Post-Modern Absurdities: Chomsky, Post-Structuralism and Science

'Post-modern' thinking, Chomsky suggests, is apolitical or divorced from the world. To the contrary, I argue such thinking politicises so many things that we too often take for granted.

No Place Like NoamI like Noam Chomsky. I like how he can cut through the vagaries and distortions of much mainstream thought. I like how he always contextualises political events and has a deep sensitivity towards, and knowledge of, history. I like how he made William Buckley ­— latter day cause célèbre of neo-cons — look like a gurning imbecile by quietly and consistently pointing out how wrong-headed his politics were. I like his knack for exposing hypocrisy. I like how angry he is about the state of the world and how committed he is to changing it. Perhaps the thing I like most, though, is Chomsky’s ability to ask questions and take positions that even the most trenchant centrist has to take seriously. He is a deeply thoughtful man with a gift for cutting through the crap and telling us what’s really going on.

You can imagine my bemusement, then, when I came across this clip of Chomsky discussing science and postmodernism. I felt compelled to respond for at least two reasons. Firstly, because of the extraordinary influence Chomsky has. Chomsky’s youtube presence alone is pervasive. A quick search produces comment on Syria, the media, Bush, Iraq, the Obama election, Clinton, Libya… the list goes on. He is for many (and I number myself amongst his followers) the go-to commentator on contemporary affairs. The clip that concerns us here has been viewed over 45,000 times. That’s a lot. Chomsky is an influential thinker and we should take what he says seriously. Secondly, I wanted to respond to the implications of what he’s saying for left politics and the intellectual resources with which the left should engage.

In the interview, Chomsky directs his ire at a category of intellectuals — some of whom are supposedly in his field of linguistics — who use ‘polysyllabic words and complicated constructions’ but end up simply producing inflated nonsense or truisms. I hate this category of intellectual too. Who are they Noam, so we can hate them together? Well, on specifics Chomsky is remarkably light. He mentions Paris cafés, the Yale Comparative Literature Department, he mentions the idea of ‘theory’ as a distinct discipline in anthropology and cultural studies, he mentions poststructuralism (an apparently homogeneous movement of thought) but the only name we get is Bruno Latour (poor Bruno, named and shamed). I think we can assume that what Chomsky has in mind is a very broad – post-Heideggerian – church that would include a pretty diverse set of thinkers from Lyotard to Deleuze, Foucualt to Derrida, de Certeau to Spivak, Lacan to Cixous, Nancy to Butler, as well as their followers, readers and champions in the various disciplines and locales that he mentions.

Chomsky is particularly concerned with how all these places — Paris being the heart of the rot — produce a ‘so-called left’ criticism of science. What both Chomsky and the interviewer seem to have in mind are fairly well-known criticisms that seek to question the sovereignty of the scientific method and attitude. Common suggestions include the idea that science is not a neutral discipline, that it is shaped by various political power structures, that it is inherently sexist and excludes feminine perspectives by presenting a gendered (male) gaze as ‘scientific,’ that it colonises intellectual life by equating thinking with instrumentalism and profundity with impact, that it effaces its own constructions and naturalises and neutralises its methods and assumptions.

Chomsky has no time for any of this. When what is said is true — like pointing out that science is male dominated or conditioned by power — that’s fine. But there’s no need for all the pompous neologisms and vainglorious grandstanding. Everything that this lot say (I echo Chomsky’s own vagueness on who is actually saying what) could be repeated in simple language undergirded by some sensible data to illustrate what’s really going on. The strange thing is that Chomsky really hates the Parisian-nonsense-peddlers for the effect they have on what he calls ‘the third world’. It’s ‘disastrous’, apparently. This is because, we are told, the third world needs ‘serious intellectuals’ to participate in their struggles rather than ‘ranting about post-modern absurdities’. One thing worth dwelling on here is the level of abstraction in Chomsky’s position. He is making some extravagantly broad statements about whole traditions of thought, he elides the post-structural with the post-modern (something many people would dispute vigorously), he seems to think that literary scholars and anthropologists are engaged in the same kinds of questions and concerns (questionable to say the least), and he names one writer. As a starting point I think this is pretty sloppy.

