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Speech! continued

 

Years ago, someone wrote in The New York Times that, “Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive.” The line is irresistible for anyone writing a story about him, though Chomsky himself—a frequent critic of the Times (and most other mainstream news media)—likes to point out that the next, less-quoted sentence is: “Since that’s the case, how can he write such terrible things about American foreign policy?”
   
His own writing never appears on the op-ed page of the Times or any other mainstream newspapers, which helps explain why so many people vaguely recall his name but know nothing else about him. This doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Being relegated to the political margins is proof of his Propaganda Model—in which various “filters,” most of them economic, ensure that the mass media play a propagandistic role.
   
“In the United States, what I say should be marginalized,” he once said. “In fact, if I stopped being marginalized, I’d rethink what I’m doing.”
   
And yet: according to a recent survey by the Institute for Scientific Information, only Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, and Freud are cited more often in academic journals than Chomsky, who edges out Hegel and Cicero. “He is staggering in his productivity,” says Dr. Edward Herman, the emeritus professor of finance who has collaborated with Chomsky on books and essays about politics, including Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. “He’s also an incredibly generous man with his time.”
   
Search Penn’s on-line library catalogue under author: chomsky noam and no fewer than 98 titles appear. That includes a few duplications, as well as interview collections like Keeping the Rabble in Line (with David Barsamian), but it doesn’t include biographical works like Chomsky for Beginners (whose cover depicts the donnish professor as a superhero, complete with a cape and a red N on his chest) or Robert Barsky’s Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (which can be downloaded off the Internet). Several massive Web sites devote themselves to his on-line output, including Bad News: Noam Chomsky, which modestly describes itself as “sort of a supplement to the far more essential Noam Chomsky Archive.” Various documentaries of his speeches and interviews are available on video, including Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, a two-part video documentary which chronicles Chomsky’s efforts to impart some “intellectual self-defense” against what he sees as the power-serving manipulations of most news organizations.
   
Demonstrating a link between his linguistic theories and his political views is easier said than done. Some say that his generative-language theory emphasizes a common—and creative—human heritage, an honorable liberal notion. While he is politically a man of the left, I suggest, the notion of a genetic language faculty seems to run counter to the (usually) left-liberal view that environment, not heredity, is what most shapes humans.
   
“That has been assumed, but I don’t think it makes any sense,” he says quietly. “For one thing, the idea that your cognitive systems are biologically unstructured is just insane. The only question is why anybody believes it, since it’s so obviously outlandish. And I certainly don’t think it has anything to do with the left. In Cambridge in the 1950s, the few of us graduate students who did not accept the prevailing, largely behaviorist orthodoxy were all on the left. And the ones who most advocated it were people who were extremely reactionary. I don’t draw any particular conclusions from that, just to point out it’s not a left-right issue.”
   
NOT-NOT-NOT. Three knuckle-strikes and you’re out, I figure, and shut off my tape recorder. As we get to our feet and step through the door leading from his office, I mention ruefully that we got to about half the questions on my list. “You can always send me some more by e-mail,” he says gently, and we shake hands goodbye. I take him up on his offer, which makes me part of the problem: some of his e-mails are almost 4,000 words long.

Noam Chomsky, in particular, says flatly and often that he has very little concern for language in and of itself; never has, never will. His driving concern is with mental structure, and language is the most revealing tool he has for getting at the mind.—Randy Harris, The Linguistic Wars.
   
It’s been more than 40 years since Chomsky first kicked open the door of linguistics with his theory of generative grammar and a human language faculty. Most of his work since then has essentially been refining and deepening that theory. (He now refers to the language faculty as the “I-language,” I standing for internal, individual, and intentional.) And yet he remains the 800-pound gorilla in linguistics, the one whose work every student has to deal with, and whose dominance in the field is often compared to the relative dominance of people like Einstein and Freud.
   
“Doing linguistics for the last 40 years is a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with Chomsky—contributing to that program, or trying to contribute from a slightly different perspective,” says Lila Gleitman. “But he won’t go away. He set the agenda; he was a great technical contributor; and he was a great empirical contributor. So at many, many levels, he just dominated the field and pervaded the field.”
   
“He has transformed not just linguistics but the whole of cognitive psychology,” says Anthony Kroch, professor and chair of linguistics. “He hasn’t done it alone, and it will take a while for people to understand what was happening.”
   
Kroch, who received his doctorate from Chomsky’s department at MIT in the early ’70s but was not interested in becoming an acolyte, later performed an analysis of historical syntax in 16th-century English. He thought the data he was using would pose a challenge to Chomsky’s generative paradigm—until he analyzed it.
   
“The work I did in the early ’80s made me appreciate in a personal way what an impressive thinker Chomsky was, because I had started out to prove him wrong, and I had succeeded in proving him right—or at least the data made more sense if I believed him than if I disbelieved him. And that’s convincing in a way that no amount of just listening to somebody else could possibly be.”
   
Was Chomsky pleased with Kroch’s findings, I wonder, or was he indifferent because he knew he was right to begin with?
   
“I think the latter,” Kroch answers quickly. “You could say, ‘Well, arrogant son of a bitch,’ and so on. But remember what Einstein said when people went and measured the perturbations in the orbit of Mercury, and somebody asked him, ‘What would you have said if it had come out the other way?’ Einstein said, ‘I would have said that they made an error.’ That sounds very arrogant,
but once you know something really deeply, you sort of know it. And I think Chomsky had reason to think that he had really got hold of something.”

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