generative grammar


Chicago, Friday, February 7, 2003


In Power and terror: Noam Chomsky in our times, the Japanese video documentary (2002, 74 min.) that has just been released in movie-theaters in the U.S., the viewer might wonder at what makes Chomsky (now 74) so upbeat about a seemingly hopeless topic. The salvation, which will only partially satisfy the viewer’s curiosity, came when very accidentally Chomsky was asked on the relationship between his work in linguistics and as a pacifist. The question was first posed by members of an audience at Berkeley where Chomsky has been frequently lecturing in the wake of 9/11. Chomsky immediately replied that “that’s the easiest question I got for the evening: there’s absolutely no relationship between my linguistics and pacifism.” Later, in the quietness of his MIT office, Chomsky looks at the same question from a different angle. He still reiterated the no-relation theory, but there might be, however, a non-deductive relationship. In effect, Chomsky’s linguistics looks at language in terms of its innate and natural characteristics. Thus, unlike those who have argued that language is primarily acquired through custom and habit (Wittgenstein), or through a subjective interactionism that varies historically and geographically (Habermas), Chomsky has an “inside-the-brain” theory of language, one where an innate “generative grammar” structures speech and teaches us the meaning of words even without being aware of that process of nature. Similarly, notices Chomsky in his office interview, the ability to come with a moral choice is also inherently rooted in some innate desire to produce the “good.” There is thus, so to speak, a generative morality out there. Chomsky would argue that even if people use language in various ways, write differently, and for the most part are unable to grasp the grammatical rules correctly, we’re still all able to distinguish between “red” and “green” from natural innate capabilities. But on what basis do people agree on a moral principle? And should our actions be rooted in a moral system?


Chomsky’s crusade against evil is certainly rooted in a moral system of his own making, whether it’s an outcome of some innate behavior or social praxis. For that reason, Chomsky’s political views, which he rehearses ad nauseam for every public, are, indeed, very Christian. For one thing, even a casual glance at Chomsky’s numerous political books, pamphlets, videos, speeches and media interventions, only points to a meticulous database of the horrors of humanity (albeit mostly limited to modern times), but without any attempt to contextualize any event in a meaningful way in its historical unfolding. Take for instance Chomsky’s take at Churchill whom he condescendingly only mentions once in the 74-minute video: instead of the great Churchill that everyone admires, we’re reminded of a Churchill working for the foreign office in the 1915-16 period and begging his supervisors to bomb the Kurds and nomads (whom he dubbed as “Arabs”) with poisonous gas, whose technology the British had just mastered, because they’ve become such a nuisance to the progress of the British army in Mesopotamia. Such a reminder, however, comes along a fairly long laundry list of 20th-century horrors: the million or so Vietnamese casualties, Nicaragua, Panama, the 1982 Israeli war in Lebanon, etc. Chomsky might be right that American imperialism has picked up from where British colonialism had left half a century ago, but by avoiding to explain the modus operandi of colonialism, looks at colonialism and imperialism as inherently bad and damaging all by themselves. Moreover, it does seem that with Chomsky colonialism begins with the British and French somewhere in the 18th-19th century, as if the Romans, Arabs, Mongols and Ottomans (not to mention Venice and Genoa) never existed and never extended their reach to other societies far different from their own.


If we were to take Chomsky for granted, the problem then becomes one of understanding the rationale behind all those atrocities, which he naively limits to the past century. Indeed, human history would altogether look absurd and mindless, if not inherently evil, if we were to confine it to a laundry list of massacres without the events that led to the latter. Moreover, individuals, groups and armies do not simply massacre for the sheer pleasure of killing, in particular that they’ll have to deal with their enemies whether the latter have been defeated or not. A meaningful world history would therefore have to account for that incessant need to dominate and colonize that was predominant to various societies and civilizations since the Greeks and Romans, if not before. Empire formations became the norm as a way to subdue scattered societal formations based on Nomadism and tribalism, even though imperial bureaucracies never managed to fully control them. Moreover, empires only survived by opening vast geographic areas to one another and subjecting them to an imperial center and various taxes, rents, and surtaxes. Empires thus persevered through various trade and manufacturing networks—the prerequisites to modern world-system economies. There is therefore a logic behind conquests, subjugation and colonialism, one that brings the Romans close to the Mongols and Ottomans, even though each imperial bureaucracy survived through its own modus operandi.


British and French colonialisms of the 18th and 19th centuries were therefore no different from their predecessors and probably even shared a close affiliation with the system of “colonies” established by Venice and Genoa between 1450 and 1650 (Braudel’s prosperous long sixteenth century). What was, however, unique to the British and French was an awareness, in a period of consolidation of capitalism, of a world-market with privileged centers of production and exchange, and where the nation-state has become the normative political model. It is no accident that modern European colonialism begins in the eighteenth century and comes to an end in 1914-18. Europe was on the defensive ever since the Muslim conquests controlled the Mediterranean in the seventh and eighth centuries, and only the defeat of the Ottomans in Vienna in 1683 (September 11—a date that Bin Laden must have remembered) brought that process to a halt.


Chomsky is therefore right in assuming that American imperialism is in continuum with its British and French predecessors. But does that make it illegitimate? Can the U.S. survive without such an overtly imperialistic role?




copyright © 2003 zouhair ghazzal