Saturday, 10 August 2013

Dear Mr Albert…

Poor Verso!  Lucky for them life isn’t as simple as black and white.  Although it is admirable that you wish to take sides, and openly admit it.  And surely few can disagree with your demands for good reasoning and clear prose?  Ha!  Humans: if only we were perfect!  But let us agree that we should all strive towards the ideal…  Even then there are problems with your argument, which though generally sound is too narrow to be wholly convincing.  The result is that your article is polemical - you fail to adequately see, to properly understand, the opponent you so strongly criticise -, and so it will convince only those who already share your views; which may have been the intention.  For the rest of us: having turned off the main highway we find ourselves in a little suburban cul-de-sac; we look around, sigh, and swing the car back to the main road, where we continue on our trip....

Your piece too readily accepts Chomsky’s caricature of Zizek and the intellectual tendencies he represents.  I am not opposed to caricatures.  They are an important means of eliciting fundamental truths about a subject, although to achieve such clarity requires leaving out many details; they are therefore necessarily unjust and not wholly accurate.  Moreover, to create a caricature is a quite different activity to merely copying it; the one a creative act that attempts to gain some truth; the other a simple acceptance of that truth as if it were a fact, which it clearly is not – it is an abstraction from a more complex reality, which itself has to be investigated.

Chomsky has an enormous talent for both microanalysis and large-scale generalisation that puts such detailed scrutiny into a meaningful context.  He also has an extraordinary ability to capture the essence of things; his instincts and judgements are good too.  Thus his ability to reframe the Palestine-Israel dispute in The Fateful Triangle, or his more recent reshaping of the Clash of Civilisations debate to show that in the last third of the 20th century the United States was at war with Christianity, with its attack on the Catholic Church in Latin America.  The especial quality of such work is Chomsky’s ability to draw out the central ideas from a huge mass of material, rather than simply imposing a few pre-conceived ideas upon it.

Nevertheless, a vast amount is left out of such analysis, and this is inevitable.   The result is that a lot material, together with a whole range of perspectives that are both important and interesting in their right, are either not considered at all or are downplayed because Chomsky is not interested in them – either intellectually or politically.  To give one example: to understand the British establishment it is not enough to describe and analyse its actions in the economic and political fields (although such analysis is very important).  We also have to place their behaviour within a historical and cultural context which is often complex and not so easy to see; and which does require taking them at their own evaluations – ideas are not simply camouflage for power politics.  Britain is a major imperial power.  It has also suffered a relative decline in the 20th century, which was due to its history as the first industrial country.  This history, together with the hard thought and ideological thinking that has been done about it, has influenced the motivations of the political elite; and we need a much wider analysis than the one Chomsky gives, the kind of analysis David Marquand provides in his classic The Unprincipled Society, to fully understand both their actions and the particular nature of contemporary Britain.i  But this is not a criticism of Chomsky’s work.  His is an activist’s perspective.  It requires him to look at particular levels of political and historical reality, and then to analyse certain aspects of those levels, so as to reveal fundamental truths about contemporary America and its satellites, of which Britain is one.  I believe he is right to do so.  But I also think there are other kinds of analysis, not necessarily Zizek’s (I am thinking of anthropology and the better sociology), that both supplement and give different and valid perspectives on these matters.  I also don’t think that much of this work can be understood by twelve olds; although this can be easily tested: copies of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Émile Durkheim could be distributed in classrooms across America and the UK.  That said, I do think Chomsky is justified in making such rhetorical exaggerations to expose fakery and flatulence.  Sometimes we have to be extreme and unfair to get our points across. 

Many years ago I used to warn my students against the widespread idea that one goes to university in order to learn how to talk, and to write, impressively and incomprehensibly.  At the time many students came to university with this ridiculous aim in mind, especially in Germany…  most of those… who… enter into an intellectual climate which accepts this kind of valuation… are lost.

Thus arose the cult of un-understandability, the cult of impressive and high-sounding language…  I suggest that in some of the more ambitious social sciences and philosophies, especially in Germany, the traditional game, which has largely become the unconscious and unquestioned standard, is to state the utmost trivialities in high-sounding languages.

Some of the famous leaders of German sociology… are… simply talking trivialities in high-sounding language…  They teach this to their students... who do the same…  the genuine and general feeling of dissatisfaction which is manifest in their hostility to the society in which they live is, I think, a reflection of their unconscious dissatisfaction with the sterility of their own activities.  (Karl Popper quoted in Ernest Gellner’s Relativism and the Social Sciences)

So much truth!  However, we cannot simply repeat these statements verbatim when we are writing about individual thinkers who may appear to conform to Popper’s description - they may have important and insightful things to say.  Thus to assume that a German sociologist who talks in dense language is a fraud is to dismiss Max Weber, one of the more important thinkers of the 20th century.ii

Sometimes obscurity includes depth.  And sometimes the style is as important as the content, because the style is itself the content: political talk is mostly a form of preaching that seeks to create emotional effects to substantiate rather simple-minded arguments.  Chomsky has a style too, despite your somewhat romantic belief that he is only delivering a message.  Norman Finkelstein, who seems to know him better than most, has commented that it was Chomsky’s intellect and his moral condemnation that first attracted him; and this is surely right.iii  There are even times when even the greatest thinkers rely for their most powerful effects on the texture rather than the content of their words…

