democracy are confronted by the need to do something about the 'imperialism' of their states.

Even so, while Chomsky clearly never supported Pol Pot he did seek to discredit eyewitness reports and journalism on the ground from those such as Francois Ponchard. Chomsky's propaganda was demolished with precision by Bruce Sharp in Averaging Wrong Answers:Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy.

If there is anything to be learned from these sorts of 'intellectual' poses it is this-if revolutions, revolts and uprisings are deemed to be good or bad only depending on whether the US supports or opposes them, then what Chomsky has to say or not is of little importance.

That is why it is curious that so many look up to him as some sort of infallible guru. The same is true of Zizek. It is easier to criticise Zizek because he spouts jargon. It is harder to criticise Chomsky because it is interpreted as always just a means of defending the credibility of the US establishment.

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