Archive for August, 2005

Piraha

Thursday, August 25th, 2005

An interesting piece that challenges Chomskyan ideas of transformative grammar:

The Piraha are intelligent, highly skilled hunters and fishers who speak a language remarkable for the complexity of its verb and sound systems. Yet, the Piraha language and culture has several features that not known to exist in any other in the world and lacks features that have been assumed to be found in all human groups. The language does not have color words or grammatical devices for putting phrases inside other phrases. They do not have fiction or creation myths, and they have a lack of numbers and counting. Despite 200 years of contact, they have steadfastly refused to learn Portuguese or any other outside language. The unifying feature behind all of these characteristics is a cultural restriction against talking about things that extend beyond personal experience. This restriction counters claims of linguists, such as Noam Chomsky, that grammar is genetically driven system with universal features.

I suspect that this certainly challenges many of the evolutionary psychology accounts of language, though I’m a little less persauded that it reinforces the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The most that can probably be said is that it shows marked cultural and social variations manifested in language, rather than that the language necessarily formed a basis for those cultural concepts. As ever with Sapir-Whorf, it remains rather difficult to tell whether language or culture came first.

Dystopia

Thursday, August 25th, 2005

Charlie Stross writes about the current resurgence in British science fiction and the converse decline in American science fiction:

During the 1947-79 period, an era of British political history dominated by the long shadow of the retreat from empire, there was a definite note of pessimism to SF’s vision of the future. Margaret Thatcher’s government was a polarizing force in British culture. It shook society to its core, closing off some avenues and opening up others. It was a period of deep uncertainty and stark division, during which the post-war consensus established by the One Nation Conservatives and the Old Labour Party evaporated as if it had never existed… The heavy industries — coal, steel, shipbuilding, heavy engineering — went to the wall. Those that survive today are much smaller specialists competing in global markets, not the archaic and historic legacy of the 19th century. And it was during the Thatcher years that the fate of the British Empire was finally sealed — not with a bang but a firework show, as Chris Patten managed the hand-over of Hong Kong in 1996… Britain’s future within the EU was becoming visible, and a new political epoch was dawning in which rather than being a retreating imperial power the culture of the UK would reflect its position as one of the poles of influence within a new, nascent superpower.

The American future is currently uncertain, unpleasant, polarized, regimented, and pessimistic. The American century that dates to VJ Day, August 1945, is more than half over. Much as the shadows lengthened over the coal-driven British Empire during the age of oil, so the shadows are looming over the oil-driven American Empire. Peak Oil is a spectre haunting the corridors of Washington DC, as it haunts the centres of power in every other nation. But the United States is unusual among the industrialized nations in its dependence on oil, and its vulnerability when the price of oil begins to rise. Transportation and climate militate against the easy adoption of other lifestyles, and the demand for stability in the oil market is leading the current administration ever deeper into the morass of Middle Eastern politics.

I’m not convinced. Firstly, Stross both complains that American science fiction was held back by too many certainties in a world where it was the only empire and history seemed to have ended. He also complains that it is currently held back by the vision of an uncertain and troubled future. It seems difficult to have that argument both ways. In practice, the prospect of a troubled future or present should be far from an obstacle to literature; that is after all precisely the conditions under which Brave New World, 1984 and We were produced; Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake proved that such dystopian themes can still create literature in the same way. Given that Stross alludes to him I’d also note that that post-war gloom proved a highly fertile ground for John Wyndham’s dystopian imagination. Above all, I can’t help but rather concluding that I find it rather difficult to understand why Stross seems to feel that Britain and Europe are excluded from the factors driving American pessimism and don’t have reasons of their own to face the future with trepidation.

Counterfactuals

Saturday, August 13th, 2005

Sometime ago, I came across a piece by Tristam Hunt, arguing that the counter-factual genre represented an inherently conservative view of history, in that it privileged notions of individual initiative over deeper forces of socio-economic change. Now Slavoj Zizek has written on the same subject:

“Why is the flourishing genre of ‘what if?’ histories the preserve of conservative historians? The introduction to such volumes typically begins with an attack on Marxists, who allegedly believe in historical determinism. Take this latest instalment, edited by Andrew Roberts, who has himself contributed an essay on the bright prospects that would have faced Russia in the 20th century had Lenin been shot on arriving at the Finland Station…

Roberts ignores the central ideological paradox of modern history, as formulated by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In contrast to Catholicism, which conceived of human redemption as being dependent on good deeds, Protestantism insisted on predestination: why then did Protestantism function as the ideology of early capitalism? Why did people’s belief that their redemption had been decided in advance not only not lead to lethargy, but sustain the most powerful mobilisation of human resources ever experienced?”

