Posts Tagged ‘Noam Chomsky’

Noam Chomsky thinks the U.S. is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” René Girard replies.

Friday, February 12th, 2016

Curmudgeonly? (Photo: Duncan Rawlinson/Creative Commons)

The Académie Française memorial service for René Girard in Saint-Germain-des-Prés will take place this weekend. The Book Haven has written much about the French theorist, who died on November 4 (see here). I will not be in Paris, alas, except in spirit. So René was much in my mind when I read the latest headline from Noam Chomsky. According to The Wirethe controversial public intellectual thinks America is “one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world.” Really? He’s including Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia in the competition? I wondered.

In fairness, his comment is much is much more nuanced than that … well, not much more. According to the article: “There are not too many countries in the world where two-thirds of the population awaits The Second Coming, Chomsky said, adding that half of them think it is going to be in their lifetimes. ‘And maybe a third of the population believes the world was created 10,000 years ago, exactly the way it is now. Things like that are pretty weird, but that is true in the United States and has been for a long time.’” Guess I haven’t been hanging out in the right circles. How quick we are, however, to distance ourselves from those people. That should be a tip-off.

I returned to what René had to say on the subject in a short (about 100 page), very readable Q&A book, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguertranslated by Trevor Cribben-Merrill and published by Michigan State University Press in 2014. An excerpt:

MT: What do you think of the “creationists” who take the Bible literally?

RG: They’re wrong, of course, but I don’t want to speak ill of them because today they are the scapegoats of American culture. The media distorts everything they say and treats them like the lowest of the low.

MT: But if they’re wrong, why not? You speak of scapegoats, but, as far as I know, nobody’s putting the creationists to death, are they?


I’m with René. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

RG: They’re ostracized from society. It’s said that Americans can’t resist peer pressure, and it’s generally true. Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists: they think they’re persecuted, but they’re not. The creationists are. They’re resisting peer pressure. I take my hat off to them.

MT: But what if they’re absolutely wrong? For someone who places such emphasis on the truth, whatever the cost, I suddenly find you very indulgent.

RG: And what do you do with freedom of religion? In America, as elsewhere, fundamentalism results from the breakdown of an age-old compromise between religion and anti-religious humanism. And it’s anti-religious humanism that is responsible for the breakdown. It espouses doctrines that start with abortion, that continue with genetic manipulation, and that tomorrow will undoubtedly lead to hyperefficient forms of euthanasia. In at most a few decades we’ll have transformed man into a repugnant little pleasure-machine, forever liberated from pain and even from death, which is to say from everything that, paradoxically, encourages us to pursue any sort of noble human aim, and not only religious transcendence.

treguerMT: So there’s nothing worse than trying to avert real dangers by means of false beliefs?

RG: Mankind has never done anything else.

MT: That’s no reason to continue.

RG: The fundamentalists often defend ideas that I deplore, but a remnant of spiritual health makes them foresee the horror of the warm and fuzzy concentration camp that our benevolent bureaucracies are preparing for us, and their revolt looks more respectable to me than our somnolence. In an era where everyone boasts of being a marginal dissident even as they display a stupefying mimetic docility, the fundamentalists are authentic dissidents. I recently refused to participate in a supposedly scientific study that treats them like guinea pigs, without the researchers ever asking themselves about the role of their own academic ideology in a phenomenon that they think they’re studying objectively, with complete and utter detachment.

What can I say? He will be missed. No one like him. And I wish I were in Paris this weekend.

Orwell Watch #25: passive-aggressive scare quotes

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

He’s right, anyway, whatever he said.

The Orwell Watch is back again, thanks to Patrick L. Smith of Salon, who pointed out in “Chomsky’s right: The New York Times’ latest big lie” ….

Never before have I written a column concerning nothing more than a pair of quotation marks. Then again, never until now have I seen the power of punctuation so perniciously deployed.

It is not a new trick. Very popular in hackdom during the Cold War decades. Enclose something in quotation marks and all between them is instantly de-legitimized; no argument or explanation need be made. Here, try it:

“… the Cuban ‘doctors’ sent to Angola…”

Or: “… Soviet-made ‘farm equipment’ in Portugal since its 1974 revolution…”

Well, they were doctors and it was farm equipment. In the latter category I sat in a Soviet tractor out in the Portuguese vineyards, and damn it if the camponês did not find it useful.

