AAARGH

| Accueil général | Accueil français |

| English homepage | Chomsky |

 

The Account of a boring biographer

 

The Faurisson Affair

Robert Faurisson, a professor of French literature at the University of Lyon, France, was relieved of his duties "on the grounds that he could not [180] be protected from attacks carried out against him as a result of his views, and he was sued in court for writings denying the existence of gas chambers in Nazi Germany and calling into question the Holocaust itself" (Herman, "Pol Pot" 600). He was successfully convicted for falsification of history by a judgment that, according to Chomsky, "reeks of Stalinism and fascism, and was naturally applauded by the French intellectuals, who proceeded to lie outrageously about it, as do Dershowitz and others the truth being too embarrassing to allow" (31 Mar. 1995).
In the fall of 1979, Serge Thion, a friend of Chomsky's, asked him and roughly five hundred others to sign a petition in favor of the freedom to express opinions without persecution. It read:
Dr. Faurisson has served as a respected professor of twentieth- century French literature and document criticism for over four years at the University of Lyon 2 in France. Since 1974 he has been conducting extensive independent historical research into the "Holocaust" question. Since he began making his findings public, Professor Faurisson has been subject to a vicious campaign of harassment, intimidation, slander, and physical violence in a crude attempt to silence him. Fearful officials have even tried to stop him from further research by denying him access to public libraries and archives. (qtd. in Vidal-Naquet 69)
The French press dubbed it "Chomsky's petition," and although Faurisson's specific views were not mentioned in the document he signed, Chomsky was accused of holding similar ones. Chomsky then wrote a "short memoir on the civil liberties aspects of the case ... to clarify the distinction between supporting somebody's beliefs and their right to express them" (Herman, "Pol Pot" 601), which he gave to Thion with his tacit authorization to use it as Thion thought best. it appeared as the preface to Faurisson's book Mimoire en defense contre ceux qui m'accusent de falsifier l'histoire: La question des chambres a gaz (1980) under the title "Quelques commentaires elementaires sur le droit a la liberte d'expression." The following lines especially inflamed Chomsky's critics: "I have nothing to say here about the work of Robert Faurisson or his critics, of which I know very little, or about the topics they address, concerning which I have no special knowledge," as did his characterizing Faurisson as "a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort" (xiv-xv). A widely read French author, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, described Faurisson's Mimoire in his Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust: "this work is neither more nor less mendacious and dishonest [181] than the preceding ones.... [H]is interpretation is a deliberate falsehood, in the full sense of the term" (65).
The Holocaust occurred. It was one of the most unspeakable acts of horror ever committed. Chomsky knows these statements to be true and points out that he has declared as much "in terms far stronger than Vidal-Naquet or Dershowitz have since used in my very earliest political writings: the introduction to American Power, the article in Liberation on the Middle East ... and endlessly since, quite independently of this silly affair" (13 Feb. 1996). But, somehow, for stubbornly upholding the principle of free speech and defending his own actions in the Faurisson affair, he was made responsible for the "mendacious and dishonest" content of Faurisson's works. Once again, the "elementary moral principle" had broken down, and Chomsky suffered for it.
The other issue that this affair raised was the question of reasonable evidence. Chomsky notes that Faurisson had been charged with being an anti-Semite and a Nazi, and that these were "serious charges that require [182] evidence." He claims that he knew very little about Faurisson's writings and had no interest in them. After all, he had "felt no need to read Satanic Verses before signing endless petitions made for Rushdie." In formulating his position on the Faurisson case, Chomsky relied "mainly on charges conveyed to me by his harshest critics, which I then cited in full, pointing out, correctly, that they were utterly meaningless" (14 Aug. 1995). One of these critics was Vidal-Naquet, whom Chomsky did not name.
[ B]ut Vidal-Naquet later identified himself (correctly) as the person who had conveyed those charges to me as his strongest evidence, then charging that I had betrayed a confidence by identifying him (a lie, as he knows, one of many, which he also knows he can get away with). Since Vidal-Naquet, Faurisson's harshest and most knowledgeable critic, could come up with no evidence suggesting that he was an anti-Semite or had any political views at all, that charge seemed rather weak. (14 Aug. 1995)
What Chomsky did know about Faurisson "was that he had written letters to the press (which they refused to publish, apparently) praising the heroism of the Warsaw ghetto fighters and in general, praising those who fought the 'good fight' against the Nazis; and that he had privately published pamphlets denying the existence of gas chambers" (14 Aug. 1995).
In the United States, the charge has been led by Dershowitz and Werner Cohn. In his version of the Faurisson affair, Dershowitz describes Chomsky as an "anti-Zionist zealot" who "welcomed the opportunity" to protest Faurisson's suspension "because Faurisson's writings and speeches are stridently anti- Zionist as well as anti-Semitic. Indeed, Professor Chomsky has himself made statements about Zionist exploitation of the tragedy of World War II that are not, in my view, so different from some of those of Faurisson" (174). And Cohn's book, Partners in Hate: Noam Chomsky and the Holocaust Deniers, was issued with the following release, written by Nathan Glazer:

