LINGUIST List 8.673

Wed May 7 1997

Review: Barsky, R.: Chomsky Biography

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  1. feargal murphy, chomsky book

Message 1: chomsky book

Date: Wed, 07 May 1997 17:34:05 +0100 (BST)
From: feargal murphy <>
Subject: chomsky book

Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent
By Robert F. Barsky,
MIT Press, 1997, Pp. 237, ISBN 0-262-02418-7. $27.50

Hypertext version:

Reviewed by Fergal Murphy, University College Dublin

[As the book comes essentially two forms - a paper version and a 
hypertext version - I will deal with the content of the book first 
before going on to talk about the web site for the book.
Page numbers indicate Barsky's book unless otherwise indicated.]

In this very readable book, Barsky presents a view of Chomsky's life 
through "The Milieu that Formed Chomsky" and "The Milieu that Chomsky 
helped to Create". Chomsky's Politics and Linguistics are presented as 
derived from essentially the same philosophical traditions, with an 
interest in the uniqueness and creativity of each individual at the 
heart of Chomsky's concerns. The author points out that the main focus 
of the biography he has written "is the political milieus that provide a 
context for understanding [Chomsky's] approach to societal relations and 
the structures that regulate them" (p.6). The author has previously 
showed his liking for Chomsky's politics in the documentary 
"Manufacturing Consent" and this book again portrays Chomsky as being on 
the side of the angels. The book provides us with some new information 
and photographs and brings together many of the strands in Chomsky's 
life and work. A full analysis of Chomsky would take more than the 237 
pages in Barsky's book but the book is a solidly researched analysis of 
the basis of Chomsky's main philosophical concerns that can be read with 
profit no matter what one's interest in Chomsky derives from.

As with any book on Chomsky, this biography will generate heated 
discussion. Chomsky always provokes strong and divergent reactions but, 
as the author points out, Chomsky is undeniably one of the most 
important figures in modern thought (p.1).

The first section of the book - dealing with the milieu that formed 
Chomsky - covers Chomsky's family and his education (both formal and 
informal). The anecdotes about Chomsky's childhood show a serious, quiet 
but competitive child who was used to intellectual and well-informed 
debate about a wide range of topics at home. Some of the details are 
already available to us from other sources but some of them are new and 
Chomsky's Parents are presented very effectively. A theme that runs 
through the book is that Chomsky's family was Zionist and that Chomsky 
has retained the Zionism of his youth -- the Zionism of Asher Ginsburg, 
pen name Ahad Ha-am -- but that this is quite a different kind of 
Zionism to the kind most often encountered today. The role of Chomsky's 
uncle's 72nd Street newspaper stand in New York as an informal classroom 
or "Literary Political Salon" (p.23) for Chomsky is gone over again, but 
it was such a huge influence on Chomsky that no biography of Chomsky 
could leave it out. The leftist ideas that were discussed there and the 
impression they made on Chomsky as a teenager listening in can not be 
under-estimated. It was new to me that Chomsky's uncle went on to become 
a lay psychiatrist.

Perhaps the most telling lines in the section on Chomsky's childhood are 
taken form Otero's "Chomsky and the Libertarian Tradition" (Otero, p.5) 
where Chomsky's father (William Chomsky) is quoted as describing the 
major objective of his life as "the education of individuals who are 
well-integrated, free and independent in their thinking, concerned about 
improving and enhancing the world and eager to participate in making 
life more meaningful and worthwhile for all". Both Barsky and Otero 
regard this as an almost perfect description of Chomsky.
Barsky devotes much time to the notion of Chomsky being involved in 
"improving and enhancing" the world. Chomsky is presented as constantly 
striving towards the creation of a "good society" (p.27). That this 
'good society' is not just the best society from a range of bad ones is 
exemplified in two insights of the young Chomsky. Firstly, there is the 
young Chomsky's realisation that it is ridiculous to cheer for your 
school team just because they are your school team (p.22) and secondly, 
his realisation during the second world war that neither side was 
particularly good. As Barsky puts it "How 'good' is a society that drops 
atomic bombs on Japanese civilians, or reduces German towns to rubble? 
Isn't there an alternative?" (p.27). The moral question that intrigues 
Chomsky is not relative goodness but absolute goodness and it is the 
striving for this absolute goodness that underpins Chomsky's reasoning. 
The influence of Orwell's work, especially _Homage to Catalonia_, is 
emphasised in the book.

