To the delight and satisfaction of hundreds of our readers, we recently featured an interview in which Noam Chomsky slams postmodernist intellectuals like Slavoj Zizek and Jacques Lacan as “charlatans” and posers. The turn against postmodernism has been long in coming, a backlash the political right has made theater of for years, but that thinkers on the political left, like anarchist Chomsky, Marxist Vivek Chibber, and self-described “old leftist” Alan Sokal have pursued with just as much vigor (and more rigor). In the interview clip above, Chomsky makes a blanket critique of what the interviewer calls the “left criticism of science” as imperialist, racist, sexist, etc. His answers shed quite a bit of light on what Chomsky perceives as the political ramifications of postmodern thought as well as the origins of the discourse.
Chomsky characterizes leftist postmodern academics as “a category of intellectuals who are undoubtedly perfectly sincere” (I suspect this is a bit of uncharacteristic politesse on his part). Nonetheless, in his critique, such thinkers use “polysyllabic words and complicated constructions” to make claims that are “all very inflated” and which have “a terrible effect on the third world.” Chomsky argues (as does Chibber) that “in the third world, popular movements really need serious intellectuals to participate. If they’re all ranting postmodernists… well, they’re gone.” His assessment of postmodern critiques of science echoes his criticism of Zizek and Lacan. (Chomsky appears to use the words “polysyllabic” and “monosyllabic” as terms for jargon vs. ordinary language.):
It’s considered very left wing, very advanced. Some of what appears in it sort of actually makes sense, but when you reproduce it in monosyllables, it turns out to be truisms. It’s perfectly true that when you look at scientists in the West, they’re mostly men, it’s perfectly true that women have had a hard time breaking into the scientific fields, and it’s perfectly true that there are institutional factors determining how science proceeds that reflect power structures. All of this can be described literally in monosyllables, and it turns out to be truisms. On the other hand, you don’t get to be a respected intellectual by presenting truisms in monosyllables.
This last point is something Chomsky elaborates on as the impetus for post-structuralism in the academy, saying “it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on. Suppose you’re a literary scholar…. If you do your work seriously, that’s fine, but you don’t get any prizes for it.” He makes the claim that humanities scholars use mystifying jargon and cook up “theory” in order to compete with theoretical physicists and mathematicians, who get prizes, grants, and prestige for advancing incredibly complicated scientific work.
Even more than this general accusation against theorists in the humanities, Chomsky makes the political point that French intellectuals in Paris, “the center of the rot,” were the last group of leftists to be dedicated, “flaming” Stalinists and Maoists. In order to save face, such people had to suddenly become “the first people in the world to have discovered the gulags.” It’s a very damning characterization, and one he could no doubt support, as he does all of his claims, with a dizzying number of specific examples, though he declines to name names here. He does, however, reference Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s sadly out-of-print Intellectual Impostures, a book that patiently exposes French post-structuralist thinkers’ abuse of scientific concepts. (Sokal, a physics professor, famously punked a well-regarded humanities journal in the mid-nineties with a phony article).
Chomsky's cranky contrarianism is nothing new, and some of his polemic recalls the analytic case against "continental" philosophy or Karl Popper's case against pseudo-science, although his investment is political as much as philosophical. The interviewer then moves on to religion. Chomsky’s thoughts on that subject are generally nuanced and fair-minded, but we don’t get to hear them here, alas, though he’s had plenty to say elsewhere.