U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Chomsky: Gateway Drug

ChomskyReading about the death of publishing giant André Schiffrin, the longtime editor in chief at Pantheon Books who also founded the New Press, led me to reflect on the importance of books in my life. Without independent-minded publishers like Schiffrin, who was willing to lose money in order to publish books he deemed important, would I have become an academic? It’s a serious question.

Two of the books Schiffrin published at Pantheon were crucial to my early intellectual development: The Chomsky Reader (1987) and Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). These books, and Noam Chomsky in general, taught me how to read texts through a critical lens, and how to recognize the biases of the politically powerful in even the most seemingly of objective expressions. Even though I have since come to different understandings of power and knowledge—even though, for example, I see the merits in Foucault, whom Chomsky famously debated in 1971—Chomsky was my gateway drug to a hermeneutics of suspicion.

My guess is that Chomsky started many people down similar paths. Which is why a publisher like Schiffrin was so crucial. It’s also why we as U.S. intellectual historians should take Chomsky more seriously. John Summers, who publishers The Baffler, wrote a 2005 piece titled, “Chomsky and Academic History.” It begins:

Noam Chomsky has written more than 30 books over the last three decades. Yet neither the Journal of American History, nor the American Historical Review, nor Reviews in American History has reviewed them. If the journals had overlooked one or two of Chomsky’s books, then the omissions might not rise to the status of a problem, and could be attributed to a combination of reasons each of them incidental to Chomsky himself. If the journals had in fact devoted attention to him, but the preponderance of the attention had been hostile, then they might stand accused of harboring a bias. This is the most respectable way to disagree about such matters. But the journals have not done enough to deserve the accusation. They have not reviewed a single one of his books. Chomsky is one of most widely read political intellectuals in the world. Academic history pretends he does not exist.

If a recent piece on Chomsky, “American Anarchist,” is any indication, The American Conservative seems to take Chomsky more seriously than academic historians. I would like this to change. I would love to see intellectual historians take up Chomsky as a subject worthy of our attention.

My 2 questions to readers:

1) Why don’t we study Chomsky? (And implicit in that question: should we?)

2) Which writers/books were your gateway drugs to the Life of the Mind?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. My guesses as to why Chomsky hasn’t been studied:

    (a) the general neglect of the study of intellectuals by mainstream history journals;
    (b) the trend toward studying the history of The Right, in recent years, by historians who do intellectual history; and
    (c) a likely perception by some liberal progressive academics that Chomsky’s works for popular audiences have placed him in the ever-despised category of ‘the middlebrow’ (i.e. the middlebrow left).

    Of these three options, I think (b) and (c) are the most likely causes for neglect.

    As for my gateway drugs to “the life of the mind,” why it was M.J. Adler and the great books idea, of course! – TL

    • One possible reason there has been less work on Chomsky than there might be:
      He is not simply an intellectual with policy views. Serious intellectual history on his ideas should grapple with the relationship between how he thinks about politics, how he thinks about humanity, and his leadership in the fields of linguistics and cognitive science

      Chomsky’s access to the pages of the NY Review of Books quite possibly has something to do with his status as a scientist. Also the critiques of policy makers he made in 1967 about “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” echoed his criticisms made over the previous decade of his scientific foes.

  2. Well, Chomsky isn’t an historian, so I’m not sure why his books should be reviewed in historical journals. It’s like asking why journals of communications or media studies aren’t reviewing Eric Foner. I would think that the reason Chomsky has not emerged as an object of historical analysis is that he remains a contemporary figure. For what it’s worth, his essay on the responsibilities of intellectuals was included in at least one iteration of Hollinger and Capper as a primary document.

    Question 2: I had no gateway drug–I went immediately for the hard stuff! I have been lounging in the opium dens of academia ever since…

  3. Dan: Good point about Chomsky not being an historian, but plenty of non-historians of lesser fame get reviewed in the historical journals.

    Everyone else, the debate on this post is at the S-USIH facebook page, so check that out if you’re interested.

  4. As Summers notes: “Could it be that Chomsky is left out because he does not qualify as a professional historian? The journals have reviewed such nonhistorians as Robert Bellah, Randall Collins, Michel Foucault, Clifford Geertz, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Seymour Martin Lipset, Richard Rorty, Edward Said, Garry Wills, and John Updike because the books in question show a strong historical component, or contain implications for historiography.”

  5. Chomsky is one of most widely read political intellectuals in the world. Academic history pretends he does not exist.

    My guess is that the mainstream left keeps him hidden from public view like a crazy uncle. He’d give away the game. 😉

    If a recent piece on Chomsky, “American Anarchist,” is any indication, The American Conservative seems to take Chomsky more seriously than academic historians.

    I find the academic left [but I repeat myself] takes Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative more seriously than do actual conservatives. In fact, that MSNBC featured the right’s crazy uncle Pat rather than the left’s Uncle Noam was no accident, IMO–although I would think their viewership would enjoy unalloyed Chomsky even more than they enjoyed Buchanan consistently embarrassing the mainstream right [either by bashing Bush or by coming off like a crypto-Nazi homo- Islamo- xeno- gynophobe].

    IOW, as usual, I agree with Andrew completely–I’d love to see more Chomsky. Let me know where to sign the petition.

  6. In 1969, Jesse Lemisch presented a paper entitled “Present Mindedness Revisited: Anti-Radicalism as a Goal of American Historical Writing Since World War II.” Although the names have changed, his critique is just as relevant to scholarship as practiced today as it was then.

    My gateway drug was Douglass Adair’s fine 1943 dissertation, “The Intellectual Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy: Republicanism, the Class Struggle, and the Virtuous Farmer.”

Comments are closed.