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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Chomsky the activist

a couple weeks ago, my girlfriend and I rented the U.S. vs. John Lennon, a documentary about Lennon’s vocalism against Vietnam and how it drew him undesired attention from the Nixon administration and the FBI. the film was rather interesting, especially in terms of some of the uncanny parallels between the political climate surrounding that conflict and our current situation with respect to Iraq. if you have a chance, I recommend seeing the film.

however, one thing struck me as particularly interesting and bordering between amusing and disturbing. the film includes interviews with several individuals who were involved with Lennon, his music, his activism, and his politics, as well as those who have studied his work. most of these people are billed as “Journalist” or “Author” or “Historian” or some such. then on the screen appears Noam Chomsky, who is billed not as a professor or as a linguist, but as an activist. yes, I realize that Chomsky had very strong political views, but it seems strange to me to bill him as an activist. lots of other interviewees were billed as “Artist and Activist” or “Writer and Activist,” but Chomsky was not “Linguist and Activist,” he was just "Activist." I also realize that, given the context of the film, portraying Chomsky as an activist probably makes more sense than portraying him as an academic, except that his academics and his activism go more or less hand in hand, just as with artist activists. this makes me wonder how pop culture and history will treat current academics who have interests with political ramifications. will George Lakoff be billed as Professor, Linguist, Author, Cognitive Scientist, or as Activist? similarly, will Al Gore be billed as Former Vice President, as Filmmaker (he did win an Oscar), or as Environmental Activist? one could ask of many people I know, is s/he an academic, a researcher, a designer an ethnographer, a computer scientist, or a privacy/cultural activist?

I suspect that this whole enterprise of labeling a person is almost certainly misguided from the outset, as a single label rarely captures the entirely of a person’s work or identity, especially people who are involved in such wide ranging, disparate activities as those listed here. however, that doesn’t prevent labeling from happening, and I think paying attention to the labels that get assigned is an important way of gauging how certain individuals are perceived by various communities. furthermore, these labels can actually alter someone’s identity. in this case, Chomksy is not an academic, he did not do some of the seminal work on generative grammar, he did not found an influential and dominant school of linguistics. he is an activist.

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  • The thing about labeling someone as "Artist and Activist" or "Writer and Activist" is that art and writing are mediums through which people express their activism. Chomsky's linguistic career, however, is not.

    He does have a particularly active activist career, though. He continues to voice strong opinions on kinds of political matters, and has even published books in the political sphere. (The one that comes immediately to mind is Hegemony or Survival from 2003. It's still sitting on my shelf unread, but don't tell Noam.)

    I think this second life of sorts that Chomsky leads comes as a surprise to a lot of computer scientists; certainly, no one has mentioned it in any of the courses I've taken, even in ones where his contributions were not merely asides, but central topics of discussion. I didn't even know about it until I heard his name mentioned on NPR one day, and thought, "Wait -- is this Chomsky of the Chomsky Hierarchy fame?" (At the time I didn't understand the full significance of his work, and that was the first description that came to mind.)

    A quick poke around online revealed that Chomsky is quite active politically, and a prolific writer in that realm as well. I think the label "activist" fits well, and does seem distinct from his linguistic career.

    PS -- Just found the blog tonight. A semantic link to a semantic link to an e-mail made me wonder how you were doing, so I Googled you and was happy to find that you seem to be thriving at UC Irvine! I hope this is true and that all is well.


    By Blogger Sean, at Wednesday, August 15, 2007 11:44:00 PM  

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