Thursday, June 22, 2006

Noam Chomsky: Language, Politics and Composition

(Courtesy of Comp Mafia ... although I disagree with the simplification that all academics have arrived by toeing the line... I was a high school drop out, criminal, convict and later went to college and argued/fought with those I felt were full of shit/dangerous to others... of course I'm not an administrator, but I am a professor... but there is also so much truth in Chomsky's words, especially in the disdain I have felt from elitist professors who disrespect the knowledge/experiences of working class people... and it is not just Chomsky's rather awkward justification of his working class background as intellectual because they read/listened to high culture classics, but what about the knowledge of someone who is a skilled worker, people who have participated in the life of their community and people who have raised families. I'm the first academic in my working class family--no one said to me, you will go to college... it was you should learn a skill)

Language, Politics, and Composition
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Gary A. Olson and Lester Faigley
Journal of Advanced Composition, Vol. 11, No. 1

Q. You have suggested that 'intellectuals are the most indoctrinated part of the population ... the ones most susceptible to propaganda.' You have explained that the educated classes are “ideological managers,” complicit in 'controlling all the organized flow of information.' How and why is this so? What can be done to change this situation?

A. Well, there’s something almost tautological about that; that is, the people we call intellectuals are those who have passed through various gates and filters and have made it into positions in which they can serve as cultural managers. There are plenty of other people just as smart, smarter, more independent, more thoughtful, who didn’t pass through those gates and we just don’t call them intellectuals. In fact, this is a process that starts in elementary school. Let’s be concrete about it. You and I went to good graduate schools and teach in fancy universities, and the reason we did this is because we’re obedient. That is, you and I, and typically people like us, got to the positions we’re in because from childhood we were willing to follow orders. If the teacher in third grade told us to do some stupid thing, we didn’t say, “Look, that’s ridiculous. I’m not going to do it.” We did it because we wanted to get on to fourth grade. We came from the kind of background where we’d say, “Look, do it, forget about it, so the teacher’s a fool, do it, you’ll get ahead, don’t worry about it.” That goes on all through school, and it goes on through your professional career. You’re told in graduate school, “Look, don’t work on that; it’s a wrong idea. Why not work on this? You’ll get ahead.” However it’s put, and there are subtle ways of putting it, you allow yourself to be shaped by the system of authority that exists out there and is trying to shape you. Well, some people do this. They’re submissive and obedient, and they accept it and make it through; they end up being people in the high places—economic managers, cultural managers, political managers. There are other people who were in your class and in my class who didn’t do it. When the teacher told them in the third grade to do x, they said, “That’s stupid, and I’m not going to do it.” Those are people who are more independent minded, for example, and there’s a name for them: they’re called “behavior problems.” You’ve got to deal with them somehow, so you send them to a shrink, or you put them in a special program, or maybe you just kick them out and they end up selling drugs or something. In fact, the whole educational system involves a good deal of filtering of this sort, and it’s a kind of filtering towards submissiveness and obedience.

This goes on through professional careers, as well. You’re a journalist, let’s say, and you want to write a story that’s going to expose people in high places, and somebody else is going to write a story that serves the needs of people in high places; you know which one is going to end up being the bureau chief. That’s the way it works. So in a way there’s something almost tautological about your question. Sure, the people who make it into positions in which they’re respected and recognized as intellectuals are the people who are not subversive of structures of power. They’re the people who in one way or another serve those structures, or at least are neutral with respect to them. The ones who would be more subversive aren’t called intellectuals; they’re called wackos, or crazies, or “wild men in the wings,” as McGeorge Bundy put it when he said, “There arc people who understand that we have to be in Indochina and just differ on the tactics, and then there are the wild men in the wings who think there’s something wrong with carrying out aggression against another country.” (He said that in Foreign Affairs—a mainstream journal.) But that’s the idea. There are wild men in the wings who don’t accept authority, and they remain wild men in the wings and not intellectuals, not respected intellectuals. Of course, this isn’t one-hundred percent. These are tendencies, actually very strong tendencies, and they’re reinforced by other strong tendencies.

Another strong tendency has to do with the role of intellectuals. Why are you and I called intellectuals but some guy working in an automobile plant isn’t an intellectual? I don’t think it’s necessarily because we read more or go to better concerts or anything like that. Maybe he does; in fact, I’ve known such cases. I grew up in such an environment. I grew up in an environment where my aunts and uncles were New York Jewish working class, and this was still the 1930s when there was a rich working-class culture. Lots of them had barely gone to school. I had one uncle who never got past fourth grade and an aunt who never graduated from school. But that was the richest intellectual environment I’ve ever seen. And I mean high culture, not comic book culture: Freud, Steckel, the Budapest String Quartet, and debates about anything you can imagine. But those people were never called intellectuals. They were called “unemployed workers” or something like that. Now why are they not intellectuals whereas a lot of people in the universities who are basically doing clerical work (from an intellectual point of view, a lot of scholarship is just very low-level clerical work) are respected intellectuals? First of all, it’s a matter of subordination and power, and secondly it’s a matter of which role you choose for yourself. The ones we call intellectuals, especially the public intellectuals—you know, the ones who make a splash or who are called upon to be the experts—are people who have chosen for themselves the role of manager. In earlier societies they would have been priests; in our societies they form a kind of secular priesthood.

To Read the Entire Interview


Ricia said...

this, i couldn't agree with more - from my own observations... a lifetime of hearing about the 'intellectuals' on high institutional grounds and i've yet to witness it myself. there are exceptions, of which surely u are one thivai.. but wowie.

point in case: how is it my highly uneducated ass was immediately transformed into a provocative-radical-intellectual figure once immersed in an institutionalized environment? when at street level, i am actually somewhat moderate and a temperate character...?

- this, of course, could be due to my limited (and socio-geographic) experience.. but.. well, wowie i say!


Thivai Abhor said...


Its also easier to adopt a theoretical radicalism as opposed to putting it into action in the streets--the repercussions are more immediate and physical.

I've been watching this DVD on street action the last couple of days:

CrimethInc Guerilla Film Series, Volume 1

Ricia said...

yes - this is true (theoretical radicalism). but what i've found is that even a moderate level of assertiveness on issues of human rights, environmentalism, the existing power structure, global affairs, etc., is considered extreme once put to words or spoke up about. simply the act of bringing those views to the 'table' is "radical".

its not radical if it remains unspoken though, its just a common hopeless humming in the background..

i'll go check out the link!

Thivai Abhor said...

... and I would add that theories are really not radical unless they can-be/are put into action in our everyday life... I suspect we are saying the same thing in different ways?

of course, voicing your radical ideas and directly engaging with (and listening to) in order to shape new meanings and questions is definitely radical and a form of action (which still should be supported in more concrete activities of social activism?)