Gondry, Chomsky, and the Zionist Problem

From Michel Gondry's animated conversation with Noam Chomsky. (Youtube)

By Jamil Khader

On the eve of the sixty sixth anniversary of the Palestinian Nakbah (May 14th), the Franco-German Cultural Center in Ramallah screened the French director Michel Gondry’s film, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? in the presence of the director himself. In this “animated conversation,” the internationally renowned director, whose credits include such whimsical fantasies as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, tries to come to terms with the linguistic theories that catapulted the American linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky to international academic fame.

The film has been well received, with critics raving about its stunning and wildly imaginative visual illustrations of Chomsky’s theories of the emergence of language. The film’s title is a subtle reference to a question Chomsky asks about the linguistic hard-wiring that allows a child instinctually to choose the correct auxiliary verb in the sentence, “the man who is tall is happy,” in order to form an interrogative statement— according to Chomsky, it is the structural proximity rather than the linear one that makes a difference.

More importantly, the film is unique for the light it sheds on the process of artistic production–its emotional investment, intellectual hesitations, and procedural challenges. With the nervousness of a groupie in the presence of his idol, his limited English, and his struggle with formal choices, Gondry produces a new text that tests the boundaries of the documentary genre and its realist assumptions, by making as he says the effects of edits more transparent.  

A week before this screening, I had attended the launch of the post-Zionist historian Ilan Pappé’s new book, The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge. In that event, Pappé mentioned that he was collaborating on a project or two with Chomsky; for Pappé’s frustration, the linguist’s unshakable belief in cultural Zionism seemed to be a major stumbling block in their work. I had naively thought that this film might offer some plausible explanation for Chomsky’s position on Zionism, but the answers were to be found only between the lines.

Gondry and the Depoliticization of Linguistics

Gondry’s film does not only fail to address the question of Zionism in Chomsky’s life and work in any significant and critical way. It also refuses to engage what has been dubbed as the “Chomsky problem”—that is, the obvious disconnect between Chomsky’s conservative, even reactionary, linguistic theories and his radical, anarchist politics. Ironically, Chomsky was voted in 2005 as the world’s top public intellectual on account of his linguistic theories and his outspoken criticism of US foreign policy.

Chomsky himself does not view these two areas of his work as mutually implicated. In an interview published in Chronicles of Dissent in 1992, Chomsky was asked specifically about the ways in which his linguistic theories have informed his politics. In his straightforward manner, he responds, “I suspect very little,” describing the connection between the two as a “loose connection” at best. He then volunteers two possible hypotheses, one methodological and the other philosophical to explain any putative connection. At the methodological level, Chomsky intimates that as a scientific field linguistics is grounded in “evidence and argument and rationality” and these might be applied to his political analyses. At the philosophical level, Chomsky surmises that both domains of inquiry share “at some very deep and abstract level, some sort of common core conception of human nature and the human drive for freedom and the right to be free of external coercion and control.”

Nonetheless, Chomsky’s belief in a hard-wired “Universal Grammar,” as one critic correctly points out, can be used to suggest that “certain modes of social organization are natural and immutable.” Moreover, his faith in the methodological principles of empirical science can obfuscate the “cultural and political prejudices” of the researcher before entering the laboratory. And finally, Chomsky papers over the historical and conceptual links between natural sciences and political economy especially, the way they were put in the service of Western colonialism.

In Gondry’s film, this disconnect in Chomsky’s work is refracted in the contradiction between the film’s form and the content. That is, the clearly political choice that Gondry makes in subverting the parameters of realism of the documentary genre is definitely incompatible with his intentional erasure of Chomskian politics. Gondry might be a brilliant, even revolutionary, filmmaker, but the dazzling magic of his images eventually obscures the political implications of Chomsky’s empiricist approach to both linguistics and politics and their consequences for the struggle for freedom and equality under the hegemony of global capitalism.

The French Connection: Rehumanizing Chomsky

At one point in the film, Chomsky reminisces about his childhood experiences with anti-Semitism in Philadelphia. This segues into a discussion of the Holocaust, which Chomsky brilliantly turns around to talk about the Holocaust of the Roma in France. The clearly uncomfortable Gondry abruptly interrupts his idol, asking him instead about his happy childhood memories. It is not exactly clear whether this discomfort can be attributed to Chomsky’s critique of French policies or to his unflinching extensions of the Holocaust to other ongoing genocides around the world, in a way that explodes the mythic status of the Holocaust as unique and exceptional and the Jews as the “ultimate victim” in world history as it has been exploited in Zionist hasbara propaganda.

In the discussion that ensued with Gondry after the film, it became clear that these issues are intrinsically interconnected. Gondry explained his rationale for the film as an attempt to clear space for Chomsky to be heard again in France after the 1979 Faurisson affair. In that case, Chomsky defended the freedom of expression of a holocaust denier, despite his disagreement with him.

The French reaction to Chomsky’s role in the Faurisson affair left an indelibly adverse effect on Chomsky, tainting him forever as a Nazi sympathizer.  As Robert F. Barsky shows in Noam Chomsky, A Life of Dissent (The MIT Press, 1997), Chomsky was completely excluded from public discourse and the media in France, to the extent that Chomsky’s rebuttals to articles implicating him in the affair that appeared in major French periodicals were not published. Gondry’s goal, therefore, was to rehabilitate Chomsky’s image and re-humanize him in the eyes of his antagonistic French audience. Gondry must have missed the irony of the situation, in which a Jew must be humanized for a European audience who is allegedly allergic to holocaust denial.

Regardless, to Gondry’s Palestinian audience, the absence of any framing or contextualization of the holocaust precisely in relation to the ongoing Palestinian Nakbah can be an unforgivable omission. Ultimately, as Chomsky himself has admitted on different occasions, the Holocaust has been exploited by Zionist hasbara imagineers to silence any critique of the current ethnic cleansing policies of the Israeli apartheid state and its Zionist settler-colonial project all over historic Palestine.

Chomsky’s Fantasmatic Attachment: Žižek’s Missed Rejoinder

In response to one of Gondry’s questions in the film, Chomsky makes it clear that his interest in languages could be traced back to his father’s involvement in the revival of Hebrew culture. However, Gondry does not press Chomsky at all on this connection, covert or overt, between his interest in linguistics and his affiliation to cultural Zionism, a political ideology “that had its origins in the ideas of people like Ahad Ha’am, but increasingly, in mainstream Zionism.

In response to the writer’s question about Chomsky’s ideological commitment to Zionism, the baffled Gondry reiterated the point about Chomsky’s scathing critique of Israeli policies and their intention to donate all funds raised from the film’s screenings to Gaza’s children. One could have gone even further, noting, for example, that Chomsky was denied entry to the occupied West Bank from Jordan in 2010, and that he has long been labeled a “self-hating Jew.” Gondry, nevertheless, seems oblivious to the structural relationship between Chomsky’s critique of Israeli policies and his ideological commitment to cultural Zionism—in the end, the former is the obverse side of the latter.

At one level, Chomsky fails to interrogate the nexus of power and knowledge in the case of Zionism. He simply splits the cultural dimensions of Zionism from its intrinsic colonial history, by ignoring the important role, to repeat Edward Said’s main argument in Orientalism, that culture plays in creating, sustaining, and perpetuating the political interests that hegemonic systems of power have in their object—in this case, the Zionist colonization of Palestine. At the same time, and despite his objection to the creation of a Jewish state in his youth, Chomsky’s faith in cultural Zionism could not be maintained without a strong political structure like a Jewish state that can support and reinforce it.

Furthermore, Chomsky is adamant in his refusal to admit to the violent history of the Zionist movement as a part and parcel of the Western imperialist and settler-colonial project in Palestine. No wonder, Chomsky tends to mystify the colonial realities and history in Palestine, by describing the struggle for justice in Palestine as a conflict between the indigenous population and the immigrants and their descendants.”  Indeed, in his youth, Chomsky belonged to leftwing Zionist movements such as Hashomer Hatzair, which promoted “Jewish emigration” to Palestine as a plausible solution to Western histories of anti-Semitism, and he even served a six-week stint on a kibbutz.

Chomsky obviously sees no inherent contradiction between his adherence to a socialist vision of a binationalist state and the Zionist de facto project of colonization, anti-Palestinian racism, and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Unsurprisingly, after 1974 Chomsky ended up endorsing a two-state solution over a binational state in the name of realism and pragmatism.

To this extent, Chomsky’s position is characteristic of what Noah Cohen refers to as the genre of “left apologetics for injustice in Palestine.” These arguments, Cohen convincingly demonstrates, rest on two assumptions: first, the Zionist settler-colonial project is an exceptional case in the history of Western imperialism, predicated upon the pre-ontological myth of the Jews as the “ultimate victim” of history. Second, the call for dismantling the Zionist settler-colonial project is unrealistic, since the geopolitical power imbalance between the occupier and the occupied can only put the latter at a disadvantage. As Cohen puts it, “The first is a tortured attempt to meet arguments about justice; the second is an attempt to make them moot by arguments about realism.” (The same rhetorical exercise was recently performed by Seyla Benhabib in her review of Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism; the esteemed reviewer does not believe that “we will get very far by repeating the formula that ‘Zionism is a form of settler colonialism.’”)

