Noam Chomsky Introduction
If you're the kind of person to get all jealous of other people's accomplishments, you should probably stop reading now. See, Noam Chomsky is man of two minds, an intellectual powerhouse who has managed to become doubly famous; he's a famous linguist (okay, if such a thing exists), and a famous political activist.
Dude's an all-around highly regarded, and highly criticized, public intellectual. He talks, and people listen… before getting really excited or really angry. Or both. So what's he got to say?
He's not afraid of The Man, The Man's afraid of him.
Noam Chomsky's political books, essays, and interviews are perfect reads if you're in the mood to get really down on American foreign policy. Oh, and if you hate war, then he's your man—particularly if the Vietnam War rubs you the wrong way. He's a pretty devout pacifist who's not into killing of any kind, really, including the death penalty.
Plus, he's always good for a few jabs at the media, which he believes is in cahoots with the corporate fat cats. He's an anti-imperialist, not-quite-anarchist who generally thinks that power and evil go hand-in-hand.
But he's not only interested in criticizing the current state of affairs; he's a man of action. If Chomsky-san had a political slogan, it'd be: "Don't just hate—participate."
You say "Goo-Goo, Ga-Ga," he says "Hey, kid, your language acquisition device is really coming along!"
Noam started as a humble linguist, positing what he called a "theory of transformational grammar" (more on that kettle of fish later), and rose to prominence with such designations as the "father of modern linguistics" and "the world's top intellectual". Where do you go from there? Well, if you're Noam, you win countless awards, and receive dozens of honorary degrees. (Woohoo, free PhDs.)
By the way, our buddy Noam is also credited with establishing linguistics departments in the first place, back in 1957. So his accomplishments have legs.
His main linguistics obsession is how humans acquire and produce language. Even as a young whipper snapper, Noam just wasn't buying the prevailing theory put forth by those pesky structuralists who said that language was simply learned by listening. Perk up, infants, they said; you can pick up on the sounds of your native language and how you should put them together while sucking on your thumbs.
But Chomksy said: not so fast. There's a lot of explaining to do about how children form sentences they have never heard before—it's actually a pretty amazing thing, if you think about it.
So, in rejecting all of the paths forged before him, he began to argue for a biological basis of language acquisition. And that's how his theory of "generative grammar" was born (see the "Buzzwords" section for more on that can 'o worms).
Lit Crit, Meet Linguist
Chomsky's dedication to understanding linguistics and the human mind actually intersects with his political interests, though he often denies this connection. Why? Well, because both are grounded in the belief that we are born with an innate understanding of language and of morality.
So clearly, the guy's got a lot to say on that whole "nature vs. nurture" debate, which seems to be pretty important to understanding literary texts.
But most importantly, Chomsky is vehemently anti-Structuralism, at least when it comes to syntax. He thinks the idea that all possible sentences in a language can be created or understood just by jamming some pre-learned words together is absurd. Because, then, like, what about sentences that have multiple meanings?
So, dude probably isn't into the whole literary "it's all been said and done before" notion, or that "meanings don't change over time or across cultures" shtick, like Derrida, for example. Even though Noam rarely ever says anything explicitly about literature. And he disagrees with post-Structuralists pretty hardcore on some other points…
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