Noam Chomsky, Intellectual Elitism, Po-Mo Gibberish, More Attacks on Deconstruction, and Bad Writing Revisited


While doing some background research for an upcoming Graduate Symposium I’ll be participating in later this month (more on that in the future), I somehow stumbled upon this post from Noam Chomsky in which the famous linguist/activist attacks post-modernism and its heroes. In this email/posting Chomsky criticizes what he views as “a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call “theory” and “philosophy,”” as little beyond “pseudo-scientific posturing.” Immediately, my thoughts jumped to the discussion of the Sokal Hoax I posted a few weeks back. Chomsky continues his affront to post-structuralism, arguing, much like Sokal, that the major figures of this movement–Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.–obfuscate their arguments with an incoherent vocabulary rife with misused and misapplied scientific terminology. Chomsky on Derrida:

“So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain [...]“


But Chomsky’s not done yet:

“Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I’ve discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones [...] I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.”

Illiterate gibberish? Charlatan? Cults ? (This is a really common charge leveled at psychoanalysis in particular, and when one considers that both the work of Freud and Lacan was carried on by their respective daughters, there may be some validity to the claim. Still…)


Two things:

First, as a linguist, Chomsky is searching for an underlying, “universal grammar” or deep structure, a core pattern that underpins/organizes/generates all human languages. In this sense, Chomsky is searching for an ideal, a foundation. This method is in direct opposition to deconstruction, which as I understand it, seeks to decenter and disrupt all metaphysical anchors. I will never forget the class in transformational syntax I took at the University of Florida with Mohammed Mohammed (or MoMo, as we affectionately were permitted to call him). The class was a split grad/undergrad section, and MoMo scared away all of the undergrads in the first session, with the exception of myself and another student. After that point, he was always very kind to us (the undergrads) and cruel to the grads. MoMo was a Palestinian; he identified as a Jordanian refugee. He was a devout Chomskyian (cultishly so, perhaps). Derrida spoke at UF while I was in this class. I didn’t really understand what Derrida’s lecture was about, but it was very long and his English accent wasn’t so great. The next day in class, MoMo savaged Derrida for the entirety of the period on points both specific and general, most of it over our heads. It was a true rant, one of the best I’ve ever witnessed, culminating in (and I quote): “He’s full of shit!”

So Derrida certainly provoked MoMo, a strict Chomskyian–and why not? If you spend your academic career and your adult life searching for something that another person says you could never find, wouldn’t you be upset? (I believe that more than anything MoMo was upset over Derrida’s reception at UF, which was rock-starish to say the least). For MoMo, Derrida was a phony, a pied-piper misleading the children from the real issues.

Which brings me to point two–Chomsky is primarily a political figure, and really a pragmatist at heart. The core of his argument is not so much that po-mo writing is high-falutin’ nonsense, but rather that it ultimately serves no practical purpose. Here is where I would strongly disagree. The people that Chomsky attacks and their followers are re-evaluating the canon and the very notion of received wisdom. Chomsky attacks them for “misreading the classics”–but just what are the classics, and whose value systems created the notion that the classics were indeed “classic”? If Derrida & co. appear to “misread,” it is because they seek to recover the marginalized knowledge that has been buried under a sediment of givens as “truth.” Yes, the post-modern movement might have elitist tendencies, and yes, the subjects and themes of their work might not have much to do on the surface with the plight of a refugee (cf. MoMo in Jordan in 1948)…but the goal is actually in line with Chomsky’s goal–to make people question the powers that structure their lives.

I do agree, as I’ve said before, that post-modern writing often comes off as so-much sophistry and hogwash (I admit to plenty of this myself), that in some sense it relies too heavily on a coded vocabulary that seems unaccessible to the untrained eye, and that all too often an air of self-congratulation, an atmosphere of winks and nods replaces an environment of real thinking and debate. But my real take is this: any philosophy that could shake MoMo into discomposure is good. MoMo is a brilliant man and his class was fascinating, but to have seen him that day–his feathers so ruffled, his foundations tested–so infuriated over ideas–that was a beautiful thing. Right then, I knew there must be something to Derrida, something I wanted to figure out. And that’s what the best of these writers do–they infuriate us by provoking the truths that we are so sure that we hold in ourselves. They destabilize our safe spaces. They don’t allow for easy answers; they rebuke tradition. And if this approach falls into the norm in academia, becomes lazy and sedimentary, undoubtedly someone will come along and call “bullshit” on it, thus reigniting debate, questions, language. Nietzsche speaks of language as a series of hardened metaphors, language as petrified lava, sedimentary givens. This is the goal of deconstruction: to get that lava flowing again.


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63 thoughts on “Noam Chomsky, Intellectual Elitism, Po-Mo Gibberish, More Attacks on Deconstruction, and Bad Writing Revisited

  1. I recall that Derrida visit well. Went to three of his lectures, didn’t understand a word. Well, except on the last day, when he spoke about capital punishment. It was to a relatively small audience on a Saturday morning. That lecture was good, and tangible (!). The rest of the time I was just happy to be in the presence of greatness. Well, since I didn’t understand anything I had read by him, or much of what he said, I just picked up on the greatness from things I had read by others. And just his general, legendary status was enough for me to be impressed by. I was easily impressionable in college. Wanted to be around all the smart things and people, even though I didn’t understand the first thing about thier philosophy.

    So I haven’t thought about these sort of post-modern philosophy things in a while, but your post here has me wonder, from experience…

    How can the goal “to make people question the powers that structure their lives,” be accomplished if it is written in “coded vocabulary that seems unaccessible to the untrained eye”? Is there really significant value in leading people to question power structures if they have to spend years learning how to read the texts that will tell them how to do it? Is the payoff worth it, and can it be transferred in to practical applications?

    I’m not trying to be difficult, I just really want to know your take, since I never understood this stuff myself.