These writings of Marx are electrical.  Nowhere perhaps in the history of thought is the reader so made to feel the excitement of a new intellectual discovery.  Marx is here at his most vivid and his most vigorous – in the closeness and exactitude of political observation; in the energy of the faculty that combines, articulating at the same time that it compresses; in the wit and the metaphorical phantasmagoria that transfigures the prosaic phenomena of politics, and in the pulse of the tragic invective – we have heard its echo in Bernard Shaw – which can turn the collapse of an incompetent parliament, divided between contradictory tendencies, into the downfall of a damned soul of Shakespeare. (The Portable Edmund Wilson, edited by Lewis M. Dabney)

The most obvious problem with your analysis is that Zizek often writes in very clear prose; and my guess it is through his cleverly argued and eminently understandable articles that he is mostly known.  Chomsky’s remarks in the original interview are more acute: Zizek’s positions are essentially rhetorical.  I think this is true, and I also think this is why he is popular.   Many (most?) people want certainty and hope.  They also want their thinkers to confirm their own prejudices.  This is why so much political talk is like an old armchair: it is a place where one can relax, feel comfortable and be entertained (there are an awful lot of people who enjoy being morally outraged).   What is particularly interesting about Chomsky is that it is his followers who want to turn him into a cosy settee; thus the desire for him to utter an unequivocal response to Britain and France’s intervention in Libya, an issue that seriously divided the Left, and where yourself and others were struggling to extract a clear answer from him as to what people should think about it.  Zizek pokes fun at all of this, he is clear-eyed and clever critic of the Left, as well as playing up to it – he is also a safe radical.   There are also those who want their political analysis to confirm the essential mystery of the world.  Zizek gives them this too in his speeches, articles and books.  His intellectual obscurity is a kind of theology, which creates its own very special effects that a literal-minded rational critique misses.  

There are lots of people who are puzzled by reality.  They perceive that there is more to the world than its surface phenomena.  These intuitions are correct.  Science proves our common senses are wrong!   However, science tends to be learnt by most of us as an academic subject – it is understood through teaching and exposition – so that we receive it only as distilled knowledge, and therefore do not engage with it as a creative act.  The result is that many people associate science with arguments and facts rather than with creativity, which has a certain incomprehensible and indeterminate character that has often been explained in religious or quasi-religious terms – human creation does have a mystic quality.  Most people, even if they are not creative themselves, have an inkling of these mysteries, which they look for in intellectual pursuits that are often at a relatively low level; such as the political or social analysis we see in the newspapers and magazines.  Zizek, and the academics like him, fulfil this need by making their work very complex and obscure; this creates puzzlement and confusion in the reader, which scrambles our rational capacity so that we have to use our own intuition and imagination to make sense of the work.  Or they play clever word games or manipulate metaphysical concepts in artful patterns which while attractive have little connection with reality.  The result is that although they may contain little in the way of actual meaning such books can be liberating; for the reader they are like listening to a clever raconteur or to the wildest free jazz, where the experience of the event is more important than the understanding of it.    Such readings are very close to the aesthetic experience, although they are poorer than the real thing.  And because they are close to art and literature they may contain very little profound analysis: art tends to deal in very simple ideas; its complex effects residing in their formal elaboration.iv

It is quite true that the artist, painter, writer or composer starts always with an experience that is a kind of discovery.  He comes upon it with the sense of a discovery; in fact, it is truer to say that it comes upon him as a discovery.  It surprises him.  This is what is usually called an intuition or an inspiration.  It carries with it always the feeling of directness.  For instance, you go walking in the fields and all at once they strike you in quite a new aspect: you find it extraordinary that they should be like that.  This is what happened to Monet as a young man.  He suddenly saw the fields, not as solid flat objects covered with grass or useful crops and dotted with trees, but as colour in astonishing variety and subtlety of gradation.  And this gave him a delightful and quite new pleasure.  It was a most exciting discovery, especially as it was a discovery of something real.  I mean, by that, something independent of Monet himself.  That, of course, was half the pleasure.  Monet had discovered a truth about the actual world.  (Joyce Cary, Art and Reality)

For reasons that are complex, but which have much to do with the university system, and which are wonderfully summarised in Ernest Gellner’s Postmodernism, Reason and Religion and acutely analysed in his Words and Things,v the usual avenues for that experience – art – have diverted into an academicism that is rife with jargon, meaningless complexity, and dodgy metaphysics.  Indeed, it is striking how much the academy has colonised art and literature, and turned them into a confused reflection of itself;vi and this is a new phenomenon in intellectual life; thus it is somewhat of a surprise to read an old book by Raymond Firth comparing the skills of an anthropologist with those of a novelist, the latter recognised not only as a valid social investigator but someone who is doing something quite different from normal academic work.vii   Over a couple of generations the sense of a separate aesthetic realm has been lost; literature reduced to nuggets of data which is quarried by critical analysis using theories (think of them as gigantic diggers) that are clunky and dubious – I am always struck by how confidently academics quote the great thinkers, and yet seem to know so little about them.

