Nowhere in my defence of Continental philosophy do I claim that one must abandon all rational grounds, nor that anything goes. I do say that Chomsky has a very limited idea of rational grounds, quite insufficient even in analytic terms, and that he doesn’t even apply this idea to his own “arguments” (in fact unsupported assertions) about Continental Philosophy. One has the right not to agree with Chomsky’s idea of rationality (which is very vague, “posturing”, limiting itself to scientific rationality and then gesticulating towards “empirical testability” – this is not the be all and end all of scientific rationality). You can look all over my blog, and you will find that I do not indulge in irrational vaticinations. But sometimes you have to have done the background reading to catch the allusions, to see the dialogic structure, to unpack the analogies. As one must with Chomsky too. And with anyone who has something to say.
Let me take the first paragraph of Zizek’s latest book LESS THAN NOTHING where he elaborates a concept of “stupidity” that applies to “the (occasionally) hyper‐intelligent subject who just doesn’t “get it,” who understands a situation logically, but simply misses its hidden contextual rules. For example, when I first visited New York, a waiter at a café asked me: “How was your day?” Mistaking the phrase for a genuine question, I answered him truthfully (“I am dead tired, jet‐lagged, stressed out …”), and he looked at me as if I were a complete idiot … and he was right: this kind of stupidity is precisely that of an idiot. Alan Turing was an exemplary idiot: a man of extraordinary intelligence, but a proto‐psychotic unable to process implicit contextual rules. In literature, one cannot avoid recalling Jaroslav Hašek’s good soldier Švejk, who, when he saw soldiers shooting from their trenches at the enemy soldiers, ran into no‐man’s land and started to shout: “Stop shooting, there are people on the other side!” The arch‐model of this idiocy is,however, the naïve child from Andersen’s tale who publicly exclaims that the emperor is naked—thereby missing the point that, as Alphonse Allais put it, we are all naked beneath our clothes”.
I think this is well-written, typical of Zizek’s style, and easy to understand – not at all “irrational” or an “invitation to irrationalism”. He contrasts direct logical understanding that needs no context and rational understanding that takes into account the contextual rues of a situation. The distinction applies to Chomsky’s assertions about Continental philosophy, as Chomsky does not bother to take into account the contextual rules of French philosophy, he just assumes that either they are the same rules as those of science, ie empirical testability (which is a very bizarre assumption to make, we are not doing science most of the time, and we are still, often, being rational),and please do not do me the insult of supposing that I am contesting the law of contradiction or whatever. The principle applies to Zizek himself in two ways. First, explicitly, he gives an amusing and easy to relate to anecdote (because we have all made similar gaffes at one time or another) where he himself was “stupid” in this sense. Secondly, implicitly, as the conclusion “we are all naked beneath our clothes” suggests, in any critique of the inadequacies of others made by him Zizek considers that he is certainly guilty of the same or similar failings. This conclusion is not given in his own words, but by quoting from a popular French humorist from the last half of the Nineteenth Century.
I think that this short passage illustrates many traits of French poststructuralist philosophy:
1) creation of a concept: one cannot set out from familiar ideas, concepts must be constructed to give us new perspectives. Zizek constructs an explicit and contextual definition of one form of stupidity, that he will go on to oppose to other forms.
2) conceptual persona: concepts are not just given in abstract definitions, they are embedded in figures that give intuitive and imaginative content to what could otherwise remain an empty verbalism. Zizek associates his abstract definition of stupidity to various figures of the stupid person, including himself
3) analogical resonance and transversal application: concepts are not limited to one domain but are constructed to show up features occurring in a diversity of domains. Zizek uses his concept to follow analogies between an abstract definition, an everyday life situation, the biography of a famous mathematician, a famous Czech anti-war novel (published in 1923), a well-known fairy tale, and a popular humorists take on it
4) reflexivity: the commitment to immanence implies that the Continental Philosopher is not outside and judging the field of application of his concepts, he is himself subsumed under them. Zizek includes himself and his text in the domain of application of his concept of stupidity.
5) pulsation between concept and image: Often this is what is meant when one calls such texts “poetic”. In fact it is a way of pluralising the applicability of the concept without giving it universal scope. Zizek passes from abstract concepts to “illustrations” in film and literature and life-experiences and jokes, where each enriches the other in both extension and meaning.
None of this is irrational, and I think Zizek has given here a masterful Continental opening to a 1010 page book