Chomsky on postmodernism [repost]
This text used to be hosted at Shalizi's university website, but it was recently taken down for unknown reasons. However, Internet Archive saves us, and I repost it here because it's interesting and so it doesn't get lost.
This text has circulated quite a number of times on Usenet, and so far as I know is authentic. This version (less, of course, the HTML airs and graces) was posted by one email@example.com to rec.arts.books, 13 Nov 1995 03:21:23 -0500, message-id firstname.lastname@example.org. Jenm289 wrote: "The following was written several months ago by Noam Chomsky in a discussion about po-mo and its contribution to activism et al. The discussion took place on LBBS, Z-Magazine's Left On-Line Bulletin Board (contact email@example.com to join)."
I've returned from travel-speaking, where I spend most of my life, and found a collection of messages extending the discussion about "theory" and "philosophy," a debate that I find rather curious. A few reactions --- though I concede, from the start, that I may simply not understand what is going on.
As far as I do think I understand it, the debate was initiated by the charge that I, Mike, and maybe others don't have "theories" and therefore fail to give any explanation of why things are proceeding as they do. We must turn to "theory" and "philosophy" and "theoretical constructs" and the like to remedy this deficiency in our efforts to understand and address what is happening in the world. I won't speak for Mike. My response so far has pretty much been to reiterate something I wrote 35 years ago, long before "postmodernism" had erupted in the literary intellectual culture: "if there is a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs or the resolution of domestic or international conflict, its existence has been kept a well-guarded secret," despite much "pseudo-scientific posturing."
To my knowledge, the statement was accurate 35 years ago, and remains so; furthermore, it extends to the study of human affairs generally, and applies in spades to what has been produced since that time. What has changed in the interim, to my knowledge, is a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call "theory" and "philosophy," but little that I can detect beyond "pseudo-scientific posturing." That little is, as I wrote, sometimes quite interesting, but lacks consequences for the real world problems that occupy my time and energies (Rawls's important work is the case I mentioned, in response to specific inquiry).
The latter fact has been noticed. One fine philosopher and social theorist (also activist), Alan Graubard, wrote an interesting review years ago of Robert Nozick's "libertarian" response to Rawls, and of the reactions to it. He pointed out that reactions were very enthusiastic. Reviewer after reviewer extolled the power of the arguments, etc., but no one accepted any of the real-world conclusions (unless they had previously reached them). That's correct, as were his observations on what it means.
The proponents of "theory" and "philosophy" have a very easy task if they want to make their case. Simply make known to me what was and remains a "secret" to me: I'll be happy to look. I've asked many times before, and still await an answer, which should be easy to provide: simply give some examples of "a body of theory, well tested and verified, that applies to" the kinds of problems and issues that Mike, I, and many others (in fact, most of the world's population, I think, outside of narrow and remarkably self-contained intellectual circles) are or should be concerned with: the problems and issues we speak and write about, for example, and others like them. To put it differently, show that the principles of the "theory" or "philosophy" that we are told to study and apply lead by valid argument to conclusions that we and others had not already reached on other (and better) grounds; these "others" include people lacking formal education, who typically seem to have no problem reaching these conclusions through mutual interactions that avoid the "theoretical" obscurities entirely, or often on their own.
Again, those are simple requests. I've made them before, and remain in my state of ignorance. I also draw certain conclusions from the fact.
As for the "deconstruction" that is carried out (also mentioned in the debate), I can't comment, because most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand, and show why they are different from, or better than, what others had been doing long before and and have continued to do since without three-syllable words, incoherent sentences, inflated rhetoric that (to me, at least) is largely meaningless, etc. That will cure my deficiencies --- of course, if they are curable; maybe they aren't, a possibility to which I'll return.
These are very easy requests to fulfill, if there is any basis to the claims put forth with such fervor and indignation. But instead of trying to provide an answer to this simple requests, the response is cries of anger: to raise these questions shows "elitism," "anti-intellectualism," and other crimes --- though apparently it is not "elitist" to stay within the self- and mutual-admiration societies of intellectuals who talk only to one another and (to my knowledge) don't enter into the kind of world in which I'd prefer to live. As for that world, I can reel off my speaking and writing schedule to illustrate what I mean, though I presume that most people in this discussion know, or can easily find out; and somehow I never find the "theoreticians" there, nor do I go to their conferences and parties. In short, we seem to inhabit quite different worlds, and I find it hard to see why mine is "elitist," not theirs. The opposite seems to be transparently the case, though I won't amplify.
To add another facet, I am absolutely deluged with requests to speak and can't possibly accept a fraction of the invitations I'd like to, so I suggest other people. But oddly, I never suggest those who propound "theories" and "philosophy," nor do I come across them, or for that matter rarely even their names, in my own (fairly extensive) experience with popular and activist groups and organizations, general community, college, church, union, etc., audiences here and abroad, third world women, refugees, etc.; I can easily give examples. Why, I wonder.
