Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 26, 2013

Zizek versus Chomsky

Filed under: Zizek — louisproyect @ 1:13 pm

I had completely forgotten that the first skirmish between the two happened long ago in the course of an interview that Doug Henwood conducted with Zizek. As far as I know, Chomsky ignored Zizek back then unlike today. I have no idea when I wrote this but it was long before I began blogging. I should add that anybody interested in my pre-Unrepentant Marxist rants should go to http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mypage.htm. Unfortunately I don’t highlight those that were written prior to my blog’s launching but it is all there, warts and all.

 Doug Henwood Interviews Slavoj Zizek

If a character like Slavoj Zizek showed up in a draft version of one of David Lodge’s broad satires on academic life, the editor would probably tell him to eliminate it because it was overdrawn. As a permanent fixture of high-toned left journals and academic conference plenaries, Zizek usually seems to be lampooning himself.

If nothing else, his embrace of the terminally self-important and boring Reaganite filmmaker David Lynch should have made him the laughing-stock of the intelligentsia, both professional and organic. Perhaps it was a calculated bid to one-up a French academy that had attached itself to Jerry Lewis.

In “The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime,” Zizek solemnly announces that:

Lenin liked to point out that one could often get crucial insights into one’s enemies from the perceptions of intelligent enemies. So, since the present essay attempts a Lacanian reading of David Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway,’ it may be useful to start with a reference to ‘post-theory,’ the recent cognitivist orientation of cinema studies that establishes its identity by a thorough rejection of Lacanian studies.

Needless to say, with this on page one, a sensible reader would take the first exit off this highway and put the book in the trashcan.

I would instead refer students of film to the review of “Lost Highway” on http://www.mrcranky.com, a critic with far more sense than the gaseous Zizek:

If you want some help in understanding this film, think of it as a Mobius strip – which is what Lynch is trying to do to your brain – twist it into a confused mass. Two stories occupy each half of the film. First there’s Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) having trouble with his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), then there’s Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) having trouble with Mr. Eddie’s (Robert Loggia) girlfriend, Alice (Patricia Arquette). Explaining any more than that would ruin your sense of utter frustration – and my sense of justice: sometimes knowing others will suffer is my only joy in life.

For reasons having something to do either with the zeitgeist of the post-Cold War era or something they put into the drinking water on certain prestigious college campuses, Zizek has emerged as a kind of standard-bearer for the woozy, academic, post-Marxist left. In the latest issue of “Bad Subjects,” there is an interview with Zizek (eserver.org/bs/59/zizek.html) by Doug Henwood, the president of the Slavoj Zizek fan club.

It combines the usual Zizek preoccupations over the dangers of multiculturalism and the undiscovered joys of Lenin, who is to Zizek as some remote and exotic island resort is to a contributor to Travel Magazine. “Have you had a chance to visit St. Lenin lately? The beaches are pristine and the natives so well behaved.”

For veteran Zizek-watchers like myself, it was a surprise to see him also take swipes at anarchists and at Noam Chomsky. For Zizek, “the tragedy of anarchism is that you end up having an authoritarian secret society trying to achieve anarchist goals.” After reading this, I nearly resolved to change my name to Louis Zero and listen to Rage Against the Machine 12 hours a day.

The hostility to Chomsky is another story altogether. Bad Subjects editor Charlie Bertsch sets the tone for this in the introduction to the interview: ” For anyone who has tired of the dumbing down of mainstream political discourse in the West, who finds it hard to believe that the bone-dry American leftism of a Noam Chomsky represents the only possibility for resistance, who wants to critique global capitalism without falling back on faded Marxist slogans, Zizek’s work flashes the promise of something better.”

Of course, it must be said that the “something better” referred to above must be connected to the sort of success that Zizek enjoys in certain circles. For Bertsch, this very well might have more to do with how many times you appear in New Left Review rather than speaking on Pacifica Radio or at a campus teach-in on the war in Afghanistan:

It’s hard to become a superstar in the world of scholarly publishing. Most of the people who read its products can also write them. To stand out in a crowd this smart requires both luck and perseverance. Slavoj Zizek has demonstrated plenty of both.

