Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 27 19:44:21 MDT 2003

(From a posting to Marxmail home page)

>I actually came across your site while searching for the interview with
>Slavoj Zizek you've reviewed, and ended up snooping around for quite a
>while.  I thought your review was an interesting piece, but a little
>ungenerous about Zizek's views on Chomsky.
>If you're interested in discussing it, I had a few thoughts; otherwise
>forgive my presumption.
>I think there's more to Zizek's second-guessing the value of Chomsky's
>strenuous rational-empirical historicizing than just a voguish wizz-kid
>shrugging the weight of the dead generations.  As much as I hate to agree
>with the recent incarnation of Christopher Hitchens, warrior-poet, there
>was a speck of justice in his attack on Chomsky in late 2001, when our
>Noam was accused of being 'robotic' and ceaselessly providing 'a recipe
>for doing nothing'.

Well, I have my own criticisms of Chomsky, but I'd certainly defend him
from the charge of providing a 'recipe for doing nothing' since we know
what Hitchens means by this. One of Chomsky's greatest accomplishments was
to stand up to the immense pressure to "do something" about al-Qaeda after
9/11. We invaded Afghanistan, which is in worse shape today than before. We
then decided to "do something" about Iraq. By simply resisting this
pressure, Chomsky became highly elevated in my eyes. You should read my
"Noam Chomsky and His Critics" for more on this:


>I was reminded of this characterization the other day when I came across a
>Nietzsche essay, 'On The Utility and Liability of History for Life', in
>doing some academic work.  It seems to me that the 'problem' with Chomsky
>- and perhaps it's a strategic as much as an intellectual problem, which
>Hitchens and Zizek approach from different angles - is that he approaches
>history in what Nietzsche praises as the 'critical' mode, but having
>somehow detached it from 'service to life'.  By these terms, Chomsky is
>like a 'critical' historian who "brings the past before a tribunal,
>painstakingly interrogates it, and finally condemns it.  But every past is
>worthy of being condemned - for this is simply how it is with human
>affairs: human violence and weakness have always played a powerful role in
>them."  I think that's what Zizek meant in complaining about a sort of
>fact-fetish present in his work -- the rhetorical
>coercion-which-is-not-coercion of the better argument (i.e. with more

I don't know. It seems that Zizek could have done with a little bit of
fact-fetishism since his endorsement of Nato's war against Yugoslavia seems
utterly detached not only from historical fact but a class perspective.

>Anyway that's beside the point.  Nietzsche complains that a certain kind
>of scientistic 'historical cultivation' -- epitomized by Chomsky's
>encyclopedic, knowing, "'twas ever thus" style of thought -- actually
>*prevents* people from making the jumps from historical knowledge, to
>rational moral analysis, to motivation and commited action.  What Zizek
>and Henwood were agreeing on, I think, is that Chomsky seems to assume
>that if the facts were simply known, everything else would seamlessly come
>together; as if the revolutionary process were self-realizing.  I wonder
>if this is a hangover from Chomsky's rationalism, or more personally
>related to his being 'habituated' to his own (objectively rather
>accurate!) but undoubtedly* rigid* schema for understanding history,
>political economy, etc.  Another accusation Hitchens levels is that he
>simply 'assimilates events to his worldview', which I think is
>true.  Possibly this is even related to the sorts of analytical science he

I think you are putting an impossible burden on Chomsky. His role is
actually quite modest. He provides alternative analyses on US foreign
policy to student and middle-class audiences who would otherwise tend to
rely on NPR, the NY Times op-ed pages and other sources of "enlightened"
opinion. In terms of what you call "committed action", I expect that to
come from revolutionary socialists and action-oriented radicals who think
in political terms. Chomsky's main weakness is that he has absolutely no
grasp of how to build a mass movement. This is mainly a function of his
inability to see things dialectically and to be able to detect the dynamics
of class struggle. You learn these things from Marxist literature, or at
least I did from people who learned them from Leon Trotsky who learned them
from the first generation of Marxism. Political action cannot be done by
individuals; it must be done with collectively. For that matter, Chomsky
has always put himself at the disposal of those involved in struggle. By
contrast, Zizek seems far more interested in speaking to other intellectuals.

>But anyway I wondered whether you thought there was anything more to
>Zizek's attempt to complicate that picture; perhaps G.I. Joe was wrong and
>knowing *isn't* half the battle!

I'll tell you the truth. Zizek is not nearly as bad as Hardt-Negri or that
wretch John Holloway. If Zizek has had enough of an influence on Doug
Henwood so as to persuade him not to sign those disgusting anti-Cuba
petitions, then more power to him. Myself, I prefer reading social history
by people like David Montgomery and when it comes to movie reviews, I'll
write my own.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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