Social status and Tom Wolfe’s take on Chomsky and Darwin

The Kingdom of Speech by Tom WolfeI wonder whether I would really like Tom Wolfe very much in real life. I have always suspected I might not, but I very well could be wrong. My take on his writing is that he finds subjects that people out of vogue have screamed about for years, then very cleverly writes about those “insightful” things and gets many public accolades and lots of money. Don’t get me wrong, I think he is providing a great service and it is a good gig if you can get it. He started doing this with Radical Chic and has had many successes leading up to his latest take on the self-satisfied Noam Chomsky’s ownership of the “right” way to think about linguistics. David Klinghoffer does a stellar job of explaining it all in his post at ENV titled In The Kingdom of Speech, Tom Wolfe Tells the Story of Evolution’s Epic Tumble. My favorite part of the article explains Wolfe’s game, seemingly every time he plays it–and it is a good game–exposing the pretensions of pretentious people:

Wolfe frames his story in terms of two pairs of rivals or doppelgängers — Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, on one hand, and linguists Noam Chomsky and Daniel Everett on the other. As in every other book of his that I’ve read, Wolfe is sharply attuned to matters of status, rank, class — which explain so much not only in fashion or politics but in the history of ideas. In both of these pairs of scientists, one is the established figure, the man of rank and prestige (Darwin, Chomsky), while he was overtaken and nearly knocked from his pedestal by a field researcher of lesser cachet (Wallace, Everett), a “flycatcher” in Wolfe’s phrase.

Chomsky and Darwin “won” the game of science, not because they were right but because they had social, pop cultural cachet. I think that is exactly right. I think Wolfe has earned his place in society partly because he is such an engaging writer, but even more so because he, too, has the social, pop cultural cachet to not only say the emperor has no clothes, but to get people to actually listen to and consider the idea. That is something a lot of people knew all along. They  are mostly people who live in fly-over country and attended Big State U. as opposed to one of the Ivys.

About Dad

Married Christian man with two children, one in graduate school and one working. Oregonian (family arrived in 1846 along the Applegate Trail). Living and working from home in Washington state. Lived in North Carolina for seven years, Texas several times and South Florida amoung other places--kids graduated from NCSU, LOVE North Carolina and NCSU, Texas and South Florida). Judo Shodan. Graduate of Oregon State University (B.S. Business Administration, Marketing), Oregon Institute of Techonology (A.E. Computer Systems Engineering Technology), University of Texas at El Paso (M.S. Industrial Engineering). Computer Vision Research Consultant. Bilingual English/Spanish.

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