Gilles Deleuze was schooled in that philosophy.  The titles of his earliest books read like a Who’s Who of philosophical giants.  “What got me by during that period was conceiving of the history of philosophy as a kind of ass-fuck, or, what amounts to the same thing, an immaculate conception.  I imagined myself approaching an author from behind and giving him a child that would indeed be his but would nonetheless be monstrous.”  Hegel is absent, being too despicable to merit event a mutant offspring.  To Kant he dedicated an affectionate study of an “enemy”.  Yet much of positive value came of Deleuze’s flirtation with the greats.  He discovered an orphan line of thinkers who were tied by no direct descendance but were united in their opposition to the State philosophy that would nevertheless accord them minor positions in the canon.  Between Lucretius, Hume, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Bergson there exists a “secret link constituted by the critique of negativity, the cultivation of joy, the hatred of interiority, the exteriority of forces and relations, the denunciation of power.”  (Brian Massumi’s forward to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus.  My emphasis.)viii

This is more akin to certain kinds of avant-garde art, such as the automatic writing of Surrealism, than to philosophical analysis.  It contains all the clichés of the genre: its outré radicalism, its long list of famous names, its clever formulations, and abstract nonsense – that last quote from Deleuze can mean anything and nothing.  It also has humour, which one shouldn’t ignore.  There are times we do need a laugh; it’s just a pity he makes us work so hard to get one. 

And this is so boring!  Because it is formulaic and repetitive.  These words have no vitality.  Cheap mass-produced goods on an academic production line that requires verbal facility but little thought; the reason, no doubt, why they are so attractive – it is easier to talk than think,ix and to skim rather than to read in depth.x

We see these effects in some of the comments on the Open Culture website, where Zizek is called a poet of conceptual language.  These kibitzers are right.  It is just unfortunate that his poetry is so poor.  However, I would not dismiss such an approach out of hand.  It fills a yearning that is both real and necessary, although it can be satisfied by other means, such as religious ritual, art, and the higher intellectual disciplines that create new knowledge.  The fact that this yearning can be satisfied by such abstruse academicism is puzzling (how easier it is to read Joseph Roth and W.B. Yeats); it is also a problem that we need to seriously think about rather than just dismiss; for it has been with us for at least two centuries – German Idealism appears to be its modern origin.  One thing, though, is clear: such a yearning cannot be satisfied by a simple rational discussion that tries to argue that its champions are fake or inauthentic.  As Bertrand Russell understood, reason is only a tool, albeit a very useful one that allows us to develop original insights that are themselves essentially irrational.  When people read Zizek it is those irrational, those “mystic”, insights that they are looking for.

Of the reality or unreality of the mystic’s world I know nothing.  I have no wish to deny it, nor even to declare that the insight which reveals it is not a genuine insight.  What I do wish to maintain – and it is here that the scientific attitude becomes imperative – is that insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth, in spite of the fact that much of the most important truth is first suggested by its means.  (Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic.  My italics)

When I read A.J. Ayer’s short book on Russell I couldn’t comprehend his philosophy at all.  I then read some of the master’s own books… Although difficult I was able at last to understand his ideas - Russell writes about hard things in a supernaturally clear prose.  He has the ability of a genius to make reality appear strange (as indeed it is, when we really think about it).   This is a perspective that many people both crave to create and have shown to them; although at the same time they want the process to be simple and immediate.  I believe a large part of modern academicism is written by people who think they doing exactly what Russell did; instead they confuse language with reality, and pure verbalism with meaningful linguistic content (and by meaningful I don’t mean simply verifiable data – a poem or a myth can have plenty of meaning which cannot be reduced to its individual words and phrases, but instead relies on the cultivated person’s sense of taste and aesthetic form).  Lacking his genius characters like Deleuze and Guattari have found a substitute that appears to be the same as the genuine article. 

We live in an increasingly rational world that is squeezing out the “spiritual” sphere from its public institutions - the nature of modern bureaucratic society tends to discourage it.  There are also many clever chaps who simply do not have this “mystic” faculty.xi  Naturally, we should expect the mainstream institutions, and this includes the universities, to be biased in their favour.   Although we must be careful: this is not just a 20th century phenomenon - all great thinkers have had disciples who have not shared their creative spirit.  A.J. Ayer was fabulously intelligent but I think he lacked Russell’s mystic sense, even though he was aware of it; Russell was very explicit about it in his books.xii  My guess is that he lacked the instinct, like some people lack the mathematical or aesthetic instinct.  It simply didn’t mean anything to him, and thus he didn’t fully understand the nature of Russell’s thought, which he reduced to a sort of academic technicism.xiii  I think Chomsky is very similar to Russell in this regard, although I suspect he would vehemently deny any sort of mysticism; he calls it puzzlement.xiv  His willingness to be puzzled about the universe is certainly the reason Dennett (and possibly Pinker) misunderstand him: too often they appear to think they already know the fundamental truths about nature and the human mind – just the details have to be worked out.  He has a sense of mystery that they lack, and which gives them the bumptious confidence that can so irritate the knowledgeable outsider.xv

Many people share this mystic sense.  However, to properly capture it one has to do creative work, immerse oneself in art, take part in ecstatic religions or engage with the higher intellectual disciplines that actually do try to understand reality.  Political cults and parties are also another alternative. 

