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Zellig Harris: From American Linguistics to Socialist Zionism
by:Robert F Barsky
In 1995, Robert Barsky met with Noam Chomsky to discuss hiswork-in-progress, Noam Chomsky: A Life ofDissent (MIT Press, 1997). Chomsky told Barsky that he shouldfocus his attention instead on midcentury linguist and activist Zellig Harris,who was, Chomsky modestly insisted, more interesting than Chomsky himself.Intrigued, Barsky began to research Harris...
In 1995, Robert Barsky met with Noam Chomsky to discuss hiswork-in-progress, Noam Chomsky: A Life ofDissent (MIT Press, 1997). Chomsky told Barsky that he shouldfocus his attention instead on midcentury linguist and activist Zellig Harris,who was, Chomsky modestly insisted, more interesting than Chomsky himself.Intrigued, Barsky began to research Harris (1909--1992) and discovered thestory of a major figure in American intellectual life "sitting in acorner in the middle of the room" -- partof crucial twentieth-century conversations about language, technology, labor,politics, and Zionism. The intersecting worlds of Harris's intellectualand political activities were populated by such figures as Louis Brandeis,Albert Einstein, Franz Boas, Nathan Glazer, and Chomsky. Barskydescribes Harris's work in language studies, andhis pioneering ideas about discourse analysis, structural linguistics, andinformation representation. He also discusses Harris's part in the pre-1948Zionist movement -- ;when many Jews on the Leftenvisioned a socialist Palestine that would be a haven not only for persecutedJews but also for disenfranchised Arabs and anyone seeking a sanctuary againstoppression -- ;and recounts Harris's debates on the subject withBrandeis, Einstein, and a large group of students involved with a Zionistorganization called Avukah. And Barsky describes Harris's views oncapitalism, worker-owner relations, and worker self-management, the legacy ofwhich can be found in some of his students' writings, notably those ofSeymour Melman. Barsky shows how Harris, as mentor, teacher, and colleague,powerfully influenced figures who came to dominate the twentieth century'spolitical discussion -- ;thinkers as different as Noam Chomsky and NathanGlazer.
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