Ah, to be a superstar. One would hope that Charlie Bertsch gets a chance to look into Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run” or Norman Podhoretz’s “Making It” to find out how it’s really done.

Turning to the interview itself, we discover that the big problem with Chomsky is not just that he doesn’t know how to connect Lacan to Peewee Herman. Rather it is that he is too preoccupied with “facts”. Henwood poses the question to Zizek: “Chomsky and people like him seem to think that if we just got the facts out there, things would almost take care of themselves. Why is this wrong? Why aren’t ‘the facts’ enough?”

Zizek’s reply is extraordinary:

Let me give you a very naive answer. I think that basically the facts are already known. Let’s take Chomsky’s analyses of how the CIA intervened in Nicaragua. OK, (he provides) a lot of details, yes, but did I learn anything fundamentally new? It’s exactly what I’d expected: the CIA was playing a very dirty game. Of course it’s more convincing if you learn the dirty details. But I don’t think that we really learned anything dramatically new there. I don’t think that merely ‘knowing the facts’ can really change people’s perceptions.

In reality, the big problem has always been the lack of facts in American society on questions such as these. Mostly, what the Central American solidarity movement had to contend with was the immense propaganda campaign against the FMLN in El Salvador and the FSLN in Nicaragua. People like myself joined CISPES or built Tecnica to help counter this disinformation campaign that cost the lives of so many people. When you involve thousands and then millions of people in vast movements opposed to the Vietnam War, the wars in Central America or the wars going on today, much of the effort revolves around getting the truth out. This is what distinguishes Noam Chomsky. It is also what makes Slavoj Zizek such a enormously superfluous figure. When is the last time anybody would pick up a book by Zizek to find out the economic or social reality of a place like Nicaragua or Afghanistan? You might as well read Gayatri Spivak to find out about how to overturn the Taft-Hartley Act.

When Zizek, a Slovenian, finally descends from Mount Olympus to speak about a topic that he presumably has some direct knowledge of, namely Yugoslavia, the results are even more appalling. Contrary to Chomsky who believed that “all parties were more or less to blame” and that “the West supported or incited this explosion because of its own geopolitical goals,” Zizek blames the dastardly Serbs. Not only was “it over the moment Milosevic took over Serbia,” there is no evidence that the “disintegration of Yugoslavia was supported by the West.”

Well, what can one say? Surely, with all the scholarly research on the role of German banks, etc. that has been written by people like the late Sean Gervasi about the breakup of Yugoslavia, one can’t blame Zizek for avoiding the facts like a dirty dog avoids a bath. In any case, for all of Zizek’s Leninist posturing, the main thing he gets wrong is the need to take a principled stand against NATO military intervention in the country he once called home. In an April 24, 1999 Independent interview, Zizek is quite blunt about what should happen:

The Slovenians were the first to be attacked by Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, in the three-day war of 1990. That conflict revealed the extent of international apathy towards Milosevic’s aggressive nationalism, which has culminated in the Kosovan war. Today, Zizek lambasts ‘the interminable procrastination’ of Western governments and says that ‘I definitely support the bombing’ of Milosevic’s regime by Nato.

Because of statements like this, Lenin decided to start a new movement in 1914. It is singularly obscene that Zizek now holds academic conferences on Lenin. Better he should stick to David Lynch.

Finally on the topic of Lenin himself, Henwood asks Zizek: “What do you find valuable in Lenin, or the Leninist tradition?”

Zizek answers, “What I like in Lenin is precisely what scares people about him – the ruthless will to discard all prejudices.”