The other main area of influence in Chomsky's early life occurred during 
his university career. The huge influence Zellig Harris had on Chomsky 
has been the accepted for many years now. Barsky adds a new dimension to 
our picture of Harris' influence on Chomsky by presenting the political 
ideas that were part of student life at the time, particularly groups 
like Avukah and Hashomer Hatzair and the role that Harris played in 
them. Harris not only influenced Chomsky but also many other students at 
the time and not just in the political realm. Hilary Putnam reports in 
his preface to "The Form of Information in Science" that "the powerful 
intellect and personality of Zellig Harris drew me like a lodestone" 
(quoted on p.58 of Barsky). The picture that emerges of the political 
milieu that Chomsky was exposed to in University is one of a strongly 
libertarian tradition that rejected any hardline Stalinist, Trotskyist 
or Marxist approach but instead allowed for a more open-minded 
exploration of left-wing ideas including those of Rocker and Pannekoek. 
The point is made that these are not the ideas that we associate with 
this era because they were the ideas of an uninfluential minority in 
American society but they are the ideas that interested not only Chomsky 
but many other students and teachers as well - Harris included. We 
understand from this that Chomsky is not working today in some isolated 
cocoon but is simply continuing the kind of exploration of ideas that he 
was involved in as a student. He is remaining true to the insights that 
occurred to him earlier in life.

One interesting anecdote from his university days involves Nathan Glazer 
(a member of Avukah) and the effect Harris had on him. When Chomsky met 
Glazer he "asked him whether he knew Harris. He said yes ....... I 
didn't tell Glazer why I'd asked. The reason was that he was mimicking 
all sorts of idiosyncratic Harris gestures" (p.59) Anyone who has seen 
Chomsky lecture would recognise exactly the same thing happening when 
students of Chomsky's give talks. The gestures Chomsky uses with 
expressions like 'Leaving that aside' or the mixture of nodding and 
shaking the head that accompanies a readiness to deal with the point 
being raised re-emerge in many of his ex-students. It is a measure of 
Chomsky's influence as a teacher that his gestures also become part of 
the gestural repertoire of his students.

The philosophical background to much of Chomsky's work is to be found in 
the work of Humboldt and Descartes. Barsky devotes an entire chapter to 
tracing the effects of Humboldt and Descartes on Chomsky. And in the 
course of this chapter Barsky recounts the unfounded attacks Hans 
Aarslef made on Chomsky's _Cartesian Linguistics_ but neglects - as he 
too often does - to give proper bibliographical references for the books 
and articles involved. Barsky's contents himself with listing what he 
calls "works consulted" (p.221) but the works consulted by Barsky do not 
represent the full list of books that one might like to consult after 
reading this biography. Barsky's citations of the "works consulted" also 
jar somewhat as the books are listed by author and then alphabetically 
by title rather than by year of publication. References in the body of 
the biography to books in the bibliography give the author's name and, 
where the author has more than one listing in the bibliography, an 
abbreviation of the title of the book. I found this system fairly 
cumbersome to decode - but that could just be my problem!

The second part of the book deals with the milieu that Chomsky helped to 
create. Barsky charts Chomsky path from student to teacher. The main 
focus of the book becomes Chomksy's political activism as he emerges as 
a leading spokesman against the Vietnam war. It also mentions 
collectives such as South End Press and "Z Magazine". While the issues 
of how Universities deal with dissident intellectuals are dealt with 
fairly quickly (and more information about this topic is available in 
_The Cold War & The University_, Barsky does venture into the territory 
as to whether universities are useful institutions at all. This is a 
question that will eventually have to be addressed, especially given the 
critique of Intellectuals as commissars that Barsky deals with in the 
last section of the book.

