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The paradox of Noam Chomsky on language and power

In his recent speech accepting the Sydney Peace Prize, Chomsky returned to a recurrent theme from his work in political science: that the violence perpetrated by the West is not represented in our media…

Noam Chomsky explicitly rejects the idea that language may be implicated in politics. AAP

In his recent speech accepting the Sydney Peace Prize, Chomsky returned to a recurrent theme from his work in political science: that the violence perpetrated by the West is not represented in our media or political discourse in the same way as the violence of “rogue” states.

In his well known book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, published in 1988 and co-authored with Edward Herman, Chomsky argued that the media “serve, and propagandise on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them”.

These powerful interests “play a key role in fixing basic principles and the dominant ideologies” because the media, on their behalf, “fix the premises of discourse”, creating a dichotomisation, “as if a commissar had instructed the media” to “concentrate on the victims of enemy powers and forget about the victims of friends”.

This dichotomisation is “massive and systematic”, and prevents “mass deliberation and expression”.

Thus, public opinion is “managed”, and the violence by which the US and other Western powers pursue their foreign interests is hidden, validated, normalised.

For instance, the mainstream American press, Herman and Chomsky argued, completely failed to see that the invasion of Vietnam was an act of American aggression. Indeed, the very idea of “American aggression” was completely “unthinkable”.

Consequently, America was represented in the mainstream American media as “defending” rather than “attacking” south Vietnam, despite the large-scale bombardment of the south by the US.

The argument of the book is very persuasive. It gives a central role to propaganda in explaining how it is that the US and her allies have both “might” and “right”.

It gives a central role to discourse as the vehicle of ideology, as the medium for the shaping of public opinion, and as a mechanism for reinforcing the contradictions and inequities of social structure.

But, paradoxically, Chomsky see no role for linguistics in understanding how language can have such power. In accruing evidence for the claims for his analysis of the media, Chomsky has never recruited a single concept from linguistics.

In fact, in an 800 page book of interviews with Chomsky, titled Language and Politics, Chomsky - ironically - explicitly rejects the idea that language might be implicated in politics.

He goes on to reject any role for language in propaganda. And despite believing that ideology is extremely powerful in subjugating dissent, Chomsky argues that in the face of “very effective systems of indoctrination and thought control” all one needs is common sense and a few facts, eschewing any notion that his own discipline might provide some expertise for the analysis or deconstruction of an ideology.

But to consider linguistics relevant to the study of ideology, Chomsky would have had to reject his own linguistic theory, in which language is genetically endowed universal structure, the study of which does not require the linguist to deal with the actuality of what people do with language.

For Chomsky, meaning is peripheral to linguistic form, a notion so preposterous it is hard to square it with the 20th century’s most famous linguist.

As Emeritus Professor of Linguistics Michael Halliday has argued, “imaginary problems were created by the whole series of dichotomies that Chomsky introduced, or took over unproblematized: not only syntax/semantics but also grammar/lexis, language/thought, competence/performance…Once these dichotomies had been set up, the problem arose of locating and maintaining the boundaries between them”.

Chomsky’s theory has been dismissed by leading neurobiologists, such as Gerald Edelman and Terrence Deacon and rejected by language typologists (for instance, Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson, whose 2009 article in Behavioural and Brain Sciences journal argues that his claims of Universal Grammar are “either empirically false, unfalsifiable, or misleading”).

But while on his trip down under, Chomsky did not fail to keep alive the “founding father” narrative so familiar now in the “Chomsky revolution” mythology. When interviewed on the ABC’s Late Night Live program after giving his speech, Chomsky (re)told the tale of how he rescued linguistics from its misguided state, by, for instance, insisting on a biological basis for language.

Only a woeful or negligent reading of his predecessors could lead him to think he had “discovered” this idea.

What despairs me most about Chomsky’s work is not that it is predicated on ignoring decades of field work by great linguists in America, such as Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, or Benjamin Lee Whorf, or that it tendentiously decrees what is required for linguistics to be a “serious discipline”, or that it requires a serious misreading of the contribution of Ferdinand de Saussure to our understanding of semiotics.

It is that he has turned the mainstream of linguistics into an arcane form of knowledge, truly the preserve of navel-gazing academics.

By Chomsky’s own dicta, the discourse produced by humans in naturally occurring situations (dismissed and diminished as “performance”) was banished from the scope of the discipline.

One very serious consequence of Chomsky’s dominance in the latter part of the 20th century is that the linguistic analysis of real language, in real contexts of human interaction, has been marginalised in North America, and in the places to which Chomskyan linguistics has been exported.

This means, among other things, that the ideologies on which America’s “permanent war economy” rest have not be subject to the kind of serious, systematic, and empirical analysis befitting such powerful and consequential ways of seeing the world.

Given the thrust of his speech at Sydney’s Town Hall, this is truly paradoxical.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Carter

    logged in via Facebook

    What I find far more paradoxical is that anyone on the left thinks Chomsky has any legitimacy or authenticity at all.
    I turned my back on his blatherings years back after reading his sycophantic spiel about heroic "People's Korea" published at the same time as North Koreans were dying in droves from politically-induced famine. More recently Guardian journo George Monbiot exposed Noam as sympathising with genocide deniers- read this for details: http://www.monbiot.com/2011/06/13/naming-the-genocide-deniers/
    The bloke has no moral compass whatsoever. He is a shameful embarrassment to the left and I for one wouldn't have him in the house.

