Literary Knowledge: Noam Chomsky and Marc Angenot
Robert Barsky
The status of literary knowledge has been examined from perspectives which often reflect less about literature than about the motivations of the examining party. Literature as object domain recognizable because of its peculiar literariness, for example, is quite differently construed than literature as competing discursive practice in a realm of social discourse relations; and theoreticians looking for immanent qualities in the language of literary texts can become to varying degrees themselves indicative symptoms of a systematic malaise for theoreticians who look to the role of literature in society as a key to understanding the power of a prevailing ruling class. At the present juncture, there is a group of thinkers who, inspired by sociological / philosophical-minded theoreticians such as Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Mikhail Bakhtin, are questioning the functioning of literature within a broader set of practices deemed "social discourse." Theoreticians such as Marc Angenot, Régine Robin, Claude Duchet and others, are asking what literature knows that other kinds of texts do not, or cannot know, and what literature accomplishes in the marketplace of competing discursive practices. By focussing upon the founding father of social discourse theory (and practice), Marc Angenot, I will outline some of the claims that have been put forth in this field of research. But so as to go beyond simple restatement of accepted ideas, and to coincide two realms that have (in my opinion) far too little contact, I will integrate thoughts on similar issues from a domain that, at first glance, seems dramatically far afield; the political and linguistic writings of Noam Chomsky. My motivation here is multi-directional; both Angenot and Chomsky, despite their many differences, attempt to circumscribe literary knowledge within much larger social projects which centre around thinking about the role of language in prevailing socio-political structures, and both of them suggest a role for literature that is in some ways indicative of respective political projects which, though different in motivation and in method of procedure, share a common end for the amelioration through subversion of this prevailing political paradigm. The surprising results of this juxtaposition indicates the promise, as well as the flaws, of contemporary social (discourse) theory at a juncture in history that seems conspicuously gloomy and pathetically without hope of rebellion or radical change. One small point; it is difficult, or even unfair, to compare a whole school of thinking about texts from a socialized approach with the small number of comments that Chomsky has made on the subject, and in fact this is not my objective. What I am suggesting is that Chomsky's remarks concerning literature and literary criticism do represent a point of view which, even when described with respect to a relatively small number of remarks, nonetheless stand as a useful criticism of and complement to the sociocritical project.

For the purposes of this study I'll be crossing a number of lightly-shaded boundaries; Marc Angenot is a founder-of-sorts of social discourse theory, a long-time participant in sociocriticism/sociocritique, and, by extension, claimant to a particular brand of discourse analysis theory. I will be discussing Angenot's contributions to both social discourse and sociocriticism, with particular emphasis upon the latter since as a school of thought it implicitly privileges literary knowledge as active force in the compendium of social discourses.

The sociocritical approach is largely unknown to the English-speaking world except by reference to Edmond Cros' journal Sociocriticism (out of the University of Pittsburgh) and his book called Theory and Practice of Sociocriticism.(2) Despite the value of Cros' approach, and the notable importance of the Ulla and Jürgen Link's foreword to the English translation, Cros' work is by no means representative of the broad range of sociocritical study or even the theoretical apparatus which underpins it. Sociocriticism, or sociocritique, owes its origins and its development to Claude Duchet (who is never cited in Cros' book!) and to the group of colleagues and disciples who have been trained and/or influenced by him over the many years in which he has worked.(3) Duchet also edited, in 1979, another text called Sociocritique,(4) comprised of the proceedings of a conference organized by NYU and Université de Paris-VIII. The list of people inspired by this early volume on sociocritique (and other work by Duchet) is impressive if the publication of La politique du texte,(5) which is a kind of recompense to Duchet (it comes complete with an exhaustive list of Claude Duchet's publications and a bibliography of works on sociocritique), is any indication. I count, on the list printed on page 279, 168 persons and institutions involved with the project, including the likes of Marc Angenot, Jacques Dubois, Gérard Genette, Philippe Hamon, Henri Mitterand, Régine Robin, and so forth. Most of the names on this list would not be familiar to an English-speaking audience, despite the fact that the issues Duchet and his followers / colleagues are working on are contemporary and urgent. This, if you will, is another of my interests for the purposes of this article, to juxtapose major thinkers from two intellectual worlds in the hope of bringing new light to issues that are often discussed independently, in Anglophone and Francophone worlds.(6)

Noam Chomsky is the linguist and the political activists who has played a determining role in two fields, that of linguistics and that of political activism. Chomsky the linguist seldom, if ever, speaks of literature per se; and, perhaps not surprisingly, Chomsky the political activist and social thinker also has little or nothing to say about literary texts (which is in itself telling, as we'll see later on). In fact, the issue of discourse as action is seldom raised beyond the study of propaganda, and despite the prodding of various interviewers he has never made any substantial remarks concerning the role of literary discourse in society. He has, however, provided enough commentary to allow us to develop an implicit sense of how creative discourse can act upon dominant ideology. Concentrating upon literary knowledge will allow us to, as it were, assemble all of these comments and derive a strong sense of the system of discursive relations; and comparing these comments with those of Angenot suggests provocative intersections between the two approaches. In some ways, their backgrounds suggest common interests: Chomsky, like Angenot (who co-founded the Inter-University Centre for Discourse Analysis and Text Sociocriticism), has done close textual readings that sometimes contribute to discourse analysis (linguistic study that goes beyond the sentence); he, like Angenot, has done extensive study of various realms of discursive practice, notably propaganda; Chomsky's mentor was Zellig Harris, who Angenot describes, in Glossaire pratique de la critique contemporaine,(7) as one of the founders of discourse analysis research, through reference to Harris's 1963 monograph called Discourse Analysis;(8) and finally, I think that Angenot and Chomsky would agree that a fundamental restructuring of society would be needed if a truly libertarian society is to emerge. That they would act differently in order to accomplish this end is clear; but Angenot would probably agree when Chomsky writes that:

