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Noam Chomsky and the Public Intellectual in Turbulent Times

Posted on May 12, 2014

Photo by Andrew Rusk (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 2)

Chomsky is fiercely critical of fashionable conservative and liberal attempts to divorce intellectual activities from politics and is quite frank in his notion that education both in and out of institutional schooling should be involved in the practice of freedom and not just the pursuit of truth. He has strongly argued that educators, artists, journalists and other intellectuals have a responsibility to provide students and the wider public with the knowledge and skills they need to be able to learn how to think rigorously, be self-reflective, and to develop the capacity to govern rather than be governed. But for Chomsky it is not enough to learn how to think critically. Engaged intellectuals must also develop an ethical imagination and sense of social responsibility necessary to make power accountable and to deepen the possibilities for everyone to live a life infused with freedom, liberty, decency, dignity and justice. On higher education, Chomsky has been arguing since the ‘60s that in a healthy society, universities must press the claims for economic and social justice and that any education that matters must not merely be critical but also subversive. Chomsky has been unflinching in his belief that education should disturb the peace and engage in the production of knowledge that is critical of the status quo, particularly in a time of legitimized violence. He has also been clear, as were his political counterparts, the late Pierre Bourdieu and Edward Said, in asserting that intellectuals had to make their voices accessible to a wider public and be heard in all of those spheres of public life in which there is an ongoing struggle over knowledge, values, power, identity, agency, and the social imagination.

Capitalism may have found an honored place for many of its anti-public intellectuals, but it certainly has no room for the likes of Chomsky. Conservatives and liberals, along with an army of unyielding neoliberal advocates, have virtually refused to include him in the many discussions and publications on social issues that work their way into the various registers of the dominant media. In many ways, Chomsky’s role as an intellectual and activist is a prototype of what may be called an American radical tradition and yet appears out of place. Chomsky appears to be an exile in his own country by virtue of his political interventions, the shock of his acts of translation, and his displays of fierce courage. This is not to suggest that he would make a claim to be in exile in the sense claimed by many intellectuals, though he might agree with the late Edward Said, who was interested in what he called “traveling theory” in the sense of “being errant, provisional, intellectually on the hoof, [as one of] several ways in which he remained true to the exiled people to whom he lent his voice.” Exile in this sense suggest that as a “traveler,” Chomsky is not interested staking out academic territory and consequently has no disciplinary sphere to protect. The latter, of course, being the hallmark of many academics today who are caught in the cult of specialization and forms of disciplinary terror - forever excoriating those intellectuals who attempt to breach the steadfast rules of the discipline. 

Terry Eagleton offers a definition of how academics are different from public intellectuals that I think is useful in understanding Chomsky’s work. He writes:

Intellectuals are not only different from academics, but almost the opposite of them. Academics usually plough through a narrow disciplinary patch, whereas intellectuals …roam ambitiously from one discipline to another. Academics are interested in ideas, whereas intellectuals seek to bring ideas to an entire culture….Anger and academia do not usually go together, except perhaps when it comes to low pay, whereas anger and intellectuals do. Above all, academics are conscious of the difficult, untidy, nuanced nature of things, while intellectuals take sides. … in all the most pressing political conflicts which confront us, someone is going to have to win and someone to lose. It is this, not a duff ear for nuance and subtlety, which marks them out from the liberal.


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While this description does not perfectly fit Chomsky, I think it is fair to say that his main role as a public intellectual is to lift ideas into the public realm in the hopes of exposing how power relations work for and against justice, how they are legitimated, and what can be done to challenge them.  Many have commented on his staid delivery when he gives talks, but what they fail to recognize is the sense of political and moral outrage that animates his diverse roles as a public intellectual. At the same time, Chomsky is certainly an academic in terms of his rigorous intellectual work, but the point is that he is more than that. In the end, Chomsky’s dialectical move between theory and practice, rigor and accessibility, critique and action offers up less a reason to praise him than to offer a noble vision of what we should all strive for.

As an engaged academic, Chomsky publicly argues against regimes of domination organized for the production of violence, and social and civil death. His ghostly presence offers up the possibility of dangerous memories, alternative ways of imagining society and the future, and the necessity of public criticism as one important element of individual and collective resistance. And, yet, Chomsky’s role as a public intellectual, given the huge audiences that he attracts when he lectures as well as his large reading public, suggests that there is no politics that matters without a sense of connecting meaningfully with others. Politics becomes emancipatory when it takes seriously that, as Stuart Hall has noted, “People have to invest something of themselves, something that they recognize is of them or speaks to their condition, and without that moment of recognition . . . politics will go on, but you won’t have a political movement without that moment of identification.” Chomsky has clearly connected with a need among the public for those intellectuals willing to make power visible, to offer an alternative understanding of the world, and to point to the hopes of a future that does not imitate the scurrilous present.

Chomsky has been relentless in reminding his audience that power takes many forms and that the production of ignorance is not merely about the crisis of test scores or a natural state of affairs - an idiotic argument if there ever was one - but about how ignorance is often produced in the service of power. According to Chomsky, ignorance is a pedagogical formation that is used to stifle thinking and promotes a form of anti-politics, which undermines matters of judgment and thoughtfulness central to politics. At the same time, it is a crucial player in not just producing consent but also in squelching dissent. For Chomsky, ignorance is a political weapon that benefits the powerful, not a general condition rooted in some inexplicable human condition. One of his most insistent themes focuses on how state power functions in various forms as a mode of terrorism reigning violence, misery and hardship, often as a function of class warfare and American global imperialism, and how people are often complicitous with such acts of barbarism.

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