Resisting the Nihilistic HyperPolitical,
or, Philomela’s Revenge: Chomsky’s Tongue, Roasted

Susan Smith Nash

Rochelle Owens, whose series of three poems, “Chomsky Grilling Linguica,” can be viewed as either a satire or a jeremiad, may find that some of the subtle artistry in her work is likely to be overlooked. Instead, most readers respond viscerally to the overt political message, and may miss the allusions to Greek mythology that make the poems much more universal than they might appear upon first encounter.

The “Linguica” poems were inspired by a dinner party at Noam Chomsky’s Wellfleet (MA) summer home, where he grilled the Portuguese sausage called linguica (pronounced “lin GWEE sah) while dinner guests made polite conversation. Chomsky, who is credited with developing transformational and “generative” grammar, is one of the most important linguistic theorists of the twentieth century. He is also a political activist, and has spoken against policies of governments, including the U.S., which he criticizes for supporting Israel. Chomsky’s political stance is left-wing, and he has said he supports efforts to resist what he considers to be the efforts of governments to exploit workers, as he considers himself an anarcho-syndicalist.

His political views have alienated him to many, and he is a polarizing force to those who consider him to be promoting anti-Semitism, although Chomsky himself is Jewish. Because of the nature of his polemics, Chomsky’s intellectual work is often intruded upon by the political in a manner well described in Derrida’s work, Signeponge (1984), which suggests that signifiers become sponges which simultaneously hold and release meaning.

Ironically, the word “Chomsky” has become a signifier with a large sponge quotient. Anything bearing the word “Chomsky” has soaked up the political, and even when the matrix of the work may be about something else, the signifier has soaked up the highly-charged signification, resulting in the fact that his overt political agenda is held in the interstices. Highly charged political “signifiance” is released whenever his work is squeezed. As a result, politics oozes out of anything that may be related to Chomsky, which becomes transformative in and of itself, and it essentially metamorphoses everything it touches into something that possesses within it an embedded ideology. What is activated is a kind of “nihilistic hyper-political” that reduces discourse to cartoon-like extremes.

The fact that Chomsky’s political stance has started to overshadow his other work factors into the way that Owens pillories him in her poems. To begin, Owens makes a word play on the word, “linguica,” which derives from the Latin “lingua” for “tongue.”

hosting a dinner party    saying the pro-Israel Jewish lobby are
the bad Jews    Chomsky sucking a Portuguese sausage    chomping
linguica in his house

Chomsky chomps and sucks the language from the signifier — he chews, swallows, and utterly engulfs it. On one level, the poem is how Chomsky’s words destroy language itself.

Chomsky was
grilling chunks    grilling chunks    chunks
of Portuguese    chunks of Portuguese    sausage chunks    linguica
linguica    chunks of linguica     Chomsky was grilling linguica
(“Chomsky Grilling Linguica (Part 1)”

Chomsky’s grilling of collective tongue is intensely nihilistic. Not only does he effectively erase the authors and the speakers, as well as their identities, he also effectively expunges whatever record of the objective correlative of emotions, feelings, human frailty – in other words, art — might have existed.

In addition, there are literary allusions.

By plucking the tongue (and then grilling it and feeding it to her readers), Owens becomes Chomsky’s Philomela. In Greek mythology, the king rapes Philomela, and then cuts out her tongue so that she can tell no one. If one follows the analogy, Chomsky’s politics have cut the tongue from anything (language itself) that attempts to speak of the violation that has occurred to him. The sponge oozes politics. The sponge-water invades, often uninvited, and it corrupts the body of the word.

Philomela was not able to speak and thus could not tell her story, except through signs and gestures. So, she wove a tapestry – a pictogram – how she was invaded against her will. Interestingly, the text of Owens’ work has a tapestry-like appearance in its formal arrangement. Like Philomela, Owens weaves a tapestry in order to reveal the truth of a perceived atrocity, a violation, a rape. Her poem suggests that her readers will react as did Philomela’s sister, Procne. In the Greek myth, Procne kills the king’s son because the king has raped Philomela. The king’s son is roasted and served to the king, who eats his own offspring, unaware of the provenance of the meat. Ironically, Chomsky’s own readers are already doing this. Chomsky’s politics have certainly thrown the best work of his oeuvre on the fire, to be grilled and then cannibalized without his even being aware of it. The unfortunate Chomsky believes he is creating more offspring, when in fact, he is devouring his own.

In an alternative (and delightfully perverse) reading, one even could suggest that Owens has figuratively violated Chomsky himself and then cut out his tongue, then grilled it up and served it to his dinner guests at his exclusive, well-appointed enclave at Wellfleet.

However, when the motif of the grilled “linguica” (tongue? Guernica?) first appears, Owens suggests that Chomsky is the one who has taken the tongue-meat from an innocent victim and has proceeded to grill it himself. His victims are, by implication, mute.

Owens exposes the falsity in Chomsky’s  rhetorical claim to expose truth.  This is an impossibility because the form itself is postmodern and does not admit essence; truth is perceived to be a construct derived from the intersection of symbol systems (semiotics), discursive habits, and social obligations / constructs.  Exposure of the existence of the hyperpolitical, is, in essence, an exposure of the fact that the things that purport having deep meaning are, in fact, empty rhetorical flourishes.

In this case, the hyperpolitical is deeply antinomian.  Chomsky “grilling linguica” illustrates a destructive act against the tongue (and authority):

the Chomsky jawbone      the chosen jawbone      the Chomsky jawbone
the chosen jawbone      unhinging hinging      unhinging hinging
the chosen jawbone of a
(from Part 3, “Chomsky Grilling Linguica”)

In the end, in the poem, Chomsky morphs into something that echoes the biblical Samson, who took the jawbone of a freshly killed donkey and kills a thousand men with it. Not only does the jawbone kill people, it kills meaning and signification. Obviously, in this case, it is Chomsky’s own jawbone that kills.

With the bold vision of fragmentation and carnage on the eve of a larger conflagration that characterizes Picasso’s “Guernica,” poet and playwright Rochelle Owens exposes the fact that language’s nuances are erased by the nihilistic hyper-political of a discourse such as Chomsky’s.