Noam Chomsky wrote me back

Like most people, one of my favorite subjects is how the United States is going to hell in a hand-basket. I’m not that different from the average rabid Tea Partier in this sense really, except that I tend to attribute certain problems to different causes.

Noam Chomsky is in my pantheon of household gods. My favorite attribute of his is not his intellect, or apparently eidetic memory for facts, or his empathetic humanism and compassion– these are everywhere (though not often in the same person). It is his iconoclasm and contrariness. Even the most doe-eyed supplicants to his genius often find that when they attend a talk and voice their assumptions in questions to him they are casually, effortlessly shot full of holes.

Also, he enjoys sticking it to elites. After speaking at length about the vices and interests of the “secular priesthood” of so-called intellectuals in the US, he was asked who he thinks the true intellectuals really are. His response was, “I think there’s less real intellectual work going on in a lot of university departments than there is in trying to figure out what’s the matter with my car, which requires some creativity.”  And it seems, like I think that I think, that he doesn’t believe in the authority of individuals– it is only the ideas and expressions of individuals that should carry any authority (or not). He advises his listeners that we are as capable as he in finding answers ourselves, as his opinions come from reading mainly material that is available to anyone. When was asked what kind of specific qualifications or authority he has to speak about these issues, being as how he is supposed to be only a linguist… his response:

None whatsoever…. I don’t pretend to have qualifications, nor do I pretend that qualifications are needed. I mean, if somebody were to ask me to give a talk on quantum physics, I’d refuse– because I don’t understand enough. But world affairs are trivial: there’s nothing in the social sciences or history or whatever that is beyond the intellectual capacities of an ordinary fifteen-year-old…. In fact, I think the idea that you’re supposed to have special qualifications to talk about world affairs is just another scam– it’s like Leninism: it’s just another technique for making the population feel that they don’t know anything, and they’d better just stay out of it and let us smart guys run it.

In early 2009 I wrote to Professor Chomsky, asking a question about the liquidity crisis:

Possible remedies to the current financial crisis that have been discussed in the major media outlets, that I have heard, have not included the idea of simply annulling the contracts concerning the questionable financial instruments often blamed for much of the trouble. Have a big bonfire: the material and intellectual capital of the world has not substantively changed since before the “financial crisis” until now; all that seems to have really changed is the Sense of Value foisted upon people by the “authors of The Sense of Value.” (this last statement sounds sort of schizophrenic… I’m not a good writer)

I.e: Just cancel the Credit default swaps, etc., back to, say, 2000 [I was referring to the time of the repeal of Glass-Steagal]. Since there is so much circularity to the debt, it seems that if it is all called off then there would be a general restoration of a sense of liquidity. The beneficiaries of these techniques have had their fun, but it isn’t as if wealth has been metabolized and expended as heat into the cosmos any more than usual, is it? This seems a question of efficiency, not of the dynamics of capital. We could stop it all now– the idea of balance book receivables derived from what seem to be totally fraudulent means. There would be no need for phony “bailout” schemes.

I was shocked that he actually responded to me…!:

There have been proposals from leading figures to “wipe out” shareholders, break up the banks, charge CEOs with criminal fraud, etc. But wiping out all of these contracts would have unknown and possibly catastrophic effects, for just the reason you mention: “circularity,” or more fully, the opacity of the whole system.

This shows that he actually is one of those people who thinks that important things should be done carefully and deliberately, whereas I have a tendency to run roughshod over everything I see. So… I still sort of like my bonfire idea, even though it’s a bit late for that now.


Chris Marker, Sans Soleil, 1982

A Chris Marker photograph from the Paris Metro

Perhaps a central figure in my small, exclusive pantheon of household gods is Chris Marker, whom no one, I think, should characterize only as “French filmmaker” as is usually done. For me, his Stendhal syndrome inducing film essay Sans Soleil has more in common with The Sagrada Família than with any mere film known to me– its insightfulness, erudition, effortless, uninhibited subjectivist intellectual arabesque, free of pretension, is astounding and overwhelming (for some people apparently, it also takes 144 years to finish). Monique and I hosted a humble Marker film festival at Manette a few years ago, but contemplating this film in particular I find myself falling into a kind of consciousness I only ever experience when waking from the rarest, most disturbing dreams, where, I believe, certain inhibitory faculties of my brain are not online… I’m a different person completely without the cognitive filters of waking life standing guard, thinking and feeling what is normally not possible for me to feel, surveying a vast, hostile existential terrain in all directions.

To others, Sans Soleil is a travelogue.  In any case it is a heavy vessel of zeitgeist– the film grain and stock, the confluent imagery of early 1980s Japan, the washes of characteristically dissonant FM synthesis. 1982 now seems very faint– I was only around 8 years old then– this now long-distant realization of futurism (this is an idea desperate for a Markerian neologism) is like an autumnal chill. In the culture of we-who-think-we-understand-a-little-of-Marker’s-work, though we can never be very sure of it, there is a half-joke that he is a time-traveler….

There is a system of synchronicity around Marker. In one of my favorite parts of the film, the protagonist “writes” the narrator that the wild german shepherds frolicking on the beaches of the Cape Verdean Isle of Sal seemed to him to be unusually active… only later does he hear a BBC radio broadcast speaking of this being the first time in 60 years that the Year of the Dog meets the element of water.

(I doubt anyone reading this far will need reminding that something doesn’t have to be “true” to be interesting.)

In the few months before I left Memphis in early 2002, as I was trying to discover as much about Marker as I could, having not seen any of his other work, I began to be included myself in this system of synchronicity. I played much of Sans Soleil on my WEVL radio show Gray December, and looked everywhere I could to find films I hadn’t seen– I found La Joli Mai at the library on VHS tape– but one day I went into an independent video store called Black Lodge to see if I could find the supposedly important film, La Jetée. I walked in and asked one of the two men standing there about it. They looked at each other in disbelief… the store did not have a copy I was told… but a friend of his had been there only five minutes before to loan the store a copy… and he was still holding it…! If this had been a film like Star Wars that he was holding, or a contemporary Hollywood box-office hit, this would not be difficult to imagine. But La Jetée?

But something more wonderful than even this happened not long after. Perhaps a week or two before coming to Portland, Judy, station manager at WEVL in Memphis, forwarded an email to me that was sent by a first time listener to my show, poet and electronic music composer Eric Tessier. We talked a bit about music via email and decided to meet at a restaurant called La Montagne… a former art student and friend tended bar there (search for “Elizabeth S.”). Eric ordered cranberry juice with some difficulty… then we talked about music and film, his wife Michelle being a professor of French New Wave film-making– so I brought up Chris Marker and probably spoke about Sans Soleil much like I have thus far in this post, speaking in particular of the film in a musical context because of my intense feelings for the Isao Tomita soundtrack and audio by Antoine Bonfanti. It was a shock to meet someone who understood what I was talking about. And that was the last time I have ever seen Eric.

A few months later I had been in Portland for some time… he wrote me he had returned to La Montagne one night and overheard French being spoken at a nearby table– so he introduced himself and fell into discussion with these travelers: they were filmmakers in town making the documentary By the Ways: A Journey with William Eggleston…. Eric was in fact that very night conversing with Antoine Bonfanti’s son Francis!

(Warning— Spoiler regarding the picture above: Take it from a portrait painter… don’t you think her eyes look crossed? They aren’t… but it’s an illusion one can’t un-see.)