The Chomsky Effect

By now, we all know Noam. As both scholar and activist, Chomsky has been something of a closet guru in the public sphere for the past two decades, the prototype today for the so-called “public intellectual” who speaks on diverse matters of cultural and political import. In the realm of independent media at least, he has spoken out strongly against U.S. imperial endeavors and abuses across the world for the past forty years. Robert F. Barsky’s book The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower at once stands and falls on our ability (as an educated public) to recognize the need for this activism. The book’s achievement lies in recounting the sometimes wildly skewed reception of Chomsky’s message in a style that appeals to the general reader, an idiom that encourages reflection on the possibilities and limitations of activism in the public realm today.

The activist spirit of Noam Chomsky’s public persona has been so pervasive, in fact, that it is easy to forget the academic backdrop of his cultural authority. As a young scholar at MIT, Chomsky made his name with the publication of Syntactic Structures in 1957, a work that formed the basis for what would become one of the major intellectual contributions to 20th Century linguistics—the theory of transformational generative grammar. Shortly after, his review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior appeared in the academic journal Language in 1959, a piece famously remembered for its demolition of behaviorism. Chomsky’s scholarly output during the ’70s and ’80s was prolific, and similarly crucial in sketching the boundaries of the emergent field of cognitive linguistics at MIT.

Barsky is a kind of self-proclaimed Chomsky expert, having written the best intellectual biography to date (Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, 1997), and having spent the following ten years researching and writing The Chomsky Effect, 2007. The book is admittedly multi-voiced, a diffuseness of perspective that no doubt reflects Barsky’s interest in the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Casual fans of Chomsky will find several informative chapters on his anarchist roots, on his intellectual relationship with friend and mentor Zellig Harris, and on his various teaching activities and political projects. But for readers of Barsky’s 1997 biography, the tenor of these sections may feel like a slightly over-compromised appeal to the general reader, which of course works well for a book devoted to gauging the reception of Chomsky’s effect on the general public.

Literary readers will find an intriguing chapter on literature and humor in Chomsky’s work. Here the very pertinent relation between literature and politics is broached in promising terms, but then quickly abandoned (to the reader’s dismay) to review several scattered works featuring Chomsky as “literary muse.” On the question of Chomsky’s humor, Barsky writes, “In truth, with his deadpan humor, his self-described dull delivery style, and his lucid anti-status quo ravings, Chomsky can sometimes come across as a successful crossing of Woody Allen and David Letterman.” There are of course grimly funny moments in Chomsky’s deadpan denunciations of manufactured thought, an unflappable sense of fact that seems to stand Washington Kremlinese and media spin on its head. Here echoes of Allen and Letterman can be heard, however faintly. But Chomsky’s sarcasm (at once bleak but hopeful) is a far cry from the slapdash theatrics so often found in the clowning of these latter two figures. For this same reason, we would think Barsky’s provocative use of the Bakhtinian theory of laughter (which presupposes a certain metaphysical and truth-telling seriousness built in to the gesture) would gel with Chomsky’s unstinting moral integrity. But here, too, the juxtaposition seems at best the ingenious stretch of a clever literary critic.

The most disappointing aspect of Barsky’s otherwise very informed and readable study of Chomsky’s public persona is the flimsy binary on which most of the book turns. Cliched oppositions between “engaged” heroes and “ivory tower” monks pervade the book. Had these academics courage enough and time, we are left to presume, they would be intellectually free to move into the greener Chomsky-like pastures of activism. This binary, unfortunately, caricatures both platforms, arbitrarily sectioning off the “academic” and “public” realms of engagement as somehow mutually, and thus in certain ways tragically, exclusive. In some sense, then, we have to wonder why good books like The Chomsky Effect seem, unwittingly, to deepen the media caricature of some of the public sphere’s most powerful critics.