March 11, 2005

Okay, so you won the argument. So what?

Posted by shonk at 07:35 PM | permalink

Over at Catallarchy, Micha Ghertner discusses “How To Tell You’ve Won An Argument;” namely, when your opponent concedes that his position is less coherent than your own, you’ve won. Now, I don’t want to dispute his point, but rather to question how relevant it is. I’ve touched on this before, but I’m a bit dubious of the notion that the “correct” position is the one that wins arguments between advocates of two different positions.

Obviously, in the first place, there’s nothing to prevent both arguers from being wrong; the relative lack of coherence of one of their positions means, at best, that the other’s position is “less” wrong (assuming that even makes sense and assuming that coherence is a measure of correctness).1 But this is somewhat superficial (and besides, already mentioned and acknowledged in the comments to Ghertner’s post); more importantly, I want to cast doubts upon the parenthetical assumption I made above, that coherence is some sort of infallible metric for measuring correctness/validity.

In fact, Ghertner (perhaps unconsciously) alludes to this very issue when he quotes Wittgenstein’s famous seventh proposition from the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Within the context of the Tractatus (as an attempt to construct or at least describe a perfect language), this supports the notion that being right and being coherent are synonymous, but Wittgenstein himself later rejects this perspective and, to me, the more apropos quotation is: “Explanations come to an end somewhere” (Philosophical Investigations, I§1). That is, no argument (and certainly none about abstract principles) is completely coherent; we always run up against that whereof we cannot speak and therefore must be silent. The question is simply at what stage in the investigation we enter the realm of unsupported assertion.

And even if we scale back our expectations and choose to embrace the position that manages to maintain coherence as far back as possible, there’s still no guarantee that we’re on the right track. Although much of the world can apparently be explained without the need to stipulate a deity, this doesn’t really make it any less likely that theism is right. In the words of Chuck Klosterman:

Math [or, perhaps more fittingly in this context, logic] is the antireligion, because it splinters the gravity of life’s only imperative equation: Either something is true, or it isn’t.

In fact, if we really want to get all Wittgensteinian about this (not that we necessarily should), we might even begin to question those positions which do appear to be coherent:

In the actual use of expressions we make detours, we go by side roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed. (PI, I§426)

Anyway, getting back to whatever semblance of a point I was trying to make, when someone admits that their position is incoherent, that does indeed mean that they’ve lost the argument, but I just wonder how important that really is. Giving up your high-paying job and live-in girlfriend to go back home and take care of your sick mother isn’t going to win a lot of arguments if we’re taking logical coherence as the criterion of victory (seriously, think about it), but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean that coherence is totally irrelevant to what is right/correct, either (and, I should point out, in the above example helping your sick mom isn’t necessarily the right thing to do; as is almost always true, it depends on the circumstances), but let’s not give argument-winning more importance than it merits. Or, as some smarmy new-age intellectual might put it, in the pursuit of knowledge, our goal shouldn’t be to win arguments, but, rather, to discover truth.

1. Since I’m quoting Wittgenstein anyway, I might as well include the relevant quote for this as well:

The law of the excluded middle says here: It must either look like this, or like that. So it really—and this is a truism—says nothing at all, but gives us a picture. And the problem ought now to be: does reality accord with the picture or not? And this picture seems to determine what we have to do, what to look for, and how—but it does not do so, just because we do not know how it is to be applied. Here saying “There is no third possibility” or “But there can’t be a third possibility!”—expresses our inability to turn our eyes away from this picture: a picture which looks as if it must already contain both the problem and its solution, while all the time we feel that it is not so. (PI I§352)

October 29, 2004

Who says the Mongols didn't leave anything lasting behind?

Posted by Curt at 10:23 AM | permalink | 6 comments

So I’m taking a class in Russian in Paris. Now, Russian is a very beautiful language, but it has one letter, one sound, which as my professor puts it, “makes foreigners cry.” It’s even worse than hearing French people trying to pronounce the letter “h”: the written letter appears approximately like “bl,” and it’s impossible to describe the sound, since there is no European-language equivalent, except to say that if someone punches you in the stomach while you are pronouncing the sound “ee” you will have a suprisingly similar result. Rather than bask in the impenetrable idiosyncrasy of such a linguistic quirk, my professor apologized while disclaiming responsibility for it. She claims that it’s not a Russian sound, that it is borrowed from the language of one of the Tartar or Mongol tribes that conquered Russia during the Middle Ages. I assume this is why the sound does not exist in many of the Southern Slavic languages. Well, now every time I pronounce the sound (which is pretty often—it’s the plural ending for most words) an image of burning villages and madly cackling horsemen always springs into my mind. Why, oh why, when Peter the Great was Westernizing Russia, could he not have taken time off from shaving off people’s beards to expel this barbaric Asiatic sound from the language?

July 12, 2004

Further krankiness editorialized

Posted by Curt at 03:43 PM | permalink | 4 comments

The fact that various repressive activists and government-types try to sell censorship of porn as a safety issue is probably of interest to few in and of itself. Perhaps the criminalization of pornogrophy should interest more people in its own right, since if all viewers of porn were accounted criminals I am sure at least 70% of all men would be fined or sent off to jail. But given that very few are ever going to actually admit to this proclivity and that few are willing to accept Larry Flynt as a champion of free speech in any case, I shall have to attract interest on the grounds that this modus operandi on the part of the censors is at the very least symptomatic of a wider pattern.