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    1. James Moore

      Family Lawyer

      In reply to Mark Carter

      In referring to Monbiot's article, you are referring to this: "The foreword was written by Noam Chomsky. He doesn’t mention the specific claims the book makes, but the fact that he wrote it surely looks like an endorsement of the contents."

      You haven't read the book, or the foreword. I doubt Chomsky read the book either. Such views are certainly nowhere to be found in Chomsky's significant body of work and there are numerous opportunities for him to outline such views when he does the contrary. You've decided that what smacks of impropriety to George Monbiot in a single passing reference in his article, closes the case on Chomsky as a 'genocide denier sympathiser'.

      Also: Do tell us what 'sycophantic spiel about People's Korea' you are referring to?

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    2. Mark Carter

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to James Moore

      So, man writes glowing foreword to book containing explicit genocide denial and your defence of him is that he (perhaps) didn't read it? If Tony Abbot wrote a foreword for one of Keith Windschuttles denialist history efforts the left would be crawling all over it as proof of Abbot's evil nature, but when Noam does the same thing its apparently all good.
      Double standards are an ugly thing...

      The North Korea fanboy writing was in one of Chomsky's books which I forced to wade through at Uni by a well-meaning Marxist prof who never quite got over the fall of the Wall...Sorry, the title escapes me.

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    1. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Mano Zezez

      One might go back to Chomsky's discussion of Genie where he admits that Geinie's discourse is intelligible but not grammatical (Aspects of a Theory of Syntax, 1965?). And one can follow Chomsky's writing through and find numerous instances where he uses language-based "sleights of hand" to dismiss, ignore or marginalise semantics.

      This is why cognitive linguistics is curently in the academic ascendant and minimalism is a peripheral movement in linguistics. Eventually, it is not about the syntax…

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  2. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist at Australian National University

    Question to Annabelle Lukin.

    I find this article fascinating yet presented in a language, including citations, as complex as to be intended for expert linguists.

    For example: "“imaginary problems were created by the whole series of dichotomies that Chomsky introduced, or took over unproblematized: not only syntax/semantics but also grammar/lexis, language/thought, competence/performance…"

    It is well known that facts, reality and truth can "disappear" where "clever" words are used.

    Can the author…

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    1. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Andrew Glikson

      Hi Andrew,
      you might like to look at Wierzbicka's:
      2010. Experience, Evidence, and Sense: The hidden cultural legacy of English. New York: Oxford University Press. (a nice little triumvirate of science terms)
      and
      2006. English: Meaning and culture. New York: Oxford University Press. (reason and reasonableness are one focus in this one)

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  3. (:≡≡ ◦◦○◦○οºO

    logged in via Twitter

    I've been thinking about this article all day and was going to write more on UG, but Mano summed it up a lot better.

    The overarching idea, that Chomsky doesn't bring linguistic theory to bear on his political writing is true. But, as is stated, his theories don't really apply. Chomsky always scrupulously maintains that his political work is not theory at all, it was only after I'd read his linguistics that I understood quite what he meant.

    As Mano said, Chomsky's work has been on syntax, and while…

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    1. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to (:≡≡ ◦◦○◦○οºO

      "the idea of Universal Grammar is simply the genetic component of language, an uncontroversial truism." This is neither uncontroversial, nor a truism. I think Annabelle points out in the article that both Evans and Levinson and Edelman and Deacon have dismissed the theory.

      On the subject of semantics, you might like to read Wierzbicka and/or Jackendoff who both pose theories of semantics which are at least as complete as any UG theory that has been put forward.

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    2. Mano Zezez

      linguist

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      <blockquote>"the idea of Universal Grammar is simply the genetic component of language, an uncontroversial truism." This is neither uncontroversial, nor a truism. I think Annabelle points out in the article that both Evans and Levinson and Edelman and Deacon have dismissed the theory.</blockquote>

      The difference between a newborn human infant and kitten with respect to their ability to acquire a language uncontroversially derives from genetic differences between the two. This is not to be confused with the specificity issue - the question of whether the genetic endowment that humans possess and kittens don't is language-specific as opposed to a more general-purpose feature of cognition.

      Also, the article's characterisation of Deacon's views is somewhat out of date. I have met him on a number of occasions and discussed such things with him and at least some of the research that currently goes on under his leadership is very much within a Minimalist framework.

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    3. Mano Zezez

      linguist

      In reply to Mano Zezez

      The first paragraph above was meant to be quoted (from Dennis Alexander's comment), but the formatting didn't work.

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  4. jim morris

    logged in via email @yahoo.com

    One of the first books I read when training myself to be a leftie was Chomsky's glowing praise of Pol Pot's Kampuchea. Later it was his biased ranting about East Timor that set me firmly in the middle ground.
    But it rings true when he says "It gives a central role to discourse as the vehicle of ideology, as the medium for the shaping of public opinion, and as a mechanism for reinforcing the contradictions and inequities of social structure" although I see it referring as much to the machinations of the feminist juggernaut as imperialist america.deliberation and expression”.
    Thus, public opinion is “managed”, and the ruthlessness by which the feminists pursue their selfish interests is hidden, validated, normalised.

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  5. Koenraad Kuiper

    Professor Emeritus and Honorary Professor at University of Canterbury and University of Sydney

    1.It may have been in that the 1950s Chomsky and the generative theory of the time placed more emphasis on form than on meaning. He and it were not alone in that. North American Structuralists like Bloomfield were of a similar view. That is hardly the case since 1970 and the beginnings of lexicalist theory as evidenced in the work of Ray Jackendoff at the time, and the Principles and Parameters framework of the '80s when theta theory became integral to syntactic theory and the Projection Principle…

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