- Journalist and media critic Chris Hedges recently interviewed Noam Chomsky. Hedge’s writeup of the discussion is up at Truthdig:
Chomsky believes that the propaganda used to manufacture consent, even in the age of digital media, is losing its effectiveness as our reality bears less and less resemblance to the portrayal of reality by the organs of mass media. While state propaganda can still “drive the population into terror and fear and war hysteria, as we saw before the invasion of Iraq,” it is failing to maintain an unquestioned faith in the systems of power. Chomsky credits the Occupy movement, which he describes as a tactic, with “lighting a spark” and, most important, “breaking through the atomization of society.”
“There are all sorts of efforts to separate people from one another,” he said. “The ideal social unit [in the world of state propagandists] is you and your television screen. The Occupy actions brought that down for a large part of the population. People recognized that we could get together and do things for ourselves. We can have a common kitchen. We can have a place for public discourse. We can form our ideas. We can do something. This is an important attack on the core of the means by which the public is controlled. You are not just an individual trying to maximize consumption. You find there are other concerns in life. If those attitudes and associations can be sustained and move in new directions, that will be important.”
- Video of the interview is available on TheRealNews YouTube channel. Here is the first of the three videos:
- In a recent article for The Guardian, Slavoj Žižek discusses how “Wikileaks opened our eyes to the illusion of freedom“:
Not only have we learned a lot about the illegal activities of the US and other great powers. Not only have the WikiLeaks revelations put secret services on the defensive and set in motion legislative acts to better control them. WikiLeaks has achieved much more: millions of ordinary people have become aware of the society in which they live. Something that until now we silently tolerated as unproblematic is rendered problematic.
This is why Assange has been accused of causing so much harm. Yet there is no violence in what WikiLeaks is doing. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the character reaches a precipice but goes on running, ignoring the fact that there is no ground underfoot; they start to fall only when they look down and notice the abyss. What WikiLeaks is doing is just reminding those in power to look down.
The reaction of all too many people, brainwashed by the media, to WikiLeaks’ revelations could best be summed up by the memorable lines of the final song from Altman’s film Nashville: “You may say I ain’t free but it don’t worry me.” WikiLeaks does make us worry. And, unfortunately, many people don’t like that.
- Ian Bogost recently devoted an entire piece for The Atlantic to a discussion of Darmok, one of my personal favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After a thorough rundown of the episode, Bogost discusses the concepts of metaphor and allegory as depicted in the language of the Tamarian race, and applies the principles to his notion of procedural rhetoric:
“Darmok” gives us one vision of a future in which procedural rhetoric takes precedence over verbal and visual rhetoric, indeed in which the logic of logics subsume the logics of description, appearances, and even of narrative—that preeminent form that even Troi mistakes as paramount to the Children of Tama. The Tamarian’s media ecosystem is the opposite of ours, one in which behaviors are taken as primary, and descriptions as secondary, almost incidental. The Children of Tama are less interesting as aliens than they are as counterfactual versions of us, if we preferred logic over image or description.
At the end of “Darmok,” Riker finds Captain Picard sitting in his ready room, reading from an ancient book rather than off a tablet. “Greek, sir?” Riker asks. “The Homeric Hymns,” Picard responds, “One of the root metaphors of our own culture. “For the next time we encounter the Tamarians…” suggests the first officer. To which his captain replies, “More familiarity with our own mythology might help us relate to theirs.” A charming sentiment, and a move that always works for Star Trek—the juxtaposition of classical antiquity and science-fictional futurism. But Picard gets it wrong one last time. To represent the world as systems of interdependent logics we need not elevate those logics to the level of myth, nor focus on the logics of our myths. Instead, we would have to meditate on the logics in everything, to see the world as one built of weird, rusty machines whose gears squeal as they grind against one another, rather than as stories into which we might write ourselves as possible characters.