When Noam Chomsky came to the defense of the French Holocaust- denier Robert Faurisson, he astonished friends and enemies alike. Chomsky has vigorously defended his action as being nothing more than the protection of an individual's civil liberties, quite unconnected with that individual's views and writings. Werner Cohn, in this meticulously documented study, shows that Chomsky's defense of Faurisson is much more than that, and indeed that it is connected to some of Chomsky's deepest political orientations, in particular his unwavering animus toward the United States and Israel. In doing so, he sheds surprising light on Chomsky's politics.

[ 183]
I attended a lecture Cohn gave on this matter in which he was, in my opinion, at best confused and at worst incoherent. His talk was riddled with errors concerning Chomsky's work (for example, he claimed that it had never been published by a major publishing house), Avukah (that it was the same as Hashomer Hatzair), Thion (that Chomsky and Thion had cowritten a book on Vietnam), and linguistics (that Chomsky's work in the field was wholly unfounded). Furthermore, during the question period he seemed unable to recall many details of his own "meticulously documented study," which suggested to me that perhaps somebody else had written the book.
Cohn has claimed elsewhere, specifically in
The Hidden Alliances of Noam Chomsky (1988), that Chomsky's affiliation with Faurisson is rooted in Chomsky's own sympathy for anti- Semitism and anti-Zionism. Attempting to demonstrate this, Cohn sketches a series of tenuous connections between Chomsky and Faurisson, placing special emphasis on a number of comments that the former has made in defense of the latter's actions.
When all the facts are set forth, the Faurisson affair does tend to throw some of Chomsky's character flaws into relief, most clearly his unwillingness to practice simple appeasement when it comes to resolving his differences with those who attack him. Another remarkable aspect of the affair is the fact that it is used by Chomsky's detractors to divert attention away from his actual statements. Much energy has been expended quibbling over his use of certain words or particular argumentative strategies. Some of Chomsky's critics are more balanced and restrained: Vidal-Naquet, while he claims that "Chomsky is scarcely sensitive to the wounds he inflicts, but extremely attentive to whatever scratches he is forced to put up with" (68), is honest enough to recognize the obvious: "To be sure, it is not the case that Chomsky's thesis in any way approximates those of the neo-Nazis" (73). But others are somehow able to overlook the dozens of books and hundreds of articles Chomsky has written-as well as countless discussions and letters-which always take the side of the oppressed and the downtrodden. Such critics accuse him of alliances with neo-Nazis or with the German National Socialist Party, the very mandate of which was totalitarian oppression and genocide. Chomsky's tactics may not always be the most appropriate in [184] light of the causes that he supports, but the values transmitted by his work are, according to virtually any reasonable measure, consistent with those of the libertarians.
The French reaction to Chomsky's participation in the Faurisson affair was equally forceful, and, particularly in the case of the media, propagandistic. In 1981, an interviewer for Nouvel Observateur modified the replies to questions he had sent Chomsky in order, as Chomsky himself put it, "to accord with [the newspaper's] ideological needs" (31 Mar. 1995).
Attempts to publish the questions with Chomsky's original replies failed; Chomsky's responses to articles implicating him in the affair that appeared in Matin de Paris (1979), Le Monde (1981), and Nouvelles litteraires (1982) were not published; and Liberation, according to Chomsky, "demanded that I cut out criticisms of France and Marxism, and when I refused, they wouldn't print" his rebuttal (31 Mar. 1995). Overall, Chomsky remarks, "It is striking that in France, alone in Europe, the press has regularly refused to grant me the right of response to lies and slander, though I read about a 'debate' that is supposedly in progress" (Language and Politics 316). In short, his experience with the French press and intelligentsia was a memorable one, but his treatment at their hands did not surprise him. He points out, in a December 1982 Boston Magazine article, that "for one thing, France does not have a civil- libertarian tradition of the Anglo-Saxon variety. For another thing, there simply is a totalitarian strain among large segments of the French intelligentsia. Marxism-Leninism and Stalinism, for example, were much more viable and significant doctrines among the French than in England or the United States. What's called the left, especially in France, has a large segment that is deeply authoritarian" (Language and Politics 309). This critique appears reductive and perhaps sounds like sour grapes, but a review of Chomsky's Towards a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There, written by C. M. Woodhouse for the Times Literary Supplement in July of 1982, makes a similar point:
The Americans have a talent for self-criticism which they no doubt inherited from the British. Noam Chomsky's new book is a striking example. In any other country such a forthright and sustained diatribe against a national policy by a prominent academic would be nearly unthinkable. A French professor would not have written such a book about his government's foreign policy; a Russian could not [185] have done so except at the price of enforced exile or committal to a psychiatric hospital.
The Faurisson affair has had a harmful and lasting effect on Chomsky. Many people only know about him through his connection to this controversy. Chomsky's remark that, as far as he knew, Faurisson was some sort of "apolitical liberal" still haunts him. Critics have taken it to be an indication that he was sympathetic to Faurisson's work. After years of reiterating his anti-Nazi stance in dozens of new books, hundreds of public addresses, and thousands of letters, Chomsky remains tainted: when organizations or institutions consider inviting him to speak, to receive an honorary degree, or to participate in a high-profile function, there is often some discussion of the Faurisson affair (and/or reference to his position on Israel or the Pol Pot regime). Rather typically, Chomsky has refused to back down on the issue, even refusing to admit a momentary lack of judgment. As Jay Parini notes: "Given the opportunity to calm the debate, however, he elects to heighten it. He maintains to this day that he has never read anything by Faurisson that suggests that the man was pro-Nazi. 'If anything,' says Chomsky, 'he's anti-Nazi"' (41). Chomsky insists [186] that even to engage in a discussion of this nature is to give an unacceptable legitimacy to the position of his opponents. Furthermore:

[M]y statement about the disgust one must feel at even entering into debate with apologists for the Nazis and Holocaust deniers has been widely quoted.... But it's been quoted to show that I oppose freedom of speech! (By refusing to debate you, I deny your freedom of speech!) And of course they systematically and without exception delete the fact that I was talking about Nazis and Holocaust deniers. That's quite something. You'd have to explore rather deep into the Stalinist archives to find something similar, and recall that all of these people know all of this perfectly well. (14 Aug. 1995)

