C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons, pour nos frères, La haine à nos trousses, et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère. Il y a des pays où les gens aux creux des lits font des rêves, Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue nous on crève.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Of Dry Facts, Creative Conjunctions & Hirsute Slovenians

A recent and, at times, heated discussion at Larvatus Prodeo, pondered the future of 'the Left', in light of the continued propagation of the Euston Manifesto and the work of theorist Zygmunt Bauman. Inevitably, the discussion turned to a debate over Iraq, with a variety of second-rate, 'third way' spivs and turncoats (á la Hitchens and Cohen) purporting to demonstrate that 'liberals lost their way' by opposing military conquest and the like. It appeared, to me, at least, that focus on the relative merits of the Eustonite's propositions obscured opportunities for sketching sketching a variety of leftward possibilities.

This post will not be an attempt to either churn out a manifesto, or to show the 'true' way forward, but merely to reflect, briefly, on a couple of characters who might provide us with some orientation in these matters.

Despite his name being absent from the discussion, it ought to be almost self-evident that MIT linguist Noam Chomsky is one of the most enduring and important progressive voices in the US. Despite the unceasing verbal attacks against him, he has been a vociferous critic of the US Government, primarily, in matters of foreign policy; but also, to a lesser extent, domestic policy.

Chomsky's political work draws mainly from mainstream media sources, and declassified US Government documents. He has consistently eschewed the supposed obfuscations of 'theory', preferring instead to stick to the dry 'facts'. And, in Chomsky's hands, the 'facts' do speak for themselves, particularly as regards his compelling accounts of media bias, and US Government/CIA devastation of Latin America. His sympathies lie with the 'hard' sciences, and his comments on the 'soft' are generally rather circumspect. Chomsky is particularly dismissive of French theorists; in one discussion, he averred that Derrida's Of Grammatology was 'based on pathetic misreading', and that Jacques Lacan, whom Chomsky had met, was a 'charlatan'. No doubt these sorts of attacks are symptomatic of the (American?) Left's troubled relationship with all things po-mo, of which the Sokal affair is another illustrative example.

Still, Chomsky's analyses are usually well-researched and argued thoroughly, and he does not shy away from offering solutions to political dilemmas, (these solutions mainly consisting of activism at a grass-roots level). Despite his seeming lack of a theoretical framework, and despite the mudslides to which he has been subjected over the years, I am yet to read a convincing rebuttal of his basic political propositions. Certainly, his work takes us some way beyond the casuistry of the Nick Cohen kind. Nonetheless, I think one way of appreciating it best is by juxtaposing it next to the work of this guy:

The fellow above is, of course, Slovenian leftist Slavoj Žižek (pronounced Slahv-oy Zhi-zhek). Žižek's background is in Lacanian psychoanalysis, but he was also involved in Slovenian politics, and he now functions as a kind of intellectual celebrity. He produces works at a rapid rate, the price for this being that much of the work is 'recycled' material. The current crown prince of theoryland, his knowledge of Lacanian formulae and German idealist philosophy is formidable, and applied, with varying degrees of success, to topics as diverse as conflict in the Balkans, the films of Hitchcock and Lynch, pop culture, Leninism, and theories of ideology.
Žižek is, in many ways, a kind of antithesis to Chomsky. Whereas the latter has a natural suspicion of 'theory', Žižek seems to go out of his way to engage the latest intellectual of note; early in his career, this often involved critiques of Derrida and Butler; more recently, he seems to have been taking his cues from Agamben and Badiou. Žižek has few solutions to any political problem - in any case, I cannot recall any instance of him advocating grassroots political action, at least, not without a distinct tone of ambivalence.
Just as Sartre, in Being and Nothingness, enjoined his readers to counterpose Hegel with his antithesis, Kierkegaard, so it would seem that, once the Left has emerged from pseudo-debates with Eustonites, the proper polarity might be one between the brute facts and pragmatic activism of Chomsky, and the high po-mo theorising and revolutionary zeal that we see in Žižek. It might be easy, particularly for those who affect to be 'realists', to simply dismiss Žižek, but, given his psychoanalytic inclinations (which I myself share), I am not inclined to do so. His perspective can certainly elucidate the limits of the 'facts' of the Chomksyian approach, as Žižek points out in an interview:

Or take Chomsky. There are two problematic features in his work — though it
goes without saying that I admire him very much. One is his anti-theorism. A
friend who had lunch with him recently told me that Chomsky announced that he'd
concluded that social theory and economic theory are of no use — that things are
simply evident, like American state terror, and that all we need to know are the
facts. I disagree with this. And the second point is that with all his criticism
of the U.S., Chomsky retains a certain commitment to what is the most elemental
ingredient of American ideology, individualism, a fundamental belief that
America is the land of free individuals, and so on. So in that way he is deeply
and problematically American...

I think that basically the facts are already known. Let's take Chomsky's
analyses of how the CIA intervened in Nicaragua. OK, (he provides) a lot of
details, yes, but did I learn anything fundamentally new? It's exactly what I'd
expected: the CIA was playing a very dirty game. Of course it's more convincing
if you learn the dirty details. But I don't think that we really learned
anything dramatically new there. I don't think that merely "knowing the facts"
can really change people's perceptions.

Having said that, Chomsky also highlights the limits of Žižek's theorising, namely, that it (often) lacks any empirical basis, and that it offers little by way of a path forward. Žižek criticises Chomsky's 'individualism', and his alleged incorporation of 'American' values, but forgets that Chomsky is a polyglot linguist of Russian-Jewish background, who lived in a kibbutz for a year or two. Žižek forgets his own Eurocentrism; the intricacies of wars on the Balkans remain obscure for most on the other side of the Atlantic, and, at least in Australia, 'French' and 'theory' are almost dirty words, at least for some.
We have with Chomsky and Žižek two poles of the Leftist spirit, two antitheses without a sublation (to put an Hegelian flourish on it). Where is this synthesis to be found?
Two cursory possibilities come to mind. Australia, whilst politically beholden to America, owes far more to Old Europe in terms of its culture. Australian democracy derives from British, not American models, and, at least in cities such as Melbourne and Sydney, non-Anglo European cultural influence is widespread.
Secondly, a possible synthesis of these approaches could perhaps be found in any thinker who is willing to traverse both Euro and Anglo spheres of thought. One possible thinker of such a synthesis may be, of all things, a French philosopher, namely, Alain Badiou - whose Polemics I am currently reading. But this shall have to wait for another post.