Beyond this, there are a couple things worth noting about what Chomsky says. Firstly, what appears unquestioned in Chomsky’s position is the idea that we can occupy a neutral standpoint from which we can look at the world. Yes, he says, when the feminist points out that science is dominated by men we can from a neutral, objective point of view confirm or deny this. Yes, when a Foucaudian demonstrates how science is constructed through a complex system of power relations, again from a neutral place we might be able to give an empirical account of how this actually happens. But this completely misconstrues the object of such critiques.

The claim made by the feminist or the Foucauldian is more radical than Chomsky credits. It consists in holding that there is no neutral point of view, it suggests that every point of view is conditioned by a multiplicity of influences and prejudices. This is where people start rolling their eyes and muttering about relativism gone mad. But this misses the point too. To deny the neutrality of one’s position and one’s gaze at the world in no way dismisses the ability to make claims about the world. In no way does it deny hierarchies of thought, as if every claim were of equal merit. This would be ridiculous. However, such an attitude does infer that every time one makes a claim or takes a position one should be aware of where one is speaking from. The European or American intellectual speaks from a particular position, conditioned by a history of Western thought that privileges certain traditions, epistemologies, genders, races etc. This doesn’t mean that these epistemologies are worthless or these traditions are nonsense, far from it. But to pretend that this history of thought culminates in a neutral or natural view of the world is to deny that history itself. Let me repeat: the critique that Chomsky dismisses claims that there is no neutral or natural place from which we speak. It holds too that to act responsibly implies addressing one’s political and intellectual inheritance rather than effacing it.

Secondly, implicit in Chomsky’s rejection of ‘so-called left criticism of science’ is the idea that work in philosophy, critical theory or literary criticism (he seems to have particular beef with literary critics) should be judged on the same criteria as scientific theory. The implication in Chomsky’s position is that theory only has merit if it can be empirically verified or logically proven. This, perhaps, goes to the heart of the split between continental and analytic schools of philosophy, a tired debate that I won’t enter into here.

It is worth noting, however, that many of the post-structural thinkers that Chomsky has in mind are particularly concerned precisely to move away from an equation between philosophy and science. Instead, such thinkers (first Heidegger and later Derrida, Nancy, Blanchot et al) want to explore the way in which philosophy is deeply indebted to, and is in a sense embedded with, literature or a sense of the literary. It is in this mode that much of the thought that Chomsky wants to debunk should read. It would be a little silly to read a poem to be making some verifiable, scientifically determinable truth claims about the world. If one did, one might be bound to say that such an endeavour had rather missed the point.

Equally, I would suggest that it would be rather silly to claim that poetry has no role in revealing things about the world and the particular place humans find themselves within it. That poetry speaks on a different register to science does not render it meaningless. The same can be said about the kind of thinking that Chomsky has in mind. Post-structural philosophy often conducts itself in a literary or poetic mode. Post-structural thinking certainly has limitations that we should explore and expose but to dismiss post-structuralism wholesale because it fails to match up to criteria to which it itself does not aspire, is confused in the extreme. It is worth noting on this point, therefore, how utterly misguided it is for Chomsky to suggest (as he does towards the end of the clip) that post-structuralism was born out of a desire to mimic the complexity of theories developed by physicists and other scientists.

Both Chomsky and the interviewer suggest that this sort of post-modern thinking is apolitical or somehow divorced from the world. To the contrary, I would suggest that such thinking is deeply political because it politicises so many things that we too often take for granted. It politicises and questions, for example, the idea that the ‘third world’ needs Western intellectuals to engage in their struggles by offering intellectual guidance. It challenges the sovereignty of the Western intellectual, it forces us to consider whether the ‘first world’ has more to learn from the ‘third world’ than ‘third’ does from the ‘first’. It challenges the claim that Western epistemology is a neutral point of entry for understanding human affairs.

