Science, Aesthetics, and Spreading Knowledge for Social Transformation

A recent spat between Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek brings up a really promising question, one brought up by Andre Vltchek not so long ago in these pages and again in a roundabout way by Adam Engel and Curtis White. What is the place of aesthetics in propelling people to act to create multiple better worlds?

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First off, let me be very clear here, Chomsky’s argument about Zizek lacking anything resembling a scientific theory following the strictures of a realist and materialist philosophy of emergence developed by Mario Bunge, Manuel De Landa, Roy Bhaskar, and Peter Manicas (among many, many others) is absolutely correct. I see no reason for this to be disputed. It is important to realize science is abducted in a set of rules, some ontological and some epistemological, dictating what it is that science is doing and what makes an explanation scientific. It is not just a willy-nilly method where every question is a hypothesis, nor every statement a theoretical proposition. The rules themselves may be argued, and they are all of the time. The lack of understanding of this scientific project leads into running correlations till one dies. Linear statistics is out for anything more than saying, “something could possibly maybe happen because of something else.”

Science is the search for important and relevant objective explanatory truths, what Brother West calls Truth with a capital ‘T’. A good example of this would be the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution does not predict a species, although it does reduce highly the probability of what a species can become (a bird will not morph into a fish anytime soon). It is these truths, which are slow and hard to come by, slowly building through multiple networks of researchers whom are striving for just a little speck of this capital ‘T’ Truth.

Now with this in mind, Chomsky says he has a propaganda model based on a political economy analysis of the mass media, not a theory of anything. It is specific to a historical occurrence and is based upon concepts developed in sociology, among other disciplines. But it is not a general theory of every society, nor a general theory of one society; at least, he has made no claim as such. Instead, it is based on the probability of the system operating a certain way based upon the empirical evidence. It details one part of society. Chomsky has repeated something akin to society is entirely too complex maybe for our brains to even understand it in a completely scientific sense, excepting for actual facts empirically derived from evidence. Now one may be able to say that theoretical weight can be given to the concepts and models, but that is an ongoing debate in sociology not to be dealt with directly here.

This seems to me to be quite self-evident. We have not developed some formal calculus of society. Even worse, you have economists utilizing mathematics as if social phenomena operate similar to an atom; an atom that can be isolated, placed in a vacuum, abstracted, and demarcated. An atom may act rationally, while animate species act irrationally and therefore we have a distinct division, however much I may be against removing an atoms agency. So, what we have at its worst is models and games, little tricks here and there, with abstract individuals reflecting nothing of their social selves and a foolish sociologist or anthropologist running after everyone making policy decisions yelling, “But what about norms, values, power, economic organization, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and geography!” This is to say, we strive to be a science and develop a theory, but we still have a long way to go. And as long as the study of society is caught up in the ideological battles we will continue to lack rigorous scientific theory. In my opinion this means not utilizing the little knowledge we do have to better the world to an extent where we can more clearly see how a society operates, to find a more objective place to stand.

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Secondly, I clearly do not think science is the end all be all of human existence. Nor do I think Chomsky in any way advocates that only science is necessary for humans to change the world. Aesthetics is important, beyond important. Aesthetics brings together our desires beyond merely interests with its cold calculations. Aesthetics also gives us a place to affirm a kind of religious belief in a revolution, in the possibility of a long transformation of the system into something new and unexpected permitting more freedom and less oppression. And the critique of aesthetics is powerful in discussing how the purely human created aspects of society can be an impediment to creating conditions conducive for humans to develop all their intellectual, creative, and material capacities.

Zizek then is correct in stating ideology ties into our very being, our existence as such, and can create anomic reactions. Just as he has good arguments on how the subjective, symbolic, and structure scales are different operating levels and each one must be analyzed on their intra- and inter-actions (which is just a classic sociological argument, nothing original). And Zizek is empirical. What do you think all those movies, poems, books, and jokes are, but forms of evidence for Zizek the content analyst. But, when he goes beyond this point I see very little worthwhile. So either he is stating something to be objectively true, an a priori necessity for human existence or isn’t. And if he is then what is it, beyond what seems to me quite easily understood propositions that enable people more complex thought. Oddly, this means I enjoy his popularized works much more than I do the more academic ones.