Unfortunately too many people want to take short cuts.  We are, as Russell once wrote, an inherently lazy species.  Postmodernism is one such short cut, as well as offering a lucrative career for the technicians like Ayer and for the careerists I am too kind to identify.xvi  Such obscurantism is an intellectual drug that gives the effects of depth but without the underlying reality.  And drugs work.  It’s why we take them!  They are a substitute for the rush or ecstasy we naturally lack, and at times desperately desire.  I would dissuade someone from taking Heroin or Speed, but I wouldn’t condemn them as immoral or stupid.  We all need our highs from time to time.xvii

The humanity departments are full of paper radicals, who use politics to give their essentially meaningless work meaning (and so have found a way to resolve the alienated dissatisfaction Popper describes).  Thus a critical attack on Gustave Flaubert is believed to carry moral weight and authenticity.xviii  The foolishness and moral cowardice of such a position is clear.  The history of this fake radicalism is complex, and I don’t wish to go into here, but its effects on the humanities in the last generation are plainly there to see.  An academic culture has been formed where literature and the arts are politicised; creating the inevitable confusion whereby different kinds of knowledge are conflated; with the result that the arts are degraded and political analysis takes on an aesthetic aspect – thus the curious echoes of Fascism in postmodernism.  The result is that academics begin to see themselves as artist and writers, even poets; their conceptual analysis a bad and crude simulacrum of the real thing. 

All of this is terribly sad, because it means that literature, which does produce real “mystic” results – art works! –, tends to be ignored, or even abused and ridiculed; often by academic apparatchiks who have no talent.  Some are even prepared to admit it publicly.  In the 1980s a Shakespearean professor admitted on TV that he neither understood nor liked his subject!  For him Shakespeare was only a source of sociological and political study, which he used to delegitimize what he regarded as a fake national icon, the consequence of some elite conspiracy in the early 19th century.xix  Here is the scandal of the humanities; although in my view once literature entered the university system such an outcome was inevitable; for a bureaucratic rationalismxx takes over a subject that is concerned essentially with sentiment, and which requires a certain “touch” and “feel” to appreciate the evanescent atmospheres it generates.  Today most literature academics appear to lack a refined aesthetic sense; a paradoxical but I think true statement.xxi 

Students are thus conditioned into treating incomprehensible jargon as an experience; and there is a rationale for this, which I can only briefly sketch.  For a long time there has been a debate about “knowledge” and “being” that embraces the conflict between science and the romantic cult of the individual sensibility, which in turn is related to arguments about cultural relativism, where many (first on the Right and then on the Left) have argued against the scientific mentality because it cannot evoke the real nature of an object; thus the once common argument that British anthropologists couldn’t “know” another culture; their descriptions unable to capture the essence of these societies.  Much of this dispute represents a lack of philosophical sophistication (although critical theorists litter their paragraphs with famous names they rarely study them in depth), and has confused knowledge with the natural objects it studies, unaware that they are two quite separate things; an insight of John Locke in classic work.  To get around this split between knowledge and what it studies, and this is may be the reason why Heidegger became such an important philosopher in mid century, a dense language jungle of jargon was created that did actually give the impression of “being”: for lost amongst the undergrowth of such incomprehensibility we do begin to feel the text precisely because we can hardly understand it – there are moments of clarity, like clearings in a forest, and these provide just enough sense to keep us turning the pages.  Crucially, these are real experiences, and we have to understand them if we are to properly criticise characters like Zizek, who seems to not only have mastered this technique, but to have popularized it.xxii

The world is a complex unity.  However, to understand it we have to break it down into tiny bits and pieces; an intellectual process that goes against our common sense that tends to see things in wholes and is often unable to separate out facts from values.  We have to be educated to look at a world in a way that is profoundly alienating, and which also leaves so much out – art, for example, accesses very different layers of knowledge and experience.xxiii  Moreover, many people, even of the highest intelligence, do not have this analytic talent; they may look at the world in small plots of “total” and highly intensified meaning.  Schopenhauer describes it well:

Art…plucks the object of its contemplation from the stream of the world’s course, and holds it isolated before it.  This particular thing, which in that stream was an infinitesimal part, becomes for art a representative of the whole, an equivalent of the infinitely many in space and time….” (The World as Will and Representation Vol I)xxiv

One could argue that within the university system specialism is increasingly leading to obscurantism – whole rubbish dumps of data are collected for their own sake, and for promotion within the academic bureaucracy, rather than as a means of understanding the world, which requires a large amount of contextualisation at a variety of levels of explanation.   In the 1960s these problems where identified, and an attempt was made to get around by them creating inter-disciplinary studies.  Like all good intentions, essentially the attempt to impose an idea (relatively fixed, relatively immobile) onto ever-changing events, it created some strange effects.  One of these has been the tendency to conflate what are separate subjects into one confusing mass (otherwise known as Critical Theory), so that politics, sociology, science, art and psychology all become conflated into a unity that is dense and almost incomprehensible; Deleuze and Guattari one of the more extreme examples of this approach.xxv  Another effect is the relatively superficial nature of the results, which, I believe, is inherent in such a project – to have interesting things to say about different disciplines, as Chomsky does, you have master them all.  Few have that talent or energy. 