  2. I think your question is fantastic and really gets to the heart of the problem–the same problem that both Chomsky and Sokal have with “coded vocabulary.” It seems to me that there’s a “trickle down” effect, to borrow a term from (ugh) Reaganomics…here goes…
    1. As far as any immediate, practical payoff outside of the hallowed halls of academia–no–I don’t think post-modern philosophy, especially the “big dogs”–can really have that kind of effect. However:
    2. I go back to the metaphor of sediment: we believe the foundations of our knowledge to be absolute, we think the ground we (intellectually) stand on is “true,” “real”; deconstruction stirs all of this up and displaces the truths that the Platonic traditions have been founded on (hence the constant attacks on this method, particularly from people who believe that there is “real,” “knowable,” empirically observable fact floating around out there). Now, take Derrida for example. I use a quote from my favorite teacher of all time, Dr. Sam Kimball: “Derrida is writing for the smartest 1% of the planet.” Dr. Kimball’s point is this: Derrida presents his ideas to an intellectual community, who then diffuses them through a long refining process. The result is the repetition of the major ideas: for example, Derrida’s claim that the Platonic approach is phallocentric and logocentric. Working from this idea, all sorts of previously marginalized writing and culture can be reappraised–or even appraised for the first time.
    Concrete example:
    Look at the stories and poems and novels that our parents’ generation were required to read and school. Then consider what we read. And now (I know I’m an English teacher, and thus exposed to this all the time, but bear with me) consider what lit you’ll find in a contemporary literature textbook. The canon is being re-appraised. The tradition of “the winners write the history” is being re-evaluated. Take a writer like Zora Neale Hurston, who went from utter obscurity–an unmarked grave in South Florida–to being a celebrated writer whose most famous book is now required reading for most high schoolers. Suddenly, previously marginalized identities and viewpoints are reconsidered.
    To me, the stakes are huge here, and go beyond ideas like gender and race and economics, and into subjective experience and what it means to have an identity (thrust upon you).
    Sure, Judith Butler is difficult to read. So is the Bible. You have to think. Sometimes your headaches. And yeah, a lot of the time, no matter how hard you apply yourself, you won’t get what she’s saying unless you’ve read Kristeva. Who’s read Lacan. Who’s read Freud. Who’s read Hegel. And so on, back through Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato, etc. But there is a trickle down here (I think that was my point, somewhere above, excuse the ranting). What happens in cultural studies departments and English departments and history departments today will have a profound effect on how the students of tomorrow are educated. Most of the students in my grad classes are also educators; the hope is to get some kernel of the method, the deconstructive approach into the classroom.
    Really at stake here is the answer “because.”
    “Because it’s always been that way,” “Because my parents did it that way”– to me that’s the risk of *not* taking a deconstructive approach. These are the answers that were given to explain slavery, women not being allowed to vote; these are the answers being given today to defend women having no rights in many parts of the world.

  3. Really great point, wonderful response. I think at heart I always knew this, but could never articulate. Thank you. My faith restored.

  4. If all the arguments praising and welcoming Derrida’s work can be expressed in clear, plain language, then why can’t we also hear about the work itself in clear, plain language?

    Derrida’s evaded all requests to pin down what deconstructivism is. So how do his advocates know what it is?

    (and if they cannot know what deconstructivism is, then how can they evaluate it?)

  5. I don’t know much about deconstructivism, which is a term stemming from Derrida’s criticisms of architecture. Like deconstruction in cultural theory/philosophy, deconstructivism in architecture emphasizes a multiplicity of openings/starting points, a de-systematizing of traditional or accepted order.
    Deconstruction seeks to de-center, to call into question the Platonic precepts in philosophy that are often assumed as “givens” or “truths.” A deconstructive method values fluidity of meaning, recognizing the citational possibilities inherent in any text.
    The need to “pin down” what something is, to nail it to the floor, to center it, to assume an object of study–this is exactly what Derrida doesn’t want, hence his reticence to define deconstruction (he does write frequently about what deconstruction is not, however).
    In this sense, I think it’s beneficial to think of deconstruction as an approach or method of evaluation, rather than an object of study unto itself.
    As far as the complexity of Derrida’s actual writing–well, it’s purposefully experimental, often calling into question the way Western thought has privileged certain ideas and methods over others. Like Nietzsche, Derrida can be awfully cryptic; I don’t make any claims to fully understand everything I’ve read by D. I think it really helps though to start with Nietzsche if you want to better understand Derrida–his essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense” is the best starting place I can think of (it’s widely available on the web). The Portable Nietzsche is one of the best books I own. You can read it at random or study it intensively; also it will make you look smart.

  6. chomsky’s piece is really kind of underhanded. he wants postmodern thought to be made simple, reduced to clear propositions which anyone can understand. then he dismisses it when someone does so with regard to foucault, as trivial and truism, which fits his initial assumptions. he tricks an interlocutor (some hapless blogger who responds to his challenge) into reducing foucault to a sentence, then declares that the formula amounts to a truism, one that forms the basis of what he has been doing (only better, with more relevant, current examples) for years. classic catch-22. his assumption is that po-mo thought is verbiage covering banality, so someone should make it simple (banal) so that he can dismiss it. if you refuse his “simple” request and make it complex, you lose, it’s supposed to be made simple — hence banal, or “uninteresting” as foucault turns out to be. ugh.

  7. nicely done, tom…foucault is anything but boring…my concern with all of this is the number of kids who follow chomsky as a political leader/activist…are they dismissive of figures like foucault, derrida, etc.?

  8. I know I am replying to this over a year later, so you may or may not see it. But ed as a college student myself who follows Chomsky on political issues I can tell you that me and the friends that I have who are also interested in this stuff do not dismiss Foucault, Derrida, etc.

  9. hey, chris,
    thanks for the reply. i think that a lot of these figures are/were on the same “side,” politically, that is, they just had different philosophical justifications for how to get to that point.

  10. Derrida’s language – something “new” to make “the lava flow again”? Don’t make me laugh! Derrida’s writing is as darn dead and hard as it could be. It’s precisely the kind of jargon most scholars in Europe employ. It is considered “chic” and “a sign of great learning” to express the simplest things in the most complicated way possible – after all, this kind of jargon helps to sustain the scholarly ivory tower and keeps out those too “common” and thus unworthy of climbing it. Plus, it is a great means to disguise what poor content you have with tons of impenetrable constructions, up to the point where those too vain to admit that they haven’t got a clue what the complicator meant just give him a pat on the shoulder and say, “well done!”
    This is the rusty old writing tradition Derrida follows (so much for breaking up traditions, huh?). And I’m sick of it. For if there’s one thing I admire in (most of) the English-speaking scholarly discourse, it’s the language. Somehow the English-speaking world has come to an agreement that /what/ you want to say may already be mind-bending enough, so it needn’t be wrapped in cryptic wording to complicate matters even further. It’s a very pragmatic approach; some might even want to call it egalitarian or democratic, since it tries to avoid unneccesary obstacles that might block access to knowledge. This is precisely what Chomsky is aiming at. And he’s right on that.