There are really two modes of morality in my opinion (far be it from me to assert that either one is legitimate). On the one hand, there is the inherently intolerant virtue-based idea of morality. I say inherently intolerant because this type of morality frames everything as a dichotomy between virtue and vice, between good and evil. Tolerance being the acceptance of various different ways of doing, being, living, there can be no tolerance in the simple duality of virtue and vice, when to not act virtuously is to act immorally. This is not to say that such a view of morality precludes the notion of free choice; anyone who has read Kant will recall all the arguments for the co-existence of moral imperative with free choice. But it should be at least apparent that freedom is not much of a value for its own sake in Kant or any other exponent of this type of morality; it may be a reality of human life, but the exemplar of virtue will confine himself within the strictures of virtue just as rigidly as if he were compelled to do so. The other type of morality, which I might call social boundary-based morality, is perhaps not a true form of morality, since it is not predicated on the idea of virtue, but rather on the idea that everyone should have total freedom and independence to do as they wish within the boundaries of their own individual existences. This type of morality is basically tolerant because it places no strictures on the manner in which individuals act, so long as they do not impose or impinge upon the independence of others. In fact, this morality really only applies to social interaction and judges only the effect actions have on others rather than on the value of an individual’s existence in and of itself.

I do not think it would be a great exaggeration to claim that in our culture, at this moment in our history, social boundaries-based morality is ascendent over virtue-based morality. So long as living as one sees fit is valued more highly than following a prescribed code of conduct, virtue-based morality can have little hold over people’s hearts and minds. It should now be apparent, however, why the labelling of censorship as a safety issue may be an important signifier of things to come. Censorship of pornography, it seems obvious, is essentially a consequence of virtue-based morality, since exciting sexual arousal is pretty clearly not an issue of imposition on others in and of itself (patience, feminists—I’ll get to the exploitation and abuse of women in a moment). Censorship of porn is, I believe, commonly predicated on a train of thought something like the following (regardless of the bases, religious or otherwise): 1. Sex, or at least excessive devotion to it, is evil; 2. Pornography excites the impulse to sex; 3. Therefore, pornography is evil. Since I do not believe that most people, at least in this culture, would necessarily accept even the notion of a virtue-based morality, let alone the specific virtues encoded in this line of thought, censorship of pornography would seem to be anomalous.

This is where the selling of censorship as a safety issue comes in. Few people may be convinced by any argument based on the premise that sex is evil, but by using words such as “safety” and “protection,” the the censors can make pornography appear to be almost a physical threat to the well-being of indviduals, especially children. Of course they hammer at the issue of children and pornography, because the well-being of children has a polarizing effect on almost any issue, but one could imagine this language being applied to any case. “Mr. X’s wife knew that he would not be safe as long as he was not protected from pornography on the Internet.” Since causing direct harm to another individual is an impingement upon their independence and hence a transgression of social boundaries-based morality, it seems clear to me that this insidious use of language is an attempt to make an old virtue-based moral prohibition palatable to adherents of a more relaxed social boundaries-based morality. Using these two simple words, “safety” and “protection,” almost any arbitrary old virtue-based rule can be re-sold as a threat to personal well-being and autonomy. This is the real significance of this ridiculous little abuse of language.

p.s. Although it would seem that proponents of intransigent virtue-based moral systems, religious fundamentalists for example, represent the greatest threat to the intellectual valuing of freedom, this is really a case of two extremes warring against the middle. On the opposite extreme, the notion of freedom is similarly corroded by those who take ethical utilitarianism into the realm of thoughtcrime. For instance, in the case of pornography religious groups are of course among the principal advocates of censorship, but feminists also represent a not-insignificant contingent of the advocates. They often proceed from the premise that the male sex drive represents the greatest source of violence to women to the conclusion that anything, including pornography, which excites this drive therefore represents an implicit threat of violence to women (whether this is explicitly stated or couched in vague, even metaphorical terms, as in the endless debates about the “objectification” of women). But the various side-issues surrounding this issue, such as the exploitation of women in the porn industry, etc., should not distract from the central point, which is this: to believe that sexual arousal itself, which after all is merely the potential for action, not the action itself, is itself injurious and therefore evil is to sanction the idea of thoughtcrime. I find this a common trait among secular extremists: while they may profess to adhere to social boundaries-based morality, they frequently impose strictures upon thought just as severe as those propogated by proponents of virtue-based morality because of their frequent refusal to draw clear boundaries between thought and action.

p.p.s. Given that the worst offender in this abuse of language that I have encountered is AOL, I am also aware that this issue is not always a legal one, nor one necessarily advanced by idealistic zealots; sometimes it is just a strategy by an ageing company to sell its shitty product which would not otherwise have any selling points. Nevertheless, I think all of these issues are still relevant, particularly the many ways that censorship is “sold” to the public, and even if the stakes right now are only the humiliation that will be yours if you are such a moron as to use AOL, it can become a coercive governmental issue at any time, and in addition this Trojan horse strategy of sneaking old intransigent values into an open society through deceptive language clearly goes far beyond pornography.

April 18, 2004

The polemical mind

Posted by Curt at 06:21 PM | permalink | comment

I remember that Sir Isaiah Berlin, in his The Proper Study of Mankind, as a means of trying to explain the basic change in intellectual temperament wrought by Romanticism, contrasts the personalities of Voltaire and Percy Bysshe Shelley via a hypothetical meeting between them. He claims that, while Shelley would undoubtedly be duly contemptuous of the limited range of Voltaire’s preoccupations and the pettiness of his aesthetic pleasures, Voltaire for his part would be appalled by the coarseness and undifferentiated simplicity of Shelley’s world-view. Regardless of the truth of this contrast as a general description, the choice of Voltaire as an embodiment of pre-Romantic bounded, orderly aesthetic sophistication seems ill-chosen in my opinion, because as monotonic polemicist and revolutionary he was at times unsurpassed in his epoch. Did he not end every letter that he wrote during the last 15 years of his life with “Écrasez l’infâme” (“Eradicate the infamy [the Catholic Church])? Granted this was but one phase of his life, but at all points Voltaire proved himself perhaps the most talented writer among the Englightenment philosophers but also undoubtedly the shallowest. In short, while he was indeed a satirist and stylist of genius, in the latter part of his life his intellectual simplism combined with a bizarrely late-flowering radicalism to divert the entirety of his creative activity into a single sustained monotonous and largely humorless broadside against organized religion and sectarian fanaticism.

