Chomsky on self-deception and other fun topics

This video contains an excellent discussion between Robert Trivers and Noam Chomsky on self-deception that is absolutely fascinating and, given the recent revelations in the U.S. about the Bush administration, is very worth taking a look at.

It’s relatively short and a very easy listen, so I encourage everyone, even those not familiar with Chomsky or Trivers’s work to take a look.

What I found especially interesting about this exchange is their discussion of the nature of the process of internalizing information in what can be termed self-propagandization.

While neither Chomsky nor Trivers directly mention the work of either Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács or French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (possibly because the latter has fallen out of favour in academic circles since the 1970s), the shadow of these two philosophers on the topic discussed above is unmistakable and worthy of brief discussion.

Lukács’s (pronounced LUKE-ash) contribution to this debate lies in his notion of ‘reification’ and commodity exchange which arises out of the ubiquitous commodification of capitalist societies .  Lukács certainly acknowledges that commodity exchange has long been a characterizing feature even of primitive societies, however for him the issue is how far “commodity exchange together with its structural consequences [is] able to influence the total outer and inner life of society” (History and Class Consciousness, 1968).

Thus, Lukács would add to Chomsky and Trivers’s debate, the idea that perhaps what they term ‘self-deception’ is actually a product of our capitalistic society and reaches down to the very ontological essence of our existence.  Thus,  it does not make sense to even use the term ‘deception’ at all since there is neither conscious nor unconscious agency involved.

Althusser’s contribution to the debate lies in his famous use of the concept of the Ideological State Apparatuses (see “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Lenin and Philosophy and other essays).  He says that the ongoing existence of the way of life in any given society cannot, as Marx and Engel’s held, be a product purely of the hard, objective, economic organization of the society which produces its goods and sustains its existence.

Rather, Althusser wrote, the ongoing existence of any given society requies a definite series of institutions such as schooling, organized religion, the media, and even families to foster and encourage the reproduction of the fundamental characteristics of that given society. 

So Althusser would say that to the extent that a person is properly “interpellated” (a term which I think, in and of itself, is absolutely beautiful in its heuristic value) they become an active and willing agent of the reproduction of the social order.  Whether this can be thought of as occurring with or without self-deception, I think, is an interesting question worth debating.

Personally, what drives me to think about this subject is when I try to understand far-right commentators who, despite their years of experience and seeming intelligence, still loudly proclaim the greatness of America (or Canada for that matter) while either discounting or ignoring the concrete documentary record demonstrating the opposite.

It’s one thing to just be ignorant of these facts, but how does one take account of somebody like, for instance, Richard Perle?

Take this debate between Noam Chomsky and Richard Perle back in the 1980s (don’t let the length of the debate throw you off, it’s very much worth listening to.  It’s Chomsky at his finest.).


perle.pngChomsky vs. Perle

~ Part I (108 min.) ~

~ Part II (59 min.) ~



What I found interesting was at one point in the debate above, Perle seemed incapable of processing even the possibility that U.S. foreign policy benefits a certain very privileged strata of society and thus is an agent of certain élites.  It almost reminded me of a science fiction movie where a robot is asked to compute something irrational and has something of a melt-down.  Perle could not offer a counter argument, but could only retort and dismiss the concept as somehow beyond the scope of what is even plausible and worthy of discussion.

So how are we to view this behaviour?  I don’t think it makes sense to reduce it to either stupidity or evil-ness as some left-wing commentators find convenient to do.

Have Perle and other such commentators (I could have just as easily substituted Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck et al.) merely been interpellated to believe that America is good so thoroughly that they cannot change that motif of their thought? 

Or are their actual ontological existence so bound up in the totality of the system of American-led liberal internationalism that they cannot see its brutality?

Or, as Chomsky and Trivers discuss, can it better be characterized as self-deception and, if so, does it even make sense to speak of ‘unconscious’ self-deception?


2 Responses to “Chomsky on self-deception and other fun topics”

  1. 1 Dan 1 May, 2007 at 9:22 pm


    I was just reading a 1970s-era interview with Chomsky where he admitted that he knew little about French philosophers (the interviewer had to remind him that he once debated Foucault). In that light I guess not mentioning Althusser makes a bit more sense.

    Interesting post though, the psychology of this stuff is so exasperating. I understand the temptation to ascribe it all to “stupidity or evil-ness” as dominant propaganda narrative is almost impossible to dislodge from some people’s minds.

  1. 1 Day is done « oldephartteintraining Trackback on 1 May, 2007 at 12:55 am
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