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Tell me about this Chomsky character again.
November 17, 2001 8:16 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about this Chomsky character again. Operation Mindcrime: The Selling of Noam Chomsky.

As much play as Noam Chomsky's been getting around here, I happened upon this older now republished article over at disinfo. Love him or hate him. Agree or disagree. Chomsky makes an impact.
posted by crasspastor (36 comments total)

 
???

You think? I'm pretty sure the only people Chomsky has had an impact on are college-age pseudo intellectuals.

The average person in the U.S. has never heard of Chomsky and could care less.
posted by ph00dz at 8:32 PM on November 17, 2001


Well, given a choice, I prefer college-age pseudo-intellectuals to average people, though it's a pretty slim margin.
posted by speicus at 8:57 PM on November 17, 2001


The average person in the U.S. has never heard of Chomsky and could care less.

More's the pity, ph00dz. The fewer dissenting voices heard, the more the corpse of democracy rots.

This thread is following on from the one earlier this week, I guess. Not sure if it's worth it, but thanks for the disinfo article anyway, crasspastor. A nice bit from it : He strongly criticised people who asked him for guidance in selecting reliable source material, saying on several occasions that, "You have to use your own critical judgement and common sense. I can't tell you and why should you listen to me anyway? I could be lying about all this! That's the wrong question to ask me. Look at my footnotes - I mention a diverse range of publications."

posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:58 PM on November 17, 2001


This is a relatively thorough background on Chomsky's (I hesitate to say this) "political" (note the quote marks) history.

Over and above his stance on such matters, Chomsky has provided at least two of the most important grammatical theories (unified, minimalist) in human language.

Furthermore, as mentioned briefly in the article(?), he made a key insight that the human language faculty is an innate structure as opposed to something that is purely learned through the senses (Jerry Fodor's modular theory of mind has always seemed to me to be a natural extension of Chomsky's insight).

The only further point I would make is that Chomsky's "political" work is focused towards making people think. Whether I, you or anyone else, "agrees" with him is by the by, because discussing and appreciating the bigger picture seems to me to be by far and away the most important byproduct of such work.

He really is an incredible linguist, no matter what his other opinions.
posted by davehat at 9:04 PM on November 17, 2001


Oh, I forgot to say, crasspastor, this is an incredibly good link for background on Chomsky. I hope this will clear up a few things for those less familiar with his work.

Thank you.
posted by davehat at 9:09 PM on November 17, 2001


(Just a side note : the article linked was about Chomsky's visit to Australia, where voting in federal elections is compulsory. I wonder if more 'average people' in America would be better informed about views from all over the political spectrum if that were the case there as well...)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:13 PM on November 17, 2001


Trying to cover your ass by invoking Heisenberg does not excuse bias. Sigh. I wish more "independent" journalists would make an effort to present their arguments in a consise, rational manner.
posted by solistrato at 9:14 PM on November 17, 2001


Hey, erase this post. If the "average person" doesn't know it already it ain't worth knowin'! Right ph00dz?

Viva mediocrity!
posted by skallas at 9:18 PM on November 17, 2001


My linguistics professor was a disciple of Chomsky's at MIT. From what I gathered from him, linguistics and politics are strangely intertwined. But even if they weren't, who says a linguistics expert can't comment on politics?
posted by Hildago at 9:23 PM on November 17, 2001


Hildago: No one here, yet.
posted by davehat at 9:32 PM on November 17, 2001


..but wait for it!

*grin*
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:33 PM on November 17, 2001


davehat: Yes, he can be a giant in his field, no matter what, and talk about politics. But your post mixes the praise for his political opinions in with praise of his academic work in such a way as to make the two sorts of praise indistinguishable. The article also absolutely fails to make the distinction, and can be translated as, "He was unbelievable in linguistics, and then in 1968 blah blah Indo China something . . . " OK, it's good for him to be involved and to ask people to question things, but the blind praise gets old. If he's just an active citizen (good for him, by the way) who happens to be brilliant in linguistics, then freakin' say so. Otherwise, it's elitism taken to a nauseating extreme.

Meantime, stavros: Mainstream political scientists have noted for years that compulstory voting increases turnout and *maybe* - but not definitely - increases voter deliberation. There are other means as well, though, such as voter holidays. The U.S., however, has a hell of a lot more elections than Australia, which is thought to voter fatigue. (Switzerland has the lowest turnout of any western democracy, and has more elections, referenda and initiatives. It's maybe the only nation that Rousseau would have recognized as a real democracy.) There is a gigantic field of literature that goes way beyond Chomsky on this one, trust me.
posted by raysmj at 9:37 PM on November 17, 2001


Good point about blind praise, raysmj.