All well and good, but what is the relevance of any of this? Of course, on one level I have in mind certain contemporary Voltaires like Noam Chomsky (Bertrand Russell was another). Both Russell and Chomsky, very much like Voltaire, became (Chomsky is still becoming) more radical in their old age, which is very much the opposite of the trajectory of most people. Old radicals have none of the charm of young radicals: generally their anarchism has little idealism and is instead characterized by bitterness and ennui. The fact that they were not so radical when young proves yet further that their radicalism is primarily a product of the bitterness of age rather than the idealism of youth. Voltaire’s insistent cry of “Écrasez l’infâme” has no wit or humor in it, as his younger works did: it is simply pure destruction intellectually manifested. And all of these men seemed to virtually forget their earlier intellectual concerns: do an search on Noam Chomsky, and one will find perhaps two of his remarkable early tracts on linguistics among the first 20 results; the rest are all political pamphlets on capitalism, terrorism, etc. that look to have been churned out on a weekly basis during the last three years.

But even these contemporary parallels still only get at my real point very indirectly. I think that to a large extent one’s thoughts and works are defined by one’s preoccupations. When Voltaire became utterly obsessed with destroying the institutions of religion, it signalled his death as an artist: all of his work became constricted down to that single repeated cry “Écrasez l’infâme.” In the same way, Noam Chomsky, for his all his pose as martyr of truth and opponent of propoganda, in his total absorption in the cause of opposition to the capitalistic-imperialistic mechanism which he sees as exploiting the entire world has shown himself to be entirely dominated by that idea (or myth), and in the service of that idea to have reduced himself to a pure propogandist as well. This is the substance of the reason behind Stefan Zweig’s refusal to speak out against the Nazis, which I explored a couple of months ago. Quite simply, although Zweig loathed the Nazis, he felt that if he became an advocate against them, even in opposition to them he would have allowed them to dictate his activities to him, would have in fact have allowed them to take over his mind, even if in hatred rather than obedience. His aloofness, then, was not the mark of passivity but rather of intellectual independence and freedom from totalitarianism.

I think there is some truth in that. I think that any idea which excessively preoccupies our minds will eventually cause our minds to more and more resemble it, no matter what our feelings are towards it. For example, though I know that this example will likely be offensive to many, I find a perfect example of the specific effect which Zweig feared in Holocaust memorials and art, which in my opinion have adopted many of propoganda tactics from the Nazis, for example in their excessive use of symbols, preoccupation with numbers and size, implicit diminishment of the individual in favor of the group, emphasis on group solidarity and ties, visceral emotional manipulation, and and implicit or explicit imputation of guilt on those who do not have the reaction or emotional response that the work intends to evoke. In both cases it is emotional thuggery, in that docility and submission to the work’s purpose, rather than individual critical evaluation, are encouraged as the appropriate responses on the part of the audience. I certainly do not at all mean to imply that Holocaust art is as reprehensible as Nazi art, simply that fixation with one particular subject has caused its creators to, in my view, become unduly influenced, even corrupted, by their subject. This is the sort of emulation born out of antagonism which Nietzsche had in mind, I believe, when he claimed that the greatest exemplifiers of “Jewish” ressentiment in his own era were anti-Semites. Of course I am aware that as an example I have picked a topic which it is virtually impossible to think calmly and rationally, but for that I think we have to thank in part that intellectual totalitarianism which has seeped, like a creeping disease, from one barbaric movement into the minds of its opponents. And this, I think, is the danger when one allows one’s conscious opposition to something to become an obsession and then a defining component of one’s own identity.

April 10, 2004

Standing in the kitchen, feeling stupid

Posted by shonk at 11:37 PM | permalink | 44 comments

In reading through Douglas Adams’ sadly posthumous Salmon of Doubt, I came across this little gem about the creation of The Meaning of Liff:

So, the vaguely uncomfortable feeling you got from sitting on a seat which is warm from somebody else’s bottom is just as real a feeling as the one you get when a rogue giant elephant charges out of the bush at you, but hitherto only the latter actually had a word for it. Now they both have words. The first one is “shoeburyness,” and the second, of course, is “fear.”

We started to collect more and more of these words and concepts, and began to realize what an arbitrarily selective work the Oxford English Dictionary is. It simply doesn’t recognize huge wodges of human experience. Like, for instance, standing in the kitchen wondering what you went in there fore. Everybody does it, but because there isn’t—or wasn’t—a word for it, everyone thinks it’s something that only they do and that they are therefore more stupid than other people. It is reassuring to realize that everybody is as stupid as you are and that all we are doing when we are standing in the kitchen wondering what we came in here for is “woking.” (pgs. 11-12)

Now, admittedly, this is a sort of thin premise on which to base much of anything, but bear with me. I think what Adams is talking about is actually rather a deep phenomenon. Not that it’s a new one, or anything, but Adams puts it a hell of a lot better than most linguists and social commentators. The idea, of course, is that language defines, in many ways, our reality and that it does so through omission every bit as much as it does by inclusion.

When concepts, feelings, etc. are unnameable, they are, in a very real sense, less, well, real. And so when we experience these unnamed and therefore less real feelings or thoughts, we naturally think that we must be weird, unusual, or even unique. Which is why everybody can so immediately identify with the cliché “Normal is what everybody else is and you’re not”. Because normal people would never even have unnamed, unreal feelings and experiences, let alone spend so much time thinking about them. After all, if normal people had these feelings, they’d give them a name and talk about them.

