Noam Chomsky replies to Žižek’s “fantasies”

by ROAR Collective on July 22, 2013

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In the ongoing spat between the two giants of the intellectual left, Chomsky accuses Žižek of finding “literally nothing that is empirically wrong.”

Editor’s Note: This is the latest reply by Noam Chomsky to Slavoj Žižek. The debate between the two was kicked off late last month when Professor Chomsky remarked that Žižek is the “most extreme example” of the empty intellectual “posturing” of the European continental philosophers. A few days ago, Žižek in turn shot back that he “doesn’t know a guy who has been more empirically wrong” than Chomsky. Now Chomsky replies to Žižek’s allegations in an open letter originally published by Znet.

I’ve received a number of requests to comment on the post: “Slavoj Žižek Responds to Noam Chomsky: ‘I Don’t Know a Guy Who Was So Often Empirically Wrong’”.

I had read it, with some interest, hoping to learn something from it, and given the title, to find some errors that should be corrected — of course they exist in virtually anything that reaches print, even technical scholarly monographs, as one can see by reading reviews in the professional journals. And when I find them or am informed about them I correct them.

But not here. Žižek finds nothing, literally nothing, that is empirically wrong. That’s hardly a surprise. Anyone who claims to find empirical errors, and is minimally serious, will at the very least provide a few particles of evidence — some quotes, references, at least something. But there is nothing here — which, I’m afraid, doesn’t surprise me either. I’ve come across instances of Žižek’s concept of empirical fact and reasoned argument.

For example, in the Winter 2008 issue of the German cultural journal Lettre International, Žižek attributed to me a racist comment on Obama by Silvio Berlusconi. I ignored it. Anyone who strays from ideological orthodoxy is used to this kind of treatment. However, an editor of Harper’s magazine, Sam Stark, was interested and followed it up. In the January 2009 issue he reports the result of his investigation. Žižek said he was basing the attribution on something he had read in a Slovenian magazine. A marvelous source, if it even exists. And anyway, he continued, attributing to me a racist comment about Obama is not a criticism, because I should have made such remarks as “a fully admissible characterization in our political and ideological struggle.” I leave it to others to decode. When asked about this by Slovene journalist/activist Igor Vidman, Žižek answered that he had discussed it with me over the phone and I had agreed with him. Of course, sheer fantasy.

It’s not the only case. In fact, he provides us with a good example of his practice in these comments. According to him, I claim that “we don’t need any critique of ideology” — that is, we don’t need what I’ve devoted enormous efforts to for many years. His evidence? He heard that from some people who talked to me. Sheer fantasy again, but another indication of his concept of empirical fact and rational discussion.

Accordingly, I did not expect much.

Žižek’s sole example is this: “I remember when he defended this demonstration 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 defense 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.”

Let’s turn the empirical facts that Žižek finds so boring.

Žižek cites nothing, but he is presumably referring to joint work of mine with Edward Herman in the ’70s (The Political Economy of Human Rights) and again a decade later in Manufacturing Consent, where we review and respond to the charges that Žižek apparently has in mind. In PEHR we discussed a great many illustrations of Herman’s distinction between worthy and unworthy victims. The worthy victims are those whose fate can be attributed to some official enemy, the unworthy ones are the victims of our own state and its crimes. The two prime examples on which we focused were Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in the same years. A long chapter is devoted to each.

These are very telling examples: comparable atrocities, in the same region, in the same years. Victims of the Khmer Rouge are “worthy victims,” whose fate can be blamed on an enemy. The Timorese are “unworthy victims,” because we are responsible for their fate: the Indonesian invasion was approved by Washington and fully supported right through the worst atrocities, labeled “genocidal” by a later UN investigation, but with ample evidence right at the time, as we documented. We showed that in both cases there was extraordinary lying, on a scale that would have impressed Stalin, but in opposite directions: in the case of the Khmer Rouge vast fabrication of alleged crimes, recycling of charges after they were conceded to be false, ignoring of the most credible evidence, etc. In the case of East Timor, in contrast, mostly silence, or else denial.

The two cases are of course not identical. The East Timor case is incomparably more significant, because the atrocities could have easily been brought to an end, as they finally were in September 1999, merely by an indication from Washington that the game is over. In contrast, no one had any proposal as to what might be done to end Khmer Rouge atrocities. And when a Vietnamese invasion brought them to an end in 1979, the Vietnamese were harshly condemned by the government and the media, and punished, and the US turned at once to diplomatic and military support for the Khmer Rouge.