I do know that there is a lot of literature on compulsory voting vs. non-...I was just curious to see what the MeFi mob had to say about it (and didn't think to do a search for previous discussions, which I now hasten to do, and find a couple of threads.) To be honest, I'm also not sure if it's compulsory in Australia for federal elections only, or everything...
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:46 PM on November 17, 2001


I stopped reading that article in the second graf, when "Pope John Paul II arrived for the beautificaction of Mary MacKillop."

What's he going to do? Paint her toenails?
posted by coelecanth at 9:50 PM on November 17, 2001 [1 favorite]


raysmj: I didn't intend to mix praise (and reading back, I can't see any explicit or implicit references of mine that would cause this confusion within this thread).

I did put quotes around certain phrases because, to a linguist, this link represents only half of Chomsky's history (at least 10 maybe 15 years of theory are not represented) and Chomsky's background seemed to be the purpose of this post (unlike yesterday's one). There is a fairly good archive listing his publications here.

To clarify though, I meant as follows:

1. Chomsy has a great mind and has put it to good use in a variety of ways (some of which are not listed here).

2. Whatever the product of such use, if it stimulates debate, that's a good thing (political, academic, philosophical) as far as I'm concerned.

I never intend to be anyone's political cheerleader. I hope my posting record reflects this. Unfortunately, within this medium, implicature is often beyond any of our control.

coelecanth: u, but I'm sure you knew that.
posted by davehat at 10:12 PM on November 17, 2001


davehat: You sort of did it again. It doesn't matter whether he has a great mind. To me, one's authority in writing about politics comes not through one's being an intelligent being. So freakin' what? It comes through knowing what the hell you're talking about, doing it in a non-obfuscatory or non-self-aggrandizing way, doing thorough research, knowing what or who has come before you and acknowledging the sources, etc. It comes from having the respect of peers who have engaged in political theorizing. Wherever it may come from, though, credentials aren't earned in every field of study by being a smart person.

In short, "has a great mind" here equals, "He's a brilliant MIT professor. Therefore, anything he says about any topic will probably be brilliant." That's the very definition of snobbery or, at least, misplaced faith in a sort-of holy man for the technocratic age.
posted by raysmj at 10:51 PM on November 17, 2001


they get up to some pretty heated debate on the customer reviews over on amazon.
posted by signal at 10:54 PM on November 17, 2001


Heh heh, you said "implicature" dude. Heh heh.
posted by aramaic at 11:22 PM on November 17, 2001


"I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy." -Richard Feynman
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 1:06 AM on November 18, 2001


Davehat: "Chomsky has a great mind and has put it to good use in a variety of ways ... Whatever the product of such use, if it stimulates debate, that's a good thing..."

Hmm, I don't buy it.

William Shockley also had a great mind, and I have zero interest in debating his political views. Ditto for Ezra Pound, for Richard Wagner, or for any number of great minds in X who experienced a Peter Principle moment when they strayed into the very non-X realm of politics.

Once I sought debate wherever I could find it, and felt that debate was valuable no matter what the topic. Now I actually find few things worthy of intense debate. Chomsky's tired, hysterical "America is evil" shtick fails that test. (I don't have a general criterion, but Goethe's remark "I despise all that which merely informs me without also quickening my actions" is not a bad start. Ditto for Blake's "The Man who pretends to be a modest enquirer into the truth of a self evident thing is a Knave.")
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 1:56 AM on November 18, 2001


[...]but Goethe's remark "I despise all that which merely informs me without also quickening my actions" is not a bad start.

There exists a "Goethe's Goofiest Gnomes" compilation?
posted by Opus Dark at 2:42 AM on November 18, 2001


You can't leave politics solely to the politicians who were bland enough to win. If you think Chomsky doesn't matter, don't waste another minute thinking or talking about him. If you think he matters but you don't like what he says, rebut.

But you shouldn't want or expect him to go away just because he doesn't say what you want to hear.
posted by pracowity at 3:21 AM on November 18, 2001


raysmj, are you saying Chomsky doesn't thoroughly research his political claims?

It is rather humorous how so many people continue to argue about the man instead of debating his ideas head on or simply ignoring him.
posted by mmarcos at 4:41 AM on November 18, 2001


I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the Queensryche/Chomsky connection yet. Wow, Chomsky as the unwitting drone tool of the Reaganites? Heaaaaavvvvvy concept, doodz. From here on out I'm going to start visualizing Noam with a mullet playing a Hamer Standard and headbanging.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:45 AM on November 18, 2001


praise Goethe.
posted by clavdivs at 7:36 AM on November 18, 2001


Due to a browser error, I just lost a response I spent over two hours on. I'll try again, but its rushed and the magic has gone.....

aramaic: Indeed I did.

raysmj: In short, "has a great mind" here equals, "He's a brilliant MIT professor. Therefore, anything he says about any topic will probably be brilliant."