There is something else too.  This kind of academic mash-up reflects our common sense experience of the world, and is another reason why people gravitate to these ideas.  They do express a truth, although it is not one we normally associate with the social sciences.  My own view is that these truths could be better understood by reading a novel, looking at a painting, or listening to music.  Indeed, one of the unfortunate aspects of Critical Theory is that it may actually turn people off going to the source material; and anecdotal evidence does suggest that this has occurred.  However, we should expect such a result from a university system that relies on bureaucratic reason; moulding the subject areas so that they fit its own patterns of thought and behaviour; with the result, albeit heavily disguised in postmodernism,xxvi that it is a social science approach that dominates the humanities, so that the understanding of a poem or film is reduced to the data they contain, which is then analysed using some fashionable formula.  Take a look at film study departments; when the professor is not a critical theorist they are most likely to be a sociologist of the cinema.  Few are concerned with the meaning and value of individual movies; that is, their essential nature.xxvii

Seeing the world in wholes and obsessed by politics, an obsession encouraged both by the academy and the media, there are many people who want their mystic intuitions expressed in political analysis (the psychological source of much Conspiracy Theory, I speculate).  Zizek offers them this.  We should be careful in dismissing such methods too quickly.  Successful political action depends on a religious fervour, which although dangerous is something that all political movements need; at least from time to time – remember Occupy?   We need enthusiasm!  Just as we need our drugs.

Reason is not enough.xxviii  Chomsky makes us think more clearly, and has documented, like no-one else, the ideology of the Western political class.  In his writings he has shown, in minute and careful detail, what others like Zizek can only talk about.  It is an extraordinary achievement, as Jean Bricmont has noted.xxix  However, such analysis has only tangential effects upon the political environment.  Thus when we open the door and take a peek inside those lovely white buildings in Washington we find that original and profound thinking is irrelevant, at least when it comes to the fundamental assumptions on which policy is based.  The political establishment appears to rely on a minimum of conventional thought to structure what is an essentially reactive environment based on very stable institutional practices – thus the continuity of policy over long periods of time.xxx  Christopher Meyer inadvertently reveals this conservatism and conformism in his memoir, DC Confidential,xxxi which shows that members of the Washington establishment share the same rather simple-minded culture; a culture sustained through networking and a fairly constant round of ritualised behaviour (consider the number of meetings and events the British ambassador attends, and how formalised they are).xxxii  

Although Chomsky doesn’t address his remarks to the powerful I think something of this culture is replicated in small political groups, and certainly in mass action, where confirmation of beliefs is more important than critical thinking, which can often lead to doubt and dissension.xxxiii  Zizek in his own way does confirm our beliefs and gives us hope.  There are plenty of people who find this attractive, and they are not necessarily wrong.  There are times when we do have to feel our politics, not just think about them.

Edmund Wilson in a brilliant appreciation of William Gauss captures both the power and limitation of such creative teachers, who although enormously stimulating are difficult to follow; in large part because they are so hard to pin down and label, and therefore replicate. 

[O]ne of the qualities that distinguished Gauss was the unusual fluidity of mind that he preserved through his whole career.  A teacher like Irving Babbitt was a dogmatist who either imposed his dogma or provoked a strong opposition.   Christian Gauss was a teacher of a different kind – the kind who starts trains of thought that he does not himself guide to conclusions but leaves in the hands of his students to be carried on by themselves.  The student might develop, extend them, transpose them into different terms, build out of them constructions of his own.  Gauss never imposed, he suggested; and his own ideas on any subject were always taking new turns: the light in which he saw it would be shifted, it would range itself in some new context….

But though his influence on his students was so penetrating, Gauss founded no school of teaching – not even, I suppose, an academic tradition of teaching – because, as one of his colleagues pointed out to me, he had no communicable body of doctrine and no pedagogical method that other teachers could learn to apply…. [He] never seemed to be trying to prove anything in any overwhelming way, a voyage of speculation that aimed to survey the world than to fix a convincing vision.  (The Portable Edmund Wilson, edited by Lewis M. Dabney)

Of course there are many obvious differences between Noam Chomsky and William Gauss.  Chomsky does have a vision, and his forceful and clearly articulated positions invite “strong opposition”.  He has also founded an academic tradition which seems set to last.  Nevertheless, they both share an essentially undetermined view of the world, which can both inspire their followers and irritate them.  Examples can be found in many of the Q&A sessions after a Chomsky talk.  His comments on political action can appear general and vague, and the questioners often seem mystified or frustrated when they are told they can do nothing more to change America than “organise”.xxxiv  Chomsky has too much respect for the future and for human beings to make predictions and tell people what to do.  Unfortunately there are many do not grasp what this actually means, and his views can then be made to look pessimistic or defeatist; something to which Zizek alludes when he writes of Chomsky’s cynicism.  A good example is in a recent talk about the corporatisation of the university, where in answer to a question from the floor Chomsky talked about the easy temptations and the institutional pressures that encourage academics to take up “big data” studies in the sciences.  He went on to say that thought is hard, and that finding new ideas isn’t easy, while much of what we think up has to be discarded as junk.  The response: “I’m doomed!”  The questioner clearly did not understand him – he effectively was telling her that she must have a strong will, be independent, and think hard and long, with possibly little reward, either financial or intellectual.  This is not what she wanted to hear.  Not at all!  She wanted a definite strategy, a clear proposal, a formula that she could follow and implement, and which would lead to a successful result.  That is: she doesn’t want to think and act for herself, with all the risks and disappoints that entails.  And what is striking is that she was not even aware of what she was saying. There are many people like this.