There are some intellectuals — particularly those that make a career out of commenting on the work of others — who perhaps fall into the category that Chomsky is talking about. It is true that some people (and they may even frequent Paris coffee houses or be found at  Yale’s literature department) have made a career out of aping the highfalutin theory of others. Some academics’ work does little to shed light on the world or human affairs but only serves to obfuscate and mystify. Such academics might have good reasons for their style or their approach. But I’m with Chomsky, this sort of commentary should have clarity as its goal. There are bad academics. There are always going to be bad academics. There are bad scientists, bad linguists, bad political theorists, bad poets, bad anthropologists. Chomsky, however, seems to think that all post-structural/post-modern philosophy is bad. I don’t think, in good faith, we can be so categorical.

Perhaps most absurdly, Chomsky suggests (at the end of the clip) that poststructuralism was ‘invented’ by former Stalinist and Maoist intellectuals after the discovery of the gulags in the USSR in order to retain kudos in the academy. Perhaps one of the most well-known thinkers associated with post-structuralism is Jacques Derrida. That Derrida never joined the French communist party and was never associated Stalinist or Maoist views is (as Chomsky likes to say) a matter of historical record. Anyone with even a fairly scant knowledge of French philosophy in the twentieth century would find Chomsky’s suggestion that a whole swathe of thinkers (one assumes including Derrida) ‘invented’ post-structuralism (a term, it is worth noting, coined in the United States) simply to avoid being labelled a Stalinist, utterly nonsensical.

Maybe we can dismiss these comments as misguided and insufficiently specific. But there is a politics in what Chomsky says. There is it seems, for Chomsky, a tranche of philosophy emanating from Paris (he does seems a little hung-up on Paris) that is completely worthless. It would be a great shame if this position were followed without reproach or at least without readers/watchers exploring life and thought in the Parisian cafés a little further. Does post-structuralist philosophy offer all the answers for the left? Does this kind of thinking make empirical research or even analytic philosophy redundant? Do post-structuralist critiques of science and the scientific attitude advocate a kind of soggy relativism that threatens rigorous thinking? No. A weekend spent reading some relevant literature would make this very clear.

What then do these French intellectuals offer us politically? The key thing that emerges from post-structural thought in my mind is that it forces us to confront the reality that there is no safe place from which we can engage with the world. There are no absolute answers to what we should do. And there are no positions that are beyond a searching inquiry into their conditions of possibility, even those made by the secular priests of the scientific academy. Every position and every claim is partial and temporary. And it is this very fact that means that we must struggle, that we must fight for particular positions and intervene in the world. This thinking politicises ones life from the bottom up, so to speak. It forces one to take seriously the inheritance that conditions one’s own thinking and it denies the myth (so beloved by the scientific attitude that Chomsky espouses) that our claims about the world, from the grandest scientific theory to our quotidian thoughts on contemporary politics, are either natural or neutral. Such an attitude forces us to account, politically, for where we are and why we think what we think. Such an attitude, it seems to me, is something that the left would do well to take seriously, rather than deal with in the kind of unthinking, dismissive and arrogant way that Chomsky does.

I like Noam Chomsky. But I like him a little less now. Perhaps Chomsky’s comments should remind us to always retain a critical attitude, even in relation to our heroes. In the end, I would like to think that this is something of which Chomsky would surely approve.

Daniel Matthews is a PhD can­didate at the Birkbeck Law School, University of London where he teaches con­tract law. 

Share with your friends










Submit
More share buttons
Share on Pinterest

  20 comments for “Post-Modern Absurdities: Chomsky, Post-Structuralism and Science

  1. Kade
    4 January 2014 at 1:41 pm

    The word, it natural, emotional starting point for critical objectiveness, pure Chomsky

    Fanboy

    Lol.