I am not aware of having said this. My tentative definition of "great mind" would be more along the lines of as follows:

"A great mind implies an ability to condense wide ranging and complex issues in such a way as to make them more easily accessible to a wider audience."

Having said that, defining "great mind" is, perhaps, a MeTa topic all of its own as it is open to a myriad of interpretations. Getting back to this thread though, in your second post I was with you up to a point. I agree with you wholeheartedly that just because someone is an "expert" on subject X does not mean that person is an "expert" on subject Y- I certainly wouldn't back a horse in the 3.30 at Haydock on Chomsky's say so. What I do not understand is why you seem to think that Chomsky does not use the same vigorous academic technique applied in publishing his theories on subject X when it comes to publishing his theories on subject Y.

Hieronymous Coward: "Chomsky has a great mind and has put it to good use in a variety of ways ... Whatever the product of such use, if it stimulates debate, that's a good thing..."

Hmm, I don't buy it.


Despite having left the last proviso, "as far as I'm concerned" out of your paraphrasing, and thus subtly changing its meaning, your post, along with those of raysmj, pracowity and mmarcos have helped me refine my earlier statement to the following:

Chomsky has put his mind to a variety of issues. In doing so his results inform people and stimulate debate of the issues at hand which is no bad thing as far as I'm concerned. And yes raysmj, I'm sort of doing it again.
posted by davehat at 8:08 AM on November 18, 2001


I'll just offer a couple observations about Chomsky-the-linguist. This is from the standpoint of someone whose grad school years in linguistics were absolutely dominated by debate over whether Chomsky was right or "a knave."
  1. "A great mind implies an ability to condense wide ranging and complex issues in such a way as to make them more easily accessible to a wider audience." This is an excellent statement of what Chomsky does not do. He is an unbelievebly dense, unforgiving, impenenetrable expositor--and yet, undoubtedly, a great mind nevertheless. Try reading any of his work from the mid-1970s on if you don't believe me--even specialists sometimes throw up their hands in despair. He is a legendarily difficult writer.
  2. He's clearly the most important thinker on linguistics in the last half of the twentieth century (at least), and yet he still has, and always has had, a substantial opposition. His followers have tried to marginalize that opposition or pretend it wasn't there for 40 years now, so if you listen to them you won't find any traces of their existence, but they exist at little-known schools like UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara and Chicago. Part of his greatness lies in the fact that when he is shown to be wrong, he changes his mind; alas, he usually does so destructively by failing to acknowledge the criticisms of his opponents. Because of this, he throws off new countermovements every couple years of spurned supporters and ignored opponents.
  3. Chomsky's dominance in the field is due only in part to the persusaiveness of his arguments. Much of his success came from redefining the scope of the field more narrowly, and treating the things his theory doesn't grapple with as "uninteresting." He's also a master rhetorician and academic politician, and the battle for generativism was waged as much at the level of tenure committees as journal articles, and as much by a legion of loyal apparatchiks as by the man himself.
  4. Chomsky has always claimed that his views on human language are independent of and irrelevant to his views on politics. It's his commentators, both for and against, that insist that there is a connection, but the connections they point to are tenuous (his use of Lockean "ideas" as somehow implying Lockean views on rights, his use of "autonomy" in syntax as somehow analogous to human freedom, his use of "creativity" in a technical sense as indicative of some wider sense in which we can "create" our own destinies, and other sophistries). Chomsky, for all his faults and rhetorical excesses, would be the first to tell you that the ideas have to stand on their own, or not at all, and not count on borrowed charisma for support.
I will confess to being very conflicted about the man and his ideas. Baudelaire was reported to have said, when asked who was France's greatest poet, "Victor Hugo, alas." Chomsky is our Victor Hugo.
posted by rodii at 8:58 AM on November 18, 2001 [1 favorite]


mmarcos and davehat: I didn't say anything about the man's arguments, or writings, specifically. Not a fan, nor a staunch critic.
posted by raysmj at 9:45 AM on November 18, 2001


rodii: good exposition. And I wonder whether some of your points (particularly the first) points to the way that Chomsky "interacts" with the American media: I'm sure he infuriates the punditocracy. He's very much not of the school of soundbites and 700-worders. He won't be appearing on The O'Reilly Factor any time soon. As I've said before, I think his reputation suffers from being the "leftist commentator of choice" for too many journalists; he could learn to be more selective. But dear me, I'm glad he exists.
posted by holgate at 10:28 AM on November 18, 2001


