I 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.