Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent

Robert F. Barsky

The MIT Press 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1997
A Life of Dissent is an intellectual rather than a personal biography: its focus is on the traditions that shaped Chomsky (and those which he in turn has shaped), rather than on specific events in his life. Barsky begins with Chomsky's childhood, with his family and schooling. A brief account of Chomsky's undergraduate years follows in chapter two, along with an extended study of the left-wing Jewish milieu which influenced him, focusing on individuals such as Zeilig Harris and organisations such as Avukah and Hashomer Hatzair. I found this material interesting as much in its own right as for the light it shed on Chomsky. Similarly, in chapter three an account of Chomsky's classic work in linguistics is accompanied by an excursus on the influence of Humboldt and the Cartesian tradition. (I suspect that parts of A Life of Dissent were originally separate journal articles.)

Part two moves from influences on Chomsky to his own influence and his interactions with other figures and movements. Barsky touches briefly on a wide range of topics: Chomsky's involvement with student and anti-war protest movements, his difficult relationship with the media, his position at MIT and his relationship with universities and academia more generally, further work in linguistics, the Faurisson and Pol-Pot affairs, his relationship with postmodernism and the French intellectual tradition, and so forth. A conclusion looks briefly at where Chomsky is now and at some of the issues with which he is currently engaged.

Barsky is not just sympathetic to Chomsky: he often ends up arguing Chomsky's position instead of explaining it. This is not always enlightening and will annoy some people (it annoyed me in places, although my political sympathies are largely with Chomsky). There is still plenty of solid information in A Life of Dissent, however. If it is not a work for those largely unfamiliar with Chomsky or primarily interested in him as a celebrity figure, those after a deeper understanding of the background and context of his life and work will find it an essential source on some topics and a useful one on others.

October 1997

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%T Noam Chomsky
%S A Life of Dissent
%A Barsky, Robert F.
%I The MIT Press
%D 1997
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0262024187
%P x,237pp