Fantasies - Noam Chomsky

Fantasies - Noam Chomsky

In an ongoing dispute, Chomsky responds to Zizek claiming that he didn't "know a guy who was so often empirically wrong" as Chomsky, and in particular a claim that Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge.

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’” (http://www.openculture.com/2013/07/slavoj-zizek-responds-to-noam-chomsky...).

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 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: http://www.vest.si/2009/01/31/zizkov-kulturni-boj/. 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 (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 KR 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 ET, in contrast, mostly silence, or else denial.

The two cases are of course not identical. The ET 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 KR 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 KR. At that point commentary virtually ceased: the Cambodians had become unworthy victims, under attack by their KR torturers backed by Washington. Similarly, they had been unworthy victims prior to the KR 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 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 KR (but, crucially, not before and after) and ET 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 ET, 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 KR 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 KR years and our accurate review of the information available, along with streams of falsification; and silence about the vastly more significant cases of ET and Cambodia under US attack, before and after the KR 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
Taken from http://www.zcommunications.org/fantasies-by-noam-chomsky

Posted By

Steven.
Jul 22 2013 09:10

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jolasmo
Jul 22 2013 17:38

Bam!

~J.

Steven.
Jul 22 2013 17:44
jolasmo wrote:
Bam!

~J.

pretty much.

factvalue
Jul 22 2013 20:11

I can't stand that Zizek charlatan but I've never been happy with Chomsky's notions of empiricism within his technical field:

Quote:
Chomsky resists the behaviour of the militaryindustrial elite while endorsing and embodying its philosophy – its utterly bourgeois notion of‘science’. Let me put it this way. Imagine the most reactionary possible ideology. Imagine bourgeois individualism carried to its absolute logical extreme. Imagine a philosopher who took René Descartes’ dictum ‘I think, therefore I am!’ as his point of departure. Imagine going further even than Descartes in insisting that language exists only in the individual head, not to enable social communication but merely to enable thought. According to this ideology, no one else is required. You don’t need language to share with anyone else, listen to anyone else, learn from anyone at all. You know it all already thanks to your genes. As Chomsky explained following a lecture about language acquisition:
‘I emphasized biological facts, and I didn’t say anything about historical and social facts. And I am going to say nothing about these elements in language acquisition. The reason is that I think they are relatively unimportant… Learning language is something like undergoing puberty. You don’t learn to do it; you don’t do it because you see other people doing it; you are just designed to do it at a certain time’. According to Chomsky, the underlying principles of grammar are internal features of your innate ‘language organ’, installed somewhere in your brain. Even the meanings of words are fixed internal features of this organ, so not even these need be learned. Take the word ‘carburetor’for example. According to Chomsky, no child needs to learn this lexical concept because it’s already there, being present in every child thanks to its DNA. The child just has to find out which locally conventional sound to attach to the carburetor-concept already in its brain. Asked whether Homo sapiens possessed the concept of a carburetor thousands of years ago, long before the invention of motor cars, Chomsky insists that we must assume no less. As he explains: ‘However surprising the conclusion may be that nature has provided us with an innate stock of concepts, and that the child’s task it to discover their labels, the empirical facts appear to leave open few other possibilities.'

For more of Chomsky's bizarre and mutually contradictory ideas on language see http://www.chrisknight.co.uk/category/noam_chomsky/

Salviati
Jul 22 2013 21:37

Why should we care? Chomsky and Zizek are just people, with flaws - and now they are squaring up like two bulls in rutting season. They are both sometimes right, sometimes wrong. I neither know nor care which of them has the biggest anarcho-dick. Both are interesting theorists and great thinkers in their own way, but neither should be worshipped.

FWIW (which is little) I think Chomsky fails to apply his own magnificent theories consistently. In particular, he swallows the biggest fantasy of all time, hook, line and sinker: the absurd, racist, anti-semitic, global conspiracy theory of NWO proportions that al-Qaeda is an autonomous, Islamic global terror network which genuinely threatens Western interests - rather than being completely aligned and co-extensive with those same interests. So, basically, Chomsky isn't as good at contemporary geopolitics as he thinks he is. But hey, never mind.

The point is, an anarchist doesn't hero-worship anyone, no matter how clever they might be.

Steven.
Jul 22 2013 22:39
Salviati wrote:

FWIW (which is little) I think Chomsky fails to apply his own magnificent theories consistently. In particular, he swallows the biggest fantasy of all time, hook, line and sinker: the absurd, racist, anti-semitic, global conspiracy theory of NWO proportions that al-Qaeda is an autonomous, Islamic global terror network which genuinely threatens Western interests - rather than being completely aligned and co-extensive with those same interests.

care to elaborate?

altemark
Jul 22 2013 22:41

In relation to takedowns of Chomskyan linguistics, I much enjoyed Michael Hoey's (a disciple of MAK Haliday and the guy writing about "lexical priming") Persuasive Rhetoric in Linguistics: A Stylistic Study of Some Features of the Language of Noam Chomsky: http://bit.ly/18zlAm8

Mr. Jolly
Jul 22 2013 22:43
Quote:
I neither know nor care which of them has the biggest anarcho-dick.