  2. Sebastian
    18 January 2014 at 6:28 pm

    What you are doing here in your article exactly confirms Chomsky’s thesis. I am sorry but to me _ a reasonably intelligent, I hope, person living in what might be called second world (Poland), speaking English as second language_ your defence of post structuralism is written in a way that is not attuned to the ear of the real victims of over intellectualised, elitist, speak, which yes, one closely associated with the Paris cafe decadent and very closed circles. If science is about formulating coherent principles by some systematic simplification of phenomena, to understand how they work, it is about using limited resources in such way as to use them most effectively. Humanities now however are getting to such inflated levels of abstraction that even the reading of the article above gives me an overwhelming sense that by engaging on the reading, the limited resources I have could have been used on a better way, poverty, disadvantage and yes I agree the male domination are phenomena that have very simple causes but require a lot of engagement and a lot of work to tackle ( intellectuals like yourself from time to time). However, academics create this huge field to give women a false sense of empowerment by creating a multitude of complicated theories and systems often exactly based on concentration of power and privilege, in which they hope to tackle their inherent disadvantage by joining new circles of privilege in the academia, while the real and only solution should be to close the gap between thprivilegege and the underprivileged, the old structures are instead grown and reaffirmed. While millions of women around the world similarly to men are being fed propaganda that exploits all sorts of stereotypes. What are the outcomes? The science of physics, maths and computing grows producing real achievements, like machines that carry weapons for more effective destruction and what are measurable outcomes of your sciences, where is the improvement? More disadvantage and disparity, hunger, death and destruction, through what I feel is intellectual wasting of your energy and our resources. Yes, hyperbolies are needed in fact we should be shouting at the top of our lungs “stop the inter textual wasteland” and think what you can do for those whose worlds end every day with the whimper.

    • Dave
      11 April 2016 at 11:16 am

      Maybe a more critical reading would be important when people consider “machines that carry weapons for more effective destruction” “improvement”? These things are directly related to “disadvantage and disparity, hunger, death and destruction” and also an imperialistic West.

    • Des Reck
      31 August 2017 at 1:17 am

      outstanding

      • Des Reck
        31 August 2017 at 1:20 am

        the outstanding comment refers to Sebastians reply.
        the article its self is nonsense

  3. Dr. Marius Rietdijk
    30 June 2014 at 10:13 am

    Noam Chomsky postponed modernistic social science named Behaviorism for many years by his charlatan criticism of B.F. Skinner’s masterpiece Verbal Behavior in 1959. Conservative creationistic cognitivists were easily confused by his wit. Noam will be heroic when he apologizes for this hoax and admits that he did not understand this work. That is no shame. It takes decades to understand nonverbal behavior, let alone verbal behavior, the main interest of postmodernistic philosophy. Behavior analysis as modernistic social science and behaviorism as its philosophy makes this possible and is the way to move foreward.

    • David Turner
      11 November 2014 at 6:43 am

      Dr Rietdijk – it’s striking how often debates about postmodernism degenerate into slagging matches. I’d love to see a survey of how often the words “hoax” and “charlatan” are used in such exchanges (there’s some verbal behaviour for you). Since many of the foundational claims of the proponents are anyway embedded in a relativist perspective, this can be highly amusing for observers.

    • BoilerRoomDweller
      26 January 2017 at 3:43 pm

      Every thought on this website is giving me cancer. I dare you all to make sense.

  4. Steven Meyerson
    28 August 2014 at 7:14 am

    Notify me of new posts via email.

  5. Alcibiades
    27 November 2014 at 3:14 pm

    Loosely adhering to Sebastian’s input, I too think this confirms, at least partially, Chomsky’s criticism on postmodernism and poststructuralism, which I consider legitimate at many points (even though I severly criticise some of his works on other fields); that is, that the vast majority of these intellectuals make a living out of posturing and blathering, while, in the rare cases they make any point, it is ultimately irrelevant, if not something that’s been thought before, usually in much simpler terms.

    • Des Reck
      31 August 2017 at 1:24 am

      Thumbs up Alcibiades

  6. Henrique Napoleão Alves
    21 January 2015 at 7:53 pm

    Mr. Matthews,
    Greetings. I’d suggest you to read the following texts for a broader sense of what Chomsky means and who’s being criticized by him:
    http://www.chomsky.info/articles/1995—-02.htm
    http://www.zcommunications.org/postmodernism-by-noam-chomsky (if the link doesn’t work, try this one: http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/chomsky-on-postmodernism.html)
    Best regards,
    Henrique Napoleão Alves

  7. Chase
    6 September 2015 at 10:29 pm

    You make much of Chomsky’s vagueness and generalness. I would say that he references, often, the work of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. I believe the title of their book is “Fashionable Nonsense”; also, you may want to research the Sokal affair.

    I find these critiques much more in-depth than the few videos of Chomsky discussing the topic.

