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Saturday, August 28, 2010




Lady Fortune
You say you favour the brave
But an audit of your account shows
You favour those you have favoured before
The children of the rich and not the children of the poor

If your selection were random
I’d be happy to accept my fate
My number hasn’t come up
And it never may

You are a lazy witch
If I may say so and incur your wrath
Languishing in the golden temples built for you by slaves
Smiling upon those who have never worked a day in their life
Pouring scorn on those who kneel before you in rags

I pray to you nevertheless to pick me and my lucky number
And if you do
I shall praise you and construct you a little wooden shrine to declare
That once you favoured the one whose luck ran out
                                             Bravely fighting the odds

Thursday, August 26, 2010


           The Chinese version of my Chomsky book (2010, Peking University Press)

Saturday, August 21, 2010



Wolfgang B. Sperlich, 2009

The first of the nine articles by Koji Fujita sets the tone, if not agenda, with a bold and programmatic statement that takes the Minimalist Program to a grand conclusion: all you need is MERGE. His defense of the anti-lexicalist position may be controversial but it is plausible enough. That syntax generates the lexicon may be an idea whose time has come.

One would have thought that the articles to follow would elaborate on these bold proposals and provide empirical support. Oddly enough, only a few articles seems to do that. Some seem designed, by varying degrees, to counter Fujita’s minimalist framework (I will address each one separately below). One wonders if is an intentional design to foster some kind of debate or perhaps follow the Popperian idea that science is essentially concerned with falsifying the latest hypotheses. Biolinguistics seems to have engaged in this concept before in Vol.3, namely in the ‘debate’ between Postal and Collins where the former contribution, The Incoherence of Chomsky’s ‘Biolinguistic’ Ontology, flies in the face of any reasonable debate, what with Postal’s main gripe being that Chomsky cannot be bothered to reply to Postal’s outpourings. Attacks on Chomsky is an industry in itself and I fail to see why Biolinuistics as a fine testament to Chomsky and his work in linguistics has to publish such nonsense just to be seen fair and open to scientific debate.

Since the articles - those that seem to counteract the Biolinguitics program and  Fujita in particular -  are nowhere near as malignant as Postal’s article, one can look at them in terms of a benign debate and as such take issue with the arguments presented.

As such we can take issue straightaway with the second paper by Jacqueline van Kampen, somewhat unnecessarily provocatively entitled The Non-Biological Evolution of Grammar: Wh-Question Formation in Germanic,. The author doesn’t actually go as far as the title suggests - how could she? - but grapples with the question of parameter setting to distinguish English and Dutch. Her proposal seems to be that Wh-Question Formation in child language acquisition (English vs. Dutch) as a parameter fixing exercise is not only achieved by language input - how else could it be? - but that the parameter itself is established by language input. Nevertheless she is driven to make vast generalizations:

The learnability approach relativizes Chomsky’s poverty of the stimulus, but affirms his position that language is ‘perfect’ in the sense of being learnable as a cultural construct without the assumption of innate grammar-specific a prioris.   

She does Chomsky no favours at all in claiming that she at least agrees with his idea that language is ‘perfect’, especially as she follows up with equating language as a cultural construct - a really bad idea if only because ‘culture’ seems to be one of the more ‘imperfect’, if not silly, constructs known to mankind. What is interesting in her research is of course the question of how and why parameters seem a key to language typology. Jason Kandybowicz gave a good account in his article Externalization and Emergence: On the Status of Parameters in the Minimalist Program, Biolinguistics Vol.3 No.1, sadly not referred to in van Kampen (nor does she refer to two other Biolinguistics articles on parameters by Thornton & Tesan, and by Uriagereka). Obviously language input cannot create typological parameters, as say between Dutch and English, and then somehow select for one or the other. If language is learnt through input alone it cannot have recourse to UG or any other languages. Van Kampen has discarded many powerful explanations for why this is a most unlikely scenario.

In fact van Kampen’s scenario is much more usefully applicable to Second Language Acquisition (SLA). Assuming that SLA individuals have blocked their access to UG by varying degrees - having fixed their typological parameters via child language acquisition - we can explain the various difficulties second language learners have - with emphasis on ‘learning’. Learners have to reconstruct second language parameters from input and from what their implicit and explicit knowledge is about their native language and language in general.

Van Kampen also might have been wise to consider whether or not her research focus is in fact part of UG - if not, there is no case to answer. This is a point made later in Parrott’s article (Danish Vestigial Case and the Acquisition of Vocabulary in Distributed Morphology), namely that many linguistic phenomena, variables in particular, are outside the narrow syntax:

… general Minimalist perspective (Chomsky 1995, 2000 et seq., see also Hauser et al. 2002), where only the operations of the narrow syntax are genetically endowed; all variation is restricted to ‘lexical’ features and the interfaces between narrow syntax and language-external cognitive and sensory/motor systems.