Zizek is not an anarchist not even close.

Mr. Jolly
Jul 22 2013 22:45
Salviati wrote:
his own magnificent theories consistently. In particular, he swallows the biggest fantasy of all time, hook, line and sinker: the absurd, racist, anti-semitic, global conspiracy theory of NWO proportions that al-Qaeda is an autonomous, Islamic global terror network which genuinely threatens Western interests - rather than being completely aligned and co-extensive with those same interests. So, basically, Chomsky isn't as good at contemporary geopolitics as he thinks he is. But hey, never mind.

Steven is right I think you need to unpack that one a little.

TexMackenzie
Jul 22 2013 23:17

whatever...Chomsky is always getting his Khmer Rouge stuff turned inside out and thrown in his face...Zizek I'm not so familiar with but the little I've read hasn't been horrible....what's always getting me is the radical tag that keeps getting attached to Chomsky...a brave man, yes....powerful writer, OK....truth teller and someone who leaves the powers that be embarrassed, definetly ....anarcho - hardly....implicit support of Israel...supporter of the 2 state solution...participant and supporter of electoral politics etc etc....as I said great writer & speaker of truth to power but anarchist? hardly

Soapy
Jul 23 2013 06:20
TexMackenzie wrote:
whatever...Chomsky is always getting his Khmer Rouge stuff turned inside out and thrown in his face...Zizek I'm not so familiar with but the little I've read hasn't been horrible....what's always getting me is the radical tag that keeps getting attached to Chomsky...a brave man, yes....powerful writer, OK....truth teller and someone who leaves the powers that be embarrassed, definetly ....anarcho - hardly....implicit support of Israel...supporter of the 2 state solution...participant and supporter of electoral politics etc etc....as I said great writer & speaker of truth to power but anarchist? hardly

Chomsky roolz

Steven.
Jul 23 2013 08:05
TexMackenzie wrote:
whatever...Chomsky ....anarcho - hardly....implicit support of Israel...

I'm sorry, how is Chomsky a supporter of Israel? He's one of its most vocal and high profile critics.

slam
Jul 23 2013 14:04
factvalue wrote:
I can't stand that Zizek charlatan but I've never been happy with Chomsky's notions of empiricism within his technical field:

Quote:
Chomsky resists the behaviour of the militaryindustrial elite while endorsing and embodying its philosophy – its utterly bourgeois notion of‘science’. [...] ‘I emphasized biological facts, and I didn’t say anything about historical and social facts. And I am going to say nothing about these elements in language acquisition. The reason is that I think they are relatively unimportant… Learning language is something like undergoing puberty." [...] According to Chomsky, the underlying principles of grammar are internal features of your innate ‘language organ’, installed somewhere in your brain. Even the meanings of words are fixed internal features of this organ, so not even these need be learned. Take the word ‘carburetor’for example. According to Chomsky, no child needs to learn this lexical concept because it’s already there, being present in every child thanks to its DNA. The child just has to find out which locally conventional sound to attach to the carburetor-concept already in its brain.

What a wonderful takedown of a strawman version of Chomsky's language theory. Chomsky's actual theories, of course, never suggest that the meanings of words are innate. Only the acquisition of language is innate, as Chomsky is clear to point out even in the quotes picked out above.

But I supposed it's okay to ignore Chomsky's actual theories, because if you reject science as bourgeois, then you can make up anything at all without regards to the concepts of empiricism and reason.

slam
Jul 23 2013 14:02

(doublepost)

Agent of the In...
Jul 23 2013 14:23

Chomsky is not an anarchist; he's a fellow traveler of anarchism and a gateway to anarchism for many people. And he's had many useful things to say about U.S. foreign policy. Is he as great as many of his followers make him out to be? No, he certainly has some flaws. But he's worth reading every now and then.

As for Zizek, I can't say the same for him. He's total garbage.

Joseph Kay
Jul 23 2013 15:53

Is it just me feeling profound indifference to this spat?

Entdinglichung
Jul 23 2013 16:03

no

jonthom
Jul 23 2013 17:06

I'm just waiting for them to take this to its logical conclusion and go head to head in a Hell in a Cell match.

Mr. Jolly
Jul 23 2013 18:05

Im enjoying it, I cannot enjoy the birth of the new boy to be king, we have to be entertained somehow.

