Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Beyond Satire

A glimpse into the narcissistic bubble that is Leftwing America:

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 first thing that springs to mind is that any movement that turns Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Dalai Lama into political bedfellows has got some serious issues with cognitive dissonance.

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 seated.

Forgive me for abusing a cliche, but you really can't make this up.

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 only thing I remember about the Bennett interview was Chomsky (very unmeekly) accusing Bennett of being a liar for claiming that Chomsky's book 9/11 justified the 9/11 attacks; which, of course, it did. Oh, and Bennett asking Chomsky why he still lived in the United States; a by no means unreasonable question, in my opinion. No doubt thats one of the "patriotic soundbites" they're referring to.

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.

Am I the only one who thinks that there's something slightly sinister about someone looking forward to a play called I'm Gonna Kill the President? Has irony truly won out over all other values?

Putting all that aside, I do think this article says something interesting about the Chomskyite phenomenon; at its heart, its more of a cultural, revivalist phenomenon than an intellectual one. One of the most interesting things about most Chomskyites is that, for the most part, they aren't really political people. They tend to be artists, writers, social workers, professors, teachers, etc. Like fanatical environmentalists, they're people who are ultimately searching for a theology, for something to replace their feeling of frustration and unhappiness with their lives and the world as they find it, and render a frighteningly disjointed existence comprehensible. As Eric Hoffer writes in The True Believer: "To the frustrated a mass movement offers substitutes either for the whole self or for the elements which make life bearable and which they cannot evoke out of their individual resources." One of the appealing things about Chomsky is that, however brutal his perception of the world may be, it still makes sense. Paul Berman deals with this quite well in Terror and Liberalism, where he points out how Chomsky's worldview, while fraught with evil on all sides, is nonetheless rational and understandable, and therefore somewhat comforting. Chomsky purports to look beyond the complicated surface to the simple and easily grasped underlying realities (Berman relates this to Chomsky's linguistic theories, about which I am not anywhere near qualified to comment. For that, go to this guy, who knows of what he speaks.) I think there's a great deal of truth in that, and thus a great deal of appeal for those of us who may find the frightening realities of a chaotic and often irrational world simply impossible to accept. Looked at this way, the "cult of Chomsky" appears as a cult in the very real sense of the word, and possessed of a great many of the phenomenon's attendant horrors.