Zizek makes a number of valid points, noting that the communist left required some notion of individual scenarios precisely in order to effect the Russian revolution (since Marx had supposed that only capitalist societies would be ripe for revolution while a fedalist society like Russia would have to become a captialist state first). As a recent spat of comments on this blog demonstrated, much hard-left thinking deals with the possibility of a communist society that was constructed in the manner Marx indicated rather than having being perverted by Lenin; not a proposition I agree with but nonetheless its difficult to conclude that wish-fulfillment is solely the province of the right (what if Trotsky had replaced Lenin rather than Stalin, for example?). Equally, it could be argued that counter-factual fiction has more commonly reflected a whig view of history, with both Pavane and Bring the Jubilee reflect changes that were aberrations from a idea of history as progress.

One further issue, is that much of modern conservatism strikes me as having a rather limited approach to the idea of individual agency, due to much if it having embraced a form of determinism that is considerably more rigid than anything proposed by Marx (whose writing was after all concerned with little more than alternative means of social and economic organisation) whether that applies to Fukuyama’s End of History or Pinker’s The Blank Slate.

Same Thing in Reverse

Saturday, August 13th, 2005

Another fascinating post from one of the most consistently interesting weblogs, imomus (what follows is my abridgement of a longer post and comments):

“I’m not into this thing, fashion goth. It’s probably because I’m not into rock and roll, Romanticism, or Christianity. I hate tattoos and piercings and the cult of self-injury. Sex is not evil or wicked. Fashion goth is an aestheticization of pain. Just like a Cranach crucifixion scene. The Marquis de Sade was mounting a critique of the Enlightenment. What’s wrong with the Enlightenment?

I think it’s because Christianity has never meant anything in Japan. If you get into a Shinto-Buddhist mindset you don’t dwell on negativity. Japan is a different culture bloc. Shinto is a fertility religion. It’s a mistake to think there’s only beauty in pain. Fertility religions celebrate life, whereas Christianity and Islam celebrate death and resurrection. In Japan you have both a populist celebration of the material world (Shinto) and an aristocratic rejection of it (Buddhism). “

While I don’t care for Foucault anywhere near as much as I once did, I still find his idea that identity and individuality are simply a construction of whatever discourse are to hand important. As a consequence, I’ve always tended to feel that since no man is an island (not fully unique or independent from the culture that produced them), the idea of a counter-culture was an oxymoron. The most obvious example was the pose of individuality and rebellion created by punk in the seventies, which always seemed uncomfortably close to me to the conservative ideology that dominated the following decade. Similarly, the more a counter-culture prides itself on a sense of rebellion from conformity, the more it creates its own constrictive codes and uniforms. While I’m not wholly convinced by the way Momus opposes both romanticism and the enlightenment and the oriental and the occidental, the notion that a counter-culture and its host-culture are essentially inseparable is one that deserves greater attention.

The Decline of Realism

Sunday, August 7th, 2005

An interesting piece from Waggish on the decline of realism:

Genealogy of Metaphysics: what was it that caused the shift from the master dichotomy of real/unreal to the slave dichotomy of real/fake? The loss of authority/authenticity in young American authors (see Eggers, Foer) indicates a preoccupation with returning to an imagined time where every utterance was a statement of the real, as opposed to the supposed fakeness that surrounds us that everyone is fed up with. The term “irony,” which once signified a sophisticated sort of social satire that required a certain amount of intelligence to appreciate, has become to devalued to the point where it simply signifies insincerity, the positive referent not being a specific target but simply the mores of society.

Certainly, realism has not been an especially fertile ground for modern literature (though I suspect that the increasingly individualistic nature of modern society is as likely a cause as Lyotardian explanations; realism has a certain sense of social solidarity as a pre-requisite; this is the difference between Balzac and Houellebecq), in spite of a brief flourishing after the second world war (Greene, Murdoch). Other forms have come to the forefront; historical fiction (Ackroyd, Atwood, Fowles), magical realism (Marquez, Kundera, Carter, Winterson) or speculative fiction (Atwood). That said, although Waggish notes that those that want to return to a pre-enlightenment authenticity (a dangerous notion, if one thinks of Hamsun or Heidegger) ingore how marginal and disingenuous their views are, his comments did remind me of Slavoj Zizek saying this:

Throughout the entire twentieth century, I see a counter-tendency, for which my good philosopher friend Alain Badiou invented a nice name: ‘La passion du réel’, the passion of the real. That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life.