In a way, Zizek, as Adorno and others before him, brings to the table a lot of background and a lot that will push the mind beyond its outer limits. Yet, in an oddly Hegelian dialectical negation of the negation this becomes their unwitting downfall. At least definitively in the case of Zizek, he wants some worldwide proletarian revolution, but it will never be due to him, no matter how much he blames the poets for genocide. The poet leads to nationalistic genocide, because only the nationalist poet ever knew how to connect with a populist chord in the spirit of the populace.
As Zizek has stated, it is Stalin’s parvenu taste, and Zizek can’t do it, he’s already ideologically mutilated.

It is because the education system is dissimulating that is dissimulates itself. Ok, sorry, that sentence was a joke meant to make sure you are paying attention. I actually like a philosopher who wrote something quite similar [Ranciere, it’s really his line of thought I follow here]. And actually, it can be written once again in a more concise language. The education system merely acts like it gives everyone an education, while it actually reproduces the same damn hierarchy it is meant to alleviate. It goes even further, because it then allows those with power to set the strictures of what taste is and what is knowledge. Through credentialism the street-corner philosopher, the carpenter poet, and the janitor novelist are locked out from participating in aesthetic production and they become locked out from Zizek. Zizek then dissimulates the fact that he dissimulates his connection to the working class away.

And as long as Zizek continues to state that man is marked by absence, a lack needing a strong master signifier he recognizes in communist ideology, he will continue to miscalculate the operations of actual desire. They do not lack, they have too much that goes unfulfilled. He becomes the new version a Desire Named Marx. He is searching in the dark for the keys, while the worker finally realized he walked to the museum instead of drove and his wife is home to open the door. So, yes I firmly support both science and aesthetics as mutually beneficial to revolutionary struggle, however it remains to be seen if they need a synthesis or remain split, a two that never is, nor was, one.

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Now that I have laid out my two caveats lets return to the original question. What is the place of aesthetics in propelling people to act to create multiple better worlds? This is where I think Zizek does have an understanding Chomsky just cannot bring to the table. Once again, Chomsky’s critique is entirely valid against Zizek on his obfuscating language and a poor inability to bring scientific rigor to psychoanalysis. Although, I think Chomsky’s 12 year old comment is a little far-fetched. Shit, if you can explain it to my friends you are lucky, even if you do it direct. And this is where I want to bring up understanding of truth small ‘t’, as Brother West would say. The truth small ‘t’ is the one we all take part in creating, it is an aesthetic truth, an ethical truth, and a subjective or symbolic truth.

It would be the most idiotic thing to hear, for the sound waves to bang on the ear drum with, “you can have a science of subjective or symbolic truth.” My dear friends, this is pure lunacy. But that is freedom. What are constrained are politics and economics and what we can maybe understand somewhere between the chaos of aesthetics and the order of science. Aesthetics are also in many ways free. Expression and content can be absolutely free. Nor would Chomsky disagree with this statement in my opinion. But, the empirical level of historical reality does miss this subjective feel, these values and norms, and their ethnographic content. The level of actual concrete and material social phenomena interacting is unmistakably important, but more importantly for Zizek it is this emergent ‘spiritual’ ether produced inter-subjectively that becomes scrutinized.

Once again, this truth small ‘t’ has no scientific stricture, not at the moment that I can see. There may be space for it, ontologies are being built, corridors opened. But, then again I am also not too optimistic. Even the empirical level has a place from which to conceptualize and map out something factually. In many ways this small ‘t’ truth has no place such as this. It gives it both its freedom and its greatest weakness. Why is it even truth? It is because it affects the socially constructed reality, changing the way brains are acting by changing the content, the historical milieu. I have yet to decide if it is some kind of Durkheimian social fact or something altogether different. Even Bunge would somewhat agree that there is a difference of degree or maybe even kind for the epistemological basis for physics all the way down to literary criticism. All this means are there are different ways of knowing and, hence also different ways of expressing knowledge.