At that point commentary virtually ceased: the Cambodians had become unworthy victims, under attack by their Khmer Rouge torturers backed by Washington. Similarly, they had been unworthy victims prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover in April 1975 because they were under vicious assault by the United States in the most intensive bombing in history, at the level of all allied bombing in the Pacific theater during World War II, directed against the defenseless rural society, following the orders transmitted by Henry Kissinger: “anything that flies on anything that moves.” Accordingly little was said about their miserable fate, then or until today.

Cambodia scholars have pointed out that there has been more investigation of Cambodia from April 1975 through 1978 than for the rest of its entire history. Again, not surprising, given the ideological utility of the suffering of worthy victims, another topic that we discussed.

In these books and elsewhere we compiled extensive documentation showing that the pattern is quite normal: Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge (but, crucially, not before and after) and East Timor constitute a particularly dramatic example. We also observed that the pattern cannot be perceived, giving many examples and offering the obvious explanation.

What we wrote about the vastly more important case of East Timor, then and since, has been virtually ignored. The same is true of what we and others have written about Cambodia during the periods when they were unworthy victims, under US attack. In contrast, a considerable industry had been created, with much hysteria, seeking to find some errors in our review of the evidence on Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and how it was treated — so far, without success. I am sure I speak for Ed Herman in saying that we’d be glad to have it reprinted right now, along with the much more important work on the unworthy victims, just as we were happy to review the facts and the storm of criticism a decade later.

It is not too surprising that no errors have been found. We did little more than review what was in print, making it very clear — as one of the commentators on Žižek quotes — that “our primary concern here is not to establish the facts with regard to postwar Indochina, but rather to investigate their refraction through the prism of Western ideology, a very different task,” and a far simpler one. We wrote that we cannot know what the actual facts are, but suggested that commentators keep to the truth, and that they pay attention to the documentary record and the most qualified observers, in particular to the conclusions we quoted from US State Department intelligence, recognized to be the most knowledgeable source. Furthermore, the chapter was carefully read by most of the leading Cambodia scholars before publication. So the lack of errors is no great surprise.

Of much greater general interest is the fact that to this day, those who are completely in the grip of Western propaganda adhere religiously to the prescribed doctrine: a show of great indignation about the Khmer Rouge years and our accurate review of the information available, along with streams of falsification; and silence about the vastly more significant cases of East Timor and Cambodia under US attack, before and after the Khmer Rouge years. Žižek’s comments are a perfect illustration.

As the reader can easily determine, Žižek provides not the slightest evidence to support his charges, but simply repeats what he has probably heard — or perhaps read in a Slovenian journal. No less interesting is Žižek’s shock that we used the data that were available. He “totally rejects” this procedure. There is no need to comment on a remark that gives irrationality a bad name.

The remainder of Žižek’s comments have no relation to anything I’ve said or written, so I will ignore them.

A question remains as to why such performances are taken seriously, but I’ll put that aside as well.

Noam Chomsky

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael July 22, 2013 at 14:38

Zizek recently said that those who will not vote for SYRIZA (the Greek left-wing social democratic party) will end up to goulags.

I do acknowledge that this is a joke, but when one makes jokes about goulags, human suffering and mass atrocities is not better than a beast. Zizek should apologize from all the victims of Stalinism. Or I would prefer for him to shut his mouth up. The world is a much better place without his nonsensical arguments.

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David Jamieson July 23, 2013 at 04:08

Snore – get thee to a nunnery. Isn’t it great when anti-capitalists come across like the Women’s Institute.

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Paul July 23, 2013 at 20:38

And his critics should apologize for the victims of Hitlerism

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Nina July 22, 2013 at 15:43

The Slovene journalist/activist in question is Igor Vidmar (and not Vidman).

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Endem July 22, 2013 at 18:28

Every mention of Slovenia in this reply is cynical, so I don’t think that Chomsky even cares for the name of the guy. It left me annoyed and the debate itself is mind blazingly boring and content-less.

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euan July 22, 2013 at 18:56

Well, that is pretty much Chomsky’s ultimate conclusion anyway.

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dave fryett July 24, 2013 at 03:48

Amen, Endem, amen. Chomsky is uncharacteristically condescending abt Slovenia, and his argument against Slavoj the Clown, even tho accurate and largely tame, is pointless and banal.

The best response to Zizek’s inanities is silence!

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nata conly July 22, 2013 at 18:44

Really…?! Who cares about a petty pedantic mistake etc. What we need is leadership on the issues most of us are facing in our lives. Chomsky things just put out the facts and people will make the right choice. Zizek tries to help folks by stating that this is not enough and why we must critically think further. Chomsky is soft spoken and Zizek is over the top. The real clash is to be found not in this but in their approach to our current situation. For me, Chomsky says nothing but, Zizek provokes me to think deeper (many times I don’t agree with him or his presentation). Finally, Zizek always begins his critique of Chomsky public with a note of academic respect but, Chomsky never indicated he respects Zizek because he is against his approach and Marxism in general.