Just to make clear, Zizek is not referring to opposing imperialist war or supporting the self-determination for oppressed nationalities. He has much bigger fish to fry:

Let’s take the campaign against smoking in the U.S. I think this is a much more suspicious phenomenon than it appears to be. First, deeply inscribed into it is an idea of absolute narcissism, that whenever you are in contact with another person, somehow he or she can infect you. Second, there is an envy of the intense enjoyment of smoking. There is a certain vision of subjectivity, a certain falseness in liberalism, that comes down to “I want to be left alone by others; I don’t want to get too close to the others.”

Poor Lenin is reduced to a leftist version of Rush Limbaugh, who has also harped upon his right to smoke in restaurants.


  1. Why waste time on left infighting and this constant assault on academics? Believe it or not, some of us have a real dedication to working class students and to helping them get an education that inspires them to struggle for a reasonable distribution of wealth, for saving public education from the current assault from neoliberal “reforms,” or for using imaginative literature to help their own future students ally with some conception of a global egalitarian project. Why not look to theorists who get a lot wrong for what they get right, or ignore them altogether and use one’s print space to educate about what’s important. For instance, the Left is great at ignoring some of left academia’s best self-critique. Why not review a wonderful book like Bill Readings, “The University in Ruins?” This column on Zizek is self-indulgent and boring.

    Comment by Barbara Regenspan — July 26, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

  2. Is he left? I try to decipher his interviews and find him almost incomprehensible and all over the place. I appreciate this critique of Zizek because I find him kind of ridiculous also and I am uncertain about which side he is on.

    Comment by Jeri — July 26, 2013 @ 4:50 pm

  3. I haven’t read Hegel on the planets but his conclusion has now been endorsed and Pluto demoted from planet status. Similarly in
    my view Lenin and Chomsky are suns compared to the burnt-out match that is the egregious Zizek.

    Comment by Greg Adler — July 27, 2013 @ 7:04 am


    have only seen eraserhead, which i guess is by lynch. i thought it was great, even if it may not have been a 100% factual documentary (like other movies i like—eg la strada, black orpheus, or cocteau’s orphee, weekend by godard, bridge over the river kwawi etc.

    i have never understood lacan (or say derrida) very well, but it seems some tortured variant of freud, which to me are best seen as mythologies or fables (possibly ok to put into an opera or play or eraserhead, but not very relevant). (Derrida to me was mostly a court jester or fool; thumbing his nose, which has some ‘reformist’ value (flip the bird, like helen thomas in the white house) but isn’t a very profound act, especially when ‘another world may be possible’.

    as for ‘need of facts’ , to me the issue is not the absence of facts (so in a sense i agree with zizek as opposed to chomsky who seems to think by writing 15 books a year somehow he is making a contribution to social change. i’d agree—but its not all that effective, except possibly by helping raise money for democracy now and pacifica. (of course gary null does that too, so half of one six of another; my local station had a 911truther on today to raise money—and i’ve had it and may never donate again).

    people disagree on facts for various reasons. alot of it is propoganda or tradition. to me religion, the theory of evolution, global warming, 911 all have to me more or less been settled by science, yet plenty of people who have learned science in school would disagree with me.

    people like lakoff or nisbett (prof of communication at au) promote ‘framing’ as a response to issues of why people ignore the facts. (as does chris mooney. i note nisbett went after bill mckibben not long ago—presumably in this life global warming is nothing to get excited about, especially since AU and its professors lifestyles (with their library funded by the Saudis if i recall) are as dependent on it as Jefferson was on slavery —even if they find it horrible. (Or like Voltaire—overthrow the elite monarchs, but also someone (else) has to work the fields).

    in other words, create mcfacts that are easily digestible. i sortuh agree with this —anything from progressive talk radio to democracy now to little pamphlets. but unfortunately this tends to ‘dumb things down’ and become condencending, as well as an industry (tons of little progressive mags and newspapers all asking for and making money thinking for others, etc.)

    The problem with the traditional left like chomsky is they end up essentially running counterpropoganda campaigns (eg Code Pink). I don’t learn much doing rallies, or occupying, or hearing the same old set of speakers repeat ‘i have a dream’ or ‘f-k sh-t up’, as they build their rep. Alot of progressive mags are pretty basic and redundnat.