  11. Hans, I agree that Derrida’s writing is “hard”–as in, it’s often hard to read or cipher. And yes, there’s something positive to be said about clarity and lucidity. But what, exactly is Derrida’s “poor content” that his complex style takes such pains to “disguise”? I think that Derrida has made a number of major contributions to philosophy, in a number of areas: his ideas about undecidiability and differentiation are obviously of great interest to literary critics, but they also have applications in math, architecture, social sciences, etc.
    I could make a list here but I’m honestly kinda apathetic about it right now (the post is over two years old; I’m not as passionate about theory and philosophy as I used to be, etc. etc. etc.). I would say, finally, at the risk of sounding like a total jerk, that the “ivory tower” argument is both familiar and nonsensical. If much of continental philosophy–and much English language philosophy, for that matter–seems to be insular, solipsistic, and resistant to simple reading, that’s because philosophers are in a long dialog with each other. To read Derrida one must be willing to engage Plato, Rousseau, Husserl, etc. It can be exhausting, and it certainly doesn’t lend itself to egalitarian or democratic ideals (it’s pretty hard to engage thousands of years of philosophy when you have to work 9 to 5). As far as Chomsky’s work in linguistics: I can’t imagine that his ramblings on x-bar theory are that coherent to anyone without some significant background in transformational grammar. It’s not light reading, but that doesn’t mean that it’s pure sophistry, a hollow nothing wrapped in erudite diction. As far as Chomsky the political theorist, well, I guess he’s comfortable enough to get to be an anarchist (must be nice!), but I really don’t think his contributions amount to much more than a form of left wing populism (so beloved by rich angry college sophomores in this country). Again, I get Chomsky’s complaint–I just think it amounts to intellectual laziness coupled with idealistic guilt.

  12. Thank you so much for this input. I like how you treated the subtle differences between Chomsky and Derrida, and how you were able in the end, amidst all the distracting mumbo jumbo, to find a common ground; Chomsky is a pragmatist at heart, and Derrida challenges structures of domination.
    Well done!

  13. I think that labelling Chomsky a “pragmatist” and saying that this explains his anger at Derrida is totally reductive. In Chomsky’s piece on po-mo, he makes no complaints about the lack of pragmatic value of the movement. He criticizes the incoherent writing of its foremost advocates. By the way, a lot of Chomsky’s work (his linguistic work) is highly theoretical and of little practical value to most people. Yet he IS able to state his central theses in the field with clarity, something apparent if you’ve ever watched any of his interviews on his linguistic work.

    I think the post-modernists have a uniquely unfalsifiable philosophical position: if our very modes of rationality are inherently corrupted, then you cannot and should not ask for a rational explanation for why this is the case. Perfectly convenient for Derrida, who can just go ahead and deconstruct (i.e. poorly misinterpret) previous philosophical works. You can’t accuse him of going too far, not on his terms. If there is no set meaning behind the texts (not even a discernable range of possible meanings), how can you say that he is simply wrong?

    Some claim that Chomsky is being unfair to Derrida. I think that Derrida is being unfair to the large majority of the academic community that still has some form of evidentiary standards. It is possible to “de-center” a text while still adhering to some kind of explanation. Certainly the Freudian reading of Oedipus, to use an obvious example, profoundly undermines the way that many academics regarded that text in the past. But the arguments behind this interpretation were still basically coherent.

  14. Please forgive me, but as a mere ‘common reader,’ I found a statement of ‘bibliokept’s’ rather confusing. I know it is just due to my ignorance and stupidity. I am benighted; unlike bibliokept, I have not yet seen the light on the road to the Damascus of literary theory. So when asked, “Just what are the classics, and whose value systems created the notion that the classics were indeed “classic”? a question immediately arose in my mind. Why is it that some of a given writer’s works may be considered as classics (excuse me for omitting the apostrophes), whereas some are not? For example, let us take the most canonical of all canonical writers, Shakespeare. Some of his plays (most obviously Henry VI and Titus Andronicus) are only read because they are by the author of Hamlet, Henry IV, Antony and Cleopatra, etc. That is to say, they are plays by a classic author, but they are not themselves classics. His poem ‘Venus and Adonis’ is not a classic, either. My point in saying all that is to ask this: How, in what manner, do the “classic” works of Shakespeare better accomodate themselves to certain value-systems than do his non-classic works? It is obvious that I am here proceeding on the assumption, implied in what was quoted above (“Just what are the classics, etc.,”), that a work of literature does not become a classic because of any intrinsic merit that it may possess, but rather because it is somehow very congenial to certain ‘value-systems.’ But what is a classic? I say it is a work of literature that is seen as being in some way superior to most other works, and of course that certain classics are seen as being superior to others. But is this superiority intrinsic to the work itself, or granted to it by this or that ‘value-system?’ Those who believe in the latter view, if their view is to be at all coherent, must explain how, of the works of a single author, some may be classics, and some not. Because in this instance, the status of the non-classic works cannot be so easily explained away as being non-canonical by virtue of having been produced by this or that racially, sexually, etc. marginalized member of literary history. I of course believe that King Lear is a classic, whereas Titus Andronicus is not, and that the reason for this is that Lear possesses far greater aesthetic merit than Titus. But someone who believes that a work becomes a classic merely because it is said to be so by someone or something within this or that ‘value-system’ would do very well to explain WHY Lear is a classic, and Titus is not. If this cannot be done, then I can only conclude that most post-modern literary theory is, as an intellectual position, incoherent, and therefore untenable.

    1. (This (now three year old) post will haunt me forever)…I haven’t even responded to recent comments here because I don’t really care that much about this issue anymore. But your sarcastic tone has goaded and confused me into responding (for the record, I never implied anywhere on this post or thread that those who disagreed with me did so because they were stupid, ignorant, or benighted).

      I’m not sure I understand your argument…I don’t mean that in a combative way. I just am trying to follow it, that’s all. You say that works of literature hold “intrinsic merit” and “aesthetic merit” and seem to suggest (I might be misreading you, sorry) that these values inhere in the works themselves, somehow independent of a reader’s (complex, historical, etc.) value system.

      Lear is the better play because, yes, as you say, it holds “greater aesthetic merit” than Andronicus. But “greater aesthetic merit” is simply a placeholder for “set of specific literary/philosophical/cultural/whatever values” that I acknowledge that I hold.

      I don’t think that the aesthetic criticism of Harold Bloom or James Wood is particularly wrong — there’s nothing wrong with having an aesthetic response as the basis for a value judgment. And these (and other critics) are able to answer why Lear is a better play than Andronicus — within, again, their specific, idiosyncratic value systems. Certainly, some value systems are shared by all people, regardless of culture and time — the need for food, shelter, care, etc.—and Lear’s evocation of these needs (good example, by the way!) resonates all over the world and through time. It’s a great book, no doubt.

      But books don’t hold magical inherent properties, aesthetic or otherwise, that exist outside of a relationship with a reader (which necessarily involves all the reader’s ideological baggage). I mean, unless that book happens to be the Bible, the magical words of God Hisself.

  15. “Sure, Judith Butler is difficult to read. So is the Bible. ”

    That’s part of the problem : with transforming everything in “text” there’s no difference between Bible and Nature (science), everything is “interpretation” – epistemological relativism. Some religious movements have perfectly understood the message and I doubt that they want to struggle against oppression.