The target of this part of the book would appear to be the Modern French 
Intellectual tradition and the Postmodernism that it spawned. Chomsky is 
quoted as saying that: "Intellectuals try to make it look difficult; 
postmodernism carries this to extremes, in my opinion". In the section 
"Chomsky on the French Intellectual Tradition", Chomsky is quoted as 
saying: "almost no one in France has ever had any idea of what my 
political or academic work is about" (p.196) this must be because they 
have yet to learn "how to tell the truth, to pay attention to the facts 
and to reach standards of minimal rationality" (p.197). Foucault comes 
out relatively unscathed from the sideswipe at postmodernism. As Barsky 
notes (p.195) "... Chomsky and Foucault are often on the same 

Barsky does not spend too much time dealing with the ins and outs of 
Chomsky's linguistic work - that would just take too long - but he does 
pick out certain highlights along the way. He refers to the so-called 
Linguistic Wars and notes that Harris' book on the Interpretive / 
Generative semantics debate is fairly selective in its omissions, 
neglecting to point out that all the appointments in MIT at the time 
were of generative semanticists, while those people Chomsky was actually 
working with were not appointed (p.151). But the more telling point 
about the linguistic wars is that Chomsky was at this time simply very 
busy with other issues like the Vietnam War. Chomsky is quoted as 
dismissing Harris' analysis as belonging to that view that "everything 
must be a power play" and refers to Harris as a "postmodern historian" 
(p.151); 'postmodern' always being a term of derision in Chomsky's 
lexicon, and not unreasonably.

The book does spend too much time on the Faurisson affair, however. This 
is presumably because it keeps being brought up by people who are not in 
possession of the facts. It is a pity that this affair keeps cropping up 
but it does help to demonstrate Chomsky's adherence to his beliefs and 
an unwillingness to join in the chorus against a fashionable enemy of 
society - in the same way that he wouldn't cheer for his high school 
football team simply because that was what everyone else around was 
doing. Chomsky believes that people have a right to free speech and that 
Faurrisson should have a right to say what he thinks. The fact that 
Faurrisson is wrong about the gas chambers can be easily seen in what he 
has to say; demonising him does nothing except make those demonising him 
feel self-righteous.

Barsky's book is, overall, a fluid and accessible account of Chomsky's 
life and work that can be read by people with either no knowledge of 
Chomsky's contribution to modern intellectual life or by people seeking 
to gain a deeper insight into the mind that produced the books and 
articles that they have read with either delight or frustration. It is a 
work written with passion and insight and shows Barsky's deep commitment 
to the "good society" that Chomsky also aspires to.

- -------------------------------------------

The web site associated with the book utilises the net to hugely 
increase the range of Barsky's text. While the actual book suffers from 
a bad system of citations, the hypertext version of the book allows for 
very clever cross-referencing and provides an opportunity to leave the 
book to view other sites where more information can be obtained about 
whatever the topic at hand is. This makes the hypertext version of the 
book a better research tool. The hypertext version basically shows you 
the book chapter by chapter (5 chapters in all) with each chapter then 
presented section by section. Each section occupies a page with the 
links to other sites in the left-hand margin. To use the hypertext book 
one must have a browser that deals comfortably with tables and graphics 
- but most do at this stage. Of course the speed at which the book loads 
will depend on the time of day. I found it easier to deal with outside 
American office hours (5 hours behind me in Ireland) and so read it 
mainly in the mornings and later in the evening.

The one flaw in the way pages are presented is that the numbers of each 
section in a chapter are only in the top lefthand of the page so that 
one has to scroll or link back up to the top of the page to go to any 
section other than the next. Having the sections across the bottom of 
each page would be an improvement.

One great feature of the hypertext version is the chronologies (or 
"timelines" as they are labelled on the site) which give a very clear 
snapshot of the main events in the book as well as other events that are 
important in understanding the periods covered in the book. The 
timelines also allow one to go straight to parts of the book that are of 
interest as well as sites elsewhere on the web. The timelines are 
separated into Political, Philosophical, Linguistic and Personal 
chronologies and dovetail with each of the five chapters. They provide 
a great way of understanding how the various strands in the book tie in 
with each other. Hypertext books will never replace books as we know 
them, simply because one needs access to a computer and the net to read 
and use them but as a supplement to the book, this hypertext version 
allows for an extra dimension to the reading experience that shows how 
the web can be used to augment a written text. 

- ------------------------------------------------------------


Chomsky, N. et al (1997), _The Cold War and the University: Towards an 
Intellectual History of the Postwar Years_. New York: The New Press.
Harris, R. A. (1994), The Linguistic Wars. Oxford:OUP.
Otero, C. (1994), "Chomsky and the Libertarian Tradition" in _Noam 
Chomsky: Critical Assessments_. London:Routledge.

- ------------------------------------------------------------

Feargal Murphy is a lecturer in the Department of Linguistics in 
University College Dublin.
homepage: http//
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Dept of Linguistics
University College Dublin
Dublin 4
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