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Chomsky on Postmodern Theory

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Over at the American Intellectual History Blog, Andrew Hartman offers a positive assessment of François Cusset’s recent book French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. I found the review pertinent because I’m putting together a syllabus for an introductory course on the “postmodern condition.” While part of the class involves examining the difficulty of defining exactly what the postmodern condition entails, we will be exploring themes typically associated with postmodernism. These include the social construction of knowledge, the relationship between truth and power, and the deconstruction of essentialist categories of identity.  As one might expect, readings for the class include works by Michel Foucault, Edward Said, and Judith Butler (among many others).

The postmodern condition explained

We’ll also be reading a number of postmodernism’s critics, which during its academic height in the 1990s were legion.  While its conservative opponents such as Allan Bloom probably got the most media attention, it also attracted plenty of condemnation by intellectuals from across the political spectrum. As I was searching out such critics for the syllabus, I came across this amazing 1995 list-serve post by Noam Chomsky. In it, he not only delivers a blistering attack on scholars such as Derrida, Kristeva and Lacan, but also on the American humanities establishment more generally.

Now, clearly, this wasn’t the first time Chomsky attacked the American academic class. Perhaps his most famous essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” published at the height of the Vietnam War in 1967, tore into scholars whom he believed had abandoned their commitment to truth in favor of service to the state. In the years since, he has frequently laced into mainstream academia for what he considers its political complacency and ideological rigidity.

Unlike his more typical attacks on intellectual cheerleaders for American militarism, however, in the list-serve post Chomsky aims his rhetorical sites on the proponents of “postmodern theory.” Asked why he engaged so little with theorists such as Lyotard, Derrida, and Lacan, Chomsky responded:

I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far: 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.

Unlike postmodernism’s critics on the right, however, Chomsky doesn’t stop there. He goes on to argue that these theorists, far from being the dangerous radicals of the conservative imagination, are actually apolitical charlatans doing nothing to advance the cause of social justice. In a move that does echo the populist stance one more often associates with conservatives, though, Chomsky argues that most working-class Americans have an easier time understanding what’s wrong with the country than do many out-of-touch humanities professors. Discussing the challenges of explaining his views to different audiences, he notes:

I’ve never found that a problem [providing alternative frames of reference] 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.

This is how I took notes for comprehensive exams

Of course, Chomsky’s beef with many post-modern thinkers goes beyond their sometime incomprehensible language and their questionable scholarly rigor, but instead goes into deeper conflicts over questions such as basic understandings of the human condition. Chomsky’s admiration for the principles of the enlightenment and his belief in a universal human nature put him at odds with some of post-modernism’s main currents.  These disagreements are at the heart of his famous debate with Foucault in which the two disagree over the possibility of universal foundations for a just society (in the list-serve attack on postmodern theory, Chomsky makes some—but not too many—exceptions for Foucault’s work).

Personally, I’m sympathetic with much of Chomsky’s critique. Particularly the writers he refers too. On the other hand, I’m willing to be convinced that I’m just not familiar enough with their work. I do think, however, that people like Foucault, Butler, and Said (and Chomsky would certainly agree with me on the latter) have actually developed a number of insights not only worth considering for their own sake, but that are necessary sources of wisdom for any movement that claims to advocate for social justice—but that’s the subject of another blog post.

For now, I encourage you to read Chomsky’s blast. I’m curious to hear what people think, especially those more familiar with Kristeva, Lacan, etc.

Written by Jenny Carlson

May 24th, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Posted in Main