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herp July 23, 2013 at 01:37

With the accusation of charlatanism, this seems like another confrontation between an analytic philosopher and an alien philosophy of ultimately (however “obfuscating” and “frivolous”) more depth. Though something feels special about this confrontation, and it has the potential to be quite constructive.

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nata conly July 25, 2013 at 09:44

Looking forward to the debate. See you at ringside ;-)

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Daniel Riccuito July 22, 2013 at 20:08

Interestingly, Chomsky chooses to omit any direct defense of his oft-attacked article “Distortions at Fourth Hand,” in which he compares the Khmer Rouge with France after liberation; it’s an outrageous comparison, of course. Pol Pot killed between 1.5 and 1.7 million people — Uncle Noam minimizes, dismisses and disrespects those who were documenting the atrocities at the time.

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David Smelser July 22, 2013 at 21:45

Some context (lest people be taken in by this sort of hand-waving).

“In his corrections, Lacouture raises the questions whether precision on these matters is very important. “Faced with an enterprise as monstrous as the new Cambodian Government, should we see the main problem as one of deciding exactly which person uttered an inhuman phrase, and whether the regime has murdered thousands of hundreds or thousands of wretched people?” He adds that it hardly matters what were the exact numbers of the victims of Dachau of Katyn. Or perhaps, we may add, whether the victims of My Lai numbered in the hundreds or tens of thousands, if a factor of 100 is unimportant.

If, indeed, postwar Cambodia is, as he believes, similar to Nazi Germany, then his comment is perhaps just, though we may add that he has produced no evidence to support this judgement. But if postwar Cambodia is more similar to France after liberation, where many thousands of people were massacred within a few months under far less rigorous conditions than those left by the American war, then perhaps a rather different judgement is in order. That the latter conclusion may be more nearly correct is suggested by the analyses mentioned earlier.

We disagree with Lacouture’s judgement on the importance of precision on this question. It seems to us quite important, at this point in our understanding, to distinguish between official government texts and memories of slogans reported by refugees, between the statement that the regime “boasts” of having “killed” 2 million people and the claim by Western sources that something like a million have died — particularly, when the bulk of these deaths are plausibly attributable to the United States. Similarly, it seems to us a very important question whether an “inhuman phrase” was uttered by a Thai reporter or a Khmer Rouge official. As for the numbers, it seems to us quite important to determine whether the number of collaborators massacred in France was on the order of thousands, and whether the French Government ordered and organized the massacre. Exactly such questions arise in the case of Cambodia.

* * *

We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered. Evidence that focuses on the American role, like the Hildebrand and Porter volume, is ignored, not on the basis of truthfulness or scholarship but because the message is unpalatable.”

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Andrew Stergiou July 29, 2013 at 08:02

Me thinks you takes things much too serious

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N. July 23, 2013 at 02:56

We do know, and other commentators have already pointed out, that Chomsky has been, to say the least, suspiciously tolerant of the Khmer Rouge regime, Milosevic etc., always in the rather problematic tune of “yeah, but the US propagandists who claim to possess truth and safeguard democracy are actually no better”; an often valid point which, however, solves no problem whatsoever regarding the prospects of rev0lution, autonomy, political change and the realities of peoples living under regimes Chomsky merely glosses over (because he is only really interested, if negatively, in the US).
On the other hand (and I shall henceforth be focusing to the comment by Michael), Zizek, who apparently does try to address the actual struggle of peoples in their complexities, while placing them in their international context, chose to support Syriza and made an obvious joke about people who, to him, are so alienated that they seem unwittingly ripe for the gulags. One may disagree with his love for all things Syriza and question his arguments, but I would argue that, in taking sides, his is a more responsible political stance than Chomsky’s.
So, is this really the context for someone like Michael to feel so indignant about a joke that has already been officially decried by the oh-so-democratic extreme right-wing governing party in Greece and has met with the abysmally humorless reactions of journalists willing to pay lip service to this destructive government? I’d like to see Chomsky really get involved with international politics instead of relativising the horrors of Pol Pot and thinking this passes for leftist or, worse, anarchist politics.
I’d be a lot more patient about this whole situation, for I do accept that Chomsky may well have a point, but when the first comment I see is this “gulag” business, that travesty of a political argument on behalf of a horrendous government, sorry: I cannot but appreciate the fact that Zizek at least tries to address specific realities.