Ramona
Jul 23 2013 18:55
Joseph Kay wrote:
Is it just me feeling profound indifference to this spat?

Nope.

jolasmo
Jul 23 2013 21:16

OH HAI WE ARE POSTING ON THIS THREAD TO SHOW OFF HOW MUCH WE DON'T CARE.

~J.

Edward Sexby
Jul 23 2013 22:42

I'm not feeling any indifference towards this spat; in fact, in some ways it goes to the heart of how we exchange and develop ideas, and how we attempt to arbitrate such discussions. Chomsky's reply pretty much shows up how Zizek has no basis for his criticisms, unless he has some pretty good empirical evidence up his sleeve. And I think it's right to insist on that kind of evidence. Whilst I understand how "Progress" is an ideology, there is more than a whiff of the most simplistic kind of post-modernist bullshit in the discussion on the subject. "Science", or at least scientific method (let alone basic Socratic methods) are not "bourgeois"; I'm with Slam on that one.

I also have to say, have some of the people passing comment here bothered to read or listen to any of Chomsky's writings or talks? I'll stay away from the linguistics, as I know very little about that. All I'll say on that point is that I do know that Chomsky developed his ideas in the late fifties/early sixties, so I'd be really alarmed if his ideas havn't been challenged/developed/repudiated since then. However, for those of you who seem to think Chomsky is not an anarchist, I'd suggest a quick search on youtube under "Chomsky on Anarchism" for enough material to repudiate that idea. The man is a pretty old-fashioned syndicalist who condemns all states as oppressive, advocates direct democratic control of the economy and wider society, is an internationalist, and brilliantly reclaims the idea that post-capitalism should be based on a free accociation of producers, free of alienated labour and capitalist production and accumulation. Some of you (TexMakenzie in particular) seem to know otherwise. Elaborate, please. As for supporting Israel, that's laughable. Chomsky has written a huge body of work, both before and after "The Fateful Triangle" (1982) explaining how U.S./Israeli rejectionism and policy since the Six days war of 1967 have made a two-state solution unworkable, despite the fact that for many years it has been the international consensus, especially after U.N. resolution 242. This isn't the place to go into detailed arguments on possible solutions, but don't misrepresent the man. Maybe you need to ask yourself why Chomsky rejected his youthful socialist zionism, and is currently banned from visiting Israel if he defends the place?

Look forward to responses.

radicalgraffiti
Jul 24 2013 00:11

stuff like this

http://www.alternet.org/election-2012/noam-chomsky-how-progressives-shou...

and this

http://chomsky.info/onchomsky/20120817.htm

are some of the reasons i don't consider chomsky an anarchist

Chilli Sauce
Jul 24 2013 08:05

Yeah, I think "Chomsky On Anarchism" is the correct title.

While he certainly seemed to be sympathetic to anarchism earlier in his life (someone described him as a fellow traveller), the positions he advocates have become increasing social democratic. Doesn't mean that he can't write and speak eloquently about the history and philosophy of anarchism, but that doesn't necessarily make him an anarchist.

factvalue
Jul 24 2013 16:17

slam wrote:

Quote:
What a wonderful takedown of a strawman version of Chomsky's language theory. Chomsky's actual theories, of course, never suggest that the meanings of words are innate. Only the acquisition of language is innate, as Chomsky is clear to point out even in the quotes picked out above.

The philosopher Hilary Putnam’s carburetor example, which was part of his criticism of Chomsky's notions of innateness (and referred to by Chris Knight in the passage I posted previously) is discussed by Chomsky in his book New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, pages 62-66, which was published in 2000 after he had abandoned his previous Principles and Parameters 'box of switches' interation of a language acquisition faculty/machine for his all-new Minimalist Program device/module.

In these pages, in a context in which he is suggesting that language acquisition may be used to decide empirically between whether a sentence is a ‘truth of meaning or an empirical fact’, Chomsky argues that while it is hard to find evidence to establish whether a sentence such as ‘cats are animals’ is true as a matter of meaning or as a matter of fact, semantic connections are much more readily discernible in statements with a richer relational structure.