there are certain crises of capitalism that cannot be overcome internally. They can be overcome only by the total reconstruction of social relations. All economic and political institutions should be placed under democratic control through direct participation by workers and by those involved because they live in a particular geographical area, for instance, or on the basis of other forms of free association.(Language and Politics(9) 140-141)

In order to properly situate a discussion of literary discourse within a broader compendium of social discourse and within a larger political perspective like the one outlined above, I will begin by talking about the universe of discourse into which individual discursive practice are inscribed. I will then turn briefly to the issue of propaganda as discourse since it is another example of how individual discursive practices operate in the society, and because the example of literature is illuminated by an understanding of how propaganda is deemed to operate in the society as conceived by Chomsky and Angenot.

Parts of the Whole

Intrinsic to any study of literary knowledge is a theory of the whole compendium of discursive practice, and in this realm both Chomsky and Angenot have done significant work. The whole is in fact the subject of Angenot's work on social discourse fully elucidated in the 1163 page mise en pratique, 1889: Un état du discours social and summarized in his "Social Discourse Analysis: Outlines of a Research Project." Social discourse, according to this outline, is "everything that is said or written in a given state of society; everything that is printed or talked about and represented today through electronic media. Everything that narrates or argues, if one contends that narration and argumentation are the two basic kinds of discursiveness" (2). The ultimate goal, however, is not simply to catalogue or to list all prevailing discursive tendencies, but rather to uncover the "extrapolation of those discursive rules and topics that underlie the endless rumour of social discourses without ever being themselves objectified" (ibid). Literature in this respect is but one practice amidst a massive discursive output. Thus for the year 1889, the goal is to describe literary texts as being part of, rather than separate from, the whole of 1889 French society discursive production:

Je pense donc à une opération radicale de décloisonnement, immergeant les domaines discursifs traditionnellement investigués comme s'ils étaient isolés et d'emblée autonomes, ­ la littérature, la philosophie, les écrits scientifiques ­ , dans la totalité de ce qui s'imprime, de ce qui s'énonce institutionnellement. (1889 14)

At the same time, however, Angenot recognizes the autonomy of various discursive genres within this broader compendium and does not make the attempt to totalize social discourse, and thus ignore its traditions, its discursive genres (in Bakhtin's sense), its stakes, its constraints, its values within the discursive marketplace, and so forth. His goal, therefore, is to go beyond what is said to analyze what is sayable, "accounting therefore for my using "Social Discourse" in the singular, and not social discourses as a simple coexistence and juxtaposition of genres, disciplines, and local cognitive strategies" ("Social Discourse Analysis 3).

The issue of the relationship between particular utterances and the total linguistic production of a given society is never fully articulated in the writings of Chomsky; however he does discuss the relationship between the utterability of given discourses and the dominant historico-political paradigm. In that sense, human history is a valued area of study since it allows one to assess determinant historical factors limiting human potential and development. The part is therefore subject to the historical and political limits imposed upon the whole of the society, and its prevailing morals or social systems must be studied according to the kinds of social systems that "have actually been realized in history." Historical inquiry begins with the question of "how these [social systems] came into existence, given the range of possibilities that exist at some moment of economic and cultural development." Once this has been achieved, "the next question is whether the range of social systems that human beings have constructed is broad or narrow, what is its scope, what are its potentialities, are there kinds of social systems human beings could not possibly construct and so on" (Language and Politics, hereafter L and P, 145). Chomsky thus describes the rules that limit the utterable with respect to the prevailing social system (capitalism versus feudalism, for example) rather than with respect to a specifically discursive marketplace. However the net results do allow for some discussion of how such discursive practices as propaganda or literature work with respect to the community as a whole.

To understand Angenot's thinking about literature it would suffice to look at his work in the area of sociocriticism; but to properly situate Chomsky into this discussion, it is valuable to make a brief incursion into the realm of propaganda. Chomsky's notions of how a text can be received with respect to the broader speaking community is most fully elucidated with respect to U.S. government propaganda practices, and his understanding of the role of literature in society is in some ways inextricably linked to the kind of discursive model elaborated to describe the reception of this kind of discourse by the populace.