In the end, this kind of thing is simply passive aggression, my least favorite neurosis. No one actively lies such that one can confront and reveal. It is lying by misleading and by implication, so sending us off full of groundless conviction and prejudice.

scarequotesCome to think of it, I have seen this particular maneuver lots.  How do you quarrel with the airy dismissal provided by scare quotes? To quarrel with the iddy biddy quotation marks seems trivial and picayune.  The thrust of Smith’s article concerns the current negotiations with Iran – you can read the whole thing here.  The arguments and subject are beyond the scope of the Book Haven; its criticism of the use of language is not.

But here’s my gripe:  nowhere is Noam Chomsky mentioned in the article.  Not even a first name or a hyperlink. What did he have to do with anything?

I did a little digging around to find out, and discovered this in Christopher Wise‘s Chomsky and Deconstruction (Palgrave Macmillan): “Chomsky often places scare quotes around words that harbor difficult and complicated questions, especially those that tend to undermine his views.” But Smith said he’s right on this one.

Go figure.

Michael Ellsberg: “They were drawn to it, like flies…”

Monday, August 1st, 2011

Author, author! No... not the guy...

The website of Cambridge University’s Catherine R.D. La Tournier includes this passage from her 844-word essay, “Derridaist Reading and Dialectic Modernism“:

If one examines Derridaist reading, one is faced with a choice: either accept dialectic modernism or conclude that consensus is created by the masses, but only if reality is distinct from consciousness; otherwise, we can assume that the collective is capable of truth.

However, the characteristic theme of the works of Madonna is a self-fulfilling totality. Any number of constructions concerning the paradigm, and eventually the dialectic, of cultural culture may be discovered.

In the works of Madonna, a predominant concept is the concept of neotextual language. It could be said that the premise of predialectic desituationism holds that reality must come from communication, given that Lacan’s critique of dialectic modernism is invalid. Several theories concerning Derridaist reading exist.

Exciting, innit?

A lot to answer for...

But not for the reason you think.  In fact, it wasn’t written by a human.

As it says on the bottom of the page: “The essay you have just seen is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator. To generate another essay, follow this link. “The Postmodernism Generator was written by Andrew C. Bulhak using the Dada Engine, a system for generating random text from recursive grammars, and modified very slightly by Josh Larios (this version, anyway. There are others out there).”  In other words, the program randomly generates grammatically-correct yet meaningless English prose from a pre-determined mix-and-match vocabulary list, according to Michael Ellsberg in Forbes’s  “Why Trying to Learn Clear Writing in College Is Like Trying to Learn Sobriety in a Bar.”

Each time you refresh the page, it spews up a whole new set of garbage – just like the kind you might read in one of the trendier journals.

Ellsberg claims that “the style of writing you’ll pick up from your humanities professors in college, and which you will be encouraged to write, is so formulaic, that passable versions of it can be produced automatically by a computer program.”

“I must say, I think I could have submitted this very essay in most of my humanities and social science classes at Brown and received a passing grade—possibly even an A for my ‘subversive dialectical critique.'”

Drinking for sobriety

Ellsberg contends that bad writing nowadays is not sloth or ignorance – it’s a deliberately aped style from legalese, DMV bureaucrats, and most of all university professors.  He writes that “despite the amount of writing you do in college, you’re about as likely to leave there having learned to write clear, compelling prose as you’re likely to leave a kegger with clear mental faculties.”

Then he tells another story:

Indeed, a NYU physics professor named Alan Sokal, so fed up with this kind of bullshit writing in academia, did something of the sort. He submitted a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, a major scholarly journal of postmodernist critical theory.

The journal published the paper, which contained lines such as the following:

[A]s Lacan suspected, there is an intimate connection between the external structure of the physical world and its inner psychological representation qua knot theory: this hypothesis has recently been confirmed by Witten’s derivation of knot invariants (in particular the Jones polynomial) from three-dimensional Chern-Simons quantum field theory.

What Sokal didn’t tell the editors of Social Text right away, but later revealed to the public, was that the article was a deliberate hoax, liberally and intentionally peppered with absurdities, and baldy false or meaningless statements. He wrote it simply to see if they would publish such gibberish.

And publish it they did. Because the editors of Social Text—like most humanities professors—are in the business of writing and publishing bullshit. Sokal merely offered them more of their preferred substance, and they were drawn to it, like flies.

[A]s Lacan suspected, there is an intimate connection between the external structure of the physical world and its inner psychological representation qua knot theory: this hypothesis has recently been confirmed by Witten’s derivation of knot invariants (in particular the Jones polynomial) from three-dimensional Chern-Simons quantum field theory.”

Read the whole rant here.  It’s fun.

Postscript on August 5:  More fun!  This from John Lawler:  “Don’t forget the Chomskybot,, which has been performing this service for linguists for decades. What, you though [Noam] Chomsky wrote all that stuff himself?”