Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Introducing Chomsky by John Maher and Judy Groves

(Book Review)

This is part of the "Introducing..." series, by Icon Books, which seek to introduce great thinkers and philosophers in comic book type fashion.

...Which, with apologies, brings me to a quick point of station identification.
Since I started this book review project, I have meticulously reviewed every single book that I've completed reading. I have not, however, extended that to include comic books. (One has to draw the line somewhere, otherwise you'll spend your whole life reviewing every piece of media you come across). So, even though I've read several comic books this past year--more than I care to admit to at my age--I've not reviewed any of them on this blog. (Although - I - have - reviewed - books- based- off- of comic books.)

This book walks the line, but it's not really a pure comic book. It's more of a text with lots of pictures. So I'm counting it as a book.

I bought this book because I thought it would be useful for my applied linguistics course. And, I thought the illustrations would help to make this a fairly painless introduction to Chomsky's grammatical theories. (Despite being a long time fan of Chomsky's political work, I've never yet come across a primer on Chomsky's grammar theories that I could completely understand.)

Unfortunately, despite the eye-catching pictures that fill up this book, the actual text of it is quiet dense and hard to make sense of. To give a typical example from page 15.

E-Language and I-Language
Chomsky originally developed the notion of competence, which is the system of knowledge that a native speaker possesses. This cognitive system or domain is reformulated, rather differently, as I-language: a state of the mind-brain. I-language is what a child acquires when it learns language: an instantiation of the initial state. It is highly abstract, remote from ordinary behaviour and mechanisms. By contrast, E-language means external, extensional, any concept of language that is not internal to the mind-brain. So, if one refers to "Irish" as the language they talk where it is dotted orange on a map of Ireland, that's a case of E-language. It bears conceptual resemblance but no special relation to the earlier term performance--how language is actually used. E-language relates neither to competence nor performance, which are about organisms, nor to complicated socio-political constructs.

Understand all that? I certainly didn't. (And I know I took that above quote out of context, but trust me it doesn't make any more sense in context.)
I read it over several times, and then just shrugged my shoulders and moved on. And basically the whole first half of the book was like that.
In fact, the only parts of the grammar theory I understood were the parts I had previous knowledge of from Steven Pinker's explanation of Chomsky in "The Language Instinct".

Of course I could be just unusually dense, so I went over to amazon.com to check out what other people were saying:

... I gave up trying one third into the book. Not only are the technical terms not defined, but any attempt to derive their meaning or establish relationships between concepts failed.Much of the argument is enigmatic rather than explanatory. Many utterances seem to be drawn out of context...

...I could not recommend it to a non-linguist who wanted an introduction to Chomsky's thought. There's simply too much use of technical terms without defining them, mixing of difficult technical concepts, etc....

...Utterly fails to make it understandable for begginers. I found myself drowning in a subject I didn't particularly want to read about anyway...

...The book might make sense for someone already well familar with Chomsky's ideas but it didn't help me much, I just gave up on this one as not the place to start....

...this book didn't explain all the technical terms too well, or at all. I finished this book with hardly anything learned about linguistics...

...for almost the entire book, its about chomsky on linguistics which, by the way, MADE NO SENSE AT ALL!!!!! it was just so confusing, which was the whole point of making an introduction in the first place!...

You begin to see a pattern here perhaps?
I understand that the author John Mayer was locked into the comic book format because this book was part of a series. But I wished (and apparently most other people did to) that instead of an illustration taking up most of the page, the author would actually take time out to careful explain what he was talking about.

The first 120 pages are dedicated to Chomsky's linguistic theories. I struggled through them as best I could, and I like to think that for all my confusion I learned maybe one or two things from it.

The last 50 pages are on Chomsky's political theories.
And fortunately this is much easier to understand.

It's hard to succinctly introduce someone like Chomsky, who is a walking encyclopedia on just about every political event of the last 100 years. But an attempt is made, and some of Chomsky's more notable thoughts are introduced (some of his opinions on Indonesia, Nicaragua, and Vietnam.)
And the book also firmly grounds Chomsky in the anarchist tradition. (I've been debating some Trotskyists lately who have been trying to claim Chomsky for their own, so it was nice to see his anarchist credentials re-affirmed.)

This part of the book is alright, as far as it goes. But one wonders if Chomsky's politics even need an introduction, or if Chomsky speaks well enough on his own. Unlike Chomsky's grammatical theories, his political speeches are very simple and straight forward. Simply watch any clip of Chomsky on youtube, or pick up any of his books. (Or watch "Rebel Without a Pause" or Power and Terror.") You'll find out where he stands on the issues very quickly.

The author John Mayer seems like a good person with his heart in the right place, but unfortunately some flaws remain in this book.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky On Corporate Propaganda

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