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A tale of two Chomskys: the military-sponsored scientist and the anarchist activist


#1

For The North Star, Chris Knight writes about Noam Chomsky–who he says he loves–and the curious “double life” that he has led as both an anarchist activist and military-sponsored scientist working at MIT. Read Knight in partial below, in full via The North Star.

I need to start by saying that I love Noam Chomsky. I have often watched television images of a US drone strike perpetrated on an Afghan wedding party, or perhaps by the Israeli state on a school in the occupied West Bank or Gaza. And then onto my screen comes Noam Chomsky, speaking loud and clear, in a monotone, absolutely steadfastly, telling it like it is. As his admirers say, ‘speaking truth to power’.

If politicians were honest, if they told the truth, if the mass media were not so mendacious, we would not need a Noam Chomsky. But, of course, as we know, politicians lie. The media is full of professional liars. So we do need a Noam Chomsky. If he did not exist we would have to invent him. What other academic who has something to lose says it like it is with such extraordinary tenacity and courage? He has been doing so since the 1960s and is still at it today, as lucid and effective as ever.

So what is my book, Decoding Chomsky – Science and revolutionary politics, all about? When people ask me, they usually want to know whose side I am on. Am I one of Noam’s fans, they ask, or a critic? I can never answer this question because it all depends on whether you mean Noam the activist, or Noam the scientist. You cannot give the same answer to both.

And it is not just me who says there are two Noam Chomskys. He says it himself. By way of explanation, he once suggested, with a bit of a smile, that if his brain is a computer, it is a special one with ‘buffers’ between its two separate parts.[1] He flits between the half of his brain that covers science and the other half that does activism. ‘[I live a] sort of schizophrenic existence’, he elaborated on another occasion. An interviewer once asked him ‘What do [the two Chomskys] say to each other when they meet?’ Chomsky replied that there was ‘no connection’. So I am not the only one who says there are two Noam Chomskys.[2]

The first Noam Chomsky is the one you most likely know about – the political activist who has spent his life denouncing the US military. But then there is this paradox: the man who made his reputation as the world’s most famous critic of the US military is also the man who has spent his whole working life in one of the world’s foremost research institutes specialising in weapons design. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been central to the development of all the most ingenious helicopter stabilisation machines, multiple weapons guidance systems and much of what made Ronald Reagan salivate over the prospect of Star Wars during the 1980s. Many of these inventions were incubated inside the laboratories that Chomsky spent his life working in. So there we have the Chomsky paradox. One of those two Chomskys has spent his life attacking the US military; the other has been developing linguistics in the employ of a Pentagon-funded military laboratory.

Let me begin by referring to a chapter near the middle of my book, entitled ‘The Cognitive Revolution’. I am always a bit surprised when I talk to Marxists, socialists, Jeremy Corbyn supporters, Occupy or Green activists about the cognitive revolution. Their eyes simply glaze over. So I tend not to start by talking about it. It is really strange that so many left activists show no interest in the cognitive revolution. It is as if they considered the biggest intellectual upheaval since Galileo’s discovery of a moving Earth to be unimportant.

The cognitive revolution is essentially the computer revolution. More accurately, it’s the effect of the invention of computers on how we think. From the early 1960s onwards, digital computation has been revolutionising the way that philosophers, cognitive scientists, psychologists – even archaeologists – think about what it means to be human. So let me just explain a little about this.

There is something about digital communication that is strange. As you know, if you have a vinyl disc and you make a pressing from it, and then make a pressing from the pressing, and so on, after a while you cannot hear the recording clearly – it degrades with each copy you make. It is the same with a photocopier – with successive copyings, eventually the pattern is lost. However, with a digital starting point you can make a million copies of copies and all of them in sequence will be perfect. That is because digital signals are either fully on or fully off and there is no intermediate position. Any digital piece of information is made up of lots of switches, each totally off or totally on, and therefore impossible to degrade.

Linked to that is the fact that when communication is digital it makes not a blind bit of difference what material you are using to encode the stream of signals. Whether you are sending your message using copper, fibre-glass optical cable, pigeons or whatever makes no difference at all. As long as the signal is either off or on and the receiver can tell the difference, a faithful copy of the message will be transmitted.

In other words, the information is autonomous with respect to the material in which it is encoded. Or you could say that information is now floating free of the composition of matter. When US philosophers discussed the implications of all this, they began to think that possibly it had solved the great problem that the ancient Greeks and Descartes faced long ago: how such an intangible thing as the soul can influence or be influenced by the material body. They imagined they now had the solution to the mystery: if mind can be seen as software and the body as hardware, all was now clear. It even meant that we might be able in the future to discard our hardware – our bodies – while remaining who we really are.

Take cognitive science’s Marvin Minsky – brilliant co-founder in 1958 of MIT’s artificial intelligence laboratory and described as the ‘father of artificial intelligence’. As I discuss in my book, Minsky’s main interest lay in building computer models capable of replicating the activities of human beings. Among other things, he was the scientist who advised Stanley Kubrick on the capabilities of the HAL computer in his 1968 film 2001: a Space Odyssey.

If the mind really is a digital computer, concluded Minsky, then our bodies no longer really matter. Our arms, legs and brain cells are all just imperfect and perishable hardware – essentially irrelevant to the weightless and immortal software, the information that constitutes who we really are.

