‘Atlantic Rim’: Chomsky v. Zizek

‘Atlantic Rim’: Chomsky v. Zizek

An online dustup between two pop star penseurs shows them staggering through afterlives.


Pacific Rim offers a somewhat messy allegory. In the East, a monstrous alien power is rising in the form of kaiju, or alien sea monsters. Humans counter with jaegers, robotic war machines. The final jaegers seem to represent various capitalist modes of production: Fordist, Soviet, post-Fordist and an Australian one I didn’t get. Spoiler: the somewhat forlorn old-model American jaeger, with a little international cooperation, ends up saving the world.

Mainly, however, the film consists of slugfests between ponderous titans thigh-deep in the Pacific Ocean. Puny people look on apprehensively, adjuncts so unnecessary to the action that it remains unclear why they are there at all. What are the stakes again? Right, the fate of humankind. Still, as in Alien vs. Predator, it is appealing enough to watch great beasts settle their obscene and obscure contretemps. Crash! Boom! Bang!

Just so the current online war between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek: megafauna of political philosophy, pop star penseurs from the great generation of intellectuals ringing the Atlantic. Linguist Chomsky is loosely associated with small-a anarchism, inimical to the state and particularly to imperialism’s murderous freebooting. Zizek, the Slovenian thinker who triangulates himself via Hegel, Marx and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, is increasingly associated with capital-C communism. He speaks sympathetically (it is hard to adjudge the irony) of Lenin and Stalin.

These are inevitably caricatures. It would be impossible to capture herein the nuance and breadth of their prodigious outputs. Moreover, Chomsky and Zizek share basic agreements: capitalism and the state it commands must go; this seems unlikely to happen on its own before things go from intolerable to really intolerable; let’s get on it.

One distinguishing question centers on why this process has not already commenced in earnest. Chomsky is a true believer in the clear fact. In his accounting, for various reasons (most significantly the complicit self-disciplining of the media), it’s because people lack adequate knowledge of the horrors being perpetrated hourly by their governments. He has implacably devoted decades to bringing these crimes to common knowledge. 

Zizek is not hostile to facts. Still, he concerns himself with the human capacity to proceed as if they didn’t exist or were exactly reversed, even when we “know” them perfectly well. He locates the blockage in a mercurial flux of desire and ideology, in the elaborate and contradictory attachments of human psyches to powers that will destroy them. No amount of Chomskyan recitation can provide illumination: the self-protective structure of the psyche, always divided against itself, is what wants breaking open. 

These differences have set the terms for their showdown, conducted like most theory wars via a sequence of increasingly elaborate and overbearing interviews with sympathetic hosts. Zizek is accused of dressing up the simple-minded thoughts of a 12-year-old in mystifying jargon. In response we hear that Chomsky, for all his posturing, offers no empirical facts in his critique and, by the way, was an apologist for the Khmer Rouge. Or he wasn’t; this “fact” turns out to be ambiguous. Each dismisses the other’s claims out of hand before proceeding to tendentious counterpointing. It all escalates: Zizek is a fantasist; Chomsky is finally accused of having himself the comprehension levels of the original preteen. 

This is in many ways a standard-issue flame war, yet there are mysteries in this structure of debate. Why has it arisen just now? And why must an imagined 12-year-old, among the infinite array of figures, be the instrument of insult?

The limits of Chomsky and Zizek are certainly not their intellects, nor their probity or sincerity. They are simply out of time, staggering through afterlives. Chomsky’s thought found its moment in the alter-globalization movement that zenithed and faded a dozen years ago, featuring a largely moralistic rejection of “power” and a critique of American imperialism that made rather more sense when US domination was the central issue of the age, rather than global capitalist crisis.

Zizek’s clock chimed earlier still. His winking calls for central organization represent a version of what we might call ”conference communism”: recent philosophical formalizations of political modes that perhaps made sense during last century’s industrial expansion. Even clothed in capital-I philosophical ideas, the sequence of union/party/dictatorship of the proletariat has little purchase on the extraordinary struggles of the last several years, which lack a single goal, much less a single politics. If anything, those struggles have disclosed multiple antagonists and multiple ways of fighting. Dictatorship, democracy, austerity, growth economies: none of these have delivered the escape from lives of miserable necessity.  

For all their failings and desperation, the last five years of global crisis have seen the most disparate, distributed and charismatic anti-systemic struggle in living memory. This is the kid in question: the colloquy of revolts, young, vital, perhaps still short of self-understanding, but figuring things out in the street, in scant need of habituated anti-imperialism or of the Party.  

This is not to advocate an anti-intellectual stance. Quite the opposite—we should be very attentive to the kinds of thought that arise from these struggles. They will not be default positions. Thus Chomsky’s and Zizek’s anxiety about the 12-year-old: this kid lives in the present complexity, in its particularity and distinction, in its real and changed conditions. The kid marks their irrelevance, understands perfectly well not to worry much about the great, clumsy beasts banging away at each other in the distance. These new struggles are pop in the grandest sense, living, not yet captured by culture. Let the dead bury the dead.

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