29 September 2007

A Fictional Manifesto?

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 11:56 am

Walking across America, you could discover vast quantities of things that look and feel exactly like dollars and cents, but they aren’t dollars and cents until the US government creates their monetary reality. You could walk across fields and through forests and over mountains, but they aren’t fields and forests and mountains until someone creates these abstract categories and the words to identify them, distinguishing them from what they are not and separating them conceptually from their opposites. You could be walking across the surface of the third planet orbiting a particular star in a particular galaxy, but… The raw stuff is different from its meaning; to assign meaning to raw stuff is to perform an act of creation.

Once you have the idea of a universe in mind, a lot of revolutionary possibilities present themselves. The universe could be made up of things other than what happens to be the case in our universe – there could be two moons, say, or the world could be enshrouded in a perpetually gray and translucent ganzfeld, or there could be a world with no sea or no solid ground. New things could be created to populate this universe by fashioning them from raw materials. New properties could be defined for making sense of things that already exist: heavy and light, near and far, structure and function, atomic weight. Different realities could be created, based on principles other than sheer material existence: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, happy and sad, just and unjust, sincere and disingenuous.

Which is the more powerful act: to create all the things that populate the heavens and the earth, or to create systems of meaning by which the heavens and the earth become reality? An individual insect can die at the same instant that another one hatches; a whole species of insect can come into existence, thrive, and fall into extinction; mountain ranges can be lifted up from the sea, slowly crumble to rock, and sink back into the deep; a star can form, generate enough gravity to support a solar system and enough energy to support life, and then collapse and disintegrate. These are physical events involving the creation, transformation and destruction of matter. However, until they find their place in a system of meaning, these events and things have no reality.

Cups are cups because intelligent beings created a category called “cup” and stuck all the cups inside it. Men are men because God created a category called “man” and stuck all the men inside it. Matter wedded to idea is reality. If God pulled all the men back out of the category, the category “man” would persist in the mind of God, and the creature formerly called “man” would persist in nature. But the category would be empty, and the creature would be nameless…

…While writing my book about Genesis 1 I kept having the weird feeling that I was writing fiction. These four preceding paragraphs are part of that book, a book that in a world just slightly different from this one is becoming hugely influential in certain circles. Here in this reality, a couple days ago, I wrote a first installment in a “Ktismatics Manifesto.” Then the next day I wrote about a particular kid to illustrate alternative psychotherapeutic realities, and I find it a lot more fun to spin out interpretations of this one particular kid’s story and what might happen to her in those stories than to establish the abstract principles of reality theory. Perhaps the Ktismatics Manifesto would be more interesting as pamphlet that exists as part of a fictional reality, rather than as a work of nonfiction in this reality. It’s like in Donnie Darko, we find out that Grandma Death is Roberta Sparrow, author of The Philosophy of Time Travel. We know the book exists, we get brief glimpses of its cover and pages, we know that it’s changing the world Donnie Darko inhabits, but the book itself exists only in that reality. In our everyday reality that book, even if it had been written, would likely never get published or be read by anybody.

I’m starting to get the feeling that it’s time to create a fictional reality where some eccentric cat has written the Ktismatics Manifesto, and it changes that world.

28 September 2007

Alternative Psychotherapeutic Realities

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:18 am

Our daughter has a friend who spent her early childhood in America before her family moved to France when she was eight. Early last school year this girl began getting physically ill whenever she went to school. It got to the point where just anticipating the possibility of having another attack would brings one on. Desperate, her parents took her to a French psychiatrist. After an initial two-hour assessment, the psychiatrist offered his preliminary diagnosis: the girl is “mourning America;” her recurrent bouts of illness are a subconscious attempt to maneuver her parents into taking her back to the States. The therapist began gathering biographical information about the child from the mother, going all the way back to the beginning. Apparently the mother experienced a significant bleeding episode during the pregnancy, leading her gynecologist to speculate that perhaps there had been twin embryos and one of them had become unviable. Now the psychiatrist begins to suspect that the problem is more deeply rooted than he thought: it’s not about school, or about America; it’s about the vanished twin. The surviving twin mourns the loss of her empathic double; she feels guilt at possibly having caused the other’s death. Perhaps the girl could benefit from regression therapy, in which she returns emotionally to the womb and reconciles herself with the lost twin.

This French psychiatrist believes in depth psychology, where symptoms manifest an underlying pathology of mind rooted in the unexamined past. If my daughter’s friend had gone to an American therapist, in all likelihood she would simply have been told that she has panic disorder, cause indeterminate. Or perhaps she wouldn’t have been given any diagnosis at all. There’s no real point in assigning a name to the problem and trying to get to the root of it in hopes of understanding what the symptoms “mean” to the patient, because there’s no way to be sure you’ve uncovered the real cause. Besides, it’s not clear that finding the cause helps make the problem go away. Just solve the problem and get the kid back in school, says the hypothetical American therapist. It’s quicker and cheaper.

But of course even the American therapist works inside a “deep” therapeutic model. The true cause of any pathology may lie so deep that the therapist cannot realistically hope to bring it to the surface. Attaining insight into what caused a problem doesn’t necessarily make the problem disappear. From the client’s standpoint the symptoms are the problem, so therapy should focus on alleviating the symptoms. Rational-emotive therapy and systematic desensitization might be the treatments of choice: there are theoretical justifications for why these treatments might be effective in getting this kid back to school; both treatments are supported by statistical analysis of empirical data which demonstrate good outcomes.