At a public lecture delivered by Minsky in 1996 on the eve of the Fifth Conference on Artificial Life in Japan, Minsky argued that only since the advent of computer languages have we been able to properly describe human beings. ‘A person is not a head and arms and legs,’ he remarked. ‘That’s trivial. A person is a very large multiprocessor with a million times a million small parts, and these are arranged as a thousand computers.’


#2

In the Q&A that follows the well-known Chomsky-Foucault debate, Chomsky elucidates the connection between his “military-sponsored scientist” half and his “anarchist activist” half:

"There are people who argue–and I’ve never understood the logic of this–that a radical ought to dissociate himself from all oppressive institutions. The logic of this argument is that Karl Marx shouldn’t have studied at the British Museum, which, if anything, was the symbol of the most vicious imperialism in the world, the place where all the treasures of Empire were gathered… But I think Karl Marx was quite right in studying at the British Museum. He was right in using the resources–and, in fact, the liberal values–of the civilization that he was trying to overcome against it. And I think the same applies in this case [that is, in regard to Chomsky’s position at MIT].

Brilliantly, Chomsky refutes this strain of pseudo-Marxist moralism by citing Marx himself.


#3

All this is covered in ‘Decoding Chomsky: Science and revolutionary politics’, on pages 112-113:


"Toward the end of a 1971 televised debate, the left-wing French philosopher Michel Foucault broached with Chomsky the sensitive topic of his relationship to the US military-industrial establishment. The transcript reads: ‘… how can you, with your very courageous attitude towards the war in Vietnam, survive in an institution like MIT, which is known here as one of the great war contractors and intellectual makers of this war?’

Chomsky responded by invoking Karl Marx:

There are people who argue, and I have never understood the logic of this, that a radical ought to dissociate himself from oppressive institutions. The logic of that argument is that Karl Marx shouldn’t have studied in the British Museum which, if anything, was the symbol of the most vicious imperialism in the world, the place where all the treasures an empire had gathered from the rape of the colonies, were brought together.

But I think Karl Marx was quite right in studying in the British Museum. He was right in using the resources and in fact the liberal values of the civilization that he was trying to overcome, against it. And I think the same applies in this case.

Chomsky here seems to be easing his political conscience by claiming that Karl Marx’s institutional environment was actually more ‘oppressive’ and indeed ‘vicious’ than the Pentagon-sponsored electronics lab in which he worked. Somehow, he manages to draw a favourable comparison between himself as a full-time salaried employee in one of the most advanced weapons research laboratories in the world and an impoverished Marx,
taking notes for revolutionary purposes in a public library – the reading room of the British Museum."


#4

Hi Chris,

Thanks for sharing. I’ve yet to read your book, only the article.

As to the response that you’ve pasted here: Chomsky hardly seems engaged in the comparison of oppressions. At no point does he say that Marx’s “institutional environment” is more “‘vicious’” or “‘oppressive’” than his own. Chomsky emphasizes the loaded political significance of the British Museum, but only to hold it in analogy with MIT, describing how both he and Marx subversively exploit(ed) the resources of a colonial oppressor. To engage in the comparison of oppressions–as you seem to do in constructing an implicit hierarchy between Marx’s positionality and Chomsky’s positionality–is an ungainly and divisive operation. As Audre Lorde neatly sums up in under a page, There is No Hierarchy of Oppression. Perhaps we should instead be thinking about ‘Intensities of Oppression’, in which oppressive forces are seen relatively and as qualitatively different from one another.

Moreover, I don’t think the assertion that Chomsky is “easing his political conscience” carries much weight. Beyond the fact that this psychologistic speculation may or may not be true, it evinces the ‘pseudo-Marxist moralism’ that I named in my initial response. Unless we view Chomsky’s work as a mere symptom of the man’s class position and economic support–as the “vulgar sociologists” saw the Soviet avant-garde in the early 30s, for instance – there is no reason to attack him for working for an oppressive institution. Chomsky’s financial dependencies matter less than the effect that his thought has in displacing power, and the former does not necessarily abate the latter. To judge the biography (“conscience”) of an author, even when done critically, is always to write his/her hagiography; as Groys points out, even “negative theology remains theology.” But, as you made clear from the start, you “love” Noam Chomsky.


#5

I agree that the comparing oppression seems self-defeating. However I’m not sure this is the question at hand. Chomsky does draw a comparison between his work and Marx’s use of the British Museum, in order to argue against what he considers the faulty argument against associating with “oppressive institutions”. The problem, however, is there is no symmetry between Marx and Chomsky in his regard. As the other commentator has written, an impoverished and marginalised Marx used this institution in order to research his critique of political economy. In no way did he work for the institution or promote it - even if we can add that today the Museum is more than happy to include him among their list of “illustrious” users. Chomsky, on the other hand, is actively engaged in work for the US military-industrial establishment, and to reduce his active engagement with such work to merely a question of income is disingenuous at best. Despite the suffocating ubiquity of capitalism, there are jobs available that are less obviously useful to the US military. Of course this is not to reduce the problem to a question of morality. The question that needs to be answered is to what extent does Chomsky’s work for the government constitute a moment of his “using the resources and in fact the liberal values of the civilization that he was trying to overcome, against it”? The answer is clear in the case of Marx; in Chomsky’s less so, insofar as he admits to a “compartmetalisation” which appears to leave his work for the government completely divorced from his critical activity.