Chomsky: postmodernism is ‘very convenient’

In this 5 minute video from 2015 Chomsky sums up postmodernism and what purpose it serves. The transcript is below:

Question: Are the trends you have been talking about in US universities, do you think they are responsible for a lot of what is coming out about the academic collapse, namely postmodernism? Do you think that has a particular place in the doctrinal system, namely people wanting to be subversive but not rock the boat, or do you think there is some other explanation for that?

Chomsky: Well you know individuals have their own reasons, you have to look and ask why they are doing this. But if you look at the phenomena as a whole I think the effect is pretty clear. It allows people to take a very radical stance, you know, more radical than thou, but to be completely dissociated from anything that is happening for many reasons.

One reason is that nobody can understand a word they are saying. So they are already dissociating. It’s kind of like a private lingo and there’s a lot of material reward that comes from it. If you are part of that system you can run around the conferences and get professorships and all that kind of stuff. So there’s a lot of conventional material reward and it has this very radical look to it.

Let me just give you an example: I gave a talk last Saturday at Birzeit University the Palestinian university of the West Bank, and like everywhere it was a big mass audience, lots of political talk, mostly criticising the Palestinian Authority because you always tell people what they don’t want to hear. When I criticise Israel I do it on the other side of the border. Most of the audience were very supportive and they liked it and they understood it. The guys with the jackets and ties were pretty angry, but that’s normal. However, as I left with an Arab friend of mine who organised it – actually he’s an Israeli Arab who is a member of the Knesset the Israeli parliament but an old kinda good guy – he said most of the young people liked it a lot but he heard one really critical comment from a young woman and faculty member who liked the general thrust of it but told him it was very naive.

I asked why was it “naive”, and he laughed and said [paraphrasing the young woman] it’s because you said that people do things on moral grounds and you talked about truth, and “that’s old-fashioned nonsense. That’s kinda old Enlightenment stuff”.

I talked about how apartheid was overthrown and how it was necessary to have splits inside the white society – which there were, had the white society been unified they would have smashed the ANC – but there were splits from the inside and basically, on moral grounds, people didn’t want to tolerate it and that was quite important and so we had talked about that. “No, that’s naive because nobody does anything on moral grounds, it’s all power plays, you know read Foucault” and so on and so forth – if you can understand it! And truth is like an “old fashioned concept, there’s no truth”, and so on and so forth. Yeah that stuff goes on all over.

The next day I gave a talk at an Israeli university and then it was critical of Israel and the United States. I didn’t talk about the Palestinians, and there were commentators and one of them was the Dean. He hated it of course – a historian – and he also said it was naive because I was talking as if there is an objectivity in history. I was running through the history of what happened and saying how you should interpret what is going on now in those terms. [The Dean said] “That’s completely naive, everyone knows there is no objectivity and there’s no truth, and it’s this narrative and that narrative”, and so on and so forth.

That’s very convenient. It sounds very radical and it’s extremely convenient. You can beat people over the head with perfect self-confidence because there is no reality anyway. And it’s just their narrative and your narrative. In the third world it is particularly grotesque. It’s bad enough here, I don’t like it here or other rich countries, but when you get to third world countries it is really grotesque. There the separation of the radical intelligentsia from popular struggle shows much more dramatically. People are much poorer and suffering much more and these guys are quite rich very often and it’s ugly.

But I think it has served a function. I don’t want to say that the people who are involved in it necessarily do it for this reason, in fact I know extremely good people who are very active and I respect and like who are right in this stuff, I don’t know why, but it means something to them. But as a general phenomena it has worked as a way of insulating sectors of a kind of radical intelligentsia from popular movements rather than actual activism and it served as an instrument of power. I suspect that’s the reason why it is so readily tolerated in the universities. It’s all over the place. In the third world as well because of the function it serves.