Noam Chomsky makes some interesting points in this video about Slavoj Zizek and Zizek raises some valid points in response. I’m a little torn about who to side with in this dispute. There’s a debate/discussion worth having here, and I actually find myself wishing for an actual Chomsky-Zizek debate.
Chomsky has been one of the most consistent proponents of the importance of an empirical and scientific methodology in articulating critiques of the global system. In this video he makes the accusation that Zizek’s arguments are devoid of empirical content, and consequently, “not theory”. Chomsky’s point, as I interpret it, is that if you cannot use a theory to deduce empirical consequences, you are in essence spouting non-sense. I am, in some respects, sympathetic to this position.
Zizek makes the counterargument that Chomsky was sometimes not just empirically wrong, but empirically wrong in a spectacularly disastrous fashion, for example, with respect to Chomsky’s earlier apologetics for the Khmer Rouge. In particular, Zizek argues that one could simply examine the discourse of the Khmer Rouge or of Stalinists, and determine from the discourse alone that something was seriously amiss. I’m sympathetic to this point as well. If you read Lenin, Stalin, Mao or any of the Khmer Rouge, the totalitarian consequences of their arguments are clear. But even though Chomsky was wrong about the Khmer Rouge, it does not alter the fact that he has been right and deeply insightful about the negative aspects of US Imperialism.
I normally find the kind of Hegelian-Lacanian framework that Zizek uses to be empty, except that I think that Zizek has taken this in some interesting directions. Zizek seems to be one of those figures that people either worship as genius or villify as charlatan. I have trouble identifying with either camp. Is it really the case though that there are no empirical consequences to Zizek’s arguments? In other words, if Zizek employs more of the bad kind of ontology than is really necessary, does this mean that all of his points are empty? I’d go a step further and suggest that there is a place in social theory for the kind of speculative “theory” in which Zizek engages.