Sunday, July 07, 2013

late to the game (on Chomsky)

I'm a bit behind the curve: certain conservative writers have been startled into praising a recent rant by leftist bête noire Noam Chomsky (simultaneously famous for his innovative linguistic theories—viz. transformational grammar—and infamous for his pointedly anti-American political rhetoric), who blasts the nonsense of postmodernist thought, noting the impossibility of finding any recognizable theory within the mishmash of PoMo discourse. From I Want a New Left comes this gem of a Chomsky quote:

...when I said I'm not interested in theory, what I meant is, I'm not interested in posturing – using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there's no theory in any of this stuff [i.e., in postmodernist thinking], not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can't. So I'm not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don't see anything to what he's saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven't the slightest idea. I don't see anything there that should be influential.

Somewhere, Camille Paglia is applauding loudly.

I can't stand Žižek, either, and I'm happy to see Chomsky single him out. I myself have used Žižek's work as an example of bad writing (see here). Also, I should say that, given the nature of Chomsky's contributions to linguistics (and his work in science in general), I've always suspected that the man is unsympathetic to postmodernists, however leftist his political attitudes might make him. Stepping back further, I'd say (as I've said before) that there exists a distinct rift between (1) generic leftists and (2) postmodernists with leftist sympathies: true leftism includes a notion of progressivism (probably fueled by a certain measure of utopianism); meanwhile, postmodernism derides any notion of progress as part of an oppressive Western rationalist metanarrative that leads only to pain, suffering, and war. To be a postmodernist, then, is not to be a progressivist, which makes the PoMo exponents uneasy bedfellows with more earnest Marxist leftists.

John Pepple's commentary at I Want a New Left made me smile:

Only rich people could get away with something so vacuous and irrelevant as postmodern theory. At least Marxism had meaning for poor people and relevance to their lives, even if it failed to deliver. Postmodern theory does nothing like this for poor people nor for others it claims to champion. (A lesbian I once knew scornfully said, “Who outside of academia cares about the reader and the text?” She also told me, quite gleefully, that she managed to get only a C in a lesbian poetry class.)

Ouch. That's certainly not how the PoMo acolytes see themselves: rather, they see themselves as defending the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden. Perhaps PoMo-ists have more in common with so-called "limousine liberals"—rich, clueless people who blindly advocate leftist causes without pondering the consequences for the poor (e.g., breathless environmentalists who want to stop deforestation in poor countries that harvest wood to earn money).

I hadn't visited I Want a New Left in a while. This was a refreshing pit stop.


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