Many of them are on the Left.  Indeed it may be its distinctive feature: the majority attached to other people’s ideas rather than their own values; the latter characteristic is what I think gives Chomsky his distinctive quality, and which makes him so politically unusual.xxxv

There are also many Left radicals who vehemently oppose the “positivism” Chomsky seems to represent, even when they accept the bulk of his political analysis.  A remarkable example is Robert F. Barsky who in a polemic against Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont tries to enlist him as a fellow traveller to Critical Theory.  It is an extraordinary performance, which I have dealt with elsewhere.xxxvi   Barsky is misguided, but he should be a warning to you - he was written for ZNet -, because he shows that there can be no “us and them” in this dispute; life on the Left, despite your attempts to make it otherwise, is far more complicated than a simple conflict between the good and the bad, the civilised and the barbarians.  Zizek has something to offer, we just need to be clear about the products he sells.

It is a sunny cloudless day.  We are in a boat on a lake, surrounded by mountains, whose lower slopes are hidden by pines.  We are so happy!  Looking over the side we see fish swim through our faces, reflected in water as clear as freshly cleaned glass.   We look intently at these faces, and see rocks, a coke can, and a child’s shoe rise up to meet them.  It is beautiful here, we say; although Elizabeth feels it’s a little strange…  There are a few moments of silence.  Then Max pokes fun at our glum expressions.  Jessica is so angry!  She throws a stone into the lake, and we all laugh and talk and splash each other with water; Angelica taking photographs the whole time.  Later we lie down with a beer and a glass of wine; drifting, half-looking, thinking of the woods and the mountains we can hardly see for rehearsing the stories we’ll tell Bob and Jo, Jennifer and Louise…

It is Tuesday the twenty-fifth.  We can’t see the lake for the mist that surrounds it.  We are alone; and we are excited; and we run blindly in….