This seems a good description of the writing of JG Ballard and perhaps others like Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk. Perhaps that is the writing that will be remembered from these times as being real. Perhaps it already is; I always remember JG Ballard observing that on the whole, the future would be bland, a world of stifling mediocrity and conformity occasionally punctuated by mildly absurd and senseless acts of violence. For all of its impact, 9/11 did not seem to fall into this category; it resembled a film (a Hollywood disaster movie) too much to seem truly real. The recent Tube bombings seem to meet Ballard’s description rather more accurately.

Update: Some interesting related observations I came across from John Fowles:

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the novel was at one remove from life. But since the advent of film and television and sound recording it is at two removes. The novel is now generally about things and events which the other forms of art describe better.

All the purely visual and aural sequences in the modern novel are a bore, both to read and to write. People’s physical appearance, their movements, their sounds, places, moods of places—the camera and the microphone enregister these twenty times better than the typewriter… In other words, to write a novel in 1964 is to be neurotically aware of trespassing, especially on the domain of the cinema… So over the novel today hangs a faute de mieux. All of us under forty write cinematically; our imaginations, constantly fed on films, “shoot” scenes, and we write descriptions of what has been shot. So for us a lot of novel writing is, or seems like, the tedious translating of an unmade and never-to-be-made film into words.

I’m not sure I agree, as I tend to think of cinema as the artform that failed but it does rather remind me of Paglia’s observation that cinema was always implicit in Western art in the prominence it gave to the visual or to Tanizaki’s compliant about the respective roles of light and shadow in Oriental and Occidental aesthetics.

The Uses of Division

Saturday, August 6th, 2005

Sometime ago, I came across an unually interesting meme. Based on an idea from the Vienna circle whereby each of the propositions in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was declared to be either true or false, it suggested doing the same to Alain Badiou’s Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art. On the whole, I don’t think that the idea that statements can be verified in this manner is worth spending too much time and certainly not in the case of Badiou, many of whose theses reflect a very specfic policitical worldview. However, I was struck by one of the propositions:

“Every art develops from an impure form, and the progressive purification of this impurity shapes the history both of a particular artistic truth and of its exhaustion.”

It’s not an obviously flawed idea, but I’d still have to answer false. Clearly, influence will inevitably work to alter and even refine what has preceded it but the thesis still asumes that purity in art is necessarily a welcome concept. The most extreme example here is Shakespeare, who seemed to me best described by Camille’s Paglia’s comment that she was alwasy struck by the implacable density and hostility of Shakespeare’s writing, its resistance to all interpretation. While much of Shakespeare seems to be all pattern and symmetry, it is equally true to say that it is all shifting perspectives and lacunae. When Eliot bemoaned the absence of an objective correlative in Hamlet he had identified the source of its power; interpretation runs off it like water from a duck’s feathers, ensuring that it can always be renewed and reinterpreted.

At the same extreme are modern writers like Kafka and Coetzee. The protagonists of The Trial and The Castle have no key to the events that unfold around them and neither does the reader, with political, relgious and even Freudian interpretations seeming equally applicable and inapplicable. Coetzee’s characters are equally denied access to self-knowledge; Elizabeth Costello speaks of how her beliefs are only provisional, Michael K simply has no lexicon to explain himself. In spite of the humour in Kafka and Shakespeare there’s is nonetheless something hostile about both of them a certain glacial quality that comes from never being able to get close to any of their works, to penetrate to the heart of what they are about.

By contrast, I always liked John Bayley’s The Uses of Division for its argument that the imperfections in a work were what brought it to life, what made it appraochable were Shakespeare and Kafka are forbidding and impersonal. Another theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin argued that the novel in particular would always thwart aesthetic purity; its different registers and voices would always create something characterised by different perspectives, something polyphonic. Ambiguities and uncertainties remain but appear more human. I think of how DH Lawrence’s anxieties over his sexuality created fractures in his visions of new modes of being, of how George Eliot’s sense of empathy for the lost meant that she could never quite depict sacrificeand sympathy in the way her system demanded, of how Hardy’s social convictions could never be quite brought to tally with his pessimistic Schophenhauerian worldview. There’s something endlessly fascinating about these imperfections, largely because they are so immediately apparent to us.