The whole debate, then, is an odd one. On one side, angry charges and denunciations, on the other, the request for some evidence and argument to support them, to which the response is more angry charges --- but, strikingly, no evidence or argument. Again, one is led to ask why.
It's entirely possible that I'm simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I'm perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made -- but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I'm missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it's all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I'm just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I'm perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).
Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I'm missing, we're left with the second option: I'm just incapable of understanding. I'm certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I'm afraid I'll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.
Again, I've lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called "philosophy" and "science," as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won't spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of "theory" and "philosophy" to justify their claims --- to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.
Specific comment. Phetland asked who I'm referring to when I speak of "Paris school" and "postmodernist cults": the above is a sample.
He then asks, reasonably, why I am "dismissive" of it. Take, say, Derrida. Let me begin by saying that I dislike making the kind of comments that follow without providing evidence, but I doubt that participants want a close analysis of de Saussure, say, in this forum, and I know that I'm not going to undertake it. I wouldn't say this if I hadn't been explicitly asked for my opinion --- and if asked to back it up, I'm going to respond that I don't think it merits the time to do so.
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, as noted. Again, sorry to make unsupported comments, but I was asked, and therefore am answering.
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 --- the kinds where I give talks, have interviews, take part in activities, write dozens of long letters every week, etc. 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. When I proceed as I do in other areas where I do not understand, I run into the problems mentioned in connection with (1) and (2) above. So that's who I'm referring to, and why I don't proceed very far. I can list a lot more names if it's not obvious.
For those interested in a literary depiction that reflects pretty much the same perceptions (but from the inside), I'd suggest David Lodge. Pretty much on target, as far as I can judge.
Phetland also found it "particularly puzzling" that I am so "curtly dismissive" of these intellectual circles while I spend a lot of time "exposing the posturing and obfuscation of the New York Times." So "why not give these guys the same treatment." Fair question. There are also simple answers. What appears in the work I do address (NYT, journals of opinion, much of scholarship, etc.) is simply written in intelligible prose and has a great impact on the world, establishing the doctrinal framework within which thought and expression are supposed to be contained, and largely are, in successful doctrinal systems such as ours. That has a huge impact on what happens to suffering people throughout the world, the ones who concern me, as distinct from those who live in the world that Lodge depicts (accurately, I think). So this work should be dealt with seriously, at least if one cares about ordinary people and their problems. The work to which Phetland refers has none of these characteristics, as far as I'm aware. It certainly has none of the impact, since it is addressed only to other intellectuals in the same circles. Furthermore, there is no effort that I am aware of to make it intelligible to the great mass of the population (say, to the people I'm constantly speaking to, meeting with, and writing letters to, and have in mind when I write, and who seem to understand what I say without any particular difficulty, though they generally seem to have the same cognitive disability I do when facing the postmodern cults). And I'm also aware of no effort to show how it applies to anything in the world in the sense I mentioned earlier: grounding conclusions that weren't already obvious. Since I don't happen to be much interested in the ways that intellectuals inflate their reputations, gain privilege and prestige, and disengage themselves from actual participation in popular struggle, I don't spend any time on it.
Phetland suggests starting with Foucault --- who, as I've written repeatedly, is somewhat apart from the others, for two reasons: I find at least some of what he writes intelligible, though generally not very interesting; second, he was not personally disengaged and did not restrict himself to interactions with others within the same highly privileged elite circles. Phetland then does exactly what I requested: he gives some illustrations of why he thinks Foucault's work is important. That's exactly the right way to proceed, and I think it helps understand why I take such a "dismissive" attitude towards all of this --- in fact, pay no attention to it.
What Phetland describes, accurately I'm sure, seems to me unimportant, because everyone always knew it --- apart from details of social and intellectual history, and about these, I'd suggest caution: some of these are areas I happen to have worked on fairly extensively myself, and I know that Foucault's scholarship is just not trustworthy here, so I don't trust it, without independent investigation, in areas that I don't know --- this comes up a bit in the discussion from 1972 that is in print. I think there is much better scholarship on the 17th and 18th century, and I keep to that, and my own research. But let's put aside the other historical work, and turn to the "theoretical constructs" and the explanations: that there has been "a great change from harsh mechanisms of repression to more subtle mechanisms by which people come to do" what the powerful want, even enthusiastically. That's true enough, in fact, utter truism. If that's a "theory," then all the criticisms of me are wrong: I have a "theory" too, since I've been saying exactly that for years, and also giving the reasons and historical background, but without describing it as a theory (because it merits no such term), and without obfuscatory rhetoric (because it's so simple-minded), and without claiming that it is new (because it's a truism). It's been fully recognized for a long time that as the power to control and coerce has declined, it's more necessary to resort to what practitioners in the PR industry early in this century -- who understood all of this well -- called "controlling the public mind." The reasons, as observed by Hume in the 18th century, are that "the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers" relies ultimately on control of opinion and attitudes. Why these truisms should suddenly become "a theory" or "philosophy," others will have to explain; Hume would have laughed.
