Books interview: Chris Knight

The radical anthropologist and author of Decoding Chomsky traces his interest in animal behaviour, tribal customs and language back to Doctor Dolittle via Tolstoy, Engels and Marx

November 10, 2016
Chris Knight, University College London
Source: Jude Bliss

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
My primary school teacher thrilled me with the Beacon Reader Book Six, the one with the archery of William Tell. That made a deep impression. I learned that reading was exciting, and before long I was carried away with the anthropological adventures of Doctor Dolittle and his animal companions, all with their exotic customs and languages. Perhaps this was the beginning of my interest in animal behaviour, tribal customs and the mysteries of language. Later, my favourites were the Just William books and Jennings Goes to School, both of which showed me the value of laughter in the service of total anarchy. At around 15, I read both War and Peace and Anna Karenina. For me, no other novels ever came close, and Russian culture seemed the place for me to go.

Which books spurred your interest in anthropology and your political commitments?
My father had a rich library of subversive books, mostly by William Cobbett but also by Peter Kropotkin (Mutual Aid), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man) and Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism). I dipped into these, but it was only when I discovered Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State that I knew what interested me most. But at that stage, even while doing Russian in my first year at university, I didn’t know that it was called “anthropology”. At university, I was excited by Marx’s early writings, John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.

Your new book on Noam Chomsky is sympathetic to his politics but very critical of his linguistics. Which of his political writings would you recommend?
I would recommend his 1983 book Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians. In the 1950s, when Chomsky hoped to associate a secular Israel with Arab-Jewish anti-imperialist resistance, he sympathised with the Zionist project. But that was a different age.

Can you suggest some books that give a more plausible overview of how language works than Chomsky is able to provide?
For where words come from and how they evolve, a brilliant modern introduction is Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language. He shows how metaphorical usage lies behind grammar, taking us to landscapes of creativity never mentioned in any of Chomsky’s books. For the evolutionary background, an authoritative account is Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Since my partner is a fan of lagomorphs, I gave her a picture book called The Three Hares.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Science is the most revolutionary form of knowledge. Climate science reminds us that we have only one planet; we must look after it – and we can no longer afford to let national boundaries or outmoded politics stand in the way.

Chris Knight is senior research fellow in anthropology at University College London. His latest book is Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics (Yale University Press).

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