Propaganda as social praxis

Angenot and Chomsky have both devoted significant study to propaganda (a domain to which even literature does on occasion alas belong), suggesting (from different standpoints) that the circulation of ideas is in some ways regulated by the prevailing norms of the marketplace. For Angenot the focus herein is placed upon that which can be uttered, understood and assimilated (a kind of discursive product) in a discursive marketplace, and in Chomsky's work there is discussion of how particular utterances are interpreted depending upon the prevailing level of indoctrination in a given community; the common link, therefore, is the notion of acceptability of particular utterances within a given social structure. In a section called "légitimer et contrôler" of 1889, Angenot summarizes how various social discourses operate to further legitimize the ruling hegemony:

La fonction majeure des discours sociaux, connexe à leur monopole de représentation, est de produire et de fixer des légitimités, des validations, des publicités (rendre publics des goûts, des opinions, des informations). Tout discours légitime contribue à légitimer des pratiques, des manières de voir, à assurer des profits symboliques (et il n'est pas de profits ni de pouvoirs sociaux qui ne soient accompagnés de symbolique). La chose imprimée même est un instrument de légitimation en un temps où les simples croient encore sans réserve à ce qui est "écrit sur le journal". Le pouvoir légitimant du discours social est lui aussi la résultante d'une infinité de micro-pouvoirs, d'arbitraires formels et thématiques. L'hégémonie fonctionne comme censure et autocensure: elle dit qui peut parler, de quoi et comment. (1889 1091)

Thus for Angenot the power of social discourse acts upon the speaking public, with the effect of imposing a general level of conformation and forcing attention upon particular "products" in circulation in the discourse marketplace. Propaganda in this respect is not intrinsically differentiable from literature on an ideological level; it is the cultural norms of acceptability and "sayability" that regulate respective perception:

There is no reason to believe that slogans such as 'La France aux Français' or 'Place au prolétariat conscient et organisé' are more ideological than 'La Marquise sortit à cinq heures...' or 'Le vent tourbillonant que rabat les volets / Là-bas tord la forêt comme une chevelure.' However these utterances are formally, culturally, and socially quite different, they do not emanate from the same social field, they do not appeal to the same addressee, they do not irradiate the same kind of social magic. Still, their sociality cannot usefully get subsumed under the catchword "ideology." ("Social Discourse Analysis" 6)

Chomsky's perspective, by contrast, is articulated through discussions of how ruling class ideology filters out unwanted static (i.e. dissension) by consciously blocking thought and understanding, a notion that lends a conspiratorial air to the marketplace which is incompatible with Angenot's sense of how ruling classes seek legitimation through their adaptation to prevailing discourse marketplace conditions. Both thinkers share a belief that there are discourse commodities, utterances that have weight and value in given speaking situations; but unlike Angenot's attempt to inscribe discourse practices within particular genres into broader discursive tendencies, the examples that Chomsky uses tend to emphasize the level of conscious collusion between powerful groups acting within given discursive realms, say, the media and the ruling elites. In an interview with David Barsamian, reprinted in Language and Politics, Chomsky makes some general remarks in response to a question of whether individual words can have specific power, or if concepts are able to convey meaning beyond their words; his response is that such observations are "obvious to the point of banality," and he then goes on to make comments that help clarify how marginal discourses function in society.

Terms like "the free world" and "the national interest" and so on are mere terms of propaganda. One shouldn't take them seriously for a moment. They are designed, often very consciously, in order to try to block thought and understanding. For example, about the 1940s there was a decision, probably a conscious decision, made in public-relations circles to introduce terms like "free enterprise" and "free world" and so on instead of the conventional descriptive terms like "capitalism." Part of the reason was to insinuate somehow that the systems of control and domination and aggression to which those with power were committed here was in fact a kind of freedom. That's just vulgar propaganda exercises.... (L and P 617)

Vulgar as they are, these practices are, according to Chomsky's description, very effective, to the point where hegemonic discourse can "block" our perceptions and our understanding of reality. Thus our reading of particular texts can be influenced by ruling class's attempts to manipulate our understanding of particular concepts. Chomsky's example of how this phenomenon works demonstrates how, when political discourse is reduced to technical meanings, words can become divorced from their traditional references and meanings.


The term "national interest" is commonly used as if it's something good for us, and the people of the country are supposed to understand that. So if a political leader says that "I'm doing this in the national interest," you're supposed to feel good because that's for me. However if you look closely, it turns out that the national interest is not defined as what's defined in the in the interest of the entire population; it's what's in the interests of small, dominant elites who happen to be able to command the resources that enable them to control the state­ basically, corporate-based elites. That's what's called the "national interest." And, correspondingly, the term " special interests" is used in a very interesting related way to refer to the population. The population are called the special interest" and the corporation elite are called the "National interests"; so you're supposed to be in favour of the national interests and against the special interests. (L and P 662)

Ruling elites can hide behind technical jargon and, through their control of the media and manipulation of a well-indoctrinated American populace, they can get away with passing off, say, genocide (Vietnam, Laos, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Libya, Iraq) in the name of some socially acceptable quest, like "pacification."

[Pacification] is used for mass murder; thus we carried out "pacification" in Vietnam. If you look at what the pacification programs were, they were literally programs of mass murder to try to suppress and destroy a resisting civilization population. Orwell wrote long before Vietnam, but he already noted that pacification was being used that way, by now it's an industry. Orwell had pointed out early examples of this kind of usage.... (663 L and P).

This is one form of manipulation. However the effects thereof are, in Chomsky's view, extremely important if one wishes to understand how discursive practice is filtered by a well-indoctrinated society. This filtering process is crucial in the political work of Chomsky, and it plays a role in his later discussions of literary texts because literature is a potential source of revelation for an indoctrinated society. One representative example of how the filtering system works comes out of a discussion of Nicaragua's plan to purchase MIG airplanes from the Russians to defend themselves from aggressors.

They're planning to get MIGs and if they do, of course, we'll have to blast them into the sea. Everybody agrees on that, incidently, the doves, the hawks, the liberals, everyone, they can't be allowed to get MIGs. Well what does that mean? What are the MIGs for? Of course everyone knows what they're for. Why do they want MIGs? Why don't they want French Mirages? In fact they do want French Mirages, but we won't let them get them. We want them to have MIG because once they have MIGs they become a Soviet threat. If they just get French Mirages, what are you going to say? Therefore the United States stops them from getting Mirages. Nobody in the press will ever report this. Are they lying? Not really, no. They've already been sufficiently socialized and they suppress it.

So when Steven Kinzer of The New York Times has an interview with some commandant and the guy says, look, we'd be glad to get Mirages, the words don't penetrate his mind. The parser [perception system] turns off at that point. It doesn't go through...He's not lying outright, he just doesn't hear it because it doesn't fit the ideological structure..... (726)

So the hegemony in fact has the power to go beyond its own social discourse imposed limitations and indoctrinate a society, like the United States, so that the populace will voluntarily go along with ideas that are against their own best interests (not to mention the interests of those against whom the U.S. government is acting abroad). This, in Chomsky's opinion, is beyond Orwell's version of "Newspeak;" in fact, this is a level of indoctrination without parallel in history. The ruling elites have conspired to manipulate teaching curricula, media, and political discourse to reinforce their own power and reassert their own interests. Language, therefore, is in the contemporary society "abused, tortured, distorted, in a way, to enforce ideological goals"
(L and P 615).

When we turn to literature and its role in the social structure, we find restatements of similar doctrines; there is collusion between the publishers, the government and the academy that teaches literary texts. I will begin by describing how this system works, in Chomsky's view, before turning to the question of what literature can do in the concrete discourse situation of a given society and to the work of Marc Angenot.

"What can literature do?"

What can art do in a society? Has it the same features as the propaganda system which could make it a tool to reinforce the power of the ruling class? Is art one of many ways in which the social discourse speaks out through the pen of a single individual? Is literature more susceptible to manipulation because of its linguistic character? What is the status of literary knowledge?

Asking these questions to Marc Angenot, who is a philologist by training and a Professor of French Literature by trade, demands that we look into his large corpus of publications on discourse, literary theory and literature. For our purposes, I will make reference to recent remarks published in a book called La Politique du texte. But to ask similar questions to Chomsky is, as I've already pointed out, more problematic. There are slim pickings of Chomsky on literature despite the fact that he has written a number of texts with potentially-related titles, such as Language and Responsibility, Language and Politics, and Problems of Language and Freedom.(10) One reason for this is that Chomsky is a linguist and not a literary theoretician, and though his political work could have inspired work on literary texts (social approaches to literature, literature as reflection of contradictions in society and so forth), he has concentrated upon what he refers to as political "muckraking." The problem, for someone looking to study his views concerning the sociology of language, is that he does not perceive any clear relationship between his work in linguistics and his libertarian politics. Certainly he does not want to impose a relationship whereby one field of his interests is forced to coincide with another; if his scientific (linguistic) ideas could merge with politics, independently, "that is fine," according to Chomsky. "But they should not be made to converge at the cost of distortion and suppression, or anything like that" (L and P 143). Chomsky admits that there are moments in his linguistic work where heavy emphasis is layed upon "freedom," "creativity," "competence," "spontaneity" and other notions that are used in similar ways as in his political work; but denies all but a "tenuous connection," that "anyone's political ideas or their ideas of social organization must be rooted ultimately in some concept of human nature and human needs." This leads us to one of the rare discussions concerning art and its relationship to creativity in Chomsky's work.

My own feeling is that the fundamental human capacity is the capacity and the need for creative self-expression, for free control of all aspects of one's life and thought. One particularly crucial realization of this capacity is the creative use of language as a free instrument of thought and expression. Now having this view of human nature and human needs, one tries to think about the modes of social organization that would permit the freest and fullest development of the individual, of each individual's potentialities in whatever direction they might take, that would permit him to be fully human in the sense of having the greatest possible scope for his freedom and initiative.(L and P 144)

This freedom would, however, be inscribed into a pre-existing system, a kind of liberty within the context of a rule-bound social system. Therefore, "if a person just throws cans of paint randomly at a wall, with no rules at all, no structure, that is not artistic creativity, whatever else it may be." There is a kind of intentionality involved in Chomsky's vision of art; for him, "it is a commonplace of aesthetic theory that creativity involves action that takes place within a framework of rules, but is not narrowly determined either by the rules or by external stimuli. It is only when you have the combination of freedom and constraint that the question of creativity arises" (L and P 144). The rules, therefore, are far more politically-bound than those described by Angenot which tended to reflect historical and discursive conditions. This is not ananomaly in Chomsky's work; in fact, it is fair to suggest that artistic works are seldom viewed beyond the sociopolitical realm in which they are created.

Literature as sociological artefact

For both Angenot and Chomsky it is necessary to understand literature according to the constraining system, which is the dominant socio-political context within which the artistic work is received. This context contains powerful legislation and methods of policing public activities that go far beyond the rules of social discourse as conceived by Angenot. A revealing example for an understanding of Chomsky's work is the reception and the teaching of George Orwell's novel 1984. He describes this text as an unimaginative, tenth-rate work that does not approach the true nature of our own system. We have suppressed, according to Chomsky, the fact that this work was a description of what Orwell had "expected to happen in the industrial democracies, and as a prediction that was very bad, that hasn't happened." He then suggests that for these very reasons, it is sanctioned by the authorities in our society since it can be read as an anti-Soviet treaty which points out apparent flaws in the enemy's society.

The U.S. public relations industry had already gone very beyond Orwell when he wrote 1984. In fact, you might ask yourself why Orwell's 1984 is a popular book. Why does anybody bother reading it? One reason is because it's obviously modeled on an enemy. It's about the Soviet Union, a very thinly disguised account of the Soviet Union, and anything bad that you say about an official enemy is fine. (L and P 727)

This is Chomsky the sociologist of literature, describing the reception, the sales, and the use of a literary text by the ruling classes. The power that he ascribes to this ruling elite is remarkable, and serves as a bridge between his thinking about literature and his analysis of propaganda.

Suppose that Orwell had written a more interesting book. It's kind of trivial to write about the Soviet Union, with its obvious forms of indoctrination. Suppose he'd written an interesting book, namely about us. That's much more interesting than about somebody else. Suppose he had exposed the kind of indoctrination that goes on here, like that I've just mentioned. You bet your life that wouldn't be a bestseller. Nobody would have heard of Orwell. Nobody would have published it and it would have gone right down the "memory hole" ­ his "memory hole." The very fact that you [the interviewer] even think of Orwell is already a sign of how indoctrinated you are. Not that it's your fault. From kindergarten you just get deluged with this stuff until you just don't know how to think any more. (ibid)

The text by Orwell that Chomsky does appreciate is Homage to Catalonia, a non-fiction which describes Orwell's personal experiences as a member of POUM during the Spanish Civil War. In discussing this text, Chomsky once again describes the context of its publication:

The history of that book is itself interesting and revealing. The book appeared in 1937. It was not published in the United States. It was published in England, and it sold a couple of hundred copies. The reason that the book was suppressed was because it was critical of communists. That was a period when pro communist intellectuals had a great deal of power in the intellectual establishment. It's similar to the kind of control that many people called "pro-Israel," although I think it's a bad term, but people who are called pro-Israel" have media and expression today. They're similar in many respects. They succeeded in preventing Orwell's book from appearing. It did appear about 15 years later, and it appeared as a Cold War tract because it was anti-Russian and fashions had changed. That was a really important book. I think there were things wrong with it, but I think it was a book of real great significance and importance. It's probably the least known of Orwell's major political books. (L and P 629)

There is no mention here of the literariness of the text, and in fact Chomsky rarely discusses aesthetics in his work. He seems to suggest that one would read, for example, Orwell's work, simply in order to learn sociological, political, or historical truths. The form, style, vocabulary and rhetoric of the text rarely certainly do not figure in Chomsky's discussions:

Existing Soviet society and its terror have been very well described by factual analyses not very well known here, but they existed. People like Maximov, for example, the anarchist historian, had given excellent detailed analyses of Leninist and Stalinist institutionalized terror going back to the Revolution. You didn't have to go to Orwell and fantasy to find this out. Orwell's fictionalized account was in my view no contribution and also not very well done. (ibid)

In this discussion, Chomsky gives the impression that the measure of greatness of a novelist is the degree to which he or she is able to step outside of the prevailing system of thought control and describe to the readers the actual workings of society.

On the other hand, [Orwell] was an honest man. He did try to, and often succeeded in extricating himself from the systems of thought control, and in that respect he was very unusual and very praiseworthy. But the one great book that he wrote, in my view, is that one that I mentioned, Homage to Catalonia. (L and P, 630)

Literary knowledge

There are, nonetheless, a small number of comments that suggest that Chomsky could imagine ways in which literature could play a role that goes beyond its sociological function in society. To begin, there is a valuable interview in The Chomsky Reader, which will serve as the basis for my preliminary remarks concerning the role of the literary text in an analysis, and an interview with Mitsou Ronat in Language and Responsibility which will serve as the basis for my discussions about dialogues concerning literature. James Peck, the editor of The Chomsky Reader, and the interviewer for the opening discussion concerning Chomsky's personal background and cheminement, begins with a somewhat cryptic but vitally important question:

You've rarely written much on the kinds of experiences that led to your politics, even though, it seems to me, they may have been deeply formed and influenced by your background.... For example, I am struck by how seldom you mention literature, culture, culture in the sense of a struggle to find alternative forms of life through artistic means; rarely a novel that has influenced you. Why is this so? Were there some works that did influence you? (3)

Chomsky replies by stating that he rarely "writes about these matters" because they "don't seem particularly pertinent to the topics I am addressing." Literature affects him inasmuch as certain notions "resonate" when he reads, but overall his "feelings and attitudes were largely formed prior to reading literature." "In fact," says Chomsky, "I've been always resistant consciously to allowing literature to influence my beliefs and attitudes with regard to society and history." In sum, therefore, literary renditions of social or political situations do not offer privileged information concerning the actual events or the power structure with which Chomsky is concerned. However, he does admit that literature can offer a far deeper insight into another realm of knowledge, the study of what James Peck in this interview calls "the full human person." Furthermore, according to Chomsky, literature provides more insightful information about the full human person than does any mode of scientific inquiry. This is a notable exception to Chomsky's adamant belief in the power and value of pure sciences over social sciences, and it is in perfect accord with Mikhail Mikhailovitch Bakhtin's belief that dialogism, which is most adequately expressed in the dialogic novel, is the only means to adequately represent what he calls "the whole human being." However, Chomsky is nonetheless reticent about drawing "any tight connections" between literature and knowledge because he can't really say whether literature has ever "changed [his] attitudes and understanding in any striking or crucial way:"

