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Chomsky on Postmodern Theory

with 13 comments

by Nemo

Over at the American Intellectual History Blog, Andrew Hartman offers a positive assessment of François Cusset’s recent book French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. I found the review pertinent because I’m putting together a syllabus for an introductory course on the “postmodern condition.” While part of the class involves examining the difficulty of defining exactly what the postmodern condition entails, we will be exploring themes typically associated with postmodernism. These include the social construction of knowledge, the relationship between truth and power, and the deconstruction of essentialist categories of identity.  As one might expect, readings for the class include works by Michel Foucault, Edward Said, and Judith Butler (among many others).

The postmodern condition explained

We’ll also be reading a number of postmodernism’s critics, which during its academic height in the 1990s were legion.  While its conservative opponents such as Allan Bloom probably got the most media attention, it also attracted plenty of condemnation by intellectuals from across the political spectrum. As I was searching out such critics for the syllabus, I came across this amazing 1995 list-serve post by Noam Chomsky. In it, he not only delivers a blistering attack on scholars such as Derrida, Kristeva and Lacan, but also on the American humanities establishment more generally.

Now, clearly, this wasn’t the first time Chomsky attacked the American academic class. Perhaps his most famous essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” published at the height of the Vietnam War in 1967, tore into scholars whom he believed had abandoned their commitment to truth in favor of service to the state. In the years since, he has frequently laced into mainstream academia for what he considers its political complacency and ideological rigidity.

Unlike his more typical attacks on intellectual cheerleaders for American militarism, however, in the list-serve post Chomsky aims his rhetorical sites on the proponents of “postmodern theory.” Asked why he engaged so little with theorists such as Lyotard, Derrida, and Lacan, Chomsky responded:

I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.

Unlike postmodernism’s critics on the right, however, Chomsky doesn’t stop there. He goes on to argue that these theorists, far from being the dangerous radicals of the conservative imagination, are actually apolitical charlatans doing nothing to advance the cause of social justice. In a move that does echo the populist stance one more often associates with conservatives, though, Chomsky argues that most working-class Americans have an easier time understanding what’s wrong with the country than do many out-of-touch humanities professors. Discussing the challenges of explaining his views to different audiences, he notes:

I’ve never found that a problem [providing alternative frames of reference] when I speak to people lacking much or sometimes any formal education, though it’s true that it tends to become harder as you move up the educational ladder, so that indoctrination is much deeper, and the self-selection for obedience that is a good part of elite education has taken its toll.

This is how I took notes for comprehensive exams

Of course, Chomsky’s beef with many post-modern thinkers goes beyond their sometime incomprehensible language and their questionable scholarly rigor, but instead goes into deeper conflicts over questions such as basic understandings of the human condition. Chomsky’s admiration for the principles of the enlightenment and his belief in a universal human nature put him at odds with some of post-modernism’s main currents.  These disagreements are at the heart of his famous debate with Foucault in which the two disagree over the possibility of universal foundations for a just society (in the list-serve attack on postmodern theory, Chomsky makes some—but not too many—exceptions for Foucault’s work).

Personally, I’m sympathetic with much of Chomsky’s critique. Particularly the writers he refers too. On the other hand, I’m willing to be convinced that I’m just not familiar enough with their work. I do think, however, that people like Foucault, Butler, and Said (and Chomsky would certainly agree with me on the latter) have actually developed a number of insights not only worth considering for their own sake, but that are necessary sources of wisdom for any movement that claims to advocate for social justice—but that’s the subject of another blog post.

For now, I encourage you to read Chomsky’s blast. I’m curious to hear what people think, especially those more familiar with Kristeva, Lacan, etc.


Written by Julian Nemeth

May 24, 2011 at 18:44

Posted in Intellectuals, theory

13 Responses

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  1. Nemo,

    I don’t know your whole reading list for the course, but you should consider adding Rodgers’ *Age of Fracture* to your list. He discusses the left’s move to cultural analysis, including the prominence of language theory (and poststructuralism, including pschological theory) and how the focus on cultural analysis precluded more practical considerations of class (or social justice). I would recommend the Rodgers book as a kind of lead-off, background text for the rest; all the players you mention above are given time in the text. Then again, if you’re teaching this in CA, you might feel the need to explain away/ignore/skip the American parts of the text. Rodgers’ chapter on power (“The Search for Power”) is most relevant.

    As for Kristeva, Lacan, and other French pscho-poststructuralists, I did study them, full on, for a semester in focused graduate feminist theory course. While I found their ideas interesting, I also found them less than helpful in terms of narrative construction (i.e. history writing). You could learn and incorporate their terms, but then your writing only appealed to a small audience who understood those terms and their relevance. Still, reading their theory helps one understand the preoccupation with language and semiotics (the distance between sign, signal, and meaning). Their writings familiarize one with the frustrations of writing narratives that are meaningful to the broadest audiences.

    I hope this helps. It sounds like a great course.

    – TL

    Tim Lacy

    May 24, 2011 at 21:14

  2. The really interesting part of all this is in the very last paragraph: why the disconnect between humanities academics and the rest of the world? although one might well challenge the idea that there really is such a disconnection, at least any more than there ever has been.

    Easy to hate Derrida, especially now that he’s dead.

    Chomsky says of Lacan, “an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible” — in as much as i’m entitled to an opinion, this seems to me totally correct and perceptive.


    May 25, 2011 at 07:18

    • I too was struck by that last paragraph. Reminded me of the tone in Russell Jacoby’s controversial, The Last Intellectuals.


      May 25, 2011 at 13:11

  3. David Harvey’s, The Condition of Postmodernity provides the political-economic context of the intellectual-academic debates….I use it in class…


    May 25, 2011 at 08:43

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve been thinking of including something of Harvey’s in the class: This would probably make the most sense.


