Action and-or talk-talk

by Yule Heibel on August 31, 2003

Both The River and Wood’s Lot point to a couple of interesting Noam Chomsky links. One is on the Interactivist Info Exchange, in which, among other things, Chomsky addresses the following question: “When you talk about the role of intellectuals you say that the first duty is to concentrate on your own country. Could you explain this assertion?” The other is an article by Arundhati Roy in The Hindu, The loneliness of Noam Chomsky, which shines a light on what it means to cultivate awareness of how public opinion in “free market” democracies is manufactured just like any other mass market product. In the Interactivist article, Chomsky reiterates the argument that jargon-y, complex speech, which makes the ideas presented opaque and difficult for the non-specialized reader, is typical of power-critiquing theory produced by theorists who remain ensconced in power structures and institutions. Ok, let me simplify that sentence: if you have something critical to say, do so in a language that non-specialists can understand. If you do it a language that only post-graduate specialists within the ivory tower “get,” you’ve cut yourself off from the base — the people — that might put your critique into action, and instead kept it at the level of theory-only, and you have thereby restricted your critique to an ivory tower ghetto. Ok? Foucault might be very complicated and have some interesting things to say, but if you have to study deconstructionist theory at the graduate level for 3 years before you get it, what exactly is being reinforced here? If you answered “the power of the institution which disseminates that specialised knowledge,” you move to the head of the deconstructed class. “But, but, but….,” you stammer, “But I want to be in the embrace of power so that I may feel powerful myself, because if I leave the institution, I am bereft of power…. I will be afraid….” Exactly. This is another one of Chomsky’s points: too many people are afraid, and the feeling of fear — a subjective one — contributes to the objective growth of fascism in democracies where liberalized capital calls the tune. Here, listen: “People in the United States work really hard, much harder than any other advanced industrial society, and this causes a lot of stress. People are always concerned about their work and they live in fear. Although there is a lot of crime in the United States, it is approximately the same as comparable societies, but fear of crime is far higher. In many ways, this is the most frightened nation in the world!” Part of the fear (fear of losing your job, fear of being excluded, fear of poverty, fear of crime, fear of others) comes from economic insecurity, and from the disconnect we feel in the face of lost democracy. We all know, intuitively and concretely, that what Chomsky and others have called the virtual senate, that is, international organizations and treaties like the IMF, trade agreements, world banks, copyright laws, mass media, and so forth, that these virtual entities, unelected and not representative of any populace, permeate our lives as surely and perhaps even more exactingly than the laws made by the people we elected to serve us. A long time ago, the critique coursing through the institutions was “who may speak?” — to pose the question was an act of criticism that could actually lead to consequences. Women weren’t allowed to speak, children weren’t allowed to speak, minorities weren’t allowed to speak: simply pointing out that this was a social construct, vs. a “natural” state of affairs, was to poke at power structures. But while speech has by and large been set free, action is increasingly restricted. Sure, let those others talk, but let’s hope the hell they don’t get to act — we’re afraid they’ll make a mess of it. Hence, keep the jargon; remember, the masses are revolting. I guess I’m pissed off because I read the Arundhati Roy article and I’m reminded of Adorno, who was an ivory tower jargon specialist par excellence, but who — along with Horkheimer & the rest of the Frankfurt School — had already nailed so much of this in the late 1930s and 40s when European fascism learned to throw its weight around. How can it be, I wonder, that we’re at such a congruent turning point again? Here’s Roy: “Today, thanks to Noam Chomsky and his fellow media analysts, it is almost axiomatic for thousands, possibly millions, of us that public opinion in ‘free market’ democracies is manufactured just like any other mass market product — soap, switches, or sliced bread. We know that while, legally and constitutionally, speech may be free, the space in which that freedom can be exercised has been snatched from us and auctioned to the highest bidders. Neoliberal capitalism isn’t just about the accumulation of capital (for some). It’s also about the accumulation of power (for some), the accumulation of freedom (for some). Conversely, for the rest of the world, the people who are excluded from neoliberalism’s governing body, it’s about the erosion of capital, the erosion of power, the erosion of freedom. In the ‘free’ market, free speech has become a commodity like everything else — justice, human rights, drinking water, clean air. It’s available only to those who can afford it. And naturally, those who can afford it use free speech to manufacture the kind of product, confect the kind of public opinion, that best suits their purpose. (News they can use.)” Adorno and Horkheimer said pretty much the same thing 60 years ago. And then Adorno busily retreated into academia’s ivory tower. He never did like the rabble who might implement his critique, and the rowdy students of ’68 pretty much killed him (they, and all the female students who exposed him by exposing themselves at the infamous final lecture). Sometimes I think fascism has gotten much worse than it was. After all, we have technologies and pharmaceuticals today that allow us to alter our inner structure as radically as the outer. If my job, for example, is unreasonably stressful, if I’m killing myself trying to live up to the American dream of having it all (you know, career and kids, beautiful home, 24-hour shopping, work-out time, private time, friends time, quality time, fantastic sex, true love, success, success, success in measurable amounts, puh-lease because you sure don’t want to be called a loser, which is the worst thing of all, because winning is even more important than telling the truth), and it’s depressing me because my body is trying to stop me, well, hey, if that happens, I can, instead of retreating and reassessing, or becoming a functional drunk, or beating my kids (options previously available to the elites and the masses alike), I can take medication so I can keep going. Not because I’m mentally ill, but to quell the protest in my bones. That takes fascism to a whole new level, namely the level of the dream.