Was signing the petition on behalf of Faurisson therefore a mistake? In light of the principle involved, Chomsky would say that it was not. What does it mean to sign a petition? Chomsky notes that included in many petitions for Salman Rushdie was praise for his banned book, The SatanicVerses: "irrelevant on a freedom of speech statement, and improper, since many of the signers (I'm one) hadn't even looked at [the book]." So why sign?
Because if one were to sign only statements that are formulated the way one thinks proper, no one would sign anything, except the author. It's understood that a signature means support for the general gist of the statement, not the specific formulations. I have no doubt that Mullas in Qom and Stalinist extremists fumed about the other petitions, analyzing every word for a possible connotation, much in the way that Vidal-Naquet, Dershowitz, and other clones of the commissars and Mullahs do in this case. (14 Aug. 1995)
In 1969, Chomsky described the Holocaust as "the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history" (Peace 57-58). He also noted that the moment we enter into "a technical debate with the Nazi intelligentsia," the moment we consider such questions as, "[I]s it true that the Jews are a cancer eating away at the vitality of the German people?" "What is the evidence that the Slavs are inferior beings?" we are plunged into "this morass of insane rationality." He then voiced his most impassioned and powerful plea of all: "By entering into the arena of argument and counterargument, of technical feasibility and tactics, of footnotes and citations, by accepting the presumption of legitimacy of debate on certain issues, one has already lost one's humanity" (American Power 9). Yet it is a petition, not the sum total of his writings, that is taken as the measure of Chomsky's commitment.
[187]