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Rubens Pimpim July 24, 2013 at 03:34

Chomsky and Zizek deserve all our respect, but from what we understand, Chomsky minimizes the actions of the Khmer Rouge over the events in East Timor. Also, in explaining the whole issue, the choice of terms unworthy victims and worthy victims was a huge misfortune. In an atrocity, whether perpetrated by the left or right, or whatever for whoever, you may have guilty victim or innocent victim, but NEVER worthy or unworthy.

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Jerome Roos July 24, 2013 at 12:59

That was exactly Chomsky’s point though: all victims are “worthy” of being reported, but given the ideological bias of the Western media and academia, only those killed by enemies of the US tend to be considered “worthy” of being reported. The others are — from the point of view of US empire — unworthy victims. The fact that they are unworthy from the point of view of US empire does not make them unworthy as such, which is precisely why Chomsky chose to focus explicitly on those whose deaths could have been prevented by the West but who were ignored precisely due to the Western ideological machine considering them unworthy victims.

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Tom Brookes July 25, 2013 at 19:32

Thanks Jerome, I was about to say almost the exact same thing. It isn’t unfortunate language, it’s very appropriate to the context of his critique – international atrocities seen through a Western lens.

I can almost feel the irritability with this Khmer Rouge charge emanating from Chomsky’s rejoinder – he’s been tarred with it for years; even by academics who should know better.

N., ‘we’ do not ‘know’ Chomsky is a Khmer Rouge sympathiser, in fact anyone who says that ought to read Manufacturing Consent rather than listen to scurrilous gossip. Chomsky’s main desire in his political writing (to my reading) is exposing hypocrisy, especially murderous hypocrisy. As such, while he’d never approve of the Khmer Rouge, he does offer up countless examples throughout his works of the USA’s flagrant dismissal of International Law and human rights and its unsanctioned violence against civilians in places like Vietnam, Nicaragua, Sudan… I don’t feel the need to go on with these examples on this of all sites.

Chomsky, though, isn’t afraid to say ‘if these humans (in Cambodia or wherever) are to be held to this standard; why not everyone else?’ – Chomsky has nothing to defend himself about on this point, but those who level the accusation whiff of Western supremacism at worst and ignorance at best.

This spat between Chomsky and Zizek though, it’s very dry but outside the examples what they’re saying is interesting – Chomsky says Zizek inflates balloons made of nothing with complicated adjectives (and by saying ‘and so on’ a lot) and Zizek… well, go read what Zizek says (though remember, Zizek said those words live – they’re not carefully considered and redrafted – I enjoy the criticism of Chomsky’s that Zizek hasn’t referenced anything; who cites references in a public discussion when asked a question?). Personally, I’m frequently impressed by Zizek’s mental juggling when he speaks – it’s like he zips from the edge of one epiphany to another and you have to fill in the theoretical gaps in his socio-political jumps or get left behind. And whatever you think about his conclusions, he’s certainly as provocative as Chomsky, though not in the same way. I’d submit that the difference is as profound as Chomsky trying to describe exactingly the varying ways in which humans wrong one another, and Zizek being more concerned with what those wrongs do psychologically, to individuals and collectives. Zizek’s style, it seems, is inherently less empirical because it frequently flirts with more nebulous concepts, like social psychology.

Chomsky said once: “remember, everyone has an agenda – including me”

I think a more interesting debate would be the broad politics and theory the two agree and disagree on.

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François Eustache August 6, 2013 at 04:00

“worthy to report on or unworthy to report on victims”. If one check on all the media of the planet, one will notice the same trend. Some victims are reported in some media and not in other media. What Chomsky has often said. He is a citizen of the United States. So he does focus on what the United States media report. If other respected scholars in the rest of the world had the guts to make the same kind of analysis of their own media, maybe we would have more facts that we could all agree on all over the world.

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C. G. Cramm July 27, 2013 at 20:39

As a person on the small `l’eft, I find this so called debate very strange, disheartening and, oddly, philosophically superficial. Chomsky and Zizek are both crucial figures for progressive politics: Why the fight? Or, more clearly, what are they fighting about exactly? Reading both figures on a near weekly basis, I can detect no striking difference of general political orientation. The origin and fuel of this dispute has more to do with basic philosophical presuppositions than, otherwise considered, politics.

Chomsky is a giant of the Anglo-American empiricist tradition; Zizek is (more often than not) the brilliant reviver of the the post-German Idealist School. I find Chomsky’s categorical dismissal of post 17th century presuppositions on the empirically real, typical of the North American Liberal Schools, uncharacteristically myopic and self-undermining: In short, he is part of a power system that manufactures consent, reinforcing its own sense of rightness on most North American campuses through hiring more academics who agree with the consensus – who wields more academic power than Chomsky? Zizek? NO!

