The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky
For those of a certain political bent, Noam Chomsky is something of a hero. Or at least the idea of Noam Chomsky holds endless fascination. Anybody who was politically engaged (from the left) in the early 90’s saw the documentary Manufacturing Consent and subsequently could be seen toting one or another of Chomsky’s books or even The Chomsky Reader. In the ensuing years he has entered the pantheon of leftist iconography along with Ralph Nader, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Che Guevara, The Dalai Lama and in some states out west, Leonard Peltier. It is possible that in the glare of the spotlight this soft-spoken, dauntingly intelligent and notably contrarian academician has become a victim of the same media manipulation he regularly decries. And this is the starting point, I think, for The Butane Group’s production The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky playing until February 28th at TIXE, Chashama’s new performance space.
The performance begins with Chomsky (played with remarkable accuracy and great skill by the Asian-American actress Aya Ogawa) seated center stage, looking away from the audience at a wall of mirrors. The stage is all white, surrounded by a low barrier that looks as if it were constructed from military-issue wooden crates. On top the barrier are two video monitors that swivel and move on tracks. The back walls of the theater are entirely mirrored and the only set piece is the single Aeron-style rolling chair on which Chomsky is seate4d.
When Chomsky begins talking it is in the slow, halting, nearly inaudible patterns that are familiar to those who have heard him speak. He discusses the very problem of being filmed and televised, how he is troubled by the focus on him. He says he never watches his televised or filmed appearances as they make him queasy and he only focuses on what he could have done better or said differently.
Enter “The Media”: Judson Kniffen and Alanna Medlock dressed as newscasters, replete with napkins tucked into their collars, as if they had just left the make-up table and sat down behind the newsdesk. A Tom Tomorrow cartoon appears on the monitors as Kniffen and Medlock perform the dialogue from the strip:
“Brad, you’re going to love what I bought you for your birthday!”
“What is it? A subscription to The Nation or Z Magazine? A new water filter? No, I know what it is – a tie-dyed Friends of the Rainforest T-shirt!”
“Uh-uh. You can put away all your other toys brad, now that you’ve got this!”
“Oh Susan, you shouldn’t have. A Chomsky doll!”
As Medlock pulls out a small two-foot high skeleton and proceeds to hang it from a noose front and center.
This sets the contradictory tone of reverence and self-mockery that makes The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky such a compelling performance. While the performance is generally sympathetic towards Chomsky, it establishes a tension between the perceived and real Chomsky that is almost menacing. The performance then uses this tension to aggressively question the nature of the “perceived” and “real” in contemporary politics and more gently question the extent of Chomsky’s self-awareness.
This is evident in “The Larissa MacFarquhar New Yorker Devil’s Accountant Dance” in which Kim Garoon’s militant choreography seems to limn the media bias against Chomsky in a New Yorker article, but then gives way to a more pointed and haunting moment in which Chomsky is portrayed as an almost-sadistic professor who won’t allow his students to voice their opinions, cutting them down before they’ve even spoken. His defense? “Nothing in that article is verifiable.”
While this tension between the perceived and the real, between Chomsky as brilliant iconoclast and deluded egomaniac, undergirds the entire performance (The “Christopher Hitchens Silent Genocide Air Quote Dance” was also very clever and well executed) there were two moments in particular that struck me as particularly effective and poignant.
The first was a re-enactment of an episode of American Morning with Paula Zahn in which Chomsky appeared opposite Bill Bennett. Chomsky, ever meek and defiant, struggles to get a word in edgewise, as Bennett, played with accurate and appropriate self-satisfaction and bluster by Kniffen, shuts Chomsky down repeatedly. This in and of itself would be interesting, as we watch Bennett’s patriotic sound bites drown Chomsky out repeatedly. But what makes this sequene particularly riveting is the interpolation of speeches from, I think, Charles L. Mee, Jr.’s Agamemnon 2.0. The program also lists Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as a source, so the prophetic quotes may have been from that. In the set-up of the video element of the sequence Bennett is said to be from Thebes and Chomsky is said to be from Delphi. Mea Culpa, I should do my research, I would be able to tell you for sure.
Nonetheless it is extremely powerful. Mid-answer, “Chomsky” diverges from his text, Ogawa changes her voice ever-so-slightly and intones oracular visions such as, “These are visions I can see/at any time of night or day/eyes opened or eyes closed.” (I think, once again, I suggest you check with director Noel Salzman for exact attribution). While perhaps overstating Chomsky’s visionary powers, this subtle recontexualization of America’s dreams of empire into the stuff of Greek Tragedy makes a powerful point simply.
The second moment that I found to be particularly insightful was towards the end, where Ms. Medlock gently recites the following text, which I quote here in it’s entirety: (and which can be found here)
The sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”, was presented by Chomsky, as a great example of a series of words strung together randomly. Not only is it grammatical according to the lexical classification, and non-sense on a semantic level. Or so goes the claim. But is the claim correct?
A green idea is, according to well established usage of the word “green” is one that is an idea that is new and untried. Again, a colorless idea is one without vividness, dull and unexciting. So it follows that a colorless green idea is a new, untried idea that is without vividness, dull and unexciting. To sleep is, among other things, is to be in a state of dormancy or inactivity, or in a state of unconsciousness. To sleep furiously may seem a puzzling turn of phrase but one reflects that the mind in sleep often indeed moves furiously with ideas and images flickering in and out.
So what is the poet telling us? (One assumes that the quoted line is from the work of a poet working in a medium of studied precision and ambiguity. Or rather, as we shall see…) Very simply the poet seems to be saying that new ideas, not yet sharply defined, circulate in the unconscious, rapidly altering at a furious rate.
One is left then with a question. Why is this nice bit of poetic imagery cited by its author as a quintessentially meaningless sentence? Here we have an exquisite bit of irony. The author evidently has a turn for poetry, a turn which he turns his face against. And the hidden face, the denied self, has taken its revenge. The scientist has called on his creative self to exhibit a bit of nonsense. The poet denied has replied with a sentence, apparently meaningless, which is no such thing when listened to with an attentive ear. And yet consider; this sentence is a very intellectualized production – it is indeed “colorless”. It was, we suspect, a new idea, a variant of a possibility, still new at the very moment of production, one occurring by chance in the froth of the unconscious.
In short, the cited sentence was a colorless green idea that had slept furiously.
As Ms. Medlock delivers the lines it is almost an elegy, a requiem for the lost Chomsky, the one that is neigther perceived nor real, but whose existence has been denied all along. This is a gentler, more poetic Chomsky, a man who might have been able to manage his fierce intellect and unwavering convictions in a way that didn’t result in his isolation. A man who would have to make a more realistic peace with human fallibility.
The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky was very well-done and entertaining, if that’s the appropriate word. Engaging and though-provoking certainly. Since it ends this Saturday (later this evening, actually, since I’m writing this late Friday night!) you probably won’t be able to see it during its current incarnation. Let’s hope that some theater picks it up and re-stages it.
Culturebot has been hearing rumors about an arts and culture exposition that will be held during the Republican National Convention in August to foster discussion of political issues. Chomsky would certainly start conversation. Maybe on a double-bill with I’m Gonna Kill The President (A Federal Offense), which was such a big hit back in October out at One Arm Red.