Noam Chomsky (1928- )
Strictly speaking, Noam Chomsky does not fit easily into the category of Critical Theorist - this on a series of levels. First of all he is not that interested in Marxist Humanism, or Marxist revisionism, but has rather described himself as an Anarcho-Syndicalist, more interested in open democracy and citizen power than in institutionalised forms of governmentm and advocating instead forms of worker ownership and control over the means of production. He abhors State Communism, while at the same time saving his most incisive criticism of the major capitalist states and their mosrt recent brand of U. S. colonisation and imperialism. And although his theories of media hegemony have had a very wide reading and a profound influence upon our analysis of the relationship between the Fourth Estate and the military-industrial complex, this has not translated easily into prescriptive (rather than descriptive) discourse. He has no website of his own - choosing to place the importance of his work in the ideas themselves rather than in his own ability to voice them. Having said this, he is undeoubtedly one of the great intellectuals of the 20th Century whose work has shifted paradigms on several differnt levels. He was born in Philadelphia in 1928 to a father who was a Hebrew scholar and a member of the Wobblies. In his film Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky himself has acknowledged the importance of this early influence of political activism and intellectual rigour - which seems to have been pervasive in his whole family. His political activism has been a lifelong involvement and he is one of the very few intenatuionally renowned publioc intellectuals in the USA to consistently and forcefully call his own government into question.
"Beginning with his critique of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Chomsky has become more widely known—especially internationally—for his media criticism and politics. He is generally considered to be a key intellectual figure within the left wing of United States politics. Chomsky is widely known for his political activism, and for his criticism of the foreign policy of the United States and other governments."(Wikipedia)
He was totally immersed in Hebrew culture in his early life and experienced anti-Semitism from an early age. At eh age of ten he wrote an article on the Spanish Civil War, warning of the upsurge of Fascism after the fall of Barcelona.By tyhe age of 13 he was already identifying with the Anarchist Movement which had been so successful there.
Later, he studied linguistics and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania where he received his PhD in Linguistics in 1955 after 4 years at Harvard. He thern joined the faculty at MIT (where he has since taught continuously for 52 years). Two years later, in 1957, he published his book Syntactic Structures. Behaviourism - which was to revolutionised the field of linguistics and which stands today as one of the most important works in the field. The basic premise of the book is that humans are "wired" to understand the syntactical structures of language - that children have an inate ability to understand the grammatical srtructures of all languages. This theory flew in the face of prevailing linguistic and psychological theorising at that time -the theories of promoted by B. F. Skinner and others - which held that there are no inate tendencies, and that behaviour is entirely conditioned by contingencies of reinforcement.
But his academic success failed to deter his political asctivism. In 1967 he came out very forcefully and publicly against the Vietnam War in an essay by the title The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the New York review of Books. He followed this with a book, American Power and the New Mandarins (1969). The latter extends the arguments of the former, maintaining that the intellectueal classes and academics of the United States were and are largely responsible for U. S. militaristic foreign policy. In this, he articulates one of the primary understandings of - that Political Power and Knowledge are not mutually exclusive but rather are intimately connected. The relationship between power and knowledge has been one of Chomsky's abiding interests, and has shaped much of his subsequent theorising and work.
Yet despite all of his political activism, Chomsky has consistently refused to be drawn into supporting postmodern and post-structrualist critiques of science, suggesting instead that the scientific method offers the most significant hope for human emancipation. His theories carry a remarkable degree of internal consistency. He also refuses steadfastly to support censorship in any form and himself refuses to pursue legally those who defame him.
Over the years, his philosophies have led him to oppose not only the Viertnam War, but also the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada, the U.S. support for the Contras in covert war against the freely-elected Sandinista government in Nicaracua, the 1989 invasion of Panama, the 1991 Gulf War, the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Chomsky sees all of these American foreign policy actions as imperialistic and tied directly to the need to maintain American hegemony worldwide in the interest of maintaining control over "free" market capitalism. He has been rated as the most important intellectual of the 20th century and one of the eight most read and cited intellectuals of all time. Noam Chomsky is an intellectual giant by any measure, and his critical theorising has been arguable the most influential of all of the critical theorists cited here. He is the recipient of numerous Honorary Doctorates and is the recipient of the New Zealand Peace Foundation Prize.
Perhaps Michael Apple sums up the life and works of Noam Chomsky best when he says:
"For a considerable number of years, Noam Chomsky has played a crucial role in the intellectual and political life of the nation. In essence, he has been one of those people who acts as the conscience that this country has all too often lost. In doing this he is following what Eric Hobsbawm described as the historian's and social critic's duty. For Hobsbawm, the task is to be the "remembrancers of what [our] fellow citizens wish to forget." Such a role entails a commitment to detail the absent presences, the there that is not there, in dominant policies. Chomsky has performed this task with relish, offering powerful critiques of the ways in which dominance works in the economy, in the state, in international affairs, and in the media and education. His question has been simple but consistent: How do official interpretations of events, official language, and official knowledge work to legitimate certain interpretations of the power relations surrounding us, while marginalizing others?
What sets Chomsky apart from many other social critics is not one thing. Rather there is an interrelated set of elements that characterizes his work. Among the most important is his attention to historical detail. He marshals fact after fact against official interpretations of events until the edifice cracks under the weight of its own perfidy. Further, he is a master at seeing relationships among events that are often hidden beneath official rhetoric. Just as important is the fact that he writes exceptionally clearly. He is impatient with the equivocations of the obfuscatory language that dominates a good deal of academic writing on power, preferring instead to speak plainly and often (and deservedly) angrily about "really existing" power in this and other countries."
(Michael Apple in Review of Chomsky on Miseducation (Macedo)
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