- In a much shorter piece, Bogost writes about “Yo”, a new social app that enables users to send just the word “yo” to others:
It’s stupid. There’s no other word for it. But according to TechCrunch, 50,000 people have sent 4 million Yos since the app was launched on, uhm, April Fool’s Day of this year. But sometimes in stupidity we find a kind of frankness, an honesty. For his part, Arbel has rather overstated the matter. “We like to call it context-based messaging,” he told The New York Times. “You understand by the context what is being said.”
Perhaps the problem with Yo isn’t what makes it stupid—its attempt to formalize the meta-communication common to online life—but what makes it gross: the need to contain all human activity within the logics of tech startups. The need to expect something from every idea, even the stupid ones, to feel that they deserve attention, users, data, and, inevitably, payout. Perhaps this is the greatest meta-communicative message of today’s technology scene. And it might not be inaccurate to summarize that message with a singular, guttural “yo.”
- In a recent editorial Noam Chomsky considers the Snowden revelations and their implications:
These exposures lead us to inquire into state policy more generally and the factors that drive it. The received standard version is that the primary goal of policy is security and defense against enemies.
The doctrine at once suggests a few questions: security for whom, and defense against which enemies? The answers are highlighted dramatically by the Snowden revelations.
Policy must assure the security of state authority and concentrations of domestic power, defending them from a frightening enemy: the domestic population, which can become a great danger if not controlled.
- Slavoj Žižek presented at the recent “WHAT IS TO BE DONE WITH SEX?” conference. Video of Žižek’s presentation is here with the title “Buddhism naturalized”:
- Christian Fuchs recently delivered the inaugural lecture in social media at the University of Westminster. Video of the full lecture, titled “Social Media and the Public Sphere” is available here. Abstract for the lecture:
Social media has become a key term in Media and Communication Studies and public discourse for characterising platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, WordPress, Blogspot, Weibo, Pinterest, Foursquare and Tumblr. This lecture discusses the role of the concept of the public sphere for understanding social media critically. It argues against an idealistic interpretation of Habermas and for a cultural-materialist understanding of the public sphere concept that is grounded in political economy. It sets out that Habermas’ original notion should best be understood as a method of immanent critique that critically scrutinises limits of the media and culture grounded in power relations and political economy. It introduces a theoretical model of public service media that it uses as foundation for identifying three antagonisms of the contemporary social media sphere in the realms of the economy, the state and civil society. It concludes that these limits can only be overcome if the colonisation of the social media lifeworld is countered politically so that social media and the Internet become public service and commons-based media.
- In an op-ed for CNN, Douglas Rushkoff examines what lessons the Bradley Manning verdict offers in the digital age:
We are just beginning to learn what makes a free people secure in a digital age. It really is different. The Cold War was an era of paper records, locked vaults and state secrets, for which a cloak-and-dagger mindset may have been appropriate. In a digital environment, our security comes not from our ability to keep our secrets but rather our ability to live our truth.
- Writing for The Guardian, Greg Burris considers the Chomsky-Žižek debate in light of Snowden’s NSA revelations (or vice-versa):
In light of the recent NSA surveillance scandal, Chomsky and Žižek offer us very different approaches, both of which are helpful for leftist critique. For Chomsky, the path ahead is clear. Faced with new revelations about the surveillance state, Chomsky might engage in data mining, juxtaposing our politicians’ lofty statements about freedom against their secretive actions, thereby revealing their utter hypocrisy. Indeed, Chomsky is a master at this form of argumentation, and he does it beautifully in Hegemony or Survival when he contrasts the democratic statements of Bush regime officials against their anti-democratic actions. He might also demonstrate how NSA surveillance is not a strange historical aberration but a continuation of past policies, including, most infamously, the FBI’s counter intelligence programme in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s.