In all of this muck, we sense the need for platforms of interculturalidad (see New World of Indigenous Resistance), inter-subjective spaces of communicating and interacting, and so on. But, we also must be wary, as Zizek points out quite well, of then forgetting the static, the background noise reproducing, for example, institutionalized racism. But, then again so does Chomsky.

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Wait a tick, if aesthetics and argument are meant to propel multiple visions of a better world, and we have multiple people in multiple ways arriving at similar conclusions that are about doing so; then, the whole argument between Chomsky and Zizek seems quite futile. Chomsky labeled it a kind of useless argument from the jump, but for different reasons. Let’s review our current assessment here:

Proposition 1: Science in the realist and materialist philosophical sense of the term refers to an abducted system of rules allowing the ontological and epistemological basis for studying things existing with/without human cognition and utilizes mechanisms of emergence. Zizek offers none of this that I so far can see, however I am ready to be wrong. I think he might be trying, which is why he has chosen psychoanalysis as a place from which he can make his statements.

Proposition 2: Aesthetics is the production of forms of expression based on content derived from the social milieu and individual creativity. It is necessary for the human being to have aesthetics, the ability to create through expression, because it allows the system an open-ended out from the loop. Chomsky’s own aesthetics is based on laying out rational propositions based on empirical evidence in the old school anglo-saxon style. This motivates many, but does not get to the deep parts of desire that motivate individuals in a religious form, to act on faith. It leaves life sterile.

Proposition 3: truth small ‘t’ and aesthetics allow enough room for freedom of thought without the necessity of prior knowledge based in humanities natural capacity to create new critical forms of expression based on the content they have at hand.

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Now, I firmly believe the empirical is important, that the rational is as well. However, this irrational kernel as Zizek might say, of human existence is also necessary. The truth small ‘t’ animates us. So, from here I can give a summary answer to the question, ‘what is the place of aesthetics in propelling people to act to create multiple better worlds?’

Aesthetics propels through its ability to bring out a person’s emotions through creative exercises of expression. Many a liberal or progressive professor knows we have committed war crimes empirically, but they do not act. Their rationality consumes them, disabling them. Chomsky will call this ideological self-trickery on the part of the liberal intelligentsia. I agree in many respects and also another reason I did not understand where Zizek got off saying Chomsky is not worried about ideology (it was here I was unnerved at Zizek’s absolute disregard for evidence). However, I must disagree in part that it is not just the status of a professorship, but this constant built-up of rationality. White is correct that this borders on scientism, although he did not refer to Chomsky. No one wants to account for the human in this way while making statements about politics and economics.

Foucault was right about having a discourse constrained. One cannot show indignant anger without a flurry of references, studies, reports, memos, etc. This is not to say those are unimportant, you have misread wildly if you jump to that. I merely believe Zizek to be correct in stating that you do not always need to be empirical to know something is afoot and smelling raunchy. Yet, we cannot, the grille does not let us, and we are forced to succumb to Habermasian communicative action, where it can all be resolved through rationality. Aesthetics states different. Aesthetics links our ethic to a sometimes irrational form of statement. The one where the person yells, “Screw you, damn rich person looking down on me!” filled with all its ressentiment, but is really the affirmation, “I know I work just as hard or harder, but because society deemed you more socially worthwhile, I get to take it from you day and night.” I am saying we need a soul damnit!

So, maybe you have not liked how I have parsed out this debate. Let me know, let’s keep it going. I know a little, you know a little and together we can know a little more. But, we need it all; we need to get in the muck of science and aesthetics for a more effective way to spread knowledge for social transformation. Dare I whisper it softly, I fear if it is spoken it may float away; a social revolution!

Now, listen to this…

Jackson Brown ft. Crosby and Nash, David Lindley – Lives in the Balance.

And go an’ start an anti-imperialist campaign! THERE ARE LIVES IN THE BALANCE! You have an ethical duty and don’t worry; the empirical facts will bear you out after. We built pyramids before we knew about gravity, travelled the world believing it was flat.

Andrew Smolski is building his own micro-politics of desire little by little and brick by brick doing his part to rebuild the dreams of the oppressed, such as himself, for multiple better worlds. He can be reached at

Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.