15 January 2010

The Last Sentence

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:54 am

I’ve reached the last of my seven magical sentences. This one is the longest and, on the face of it, perhaps the least enigmatically promising:

“These are: intention-reading and cultural learning, which account for how children learn linguistic symbols in the first place; schematization and analogy, which account for how children create abstract syntactic constructions out of the concrete pieces of language they have heard; entrenchment and competition, which account for how children constrain their abstractions to those that are conventional in their linguistic community; and functionally based distributional analysis, which accounts for how children form paradigmatic categories of various kinds of linguistic constituents.”

This sentence appears toward the end of Constructing a Language by Michael Tomasello. And already, in writing this first interpretive sentence, the unconscious associations are starting to pile up. For the title of Tomasello’s book I first wrote Constructing a Boob, which I then emended to Constructing a Book.

I’ve previously written a few posts about Tomasello’s work in psycholinguistics. Curiously, in my immediately-preceding post on the sixth magical sentence I made reference to a new novel written by the wife of Steven Pinker, who is also a psycholinguist. Tomasello and Pinker don’t see eye to eye. Pinker agrees with Chomsky that humans are equipped with a distinct language module, and with Gould that this module evolved all at once as a kind of punctuated equilibrium. Tomasello, on the other hand, contends that a gradual evolutionary path can be traced from lower-level primate cognition to human language. Magical sentence 7 lists the component processes that together comprise the ontogeny of language acquisition, a skill set that Tomasello traces incrementally both in children’s gradual improvement in language use and in other species’ sublinguistic capabilities.  Tomasello emphasizes that language itself has developed over historical time, from early basic namings and commands to the wide variety of grammatically complex systems used by all modern humans. Most of this progression is attributable not to biological evolution but to cumulative cultural learning, ratcheting up linguistic complexity across successive generations.

This stuff is fascinating in its own right, but for my purposes I’m interested in the conflict between punctuated equilibrium and gradualism. If the human language module popped fully formed into the heads of our primate forebears, then it’s easier to contend that there is some basic discontinuity between apes and men. And what, pray tell, gave rise to this discontinuity? Mutation, you say? Fine, but how about the Big Punctuator Himself? Maybe he infused some lucky protohuman ancestor with the ability to understand and to speak. And while he was at it, he also bestowed upon this earliest human — call him Adam — the most important punctuation mark of all: an eternal soul.

In my last post I mentioned that I’d quoted Pinker in my Genesis 1 nonfiction book, emailed the reference to him, and received a courteous and relevant reply. I did the same with Tomasello, except he never responded. Looking back at my email to him I can see why: I wasn’t specific enough in what interested me about his work. Despite his nonresponse, I’m more persuaded by Tomasello’s theory of language acquisition than by Pinker’s. I won’t rehearse the rationale here; instead I’ll point back to my own project, since presently I’m engaged in a talismanic reading of texts rather than a scholarly one.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)

It would appear that light is the first thing God created, but look again. Language came first. God said, and then there was; signifier, and then signified. This observation is pivotal to my reading of Genesis 1: God, or probably some itinerant Sumerian trader, happens upon a primitive protosemitic tribe. Being a cosmopolitan sophisticate, the trader is possessed not of a more complex brain than the villagers, but of a more complex language. The trader points at the campfire: “light,” he says. He points at the distant volcano: “light.” He points at the eastern sky at dawn: “light.” And so it was that, for this tribe, a universe came into being in six days: not a de novo and ex nihilo material reality, but a socially-constructed reality for making sense of an already-existing material universe.

I personally think this is an inspired reading of the Genesis 1 creation narrative. Is it true? Well, it truly happened to each one of us as children, that we learned to associate words with things and to compile things into larger realities in precisely this way, through cultural transmission from language-users more adept than ourselves. But do I know that Genesis 1 is the more-or-less empirically accurate recounting of an ancient conversation between a linguistically sophisticated visitor and his primitive hosts? No, of course not. So what separates my interpretation from all the other readings, plausible and crackpot alike, that have been handed down through the generations and that are still being spawned by imaginative exegetes? Well… Do I have especially strong scholastic credentials or historical evidence to back my claims? Um… Have I received a special revelation, and can I back up its authenticity by signs and wonders? Er…

It’s at this point that I watch my interpretation of Genesis 1 receding into the mists of speculative metaphysics from which Genesis 1 itself emerged so long ago. Can I bring it back before it disappears altogether? I’m hoping that I can. How? Not by renewed efforts at persuading an imaginary audience of the truth of my claims, but by letting them take shape as religious fiction. So there’s this guy — call him the Exegete — who’s come up with a new interpretation of the Biblical creation story. He shops it to the usual religous types: no sale. Frustrated, he eventually gives up. One day over coffee the Exegete tells someone about his crackpot idea. You should go talk to so-and-so about this idea, his interlocutor suggests. The Exegete does so. Soon he finds himself entangled in the mad and grandiose schemes of a shadowy and widely dispersed organization called the Fellowship. Not only do the Fellowship embrace the Exegete’s idea; they extend and distort the idea to potentially catastrophic proportions. And so on.