Another thread lies dead at my hands. :(
posted by rodii at 12:59 PM on November 18, 2001


brutal, rodii, brutal.
posted by y2karl at 7:41 PM on November 18, 2001


raysmj:It comes through knowing what the hell you're talking about, doing it in a non-obfuscatory or non-self-aggrandizing way, doing thorough research, knowing what or who has come before you and acknowledging the sources, etc.
Well all of the above were what attracted me to Chomsky in the first place. Non-obfuscatory describes perfectly his political writings. He makes a point of acknowledging sources ad nauseam and I find him a pleasant contrast to the really annoying European left intellectuals who seem to be talking to a very select audience of literati,and making an effort to say simple things as confusingly as possible. Plus he was and is an anti-Stalinist and thus doesn't carry the political burden that
some other figures of the left are tainted with.
Rodii re point 1. As a political commentator Chomsky is a masterful popularizer. His linguistics I cannot have an opinion about.
posted by talos at 3:15 AM on November 19, 2001


Much of his success came from redefining the scope of the field more narrowly, and treating the things his theory doesn't grapple with as "uninteresting."

I'm not sure this is exactly fair. I mean, yes, he did narrow the scope of inquiry, and he does say that what's outside that narrow scope is uninteresting, but I think his success lies in the success the narrower theory has had. That success is pretty remarkable; and the insights it yields about knowledge and the brain are intriguing. Not to mention the favor he did us by moving us past behavioralism. (And comparative linguistics was uninteresting, and practically useless outside of a historical context.)

That said, his closed-mindedness to other work that doesn't march in lock-step with his own is unfortunate. I think this is why someone would say, yet he still has, and always has had, a substantial opposition -- in fact, that opposition probably (usually) would agree more with his work than it would agree with the theories that came before. I mean, everyone today is basically doing Chomskyan linguistics of one form or another; the different factions are considered "opposition" because he explicitly disowns the conclusions some of the linguists (who would otherwise be considered his followers) have arrived at without him. But just because the Chomsky of today denies that something is a form of Chomskyan linguistics (i.e., linguistics based on the work of the Chomsky of yesterday) doesn't mean that that thing isn't a part of Chomskyan linguistics -- the Chomsky of yesterday may have invented the theory, and the Chomsky of today may be very intelligent, but other intelligent people can still develop the same theory in new directions, even if (the horror!) he (the Chomsky of today) doesn't like those directions.

He is right, of course, to argue for the views that he believes are correct. But, as he is the founder of the field, his disagreements take on an additional, artificial weight -- people will side with him because of who he is (and was), not because of his arguments themselves. This is unfortunate; as it is, linguistics seems to draw relatively few students with world-class talent (it always seemed to me they were more drawn to the harder sciences, mathematics or computer science, when I was an undergrad, at least), and having one great figure polarize the entire field doesn't exactly encourage new linguists to develop their own originality or vision.
posted by mattpfeff at 7:33 AM on November 19, 2001


rodii: The definition was a counterpoint to a claim that my prior usage of the phrase "great mind" implied that being an expert on subject X means you will be an authority on subjects Y and Z. The clarification I chose not only hobbled any further arguement of mine but contradicted a previous point on another thread that not only did I find Chomsky's work difficult, but so did a couple of my tutors.

At college, I sometimes think that Chomsky was largely responsible for pushing me away from the gramatical side of linguistics and towards the relevance theoretic approach to pragmatics. His lack of output (at the time) relating to the theory tipped the balance when it came to choosing modules in my final year.

Having said all this, I found that after an initial reluctance to pick up anything else with Chomsky's name attached, his political writing is surprisingly accessable to me.
posted by davehat at 8:27 AM on November 19, 2001


Matt and Dave--good points all. Well, most, but I don't want to argue minutiae with you. I think there are many people doing non-Chomskyan (not anti-Chomskyan, which I agree with Matt is often in fact quite Chomskyan) linguistics--pragmatics/discourse analysis, or functionalism of a Herb Clark/Talmy Givon stripe, for example (and here we get in one of those little spots where the Chomskyans say "not linguistics").

Dave: I wasn't disagreeing with you, just taking your remarks as a point of departure. Sorry if I sounded argumentative.

We're straying from the political point of the thread. Thanks for your interesting observations, though.
posted by rodii at 8:18 PM on November 19, 2001


*bookmarks yet another MeFi thread for later reference*
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:21 AM on November 20, 2001


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