Well, okay, that sounds good, but who cares? I mean, standing confused in the kitchen isn’t exactly a life-changing even (well, not usually, anyway). But we don’t just not have names for these sorts of crises of memory, we don’t have names for all kinds of basic concepts. For example, Adams was a self-proclaimed “radical atheist” and had a keen interest in evolution, but there’s no good word for the whole spontaneous-generation-of-complex-structures-from-simpler- building-blocks-with-no-intervention-from-higher-powers concept that lies at the very heart of the basic idea of evolution. Sure there are terms like “spontaneous order” or “emergent phenomena” or whatever, but these are all artificial phrases, vaguely technical and unnatural.

Why are there no simple words to describe the spontaneous order/emergent phenomena concept? Because, as Adams brilliantly points out by way of an analogy with a puddle of water in “Is there an Artificial God?” such things simply don’t jibe with how we perceive reality. On the other hand, there is a very simple, very concrete, almost tangible word for an equally daunting and directly imperceptible concept; I’m speaking, of course, of “God”. Now we could argue until the cows come home about why this concept has such a definitive name (for example, Adams the radical atheist says its because we created God in our image, others would argue exactly the opposite), but the why is sort of beside the point. The point is that the one concept has no good name while the other does and the fact that the concept which is, to some extent, actually verifiable is the one without a name is what makes this phenomenon all the more interesting.

To tie this in with another main theme of this site, I would point out that another major area which manifests the spontaneous order/emergent phenomena paradigm is the market. One might be inclined to argue that part of the reason most people are leery of the free market as a political or economic ideal is that the closest anybody’s come to concisely expressing the basic concept is Adam Smith’s lame “Invisible Hand” metaphor. That’s right, lame. The metaphor is lame because it stimulates exactly the sorts of fears and delusions it was intended to dispel: bring up an “invisible hand” in the context of greedy businessmen and most people hear “conspiracy” and “collusion” (the whole Black Hand thing didn’t help, either).

Of course, things get even worse when institutions, intentionally or not, start appropriating perfectly reasonable and useful words. Nowadays, “cooperation” is something you do sullenly, because your first-grade teacher made you. People hear the word “cooperative” and immediately start thinking of government, which is ironic because government is anything but.

And now, for those that just wanted to read Adams quotes, here’s a few from The Salmon of Doubt, each worthy of its own entry:

A few years ago—well, I can tell you exactly, in fact, it was early 1994—I had a little run-in with the police. I was driving along Westway into central London with my wife, who was six months pregnant, and I overtook on the inside lane. Not a piece of wild and reckless driving in the circumstances, honestly, it was just the way traffic was flowing; but anyway I suddenly found myself being flagged down by a police car. The policemen signalled me to follow them down off the motorway and—astonishingly— to stop behind them on a bend in the slip road, where we could all get out and have a little chat about my heinous crime. I was aghast. Cars, trucks, and, worst of all, white vans were careering down the slip road, none of them, I’m sure, expecting to find a couple of cars actually parked there, right on the bend. Any one of them could easily have rear-ended my care—with my pregnant wife inside. The situation was frightening and insane. I made this point to the police officer, who, as is so often the case with the police, took a different view.

The officer’s point was that overtaking on an inside lane was inherently dangerous. Why? Because the law said it was. But being parked on a blind bend on a slip road was not dangerous because I was there on police instructions, which made it legal and hence (and this is the tricky bit to follow) safe.

My point was that I accepted I had (quite safely) made a manoeuvre that was illegal under the laws of England, but that our current situation, parked on a blind bend in the path of fast-moving traffic, was life-threatening by reason of the actual physical laws of the universe.

The officer’s next point was that I wasn’t in the universe, I was in England, a point that has been made to me before. I gave up trying to win an argument and agreed to everything so that we could just get out of there.

—pg. 22. I, personally, think this ties in nicely with my article “Legality is not Morality”, but I may be biased.

That is also why it’s impossible to divorce pure science from technology: they feed and stimulate each other. So the latest software gizmo for transferring an mp3 sound file from one computer to another across continents is, when you peer into its innards and at the infrastructure that has given rise to it and that it, in turn, becomes part of, is, in its way, every bit as interesting as the way in which a cell replicates, an idea is formed within a brain, or a beetle deep in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest digests its prey. It’s all part of the same underlying process that we in turn are part of, it’s where our creative energies are being poured, and I’ll happily take it over comedians, television, and football any day.

—pg. 125

“Kate, you think I’m talking nonsense, but I’m not. Listen. In the past, people would stare into the fire for hours when they wanted to think. Or stare at the sea. The endless dancing shapes and patterns would reach far deeper into our minds than we could manage by reason and logic. You see, logic can only proceed from the premises and assumptions we already make, so we just drive round and round in little circles like little clockwork cars. We need dancing shapes to lift us and carry us, but they’re harder to find these days. You can’t stare into a radiator. You can’t stare into the sea. Well, you can, but it’s covered with plastic bottles and used condoms, so you just sit there getting cross. All we have to stare into is the white noise. The stuff we sometimes call information, but which is really just a babble rising in the air.”

“But without logic…”

“Logic comes afterwards. It’s how we retrace our steps. It’s being wise after the event. Before the event you have to be very silly.”

—pgs. 244-5 (Dirk Gently and Kate discussing Dirk’s investigative method). I’m amazed by how many people don’t realize that this is exactly how logic works.

March 01, 2004

Dying Languages

Posted by shonk at 02:34 AM | permalink | 6 comments

Interesting article by Jack Hitt in the New York Times Magazine today about dead and dying languages. I have to admit that I’m somewhat conflicted on the whole “save the dying languages” program. On one hand, it is a shame that entire languages and the unique cultural elements that they both reflect and reinforce are dying. As noted in the article:

To general linguists, the dismissive position is just deliberate ignorance. But they also argue that the utilitarian case is too narrow. In peril is not just knowledge but also the importance of diversity and the beauty of grammar. They will tell you that every language has its own unique theology and philosophy buried in its very sinews. For example, because of the Kawesqar’s nomadic past, they rarely use the future tense; given the contingency of moving constantly by canoe, it was all but unnecessary. The past tense, however, has fine gradations. You can say, “A bird flew by.” And by the use of different tenses, you can mean a few seconds ago, a few days ago, a time so long ago that you were not the original observer of the bird (but you know the observer yourself) and, finally, a mythological past, a tense the Kawesqar use to suggest that the story is so old that it no longer possesses fresh descriptive truth but rather that other truth which emerges from stories that retain their narrative power despite constant repetition.