The French therapist and the hypothetical American therapist occupy alternate realities: different ways of making sense of the same phenomena. And we haven’t even mentioned coaching or acupuncture or American Indian healing rituals.

27 September 2007

Ktismatics Manifesto — Realities

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 8:32 am

There’s more to be said about the Fink and Tomasello books. There are always more books to read and to talk about. But now I’m going to try to start laying out a systematic ktismatics – a theory and practice of creation. We’ll see how far I get, and whether it makes sense to those of you who feel like commenting – which I encourage you to do. I’m going to write it like a manifesto, with numbered points, revising them as appropriate based on discussion and subsequent elaboration. I’ll start with the idea of reality…

1. Things exist, but they have no intrinsic meaning – they just are.

2. Meaning is a mental scheme for making sense of things.

A universe can exist that has no intelligent beings in it. However, “universe” isn’t just all the stuff there is – it’s also a name for all the stuff, a way of categorizing and thinking about all the stuff. “Universe” means “all the stuff there is.” If the universe contains no intelligent beings who can think the idea of “universe,” then there can be no such thing as a universe. Bacteria and wolves live in environments, by instinct acting on and reacting to the stuff that’s around them, but they don’t have any idea of an environment.

3. Things embedded in a matrix of meaning constitute a reality.

The stuff that makes up the universe isn’t a universe. The idea “universe” isn’t a universe. The combination of the stuff and the idea is a universe.

4. There are many different ways to make sense of, or to ascribe meaning to, the same thing.

There’s an object in my pocket: it’s a thin disk, it weighs less than an ounce, it’s a piece of metal, it’s shiny and silver in color, it’s worth ten cents in U.S. currency, in a pinch it can be used as a screwdriver.

5. The same stuff participates in multiple realities.

The same object participates simultaneously in realities of shapes, of weights, of materials, of color and luminance, of economic exchange value, of tools.

25 September 2007

Babies Socialize Their Parents

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:19 am

Tomasello tells us that infants can detect patterns in meaningless verbalization. Seven-month-olds exposed to three-syllable nonsense words of the pattern ABB (such as wididi, delili) show attentional preference to new ABB words over other kinds of syllabic combinations. This ability to detect abstract patterns in auditory stimuli is essential for learning patterns in real language. However, it is not sufficient: other primates can do it too. Humans and other primates can also detect abstract patterns in non-verbal stimuli as well. Humans are unique, however, in being able to link abstract verbal patterns with abstract properties of the world to which the verbal pattern refers in adult speech. So, for example, a human can distinguish the pattern “cold” in the verbal stream and link it to the property of coldness of things in the world.

When children first learn to speak they don’t have it down perfectly. Involved adults, usually parents, meet them halfway. For example, our daughter’s second word (after Da!) was green. It’s not clear, though, that an indifferent observer would have been able to tell what she was saying. She pronounced it gr, leaving off the -een bit altogether. But we could tell: she’d point at the grass, or a tree, or part of the rug, and declare gr. “That’s right, the grass is green,” we would say. So language acquisition develops through a mutual accommodation between child and caregiver. Still, it’s the adults’ language and categorization scheme that serves as the gold standard by which the child judges her own competency.

Lacan contends that adults go more than halfway — that in fact the adult’s imposition of language on the young child shapes practically everything about the way the child experiences the world, other people, and even herself. Maybe if we hadn’t shaped our daughter’s language development according to our adult cultural categories, she might have experienced green differently. Fink describes Lacan’s radical view of the invasiveness of adult language:

…one cannot even say that a child knows what it wants prior to the assimilation of a language: when a baby cries, the meaning of that act is provided by the parents or caretakers who attempt to name the pain the child seems to be expressing (e.g., “she must be hungry”). There is perhaps a sort of general discomfort, coldness, or pain, but its meaning is imposed, as it were, by the way in which it is interpreted by the child’s parents. If a parent responds to its baby’s crying with food, the discomfort, coldness, or pain will retroactively be determined as having “meant” hunger, as hunger pangs. One cannot say that the true meaning behind the baby’s crying was that it was cold, because meaning is an ulterior product: constantly responding to a baby’s cries with food may transform all its discomforts, cold, and pain into hunger. Meaning in this situation is thus determined not by the baby but by other people, and on the basis of the language that they speak.

As someone with purely decorative breasts, I can testify to the frustration of being unable to open up the buffet to a crying baby. I acknowledge that I lack the maternal ability to comfort, but I will say this: the baby bottle gave me a lot more options as a satisfier of infant desire. And there’s an undeniable sense of satifaction to be gained by successfully soothing the baby — you could say it’s rewarding, reinforcing. A baby’s crying creates a desire to soothe the baby. I had more of a sense of adapting myself to the baby’s desires than vice versa. If the baby is crying, try various options until you come up with something that will shut it up. A lot of parents put their crying babies in the car and drive them around: something about the movement and the vibration seems to put them right to sleep. Parents seem to arrive at this solution more by trial and error; only later do they come to find out that lots of other parents have independently arrived at the same solution.