[I]f I want to understand, let's say, the nature of China and its revolution, I ought to be cautious about literary renditions. Look, there's no question that as a child, when I read about China, this influenced my attitudes ­ Rickshaw Boy, for example. That had a powerful effect when I read it. It was so long ago I don't remember a thing about it, except the impact.... Literature can heighten your imagination and insight and understanding, but it surely doesn't provide the evidence that you need to draw conclusions and substantiate conclusions. (4)

Literature from this standpoint does not reflect either the overall social discourse of a given society or particular elements thereof, but rather is a means through which experiences can be re-read and, potentially, re-viewed. It is difficult (if not impossible due to variations depending upon the person) to assess whether the attitudes developed by the reader with regards to a particular subject preceded the reading of literary texts (thus allowing certain notions to "resonate"), or whether the literary texts themselves helped form the attitudes (as he suggests by his discussion of the role that literary texts played for him when he was a child). But the actual relationship between literary knowledge and empirical facts is clearly problematic for Chomsky, to the point where he "consciously" blocks out any effects that literary texts might have for his analysis of particular situations. But as we'll see, this blockage of literary knowledge happens on the level of methodology, and it does not imply that literary discourse has no role to play in describing the contextual reality within which it is situated or read.

Marc Angenot address different concerns in his description of the role and value of literary texts; however by bringing his work to bear on issues posed by the Peck / Chomsky interview helps clarify the relationship between literary discourse and the broad compendium of social discourses uttered at a particular historical moment. In the first article of the recent book Le politique du texte, Angenot begins by posing several questions regarding the status of literary knowledge: "What does literature do?" "What does literature know?" and, "What does literature know that distinguishes it from other discursive practices?" These questions offer us the first glimpse at the workings of sociocritique, since Angenot notes that a fundamental question for sociocritical analysis is "que sait-elle [la littérature] qui ne se saurait pas ailleurs, dans les champs discursifs publics ou ésotériques?" (10). Angenot seems to articulate Chomsky's position on this question when he suggests that "que sait la littérature?" never refers to "connaissance propre et du premier degré;" thus, writes Angenot, "la question se pré la façon suivante: que sait la littérature sur les manières dont les autres secteurs discursifs "connaissent" le monde et légitiment leurs connaissances?" The ways in which it affects or describes other discursive realms (Angenot) and attitudes (Chomsky) is by virtue of its qualities as literature; thus Angenot also asks about the relationship between the form in literature (one of its distinguishing qualities) and the work that it accomplishes within the overall social discourse. A study of this relationship, which is never raised (except by inference) by Chomsky (i.e. "it was so long ago I don't remember a thing about it [Rickshaw Boy], except the impact," my emphasis) underlines, in Angenot's view, the specificity of sociocriticism and the contribution that Claude Duchet has made to the field of literary studies. In this regard Angenot emphasizes such Duchetian notions as the mise en texte of an aspect of social discourse in the novel, and the sociogenèse du texte, which relates to the work that a text effects upon its context, its absorption therein, and its distinctiveness as polyphonic discursive collage within the broader practice of social discourse.

Sociocriticism, as a research project, helps to specify the nature of the "impact" (Chomsky) that literature has upon the reader by pointing out its paradoxical roles, as on the one hand that which proliferates (variously constituted fragments of) social discourse (by virtue of its intertextual nature), and on the other (or by extension) that which challenges the broader compendium of social discourse through its ability to juxtapose and articulate contradictory, uncomplimentary, or unrelated fragments of a (presumed) whole ("carnivalization"), either in the present or in some undetermined future ("une potentialité," which leads to a kind of "open-endedness"). Thus for Duchet, "le problème pour la sociocritique serait alors celui d'une spécificité du travail fictionnel (poétique) par rapport aux énoncés qui traverse le texte" (Sociocritique 7)

What these roles have in common with one another, and what they have in common with Chomsky's notions of "resonance" and of an indeterminate "impact" effected upon the (situated) inquisitive reader, is that they actively occur in the real world, as a kind of work that is effected through dialogic interaction. In this sense, knowledge of a "deuxième degré" is similar to knowledge that resonates; both act upon the experience of a socially situated interactant. I have bracketed Bakhtinian notions throughout this paragraph ­ "situatedness," "intertextuality," "chronotopic," "carnivalization" "open-endedness" and "dialogic" ­ to draw attention to the strong Bakhtinian undercurrent in sociocritique and by extension to use Bakhtin as a tentative point of contact between Chomsky and Angenot. Furthermore, each of these Bakhtinian notions suggest that a strong delineation between literary and non-literary texts could not hold up to scrutiny because ideas for novels can be imported from the other discursive domains. This kind of discursive border crossing does occur, even in our own memories (as Chomsky has suggested by his inability to separate the fictional Rickshaw Boy from his other readings in this area).