    Thus Derrida, contrary to Chomsky, has some bulky allies. So do postmodernism.

    There’s another problem, I will be curious of your comments. Deconstruction has no priority, nothing on which you can rely. Deconstruction can fuel itself forever and destroy meaning itself. This is not what Derrida says but that’s on of the consequences he refuses to face. Oppressed need to ally one to each other to get enough strenght against oppression. Deconstruction can very easily be seen as a divide-and-rule policy. It ends in a very narcissist thought

    Last problem. Deconstruction is about deconstructing evidence. The oppressed have very oftently a naive representation of the world, they are not well literate, they cannot write books such as Derrida – or as Chomsky. It is very easy to use deconstruction for deconstructing emancipatory claims of the oppressed.

    To my mind there is no criteria, in Derrida’s philosophy, to avoid these consequences. But I certainly will be very interested to know if you disagree

    1. Hi, Fabrice. You’re absolutely right, I think, when you say that “Deconstruction has no priority, nothing on which you can rely”–I think that’s one of its main objectives, to decenter the Platonic ideals that most people accept as foundational. This means that meaning moves in a series of relations without ultimate values, of differance (to use Derrida’s word) instead of a series of relations that always refer back to an ultimate, foundational, fixed value. Derrida points out that this can be frightening, but it’s not nihilistic (as many critics have charged)–it’s actually quite liberating.
      I encourage you to read some of Derrida’s ideas on hospitality, where he discusses how people are to have relations to others (Others) in light of decentered meaning. There’s a nice summary here:
      “This ‘impossible’ of which Derrida speaks is inseparable from the thinking of justice and from the unconditional hospitality that is required of us. Hospitality focuses on what is most urgent today and the most proper for the articulation of a political ethics of conflict resolution. The unconditional injunction for conflict resolution is: ‘I have to welcome the Other’ – whoever ‘the Other’ is, and unconditionally. For Derrida this means, without asking for a document, a name, a context or a passport. I have to open myself to the Other. I have to open my doors, my house, my home, my language, my culture, my nation, my state and myself.

      This unconditional hospitality is frightening and transgressive, but it takes us beyond the Judeao-Christian understanding of hospitality where we are hospitable because we may be entertaining Elijah or Angels or serving Jesus or dogmatically serving our parishioners. It takes us beyond Kant with his notion of restricted hospitality that says we should welcome the stranger or the foreigner to the extent that they are citizens of another country. “

    1. Finch, I’m tempted to point out that you misspelled “academia” and leave it at that.
      But I’ll bite.
      Your analogy relies on the assumption that Scientology is somehow a cultish form of charlatanism that strongly contrasts “real” or “true” religions. This idea breaks down very quickly under any real scrutiny; as much as we might find Scientology invidious, like all “religions,” its claims and outcomes are based on faith rather than reason–unlike academia, which holds knowledge or information as an objective outcome. The logic of your analogy then, while an amusing piece of sophistry, doesn’t hold any metaphorical water. Indeed, it’s little more than an ad hominem attack that attempts to link “post-structuralism” to “Scientology”–with no real explanation or evidence of this position.

  16. Great post! I’d have loved to have heard Derrida speak. For Christmas in 2003, my wife gave me a hooded sweatshirt that said “Derrida” across the back. I still wear it regularly.

    I am a pretty loyal Chomsky ditto-head, but I think there’s a lot of value in the po-mos. In fact, it seems that from the generative perspective, it makes perfect sense to believe that some brains mature in ways that make them less able to perceive the world according to the prevailing conventions of language. These people become the poets, novelists, and philosophers. They carve out new languages. It’s a functional necessity for them, and an evolutionary imperative for the species!

    Yeah, I think Derrida was largely incoherent, as is–oh, what’s her name–Spivak. Foucault I have an easier time with. But they’re all essentially following in Nietzsche’s footsteps and working out this young language. They’re trying to express concepts that haven’t been fully formulated yet, but the ideas are in there. They’re good ideas. Powerful ideas. That they appear to be nonsensical is, I think, due to the fact that the neural activity needed to develop the concepts are struggling to survive in a hostile climate. Teach every 5 year old about poststructuralism, and I guarantee that the resulting generation will have no problem understanding the grammars of Derrida, and will think we’re silly for not.

    1. I like your last point about how post-structural grammars might be taught — I think it reiterates the deconstructionist position that there is not a “natural” language / ideology — and, at the same time, it points out that chomsky’s work has great value in trying to figure out how language (and thus ideology) gets hardwired.

  17. Well, I suppose you could spend your time reading these works to “uncover the marginalized knowledge.” Or you could, you know, spend your time actually helping people who are suffering around the world and in your local communities. This is the most pitiful response I happen to have seen to Chomsky.

    1. This isn’t a “response to Chomsky,” young man. It’s a discussion of Chomsky’s attacks on deconstructionist thinkers. The post made few claims about Chomsky’s pragmatic work as a social activist. New rereadings of texts that have been formative to social structures/ideology is one key to understanding why people might be suffering. I think, also, you know nothing about Derrida if you are suggesting that his work has had no pragmatic work/applications in helping people in very concrete ways.

  18. As a second year English literature undergraduate I approach this subject with a degree of trepidation. Although I relish in reading a challenging text I am a bit scared by the thought that I might never understand just what the hell these people are talking about. I think that this feeling of intellectual helplessness, coupled with the (I’m not saying I hold this view) impression of these theorists as mere egoistic sophists is not helping the case of the liberal arts student, with regards to both their confidence in the subject and the resulting opinion of the humanities held by others in education and the outside world. But I’m not sure that I care what the outside world thinks, at least to a certain extent.

    Obviously I realise that there is far more to the study of literature than being able to understand a couple of theories, but the celebrity-like status of a few difficult theorists/intellectuals seems to be partly responsible for the decline we are seeing in the liberal arts. I live in Britain so I don’t know how it is wherever you’re from (I’m presuming the USA) but the value of a higher education over here is becoming the acquisition of skills necessary to work in business or assist large corporations in tax avoidance. The liberal arts are becoming irrelevant in the face of this brutal neoliberalism. The increasing competitive & privatised nature of our universities doesn’t help matters as many are now boosting maths/science/business with huge cuts to the humanities departments.

    So I do care about the what the outside world thinks when it affects to such an extent my ability to follow an intellectual passion. Maybe the link is more tenuous than I, in my caffeine-deprived state, believe, but, if the sum total of an academic field is big fancy words about nothing, which is how all this can seem to the ‘uninitiated’, it will certainly not help it’s already financially crippled case. Especially under a Tory government. With all their f*cking prejudices and spin.

