JJ Amaworo Wilson's Blog

The Instinct for Cooperation: A Graphic Novel Conversation with Noam Chomsky and Jeffrey Wilson


By JJ Amaworo Wilson

How about this for a hybrid: take an 80-something professor, sit him down for a conversation, and turn it into a graphic novel. It really shouldn’t work, but it does.

Noam Chomsky has long been the world’s foremost intellectual, an unrivaled authority on human rights and world affairs. I would say he’s forgotten more than the current U.S. administration knows about world history, but that would be absurd. Firstly, Chomsky doesn’t seem to forget anything, and secondly a monkey on acid could probably produce a more coherent historical worldview than the current U.S. administration.

The idea for the book began when an enterprising Ph.D student called Jeffrey Wilson asked Chomsky for an interview. As is his wont, Chomsky agreed. Several recorded conversations later, Wilson had his transcript, which he set about converting to an accessible form, with the help of gifted Portuguese graphic artist Eliseu Gouveia.

How do you make an interview with an 80-something academic in his office look … well … more interesting than an interview with an 80-something academic in his office? Somehow it isn’t a problem, because Chomsky’s range of reference and his knack for getting to the heart of things are always quietly riveting.

The task for Gouveia was to find interesting ways to illustrate Chomsky’s points. In this, the artist succeeds. The section on Tucson’s HB 2281 law, which dismantled Mexican American Studies, is shown through snapshots of students in class, or protesting, or explaining how MAS changed their lives. The People’s Library in Zucotti Park, a collection of over 5000 donated books, is shown as a functioning space where people browse, sort books, sweep up, while the NYPD hauls away sacks of books for garbage disposal. (Oh, the irony. Stalin’s ghost must be laughing his head off.)

In addition, Wilson interviewed others – professors and students – to glean more information about the topics touched on by Chomsky: HB 2281, The People’s Library, and student debt.

Although long-time Chomsky readers and viewers (there are interviews on youtube) won’t find a great deal that’s new here, it’s all worth reiterating in the light of the current political climate. The overall theme is resistance against the state, and, as Chomsky shows, it comes in many forms: the civil rights movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the silent, taped-mouth protests of the Mexican American Studies kids.

If I have one criticism of the whole enterprise, it’s this: Gouveia’s artwork is too glamorous. The rallies in Zucotti Park look like fashion shows. The beleaguered student-protesters in Arizona appear to have just stepped out of a modeling shoot – all slinky hips and high cheekbones. Protest movements don’t really look like this. They are, more often than not, meetings of the great unwashed – people sleeping on the streets or in squats, eating crap food and growing slick with sweat from marching. Gouveia is a brilliant artist, no doubt, but this subject matter demanded something a bit rougher around the edges.

Apart from that one caveat, The Instinct For Cooperation is terrific. It’s all about solidarity in the face of state violence and repression. What could be more timely?

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