Language, moral worth, and hippie elephants

Something I wrote a couple years ago that I found digging through my files.

So my back was hurting and for a minute I thought I’d build a little platform on my desk so I could work standing up, by piling up a box and some books. A temporary fix in anticipation of buying one of those standing desks. It didn’t work, and I immediately put the box and books away.

One of the books was an Italian grammar book I’d bought when I began studying Italian a few years ago. I’ve recently eased off that study and have been wondering whether and to what extent I’ll continue with it. But I thought to myself how much I enjoyed studying it for its own sake—not even to learn the language but just because I love grammar, like I love all aspects of language. This led me—somewhat self-consciously, even a little defensively—to wax enthusiastic about grammar in my mind, by way of justifying my love: how cool and amazing grammar is and how worth our attention.

This reminded me of the trope, common and longstanding, of claiming that some human trait or another—language, tool-making, consciousness itself, the ability to feel pain, empathy, certain forms of sociality—is unique.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about, because it is common in writing about some of the subjects I’m most interested in, including linguistics, anthropology, philosophy, and the history of science. Another reason I think about it a lot is because Julie is even more critical of the trope than I am, and I’m fairly critical of it. We debate it frequently, whenever it comes up in some text we’re talking about.

I think there are important reasons to be deeply skeptical of such a claim. First, the history of Western thought on this subject is littered with failure. In previous centuries the ability to feel pain was considered to be unique to human beings, something we now find laughable. More recently tool-making was shown to be a trait shared, at least to some extent, by other species, and as far as I’m concerned this is also true of the ability (a precondition for tool-making, I would argue) to think ahead, to plan, to consider the consequences of one’s actions, all of which have been and continue to be cited as traits unique to Homo sapiens. One of my favorite instances of this is the BBC documentary on honey badgers, which contains some remarkable footage of them coming up with increasingly devious means of escape or for reaching some out-of-reach object they desire. Other examples include the planning and problem solving exhibited by crows and octopuses, to name just two. I remember seeing in some nature documentary a night-time video of a wild cat, I think it was, pulling a log over to a cliff-face so it could climb up and get something it wanted. I forget the details but the point is that the animal had to have been able to conceive of its future and the consequences of its actions to do all this.

Continue reading

An eerie familiarity

One of my favorite examples of polemic is from the conclusion to Henry Adams’ essay “A Chapter of Erie,” detailing the corruption that surrounded the development of the Erie Railroad in the 1860s in New York. It remains as relevant today as when it was written, if not more so.

Modern society has created a class of artificial beings who bid fair soon to be the masters of their creator. It is but a very few years since the existence of a corporation controlling a few millions of dollars was regarded as a subject of grave apprehension, and now this country already contains single organizations which wield a power represented by hundreds of millions. These bodies are the creatures of single States; but in New York, in Pennsylvania, in Maryland, in New Jersey, and not in those States alone, they are already establishing despotisms which no spasmodic popular effort will be able to shake off. Everywhere, and at all times, however, they illustrate the truth of the old maxim of the common law, that corporations have no souls. Only in New York has any intimation yet been given of what the future may have in store for us should these great powers become mere tools in the hands of ambitious, reckless men. The system of corporate life and corporate power, as applied to industrial development, is yet in its infancy. It tends always to development, – always to consolidation, – it is ever grasping new powers, or insidiously exercising covert influence. Even now the system threatens the central government. Continue reading

Authority and Experience

For us, to whom the privileged status of eyewitnesses seems obvious, this great revolution [in epistemology, privileging experience over authority] has ceased to be visible, and it is almost impossible to conceive of ourselves living in a world—a world that was never real, but always imaginary—in which garlic disempowers lodestones and goat’s blood softens diamonds” (David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution [Harper Collins 2015], 283).

However: quarks. (To quote Wallace Stevens again: “pages of illustrations.”)

However: quarks supposedly are based on a chain of inference & testimony that begins in—is founded on—direct experience, replicable and falsifiable, consistent with other observations and experiences, and so on. Continue reading

Some Speculations

I. Aliens on Earth

A few months back I was pleased to see a description in print of an idea that’s been kicking around in my brain for a while now: if the earth is so old, why couldn’t there have been other intelligent species before us who have simply gone extinct, vanished without a trace, their fossils erased by the epochal movement of the continents? I mentioned this to a friend over beer and he raised the objection that some trace of these creatures would surely have remained for us to find; look at the extent to which we’ve transformed our environment in ways that won’t disappear for an extremely long time. Continue reading

Blurry Mental States

Here’s a little ponder I did a while back, which I came across recently while poking around in my files.