Among ethologists, “ritualization” refers to gestures an individual generates solely with the intention of getting something done. A young child walks toward an adult with her arms outstretched above her head: what does it mean? “Pick me up,” of course. Or is this just how adults interpret the gesture, imposing adult symbolic meaning on the infant’s prelinguistic communication and thereby shaping her desire? Tomasello cites evidence to suggest that the “pick me up” gesture develops out of more direct attempts by the infant to get picked up: climbing up the adult’s body, grasping onto the adult’s arm or waist, and so on. These are the infant’s direct, non-symbolic, physical actions to get what she wants. The adult interprets these actions, picks up the baby, and the baby seems satisfied. Later the baby need only extend its arms and the adult understands what’s being asked. It’s more like the baby is training the parents rather than vice versa. If baby A were to approach baby B with this same arms-raised gesture, baby B probably wouldn’t get the message, even though baby B uses the very same ritualized gesture when it wants to be picked up. The ritualistic behavior works as symbolic communication only because the adult learns to interpret it that way.

24 September 2007

Intention and Attention

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:05 am

Human linguistic communication differs from the communication of other animal species in two main ways: it is grammatical and it is symbolic. For both Saussure and Chomsky grammar is the central concern. According to Tomasello’s interpretation of the empirical evidence, though, symbolization occurs first developmentally and is the most important feature of human language. In “Origins of Language, the second chapter of Constructing a Language, Tomasello describes symbolization:

Linguistic symbols are social conventions by means of which one individual attempts to share attention with another individual by directing the other’s attentional or mental state to something in the outside world. Other animal species do not communicate with one another using linguistic symbols, most likely because they do not understand that conspecifics have attentional or mental states that they could attempt to direct or share. To oversimplify, animal signals are aimed at the behavioral and motivational states of others, whereas human symbols are aimed at the attentional and mental states of others.

If we reproduced language unintentionally through repeated exposure, our linguistic behavior wouldn’t be much different from rats running a maze. There would be no reason to assert any sort of active cognitive processing in the human brain; language is just another behavior to be learned through repetition and association, a procedure for winding our way through the linguistic labyrinth that surrounds us. Intentionality doesn’t necessarily mean that we are completely free to decide consciously what we’re going to do and how we’ll do it. And certainly animals act intentionally, seeking food and shelter and reproductive opportunities. But human intentionality is more flexible and less purely imitative or instinctive; an individual human is more capable of spontaneously producing novel behavior that she’s never explicitly observed or learned. What Tomasello points out here is that the human language user also attributes active and intentional mental activity to the other.

We’ve talked about how Tomasello’s usage-based linguistics is a pragmatic theory, but nonhuman primates are even more pragmatic communicators than we are, using vocalizations almost exclusively with the intention of getting somebody else to do something. Only humans share attention or information in a disinterested manner, just because it’s interesting. But significant pragmatic benefits accrue to the individual who interprets the other as an intentional agent. Says Tomasello:

Children who understand that other persons have intentional relations to the world, similar to their own, may attend especially carefully to the behavioral means that these persons have devised for meeting their goals, and so may imitate their intentional actions… This of course opens up the possibility of acquiring the conventional use of tools and other artifacts that presuppose or “point” to outside entities, including symbolic artifacts such as linguistic symbols.

Tomasello cites two studies demonstrating that infants infer intentionality in others’ behavior. One group of 18-month-olds observed adults performing a set of actions on objects; the other group watched adults trying and failing to perform these same actions. The two groups were equally adept at reproducing the behavior, even though the second group never actually saw the behavior performed successfully. This implies that the second group inferred the intent behind the failed behavior rather than merely imitating it. In another study, 16-month-olds watched an adult perform various sequences of actions on objects that made interesting results occur. Sometimes the adult, upon finishing the action and observing the result, said “There!” For other action-result sequences the adult said “Woops!” When the children were given the opportunity to perform the behaviors they had observed, they mostly reproduced the adult’s “There!” actions rather than the “Woops!” This implies first that the children were able to distinguish between intentional and accidental consequences of behaviors, and second that the children prefer to perform intentional actions. The implication for linguistics is that inferring intentionality isn’t limited to language acquisition; it’s a more general capability of the human brain that emerges at a very early age.

I’m trying to read Tomasello through a structuralist lens, so at this point perhaps it’s appropriate to insert a caveat about intentionality. Paradoxically, we can learn to use language consciously and intentionally without ever being consciously aware that that’s what we’re doing. A kid might become a skilled and flexible English speaker without ever realizing that English is only one of a virtually unlimited number of languages that could be spoken. When I was walking through an untouristed part of France I saw some kids playing with a ferret and asked them about it. One very little kid, maybe 3 years old, asked me something I couldn’t understand. I told him that I spoke English but didn’t understand French very well. The kid didn’t get it: how can there be an adult that can’t even understand language as well as I do? His somewhat older pals tried to explain it: the man speaks English, not French. The little kid nodded but I’m pretty sure he didn’t grasp the concept. We are intentional language users within a specific linguistic medium that we did not choose and of which we usually remain unaware — unless we happen to be living in a culture that speaks a language other than the one we grew up in.

23 September 2007

Bad Movie, Good Dream

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:41 am

Here’s my synopsis of our daughter’s dream from last night:

I walked through a wall and I thought: Oh crap, I’m dead. I was in a big cave with a lot of people, and I realized it was purgatory, and I thought: Oh crap, there’s a heaven and hell; why can’t there just be nothing? At one end of the cave was a long corridor. As you walk down the corridor you come to two double doors across from each other, with push bars for opening them. If you go through the door on the left there’s an up staircase that goes to heaven; on the right is the down staircase that leads to hell. At the very end of the corridor was another door, this one with a handle: it’s the counseling center, where they decide whether you go to heaven or hell.

My friends were all there, and they were getting ready to go to the counseling center for assignment. I wanted to stay in purgatory, because it seemed pretty nice there. Some older kids, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old, asked if I was going with my friends. I said no. Do you want to get a frappucino then? Okay, I said, but they didn’t go with me. There was a row of vending machines along the corridor, and I got a frappuccino, which I thought was weird because I don’t like coffee.