So now I think I’ve got two novels to write. There’s the one about the Iconist, which I’ve mentioned in recent posts. And now there’s the Exegete’s story, moving what had been a nonfiction book written by a nonfictional person, namely me, into the realm of speculative fiction. And I think these two stories fit together as part of the same imagined parallel reality.

It seems fitting that the last sentence extracted from my mystic praxis of personal meaning points me back to the first sentence of the primal Creation.

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  1. So does the Exegete’s story pick up where The Stations left off? Or is it a straight representation of a fictional non-fiction book?

    Out of curiosity – have you ever read Pavić?

    Comment by Asher Kay — 15 January 2010 @ 9:41 am

  2. I tried writing a fictionalized conversation about the nonfiction book, but that didn’t really satisfy. I started writing the Exegete yesterday afternoon: it begins with a conversation between the Exegete and someone who might be Prop Adamowicz, the first Prop, who moved to Lisbon. I think he will point the Exegete to someone, a consultant perhaps, who has ties to the Fellowship, a shadowy organization that appears in the Stations. I’m not sure whether any of the characters from the Stations will reprise their roles or make cameos, but they might. The “ontology” of the Stations will persist in this book: a cluster of Stations linked together by trails. So I think the structure of the novel will consist of the Exegete’s visit to six (of course) stations, each a particular kind of installation of the Fellowship, traversed by his passage across six linking trails through a world that’s gradually transforming as a result of his interventions at the stations. And then, after the sixth station…

    Pavic? No, not familiar with him. Do you recommend?

    Comment by john doyle — 15 January 2010 @ 10:01 am

  3. You have to have cameos. Or at least the notebooks have to have cameos. To me, it’s not about where the Karas/Fellowship project goes as much as it’s about what Miguel and Catherine’s involvement with it ends up meaning. They seem to conclude that their personal choices are not relevant, and yet they try to convince Prop Hanley to make a particular choice. In other words, although they avoid the issue, they obviously believe that Hanley’s choice (and by extension, their own) is meaningful.

    You’re in for a treat with Pavić. He is one of a kind, and one of my absolute favorite writers. Check out Dictionary of the Khazars (or e-mail me your address and I’ll send you a copy). He’s concerned with religious and mythical themes, has some definite Borgean influences, and plays with the way in which the reader interacts with his books.

    Comment by Asher Kay — 15 January 2010 @ 11:42 am

  4. Certainly the notebook provides continuity. It’s funny, but at this point I’m less committed to the characters than to the projects. I want to extent the Fellowship beyond the Pilgrimage and the Dead Mall into other sorts of collective posthuman interventions. Miguel, Catherine, and Prop Hanley have not allied their forces, have not made definitive choices as you say; perhaps the Exegete and the Iconist will join their scattered and ambiguous number. But I think some interpersonal connections across books would be good, even if only tangential for now.

    I’ve requested Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars from the library. Seeing that it’s been translated from the Serb, I’ll have to remember to extend only the mildest of approbations.

    Comment by john doyle — 15 January 2010 @ 12:57 pm

  5. This is by the bye, but Steven Pinker thinks women are inherently bad at math. I’m a little surprised to learn that he has a wife.

    Comment by anodyne lite — 16 January 2010 @ 11:34 pm

  6. Your commment, AL, got me reading a bit, including this paper by Elizabeth Spelke and this conversation between Pinker and Spelke. Pinker might be smug but he’s not a fool; the empirical evidence is equivocal, and his interpretation isn’t obviously wrong. I lean toward Spelke’s view, not so much for ideological reasons but because it’s her field and she seems more adept than Pinker at accounting for all the findings. Spelke acknowledges that there may be innate sex differences in math, but they’re not large and they probably cancel each other out in the aggregate. It’s what’s good about science though for topics like this: eventually the data have to be accounted for, and the gaps in evidence eventually get filled.

    Back to fiction: We’ve got philosophers like Badiou and Meillassoux and Ladyman proposing that the reality of the universe is inherently mathematical. As part of the novel I picture a group of men trying to hear the voice of the Real by quantifying, Kabbalah-like, all sorts of phenomena in the world. Then there’s another group of Lacanians trying to hear the voice of the Real in unconscious language. Should they be women, who by stereotype are more linguistically capable? If it’s the Lacanian Father who cuts off from the Real through language, should it be the Mother who hears the Real behind language? I’ll have to think about that a bit. I suppose if I stick with Christian imagery then the Word has to be male.

    Comment by john doyle — 17 January 2010 @ 2:39 pm

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