  8. Lee
    29 September 2015 at 10:23 am

    I think you accomplished what you set out to accomplish here. This is pretty much the only salient, respectful, and effective online criticism of Noam Chomsky I’ve ever read. Of course I don’t agree with every detail (for example I think you inferred too much from his comments on “Third wold intellectuals” – I read that as a call for Third World origin thinkers who can deliver Third world perspectives to a greater body of knowledge, not necessarily an assimilation of their intellectual voices to dominant Western ontologies). But I think you caught him in some blatantly messy logical fallacies, a few historical knowledge gaffes, and took him to task for possibly hurting the greater “progressive” cause. No small feat, that, and you did it without calling him a self-hating Jew, a liar, or by gauchely propping yourself up as a ‘superior’ intellect of a higher moral order. Had Sam Harris scored even half of one of these points against the man we’d have never heard the end of it, which speaks to your humility here, as well. Kudos on an excellent piece.

  9. Marlon Hartshorn
    7 November 2015 at 4:11 pm

    I had similar thoughts when watching the Chomsky video. I like Derrida and read his books. I comprehend what Derrida is trying to get across to me as the reader, though not always. Highly intriguing subject and this is a good critique of Chomsky’s “world-view.” You are right, science has its “priests” for sure.

  10. GM
    1 February 2016 at 7:56 am

    Yes, he says, when the feminist points out that science is dominated by men we can from a neutral, objective point of view confirm or deny this. Yes, when a Foucaudian demonstrates how science is constructed through a complex system of power relations, again from a neutral place we might be able to give an empirical account of how this actually happens.

    I see these objections all the time, indeed they constitute the foundation on which millions of pages of pseudo-intellectual pomposity have been based.

    However, it all boils down to the fact that either one of these is true:

    1) The feminists/postmodernists can demonstrate how an actual widely accepted scientific theory is wrong because of the male western bias of modern science (note: theories that have been considered true once upon a time but later found to be wrong by those same male western scientists do not count — that is the self-correcting mechanism of science doing its job).

    2) The whole thing is an exercise in intellectual masturbation that only brings pleasure to those participating in it while everyone else is subjected to the danger of getting sprayed with bodily fluids they would prefer not to come in contact with.

    If no postmodernist can show a good example that would demonstrate the validity of 1) then 2) is true. As far as I am aware, half a century later it is indeed a fact that nobody has.

    Note: the objection that I am assuming there is objective truth to be found, which, according to the postmodernists, is not the case, therefore I cannot demand that they show that a given theory is true or false because there is no such thing as truth, is not a valid one. There is no point in having any intellectual debate if the starting premise is that there is no objective truth. And, of course, science wins because it works.

    • BoilerRoomDweller
      26 January 2017 at 3:53 pm

      You’re the cure. Thanks for your trenchant, bullshit-cutting words.

  11. Dave
    6 June 2016 at 6:46 am

    Nailed it. Thanks!

  12. Adrian
    12 August 2016 at 11:25 pm

    This is not an opinion, just a few keys!

    Looking at the video the critique is clearly aimed at the new philosophers, which came from a disbanded group called La Gauche Proletarienne with moaist and staliniste influences. Significantly, they disbanded in 1973, the year Soljenitsyne published The Gulag Archipelago.

    One prominent member of the group is Bernard-Henry Levy, known in France as BHL who has analysed ideas about revolution and so forth.

    According to BHL himself, he called on Sarkozy to support the Libyan revolutionaries during the Arab Spring and made a movie to illustrate his role – Le Serment de Tobrouk:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOhlTMt7mkM

    So some intellectual thoughts are “a pain in the neck” (lovely choice of words!) for the first world while their lack of relevance to the third world have demonstrably led to unspeakable (current) human misery.

  13. Anirudh Deshpande
    15 May 2017 at 5:32 am

    Post structuralism and post modernism are best taken as wake up calls against what E.P. Thompson would have called the ‘poverty of theory.’ However, they carry the dangers of running away from theory and falling into the bottomless pit of relativism and its corollary, political reaction. Let them be alarms which wake us up but let them not ring throughout the day. Without theory there is no knowledge, without knowledge there is no power and without power we cannot change the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*