    I think it’s about time for the obligatory Orwell quote. In ‘Politics and the English Language’ he asserts that clouded speech is “largely the defense of the indefensible”. It seems that, now more than ever, those at the forefront of this field need to make sure that such a quote is not used against them.

    1. Reading over this I come across quite scathingly about lit theory, this isn’t the case. I actually find it pretty fascinating.

    2. Hi, Ed,
      I wrote this post when I was in grad school, almost five years ago. I now teach composition, grammar, and the occasional lit class at a small college in Florida. Our governor here is trying to defund scholarships for lib arts students (and remove continuing contract/tenure for lib. arts teachers), so, yes, I see the problem you are describing first hand.

      However, I urge you not to kowtow to the neoliberal/predatory capitalist agenda that says that liberal arts studies must be “useful” or “usable” in terms of their own rubric. This is the biggest mistake that colleges in the US have made over the past two decades. The idea that literary theorists — and what we’re really talking about here are philosophers, by the way, not “literary theorists” — need to dumb down or despecialize their rhetoric so the uneducated and uninformed can “get it” (whatever “it” is) is a false choice, one that helps the neoliberalist capitalist machine control the narrative. These people would never expect an engineer or a computer programmer or (heaven forfend!) a stockbroker to lucidly explain what it is they do so that a child could understand it—the world is far too complex—so why should literary studies be accountable to a different level of scrutiny?

  19. why is it that every post structuralist/postmodernist seems to ‘understand’ the various cannons of postmodern thought{derrida/focault/lyotard/sartre} and yet when asked to explain what they mean, they all come up with their uniquely nonsensical verbiage to {fail to}explain it. understanding would imply a transmission of concepts, transmission of concepts would imply similarity in explanations. this obscurantism is important for posmodernists it seems, because without it, they would be seen to be saying very little, if anything of substance. the conclusion that i draw from this is that postmodernists dont realy ‘understand’ other postmodernists at all{the Sokal Hoax proved this} but delude themselves and others into thinking that they understand other postmodernists. there is no transmission of concepts, and no progress{when was the last time a postmodernist invented something useful or discovered a physical law that was observably true?}. just an annoying collective noise against the ideas of the enlightenment as that very enlightenment allowed talentless upperclass idiots to sit in their houses, do nothing, and use the phenomenon of mechanization and technology to create resources{without which they wouldnt have time to ‘heuristically deconstruct discourse’ or whatever, as they worked on the fields}, and the prevelence of informations technology{which again came out of the enlightenment ideals} to infect large parts of other talentless literary hacks around the world into beleiving that the enlightenment was fallacious and that cultural reletevism is reasonable or that a ‘postmodern’ grammer free of any rules will liberate woman or watever.

    honestly, try to deconstruct gravity as you jump out of your window!

    1. James, there’s enough venom (and bad spelling and weak arguments) on the internet without you telling me (or anyone who disagrees with you) to jump out a window.
      I say this in the nicest possible way: I don’t think you have any idea what you’re talking about. At all. “Postmodernism” is not the same as “deconstruction.” Postmodernism is a word that simply describes “afterModernism.” It’s not a mode or a philosophy or an approach; it’s a description, or, perhaps, a diagnosis.
      I’m sorry that some of the thinkers you cite use terms that you find obscure or challenging. The idea that philosophy (particularly philosophy at the end of the twentieth century) should be “simple” is mindboggling to me. Just mindboggling. The idea that philosophy must be utilitarian or must always point to a concrete objective is heartsickening.

      James, your comment here reads like a bad parody of a creaky pastiche of comments trying to attack “postmodernism” culled from other internet sites. It’s probably not worth even responding to, but I’ve chosen to talk to you because I really want to know: Why so angry, James? Did deconstructionists pee in your coffee?

    2. “why is it that every post structuralist/postmodernist seems to ‘understand’ the various cannons of postmodern thought{derrida/focault/lyotard/sartre} and yet when asked to explain what they mean, they all come up with their uniquely nonsensical verbiage to {fail to}explain it.”

      No argument here, but the same could be said of things like morality, ethics, metaphysics, love, and so on. We’re culturally obligated to accept the verbal baggage of any number of nonsensical concepts, and we keep shuffling them around, century after century, pretending the mean things. I like to think of deconstruction as acknowledging this fact by cracking a long-winded inside joke.

      That said, the Enlightenment gave us a lot of ideas worth studying seriously. The idea that deconstruction can or should undermine logic and reason is silly. If I have two apples, and Derrida takes them both from me, I aint got no apples left. Logic wins small battles.

      1. Josh, I’m largely simpatico with your comment, although I think that there’s more to Derrida and Kristeva and Foucault’s work than an inside joke. I think what infuriates and/or confuses their (non-)readers is the (post-structuralist) decentering always in play. The history of philosophy is full of ridiculous ideas that are nevertheless accepted, or at least rationalized away, over time (think of the cogito ergo sum, for example).

        I’m amazed that this post, five years later, still gets so many comments. (Maybe undergrads are still getting assigned Derrida and getting angry and confused?).

        1. With regards to the cogito, I’m convinced that had Descartes would have come upon a better truth had he kept on conjugating. But yeah, you shouldn’t be too surprised: it was a great post, and it’s not easy to find a good conversation about Chomsky and postmodernism. I’m glad it is still alive.

  20. One of the things I find interesting about this page is that the string of writers managed to stay on target even though most couldn’t identify the bullseye. Most blogs that I read from today, with ‘like’ boxes and comments sections seem to wander completely away from the original piece after about the third contribution. What is happening today? Have ‘”they’” put something in the drinking water?

    Reading this with morning coffee got my brain juices circulating and my mind up to speed. I finally found out what deconstructuralism is, philosophically, but can’t apply it to literature. I thought it was a group of women who denied that men were different from women. After I find out what Modern is, in terms of literature, then I’ll have the meaning to post-Modern. I read p-M applied admiringly to an authoress whom I found trite and silly, wooden and unresponsive. Kind of Danielle Steele with liberal after-effects.

    Deconstruction could be a metaphor for particle physics. Tinier and tinier points, and what are they? I wonder which philosophical group would ‘spooky action at a distance’ represent.

    Maybe post-Modern will be when they throw all physics theory out and go with strings and balloons.

  21. I believe Derrida may be an advanced form of thought, futuristic. Chomsky either hasn’t caught up to it as most have not as well, or his own thought WOW THIS GIVES ME A HEADACHE. That said, it is the future. I advise personal investigation of the ideas which can be a long process but in the end probably worth it.

