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.

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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.

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Blue Spruce

Lying in the hammock on the front porch, looking at the branches of the blue spruce, their craggy shapes against the night sky. They make the shapes whether anyone is there to look at them or not, yet we can only see them with all our preconceptions. Our aesthetic responses, our craving for form, the tension between what is and what we long for, the twanging that the shapes provoke inside us.

Looking at them, thinking about them, I think of the millions of years before human beings existed. Whole continents came and went, rivers cut their way through rock, made canyons, oxbows, alluvial plains, little banks where grasses sheltered crayfish. . . The trees stood up and splayed their branches on the sky. The shapes were there. And then they died, fell into earth, the earth swallowed itself and bent to new shapes we never knew.

There are some ideas here.

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