Régine Robin, in her description of the novel, insists upon the quality of the novel as being fundamentally intertextual, suggesting that it contains a veritable traffic of ideas, images, forms, stereotypes, and discursive configurations. For her, as for others in the domain of sociocriticism, the novel is a primal locus upon or through which the fluid memory and imagination, and that great "rumeur globale" of social discourse, become crystallized (part of a larger discussion of Duchet's sociogramme). The effect upon the imagination of this crystallization gives strong impetus for studying the social aspects of the novel and the role of the novel as purveyor and reservoir of images:

Un Gavroche, un Rastignac, un Frédéric Moreau, certaines scènes emblématiques... peuplent notre imaginaire aussi fortement que les gravures des manuels scolaires, que nos souvenirs personnels ou que des personnages, des scènes, des lieux historiques. Le roman a été une sorte de réservoir d'images, de phrases, de mots, de situations, de modèles narratifs, un foyer culturel très puissant (95).

Looking back to Chomsky, we find a notable degree of indifference with regards to the specifics of this reservoir of images; when Peck says to Chomsky: "you have rarely written much on the kinds of experiences that led to your politics, even though...they may have been deeply formed and influenced by your background" Chomsky replies that "I've not thought about it a great deal." When the question of the novel Rickshaw Boy comes up with respect to a discussion of China, Chomsky says that he doesn't "remember a thing about it, except the impact." When pushed on whether literature can sensitize someone "to areas of human experience otherwise not even asked about," Chomsky replies that "people certainly differ, as they should, in what kinds of things make their minds work" (4).

For Chomsky, there is no rich homogenous reservoir of intact memories which are or are not open-ended, because the reservoir itself is not filled with a homogeneous liquid that dissolves all elements in the same way, and even if there was it would only be interesting inasmuch as it could help us understand how the mind "works," a capacity which we are nowhere near finding out at this point in our evolution. For Robin, the reservoir is, by nature of its "socialité," subject to changes across time whereby "le texte produit un sens nouveau, transforme le sens qu'il croit simplement inscrire, déplace le régime de sens, produit du nouveau à l'insu même de son auteur; tout le non-dit, l'impensé, l'informulé, le refoulé entraînent des dérapages, des ratés, des disjonctions, des contradictions, des blancs à partir desquels un sens nouveau émerge" (96, a notion similar to Bakhtin's open-endedness). Far from being incompatible with Chomsky's own reading of certain images from the past, Robin may in fact be offering an explanation for Chomsky's own ambivalence about the role of literature, based upon reference to the moment in which these texts are recuperated for re-examination. "What can literature do?" can be expanded to include: "What can knowing what literature can do tell us about who is doing it?" And furthermore, Robin's example is one that forces us to admit that knowledge from Rickshaw Boy or Le Père Goriot is not necessarily that different from our actual memories, a fact that must be accounted for in privileging one kind of discourse over another. Furthermore, intertextuality suggests that scientific knowledge, which Chomsky sees as fundamentally distinct from other kinds of knowledge, may in fact have certain presuppositions that are characteristic of a particular epoch or paradigm. This brings us to another area of discussion in Chomsky, for his refusal to bring together his work on political discourse and his work in the field of linguistics is based upon a belief that the former is purely observational and the latter is scientific. This has consequences for his understanding of literary texts. Whereas Chomsky claims to consciously resist allowing literature to affect his beliefs and attitudes with regards to history and society (as we saw earlier), Angenot insists upon the need to elaborate "une théorie et une critique historique du discours social," which would permit us to study the literary text in a properly socialized setting, while underlining its paradoxical role as both disseminator and subverter. This indeed leads us to a divergence between these two thinkers, just as it lead to a divergence between Foucault and Chomsky during their debate on "human nature." Chomsky refuses to acknowledge the role that rules of social interaction play in either of his two domains, his purely scientific (in his sense) study of linguistics and his "muckraking" (Chomsky's term) studies of media and power relations in contemporary American society. The elements of the "immense rumeur" that are of interest to Angenot, "ses règles," "ses topiques," "ses rôles," sa rhétorique," "sa doxa," "ses langages," "ses migrations thématiques," and so forth, are present in language for Chomsky, but they act ostensibly as screens to our understanding of the facts that are obscured therein. Thus Chomsky seeks to sift through the "immense rumeur" for objective truth or empirical facts, while Angenot (like Foucault before him) sets forth the compendium of social discourse as an interrelated whole and suggests that the kinds of scientific knowledge sought within a particular context is to some degree coloured by the questions posed by the overall social discourse and the discursive rules that underlie it. For Angenot, literary texts reveal active discursive tendencies that could in some ways colour or even define what is deemed to be the realm of science, while for Chomsky literature's relation thereto is irrelevant or, at best, unknowable.

This is not extraneous for those who seek to sift through texts in search of objective data. Certain texts, for Angenot, are declared to be literary according to an active paradigm of social constraints and circumstances; "autrement dit, l'effet "littérature" ne peut être jugé et mesuré que par rapport au système socio-discursif global dans lequel il s'engendre" (12). Substituting the word "littérature" for "science" would I think be at least partially in accord with Angenot's vision (that is, I think that 1+1=2 would remain scientific and for most purposes objective knowledge for Angenot, whereas other "scientific claims" might not), whereas said substitution would undoubtedly be rejected by Chomsky. One of Angenot's objectives is to de-fetishize literature, to place it into a properly social realm; Chomsky, on the other hand, allows no such privilege to literature in the first place. On the other hand, he does as I've said claim special status for scientific work which, although not identical to fetishization, could create similar ideological problems under certain circumstances by virtue of, say, its being exempted it from discussions concerning ideological repercussions (ie. agent orange or gene splicing as advancements in science).