Is all philosophy after Locke, Hume, et. al. an obscurantist plot to undermine the one true doctrine: Empiricism? Readers that move on to Kant, on down to Badiou, are not simply fooled by the continental siren song; they are reading texts that, among other things, seriously undermine the naive faith of Anglo-American empiricism and Liberalism; its historical connection to, ideology of, systems of domination, pace Foucault; and, in the case of Deleuze, for example, a critique and reconstruction of empiricism.

I’d really like to hear a philosophical debate instead of what, in this one, often amounts to childish and divisive mudslinging on the trivial: What are the presuppositions of progressive politics?

Zizek is a worthy, although different, inheritor of Foucault; for Chomsky to simply dismiss him and his thought tradition as incomprehensible charlatanism (someone not worth talking to) diminishes half of the progressive movement.
I appreciate, even understand, Zizek’s tradition, but I am not under the spell of a guru. Such division shows clearly why the `l’eft still refuses to grow up into the `L’eft.

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Karthik October 24, 2013 at 19:48

Don’t worry about it, the Left is known for its surprises. And stop philosophising chomsky.

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forcibly_baptized July 28, 2013 at 12:26

both men had some good theories (theory of manufacturing of consent by chomsky, theory of ideology in everyday pop culture by žižek) but recent work of both is substandard – both are increasingly becoming mouthpieces of imperial elites:
chomsky with his uncritical view of usa democracy (“were lucky that we live in usa” theme, ha ha), in not understanding that exacltly this was banner for justificating of all recent agressions of 3.world countries. Spread of democracy, sure, democracy in which only me, my wife, my cousin, my scoolmate from secret society and my dad can be presidents. What are you talking about chomsky, do you have any idea?
and žižek also recently developed idiotic theories about supremacy of christianity and it’s deeper moral value, and not just best ’till now invented ideology of submition training and uncritical exceptance of authority, which was always recognized by all emperators and tzars from constantine till today.

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Andrew Stergiou July 29, 2013 at 06:34

Dear Misters Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek:
From the “continental tradition” I take great exception from the hubris of what Slavoj Žižek.does in his rhetoric to win a chess game he plays in his head, Doktor Noam Chomsky knows this and has nothing better to do than waste his time and our time, as he enjoys matters, while drawing a paycheck from MIT: For regardless of the two gentle being correct or incorrect that point is none the less “the poverty of philosophy”, and “philosophers” who philosophize over matters rather than change them.

So before I die, this evening:

I made myself black tea with creamer sugar and sliced ginger, macaroni in cheese sauce, argued with empty headed reactionaries on the internet, fixed a few things in my wood workshop, feed my cats, had my right foot fall asleep numerous times by going numb due to not getting proper circulation sitting here arguing with the world, played a game of chess or two; and to the best of my recollections addressed all the concerns you gentlemen might have concerning each other and the world.

So now can some one send me a house guest as I am getting bored because your arguments seem childish with out ample quantities of coffee tea and food, as I don’t have your staffs with which to satisfy my concerns though yours are easy and they are something or nothing, but in any case ridiculous without dinner and therefor bourgeois and decadent.

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Billy Eddison August 22, 2013 at 01:14

OMG the ironic impertinence of The Chomsky pretending to be the squeaky clean intellectual acting in the public interest while denying an entire tradition of power analytics.

Back to your ivory cave ya monkey!!!

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Steven Augustine August 31, 2013 at 08:55

Ziz is a showman. The showman is a popular type (esp. among the young). Vide: the comments.

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Steven Augustine August 31, 2013 at 09:32

Also, there’s something exasperating about the commenters who choose to characterize this conflict as boring or childish; the pose of superiority is itself childish (more specifically: adolescent). As though there are loftier tasks than arguing when Arguing is the name of the game. The arguing, in this case, only *appears* futile because fandom precludes, for too many, a close-reading of the conflict. Conclusions are possible.

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Karthik October 24, 2013 at 18:36

Chomsky is again plain wrong. He doesn’t understand what zizek is criticising. Zizek has written extensively about gnosticism, perhaps chomsky must consider reading it. Chomsky doesn’t see the theory, behind his form of arguments. I completely sympathisise with zizek.

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Karthik October 24, 2013 at 19:13

don’t forget zizek is far better at predicting than chomsky can be even a thousand years after the event has occured! Zizek gives actual theories, chomsky merely presents facts.

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