All my friends had to go to hell. Once you’re assigned you can’t leave, but while you’re in purgatory you can visit anytime you like. Hell was a bunch of living rooms that seated seven or eight people, with kitchens where you could get yourself some food. You could chat with each other but otherwise there wasn’t much to do. Some of the people in hell had little red marks on their faces, like they had acne, but that was it. Heaven was one big room furnished with couches; there were pretty many people there, but it turned out that most people end up going to hell. I thought hell was a little better than heaven, but really they weren’t that different from each other. Not that different from purgatory either. I never saw what the counseling center was like.

Somebody came into purgatory and told us that we had to get on the trains — more like cable cars but bigger. I was riding near the front; the kid sitting right in front of me was singing a weird little song. I told him to shut up but he didn’t. The trains were going through the regular living world, and I was worried we were going to hit people and kill them. Somebody said we can’t hit them because they don’t know where we’re from, because the train doesn’t have a license plate. The trains stopped and we got out at another cave that turned out to be a Hot Topic store. Some people tried to escape from the store and they immediately got zapped into hell. They told us that we had to decide where we were going to go, but I said it wasn’t fair because I’d only been there for a few minutes. I wondered whether a minute was a lot longer for people who were alive, because otherwise the afterlife was going to be pretty boring.

Our daughter’s concluding thought: it sounds like a bad movie. Pretty good dream though, I said, and she agreed.

22 September 2007

A Hermeneutic of Tongues

Filed under: Christianity, Language — ktismatics @ 7:46 am


I was going to write a post about glossolalia, but in my latest foray at Open Source Theology I remembered I had addressed the subject there. Here it is, from just over a year ago:

Has anyone has ever put forward a phenomenology or hermeneutics of tongues? My personal experience is pretty old, but here are my uninterpreted impressions:

Tongues-speakers claimed not to know the meaning of the words they were speaking (I certainly didn’t). “Interpretation” of tongues didn’t mean “translation”: it conveyed more the spirit of the tongue-encoded message rather than anything approaching the literal meaning. The interpretations always seemed rather generic, along the lines of “My children, I love you, be at peace with one another,” – that sort of thing. Most tongues-speakers seemed to share a common “dialect”: a cadence and pronunciation palette that sounded vaguely Latinate rather than, say, English or Semitic or Japanese.

“Groanings too deep for words” was part of the explicit rationale for the gift of tongues, placing it in the eschatological context of Romans 8. As a prayer language, tongues enabled the praying person to “pray the will of God” directly, unfiltered by human conscious awareness. In this regard there’s a certain similarity to the “automatic writing” techniques of 19th-century spiritualists, as well as the 20th-century dadaists and surrealists who were trying to open a direct channel to the subconscious. The praxis of tongues-speaking as I learned it called for attaining a kind of emotional neutrality, so that both the message and the accompanying affect could be attributed to the Holy Spirit. The actual speaking I’m sure I could do right now, though, without any sort of spiritual preparation or channeling of the Spirit – kind of like learning to ride a bicycle, I suppose.

I intend no criticism of tongues — just a description of the phenomenon. Is this still pretty much the story, or has the theory and practice changed significantly?

Originally I wrote this comment in a thread on preterism, which is an eschatological variant within Christianity. But now we’re talking about Lacan and the voice of the Other speaking the subject. Tongues-speaking is as good an example as I can think of, and it’s a practice I know not just in theory but through personal experience. Too bad I don’t have mastery of online recording technologies — I could cut a tongues track and paste it in here.

21 September 2007

God Condones Lacan

Filed under: Language — ktismatics @ 3:24 pm

The scream commands the nearer physics. God relaxes above a given street. The pink idiom persists outside the intellect. The announced clinic toggles a suspicious distress. God condones Lacan. A presumed banana dimensions Lacan.

Today Poetix put up a link to the random paragraph generator. I thought it would be appropriate to stick in a link here too, in light of my posts about language speaking the subject.

20 September 2007

The Self as Something Spoken

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 2:34 pm

If, as Lacan asserts, I am spoken by language, my desires channeled into categories predefined by the Other, is there an alternative realm where I am the speaker? What about the unconscious: is this where my True Self lives, hidden beneath the social and rational facade that dominates the linguistic realm? By tapping into my unconscious can I release this True Self? No: according to Lacan, the unconscious is even more foreign to me than consciousness. The unconscious is structured like a language, Lacan asserts, but it too is the language of the Other. So where does my self reside, and how do I find my voice? There is nowhere else, says Lacan: the self is an other. I have no real reason to believe that I know myself any better than anyone else knows me.

Through bodily gestures or verbal slips the unconscious may express desires that are unacceptable to the conscious Other and unassimilated into my speech. But these hidden desires may not be mine either: they may be desires imposed on me by my parents, say, which are then repressed and lost to conscious awareness. Says Lacan: the unconscious is full of other people’s talk, other people’s conversations, and other people’s goals, aspirations, and fantasies. My conscience for example: isn’t it often the “voice” of my parents, or my society, or my God that gives me the feeling that I’m about to do something unacceptable?