Zadie Smith in NYRB, reviewing The Social Network (the Mark Zuckerberg movie) and You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier (11/25/10):

“When I read something like that [semi-literate Facebook posts to the recently dead], I have a little argument with myself: ‘It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.’ But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive?”

More and more, I’m coming to think of this as a false dichotomy. To mis-use a concept Smith deploys in this review, it’s a kind of 1.0 thinking—or, to put it in more familiar terms, it’s characteristic of the long tradition of Enlightenment thought. My experience teaching composition has led me to the conclusion that people’s minds are much messier than we hyperliterate types like to represent them as, and that what appear on paper to be logical contradictions like this are in fact quite normal in most people’s everyday thinking.

[Then, to quote Wallace Stevens, “pages of illustrations.”]

Even this understates the case: language itself requires a clarity, a crystallization—a reduction to the monads of words—that imposes an appearance of discreteness quite at odds with the fluidity of actual thought. Writing by people unaccustomed to the conventions of writing reveals this fluidity in the ways it violates the conventions. It’s not the writing itself but the fluid dynamics, the roiling of the reader’s own thinking and expectation, that acts as a trace, revealing indexically that elusive fluidity and ease with contradiction that characterizes ordinary thinking. Language, I suspect, will never be able to represent this reality. At best it can indicate it by producing those same disruptions. Perhaps this is just a way of saying what Stein and Faulkner and Joyce and others were after with the development of stream-of-consciousness; certainly it helps explain what I love about Woolf. But for me, the language itself always interposes itself, becomes the object of attention, and the fluidity of thought escapes again into its nonverbality.

Maybe what I’m trying to describe is, again, Bateson’s idea of “primary process” (a concept he borrowed from Freud), and I’ve come unexpectedly by a different route to the same question I addressed in my comments on writing from a nonhuman perspective.

Butterfly and Crab


From my youth on, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, Festina lente, hurry slowly. Perhaps what attracted me, even more than the words and the idea, was the suggestiveness of its emblems. You may recall that the great Venetian humanist publisher, Aldus Manutius, on all his title pages symbolized the motto Festina lente by a dolphin in a sinuous curve around an anchor. The intensity and constancy of intellectual work are represented in that elegant graphic trademark, which Erasmus of Rotterdam commented on in some memorable pages. But both dolphin and anchor belong to the same world of marine emblems, and I have always preferred emblems that throw together incongruous and enigmatic figures, as in a rebus. Such are the butterfly and crab that illustrate Festina lente in the sixteenth-century collection of emblems by Paolo Giovio. Butterfly and crab are both bizarre, both symmetrical in shape, and between them establish an unexpected kind of harmony.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium (translated by Patrick Creagh, Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 48. (Apparently there’s a newer translation—Guardian review here.)

A few years ago I lay half asleep early on a Saturday morning, as I often do, too tired to get up but too wired to sleep, listening to Mind Over Matters, the excellent public affairs program on KEXP. The speaker was telling about his experience mapping the Pacific Northwest coast from an airplane, taking photographs to produce what would then have been the most detailed map of the region yet made.

In the course of photographing miles of coastline he noticed what appeared to be a highly regular structure just below the water line, a kind of wall or line of some sort that stretched along the coast for some distance. I don’t remember now how long it was or if there was more than one such structure; I just remember it was noticeable enough to catch his attention and pique his curiosity. It seemed to him it must be a human construction: it was far too regular to be a product of nature.

Continue reading

Some notes on pacing

I was having my creative writing students do an exercise on pacing, and I realized that for some the term & the concept might be unfamiliar, so I gave them a couple of examples. Here’s what I wrote.

“Pacing” refers to the speed at which events are narrated, and the felt speed at which they occur–how we experience the speed of the events.

Here are the opening paragraphs of “No One Writes to the Colonel” (Harper & Row, 1968), a  60-page story by Gabriel García Márquez:

The colonel took the top off the coffee can and saw that there was only one little spoonful left. He removed the pot from the fire, poured half the water onto the earthen floor, and scraped the inside of the can with a knife until the last scrapings of the ground coffee, mixed with rust, fell into the pot.

While he was waiting for it to boil, sitting next to the stone fireplace with an attitude of confident and innocent expectation, the colonel experienced the feeling that fungus and poisonous lilies were taking root in his gut. It was October. A difficult morning to get through, even for a man like himself, who had survived so many mornings like this one. For nearly sixty years—since the end of the last civil war—the colonel had done nothing else but wait. October was one of the few things which arrived.