On the other hand, I question the motivation of linguists and government officials that pursue these “conservation projects”; encouraging groups to preserve their traditional languages seems like a good way of ensuring that they are never able to engage in the economy or broader society. Of course, I don’t think academic or government conservation projects are going to do a damn bit of good, anyway. Like Hitt says:

The other paradox of this gathering twilight is that while the grown-ups are having their arguments about what we should and shouldn’t do — and after the linguists have compiled their dictionaries and put together their grammars — the future of all these resurrections will depend on teenagers.

Given the popularity of anti-globalization politics among teenagers, one would think language revival would be trendy these days, since preferring Kawesqar to English would seem to be the ultimate “Fuck You” to the global marketplace. Of course, the anti-globalizationists are primarily white kids with cell phones while third world workers wish they could get some more globalization, so I guess it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that learning dying languages hasn’t quite attained the Chomsky/Biafra level of hipness.

On a side note, I’ve actually met and spoken with Hitt, who is a fellow Sewanee alumnus. I enjoyed his book Off the Road, which is a lively account of walking the Road to Santiago, but it might not be as interesting for someone who has never walked the road himself (Lee Hoinacki’s El Camino is another good book about the Road to Santiago, but is more religious and less “fun” than Hitt’s, if that sort of thing bothers you; Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water is in a similar vein to Hitt’s book, though though it is about an entirely different walk).

February 14, 2004

Finally, a unified theory!

Posted by Curt at 02:11 PM | permalink | 1 comment

While, today I have found yet another long-overdue takedown of a linguistic travesty. And no, it is not the snide carping about “Ulysses” among Irish writers preceding the centenary of the “longest day.” I hope that my perspective on complaining will be easily anticipated by now. It is all pure jealousy, even if some of the literary points of the matter are well-taken. Why attempt to beat a corpse now? Would they prefer that Irish writers have the stature that they did before Joyce? No, rather I mean this dismissal of thesaurae in general and the still-in-print production of Mr. Roget in particular. The best line, apart from all the sectarian quibbling about what really constitutes a synonym, is this:

“The safest storehouse for writers to fetch words from is their own head. In it are the words and phrases, read and heard, that have struck or pleased them. Among these will be the colloquialisms, the neologisms, the new metaphors hatched out of current events, that are unlikely to be in any existing list. Only the treasury of the mind can supply just those turns of phrase with which writers express their own thoughts and not somebody else’s.”

As much as this may seem a pure and unexonerated platitude, it is so very true in one important respect. In the continuing argument of attrition over the relevance or non-relevance of a literary canon, I notice that the one thread which holds together almost uniformally the writers who are with little controversy acknowledged to be the most important in their particular language, Shakespeare, Dante, Pushkin, Joyce, Kierkegaard, Chaucer, is that these were the most prolific inventors in their literary languages (even when that invention consists primarily of borrowing from other languages). Consider Chaucer and Shakespeare. Chaucer lived in the very midst of the great shift from Old English to Middle English, and he had an inestimable role in expanding its grandeur and intellectual capability by importing hundreds of French- and Latin-derived words to serve his work in the French- and Latin-derived literary genres in which he wrote. In the decades before he was born, English was a very Germanic, still basically oral, and regional language. Within a century of his death, the English language was undeniably within the orbit of the greater post-Roman intellectual imperium of Europe. Similarly, roughly the lifetime of Shakespeare constitutes the period of transition between the Chaucerian form of Middle English and English as it is spoken today. In Italy, similarly, if one reads any literature from before Dante’s birth, it will likely read like a fairly indecipherable dialectical form of Latin, whereas “The Divine Comedy” is written in language almost identical to modern Italian. I could go on: when I asked my best friend about how Pushkin had affected the Russian language, particularly in terms of borrowing words from French, he started reaching out and snatching at the air in all directions to demonstrate. Anyway, needless to say this point is less well-appreciated than it should be, because few people can read all of the major literary languages, and so the linguistic style and influence of the great writers must be largely accepted on faith.

The exceptions in this case definitely prove the rule. French, for example, certainly has canonical writers but no truly dominant figures. And probably the relentless codification and self-ossification of the language on the part of the people, seemingly designed to stamp out all irregularities and innovations, is largely the reason for this. Furthermore, the writers whose reputations stand at the apex in French literature, Corneille, Racine, Molière, Montaigne, Mme. de Sévigné, were writing at the time of, and indeed helped in the creation of, the establishment of the codes and regulations of the language and its literary forms. Flaubert’s method of composition has been widely admired, but it also makes him emblematic in my opinion of the whole course of French literature and of secondary literary lights generally: he searched for the exact right word within the confines of his language rather than inventing (or stealing) it. Thus, it seems almost indisputible and proverbial to me that, whatever the psychological and philosophical implications of a writer’s work, their most important influence will be on the shape of their language. Perhaps modern literature is generally a matter of secondary importance today because the creation of new words, new means of expression and, ultimately, new modes of consciousness, derives today largely from other areas of culture. Whose mode of expression in speech (and perhaps in thought) is not sensibly shaped by the use of language in movies, in music, and in business? But whose voice, except in a certain sort of academic context, is shaped by contemporary poetry, for example?

I would be the last person to bleat about the lost kingdom of the poets or some such nonsense, but it is very obvious to me that the importance of a writer is almost entirely correlated with the extent to which he is the author of his language. Think of Samuel Johnson, the first dictionary-writer, who is regarded as the greatest literary figure of the 18th century in Britain, despite not writing a single book which is read (as opposed to used for reference) by anyone in his own time or ours. Or the two writers in English who have probably had the greatest influence on literature and culture in this century, Joyce (inarguably) and Tolkien (debatably). They were probably the two, in my opinion, who took on the project of the invention of language most seriously and on the most grandiose scale, and it seems to have been for both of them the most important consideration in their work. And consequently their notoreity is inassailable, despite some fumbling with rather basic elements of narrative writing in both cases.

February 03, 2004

Do You Support the Troops?

Posted by shonk at 01:25 AM | permalink | 5 comments

The other day, someone asked me if I support the US troops in Iraq. The question came after a friend of hers had attended a speech in which Michael Moore said that people who equate anti-war with anti-troop made him angry (Moore says something similar in this article). Now, my opinion of Moore isn’t real high, but the question itself got me to thinking. I’ve thought about it for a few days, and I still don’t know the answer.

My indecision isn’t based on mixed emotions about troops or the war, per se, but rather stems from the fact that I don’t really know what it means to “support the troops”. Sure, I’ve heard that phrase tossed around plenty in the last year or two, but, after thinking about it, I’m honestly unsure what it means.

A quick check at yields the following definition for “support” :

1. To bear the weight of, especially from below.
2. To hold in position so as to keep from falling, sinking, or slipping.
3. To be capable of bearing; withstand: “His flaw’d heart… too weak the conflict to support” (Shakespeare).
4. To keep from weakening or failing; strengthen: The letter supported him in his grief.
5. To provide for or maintain, by supplying with money or necessities.
6. To furnish corroborating evidence for: New facts supported her story.
a. To aid the cause, policy, or interests of: supported her in her election campaign.
b. To argue in favor of; advocate: supported lower taxes.
8. To endure; tolerate: “At supper there was such a conflux of company that I could scarcely support the tumult” (Samuel Johnson).
9. To act in a secondary or subordinate role to (a leading performer).

Definitions 1 & 2, I think, can be quickly dispensed with, since nobody is really, physically supporting the weight of “the troops” (though, in conjunction with 5, one might make a case for number 1). Number 3 is a bit of an archaic usage, number 9 doesn’t really fit (though it’s somewhat ironic that the biggest self-proclaimed “supporters” of the troops, namely politicians, have displaced the actual troops into a supporting role) and number 8, though appealing to those who’ve heard Jessica Lynch’s story quite enough, thank you, is surely not the relevant meaning. Number 6, of course, is the sort of support needed by those that started the war, not those fighting it. So I think we can safely eliminate all those possibilities.

We are left, then with the following three, which I’ll address one-by-one. I’ll start with the easiest one:

5. To provide for or maintain, by supplying with money or necessities.

Needless to say, I think pretty much everyone has this one covered. Whether you like it or not, if you’re an American, you’re giving monetary support to the troops. Even if you don’t pay income tax, the simple equation deficit spending = inflation means you’re footing part of the bill. While I suspect this isn’t really what people mean when they say they “support the troops”, the fact is that this constitutes a very real (though involuntary) form of support.

a. To aid the cause, policy, or interests of: supported her in her election campaign.
b. To argue in favor of; advocate: supported lower taxes.

Part b. seems to be more of an abstract principles type of thing: how do you argue in favor of “the troops”? I mean, I suppose you could argue in favor of increased pay and/or benefits for soldiers, the idea that it would be better if soldiers didn’t die, or the notion of the warrior as a superior personality type, but none of those options seem to really capture the meaning intended by someone who says they “support the troops”. Surely many who “support the troops” would argue some or all of these things, but, in context, it doesn’t seem essential to support any of these ideas (except, of course, the second, but that seems to be more a matter of simple human decency, rather than an active form of support).

We seem, however, to be getting closer with 7.a: “To aid the cause, policy, or interests of”. Certainly, someone who “supports the troops” has their interests in mind. However, this definition, especially with its use of the term “aid”, would seem to imply action rather than psychology, whereas most of those who claim to “support the troops” don’t take much action in that regard other than that of making the statement, perhaps accompanied by the ostentatious display of a flag, and the inertial paying of taxes that we’ve already addressed. I don’t necessarily mean to imply that those “I support our troops” bumper-stickers aren’t playing a key role in aiding the causes, policies and interests of the troops, but let’s just say that I’m a bit dubious.

None of these definitions seem to be entirely satisfactory and we’ve only got one left:

4. To keep from weakening or failing; strengthen: The letter supported him in his grief.

This seems to be the most compelling of the bunch, which is why I’ve saved it for last. Certainly, I think most would agree that anyone who sends favorable letters, care packages, etc. to the troops does indeed “support the troops”. Again, though, this seems to be more of a sufficient than a necessary condition, as many people who have done nothing of the sort claim to “support the troops” (without any irony or argument). Furthermore, the tone of the “support” espoused by most of these people doesn’t seem to be of the “keep from weakening or failing” variety. Or rather, the undercurrent that does exists seems to be of the bandwagon-jumping, self-congratulating variety.

That leaves us with this notion of “strengthen”. It seems consistent to suppose that someone who “supports the troops” would give them strength through their support, or at least to act in such a way that might strengthen the troops morale. I guess I still don’t really know what that means, but surely that’s what is implied by this notion of supporting the troops. However, under this definition, is it reasonable to say that one is opposed to war, but still supports the troops? What I mean is this: all the soldiers volunteered to join the armed forces and the polls seem to indicate that most are in favor of the war effort — would it give them strength to know that you’re against their being there in the first place, even if you claim to “support” them in spite of that fact? I don’t know. Can one be in support of one takes the Moe Szyslak attitude: “I’m a well-wisher…in that I don’t wish you any specific harm”? I don’t know. Is it strengthening to know that someone “supports” you even if they haven’t thought critically about the reason you’re doing what you’re doing? I don’t know.

I guess my point is, I still don’t know whether I “support the troops”. I hope they all make it back safely, that they have loving families who write them letters and send them pictures of home, that they’re able to live normal lives upon their return, but, on the other hand, I haven’t sent any letters or care packages (and I don’t plan to). As I said in the beginning, I’m not confused about how I stand in relation to the troops or the war, but this whole idea of supporting the troops is so over-used and so carelessly used that I think it has just lost all meaning for me. Even after going back to the very definition of “support” and writing at some length on the topic (it’s now been over an hour that I’ve been at this), the phrase “support the troops” still seems hollow to me, in spite of the fact that it seems to want to imply something important and meaningful.

But then, I have been accused of being cynical. On occasion.

January 24, 2004

Popular Latin melodramas--In the Cubicula

Posted by Curt at 12:00 PM | permalink | 4 comments

The unrepentently French out there who still insist that legions of the Roman army spoke their Latin with a flat “r” befitting their status as the predecessors of les grands Français (though also, presumably, the oppressors of Astérix and les Gaulois) ought to take a look at ancient Provençal, which indicates to an astonishing degree the extent of Spanish and especially Italian predominance of vocabulary and inflection in early dialectical French:

Pos de chantar m’es pres talenz
farai un vers don sui dolenz:
mais non serai obedienz
en Peitau ni en Lemozi…
—Guilhem de Peitieus

This sort of evidence largely justifies my brother’s very Castilian pronunciation of the Latin address at his graduation ceremony last spring, although presumably the imperatores did not incorporate any Carlos V-era lisping. In any case, it’s very amusing to me so see the enormous flights of invention to which the translators in the world’s last Latin-speaking nation, the Vatican, are forced in able to express emergent concepts. Universalis destructionis armamenta somehow sounds far more intimidating than weapons of mass destruction, and my favorite circumlocution is definitely sonorarum visualiumque taeniarum cistellula (a little box of ribbons of sounds and sights) for videocassette, though globuli solaniani, “circular forms of a plant of the deadly nightshade family”, for potato chips definitely surpasses it in points for ludicrousness (evidently the Romans will not be credited with discovering America before the Vikings). As for me, I’m glad not to have the task of declining a word I just made up, though if I begin studying Russian soon, as I plan to, I will no doubt find out soon enough, to my sorrow, that I did not leave the unpleasant business of declensions behind when I stopped taking Latin.

p.s. Clay’s selection of Spanish poetry on the site is such a nice addition that I would like to add a further international element, but not wanting to subject anyone unncessarily to my wretched Norwegian grammar, I have not decided whether I would like to do occaisonal postings in another language or add another little feature-section or something completely different. In any case, hopefully there will be something along these lines fairly soon.

January 09, 2004

The false idol of equality

Posted by Curt at 05:15 PM | permalink | 2 comments

Of all our common social ideals, I despise most the idea of equality. Where it is genuinely meant, it has nothing but a pernicious effect, and when not it remains nothing but an illusion. The insidiousness of the notion of equality appears at its starkest in ethics, because in fact the notion of equality undermines the very foundations of ethics. Ethics at its very core is the differentiation of people and acts according to a central dichotomy between good and evil, virtue and vice. To assert the moral equality of people does wrong to the good to the same extent as it countenances the wicked. Such is generally the nature of equality as a goal: it is an almost universally destructive and nihilistic impulse, by which the bad make gains towards, and finally achieve, a consummate mediocrity not on their own merits but at the expense of the good.

But equality is rarely meant so honestly, nor does it appear so clearly, as in ethics. In a social context, for example, when people talk about “equality under the law” or “equal rights,” or something else to that effect, they generally do not actually mean equality, but rather a certain minimum standard of rights and privileges. Just because a banker and a bum both enjoy certain common privileges as human beings does not mean that they are in any way equal. Even in the most circumscribed legal context, the concept of equality rings false. Both a banker and a bum may equally have a right to legal counsel in the U.S., but the banker can hire a high-priced celebrity attorney, whereas the bum will have to accept whoever the state appoints for him. Obviously, to establish a true equivalence between them in this matter would require much further-reaching provisions, perhaps the re-distribution of income between banker and bum, or forbidding the banker to take anybody better than a state-appointed lawyer.

Clearly, then, the concept of equality is only tangentially related to the prosperity or well-being, let alone the freedom, of those who fall under its scope. It concerns itself only with the sameness or equivalence between people, and only a jealous soul could hope for that.

December 29, 2003

No more Orwell-citing!

Posted by Curt at 07:45 PM | permalink | comment

Much as I would like to flog our ceaseless linguistic debates with yet more over-citation of Orwell, like this man or this one, I just don’t have the heart for it anymore. No one could object to management-speak and bureaucratic-speak more than I, but I simply cannot muster the outrage that some of these pedants can at the fact that words do not have absolutely fixed, established and unchanging meanings. Even Orwell, I think, was guilty of this to a certain extent in his ad hominem attacks on those who in his view misused or abused language. He treated these as moral crimes, deceptions either initiated or perpetuated to the greater ignorance of everyone. But does it not bother these mandarins that they write exactly in the manner of those whom they criticize? Imagine, an essay that attacks the spurious collectivism of the word “we” while using it in just such a spurious manner at least 15 times as well as an unspecificied number of “us“‘s and contractions thereof (my apologies to Zamyatin). It shan’t even concern me to point out how necessary are dynamism and change to the continued existence of language, because one can swiftly perceive a greater void opening underneath one’s feet: no language is “authentic,” no word has an absolute correspondence with anything. It is all symbols and mirrors: the notion that sounds actually corresponded physically to objects in the world is a long-dead superstition. What do these people expect to do? Establish a correspondence-table between word and concept, while constantly having recourse to the very same fluttering sounds that they are trying to nail down? It is all an illusion, in any case. Better to become aware of the conditional and incomplete nature of all communication, and be grateful that we can reach even so far beyond ourselves.