The Pol Pot Affair
Collaborators once more, Chomsky and Edward Herman published The Political Economy of Human Rights in 1979. In the second volume of this two-volume work, After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, they compared two sites of atrocity -- Cambodia and Timor -- and evaluated the diverse media responses to each. It embroiled Chomsky in an entirely new controversy.
In a 7 November 1980 Times Higher Education Supplement article called "Chomsky's Betrayal of Truths," Steven Lukes accused Chomsky of intellectual irresponsibility. He was contributing to the "deceit and distortion surrounding Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia," Lukes charged, because, "obsessed by his opposition to the United States' role in Indochina," he had "lost all sense of perspective" (31). Lukes concluded that there was "only one possible thing to think": Chomsky had betrayed his own anarchist-libertarian principles. "It is sad to see Chomsky writing these things. It is ironic, given the United States' government's present pursuit of its global role in supporting the seating of Pol Pot at the [United Nations]. And it is bizarre, given Chomsky's previous stand for anarchist- libertarian principles. In writing as he does about the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, Chomsky betrays not only the responsibilities of intellectuals, but himself" (31).
Lukes makes no mention here of the subject of the book, which is clearly stated in the introduction to volume 1, which is entitled "Cambodia: Why the Media Find It More Newsworthy than Indonesia and East Timor." It is an explicit comparison between Cambodia and Timor -- the latter being the scene of the worst slaughter, relative to population size, since the Holocaust. Now if the atrocities perpetrated in Timor were comparable to those perpetrated by Pol Pot in Cambodia (and Chomsky claims that they were), then a comparison of Pol Pot's actions to those committed in Timor could not possibly constitute an apology for Pol Pot. Yet somehow Lukes suggested that it did. If such comparisons cannot be made without the intellectual community rising up in protest, then the entire issue of state-instigated murder can become lost inside the polemics of determining which team of slaughterers represents a lesser evil.
[188 ]
That Lukes could ignore the fact that Chomsky and Herman were comparing Pol Pot to East Timor "says a lot about him," in Chomsky's opinion:
By making no mention of the clear, unambiguous, and explicit comparison [of Pol Pot and East Timor], he is demonstrating himself to be an apologist for the crimes in Timor. That is elementary logic: if a comparison of Pol Pot to Timor is apologetics for Pol Pot, as Lukes claims (by omission of the relevant context, which he could not fail to know), then it must be that the crimes in Timor were insignificant. Lukes, then, is an apologist for the worst slaughter relative to population since the Holocaust. Worse, that is a crime for which he, Lukes, bears responsibility; UK support has been crucial. And it is a crime that he, Lukes, could have always helped to terminate, if he did not support huge atrocities; in contrast, neither he nor anyone else had a suggestion as to what to do about Pol Pot. (13 Feb. 1996)
The vigor of Chomsky's remarks reflects the contempt that he feels for this kind of by-now-familiar tactic. Decorum must not take precedence over decrying slaughter and falsity, and Chomsky is compelled to demonstrate this: "Let us say that someone in the US or UK ... did deny Pol Pot atrocities. That person would be a positive saint as compared to Lukes, who denies comparable atrocities for which he himself shares responsibility and knows how to bring to an end, if he chose. That's elementary. Try to find some intellectual who can understand it. That tells us a lot ... about the intellectual culture" (13 Feb. 1996). The point of course goes beyond Lukes, and extends into a general discussion concerning the intellectual community, which itself, in Chomsky's opinion, "cannot comprehend this kind of trivial, simple, reasoning and what it implies. That really is interesting. It reveals a level of indoctrination vastly beyond what one finds in totalitarian states, which rarely were able to indoctrinate intellectuals so profoundly that they are unable to understand real trivialities" (14 Aug. 1995).