The third article by Anna R. Kinsella, Gary F. Marcus, Evolution, Perfection, and Theories of Language, also seems to be fully anti-programmatic, and one wonders why. The authors say that

Here it is argued that language is neither perfect nor optimal, and shown how theories of language which place these properties at their core run into both conceptual and empirical problems.

This is of course at odds with various MP proposals that language, as a computational system, is optimally designed. Of course this is quite a baffling assertion and in terms of evolutionary progress one may well ask, as did Kandybowicz (see above), why it is that we have all these different languages with different parameter settings. Wouldn’t an optimal solution have no parameters, i.e. why don’t we have just UG as a fully functioning language? Kinsella and Marcus however focus on various features that purport to demonstrate the general imperfection of language, features such as ‘ambiguity, redundancy, irregularity, movement, locality conditions, and extra-grammatical idioms’. For the question on ‘movement’ they should have referred to Fujita who demonstrates Move as a sub-class of Merge and as such is of optimal design. One can take issue with all of the other features mentioned. For example the question of redundancy: one can quite easily turn the argument around and say that redundancy is an essential element of all complex systems - as is well known in information theory and computer program architecture. It is popularly argued that the human brain consists to 90% of back-up systems (back-up systems are redundant by definition). English 3rd person, present tense, verb agreement is a case in point: in the sentence ‘X sits at the table’, X is at least partially recoverable as ‘he, she’ or ‘it’. One can also use this as an example to show how syntax generates the lexicon. Kinsella and Marcus skate on thicker ice with ‘locality conditions’ as for example the question of reflexive anaphora long distance binding remains a highly contested research item across languages. All in all, this article falls rather flat. Perhaps there is also a hint that the authors fail to make a clear distinction between langue and parole, thus allowing for the quite valid assertion that the functions of language invariably are associated with the ‘imperfection’, if not outright stupidity so widespread amongst the ruling classes.

The fourth article by Hiroki Narita, Full Interpretation of Optimal Labeling, is a technical account of whether bare phrase structure is a good idea or not - siding with the latter conclusion and as such seemingly somewhat anti-MP. On the other hand these is no fundamental disagreement with MP, rather a fine-tuning that favours some level of labeling. I lack the technical expertise to determine whether or not Narita makes a convincing case for labeling but I am impressed with the dense arguments put forth. In fact the article strikes me as a worthwhile technical discussion that may well have implications for future directions in MP.

The next paper by Dennis Ott entitled The Evolution of I-Language: Lexicalization as the Key Evolutionary Novelty, is in stark contradiction to Fujita’s anti-lexicalist stance. While the lexicalist arguments are framed within MP, one would have hoped for a better appreciation of syntax. As such, one can turn Ott’s thesis up-side-down and arrive at a good argument for Fujita. We can do this by a series of quotes from Ott’s paper, his point of departure being:

… Hauser et al (2002) speculating that the I-language (syntax and the lexicon) may indeed be the sole evolutionary novelty that allowed humans to cognitively outplay even their closest evolutionary relatives.

We can only agree, especially as ‘syntax’ is mentioned before the ‘lexicon’. Ott then reverses this order and concentrates on the lexicon alone:

Paul Bloom’s (2000: 242): “Non-humans have no words and a relatively limited mental life; humans have many words and a much richer.mental life. This might be no accident.”

We can only concur if Bloom puts ‘syntax’ before ‘words’. To make amends Ott has ‘syntax’ included in the next quote:

The intricacy of semantic properties of lexical items is enormous (Pustejovsky 1995, Chomsky 2000), and there is no evidence for comparative complexities in animal calls. The same is true with regard to structure: at most, animal calls have linear-sequential structure, but no higherorder hierarchical structure as evidences in human syntax.

Chomsky has always struggled with the lexicon, at times doing his best to ignore it as mere material for insertion, or giving it some credence by postulating some sort of mini-grammar attached to each lexical item. This notion seems to reappear in Chomsky’s latest attempt to come to grips with the lexicon, and Ott seems impressed:

A lexical item (LI)] has a feature that permits it to be merged. Call this the edge feature (EF) of the LI. … The fact that Merge iterates without limit is a property at least of LIs — and optimally, only of LIs, as I will assume.EF articulates the fact that Merge is unbounded, that language is a recursive infinite system of a particular kind. (Chomsky 2008: 139)

Perhaps we should ask Chomsky where this ‘edge feature’ comes from, how it arises. What is certain however is that Chomsky understands the minimalist syntax of Merge as the key generator of sentences. Chomsky has never proposed a theory of the lexicon. Ott however does:

Evidently, if this were true, an evolutionary account of I-language would be significantly simplified, in that syntax itself would follow from lexicalization (assignment of an edge feature).