  22. dear ed bibliokept,

    following is messy quick rant, don’t be judging my lack of, or misuse of, discursive language, poor grammar, etc….ideas are still there…., a little plain AND academically discursive, but i digress….

    re-investigating the past, the beautiful losers, and the changing meanings and mediums of a continuum of human experience and dominant power structures is not something that derrida, or any other post-modernist discovered or invented, and have actually served to simply expand subjective and discursive discourse. conversely, chomsky did not invent or discover anarchist thought, nor freedom fighting, The difference is derrida and his proponents do claim invention, while chomsky does not. chomsky merely articulates and refines what already exists, but does so through an acute awareness of language, media, academia, and intensive research techniques, sources, and results. Still, the value of getting lava flowing in rethinking conceptual and value frameworks of gender, race, and sex is something that post-modernism or post-structuralism has played a crucial part, yet the said’s and james’ would have still existed and the historical and material changes in global-national power structures (i.e. decolonialism) would have still occurred; thus, the discourse of re-investigating past and present and future meanings would have been challenged and evolved without the aid and confusing variants of articulation of the 1% to the 1%. Ironically, the very attack on dogmatic and rationally established ‘given truths’ has become an academically accepted ‘given truth,’ but not cult-like–much more subversive than that, which is suitable given the emphasis on the subversive by the theoreticians of truth. The problem is, chomsky can only know what is rather than what ought–hume styles–yet what is is routinely what ought, as a result of our opinions, biases, and ideological baggage, or petrified lava words. therefore, experience, opinion, and truth lay somewhere that is eternally undefinable, and, thus, everything becomes undefinable. And, if so, as suggested by chomsky and derrida, i suppose chomsky’s point is why keep trying to define and/ or redefine the undefinable and relative interpretations that will never be wholly resolved, where as derrida and others’ point is why stop trying to define and/ or redefine? There is no mystery or wonder to chomsky’s view of ‘human nature,’ but there is for derrida types–for better or for worse. In this sense the sides seem to be reason vs randomness yet both sides propose that the view is rational. Rational to expect a clear, concise definition as to why something is truth or not truth with symbiotic facts and theory, or plain ‘truisms’(chomsky) vs rational to expect no clear, concise interpretations to vastly complex dynamism of fact and theory, or varied subjectivity (derrida)..In the end, also, the sides seem to be about political and social justice in the realm of concrete historical and material change in the present versus the psychological and literary justice in the realm of abstract historical past and future…..

  23. chomskys aims and works and articulated truths are more important than derrida in the concrete contributions to academia and the broader public and causes of justice in terms of a singular person contributing to moral and intellectual pursuits. period. but who is actually right regarding the relativity of truth and past and all that jazz iin any philosophical or literary historical sense is a matter of taste…again, chomsky acknowledges all of this, while derrida and others have clumped together in a conscious theoretical manner…..chomskys followers are also blind, but not intellectually, just politically herd like……either way, most academic thought by staunchy, elitist white guys is from western, euro-centric thought and scientific and literary verbiage and values, even the post-modernists, so where does eastern beliefs, mysticism, and the logic of bizarre occult that may or may not have co-relations between fact and theory and the measurable experience and spectacle of mind-body feats that confound and are ignored by hackademics and bourgeois wordsmiths….wheres the reason? the randomness? and what is the reading of chomsky and post-mods by other cultures? does pyschology change, language, living standards, etc? in this, chomsky comes closer, even if western, since he exposes and researches other cultures and classes outside of his own, has strong knowledge of many languages, and articulates in such a way as to be easily translated to other cultures and class educational levels…..chomsky is on the fringe, and over his career has been associated more with the beautiful losers of ‘current’ history, and not just making abstract changes to ideas of race and gender 50 years after the hard work of decolonial anthropologists and historians who post-mods piggy back on and attempt to draw links of challenges to identity and histories as somehow a creation or change sparked by post-mod thinking….post-mod should be treated the way the bible should: interesting ideas and writing, but not truth, and not something that was a ‘new’ folklore or interpretation of the world—it just happen to sell well and catch on…and here we are…hopefully post-mod stuff wont be our standard of ideas 2000 years from now simply because derrida and foucault are name-dropped and assigned as permenant reading—foucault would probably vomit if that was the case, but then again if even being a pervert is morally relative simply because what is normal is the dominant power structure and goes unchallanged, then perhaps foucault wouldnt mind a perversion of his ideas’ intentions…….post-mo isnt just a descriptive word….we’re modern right now! 400 years ago was modern to those living it, they did not call themselves early modern and the future modern and the future future post-modern…it is a concept, admit it, forcing a theory through lexicon does not mean it has any weight….foucault and derrida as writers, intellects, as their own person, that what matters…all the other stuff doesnt matter except for academic fodder, like cinephiles getting into Eisenstein as the best filmmaker when montage editing and political allegories already existed–he just happen to call it this or that, and create elaborate pretentious rhetoric to posture film as a high art form, the highest and only of forms….. post-mod is a crutch for those who want their cake and eat it too….and go back for seconds whenever their hungry again with no regard to the other guests in the room while the whole time telling people how delicious it is but you look down and realize it was pie, not cake at all,

    1. Like Frankenstein, Chomsky arises again. I want to know how these respondents do that. Is there a switch in their belly buttons? All those code words strung together without a break. Bad grammar, piss poor punctuation, deliberate misspellings, as if imitating an illiterate genius, but achieving neither. Sounds like politicians who forgot their dose of KaoPectate.

  24. cake or pie is relative, ….the fact is: it was delicious, you ate too much, and you had no regard to other people…but at least YOU had a good time, even if you assume others had a good time too, its all in your head…………..and depending on the interpretation, this comment is absolutely retarded or totally makes sense….i personally think its retarded, babbling, randomness,…

    1. If Kao Pectate doesn’t work, try a big cork. Cake and pie are not relative to anything. They are two different things.

  25. this is discourse….our age of letters…meehhhh….and we wonder why there is no intelligence, leaps of faith, nor any loosening of our uptightness and properness, all the ness’s and isms and tions and cals……and the leader of the this particular post happens to be a teacher at a small college in florida, so the mediation and ideas must be entirely onto something since clearly the intellectual life seems to be immensely successful, i think i read about that guy from that small florida college who teaches grammar essay in the Guardian on chomsky and foucault….great stuff…..i happaned to stumble upon chomsky-foucault debates, then soon enough something led me hear…i have also lit a joint and put on some dylan, blood on the tracks, great album, …’idiot wind’ is playing right now…if dylan mediated chomsky and foucault and posted this stuff it would be done…him or nietzsche

  26. I read p-M applied admiringly to an authoress whom I found trite and silly, wooden and unresponsive. Kind of Danielle Steele with liberal after-effects. .

    guess i should stick to bringing up danielle steele in a chomsky vs po-mo rant….is everyone like 60 years old and proff reading? this is so hillarious, i gotta show my friends this stuff, so ironically pretentious without any of you participants self-aware in any way…ridick….now regular guy out, again

    1. Bad meth or incense or bath salts, perhaps? Waatch out or you’ll eat your own face

  27. All this is so far from reality as possible. When people use a word to constitute an object in the real word, and that word is being refered to by another person, and that word, in return, is being refered to by a third person, you will end up – excuse me – with a lot of bullshit. That’s the case here with postmodernism and with a lot of social studies in general and political words.