Within weeks, two long and lucid replies to Lukes's piece were sent in to the Times Higher Education Supplement, accusing him of selective reading, of missing the entire point of both volumes of Political Economy, of ignoring the first volume, of trivializing the moral potency of Chomsky's thesis, of coldbloodedly manipulating the truth, of misrepresenting Chomsky and Herman's work, and of disrespect. Neither reply came from Chomsky; one was from Laura J. Summers, the other from Robin Woodsworth Carlsen.
[189]
Though bolstered by the support of those sympathetic to his position and his larger aims, Chomsky knew that a smear campaign could be much more effective and have a much wider dissemination than rational argumentation. In Herman's opinion,
the Cambodia and Faurisson disputes imposed a serious personal cost on Chomsky. He put up a diligent defense against the attacks and charges against him, answering virtually every letter and written criticism that came to his attention. He wrote many hundreds of letters to correspondents and editors on these topics, along with numerous articles, and answered many phone enquiries and queries in interviews. The intellectual and moral drain was severe. It is an astonishing fact, however, that he was able to weather these storms with his energies, morale, sense of burnout and vigour and integrity of his political writings virtually intact. ("Pol Pot" 609)
As ever, Chomsky is quick to point out that being the subject of such treatment did not make him unique. But the ferocity of the attack on him [190] does reveal something about the power of popular media, the lengths to which endangered elites will go to eliminate dissent, and the nature of what passes for appropriate professional behavior. In a letter he wrote to the Times Literary Supplement in January of 1982 -- a reply to an article by Paul Johnson in that same publication in which he, like Lukes, accused Chomsky and Herman of sympathizing with the Khmer Rouge -- Chomsky examined one of the tactics used against him: "[A] standard device by which the conformist intellectuals of East or West deal with irritating dissident opinion is to try to overwhelm it with a flood of lies. Paul Johnson illustrates the technique with his reference to my 'prodigies of apologetics ... for the Khmer Rouge' (December 25). I have stated the facts before in this journal, and will do so again, not under any illusion that they will be relevant to the guardians of the faith." Chomsky asserted that the smear campaign was a side issue; the larger concern was, of course, the intellectual apologists' ability to forgo reasonable analysis when their own government was at fault:
The context was extensive documentation of how the mainstream intelligentsia suppressed or justified the crimes of their own states during the same period. This naturally outraged those who feel that they should be free to lie at will concerning the crimes of an official enemy while concealing or justifying those of their own states -- a phenomenon that is, incidentally, far more significant and widespread than the delusions about so- called "socialist" states that Johnson discusses, and correspondingly quite generally evaded. Hence the resort to the familiar technique that Johnson, and others, adopts. ("Political Pilgrims")
Otero even goes so far as to describe (in a note he added to Language and Politics ) the reaction to Chomsky's positions on Faurisson and Pol Pot as a coordinated attempt to undermine his credibility and thereby sabotage his powerful critique of policies on Indochina:

The major international campaign orchestrated against Chomsky on completely false pretexts was only part -- though perhaps a crucial part -- of the ambitious campaign launched in the late 70s with the hope of reconstructing the ideology of power and domination which had been partially exposed during the Indochina war. The magnitude of the insane attack against Chomsky, which aimed at silencing him and robbing him of his moral stature and his prestige and influence, is of course one more tribute to the impact of his writings and his actions -- not for nothing he was the only one singled out. (310)

Such commentary assigns to the ruling elite a uniformity that is based on the values shared by its members. Evidence for this may be found in the [191] heavy media coverage given to the Lukes camp and the general reluctance to allow Chomsky space for rebuttal (particularly in France).

[...]

The Postmodern Era

Between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, French-theory-driven post-modernism took the milieu of American social sciences and humanities by [193] 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.
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 [194] "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)

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" (1 8).
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 [195] 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 selfserving 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 exer- [196] cise 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)


Chomsky on the French Intellectual Tradition

France has become the site of the kind of intellectual work that Chomsky most abhors. He observes: "almost no one in France has ever had any idea of what my political or academic work is about. Of course they write about it all the time, but that is the standard infantilism of French intellectual life." Although, he persists, they may boast "a few very fine linguists and other scientists, anarchist circles, and a handful of others," the French have "a highly parochial and remarkably illiterate culture." For this reason, "during the 60s and 70s, I almost never gave political talks in France.... the distorting effects of dogma were so extreme that it was a waste of time" (30 May 1994). Althusser, Bachelard, de Beauvoir, Camus, Levinas, Levi- Strauss, Sartre, or Serres, all highly respected in certain circles, Chomsky does not mention specifically, but his intention is to question the star status assigned to certain "Paris intellectuals" and the reverence bestowed upon the dogma that is generated by the schools of thought that they have established (in Language and Politics, for example, he mentions existentialism, structuralism, Lacanianism, and deconstruction [310-11]). Americans, incidentally, seem equally guilty of fomenting the type of cultishness that Chomsky decries. It is often the [197] American academics that latch onto these trends, hire the leading lights at exorbitant salaries, and prolong the life spans of particular movements by recruiting their faithful followers.
Many of the "Paris intellectuals" criticized by Chomsky believe that Chomsky's work employs outdated strategies that are unable to accommodate the subtleties of political movements. Chomsky's reply to this is that the French are unwilling to see what is set out clearly before them, and should learn "how to tell the truth, to pay attention to facts, and to reach standards of minimal rationality" (31 Mar. 1995). He also charges that the French intellectual scene has refused to interact with work undertaken outside of France, and he describes its elite as "insular" and "backward." He offers some examples that are contentious enough to show just how wide the France-Chomsky rift is: Viennese positivism, studied around the world since the 1930s, is virtually unknown in France (the school's major works were only published in French translation in the 1980s); most French biologists were, in the 1970s, still pre-Darwinian; most German philosophy is still unknown in France. There is, in Chomsky's view, a parochialism and a level of suppression existing in France that is virtually unparalleled, and it extends through all domains. "When the truth about France under the Nazis began to appear in studies in the U.S., there was astonishment and turmoil in France because the facts had been almost completely suppressed -- and still largely are" (31 Mar. 1995).
Chomsky's objections to French studies of language and interaction apply, in a more general way, to postmodernism. Many observations made by its practitioners are couched in vague terminology and then elevated to the status of "theory." Chomsky has made some devastating remarks about the kind of postmodern theory that passes for academic achievement in the present era. In response to one of my own writings describing the applicability of Bourdieu and Lyotard to power relations in legal hearings, Chomsky wrote:

Doubtless there is a power structure in every speech situation; again, that is a truism that only an intellectual could find surprising and seek to dress up in appropriate polysyllables. As honest people, our effort should be to unmask it and diminish it, as far as we can, and to do so in association with others, whom we can help and who can help us in this necessary libratory task. Will it ever end? I presume not. As for Lyotard and the post-modern age, I await some indication that there is something here beyond trivialities or self-serving nonsense. I can perceive [ 198] certain grains of truth hidden in the vast structure of verbiage, but those are simple indeed. Again, maybe I'm missing something, perhaps a lot. If so, I apologize for my simple-mindedness. Maybe I'm missing a gene. I seem to be able to understand other difficult things, but virtually nothing here. Furthermore, in other difficult areas (say, quantum physics), friends and colleagues can explain to me what I want to know (as do serious "popularizations") at a level that I can understand, and I know how to go on if I want to understand more (and have sometimes done so). In these [postmodernist] areas, no one can explain anything to me, and I have no idea how to proceed. It could be that some entirely new form of human intelligence has arisen, beyond those known before, and those who lack the appropriate genes (evidently, me) just can't see it. Perhaps. As I said, I'm open-minded. If there is another explanation, I'd like to hear it. (31 Mar. 1995)

Once one has assimilated Chomsky's objections and grasped his criteria for identifying what constitutes valid academic research, it becomes difficult to credit much of what is proposed as serious scholarship in the social sciences and the humanities. To evade cynicism -- to avoid losing all faith in academic work that does not fall into the category of hard [199] science -- one must nurture the intellectual skill of distinguishing between what is useful and what is simply self- serving, retrograde, or dangerous.
Armed with his dry, laconic wit Chomsky devotes himself to making this distinction. His use of such terms as "fascist," "lawless," "corrupt," and "fraudulent" when speaking of highly respected government or academic figures raises eyebrows; it also elicits nervous laughter from the audiences he goads into recognizing the absurdity of positions or actions that we have come to consider normal, and provokes the intense animosity of those who consider his sweeping generalizations inappropriate or ill informed. David Barsamian's alternative radio station in Colorado distributes tapes of conversations with Chomsky (as well as other marginalized thinkers such as Samir Amin, Alex Cockburn, Edward Herman, Christopher Hitchens, and Howard Zinn), which offer the listener the opportunity to experience the eloquence of Chomsky's speech. The vivacious humanity of Chomsky's prose is reinforced by powerful articulation, provocative rhetorical techniques, and a tangible enthusiasm for intellectual engagement. He has employed these strategies to force his readers to consider their own humanity through reference to the creative aspects of human beings and to the environments most suited to their development.


Extracted from Rovert F. Barsky, Noam Chomsky, A life of dissent, ECW Press (Canada), The MIT Press (USA), 1997. We have also displayed a French tranaslation of this passage. For the sources of the documents quoted , see the Chomsky bibliogaphy. also adapted from the same book.



This text has been displayed on the Net, and forwarded to you as a tool for educational purpose, further research, on a non commercial and fair use basis, by the International Secretariat of the Association des Anciens Amateurs de Recits de Guerres et d'Holocaustes (AAARGH). The E-mail of the Secretariat is <[email protected]. Mail can be sent at PO Box 81475, Chicago, IL 60681-0475, USA..
We see the act of displaying a written document on Internet as the equivalent to displaying it on the shelves of a public library. It costs us a modicum of labor and money. The only benefit accrues to the reader who, we surmise, thinks by himself. A reader looks for a document on the Web at his or her own risks. As for the author, there is no reason to suppose that he or she shares any responsibilty for other writings displayed on this Site. Because laws enforcing a specific censorship on some historical question apply in various countries (Germany, France, Israel, Switzerland, Canada, and others) we do not ask their permission from authors living in thoses places: they wouldn't have the freedom to consent.
We believe we are protected by the Human Rights Charter:

ARTICLE 19. <Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.>The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, in Paris.


| Accueil général | Accueil français |

| English homepage | Chomsky |

The electronic location of this document is:

http://aaargh-international.org/fran/chomsky/barskyeng.html