As a leader in the international cognitive brigade’s attempt to model the brain as a computer, Chomsky is also a leading acolyte of the great metaphorical ‘genetic-program’ which works in mysterious ways and whose apparently mind-like nature is unknown. Following an example in which he suggests that the connection between persuading people to act and their deciding to act is best understood semantically in terms of innate connections within the ‘language faculty’, Chomsky writes:

‘There is, it seems rather clear, a rich conceptual structure determined by the initial state of the language faculty (perhaps drawing from other genetically-determined faculties of the mind), waiting to be awakened by experience…

..Many have found such conclusions completely unacceptable, even absurd; the idea that there is something like an array of innate concepts and that these are to a large degree merely “labeled” in language acquisition – as the empirical evidence suggests – certainly departs radically from many common assumptions. Some, for example Hilary Putnam, have argued that it is entirely implausible to suppose that we have “an innate stock of notions” including carburetor and bureaucrat. If he were correct about this, it would not be particularly to the point, since the problem arises in a most serious way with simple words such as table, person, chase, persuade, kill, etc.' If this seems like a pretty flimsy reason for rejecting Putnam's point, that's because it is. 'However', Chomsky continues 'his argument for the examples that he cites is not compelling. It is, that to have given us this innate stock of notions, “evolution would have had to be able to anticipate all the contingencies of future physical and cultural environments. Obviously it didn’t and couldn’t do this.”'

Chomsky’s second reason for finding Putnam's objection unconvincing is staggeringly juvenile and fantastical. ‘Notice that the argument is invalid from the start’, he says. ‘To suppose that, in the course of evolution, humans have come to have an innate stock of notions including carburetor and bureaucrat does not entail that evolution was able to anticipate every future physical and cultural contingency – only these contingencies’ (emphasis added). This inevitably begs us to ask how did ‘evolution’ know which notions we would need?

His third reason draws an analogy between the state of play in language acquisition and immunology: ‘That aside, notice that a very similar argument had long been accepted in immunology: namely, the number of antigens is so immense, including artificially synthesized substances that had never existed in the world, that it was considered absurd to suppose that nature had supplied “an innate stock of antibodies”; rather, formation of antibodies must be a kind of learning process in which antigens played an “instructive role.” Chomsky says that because Niels Kaj Jerne’s work demonstrating that an animal “cannot be stimulated to make specific antibodies, unless it has already made antibodies of this specificity before the antigen arrives” may, or may not be, correct (!) ‘the same could be true in the case of word meanings’. It’s interesting as an analogy but unlike antibodies, as far as I know no-one has yet been able to pin down the precise location of word meanings within any biological system.

Chomsky then refers to his own highly contested ‘poverty of stimulus’ argument for innateness – which, unlike his previous three reasons, does at least seem to have some of the empirical content he promised us - after which the passage at the end of your quote from my previous post appears.

slam wrote:

Quote:
But I supposed it's okay to ignore Chomsky's actual theories, because if you reject science as bourgeois, then you can make up anything at all without regards to the concepts of empiricism and reason.

As a far as I can tell Knight doesn’t reject science as bourgeois, just conceptions of science he considers to be bourgeois, particularly if they happen to be connected with and funded by the US military, which he provides substantial evidence for in his writings in regard to Noam Chomsky's career and ideas.

Agent of the In...
Jul 24 2013 23:59

It was Chomsky himself who took up the label 'fellow traveler of anarchism' after he once and immediately denied the idea that he was an anarchist. But he's been labeled an anarchist so many times, including by interviewers, that he doesn't even bother to correct them. He just passively accepts such description. And I wouldn't blame him. It's tiring work. And it's not really a big problem.

Mr. Jolly
Jul 25 2013 00:31
Agent of the Fifth International wrote:
It was Chomsky himself who took up the label 'fellow traveler of anarchism' after he once and immediately denied the idea that he was an anarchist. But he's been labeled an anarchist so many times, including by interviewers, that he doesn't even bother to correct them. He just passively accepts such description. And I wouldn't blame him. It's tiring work. And it's not really a big problem.

From the interviews ive heard (though you may be privy to others) he said that he "wasnt an anarchist [thinker], like Bakunin or Kropotkin" but "a fellow traveller". And in his conversation with Foucault he staked his claim of a decent human society as following from anarcho-syndicalist principles. Now I don't know about anyone else, that pretty much sums me up. Chomsky is primarily interested in linguistics, American domestic and foreign policy not with anarchism, but they are in some way infused with an anarchist sensibility. Im similar but my main day to day interests are far less lofty.

Edward Sexby
Jul 25 2013 09:16

Thanks to radicalgrafitti for the links, and other posts, as it's cleared a few things up for me.

mons
Jul 25 2013 18:20

Zizek's reply, which leaves Chomsky's text looking pretty pathetic and dishonest:
http://zizekstudies.org/index.php/ijzs/article/view/443/487

Mr. Jolly
Jul 25 2013 23:52

Until Chomsky comes back and zizek looks pathetic and dishonest, The flip flop of chin rubbing. The KR final solution was dreamt up amongst radical leftists in beatnik cafes of the parisian left bank, that in itself should have been a warning sign... with added Phd

Ethos
Jul 26 2013 02:29

Eh, deleted.