      May 25, 2011 at 13:12

  4. You said you think that —-
    “People like Foucault…have actually developed a number of insights not only worth considering for their own sake, but that are necessary sources of wisdom for any movement that claims to advocate for social justice.”

    Chomsky in the article you reference said that most of what foucault says are truisms that are plainly obvious, but are dressed up in inflated rhetoric, which today some call a “theory.” Fourcault therefore does not have any insights — only self-evident truisms. Read Chomsky’s article again.

    Also, why are you, “putting together a syllabus for an introductory course on the `postmodern condition.'” when you haven’t read postmodernists?

    Donald Duck

    March 3, 2012 at 22:48

    • Can someone please comment on the place of Pierre Bourdieu in this post whatever framework? Can he rightly be considered a post structuralist? I really dont know, I am quite new to all this.


      March 8, 2012 at 17:45

  5. I think that what really reveals the whole point of Chomsky here is his “secondary” comment on the lack of engagement of intellectuals with a number of social welfare stands, as well as the aforementioned intellectuals’ contempt for populist causes which Chomsky so wholeheartedly defends. This actually made me think of a quote – I can’t remember whose exactly it was, but a Buddhist one, I’m sure – which goes more or less like “While you dedicate time and effort to explore the outer space, we dedicate it to explore the inner world”. Hence this, if leftist – and I consider myself a left winger – positions that Mr. Chomsky defends were to triumph, that triumph would fail and lead us only to another age of darkness. What all those social justice premises are for if the self is left unexplored? There cannot be social welfare without self-knowledge. The really ugly thing that happened with Lacan is, apart of course from the fact that most of his followers are blind fanatics, that his theoretical work is perceived as a full circle, while it should rather be perceived as a basis and serve instead for self-knowledge, self-enlightment and empowerment purposes. Apart from that, even experts and psychologists misunderstand Lacan’s relationship between Desire, Subject and Other. I presume that many social welfare problems that Mr. Chomsky is so worried about could be solved out if people and experts could extract and use the last two points, find each personal sense and move towards a reference.


    August 31, 2012 at 07:50

  6. The Chomsky PoMo antithesis is an interesting one. Chomsky says: “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies to the broadest possible public,” whereas the PoMo position (I guess) is: “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to point out to other intellectuals the impossibility of speaking the truth (which is not to say that there is no truth).”

    What struck me at grad school was seeing the attraction that the Founding Parents of postmodernism had for a certain kind of person – a type of person who, in an earlier epoch, would have been training to become a priest. PoMo seemed to function more as a theology – a negative theology for people who desperately needed to believe in God even though they had to agree with Nietzsche (albeit reluctantly) that he had been killed.

    Torn Halves

    September 13, 2012 at 03:47

    • In reply to “torn halves”…..very interested in your comment re the type of person most attracted to the PoMo stuff…..have just finished my masters degree in art where I wrote a very long and turgid analysis of my “Art Practice” in terms Derridean….Whilst within the cherished halls of higher learning I tried to engage the theorists at the university in a theoretical discussion…a critical discussion….about the role of “theory”…. I labelled the email I sent out “Criticality outside the institution”……I received no replies, just a suggestion from my supervisor that I had an “issue” with academia.
      That is correct if by academia he meant a self-serving clique whose main goal is the acquisition of status and fame and who really are not concerned with any serious discussion about “criticality” at all….or at least one that might impugn their credentials as authority figures/priests within the rigid hierarchies of the university!!!
      Chompsky is totally correct to imply that academics are prey to the same base motives as the rest of us. I might add that much of their behaviour resembles the behaviour of reality TV contestants in their clamour for recognition at all costs….with the exception being that their contribution to the sum total of human wisdom might be less than such contestants……
      In art, my chosen “field of research”, the necessity for artists to turn in a 10,000 thesis at Masters level “explaining” their “practice”…..(like doctors or dentists or lawyers)….is all about the aggrandisement of the literate word culture of academia at the expense and dimunition of the visual image based culture of art. In other words its people who are good with words telling people whose currency is the visual image that there output is not really worthy unless it is transacted in the currency of academia……your peso has no value or status here where the Dollar reigns, we only recognise words not pictures…
      Its a colonialist mentality, one that devalues the real and tangible insights of the visual image in favour of various combinations of the 26 letters of the alphabet whose worth is to be judged by accredited members of the brotherhood of scholars.

      Word critic

      February 26, 2013 at 19:33

  7. Seems to me Chomsky bottled out here – seeming to claim he did not need to address po-mo head on because its influence was confined to “narrow circles” Absurd.

    A school of politically independent critical objective pro-science thought grew throughout the enlightenment, through Voltaire and Paine, Huxley, Wells, Russell, Orwell. Their objective rational criticism was and is a threat to all sorts of wealth and power bases.

    The cult of relativism at the basis of po-mo thought is a counter attack on that movement. A dumbing down. It derives from or goes hand in hand with the output of Warburg, Collingwood, Febvre, Leo Strauss, Levi-Strauss, Whorf, Feyerabend etc etc. Many of these people were recruited, schooled and promoted by the Rockefeller and Ford academic machines, but by no means all. Some just saw the way the bandwaggon was rolling and jumped on. Some were born amongst the rich and powerful and were protecting their own interests.

    I would see Chomsky’s limp wristed response as a fearful indication of just how powerful this academic machine now has become.



    March 8, 2013 at 09:01

  8. Chomsky listed Edward Said as one of the top three most important intellectuals of our time so I’m not sure why you lumped him in with the famous pomos Chomsky attacks. Said also rejected the epithet “father of identity politics” and stated “relativism strikes me as a cop out.” See:

    Erin Wallace

    April 8, 2015 at 15:29

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