[i] For a brilliant book that argues against the declinist thesis see David Edgerton’s Warfare State; Britain 1920-1970.
[ii] For a short and balanced assessment of Max Weber see Donald G. MacRae’s book.
[iii] For an insight into how this might affect an audience see the seminal pages on Alphonse de Lamartine in Richard Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man.
            We must not forget that Chomsky also has charisma, and this can do strange things to his words – his listeners can invest them with a charismatic quality which goes beyond their meaning.  We see this with the introductions to his talks where he is often introduced as one of the greatest minds of all time – the awe, the gushing tones, the incomprehension that a living person can be so bright, all have aspects of religious grace.  The result is that the content becomes a style; a lecture treated by the audience as an experience rather than a means of learning new facts or following lines of argument. They have come to worship, and they do, no matter how often Chomsky tells them to think for themselves, and even argue against him. 
            Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man has some extraordinary things to say about charisma, and his book as a whole, which I think is a masterpiece, shows how complicated and often counter-intuitive social life is; it thus shows that Chomsky’s repeated assertions that society can be understood by ordinary common sense is incorrect.  The humanities and the social sciences do have the tools to understand social process, although the skills required to gain profound insight are closer to those of an artist than your typical academic.  Indeed, when I think of Sennett’s book, which is written with wonderful clarity, I think of it as a novel.
[iv] This talent is shared by the great thinkers.  Their insights tend to be simple albeit original and profound; it is the argumentation supporting them that is complex.  A good example is Chomsky himself: the idea that we grow language is extraordinary; yet it is also very simple, and so obviously the truth when we think about it.
[v] The latter book deals with a movement, the Oxford Linguistic School, that ostensibly is very different from Deconstruction and its epigones.  The similarities though are striking.
[vi] For an odd polemic against this trend see my He Africa Man; Original.
[vii] See his Elements of Social Organisation.  The book was written in 1951.  See also EE Evan-Pritchard’s Social Anthropology.
[viii] See my Dropout Boogie for extended analysis of Deleuze, who seems to be completely ignorant of one of his heroes – David Hume.
[ix] See my The Gipsy’s Baby for an attempt to illustrate this point.
[x] And is exacerbated by a university system that demands the over-production of academic monographs  (See footnote xii in my Dropout Boogie).  Although this is old news.  Here is Friedrich Nietzsche extolling the virtues of slow reading…
            “ – Finally, however: why should we have to say what we are and what we want and do not want so loudly and with such fervour?  Let us view it more coldly, more distantly, more prudently, from a greater height; let us say it, as it is fitting it should be said between ourselves, so secretly that no one hears it, that no one hears us!  Above all let us say it slowly  This preface is late but not too late – what, after all, do five or six years matter?  A book like this, a problem like this, is in no hurry; we both, I just as much as my book, are friends of lento.  It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading: - in the end I also write slowly.  Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste – a malicious taste, perhaps? – no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry’.  For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow – it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento.  But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of ‘work’, that is to say, hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to ‘get everything done’ at once, including every old or new book: - this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers…  My patient friends, this book desires for itself only perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well! -” (Daybreak)
            Compare with Deleuze and Guattari: they are only interested in speed; thus the ramshackle style and poor metaphors, such as the one quoted above.  Far from Deleuze being a disciple of Nietzsche he is, in fact, his most incompetent enemy.   A good example of how rather simple-minded academics destroy the subjects they study.
[xi] For a brilliant book on how a different culture treats mysticism see William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives.  He also shows how it is under threat by the nature of modern society.
[xii] See in particular his Autobiography.
[xiii] Bryan Magee seems to suggest this in his Confessions of a Philosopher; A Journey Through Western Philosophy.  Something similar appears to have happened to Wittgenstein – the Logical Positivists completely unaware of his mysticism reduced his ideas to technical analysis (see Bryan Magee’s Men of Ideas). 
[xiv] See footnote vi of my Professional Amateurs for comment and analysis.
[xv] Gilbert Ryle has some good passages on the overconfidence of new intellectual movements in his The Concept of Mind.
[xvii] See Doug Henwood’s post on Zizek.  Henwood is no fool.
[xviii] For a somewhat foolish rationalization of this approach see the David Hawkes quote in my Can I Have a Flake, and Chocolate Sauce with That?
[xix] It was a BBC2 culture programme, sometime in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
[xx] I use Bernard Williams’ phrase (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy).
[xxi] For an interesting history see John Gross’ The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters.
[xxii] For a severe critique of Heidegger, and which is also useful for showing that Zizek’s assertion of an irreconcilable split between analytic and continental philosophy is not wholly correct, see Bernard Williams’ review of a number of books on Friedrich Nietzsche.
[xxiii] And which also destroys so much – the tendency of both the hard and soft sciences is to erase metaphysics. 
The nature of state capitalism is to destroy local communities who have a collective sense of identity that cannot be reduced to a collection of atomized facts – communal identity is essentially metaphysical.  And this is not a radical position: mainstream British anthropologists in the 1930s openly recognised that traditional communities were being significantly changed and their culture even wiped out by a colonialism based on modern scientific knowledge and industrial production.
[xxiv] For further discussion see my Russian Climate.
[xxv] I look at these two thinkers in my Dropout Boogie.  I put Zizek under my microscope in The Liberal Stalinist.
            A brilliant insight into Zizek can be found in Ernest Gellner’s analysis of Ethnomethodology, although it needs to be updated to accommodate the particularly French influence on this type of theorising (see his Spectacles and Predicaments)
[xxvi] We are told academics are concerned with diversity and difference, and with the odd and the unique.  However, when we read their work we find that these have become superficial formulas that are repeated without thought, so that the unique becomes the same everywhere! 
It is interesting that you put this down to weak people having too much respect for authority.  For sure these habits of mind exist, although I am little wary of reducing lots of intelligent people to victims (if we carry on in this direction even Tony Blair and George Bush will need our help!).  Russell was more acute: he understood the lazy and habitual nature of most of the human species, a species that generally prefers to copy rather than endure the hard labours of creation. It is the reason why he thought only a particular kind of elite, the leisure class, could progressively change the society.  In short: we are far more instinctive and plastic than you seem to think.
[xxvii] Zizek is a classic example.  See my Nice to See You.
[xxviii] Bertrand Russell recognises this in his tribute to Joseph Conrad, whose views on China he regards as more profound than his own (Portraits from Memory).
            Too much reliance on reason can make us delusional.  See my interpretation of Voltaire’s Candide in Killing King Reason.
[xxix] See his comments in The Chomsky Notebook.
[xxx] “Policy is not static, set once and forever after unchanged.  Nor is policy reassessed every day.  But over time views do change, learning takes place, and policies are adjusted.  As a result, a process of convergence seems to takes place, whereby the views of senior policymakers towards the Arab-Israeli conflict differ most from those of their predecessors when they first take office and tend to resemble them by the end of their terms.” William B. Quandt’s The Peace Process, American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967.
[xxxi] William B. Quandt’s The Peace Process is another important book that provides similar insights into this political class.
            It is useful to read this book in the light of peace making initiatives in the Middle East by the last three American presidents.  According to Quandt incoming administrations believe that the only chance of any major policy change is for it to start in the first few month’s of the president’s first term.  After that the administration’s energy and focus will be clogged up with contingent matters.  If still true, and I suspect it is, this suggests that each of these peace initiatives - by Clinton, Bush, and now Obama - are purely cynical exercises, and have very little to do with any real expectation of achieving a settlement.  Norman Finkelstein, in a recent interview on Democracy Now!, argues that this is indeed the case - it is a means of salvaging their reputations at little cost to themselves.
[xxxii] For comment see my Nothing Left But… The Words and Aguirre: the Wrath of God.  The point of such meetings and private clubs is that the attendees and members become friends and colleagues, and so a community of the like-minded is formed.  They may disagree on details of policy, and Meyer shows that they do, but far more importantly they share the same fundamental assumptions on which those policy disagreements are based.  This ensures that the elite functions smoothly. 
The problem of a conspiratorial view of politics, which gives some mysterious import to gatherings like Bohemian Grove, mentioned in the book, is that it doesn’t understand the mechanisms of how such a culture is formed and maintained, believing instead that people get together simply to make secret deals.  The most important function of an establishment is to ensure that its members share the same culture; and to do this it must facilitate regular meetings.  It also has to allow, indeed encourage, disagreements about policies, because the discussions, even heated and abusive, will strengthen the elite community providing the assumptions on which that culture is based are unconsciously accepted.  (For an example of the dangers to an establishment that doesn’t allow open and constructive criticism see Edward Crankshaw’s marvellous history of the Russian bureaucracy in his The Shadow of the Winter Palace.)
In a very crude sense a culture is like a family – the bonds of sentiment and common understanding can absorb most arguments and differences; the latter may even, through their passionate expression, actually strengthen the individual relationships.  There is nothing worse for a family than indifference, which will weaken the bonds of mutual feeling.  And here we can find the importance of rhetoric in politics – its most important function is to strengthen those feelings on which collective actions depends.
For the radicals outside the system the key to success is the breaking up that unified culture, which, and we must be under no illusions, is a very hard thing to do; although this has occurred in all the centuries since the Reformation.  In the early 20th century socialism broke up the reigning consensus (either Liberal or Conservative), and was then slowly integrated into the political establishment.  As a result it significantly altered the culture, until a new “crisis” arose during the 1960s, which saw social democracy replaced by neo-liberalism, which achieved dominance in the 1980s. (See Donald Sassoon’s One Hundred Years of Socialism; The West European Left in the 20th Century, which I believe shows that socialism had stopped being a revolutionary force by 1930s.  See my Looking in the Mirror Part I and Part II for an illustration of how these changes have affected social democratic thinkers associated with the LSE.)
[xxxiii] For brilliant insights into political cults watch the vast oeuvre of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  For an analysis of one of his masterpieces see my Extraordinary Games.
[xxxiv] Significantly this was one of the questions raised in a discussion with Bricmont, Johnstone and Baillargeon.
[xxxv] See Jean Blondel for interesting analysis: Voters, Parties and Leaders.  For just how unusual Chomsky’s political positions are see Jean Bricmont’s comments in The Chomsky Notebook.
[xxxvi] See footnote (xlv) in my Dropout Boogie which includes a long analysis of Barsky’s polemic against Sokal and Bricmont. 