Žižek, on the other hand, might proceed in a number of ways. He might look at the ideology of cynicism, as he did so famously in the opening chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology, in order to demonstrate how expressions of outrage regarding NSA surveillance practices can actually serve as a form of inaction, as a substitute for meaningful political struggle. We know very well what we are doing, but still we are doing it; we know very well that our government is spying on us, but still we continue to support it (through voting, etc). Žižek might also look at how surveillance practices ultimately fail as a method of subjectivisation, how the very existence of whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and the others who are sure to follow in their footsteps demonstrates that technologies of surveillance and their accompanying ideologies of security can never guarantee the full participation of the people they are meant to control. As Žižek emphasises again and again, subjectivisation fails.
- Indiewire debuted the psychedelic poster for Žižek’s new film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. You can also watch the film’s trailer through that link; it opens in limited release in November.
- The Literary Review of Canada has posted a 12-part series titled Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan:
In early 2011, award-winning photographer Rita Leistner was embedded with a U.S. marine battalion deployed to Helmand province as a member of Project Basetrack, an experiment in using new technologies in social media to extend traditional war reporting. This new LRC series draws on Leistner’s remarkable iPhone photos and her writings from her time in Afghanistan to use the ideas of Marshall McLuhan to make sense of what she saw there – “to examine the face of war through the extensions of man.”
- Žižek v. Chomsky continues: Žižek has responded to Chomsky’s last comment in an article in the International Journal of Žižek Studies. You can read the entire article here, select excerpts follow. I am particularly interested in how Žižek focuses on conflicting definitions of ideology as a key factor in Chomsky’s misunderstanding of Žižek’s work:
For me, on the contrary, the problem is here a very rational one: everything hinges on how we define “ideology.”[…]This bias is ideology – a set of explicit and implicit, even unspoken, ethico-political and other positions, decision, choices, etc., which predetermine our perception of facts, what we tend to emphasize or to ignore, how we organize facts into a consistent whole of a narrative or a theory.
- After a rational and diplomatic refutation of Chomsky’s comments, Žižek ends the essay with a parting blow:
Chomsky obviously doesn’t agree with me here. So what if – just another fancy idea of mine – what if Chomsky can not find anything in my work that goes “beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old because” because, when he deals with continental thought, it is his mind which functions as the mind of a twelve-years-old, the mind which is unable to distinguish serious philosophical reflection from empty posturing and playing with empty words?
Noam Chomsky has responded to Žižek’s response:
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.
The Guardian provides a summary for those just tuning in:
Noam Chomsky, the professional contrarian, has accused Slavoj Žižek, the professional heretic, of posturing in the place of theory. This is an accusation often levelled at Žižek from within the Anglo-Saxon empirical tradition. Even those like Chomsky who are on the proto-anarchist left of this tradition like to maintain that their theories are empirically verifiable and rooted in reality.
Žižek has countered with the side-swipe that nobody had been so empirically wrong throughout his life as Chomsky. He brought up Chomsky’s supposed support for the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and Chomsky’s later self-justification that there hadn’t been empirical evidence at the time of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. It has all got rather heated and intemperate, but then, debates on the left are like that. More time is spent ripping flesh out of each other than it is trying to find a common cause against an apparently invisible and impregnable enemy. But terms have to be defined, ground has to be laid out.
- A minor war of words has emerged between two of my favorite public intellectuals: Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek. Late last month Open Culture posted audio of an interview with Chomsky (apparently from 2012). The interviewer asked for Chomsky’s thoughts on Žižek (along with Derrida and Lacan) in light of Chomsky’s views on the use of theory. In part, Chomsky responded:
What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.
- Open Culture published a follow-up post last week with Žižek’s response. The post has the full audio of Žižek’s comments, along with a transcription of the pertinent section:
What is that about, again, the academy and Chomsky and so on? Well with all deep respect that I do have for Chomsky, my first point is that Chomsky, who always emphasizes how one has to be empirical, accurate, not just some crazy Lacanian speculations and so on… well I don’t think I know a guy who was so often empirically wrong in his descriptions in his whatever! Let’s look… 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.
- Chomsky certainly isn’t the first person to accuse of Žižek of substanceless sophistry, but to my knowledge he’s the most prominent so far.