  28. Chomsky on French Intellectual Culture & Post-Modernism:

    Chomsky on Science and Post-Modernism:

  29. Ultimately, it boils down to a clash between those who beleive in the “rational” Enlightenment project (and it’s last hurrah in the form of communist academics), and the post-modern “it’s all good” crew. What Chomsky and his more comprehensible and under-appreciated cohorts like Terry Eagleton wish to explain is that it is NOT all good, expecially when “your thang” be trampling on ‘my thang.” Ignoring for a moment that the Enlightenment thang trampled on a lot of OTHER things, we see briefly into Chomsky’s Commie heart o’ gold–a heart that looks tirelessly for primacy, be it in the structures of language or the rational conversations that could save the world from having giant religious extremist planes flown into its giant capitalist extremist twin towers. Academic communism is the (sad) last outpost of the Enlightenment that gave us science and democracy. Whether or not you believe the ratioanl ideal marginalized/otherized the rest of the world, causing the anger and resentment that has ended in the march toward WWIII, you still have to admire the folks who stand up for some sort of basis for conversation between disparate groups–a shared language of rational discourse. The post-modern “it’s all good” just does not cut it. It is NOT all good. Your cult that seeks to control my body is not good. Thank goodness for people like Chomsky who are still trying to find a way to have the much needed conversation…albeit on trumped up beliefs in a shared rationality. There are people like me who have all but given up. Vive le modernisme! Vive post, post-modernism, which embraces the last, best means for saving the planet, rational discourse. Madonna is not as good as George Elliot–except for explaining how to be your own capitalist exploiter of your own body in Capitalism Gone Wild, the MTV video. In short, it is NOT ALL GOOD.

    1. As much as I hate replying at this point to this post’s replies (the post is over five years old and my sentiments and attitudes have changed in some ways), I feel the need to point out that you seem to be confusing academic departments (in particular so-called “cultural studies” departments that have eaten up Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, etc.) with actual thinkers. Derrida in particular was hardly a moral relativist and hardly nonpragmatic. In short, I think that you’re attributing a gross laziness in certain academic departments to the thinkers that said lazies use to justify their wholly ephemeral projects. Your Madonna comment is particularly confusing, and while I agree that Eliot is a better novelist than Madonna (and I think that Eliot should be afforded greater attention and capital than Madonna), Madonna is clearly better at making music videos than George Eliot. The so-called “study” of pop culture by academic departments might be annoying as fuck, but at some level the best stuff that comes out of it is an observation and critique of mass ideology (the communist Lacanian Zizek is particularly adept at this). To return to your thesis: I don’t think any of the major thinkers of the 68/Telle Quelle/deconstructionist/etc. movement *ever* argued that it was “all good.”

      1. Maybe so. Perhaps the irony that Madonna gets filtered through the surprisingly rational discourse of the so-called anti-rationalist post-moderns is the most telling indicator of the veracity of Chomsky’s modernist universals…? I’m a big fan of moving in and out of popular culture references in my classroom. (Check out my blog on Erakah Badu and Romeo and Juliet and on ROTC and Master P.) It’s “all good” in that it’s all worthy of filtering through the critical rigors (and Chomskian categorical imperatives?) of language systems. As students of popular culture, we splice and dice what Madonna is NOT saying but REALLY saying through a pointy bra song about being like a virgin in the same breath we talk about the 68 virgins a Islamic martyr will gain access to for blowing himself up in the public square. Does figuring out who has the Foucaultian power put anyone coser to getting Madonna to sit at a negotiation table with the Islamic brotherhood–you know, before she offends the hell out of them and they blow us up? I feel Chomsky’s pain here. Less academic jerking off: more academics with a feeling for social responsibility. It is “all good” for academic discussion as long as someone mentions who just got screwed. I guess in that sense, post-modernist criticism resembles the last holdout of modernism–communism…before the rest of it was thrown out with the bathwater. Hum…Chomsky’s communism may be the force that pulls the multi-cultural baby back into the bathwater of social responsibility… it was just thrown out with.

        1. You write: Does figuring out who has the Foucaultian power put anyone coser to getting Madonna to sit at a negotiation table with the Islamic brotherhood–you know, before she offends the hell out of them and they blow us up? I feel Chomsky’s pain here. Less academic jerking off: more academics with a feeling for social responsibility.

          I don’t know. I mean, I agree with the sentiment, but I think that the impulse to “do something” often leads to uncritical or unwise action, or action or reaction that merely recapitulates the system. I think that Chomsky’s clearly in the right place, but if you look at the work of Derrida, Lacan, and Kristeva, they’ve clearly looked at how ideology and language conditions everyday existence (Derrida’s writing on hospitality and hostility alone seems to contradict any Chomskyan cry of “nonsense” to me . . .).

          1. A Matthew Arnold moment: modern times have begun; the dialogue of the mind with itself has triumphed…or something like that. I can’t remember the exact quote…or even if I have the author right. lol Whatever. We are prisoners of our own intellectual cave, watching shadows of our ideological precedents on the wall and yelling “Me!”…or “You!”…before imploding in crippling, self-conscious awareness of our existential inauthenticity at the hands of…language itself. How dare we claim an identity in the face of… ideology, or even thought. I think; therefore, I’m crippled from all further action by my awareness of self. Chomsky, right or wrong, has tirelessly modeled the Miltonian darkness visible of our day: academic activist. And while I am fully conscious of the fascistic dangers of claiming primacy to some imaginary “innate stuctures of language” or anything else, I also see how modern man has moved toward theories of language that make it impossible to act at all. Therein lies the deepest fears of the radical OTHERS flying planes into our buildings: Our glorious Enlightenment project has ended in a T. S. Eliot poem: “the best lack conviction, given some time to think; and the worst are full of passion without mercy.” Nonetheless, I defend the thinker/actor in the Sartrean/Chomsky tradition…even though he may be claiming more power than anyone can PROVE, given the hopeless environmental determinants that have unconsciously or consciously shaped our existence in the form of dreaded ideology and its insidious host, language. Structuralism begins to look like a Kant reacting to a Hume, saving us from the paralizing forces of our own minds with some inborn categories that claim to replace unnseen religion with unseen mental functions. This is how I see Chomsky, but then I forgive him because I agree with his politics…with his ideology. lol

    2. These follow-up comments sat in my ‘other’ mailbox so long I forgot what it was all about and that I had burbled on, and that I no longer agree with myself. Must be moon phases or something. I am commenting once again to throw the subject up into the air to see if any one else will shoot at it. I particularly like schoolmarm and biblioklept’s discourses. Great to read intelligent comments going on on a blog page instead of the sneezings of the lowest common denominator that appear on other sites. The only other blogs where the participants really get into it enough that some thing is revealed are the ‘deep’ science ones, pardon the phrase. These philosophical discussions are rekindling in me an interest in thinking about ‘what is real and what is not’, the same kind of ephemera that particle physicists seem to be chasing in the ‘solid’ world. One of the many compensations of being aged is learning how to leave behind the considerations of yesteryear and to look forward into the unknown to challenge the unknowable. And knowing not to state opinion as fact. Helps keep the neural circuits scraped free of the barnacles of opinion.