This seems an extraordinary reversal of the facts. How can a mysterious ‘edge feature’ give rise to an iterative structural system that uses Merge as its primary generator? Since Ott himself uses the metaphor of ‘words being building blocks for syntactic structures’ we can demonstrate by analogy: if squareness is an ‘edge feature’ of bricks one can hardly claim that this feature determines the structure of the building - admittedly it may put some minor constraints on it. Fujita’s innovative and elegant proposal is exactly the other way round: the structure of the building determines the building blocks. As such lexical items acquire their ‘edge features’ from syntax and are then inserted accordingly. If we call lexical categories like ‘verb, noun, preposition’ and what have you, edge features, we have a perfectly good explanation for their origins, namely from syntax.

Following this line of inquiry we can agree with the old fashioned concept of lexicalization whereby structures generated by Merge become lexicalized in some instances. Strangely enough, Ott seems to echo just such a sentiment in his concluding remarks:

Rather, the sudden addition of recursive syntax, paired with a capacity for lexicalization, plausibly led to the explosive emergence of symbolic thought that paved the way for modern human behavior.

Next in line is Jeffrey K. Parrott’s paper entitled Danish Vestigial Case and the Acquisition of Vocabulary in Distributed Morphology. This is an interesting investigation into vestigial versus transparent case features as found in various Germanic languages. The former allow for mismatches while the latter do not. If case was a feature of narrow syntax we would not expect this to happen for even Vestigial Case applications. The solution is of course that the Vestigial Case phenomena are part of the morpho-phonological component - as associated with the lexicon - and as such outside narrow syntax, as stated in general:

… general Minimalist perspective (Chomsky 1995, 2000 et seq., see also Hauser et al. 2002), where only the operations of the narrow syntax are genetically endowed; all variation is restricted to ‘lexical’ features and the interfaces between narrow syntax and language-external cognitive and sensory/motor systems.

Interestingly a logical consequence might be that case - vestigial or transparent - is outside narrow syntax. Parrott puts it like this:

If Case features are checked in the narrow syntax, then Case is endowed by UG and available to the child without any need for learning from environmental input. If that were the case, it is hard to see why anything like the transparency constraint would be operative. Even a small set of pronoun allomorphs ought to be sufficient to signal the correct mappings of phonological features to Case features. But if case features are only assigned/realized postsyntactically, say by morphological rules that refer to syntactic structures (McFadden 2004), then these rules too must be learned on the sole basis of environmental input and would thus be subject to transparency.

Case as such becomes a lexical edge feature, and if we follow Ott and ultimately Fujita, we may assume that since the lexicon arises from syntax, there is always the possibility that in this process certain syntax features get transferred to and/or mapped onto the lexicon.

It is perhaps not surprising that the next offering with the funny/provocative title Sex and Syntax: Subjacency Revisited, by Ljiljana Progovac, also contains some funny example sentences:

(32) This is a book that the more you read, the less you understand.

(34) He is a linguist — (as) you know. Parataxis

(35) He is a linguist, and you know it. Coordination

(36) You know that he is a linguist. Subordination

The author also makes some strong claims, like:

Despite the sustained effort of about forty years to analyze Subjacency, to
date, there has been no principled account, with the most recent attempts
faring not much better than the initial proposals.

An anonymous reviewer upbraids her for it but she is not deterred and goes on the counter attack. At some level one has to admire such self-belief but it carries with it the danger of falling flat on the face - from a considerable height. While this is not to suggest that ‘the more one reads her paper the less one understands it’ nor that ‘she is a linguist, and you know it’ should be attributed to Progovac, her style of writing does invite a certain amount of levity. In any case now that she has our attention, what shall we make of her arguments? Her basic assertion is that language evolved in three steps (see also examples 34-36 above):

(A) Parataxis/Adjunction stage, with no hierarchical structure,
where prosody/suprasegmentals provide the only glue for
merger (Jackendoff 1999, 2002).
(B) Proto-coordination stage, where, in addition to prosody, the
conjunction provides all-purpose segmental glue to hold the
utterance together.
(C) Specific functional category stage, where, in addition to
prosody, specific functional categories provide specialized
syntactic glue for clause cohesion, including tense elements and
subordinators/complementizers. It is in this stage that Move
seems to become available.