More importantly, as the film shows in these anecdotes about childhood memories, Chomsky clearly has a primordial libidinal attachment to cultural Zionism.Indeed, Zionism occupies a fantasmatic position in Chomsky’s work and life—it is, to put in Slavoj Žižek’s words, the repressed truth that supports his desire, the fantasmatic object through which he organizes his enjoyment. In other words, Zionism constitutes Chomsky’s objet petit a, the mysterious and incomprehensible object of desire that structures his fantasy and forever organizes his enjoyment, but whose cause remains elusive. In this sense, it would be impossible for Chomsky to accept Zionism in reality, although his “entire psychic life turns around it.” Hence, Chomsky can affect a critique of the Israeli apartheid state, but will never be able to get closer to the cause of his desire namely, Zionism, and renounce it. (I remain surprised that in the exchange between Chomsky and Žižek,the latter did not engage this fantasmatic position of Zionism in Chomsky’s thought.)

In a gesture not devoid of ideological cynicism, Chomsky could only claim that his Zionism is best understood in terms of what is referred to today as “anti-Zionism,” a position that reduces the struggle against Zionist settler-colonialism to political activism against the totalitarian policies of the apartheid Israeli state. The answer, in his opinion, is simply a linguistic shift in the definition and meaning of Zionism, not in the structural continuities in the Zionist ideology.

Grammar of Capital: Rearticulating the Link between Linguistics and Politics

In his discussion of the “Chomsky problem,” David Hawkes correctly argues that the most important link between Chomsky’s linguistic theories and his politics is his mystification of the nature of capitalism today. For Chomsky, as Hawkes writes, capitalism is a “virtual Senate” and a “de facto world government,” in which human subjects have now been reduced to the condition of “virtually universal slavery.” With the rise of the global capitalist system, Chomsky surmises, workers have been integrated into wage labor, renting their time (life) and labor in exchange for an abstract commodity—money itself has become an autonomous power in its ability to reproduce. As such, workers have become alienated from themselves, and have assumed the position of the object. Chomsky thus states that capitalism is “the name we give to the process of our own objectification.”

On the one hand, Hawkes writes, Chomsky’s politics is premised on the argument that “capital acts as an independent agent, insinuating itself into the human mind and systematically perverting it.” On the other, Chomsky’s linguistics theory is predicated on the assumption that human beings are objects, “that our thoughts are produced by the material brain, and that biology holds the key to our nature.” However, this objectification, Hawkes maintains, is the result of capitalist market processes rather than its cause. The problem with Chomsky, as Hawkes points out, is that despite his insightful critique of capitalism in his political work, “he does not acknowledge that it is also the ideological precondition of the method he practices in his science.”

Earlier in his career, Chomsky believed that a significant portion of [Palestine’s] poor and oppressed population” could be united “on the basis of socialist principles.” Chomsky can begin to live up to his radical, utopian vision of freedom and equality, only when he traverses his Zionist fantasy and begins to see Zionism as the colonial-settler project it is within the global capitalist frame that sustains it. To put it gently, Chomsky will not be able to express genuine solidarity with the Palestinians and support a radical solution to their plight, until he reaches full realization that he has nothing to lose; as long as he thinks that a binational state endangers the meaning of Jewish cultural identity and its distinctiveness, no genuine identification with the radical Other is possible. But this is a project for another radical film.

– Dr. Jamil Khader is Professor of English and the Director of the Gender Studies Program at Stetson University. He is the author of numerous articles on postcolonial feminism, popular culture, and literary theory. He is also the author of Cartographies of Transnationalism in Postcolonial Feminisms: Geography, Culture, Identity, Politics (Lexington Books 2012) and the co-editor, with Molly Rothenberg, of a collection of essays on the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, entitled, Žižek Now: Current Perspectives in Žižek Studies (Polity 2013). His political commentary has been featured on Aljazeera in English, Jadaliyya, The Palestine Chronicle, and other venues. He is currently completing a year-long Fulbright Fellowship at Bir Zeit University, Palestine. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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1 Comment

  1. This colonialist definition of the issue leads nowhere and is passe. There is a reality and a problem and if your view is one of rejecting reality by calling Israel a colonial project, then that is frankly off the planet in this day and age.

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