    Some ‘social scientists’ argue people are wired differently, by genes or environemnt, so they respond to ‘facts’ or ‘information’ differently. (Alot of people wont listen to say NPR or Amy Gioodman just because they dont like the atttitude there—which comes across as elitist and self-righteous). Or Code Pink, supermoralisitic. Or Blac bloc, aggressive (and often authoritarian).

    In sum, i’m not sure ‘the facts’ are the problem. Alot of people have the internet but they only are interested in certain facts. I dont personally need people like zizek either—a sort of fool, with possibly some interesting insights (though i cant remember anything from what little i’ve read of him), who is also making money off ‘the struggle’ of attending conferences etc. Lenin if i recall was on to something when he said one problem is most people don’t really have time to learn the facts, or the energy, or more importantly i think the context. Alot of the people i know do have some money, some time, some energy but would prefer to go to a dance club or watch a sports game, or talk about their relationships (half of which are based on lack of attempts at communication so they become soap operas), or what they are going to wear at the wedding or what recipes they are trying out. They’ll go to church, even progressive ones, but often not consider whether thei occupation or lifestyle is compatible with what they hear, or whether there are alternatives (eg food co-ops rather than walmart). I tend to think these attitudes are passed down culturally (eg R Boyd and P Richerson’s ‘Culture and the Evolutionary Porcess’, a sortuh alternative to E O Wilson’s early sociobiology—but these academics are now on Templeton’s dime or hedge fund, so one can see what is being passed down—-Templeton might not buy their book for the public library, tho all this stuff is on the web). So they arent going away soon. Some (i think Dawkins or Dennet say evolution is the universal acid or vinegar or something, and maybe other facts play the same role. One day we will, in the words of the famous martin luther ‘rodney’ king , if we keep our eye on the price, be free at last, no money down. But i wouldnt bet on it happening anytime soon, and hearing sermons about the coming of the revelationary truth (especially by people who condecend to you—‘shut up i’m preaching about democracy and liberation and equality’ and getting paid for it, and you should get a job and buy my books and unionize your workplace and go to jail) i find unconvicing and boring.

    Comment by ishi — July 27, 2013 @ 9:31 am

  5. Louis wrote:

    “In reality, the big problem has always been the lack of facts in American society on questions such as these [ie the CIA intervention in Nicaragua].”

    Ask anyone in the street if s/he thinks the CIA has helped bring down elected governments in Third World nations, or if they think the CIA would have no problem doing this. I think you’ll find most people will say yes; it’s kind of an “open secret” in North America that the CIA do this kind of thing. You’ve watched enough movies with spooks in them, Louis, I’m sure; are they always shown as the good guys? Have you ever watched American Dad?

    Sorry, Louis: Zizek makes a compelling argument that it’s not _just_ knowing or not knowing facts, and that fits with the facts I’ve observed. As you’ve so well remarked in the past: things are a little more complex.

    Comment by Todd — July 28, 2013 @ 1:30 am

  6. Ask anyone in the street if s/he thinks the CIA has helped bring down elected governments in Third World nations, or if they think the CIA would have no problem doing this.


    Todd, do you live in the USA? I am stunned that you can say such a thing. I lived with a woman back in the early 80s just around the time I was going to join CISPES. She was a graduate of Hampshire College, a very prestigious and progressive institution. She laughed about her ignorance of geography. She read the NY Times every day but only the arts section. If you had asked her back then about the role of the USA in El Salvador, it would have been like asking me about differential calculus.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 28, 2013 @ 1:37 am

  7. this is likely a waste of time or bad habit (addiction) but regarding the hampshire grad (i knew one too who did PBS documentaries on social justice issues, tho when i knew him he was into semiotics and film theory)

    i’d say notice todd didnt mention el salvador specifically but the general idea of cia involvements.

    i think its somewhat folk knowledge now thanks to everyone from oliver stone to ‘inside job’ (both somewhat crap from my knowledge) to countelpro, the BP’s, J edgar hoover, dick gregory, maltese falcon, john judge, rolling stones (who killed the (dead) kennedy’s—i.e. punk’s not dead and tupac is living in cuba with Biggie in a civil (or Socia/List Union as opposed to homicidal ), etc. that in general even if you have some degree of whatever ‘quality or quantity’ or dont these things are conceivable at least. Being a Ramsey Clark groupie i don’t think shouldn’t be a prerequisite.

    the other issue is information overload. there’s alot of stuff to know. you can actually read just the arts section of any newspaper and often get quite a bit of politics. My own most recent (in peer review) academic work has revealed that there are previously unknown links between art and politics, based on my personal interviews with pasolini and dante. (these interviews required advanced technology, using faster-than-light communication along with godel’s rotating universe).

    also, if you are an artist, you may develop some skills (just as if you are, say, snowden you may develop some IT skills) and then later when you have time look into politics (eg ‘fear of a black planet’ by public enemy). even babies sometimes prefer to learn to talk and walk before entering sectarian political struggles and marches—the mature version of throwing sand in the sandbox. (with age, comes wisdom— just as you have to leave a bottle of wine in the cellar for years before it becomes an extremely valuable variant of vinegar from which you will vomit. i think marx (or mx for short) described this for how american dreams became nite mares, and oswald spengler also showed empires evolve mathematically (a la renee thom or d’arcy thompson) like wine and seashells, so they eventually become pearls and oil (but then you have to go through muddy water to get em (mingus, Ron Moten/peaceaholics) in cooperation with BP and TEDtalks..

    also, even if people can’t spell el salvador, often there are other issues. some people may be dealing with local environmental or housing or transportation issues, rather than cispes. or, perhaps they are dealing with personal trauma from being jacked up for who they are/and because they were born in the wrong place in the wrong time (though of course that is really a matter of personal responsibility).

    (I remember the first, ivy educated, self-identified, marxist i met, who explained to me that ‘homosexuality was a pathology of capitalism’ . perhaps he is now in russia enforcing with their neo-nazis (presumably the oppressed minority who sided with hitler back in the day) the torturing of gays. maybe that was the real issue, not el salvador or katrina, which were just symptoms of deviance from the shining path. )

    there are plenty of facts. i was somewhat aware of cispes. i will say however alot of these groups i steer clear of because i am not a single issue person. alot of groups try to place their ‘facts’ at the top of google search and shove the rest to the back of the bus (sure, the bolsheviks, stalin, and mao have had issues but we’ll work these out when we time to Concentrate, in the Camps. )

    to i got into a conflict with some ron paul types at an anti-GMO rally recently (we were both anti-GMO, but disagreed on some other things—and police intervened since they started to escalate it—i then told em to get the f-k out of my face, and the police said they have a right of free speech). i wont go to no anwer type things any more. in fact, i ain’t going at all in General— Strike.

    ‘i aint gonna be your steppin stone’. (i wasnt aware the sex pistols did this since i heard a later version). ‘volunteer for amerikkka’.

    Comment by ishi — July 28, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

  8. p.s. maybe zizek was wrong. i saw a recent article showing that chiliean mummies show signs of tobacco use, and likely addiction. so, rather than colonization, niall ferguson was right—columbus (or is it cannabis) came to introduce a tobacco tax to cut down on smoking. (unfortunately, some went native).

    Comment by ishi — July 28, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

  9. Louis wrote:

    “Todd, do you live in the USA? I am stunned that you can say such a thing.”

    Louis, I live next door to you, in south-eastern Canada, and share much of your media programming. I’m not just pulling this stuff out of my ass.

    Yes, not everyone pays attention (that’s why I wrote “most people”), and it’s not blared forth on PAs that the CIA is your friend, but there’s no such thing as 100% ignorance about it.