Some of Foucault's particular examples (say, about 18th century techniques of punishment) look interesting, and worth investigating as to their accuracy. But the "theory" is merely an extremely complex and inflated restatement of what many others have put very simply, and without any pretense that anything deep is involved. There's nothing in what Phetland describes that I haven't been writing about myself for 35 years, also giving plenty of documentation to show that it was always obvious, and indeed hardly departs from truism. What's interesting about these trivialities is not the principle, which is transparent, but the demonstration of how it works itself out in specific detail to cases that are important to people: like intervention and aggression, exploitation and terror, "free market" scams, and so on. That I don't find in Foucault, though I find plenty of it by people who seem to be able to write sentences I can understand and who aren't placed in the intellectual firmament as "theoreticians."
To make myself clear, Phetland is doing exactly the right thing: presenting what he sees as "important insights and theoretical constructs" that he finds in Foucault. My problem is that the "insights" seem to me familiar and there are no "theoretical constructs," except in that simple and familiar ideas have been dressed up in complicated and pretentious rhetoric. Phetland asks whether I think this is "wrong, useless, or posturing." No. The historical parts look interesting sometimes, though they have to be treated with caution and independent verification is even more worth undertaking than it usually is. The parts that restate what has long been obvious and put in much simpler terms are not "useless," but indeed useful, which is why I and others have always made the very same points. As to "posturing," a lot of it is that, in my opinion, though I don't particularly blame Foucault for it: it's such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it. As for the "corruption" of this culture particularly since World War II, that's another topic, which I've discussed elsewhere and won't go into here. Frankly, I don't see why people in this forum should be much interested, just as I am not. There are more important things to do, in my opinion, than to inquire into the traits of elite intellectuals engaged in various careerist and other pursuits in their narrow and (to me, at least) pretty unininteresting circles. That's a broad brush, and I stress again that it is unfair to make such comments without proving them: but I've been asked, and have answered the only specific point that I find raised. When asked about my general opinion, I can only give it, or if something more specific is posed, address that. I'm not going to undertake an essay on topics that don't interest me.
Unless someone can answer the simple questions that immediately arise in the mind of any reasonable person when claims about "theory" and "philosophy" are raised, I'll keep to work that seems to me sensible and enlightening, and to people who are interested in understanding and changing the world.
Johnb made the point that "plain language is not enough when the frame of reference is not available to the listener"; correct and important. But the right reaction is not to resort to obscure and needlessly complex verbiage and posturing about non-existent "theories." Rather, it is to ask the listener to question the frame of reference that he/she is accepting, and to suggest alternatives that might be considered, all in plain language. I've never found that a problem when I speak to people lacking much or sometimes any formal education, though it's true that it tends to become harder as you move up the educational ladder, so that indoctrination is much deeper, and the self-selection for obedience that is a good part of elite education has taken its toll. Johnb says that outside of circles like this forum, "to the rest of the country, he's incomprehensible" ("he" being me). That's absolutely counter to my rather ample experience, with all sorts of audiences. Rather, my experience is what I just described. The incomprehensibility roughly corresponds to the educational level. Take, say, talk radio. I'm on a fair amount, and it's usually pretty easy to guess from accents, etc., what kind of audience it is. I've repeatedly found that when the audience is mostly poor and less educated, I can skip lots of the background and "frame of reference" issues because it's already obvious and taken for granted by everyone, and can proceed to matters that occupy all of us. With more educated audiences, that's much harder; it's necessary to disentangle lots of ideological constructions.
It's certainly true that lots of people can't read the books I write. That's not because the ideas or language are complicated --- we have no problems in informal discussion on exactly the same points, and even in the same words. The reasons are different, maybe partly the fault of my writing style, partly the result of the need (which I feel, at least) to present pretty heavy documentation, which makes it tough reading. For these reasons, a number of people have taken pretty much the same material, often the very same words, and put them in pamphlet form and the like. No one seems to have much problem --- though again, reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement or professional academic journals don't have a clue as to what it's about, quite commonly; sometimes it's pretty comical.
A final point, something I've written about elsewhere (e.g., in a discussion in Z papers, and the last chapter of Year 501). There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like "mathematics for the millions" (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in and speaking for popular organizations, etc., are now largely disengaged from such activities, and although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious and growing need and even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems and concerns. That's not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange and ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That's an organizer's dream, as I once heard Mike say. It's also fertile ground for demagogues and fanatics, who can (and in fact already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There's a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public and their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.
End of Reply, and (to be frank) of my personal interest in the matter, unless the obvious questions are answered.