What we discover in Lacan is a self split between consciousness and the unconscious. I don’t create my own split self, or even control it; rather, I am the product of two different language systems that “speak” me. Fink says this at the beginning of Chapter Two of The Lacanian Subject:

Language functions. Language “lives” and “breathes,” independently of any human subject. Speaking beings, far from simply using language as a tool, are also used by language; they are the playthings of language, and are duped by language. Language has a life of its own. Language as Other brings with it rules, exceptions, expressions, and lexicons… language also operates independently, outside of our control. While we have the feeling, much of the time, of choosing our words, at times they are chosen for us. We may be unable to think and express something except in one very specific way… and words are occasionally blurted out that we do not have the impression of having chosen (far from it!). Certain words and expressions present themselves to us while we are speaking and writing — not always the ones we want — sometimes so persistently that we are virtually forced to speak or write them before being able to move on to others. A certain metaphor or image may come to mind without our having sought it out or in any way attempted to construct it and thrust itself upon us so forcibly that we can but reproduce it and only then try to tease out its meaning.

In this summary Fink makes it appear that “we,” upon whom language forces itself, are conscious agents competing with and “duped by” the unconscious. But that’s not how Lacan put it. For Lacan, even when we think we’re choosing our words they’re being chosen by the Other of consciousness. At the end of the second chapter Fink acknowledges this to be the case:

Now this way of conceptualizing the unconscious apparently leaves no room for a subject of any kind. There is a type of structure automatically and autonomously unfolding in/as the unconscious, and there is absolutely no need to postulate any kind of consiousness of this automatic movement (Lacan, in any case, breaks with the association, made by so many philosophers, of subjectivity and consciousness). The unconscious contains “indelible knowledge” which at the same time is “absolutely not subjectivized.” …This kind of knowledge has no subject, nor does it need one. And yet Lacan speaks constantly about the subject: the subject of the unconscious, of unconscious desire, the subject in its phantasmatic relation to object a, and so on. Where can the subject possibly fit it?

We’ll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, the idea of self-as-other, spoken by language as an impersonal or superpersonal force, presents structuralism as a variation on idealism that looks a lot like Gnosticism, in which conscious language and unconscious language play the roles of competing demiurges fighting for dominance in the human collective and where individual selves are puppets controlled by these larger forces.

19 September 2007

The Sun Must Bear No Name

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 11:04 am

Begin, ephebe,* by perceiving the idea
Of this invention, this invented world,
The inconceivable idea of the sun.

You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it.

Never suppose an inventing mind as source
Of this idea nor for that mind compose
A voluminous master folded in his fire.

How clean the sun when seen in its idea,
Washed in the remotest cleanliness of a heaven
That has expelled us and our images . . .

The death of one god is the death of all.
Let purple Phoebus** lie in umber harvest,
Let Phoebus slumber and die in autumn umber,

Phoebus is dead, ephebe. But Phoebus was
A name for something that never could be named.
There was a project for the sun and is.

There is a project for the sun. The sun
Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be
In the difficulty of what it is to be.

– from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” by Wallace Stevens; Stanza 1 of Part One: It Must Be Abstract

* ephebe — Anglicized form of the Greek ephebos, an adolescent male.

** Phoebus — “Shining One” in Greek, a name for the sun god and, metaphorically in Latin poetry, for the sun itself.

Your Place or Mine

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:45 am

Since time immemorial, people have expressed nostalgia for a time before the development of language, for a supposed time when homo sapiens lived like animals, with no language and thus nothing that could taint or complicate man’s needs and wants… In such nostalgic views, language is deemed the source of a great many evils. People are considered to be naturally good, loving and generous, it being language that allows for perfidy, falsehood, lying, treachery, and virtually every other fault with which human beings and hypothetical extraterrestrials have been taxed. From such standpoints, language is clearly viewed as a foreign element inopportunely foisted upon or grafted onto an otherwise wholesome human nature. Writers like Rousseau have beautifully expressed what Lacan calls man’s alienation in language. According to Lacanian theory, every human being who learns to speak is thereby alienated from him or herself.

– Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject, chapter 1

While nonlinguistic animals might be wild, unconstrained by culture, they aren’t free. Their hungers and their drives are almost entirely hard-wired, instinctual, pre-programmed. The free-range beast is a slave to its programming, seeking food when it’s hungry, mating when the opportunity presents itself, settling into its natural place in the hierarchy of the pack or herd. It could legitimately be said the individual animal is “spoken” by the “language” of DNA, except that in a world without symbolic communicators this linguistic interpretation of genetics would never come to mind. It’s like talking about the earth pulling us by gravity, as if the earth were an intentional agent holding us on the ground. Referring to the genetic language of DNA is to use a linguistic metaphor as a tool for understanding a natural phenomenon, much as a chemist might regard a formula as a language for constructing complex compounds out of simpler elements.

The only way these invocations of language aren’t metaphorical is if we assert that languages can speak themselves without intentional agents using language as a communication tool. We could assert the existence of suprapersonal language-using agents whose intentions transcend the plane of individual human understanding. We might speak of a Creator who purposely designs or assembles the world out of tools like chemical valences and genetic sequences as an expression of a cosmic intent which we cannot grasp. Or we might regard the “invisible hand” of the marketplace as a metaphor not for unintelligent self-organizing structure but for a collective societal super-intelligence that moves buyers and sellers around in conformance with some higher-order intent that cannot be grasped by individual consciousness.

Anyhow, Lacan contends that language constrains desire by assigning it a name that directs its expression and fulfillment into socially-acceptable channels. Surely this is true. But for prelinguistic animals there is no escape from the predetermined channels: whether alone or in the pack, the individual’s “self-motivated” behavior is dictated by its environment and its genes. Language carves channels of tamed desire through the culture, but it also opens channels that would never have existed had they not been named. Monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, casual dating; homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual; your place or mine; scrambled, poached, over easy; jazz, rock, classical. If we can’t name them they aren’t real because they don’t occur to us as possibilities. If we can name things in between the categories then they too become real.

