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The Postmodern Era

Between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, French-theory-driven postmodernism took the milieu of American social sciences and humanities by storm. Chomsky formed strong opinions on this school of thought, and these were directly related to his ideas about what intellectuals do in the academy, and why much of what they do is trivial and/or self-serving. It may seem ironic, then, that his work has been an important resource for those interested in structural approaches to texts, and continues to be used by theorists, including postmodern theorists, who are grappling with issues emerging from the study of structuralism, poststructuralism, poetics, linguistic approaches to literature, and linguistic argumentation.

Baudrillard on the Web

Language studies (excluding linguistics) in North America have been profoundly influenced by French theoreticians ever since Saussure, but by the early 1980s the canon of French theory had expanded considerably: the popularity of Baudrillard, Bourdieu, Derrida, Deuleuze, Foucault, Guattari, Lacan, and Lyotard was on the rise (although Barthes, Todorov, and Kristeva remained contenders in the battle of the bibliographies). These were the new stars on the theory scene, and although other thinkers were allowed into the canon of literary and language studies, it was the postmodernists who shone brightest.

Theorists seldom agree on how to define postmodernism, and the problem is compounded when one moves from one discipline to another (from postmodern architecture to postmodern poetry, for example). Chomsky's own definition of the term does not accord with that used by many other academics, and has thus been a source of tension. One of the most useful references to postmodernism and its theorists as they are related to Chomsky is Christopher Norris. Norris's detailed criticism of the overall movement ­ and in particular works by Baudrillard, de Man, Derrida, Lyotard ­ is a careful and well-reasoned version of Chomsky's own rather dramatic assessment. Norris's critique of Jean Baudrillard's postmodernism, in particular, serves to contextualize Chomsky's stance. In his Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (1992), Norris responds to Baudrillard's article "The Gulf War Has Not Taken Place" with a sustained polemic aimed at the excesses and errors of postmodernism. He begins by summarizing Baudrillard's position:

[I]t is Baudrillard's contention that we now inhabit a realm of purely fictive or illusory appearances; that truth has gone the way of enlightened reason and suchlike obsolete ideas; that "reality" is nowadays defined through and through by the play of multiplied "simulacra" or reality-effects; that there is no point criticizing "false" appearances (whether on epistemological or socio-political grounds) since those appearances are all that we have, like it or not; and that henceforth we had better make peace with this so-called "postmodern condition" rather than cling to an outworn paradigm whose truth-claims no longer possess the least degree of operative (i.e. persuasive or rhetorical) force. (14­ 15)
Chomsky interviewed on the Gulf War(1991)

It is easy to imagine what Chomsky would have to say about Baudrillard's postmodernism: think of his Cartesianism, his concern with social and individual responsibility, and his commitment to intervene on behalf of the oppressed (such as those natives of Baghdad upon whom the coalition dropped bombs during the so-called Gulf War).

While Norris condemns Baudrillard's ideas as "absurdities" based upon "ludicrous theses" (17), he also makes it clear that he feels Baudrillard does not represent postmodern thinking as a whole. Consigning Baudrillard to the category of extremist, he presents Derrida as an example of postmodern lucidity. Norris refutes the notion that Derrida is "falling into that facile strain of postmodernist rhetoric that cheerfully pronounces an end to the regime of reality, truth, and enlightenment critique," suggesting instead that his work "raises issues of ethical accountability (along with epistemological questions) which are rendered invisible by the straightforward appeal to reference, intentions, textual authority, right reading, authorial warrant and so forth." Derrida "carries the argument by sheer force of reasoning and meticulous attention to the blind-spots in his opponents' discourse, as well as through his quite extraordinary skill in turning their charges back against themselves in a tour de force of sustained tu quoque polemics." Nevertheless, Norris admits, postmodernism has been rejected "by many who lack the time or interest to examine the relevant texts at first hand, or to read them with anything like an adequate sense of their complex philosophical prehistory, their implicit axiomatics, specialized modes of argument, etc." He adds: "And a further source of misunderstanding is the fact that these texts have been taken up with enthusiasm by the members of a different `interpretive community' ­ U.S. and British literary theorists ­ who approach them with quite a different set of motivating interests and priorities" (18).

Chomsky, however, has taken Baudrillard as a kind of touchstone for postmodernism, and therefore does not agree with Norris's contention that there is value to postmodern work, even though the two have often been in accord: Chomsky maintains that they are "on the same side," and that he knows of Baudrillard "from Chris Norris's critique" (31 Mar. 1995); Norris writes, in Uncritical Theory, "it seems to me that the superior cogency of Chomsky's arguments should be obvious to any reader whose mind remains open to persuasion on rational grounds" (110). It is true that Chomsky does not claim to be an expert on postmodernism; he could, in fact, have ignored the entire movement, as neither mainstream linguistics nor the domain of political dissension has been significantly touched by it the way, for instance, literary studies was. But postmodernism nonetheless says something, in its own obfuscated language, that is an affront to Chomsky's sensibilities. He does grant that "Derrida and Lacan at least should be read; in fact, I quoted early work of Lacan in essays based on talks for psychoanalysts, reprinted in Rules and Representations." However, "The others I don't mention because I don't regard them as even minimally serious (to the extent that I'm familiar with their work, which is very slight). Kristeva I met once. She came to my office to see me about 20 years ago, then some kind of raving Maoist, as I recall. I was never tempted to read further" (31 Mar. 1995).

One postmodern thinker with whom Chomsky has successfully engaged, however, is Michel Foucault. Since his death Foucault has emerged as one of the figureheads of postmodernism. Chomsky has met and discussed issues with him, and has also made congenial comments about some of his work. In 1971, Chomsky and Foucault appeared together on Dutch public television. Foucault has emerged relatively unscathed from his encounters with Chomsky, despite the scorn the latter has exhibited for what he sees as the historical relativism, self-indulgence, and self-serving language Ludditism of postmodern theory. In fact, except when the question of whether justice and human nature are historically contingent is concerned, Chomsky and Foucault are often on the same wavelength. Norris writes:

[T]here is a measure of agreement between Foucault's and Chomsky's positions. . . .Thus Chomsky goes some way toward conceding the point that our ideas of truth are very largely the product of "internalized preconceptions" ; that subjects may indeed be conditioned to accept certain facts as "self-evident" merely by virtue of their fitting in with some established, consensual, or professionalized code of belief; that censorship often operates not so much "from above" as through forms of self-imposed discipline and restraint that don't involve the exercise of overt, coercive powers; that there may be "honest," "right-thinking" individuals (as Chomsky is willing to describe them) who are none the less involved in propagating falsehoods that service the "political economy of truth" ; and moreover, that resistance to those falsehoods or abuses of power must always be to some extent reliant on the "discourses" ­ the available sources of information ­ that circulate at any given time. (113­ 14)
While emphasizing, again, the trivial and self-interested character of most political-science theory, Chomsky mentions Foucault's contribution to historical studies:
One can learn a lot from history, as from life, as long as it avoids the pretentious tomfoolery required by intellectuals for career and power reasons. Take Foucault, whom you mention. With enough effort, one can extract from his writings some interesting insights and observations, peeling away the framework of obfuscation that is required for respectability in the strange world of intellectuals, which takes on extreme forms in the weird culture of postwar Paris. Foucault is unusual among Paris intellectuals in that at least something is left when one peels this away. (15 Dec. 1992)

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