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Decoding Chomsky

Decoding Chomsky

I HAVE NOTHING BUT RESPECT FOR CHOMSKY’S POLITICS. It was Chomsky’s memories of pre-war US antisemitism that contoured the path of his activism, fueling his rejection of racism in all its forms. Even when accused of being an antisemite, Chomsky did not deviate from his role as tireless campaigner against the anti-Arab Jewish settler racism which disfigures modern Israeli society. Without doubt Chomsky has earned his reputation as a bastion of the political left.

I mention this to put Chris Knight’s extraordinary new book, Decoding Chomsky, into perspective. The book will make uncomfortable reading for some because while Knight celebrates Chomsky’s anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics, he reminds us of the other Chomsky, the world-famous linguist.

Most of us in the labour movement know little and care less about this side of Chomsky’s work. Why should we? It’s highly technical, appears irrelevant to our activism and anyway, who am I, or others, unversed in the world of academia, to judge?

Chris Knight thinks we should care. Writing as an anthropologist, his book mostly concerns the scientific side of Chomsky’s life. He describes how the activist, who has spent decades denouncing the crimes of the US military, has since starting his career, been working in one of the Pentagon’s most prestigious military laboratories - the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT. Knight’s point is not that Chomsky has been serving two masters. His argument is more subtle.

In order to keep his job, Chomsky had to collude with the terminology and concepts of his laboratory colleagues. The result was a peculiarly formal, abstract, fleshless and dehumanised notion of language. Unlike the political Chomsky, who treats language as social and communicative, the scientific Chomsky views language as a device in the head, essentially for talking privately to oneself.

It is clear why Chomsky’s theories have been described as labyrinthine - he changes them each time a new proposal of his unravels. His scientific methods are unusual to say the least. He claims experiments are pointless and that there is no need to subject hypotheses to test.

Chomsky’s celebrated ‘cognitive revolution’ played a key role in overturning materialist philosophy and social science. The essence of Marxism is the unity of theory and practice, the necessary involvement of science in life itself. As Marx himself explained: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point, however, is to change it’. The cognitive revolution stood this idea on its head, divorcing theory from practice as never before. Its leader’s success in placing mind over matter and consciousness over life, hiding away science in a compartment of its own, was understandable given Chomsky’s institutional situation. But its unfortunate legacy was to legitimise a new, postwar version of idealist philosophy whose consequences for the left have been dire.

When I read how Chomsky conducts his linguistics in the spirit of Descartes, the penny finally dropped. For a number of non-European philosophers, the Cartesian elevation of mind over body, known as ‘mind/body dualism’, has unfortunate associations with racist ideology. Indeed, the standard Feminist or Critical Race approach to mind/body dualism is that it perceives mind as masculine and white, while body is feminine and non-white. Within this conceptual framework, non-white peoples lack mind. They count as ‘body’  – an aspect of the environment needing to be controlled by those in possession of mind. These deadly assumptions helped justify the rape of resources through which so many non-European peoples, along with much of the planet, were decimated, commodified and enslaved.

Knight rejects the scientific Chomsky’s separation of thought from the material world and the way he exalts western ideals of individualism and professionalism while denigrating emotion, subjectivity and shared responsibility. When Chomsky so radically extricated his politics from his academic work, the disconnect became a template for the containment of radical political action in a world where scientific knowledge (for example on climate science) was increasingly the preserve of corporations and universities. Science, counters Knight, is not politically irrelevant but the most revolutionary form of knowledge we’ve got. It should be a resource for us all.

None of this, of course, detracts from the tireless, courageous and inspiring anti-racist campaigning which Chomsky pursues in his activist role. As Knight points out, it is almost as if there are two Noam Chomskys, each the mirror-image of the other. If this is so, we surely ought to be able, in Knight’s words, ‘to serve justice on Chomsky the scientist without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America.’  

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