17 September 2007

It Just Sounds Right

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 7:17 am

Linguistic structuralism seems so foreign to us Americans because of the way we learn our own language. Every child in every culture learns to speak mostly through participation in a language-speaking community. Words and grammatical rules aren’t defined; they’re just used in conversation. Gradually we become skillful at understanding what others intend to say to us and at making our own intentions understood. By the time children start school they’re already advanced language-users.

In school children speak and listen, just like they do outside of school. They also learn to read and write, activities in which they may or may not engage at home. Written communication builds on the foundation of oral communication: the same words pointing to the same things, the same techniques for stringing words together.

By and large American school kids learn to read by reading, learn to write by writing. Though it’s called “grammar school,” teachers of young children don’t really spend much time teaching grammar explicitly. Eventually kids learn to construct phrases like “by lunchtime I will have been sitting at this desk for four hours.” What convoluted verb tense is this? Who knows? But we all know what it means; we can even use this strange construction in everyday conversation. And we can tell when it’s said wrong. “By lunchtime I will be sitting at this desk for four hours.” Wrong. “By lunchtime I have sat…” Wrong. Why wrong? I don’t know; it just doesn’t sound right.

Contrast this pragmatic American approach with French pedagogy. “Will have been sitting”: I’m sure French kids are taught the name of this particular verb tense and how it is conjugated for regular and irregular -er, -ir, and -re verbs. What is the conjugation of the past imperfect in English? Are there regular and irregular verbs in English? French kids would probably have a better idea even about English than Americans do. French teachers drill their students relentlessly on the rules of their own language, forcing them to become aware of why some constructions “just sound right” while others do not. American teachers are content to know that the kids can understand what they read and can write a short coherent essay about it. Corrections are made, and kids gradually improve their skills. But the rules of the game are rarely made explicit: you just learn to play the game.

When I’ve described this difference in American teaching and learning styles to French parents, their first response is: “French is a more complex language than English.” I’m not sure whether they really believe it or not. I suspect that, since all French adults were taught the forms and logic of the French language as children, they cannot imagine having mastered the practical skills of reading and writing without mastering simultaneously the formal and structural features of the language itself.

This emphasis on structure seems to extend to other aspects of schooling. French kids memorize the names of the countries of Europe, the names of their capital cities, and where they appear on the map. American kids learn how to use maps to find what they’re looking for. French kids learn the right answers; American kids learn how to make an educated guess. Even governments and social classes and economic systems: for French kids it’s what these things are; for Americans it’s how they work — or, better, how you work them, how you play them.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that most Europeans’ educational experiences more closely resemble the French model than the American. England probably falls somewhere in between, though I suspect the English would say they excel at both.

15 September 2007

Beyond Structuralism in Linguistics

Filed under: First Lines, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 1:30 pm

Nothing could seem less remarkable than a one-year-old child requesting “More juice” or commenting “Doggie gone.” But the remarkable fact is that even these baby utterances differ from the communicative activities of other animal species in a number of fundamental ways. For example, other animals do not refer one another’s attention to outside entities such as juice, they do not make disinterested comments to one another about missing doggies or the like, and they do not combine communicatively significant elements to create new meanings…

Michael Tomasello begins his 2003 book Constructing a Language by highlighting the unique communicative capabilities of the human species. Noam Chomsky (yes that Noam Chomsky) was the first to move definitively beyond the mechanicistic behaviorism by which learning theorists had sought to explain language acquisition. Chomsky observed that humans are able not merely to imitate words and phrases they had heard before, but to construct entirely new verbalizations. Human communication isn’t just shaped by the linguistic environment in which we are immersed; rather, we are able to use language intentionally, constructing novel linguistic utterances on the fly. How is this possible? First, said Chomsky, language isn’t a static structure but a tool. Just as a carpenter can use boards, a saw, a hammer and nails to construct any number of wooden artifacts, so too we can use vocabulary, grammar and syntax to construct a limitless number of verbal artifacts. But how is it that only humans have this ability to use language, and that all humans share this same ability? Chomsky proposed that the architecture of the human brain is uniquely configured for the task: in an unprecedented break in the evolutionary continuum, the human genome generated just the right cortical configuration to handle the complexities of the universal deep structures of generative grammar.

…But from an ethological perspective, perhaps the most astounding fact is that something on the order of 80 percent of all Homo sapiens cannot understand these simple utterances at all. That is, whereas the individuals of all nonhuman species can communicate effectively with all of their conspecifics, human beings can communicate effectively only with other persons who have grown up in their same linguistic community — typically, in the same geographical region. Whatever may be the evolutionary reasons for this unique, indeed bizarre, situation, one immediate outcome is that, unlike most other animal species, human beings cannot be born with any specific set of communicative behaviors. Young children must learn during their individual ontogenies the set of linguistic conventions used by those around them, which for any given language consists of tens of thousands, or perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of individual words, expressions, and constructions…

Chomsky has devoted a great deal of attention to specifying the universal deep structure of all human language, which he believes maps onto a universal deep structure of the human brain. Here Tomasello reminds us of the other side of the coin: for humans, communication is far less universal, cognition far less rigidly structured, and social learning far more important to individual communicative ability than is the case with any other species.