October 30, 2003

From Russia With Love

Posted by shonk at 03:46 AM | permalink | comment

After a nice dinner with the parents, who were in town for a quick visit, and responding to my brother's objections to last night's post, I don't feel up to a real post tonight. Instead, might I recommend Paul Samohvalov's excellent work for your perusal?

Incidentally, did you know that Russian, Bulgarian and presumably most of the other Slavic languages have no word for "privacy"? For the doubters, I have it on excellent authority that the closest word in Bulgarian is "loneliness" and I've noted that this English-Russian dictionary translates "privacy" as "конфиденциальность"; my suspicion, based on aural similarity, that this really means "confidentiality" was confirmed by a Russian-speaking friend.

August 24, 2003

More History

Posted by shonk at 06:08 PM | permalink | comment

A new addendum to my Fuckin' History post:

fuck the word, featuring your guide, Larry.

August 22, 2003

The Language of Love

Posted by shonk at 06:57 PM | permalink | comment

I'm convinced we need to re-think this whole notion of French being the "Language of Love". Not necessarily because I hate the French (I don't really hate the French; I just don't like them too much), but because it's too cliched. And because 95% of the time I hear people speaking French, it sounds lecherous, not romantic. Plus, French already got the term lingua franca, so why should it get to be the Language of Love, too?

I've always thought Spanish and Italian sound much sexier than French. Part of that might be, I'll admit, that I find Spaniards and Italians more attractive, usually, than the French, but also because they don't feature that awful flat "r" that French has. Anyway, both Spanish and Italian sound really good.

Apparently some people are smitten by Tokien's made up language, Elvish, as the Language of Love. Well, at least when spoken by Liv Tyler. But I would have to agree - Welsh and Celtic, on which Elvish is largely based, can sound really good.

Others, apparently, are enamored with Quechua, which, despite its odd (to English-speakers) syntax, is not without its charms.

But, then again, I suppose any language can sound good if the right person is speaking it. I've even heard German can sound romantic (though I'm still suspicious of that claim). Which, I suppose, supports the claim that love is non-verbal. Though some would argue that "Grammar dictates the cognitive construction of mental images", that even our non-verbal communication is shaped by language (the same site, incidentally, makes the work I did last summer seem far more romantic and important than it probably really was; see this).

If you don't buy that, though, check out the list of "I love you" in 40 languages - if telling your girl/boy/hermaphrodite/sheep that you love him/her/it in Gujarati doesn't make his/her/its panties/shorts/fur wet, I don't know what will. Incidentally, I'm proud to say that I know "I love you" in at least one language not on that list. I chalk it up to good teaching.

Of course, the reason lists like the above are popular is because for some reason people think that the opposite sex creams itself over esoterica. I'm not convinced; I think it's "erotica" that has that effect, not "esoterica". In any case, there's a long literary history to love, which is somewhat more stimulating than the basic mechanics of sex. Give me "Liebestod" over gonorrhea any day. Which isn't to say I didn't do better on the second quiz in the above link than on the first. Which can mean only one thing: back to the books!

August 01, 2003

Fuckin' History

Posted by shonk at 12:48 PM | permalink | comment

With all due apologies to Petya, I couldn't pass up re-posting this link. Apparently, since Larimer County can take pride in the fact that it doesn't smell like shit (as opposed to, say, Weld County, especially Greeley; no, really, just ask this girl or this one or anybody else in Colorado), its public defenders can instead fill legal briefs with the entire history of the word "fuck" (as opposed to, say, The History of Shit; leave it to a Frenchman to hypothesize shit as the basis of civilization). Needless to say, this is the first time I've ever seen the words "fuck", "Eminem" and "Supreme Court" all appear in the same document.

You'll be comforted to know that the defense attorney actually did a pretty good job of unearthing the history of the word, as indicated by this etymology and the Dictionary.Com definition (look for the "Word History" near the bottom). For those that enjoy reading etymologies of naughty words, you'll be disappointed that "shit" doesn't have nearly so interesting a history as "fuck"; it's pretty straightforward (as one might expect for a stolid, Anglo-Saxon word).

Speaking of fucking, is it really any surprise that the Catholic Church is still against homosexual marriage? Of course, that doesn't really have any effect on the priests, since they're not allowed to marry anyway. Seriously, though, I can't say as I understand the response. I mean, there's no way the Catholic Church could actually back down from their anti-homosexual stance without losing pretty much all their credibility in places like South America, which is one of their strongest areas (they're not the Episcopal Church, after all).

Not being Catholic, this sort of thing doesn't affect me in the slightest; I don't even necessarily believe in the institution of marriage, per se. Put it this way, whose business is it if you and another person decide you want to spend the rest of your lives together? The only organizations that really care now are the church and the state. Not being particularly religious myself, I'm not going to bother with the former and, for the life of me, I can't figure out why (other than a desire to control behavior) the latter should take any interest. Sure, marriage laws establish some defaults regarding dispersion of assets in the case of divorce, but such things are better handled by contracts, anyway (hence the reason pre-nups are such a good idea, especially for males and for either party in a marriage where incomes are radically asymmetrical). My point is, unless you are religious and the marriage sacrament is instrumental to your faith, legally getting married is rather superfluous (except for tax or immigration purposes). Some, of course, disagree.

On the other hand, there is a case to be made for avoiding the entire issue by just staying home and masturbating: you might live longer. Well, for guys anyway. For women, such behavior may actually increase their risk of getting breast cancer (as if that biological clock wasn't incentive enough). By pointing this out, I hope to do whatever small part I can to elucidate the sorts of subtle incentive structures that Ladder Theory utterly fails to take into account. Well, that and I wanted to make sure the words "fuck", "shit" "homosexual" and "masturbating" all made it into this post. After all, that's the way to draw in those hits from Google.

Now, isn't that the sort of useless but entertaining stuff you wish you could have learned in school?