Joel September 1, 2003 at 6:38 am

There’s a sadly funny passage in one of Richard Feynmann’s books where he describes being invited to a sociologist’s conference. After listening to a few people drone on in jargon, he said “OK, so what you are saying is that people hang out with other people because they like each other.”

Oh yes. That’s right. Explication rattled off in jargon.

“So why don’t you just say that?”

Oh….explanation rattled off in more jargon.

I think your take is right. Academics have seized a piece of the pie and God forbid that anyone discover that the things they talk about can be discussed by anybody in simple English!

I find it interesting that, in our own ways, we’ve pretty much talked about the same things these last twenty four hours and expressed similar concerns. Except I talk about how the “little people” of the web are out for their share of power and how threatened they are by people like me who say “Hey, just do!”

Joel September 1, 2003 at 6:48 am

Incidentally, I am an authentic major depressive. Having lived in this state most of my life, I must agree with you that there are far more depressives than there should be.

Yule Heibel September 2, 2003 at 12:30 am

Hi Joel, I’m glad that you’re not offended by my suggestion that pharmaceutical intervention can be either overused or abused, because I know you’re in the trenches and have an upclose and personal perspective. There’s nothing I can say about mental illness that won’t sound like a cliche, since the only thing I’ve ever experienced was fairly significant depression (in myself, which was alleviated by a lifestyle change). I had a mother who was pathologically depressed, who may have been manic at some point earlier — and who should have had a lifestyle change, or at least for my benefit (!!??) been given medication; but a lifestyle change would have worked similar wonders. I know people — friends — who need medication to stay safe. That’s significant: if they’re not safe, they might harm others. I won’t talk about harming yourself, because that can take so many forms as to look “normal”: have another drink, go on another shopping binge, scream & rage, the list goes on. Endless hits. Sometimes literally. That gets into harming others, of course. I knew a child who hated his parents (bad boy! bad-bad-bad-bad-bad boy!!!), and his parents, within a 15-minute first-time consultation with a psychiatrist, accepted a diagnosis of bipolar syndrome, and subsequently medicated their little boy into zombie status (seriously: it was terrible to see the change). They moved away and I don’t know how things developed subsequently. But who can tell me whether that 8-year-old boy really was bipolar and needed his meds to keep the pathways from burning too deeply into his brain permanently, or whether his parents were overly controlling? Maybe they did the right thing, but for everyone of him, there are 20 who get Ritalin or something else like that to get them to shut the fuck up.

I’ll go on record to say that I think medication gets overused to quell what could be protest. There’s pressure to adapt, and sometimes (temporary) depression or mental illness is a symptom to say, “this is bullshit. This isn’t worth adapting to.” And if medication is given at this point to help in the “adaptation,” there’s a problem. The point is, I suppose, that it’s a really tough call, and has to be worked out on a case-by-case individual basis.

As to Feynman, he’s the best, isn’t he? Cuts through the crap, zoom!

Now, I’ve just gone online for the first time in 24 hours, so I must check out your blog and read about the little people. (I always think of fairies, elves, and the like, but that’s a different story….)

Traveling Europe October 28, 2005 at 8:40 am

Traveling Wilburies

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: