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Some Points from Chomsky’s Talk at University of Oregon

In the midst of a global economic crisis, at the heart of which lies the second major failure of American capitalism in less than a century, people have begun to question the confident assumptions that constitute the conventional wisdom about the American economic system. After the $144 billion in tax dollars paid in bailouts to some of the richest corporations in the US (most of which have evaded contributing anything in taxes themselves) people must also begin to seriously criticize the ties between corporations and the government. These ties were the focus of a recent talk given by Noam Chomsky at the University of Oregon, entitled “Global Hegemony: The Facts, The Images”. My girlfriend and I made the two-hour drive down to Eugene to catch the talk, but were disappointed to see the four-city-block-long line of people waiting to be admitted. Across campus we could see that the line for overflow seating was no better. No surprise, we didn’t get in, but we stuck it out and were able to listen on the P.A. System that campus security brought out for those of us who were left outside.

Chomsky’s talk drew attention to the way that the economic interests of a small minority of the population, the extremely wealthy, directly steer the way that policy is made in the U.S., which in turn benefits the rich at the cost of working class. Chomsky began with a critical insight of political economist Adam Smith who, over 200 years ago, noted the tendency of free-market practice to compromise democratic values. It was clear in Smith’s time, as it is clear now, that those who control the majority of society’s wealth (those who he referred to as the “master’s of mankind”) will inevitably gain significant control over legislation, too. And they will pursue this end against the interest of the rest of society. These so-called “masters of mankind” are guided by a principle, dubbed by Smith as their “vile maxim”, which, put simply, says: “all for us, nothing for anyone else.” In Smith’s day the “masters of mankind” included merchants and manufacturers. Today it is primarily financial institutions and multinational corporations. But the principle remains the same. The masters of mankind still pursue their “vile maxim,” without regard to the effects it may have on anyone else. Read more…

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Chomsky’s Comin’ to Town!

  Noam Chomsky will be making a few appearances at a couple of the colleges around our area next week. He will be giving a lecture entitled “Prospects for Peace in the Middle East,” at 12 p.m. on Wednesday, April 20, in the Stoller Center gymnasium on Pacific University’s Forest Grove campus.

That same day he will be in Eugene OR, at the University of Oregon to deliver a talk on “Global Hegemony: The Facts, The Images.” The talk will be at 7 p.m. in Columbia 15.

These talks will be free and are open to the public. And you can bet I’ll be there.

On Chomsky’s Linguistics

It must hve been around the end of Summer that a friend of mine lent me a copy of John Lyons’ Noam Chomsky, part of a(n old) series from Penguin press called “the Modern Masters”. Well, it’s now Spring break and seizing the oportuninty, I’ve just begun to dig in. I’ve always been fascinated with Chomsky, and of course, like the rest of us, I was first introduced to him as a political dissident. Lyons’ book, however, is an exhaustive introduction to Chomsky’s contibutions to linguistics (though he does note the likely connection between chomsky’s work in linguistics and his political views). This is a side of Chomsky’s work that I’ve always wanted to get into, but have, for whatever reason, consistently failed to do.

The book is intended to be a kind of primer, to give the reader a basic enough background that she can go on afterward to Chomsky’s works themselves. Lyons begins by spending the first chapter briefly introducing the field of linguistics (the book was published in 1970, and revised in ’77 – bear that in mind). Here, he details a number of principles important to the study of linguistics:

  • Modern linguistics is a science : That is, it employs a method that can be classified as having the traits typically associated with the various sciences. WIth explicit intention to refine the use of this term in later chapters, Lyons tentatively explains that “a scientific description is one that is carried out systematically on the basis of objectively verifiable observations and within the framework of some general theory appropriate to the data.” This later point, about a general theory, seems to me to be a crucial one. Traditional grammarians were never concerned with offering an explanatory theory of language (in either it’s use, or in it’s acquisition).
  • Linguistics is autonomous from other disciplines : Though there is much connection and interrelatedness between linguistics and other studies such as psychology, philosophy, literary theory etc., nevertheless linguistics, as a science in it’s own right, performs it’s own unique tasks and asks unique questions about language.
  • Linguists maintain that spoken language is “primary” : Most linguists (at least at the time of the book’s publication) regard the range of sounds that can be produced by the “speech-organs”, is the medium in which language is embodied, and that written languages are constructed (if at all) by transfering speech to a secondary visual medium.
  • Syntax, semantics, and phonology are necessary features of the grammar of any language.
  • A linguistic theory should account for the “creativity” of human language : By “creativity” (or alternately “open-endedness”) Lyons means “the capacity that all speakers of a lnaguage have to produce and understand an indefinitely large number of sentences that they have never heard before and that may indeed have never been uttered before by anyone.”

The following chapter sketches a concise layout of the development of linguistics, up to Chomsky. Lyons offers an account of the various strands and scools within linguistics that have had important influence on Chomsky’s own revolutionary theories. In particular, he discusses the work of Franz Boas, and especially of Leonard Bloomfield, who’s thought (via Zellig Harris) was the tradition in which Chomsky was trained, but which he later came to reject.

To be continued…