HERE Arts Examines the privileged and peculiar position of Noam Chomsky
It is axiomatic to those who subscribe to the theory of hegemony, the view that there are established systems by which authority and power are maintained, that in a “free” society, the vehicle for punishment of vocal dissent is not the criminal justice system but the media.
In this country, dissident intellectuals aren’t jailed or killed; they’re attacked and dismissed by the press.
This has been a major theme of the loved and loathed leftist and linguist, Noam Chomsky. For over four decades, Chomsky has laid bare the dirty global workings of power, exposed the media as a tool of hegemony and taken the U.S. government to task for crimes against humanity.
Misquoted, misconstrued and discredited by the establishment press, Chomsky is his own best case in point. He is, as Larissa MacFarquhar wrote in a 2003 New Yorker profile, “one of the greatest minds of the 20th century and one of the most reviled.” This quote and MacFarquhar’s profile generally figure prominently in writer-director Noel Salzman’s “The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky,” a sly theatrical collage composed of texts by and about Chomsky, ending its run at HERE Arts Center this Sunday.
Paean, parody and polemic, “Loneliness” turns upon one of hegemony’s ironies—authority’s anti-hero is dissent’s hero. In part because the establishment hates Chomsky, the left idolizes him. He’s achieved a near-mythological status in radical circles.
But the dissident hero is also an unwitting tool for the system he condemns. The mainstream critiques him to assert its own righteousness and to shore up belief in establishment values. He’s a scapegoat. And a “free” society’s scapegoats aren’t butchered; they’re kept well-fed for sour milk.
It’s an insidious privilege to be a well-published leftist in the United States. By the lights of the originator of the theory of hegemony, Italian turn-of-the-century Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the only real way out is revolution. But Chomsky, a supporter of revolutionary movements, is not himself a revolutionary; he’s an M.I.T. professor. He likes television, junk food and sailboats.
“I feel that it’s none of my business to tell people what they ought to do” about oppression, war and genocide, says the Chomsky character in “Loneliness.” “That’s for them to figure out. I don’t even know what I ought to do.”
“The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky” highlights this existential irony not only in name but in set design, casting and dialogue. The stage is boxed in by crates that look like they’re used to ship arms. They operate both as proscenium and prison for our hero. The video monitors that actors Judson Kniffen and Alana Medlock, playing Chomsky’s provocateur/interrogators, slide back and forth atop the crates are crated themselves. One implication is that the media is, like weaponry, a global export of power.
The stage’s back walls are mirrored, reproducing the image of our hero, fetishizing him. There’s something almost pornographic about designer David Esler’s set; it’s like the bump-and-grind platform at a low-rent sex club, and the weapons crates seem to place that club on the edge of a conflict zone, where mercenaries and American soldiers go to blow off steam.
There’s nothing overtly sexual about the play, but the fetishizing of Chomsky from the provocateur/interrogators’ examinations of him to the enactment of a Tom Tomorrow comic strip featuring a six-inch plastic Chomsky doll—has a lurid sexual edge to it, and the sex club-esque set tacitly connects the trafficking of arms and information to the trafficking of sex. Leave it to a gay writer-director to bare the connection. As Salzman said, “The relationship between social/economic/political power and sexuality is a complex and troubling one, whether we choose to address it or ignore it.”
Sexuality and gender enter the play through casting, for Noam Chomsky is played, with grave charisma, by the young Asian actress Aya Ogawa. “It was important to cast an actor as different from Chomsky as possible…in order to figure out what makes Chomsky Chomsky—unrelated to how we experience his external appearance,” Salzman said.
As Ogawa spars with the media, holding forth with a seer’s knowing, displaying herself with a rock star’s presence, she renders Chomsky an Everyman. She divests him of the hegemonic power of his well-aged white maleness. She is all of us who have dared to think and speak dissident thoughts.
On the other hand, Ogawa’s age, race and gender mark he—she could be from one of those conflict zones that have obsessed Chomsky over the years, in Indonesia, Thailand or Vietnam. Her sisters could be working in those aforementioned sex clubs.
But the casting also objectifies the stage Chomsky, as the actress is “othered” by merits of her age, race and gender. And, paradoxically, she’s in butch drag, which fetishizes masculinity and accentuates Chomsky’s heroic maleness. Ogawa, as Chomsky, occupies the intersex position; she is genderless and all genders at once, a point reinforced by a scene in which a William Bennett/Chomsky debate is re-imagined as an exchange between Oedipus and Tiresias, the transgendered soothsayer of myth.
Tone alone serves to deflate the moral weight of Chomsky’s arguments. When Alanna Medlock, playing The New Yorker’s MacFarquhar, mimics “Chomsky’s logic is mathematical and unforgiving. Nothing exculpates or complicates the sheer number of the dead,” she is paraphrasing one of Chomsky’s moral truisms: there is no rationale for systematic killing. But she spits it out in a way that renders it a condemnation.
And then there’s out and out vilification, which the Chomsky character calls “a wonderful technique,” as “there’s no way of responding to it. Suppose someone calls you a, you know, an anti-Semite. What can you say? I’m not an anti-Semite?”
The play climaxes in a blistering monologue in which Ogawa runs through statistic after statistic in country after country, counting the numbers of the dead due to U.S. policies and actions. As she gathers steam, her monologue collapses in a chaos of mismatched facts and figures, like the disjointed ravings of a politically incisive lunatic.
Either that or it’s the vision of the angel of history, as described by the philosopher and Holocaust survivor Walter Benjamin: “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”
Ultimately, what Chomsky is—if he’s not a revolutionary—is a witness. And the provocateur/interrogators culminate their roles by asking questions one asks of a moral witness, questions about regrets, freedom, resignation. Chomsky gets the last word, and if it is factually indeterminate, it is morally exacting: “I just describe as best I can what I think is happening… The future can be changed, but we can’t change things unless we begin to understand them.”
He continues, “I’d like to believe that people are born to be free, ah… but if you ask for proof I couldn’t give it to you.”
Where, then, is the escape hatch from hegemony? It is, ultimately, inside every one of us. It’s called choice, yes, but more specifically, informed choice. Either we do as Oedipus and ignore the information and participate in our own ruin, or we take the information in; we use it, we challenge hegemony, and we change the course of history. As Noel Salzman says of Chomsky, “I see his message as being, ultimately, ‘Don’t be a victim.’ That’s good advice for everyone.”