What Tomasello wants to demonstrate is that the structural properties of language aren’t hard-wired into the human brain. For that matter, they aren’t even hard-wired into human language. Tomasello introduces his first chapter with a quote from Wittgenstein: The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing its work. The static structuralism of Saussureans and the generative structuralism with which Chomsky sought to displace it both place undue emphasis on structure. Instead, Tomasello and others argue, linguistic theory should be based on usage.

Children’s language acquisition isn’t the development of an isolated linguistic module of brain activity. Rather, the child’s linguistic competence emerges at the same time as other related abilities, of which two are most notable. The first is intention-reading, which includes the ability to attend to objects and events of mutual interest, to follow others’ attentional direction, actively to direct others’ attention, and to infer others’ intentions. Intention-reading skills are foundational to the symbolic and functional dimensions of linguistic communication, whereby the speaker uses words as pointers to direct the listener’s attention to specific features of the shared environment. It seems that humans are the only species able to read one another’s intentions — an ability that’s essential not only in linguistic communication but also in other distinctly human activities like tool use, pretend play and ritual.

Pattern-finding, the second broad area of cognitive competence that emerges in early childhood and that is essential for language acquisition, includes the ability to form categories for similar objects and events, to form schemas for recurrent patterns, and to create analogies. In ordert to understand language, a child must be able to extract patterns from adults’ streams of verbalization, constructing working vocabularies and grammatical conventions for assembling intelligible speech.

By understanding language acquisition not as a separate module of brain activity but as one among several interrelated cognitive accomplishments of early childhood, advocates of “usage-based linguistics” intend to demonstrate that language structure emerges from language use. In other words, language is essentially a system of symbols by which the speaker directs the listener’s attention to features of the shared environment and the listener infers the speaker’s intention with respect to these features. Structural and grammatical rules for linking the symbols together, rather than being the universal architecture of language onto which the symbols are appended, prove to be quite idiosyncratic across human languages. Further, there is no clear distinction between core and periphery in linguistic rules. Says Tomasello:

If there is no clean break between the more rule-based and the more idiosyncratic items and structures of a language, then all constructions may be acquired with the same basic set of acquisitional processes — namely, those falling under the general headings of intention-reading and pattern-finding. If adult linguistic competence is based, to a much larger degree than previously supposed, on concrete pieces of language and straightforward generalizations across them — with many constructions remaining idiosyncratic and item-based into adulthood — then it’s possible that children’s early language is item-based and yet they can still construct an adult-like set of grammatical constructions originating with these baby constructions (given several years in which they hear several million adult utterances). If linguistic constructions are meaningful linguistic symbols in their own right, then children can use function or meaning to assist in their acquisition, just as they do in their acquisition of smaller linguistic constructions such as individual words.

In brief, usage-based linguistics asserts that children assemble language competency from the ground up, experientially, empirically, pragmatically. The symbolic use of language comes first, the specific links between signifiers and the signifieds, between words and the features of the world to which they direct the listener’s attention. Grammatical features of language — the rules by which symbols are strung together — are learned the same way as the symbols themselves: through repeated exposure and trial-and-error attempts to infer the speaker’s intent. There is no transcendent linkage between the universal structure of all human languages and the genetically-specialized universal structure of the human brain, whereby the language itself “speaks” and the brain passively receives. All of language is immanent, active, interpersonal.

14 September 2007

Freiutrdian Slips

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:51 am

I’ve been busy wirng a post about Tomasell’s latest book about language agquisitino. I’t’s a book I rjust got in the mail from Amazon. I’ve posted on tomasselo before, where he toaks more broadly about human cognitive development from a cross-species persopctive. This one is language-specific. At the same time in tehsame mailing I got Fin’s other book aout lacal which is entitle the Lacanian Subject: BEtween Language and Jouissance. I have a senst thtat a createive tension will emerge from cross-reading these two books. At the heart of hte matter is structuralism. For tomasello language is a tool and linguistic competence is a skill to be mastered. For Lacn language is a structure that shapes the indivusal, an that the emergence of subjectivity comes through circumventing intential use of language. So, following Freud, Lacan assert sthat thing slike misstatements, so -called Freudian slops, reveal placs wehre the subject is thrying to be hears d around the edges of language, or perhaps through language. as a slippage or hoele in the langue or where the nonlinguistic unconscious can make its presnece known.

So I’m typing my new post on Tomasello’s book, miking my usual typos and correcting them on the fly,whn I ralize: heck, typs are the same thing potentially as Freudian slips! I should’nt be correcting tehse mestakes; I should be letteng the ms peak themselfes. Then, when I’m done, I can go back and see what mistakes I made and see thought them where my unconscious is leading me.

Or perhaps the reader can is in a bettier position to analyse me thatn I am myself. In reviewing this errorized text can you see my ucnconscious peeking through? If so, what is ti trying to say? Or maybe it’s just saying hta i’m a shitty typisk.

Maybe you can give it a tryi on yourself. Type with someting without fixing your typos as you ogo along, then go back and read it , teread the errors in particular. Do you detect an y oinsights into your unconscious processes?

Tomorrow, Tomsasello.

12 September 2007

Collective Imaginary Theology

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:33 pm

Last fall and winter I visited quite a few evangelical blogs in an attempt to increase awareness of my alternative literal reading of Genesis 1. I didn’t even have much success introducing the topic, let alone engaging in fruitful or persuasive exchanges. Nevertheless, I became a regular visitor and commenter on a few blogs, and some of the people I encountered there remain regular contributors here at Ktismatics.