>From this standpoint it is interesting to re-examine Duchet's view ­ "on ne peut véritablement penser l'histoire qu'à travers l'imaginaire" ­ and Angenot's repudiation of fetishization of literature ­ "la littérature ne connaît pas le monde mieux que ne parviennent à le faire les autres discours, elle connaît seulement, ou plutôt elle montre que les discours qui prétendent le connaître et les humains qui humblement ou glorieusement s'y efforcent ne le connaissent vraiment pas" (19) ­ since they both suggest the modesty of our understanding and the limitation of any single vision (including a scientific one). We need other persons to "fill in" for us, according to Bakhtin, for their regard upon us allows for a more complete vision than a single (monologic) perspective. Part of the process of "filling in" is undertaken by those who comment upon or attempt to contextualize literary language and texts. When Chomsky discusses this kind of research (socio-linguistics and literary criticism) in Language and Responsibility, he once again resists the possibility that dialogue about literature has any particular claim to knowledge.


A discipline is defined in terms of its objects and its results. Sociology is the study of society. As to its results, its seems that there are few things one can say about that, at least at a fairly general level. One finds observations, intuitions, impressions, some valid generalizations perhaps. All very valuable, no doubt, but not at the level of explanatory principles. Literary criticism also has things to say, but it does not have explanatory principles. Of course ever since the ancient Greeks people have been trying to find general principles on which to base literary criticism, but while I'm far from an authority in this field, I'm under the impression that no one has yet succeeded in establishing such principles.... That is not a criticism. It is a characterization, which seems to me to be correct. Sociolinguistics is, I suppose, a discipline that seeks to apply principles of sociology to the study of language; but I suspect that it can draw little from sociology, and I wonder whether it is likely to contribute much to it.

Ronat replies that "in general one links a social class to a set of linguistic forms in a manner that is almost bi-unique." Chomsky replies: that "You can also collect butterflies and make many observations. If you like butterflies, that's fine; but such work must not be confounded with research, which is concerned to discover explanatory principles of some depth and fails if it does not do so" (57).


Here I think is the basis of Chomsky's argument; literature cannot "know" anything in terms of explanatory principles, and to look for such principles in literary texts would be an error. Some literary theorists, and I might add sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and so forth cringe at Chomsky's use of seemingly derogatory descriptions of their work. But they could use Angenot's position that all knowledge domains, including pure science's claim to a monopoly on explanatory principles, are culturally and socially contingent in the same way that Chomsky claims that literary knowledge are.


By emphasizing the thoroughly socialized nature of any text, this comparison contributes to a properly communal nature of language and a concurrent de-fetishization of literary texts; and by questioning the position and the sanctity of literary texts within this discursive community, they offer valuable insights into aspects of our reading of literary texts. At the end of the day, the two positions discussed are fundamentally incompatible; but both Chomsky and Angenot are climbing the same mountain. So for those who are looking to make the ascent towards social justice less precarious, or for those who might be in search of a guide or a little consolation in the darkness of an alpine night, it is in my opinion, worth consulting both of these guides for advice.

1. Some of the ideas in this article were originally discussed, in a very preliminary form, in a review of Jacques Neefs (ed.) La Politique du texte that I wrote for Régine Robin's Le Sociogramme en question, Discours social / Social Discourse 5.1-2.

2. (originally published by CERS Montpellier in 1983 as Théorie et pratique sociocritiques, and translated into English by Jerome Schwartz for the University of Minnesota Press, 1988)

3. Duchet's first publication was in 1946, and his first use of "socio-critique" in one of his titles occurred in 1971 with the publication of "Pour une socio-critique ou variations sur un incipit," in Littérature 1, 1971.

4. Paris: Éditions Fernand Nathan.

5. Jacques Neefs and Marie-Claire Ropars, La Politique du texte, enjeux sociocritiques: pour Claude Duchet. Paris: Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1992.

6. By doing so I am trying to live up to a tradition, described by Ulla and Jürgen link in Theory and Practice of Sociocriticism, in which Montreal acts as "probably the most important reception channel between the francophone world and the United States," vii.

7. Montréal: Hurtubise HMH, 1979.

8. This early definition was from a linguistic perspective; Harris was interested in the "pattern of occurrence (ie. a recurrence) of segments of discourse [ie. utterances, parts of sentences, words, parts of words which constitute a "whole constituent or a sequence of constituents; where a constituent, for language, is a segment of a sentence resulting from any grammatical analysis of the sentence"] relative to each other," and as such concentrated upon the structure in discourse which can be studied without reference to other information, such as the pattern or relations of meanings in the discourse (Discourse 7).

9. Noam Chomsky, Language and Politics. Montréal: Black Rose, 1988.

10. Noam Chomsky, Language and Politics (Montréal: Black Rose, 1988); Language and Responsibility: Based on Conversations with Mitsou Ronat, Trans. John Viertel (New York: Pantheon, 1979); Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (New York: Vintage, 1972).

The World of Noam Chomsky