    BTW, have you see this gem:

    Florida Justice: Black Domestic Violence Victim Gets 20 Years For Firing Warning Shot, Hurting No One; Zimmerman Walks


    Comment by Todd — July 28, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

  10. After reading through the article and comments, I thought of the Seinfeld episode where Bania rides Jerry’s coattails, defended as a result, by George, of being the voice of a ‘new generation’…

    Jerry: ….I don’t believe this. They’ve added Bania to the network showcase and he’s going on right after me.

    George: So what, he’s got a couple of good jokes.

    Jerry: Like what, Ovaltine? Why do dogs drink out of the toilet? Shopping carts with one bad wheel?

    George: That’s true, that always happens to me.

    Jerry: You think that’s funny?

    George: I don’t know, I like stuff you don’t have to think about too much.

    Comment by Darek — July 28, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

  11. I think Todd has a point here. I’m reminded of the studies that come out every now and then showing that some very high percentage of the population believe income inequality, poverty, unemployment, etc. to be huge problems in need of urgent resolution. But, of course, we’re not all socialists, because for some people the lesson learned from these widely-acknowledged facts is that people need to work harder, make better life choices, or take more responsibility for their decisions. There’s a missing link between awareness of these facts and a desire to renew socialist politics, and that missing link is theory. Chomsky’s work is hugely valuable and informative if you can integrate it into an already-existing theoretical perspective, but any idea that the facts ‘speak for themselves’ is pretty naive and destined to lead us back down the road of positivism.

    Comment by KC — July 29, 2013 @ 9:17 am

  12. One of Zizek’s more comical interventions was a November 2012 defense of Obama where he revealed an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the Affordable Care Act:


    “So should we write Obama off? Is he nothing more than Bush with a human face? There are signs which point beyond this pessimistic vision. Although his healthcare reforms were mired in so many compromises they amounted to almost nothing, the debate triggered was of huge importance. A great art of politics is to insist on a particular demand that, while thoroughly realist, feasible and legitimate, disturbs the core of the hegemonic ideology. The healthcare reforms were a step in this direction – how else to explain the panic and fury they triggered in the Republican camp? They touched a nerve at the core of America’s ideological edifice: freedom of choice.

    Obama’s healthcare reforms effectively deliver a large part of the population from the dubious “freedom” to worry about who will cover their illnesses. Being able to take basic healthcare for granted, to count on it like one counts on water or electricity without worrying about choosing the supplier, means people simply gain more time and energy to dedicate their lives to other things. The lesson to be learned is that freedom of choice only functions if a complex network of legal, educational, ethical, economic and other conditions is present as the invisible background to the exercise of our freedom. This is why, as a counter to the ideology of choice, countries like Norway should be held up as models: although all the main agents respect a basic social agreement and large social projects are enacted in a spirit of solidarity, social productivity and dynamism are at extraordinary levels, contradicting the common wisdom that such a society should be stagnating.”

    So, maybe it’s better than Zizek stick with Lacan and Lynch that attempt to comment upon concrete, real world social issues.

    Comment by Richard Estes — July 29, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

  13. i googled (very) ‘rich(re)tard estes; apparently at uc davis area—almost went there for a PhF, but i no the alphabet.

    i ran up 200G$ health care last year cuz i got pneuominia at occupy and was in hospital for almost 2 months, in icu, blood transfusions, was on oxygen (i told em take this sh-t off my face; later i said do not turn it down i want 100% oxygen) . (and i aint got no insurance, so they let me off. now i applied and got on my local plan which i hope to avoid, like occupy. i never needed much of health except for a few antibiotics from mexico, which i paid for.)

    zizek may be on clue here; u aint be in no ghetto, so talk the talk. .

    talk about concrete—watch the bricks (which i used to get thrown at my head). now, i just get threatened—tho i did get a gun pulled on me recently, and i told em ‘i found that in your hand, its mine’.

    Comment by ishi — July 29, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

  14. then you should explain why chomsky is always attacked for his “scholarship” in coming with facts if “facts” are mere data

    Comment by wang — July 30, 2013 @ 6:19 pm

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