For awhile I spent quite a bit of time at Open Source Theology, a blog run by an Oxford-educated Englishman that serves as a public forum for exploring “emergent” or “post-evangelical” ideas about Christianity. Anyone who registers as a user can post, and the level of discourse is usually pretty darned good, mostly involving pastors and “amateurs” rather than theological academicians. While a fairly wide range of beliefs is represented there, they still fall within the expanding but still rather narrow constraints imposed by evangelicalism. Being a recovered evangelical myself I could usually find room to maneuver at OST without being harangued or entirely ignored. Anyway, at some point Peter, one of the regular contributors, put up a post about a trip he and his wife took to Prague, where they enjoyed a pleasant stay at Sir Toby’s Inn. For some reason I found this amusing: what the heck did this little travelogue have to do with theological discourse? So I wrote a comment asking if Sir Toby’s was actually the gathering place for a cabal of theologians who were hashing out an emerging evangelical theology. Over the next few months Peter and I were the main architects of the Sir Toby’s alternate reality (our friend Sam also contributed), a sort of post-medieval inn occupied by a strange collection of monks, bishops, nuns, flagellants, pilgrims and other strange personages. Much beer is drunk at Sir Toby’s, and under the tables dogs scuffle for food scraps dropped by the rather slovenly theologians who gather there. Either Peter or I would launch an idea for a conversation, then we would take turns adding to it until the episode reached a natural conclusion. Occasionally others (including Sam) would join in. After a few rounds of fairly whimsical discussion expressed in rather baroque verbiage, Sir Toby’s faded into the mists from which it had emerged.

The other day I got an email from Peter. He’s compiling materials about the various interesting characters who have visited OST since its inception, and he wanted to know if he could use some of the Sir Toby’s stuff I’d written. I said that was fine with me. Then I asked Peter whether he’d be interested in revisiting Sir Toby’s with the aim of possibly writing enough episodes to create a book. He thought that might be a good idea. I suggested that we do it either by email or on a dedicated blog. Peter says he finds that the OST crowd inspires him; I said that I find myself somewhat alienated there. Anyhow, this morning I wrote the beginning of another Sir Toby’s episode and posted it at OST. Readers of Ktismatics are more than welcome to go there and add to the story; however, if that’s not your cup of tea I’ll reproduce the first installment here.

I’m wondering a few things about Sir Toby’s. Can the episodes float free of the disputational polemics that usually characterizes online theological discussions? Does setting the discussion in a fictional heterotopia, with discussants adopting fictional alter-egos (Peter is the Trappist; I, the Old Man), encourage a more playful and imaginative approach that isn’t hampered by fears of being perceived as heretical? Is this sort of communal storytelling likely to generate better or worse ideas than the usual single-author approach? And if you don’t want to contribute to the string at OST, do you have any ideas for where the conversation could go next?

* * * *

Sir Toby’s: Invisibility Cloak

“With interest I have been reading the stories told of your Jesus.” The Old Man occupied his usual place by the fire, the thin trail of smoke that rose from his pipe adding to the perpetual haze which enveloped the coarse yet voluble theologians gathered at Sir Toby’s. His long and bony finger hovered above the scroll, begrimed and creased and rendered flexible by much use, that lay spread open before him on the table. “Tell me, by what good fortune did this valuable piece of correspondence from Luke to Theophilus come into your possession?”

“What?” Returning from the kitchen with yet another flagon of beer, the Ethiopian hermit glanced over the Old Man’s shoulder. “Oh yes, the letter is widely distributed among the Christians.”

“Ah, of course, a copy.” His finger traced a line of text. “In this particular story Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. Though I am not yet familiar with his particular wisdom, apparently it provoked no small controversy among his contemporaries.” Leaning back from the table the Old Man squinted at the scroll. “After reading from his holy book Jesus offers a brief observation about the text. His listeners marvel at the words that proceed from his mouth. Then, immediately after this success, he recounts an incident from the days of Elishah the prophet – apparently the incident was well-known among the people, for Jesus calls attention only to certain very specific features of what must have been a far longer account. Now those who but a moment before praised Jesus are enraged by him. Luke writes that they dragged Jesus from the synagogue to a precipice at the margins of the village, their intent being to cast him down, to his death perhaps.”

“You must understand the historical context,” pronounced the Alexandrian scholar, his words strongly accented but precise. “Though the Book of Kings is not specific about the duration of the drought, the three years and six months specified here by Jesus and later by James assume a well-known oral tradition that…”

“Excellent, well said,” the Old Man interjected loudly; the Alexandrian, stunned, held his tongue for a change. “Now look here,” the Old Man said, jabbing the text with the long nail of his index finger. “Jesus survives this assault. Does the mob relent? Do other voices rise up in support of Jesus? Does Jesus himself elaborate on the words that had provoked his listeners to such drastic measures? No indeed. I quote: ‘But passing through the midst of them he went away.’

With surprising agility the Old Man sprang to his feet. “Passing through the midst of them! Powerful magic indeed. Of course there are distractions and subterfuges available to even the least gifted of wizards. But the more powerful means of enchantment, the spells, the cloaks… well it’s unusual, isn’t it? To have performed this feat in such trying conditions, witnessed by so many people… And he seems to have used neither words nor devices to achieve the effect. Remarkable. Tell me: did Jesus ever reveal this secret magic by which he rendered himself invisible? Perhaps he passed this knowledge on to his apprentices?” Still standing, the Old Man leaned with both hands on the table and swept his expectant gaze around the inn.

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