3 comments:

  1. The following comment is from Michael Albert. It is in two parts because it is longer than this blog will allow.

    I am not sure why this essay is titled with my name. I didn't find anything so specifically directed to me as to make sense of that. For example, I saw no question that I need to answer, or that was even addressed to me. Even more, I saw no comment on any actual words of mine to react to. Perhaps I read too fast?

    Regarding the rest of the essay, on a rather quick read - as this really isn't material that I have a whole lot of time for - some parts I find I like, some not so much. For that after, some I get, some not so much. It seems to me that you are, if anything, actually more harsh toward Zizek than I am - and that is plenty harsh. Perhaps it is due to your greater familiarity. Substance aside, I find all the references to "thinkers" quite off putting, I will admit.

    There is one substantive point, however, that I do want to comment on. The observation that facts are not enough.

    First, who says they are enough? Certainly not me. Not Chomsky either, in fact, that is somewhat ludicrous. So who says it? Of course the framework of understanding that gives facts broader meaning and implications is also important. In fact, to create, sustain, and be able to test and especially to use such a framework is a large part of why one digs up facts in the first place.

    Second, yes, there are also certainly barriers that stand between people and facts and even facts plus framework. Who denies that? Again, certainly not myself, and certainly not Chomsky, either. The barriers are sometimes material interests, sometimes psychological/ideological commitments, habits, etc., and sometimes plain old confusions, and so on. Does anyone, anywhere, deny that?

    So, while to communicate can sometimes be accomplished with just facts, when the person or audience one is talking with has a suitable framework and is open to evidence - sometimes it needs facts and an otherwise missing framework for their comprehension and application, and sometimes it also needs understanding, jarring, and yes, even provocation, to overcome or even just reveal and open to assessment, other barriers. Neither I, nor Chomsky, would deny these obvious observations - indeed, would anyone? - and his and my communications, I think, are quite aware of them and seek to act in light of them. Now we might do too much or too little of any of the three tasks, in any particularly communication, of course, but that is a different matter.


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  2. Here is the second part of Michael Albert's comment:


    So what is my problem with Zizek's work and its reception?

    It is not that his work has no facts, or has too few facts. Maybe the latter is true, I have no idea and it is not a big concern for me. My own work doesn't pile on facts, but, instead, goes for what might be called singular crucial facts and even, in their place, thought experiments, and sticks largely with them. It is also not that Zizek thinks it is important to address the surrounding intellectual framework, or the ideological, psychological, material, or any other barriers that impede people rationally addressing reality. That is just good sense, and totally warranted.

    My problem with Zizek's work is that it provides framework poorly, at best and it addresses further barriers to communications poorly, at best, and it even constructs new ones.

    My problem there is - now speaking for myself - that I am unaware of any insights beyond the mundane easily available more clearly elsewhere that are communicated by Zizek or even by any Zizek type thinkers. More, the quite common insights Zizek sometimes conveys are often seriously muddied by his mode of communication. Indeed, his mode of communication is, itself, a problem, not only when his words are vacuous or worse, but even arguably even more so when they carry real insights. The stylistic problem in all cases is that his style sanctifies as wise and worthy horribly harmful approaches to communications and, implicitly, to assessing their value.

    Arguably the much larger issue, however, is the reception of his work. If he was writing just for some academics, bad enough - but certainly not a big deal. However, largely empty, sometimes harmful in its claims, often so obscure as to be politically damaging whatever the content - nonetheless, he is touted and celebrated and published over and over, as if he is some kind of profound and important thinker we should all wade through and thus presumably, also, try to emulate. And people try to wade through and even to emulate - and either fail - and wonder if it is their own inadequacy - or succeed - in mimicking, to everyone's further detriment. My guess is that on the reception side it is mostly publishers and others bowing before a king who has no clothes, and, by joining in that ritual, adding to the pressure on all others to bow. I would be very surprised, for example, if folks at Verso, as but one example, are moved by much other than that his books sell, and publishing him is expected.

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  3. My impression is that my piece has not been properly understood. I can only refer the reader to the quotation in footnote x. Like an underwater mine it lies underneath the surface waiting to explode....

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