  30. What is real or not should be replaced with what can be acted upon…if I may so bold as to use an OUGHT word. I think W. B. Yeats had it right with his line “the best lack conviction, given some time to think, and the worst are full of passion with out mercy.” (Sorry, I said Eliot above. Dawned on me on my way to work this morning.) The people who are driven by a simplistic, unquestioned ideology, act in the most extreme ways, causing thinking people to rightfully question… ideology itself. But as Terry Eagleton says in his fabulous book, On Ideology, it’s always the word intellectuals use to say something about the unthinking and unquestioned positions of OTHERS…until the sudden, crippling realization that this describes the fundamental relationship of all thinkers with language. The thinker is then relegated to the position on non-actor–a position Chomsky fights tooth and nail. Instead of being the ones who must react when the ideologues become overtly fascistic or nationalistic or Christian or Muslim or George W. Bush, we might want to try being the actors in and upon the world. The beauty of the Enlightenment intelligencia is their unabashed social engineering, engaged in precisely because of and in spite of the mindless ideologues they encountered. Now they are just an ‘oppressive meta-narrative,’ seeking to “homogenize space” with their singular world view. The beauaty of this so-called oppressive meta-narrative is its scientific underpinnings that rely on the principle of questioning EVERYTHING, including the Enlightenment and its glorious product, democracy. Chomsky takes on democracy and free market capitalism and everything else b/c he is an unabashed child of the Enlightenment. Now when we look at Madonna’s commoditization and pimping of her own body, we can do more than say, vive la difference! We can say, f that. She’s a victim of the capitalist system she purports to exploit…and she just morphed into Snooky and lifted the veil on the suburban prostitution rings known as The Real Wives of Bourgeois County. And then we can voice our rejection of that identity and its ideological underpinnings…invisible and unreal though they may be.

  31. I think your professor was angry because he knew Derrida’s lecture was literally gibberish. In his rant, Chomsky is kind of answering two questions: 1. Why doesn’t Chomsky consider/use contemporary “theory” and “philosophy” while writing about politics, activism, and history, and 2. Why is he dismissive of postmodern philosophers in general?

    He responds to the first question by explaining that he’s a pragmatist (as you say) who’s interested in revealing and solving real problems (economic inequality, injustice, exploitation, propaganda, etc.). He doesn’t see how contemporary philosophy would help him to reveal or solve those problems in a way that’s any different than (for example) the ideas of Hume or Marx. He is not talking about his work in linguistics.

    He responds to the second question in an entirely different way: he says (paraphrasing) “Even though I’m extremely familiar with all the major linguistic, political, and philosophical works leading up to the rise of Lacan and Derrida, I honestly can’t understand what any of these contemporary authors are trying to say.” It’s not that he disagrees with them; he is literally admitting he has no idea what the thesis (or theses) of their body of work is, and is consequently curious why nobody in the field of post-structuralist theory can explain it to him in simple terms. A quantum physicist can appear on a NOVA special and explain the basic ideas and developments in his field of study without misrepresenting the more advanced math behind it–why can’t they do the same? Note: in this section of his response, he is not talking about how postmodernist thought relates to his linguistic work or his political work.

    So if you want to debate the first question (i.e. Can a book like “Of Grammatology” or “Anti-Oedipus” be of use to an author who is protesting the invasion of Iraq or researching the Iran-Contra affair?), that’s fair game, though I would probably still answer “no” to that hypothetical question.

    But the second question has nothing to do with Chomsky’s agreement or disagreement with any of these writers–his complaint is simply that he finds it so difficult to understand that he suspects that their “theory” consists of simple, self-evident ideas dressed up in trendy vocabulary and endless neologisms. I think the Sokal affair is all the proof you need that this trick gets played every day in published papers, lectures, and graduate theses at elite institutions, and I think it’s THAT fact (not postmodernism’s supposedly ground-breaking denial of false “ideals” and “deep structures”) that your professor found infuriating. You say you didn’t understand what Derrida’s speech was about, and neither did another commentator who saw the same speech… then why do you give him the benefit of the doubt? Like Chomsky, I’ll keep crying “bullshit” until one of my friends can explain how these philosophers have developed or refuted the ideas of their intellectual predecessors in any way that isn’t already self-evident to your average humanities student.

    On a totally different topic I’m more confused as to what Zizek (who I like because he makes an effort to render his ideas accessible and alive in today’s intellectual world) finds so valuable in the work of Lacan (who, over time, seems to have been denounced by everyone outside his own circle of followers as a charlatan). It seems to me like Zizek’s citations and paraphrases of Lacan are more interesting and valuable than Lacan’s own work.

  32. Sorry, forgot to add one at the end:

    TL;DR: You misrepresented Chomsky’s argument, by implying that he was addressing post-structuralist critiques of outdated ideas like a “universal grammar.”

    I wonder why, if you’re no longer willing to discuss or defend your original post, you leave it available online, let people comment on it, and respond to them dismissively? What difference does it make to your readers that you wrote it five years ago?

  33. As an outsider to much of this discussion (I am more of the phonetics persuasion) I thought I could at least offer a check on many of the respondents who seem to have assumed at the outset that Chomsky is somehow coming from a place of scientific credibility. Any serious (or even brief) look at his grammatical theory of the past 50 years will reveal it to be scientifically dubious. To put it plainly, he has let elegance and theoretical reduction be the driving force, without constraining the work to claims which have both predictive power and falsifiability. So it all seems very amusing to me that a man who is so utterly unscientific (and not to mention benefiting from enormous academic prestige and stature from his platform at MIT) is opening criticizing others for the same flaw. Maybe he knows it well so he’s speaking from experience.

    Do not be fooled by the eloquence of the interviews…

  34. Agree w/ you completely. I’ve never understood why Chomsky has never seen his connection to “postmodern” theory, &c, beyond the surface density. Anyways, I read the essay of his awhile back, too, and I was shocked at how little evidence he brought forward on his major critiques beyond it being ramblings of craaazy French folk. So, again, we see eye-to-eye on another thing.

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