Wine and Chomsky Party 

Vandy scholar dissects an icon of dissent

Last year, when book promoter Ginna Foster began Evening with an Author—a series of appearances by local writers in art galleries around town, with wine provided—she focused on gentle lit chat, bringing in talents such as Darnell Arnoult and Blas Falconer to discuss their art. Attendees at this month’s event will find a more political crowd sipping the free wine when Vanderbilt professor Robert Barsky shows up to talk about The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower (MIT Press, 381 pp., $29.95). This is Barsky’s second book on Noam Chomsky, the brilliant linguist and relentless critic of American empire. His first, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, was a straightforward account of the man’s five decades as an intellectual gadfly. In The Chomsky Effect, Barsky looks at the way Chomskian ideas have taken hold in popular culture as well as academia.

The book opens with the doubtful assertion that “Noam Chomsky is one of the most recognized names of our time.” While it’s true that the readers of Foreign Policy and the British journal Prospect voted him “the most important public intellectual in the world” in 2005, these are not exactly mass circulation titles. As Barsky himself notes, Chomsky sightings are rare in the mainstream media, and even diligent consumers of The New York Times and National Public Radio might be forgiven for having only a vague idea of who he is. In the alternative media and on the Internet, however, he is unquestionably a star, revered and reviled in equal measure. A broad chunk of the left/liberal world can’t get enough of his lacerating critiques of American imperialism and capitalist excess, while folks from the center rightward think his analysis is, in the words of Jeff Greenfield, “from Neptune.”

Chomsky is indeed a radical, an anarchist in the truest since of the word. As Barsky writes, Chomsky “does not prescribe a formula for appropriate behavior or accurate thinking beyond, say, paying attention and not succumbing to authority”—a philosophy that has endeared him to punks and peaceniks alike. Barsky devotes the first chapter of his book to Chomsky’s surprising appeal in the world of pop music, where his ideas have been embraced by such varied characters as Bono and Jello Biafra. He goes on to dissect Chomsky’s influence in intellectual and academic circles, with particular attention to lingering accusations—baseless, in Barsky’s view—that Chomsky is sympathetic to Holocaust deniers and that he has been dismissive of the Cambodian genocide.

This book is not for the newbie. Readers unfamiliar with Chomsky’s work won’t be engaged by the discussion of his intellectual antecedents, and the academic controversies that still spring from his groundbreaking ideas about language will be opaque to them. The Chomsky Effect is a book for those like Barsky himself, people who already revere the man and value his influence on the culture. Nashville has at least one of those, judging by a bit of graffiti on the bathroom wall of a local coffee house: “Chomsky=Truth.”

Robert Barsky will discuss and sign The Chomsky Effect at Tinney+Cannon Contemporary (237 5th Ave. North) on Jan. 24, 6-7:30 p.m. For more information, email eveningwithanauthor@yahoo.com.

—Maria Browning

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