Here are the opening paragraphs of In Evil Hour (Bard/Avon, 1979), a 183-page novel also by Gabriel García Márquez: Continue reading

That Shape of Branches

Walked out of a postcard writing event into a balmy mid-March evening. Sky light with a pinkish gray, high and cool, clouds drifting off absentmindedly. Buds in the trees, green in the grass. Felt a pull, a sweetness. In the air, in me. Old springs stirring in me. Made me sad and a little afraid. Bittersweet. Hard to take comfort in the beauty of nature when you know that we’re wrenching it out of alignment, destroying the rhythm that’s kept things going for thousands of years. And a little twinge of something I once would have called spirit. I can do without the anthropomorphizing that even the most abstract religions impose on life. But I didn’t want to reject that feeling. Looked up, and there was a tree reaching for the light, its bare branches bud-tipped, arced in a palmate skeleton, spreading and branching and converging again at the tips like an abstract vase. Form: now there’s something I can reverence. Especially form that emerges unthinking from unplanned processes. A thing in which I can recognize myself, and something alien, and something greater, and far too other to receive my paltry projections, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Asked recently what one word I might use to convey what’s important to me about literature, I immediately said “form.” Continue reading

Public Happiness

Apropos the events of last weekend, I thought I’d share these passages from Alexander Cockburn’s journal-cum-memoir, The Golden Age Is In Us:

Hannah Arendt has described eloquently how, when political action succeeds in generating real power, the participants experience a happiness different from the kind of happiness one finds in private life.

Public happiness is not isolating but shared. It is the happiness of being free among other free people, of having one’s public faith redeemed and returned, of seeing public hope becoming public power, becoming reality itself … The experience of public happiness is an exceptional one in the politics of our time, but not such a very rare exception. It has been known in many countries in this century, on every continent, in societies of every kind of political, economic and cultural configuration. It has been felt, if sometimes only momentarily, everywhere, and therefore it is possible everywhere.

Doug Lummis quoted in Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age is in Us. London: Verso, 1995, pp 299 – 300.

Listings for the Golden Age in dictionaries of mythology are rare. But turn to “Saturnalia” and you’ll find it. These days, Saturnalia spells “drunken sex spree,” which has its elements of truth, but the rest of the older meaning involved subversion of the social order.

In this pre-spring festival, senators and slave owners put aside their stately togas and kindred marks of rank and donned shapeless garments, known as syntheses. The prime metaphor of the Saturnalia was freedom from all bondage—the bondage of poverty, of wealth, of the laws and above all, of time. Slaves set up a mock king and were served delicious fare by their masters. Such delicacies, given to the powerless by the powerful, were called “second tables,” because the tables were temporarily turned. Each household became a mimic republic, in which the slaves held first rank. The law courts were closed. The image of Saturn, whose ankle was bound with a woolen fetter the rest of the year, was freed. Gifts were exchanged. The Lord of Misrule reigned.

There was always something dangerous about jovial Saturn, an element of the hooved and the horned, and later he became transformed into the witch-pleasing devil of the Middle Ages. The debauched aspects of the Saturnalia became emphasized, and the revolutionary aspects began to fade away.

So the Golden Age is subversive and it’s fun, which means that for us on the left, it should be our goal and our sales pitch. People love utopias that make sense. …

These days we’re shy imaginers of Utopias on hold. We know we live in the age of iron, lamented by Hesiod and Ovid. All the more reason not to lose heart. There is abundance, if we arrange things differently. The world can be turned upside down; that is, the right way up. The Golden Age is in us, if we know where to look, and what to think.

Cockburn, Golden Age, pp. 1 – 2.

As we came down Jackson toward 4th Avenue in Seattle, a little girl being carried by her father led the crowd around her in a shout for “equality!” and “justice!” Her face was completely lit by the almost unbearable delight of a four- or five-year-old getting a huge crowd of grownups to yell along with her. It was the living embodiment of the public happiness that Arendt, Lummis, and Cockburn describe. (I’d post a picture but I prefer to respect that young girl’s privacy.)

The Nation distorts I-732

[This post started as a comment to be posted after an online article in the Nation, and kind of grew into something bigger. I’m sharing it here as a way to articulate some of my thoughts about the recent controversy over I-732, the carbon tax initiative in Washington State.]

I was disappointed in this article in the Nation by Heather McGhee and Robert Reich, critiquing Washington’s recently defeated Initiative 732 for various reasons. Although I was a supporter of I-732, I’m agnostic on a number of the key questions about the initiative that divided Washington’s environmental community. Nevertheless, I felt that McGhee and Reich gave a distorted picture of the situation. Here’s a list of the points I found misleading:

Continue reading