On Language and Humanity: In Conversation With Noam Chomsky

The father of modern linguistics is still opening up new kinds of questions and topics for inquiry.

“For the first time I think that the Holy Grail is at least in view in some core areas, maybe even within reach.” Image: Wikimedia Commons

By: Amy Brand (posted 12th Aug 2019)

I have been fascinated with how the mind structures information for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my all-time favorite activity in middle school was diagramming sentences with their parts of speech. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that I ended up at MIT earning my doctorate on formal models of language and cognition. It was there, in the mid-1980s, that I had the tremendous good fortune of taking several classes on syntax with Noam Chomsky.

Although I ultimately opted off the professorial career track, I’ve been at MIT for most of my career and have stayed true in many ways to that original focus on how language conveys information. Running an academic publishing house is, after all, also about the path from language to information, text to knowledge. It has also given me the opportunity to serve as Chomsky’s editor and publisher. Chomsky and the core values he embodies of deep inquiry, consciousness, and integrity continue to loom large for me and so many others here at MIT, and are well reflected in the interview that follows.

Amy Brand: You have tended to separate your work on language from your political persona and writings. But is there a tension between arguing for the uniqueness of Homo sapiens when it comes to language, on the one hand, and decrying the human role in climate change and environmental degradation, on the other? That is, might our distance from other species be tied up in how we’ve engaged (or failed to engage) with the natural environment?

Noam Chomsky: The technical work itself is in principle quite separate from personal engagements in other areas. There are no logical connections, though there are some more subtle and historical ones that I’ve occasionally discussed (as have others) and that might be of some significance.

Homo sapiens is radically different from other species in numerous ways, too obvious to review. Possession of language is one crucial element, with many consequences. With some justice, it has often in the past been considered to be the core defining feature of modern humans, the source of human creativity, cultural enrichment, and complex social structure.

As for the “tension” you refer to, I don’t quite see it. It is of course conceivable that our distance from other species is related to our criminal race to destroy the environment, but I don’t think that conclusion is sustained by the historical record. For almost all of human history, humans have lived pretty much in harmony with the natural environment, and indigenous groups still do, when they can (they are, in fact, in the forefront of efforts to preserve the environment, worldwide). Human actions have had environmental effects; thus large mammals tended to disappear as human activity extended. But it wasn’t until the agricultural revolution and more dramatically the industrial revolution that the impact became of major significance. And the largest and most destructive effects are in very recent years, and mounting all too fast. The sources of the destruction — which is verging on catastrophe — appear to be institutional, not somehow rooted in our nature.

“The sources of the destruction — which is verging on catastrophe — appear to be institutional, not somehow rooted in our nature.”

Continue reading “On Language and Humanity: In Conversation With Noam Chomsky”


“It is a peculiarity of thought that it never remains by itself, but always digresses to other things. The thought is the point to which I should stick, but it is the nature of this point, not to be able to stick to it. Thinking is a thing full of contradictions, a dialect secret.”(Joseph Dietzgen, ‘Letters on logic’, II, 1880-1883, in Art, Class & Cleavage: Quantulumcunque Concerning Material Esthetix, Ben Watson 1998)

Brazen crass self-promotion at best. Poorly written and thought through cultural critique at worst. Subject to revision at any time.

I Digress Indeed has released three new albums on the Imaginary Nihilism label, Boring, Tedious & Banal, iPad Recordings Vol 1, 2 & 3.



Splash’n’Klang is a musical practice developed by Out To Lunch in response to various problems facing modern music. Over the course of the twentieth century, recording wrecked the old composer-score-musician arrangement, enabling advanced music to dissolve the distinction between documentary sound and composed score (see Derek Bailey, Iancu Dumitrescu and Frank Zappa’s “Wolf Harbor”).

Continue reading “HOMO FLUDENS”


The Dickster has done it again. Evil Dick, never one to shirk his responsibility to throw us all off the musical track, has created yet another exquisite red herring, Earthly Delights. Evil is a multi-instrumentalist of rare ability with a stunning imagination. A truly unique composer in a Varesian and Other Worldly tradition, whose music demands an attentive and serious,  yet inquisitive and  playful ear. A musician who never forgets to pose the question to the listener, in fact, to all of us, now living in an ever increasingly precarious world…

“Well, are you going to buy the fucking  thing or what?”


Music With My Insane Friend vs Casio Loopy (Soundcheck Bootleg)

“MWMIF meets the Japanese-born female improvisor “Casio Loopy”, who is known for her improv’s using just a Roland “Dr. Rhythm” drum machine (controlled via a modified game console), and no-input digital delay. Recording was taken from a pre-concert sound check (date unknown?). This night, MWMIF draws strongly from their back-catalogue, while “Casio Loopy” shadows their performance surfaces with matching transient crosshatches and skittering counterpoints unique to her Onkyokei-inspired rig. Extra-musically, and for no explained reason, there were three pink crows in the rafters for entire set.”


Have only one main objective; work on your self esteem. Fiercely eliminate any people from your thoughts. Be careful about moving beyond your station; you might suffocate. Don’t be too rough with others, unless you enjoy being alone. Eliminate any blockages with people who no longer care for you. Think only of yourself. Nothing wrong with giving yourself a pat on the back once in while. Don’t think about it you deserve it.
Continue reading “CUT UP”


Be it may we talk and I as I, in theory, am the OK man. Ideas, the Chakrabarty. Wow! Record it new and read. Plank, perhaps, realism. Bite off political IDEAS. Make subject the state. Not dismissing individual will less the “in” way to where deep is stored. Relative instincts talk against capitalism, individuals, nations, by definition class historicity. Within no state struggles. Their posturing points to totality. The fucking working guys incorporate the “us” approach. Luxemburg, even artists it seems, inconsequential, where the last anti-individual think tank is embroiled. Yeah… time. An ongoing personality show! Their modern mourning comes normally.
Continue reading “THEIR MODERN MOURNING”