Jimmy Kimmel and Kanye West. Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek. Locked in gladiatorial beef.
In fact, these two beefs are the same beef. And I’m with Kanye and Žižek, all the way. They may be goofy and hyper and self-indulgent. They may be wrong. But Kimmel and Chomsky are much worse than wrong.
Chomsky’s criticism of Žižek and Kimmel’s criticism of Kanye are about very different subjects and are enunciated in very different registers, but they amount to the same thing: “I don’t know what you’re talking about, so you can’t be saying anything. I have admittedly done very little, maybe nothing, to try to understand you, but I am confident what you say is not to be taken seriously, indeed, is hardly even intelligible.”
but I don’t know fashion. And to be honest I don’t follow a lot of what Kanye West has to say.
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. … See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t.
We have a word for that in philosophy and logic: arguing in bad faith. What Chomsky and Kimmel advance here is not the claim that the other is wrong, because no counter-claim is given. It’s not satire or even caricature: satire and caricature are (hyperbolic) critiques that arise from principled disagreement. It’s not a straw man, because it doesn’t pretend to be arguing with a genuine interlocutor in the first place.
Chomsky and Kimmel don’t enact the reception, comprehension, and interpretation of the other’s words at all. They claim that the other’s words are meaningless, empty, without purpose. Hardly even deserving to be called “words”.
If I’ve said anything else in the few other posts on this blog, it’s that you should be extremely suspicious of such a claim. On the face of it, it’s a very strange thing to say. After all, it’s not as if Kanye’s career can’t be tracked, and it’s not as if Žižek fills his books with literal gibberish: there’s clearly a phenomenon there. If you don’t get them or fail to engage with them, that, it would seem, is a fact about you, isn’t it? It’s surely a great argumentative risk to assert otherwise, and a very good and strong case should be given.
In other words, it’s a pure argument from ignorance. Or maybe more amazingly, it’s ignorance as warrant. “I don’t follow it. I can’t find it. Therefore, it’s crap.” These are not attempts at understanding. They are claims that understanding is not just impossible but so obviously impossible that no effort need be made, that the other is so degenerated that the very attempt at understanding is otiose.
If the interlocutor’s words have no meaning that can be engaged with, then what are they? What differentiates them from mere sounds? The difference between human communication and the grunting of an animal or the babbling of a brook is intention and meaning. What’s the difference between the Chomsky/Kimmel characterization of Žižek and Kanye, and the stereotyping of the Other as a beast or an object? Or maybe the Chomsky/Kimmel position is that the other has tried to cheat us, by dressing up mere sounds to resemble meaningful utterances, as if they were communication, but aren’t. Either they’re creatures or things, with no value and deserving of no respect. Or they’re trying to rook us into thinking that the sounds they emit are meaningful, even though they are no more than the oozing of muck.
You can do whatever you want to someone — is it even a person? — you see that way. That’s not just the first step on a slippery slope: that’s the last step. The reduction has already been performed. You may now silence that other, that pseudo-interlocutor, as casually as you would a drip from a faucet.
At worst, if Žižek and Kanye are cheaters out for a fast buck, they are cynics. At worst, Chomsky and Kimmel are something very much more vile.
Carl Schmitt, the great theorist of fascism, would have known well what they are. He saw the very essence of political life this way: not as various kinds of disagreements and compromises, laws and revolts, conversations and protests, but as the field of an endless, ruthless war between factions, constituted by nothing more than their bare difference from one another.
The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy….it is sufficient for [the enemy’s] nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially different and alien… To the enemy concept belongs the ever-present possibility of battle. [Schmitt, The Concept of the Political]
This sense of the political, because primordial and constitutive, is ineliminable. For the fascist Schmitt, it is the lie and the doom of democracy that it does not understand this, that it actually would presume to try to undo its true nature as a welter of enemies eternally at war, and substitute the democratic process for necessary bloodshed. Indeed, war itself becomes the prime, in fact only, political value. It is the allegiance to friends and the willingness to permanently silence enemies that forms the grandest ethical register.
“That’s a big claim,” you may be thinking. “You’re saying that Chomsky and Kimmel stand fundamentally against the kind of argumentative good faith that is required for a commitment to democracy, that they, at least in their ignorant dismissals of those who represent discourses even slightly different than their own, are becoming fascist.” Yeah. I really mean it.
To leap from your own failure of recognition to the denial that the other has any claim at all on your understanding is fundamentally a vicious, even fascist way to approach an interlocutor. It at once drives us away from the attempt at mutual understanding into the arena of violence.
Kimmel is the late-night-tv, pop culture version of Chomsky. The risk is that they are not themselves becoming the vanguard of some kind of authoritarianism — that would be to overstate the matter — as that their sheer bulletheadedness represents a kind of official, celebrity and intellectual, permission for the culture to slide yet farther into a dull, stultifying, yet prodigiously anti-intellectual Colonel Blimp-ism.
Colonel Blimp isn’t just an old fool. Colonel Blimp is a nasty symptom. Colonel Blimp’s willful stupidity is the official culture’s inability to critique itself. Colonel Blimp is the intellectual apparatus, the mass culture, the ruling class, in radical decline. People who otherwise look like they ought to be able to think a thought have downed tools and retreated into a snarling, anti-humanist, verificationism.
You see it everywhere. Steven Pinker’s gloating, tin-eared, “Don’t Worry, We Won’t Hurt You” article, addressed to humanists, was one version. “We’re not the enemy, humanities,” he says. “We respect you: some of you even once did science, and using our new quantitative methods, you can again. Once upon a time, we were all one discipline, and we will be again, as soon as whatever makes you distinct from the sciences is extirpated. Which you shouldn’t mind, because the rest of what you do is meaningless noise anyway.” That’s not an extended olive-branch; that’s an aimed howitzer barrel. You will be assimilated. You will cease to exist.
As Colonel Blimp said, “We should insist on peace. Except, of course, in the event of war.”
Sorry, no. I’m going down swinging on the side of meaning. Even error, excess, and goofiness are preferable to Kimmel and Chomsky, those two chattering skulls.