This scheme contradicts, as she says, the one-step explanations favoured by the likes of Chomsky, as in:

… the influential language evolution hypothesis, according to which Merge (which subsumes Move) was the only evolutionary breakthrough for syntax: Once it emerged, it was able to apply freely and recursively (Hauser et al. 2002, Chomsky 2005, Fitch et al. 2005).

Her arguments are centered on the proposal that Subjacency/islands are proto-language constructs with no possibility of Move. She posits that Move becomes available only at stage three (or C as above). This puts the erstwhile theory in its head which said that Move was freely available from the start and was perhaps only later constrained by islands. If Merge subsumes Move, I am not sure if there is a logical possibility that Move emerges, as it were, at later stages of language evolution. Once we get Merge, don’t we get the whole package? Progovac’s detailed points about the interpretation of subjacency are quite convincing at times but she really exaggerates her speculative mode when she seriously suggests that the finer points of syntax were acquired via ‘sexual selection’:

This communicative advantage is concrete enough that it could have been targeted by natural or sexual selection.

Surely she must have realized that her source quote from Lightfoot (1991) was in jest:

Subjacency has many virtues, but … it could not have increased the chances of having fruitful sex.

If not, Progovac may have to put up with the frivolous suggestion that current sexual selection does not favour linguists.

The second-to-last article, also by Ljiljana Progovac - with co-author John L. Locke - entitled The Urge to Merge:Ritual Insult and the Evolution of Syntax, must have been selected to enlarge on the entertainment value engendered by her Sex and Syntax paper. The authors’ penchant for foxy titles is amusing enough were it not for the content that must fall into the category of - as Chomsky might say - not impossible but highly unlikely.

I have always liked Labov’s (1972) treatment of ritual insults in his Language in the Inner City and it may be worth to remind readers that his point was to demonstrate that ritual insults - as exemplified by black English vernacular - are not some sort of primitive verbal behaviour but instead exhibit complex syntax. The present authors - who have overlooked Labov - seem to hark back to more primitive times when they introduce mouthwatering prospects even in the abstract:

But, is there evidence that such verbal duels, and sexual selection in general, played any role in the evolution of specific principles of language, syntax in particular? In this paper, concrete linguistic data and analysis will be presented which indeed point to that conclusion. The prospect will be examined that an intermediate form of ‘proto-syntax’, involving ‘proto-Merge’, evolved in a context of ritual insult.

Picture the scenario: two cave men ritually insulting each other in front of a cave woman who will then select the winner for sexual procreation - the winner being the one who stumped the opponent with an insult so clever that the other guy was left speechless. No doubt HE was the one who invented ‘proto-Merge’ and had his linguistically modified genes passed on. Never mind that modern-day ritual insults seem to play no more part in ritual courtship - rather being a device for membership of a vernacular culture peer group (as also pointed out by Labov). In any case one would have thought that emerging human courtship rituals would favour linguistic devices that demonstrate compliment (of oneself) rather than denigration (of the other), if only for the simple reason of economy. It is much more efficient to sell oneself by accentuating the positive than waste a lot of energy and time to denigrate a potentially large number of different competitors - this is the first rule of advertising. While there are many examples of the puffed up male demonstrating his superior qualities in terms of physical and mental make-up, there is of course always a final recourse to simple violence. The guy with more muscle wins the lady’s heart. - not that she has a choice if the choice comes down to this level. Another downside to this whole argument must be the role of the female: did SHE not have any input into proto-Syntax? As a cynic one may well congratulate the authors that, conceptually at least, they have hit the nail on the head - a stupidly aggressive male having shaped our linguistic, if not cognitive, evolutionary progress to end up today at the ‘age of stupid’ - in line with the title of a documentary film that seems popular amongst certain sections of intelligent people. Luckily Ljiljana Progovac - with co-author John L. Locke - admit that there could be more to this type of evolution:

It is important to keep in mind that we only claim that ritual insult in the form of compounding was one of the factors contributing to the consolidation of Merge; we are certainly not claiming that it was the only factor. As pointed out by a reviewer, the emergence of (proto-)Merge would have brought about a host of other communicative advantages.

In any case the authors single out VN compounds as ‘living fossils’, suggesting that an item like ‘daredevil’ somehow links back to ‘ancient’ proto-Merge operations. Since Serbian seems to have an abundance of VN ritual insult items, the Serbian language seems to be elevated to equally ‘ancient’ status. I am somewhat concerned about the author’s loose play with historical linguistics, connecting highly speculative terms like ‘proto-syntax’ or ‘proto-Merge’ with synchronic language data. Historical linguistics does conduct serious research on the basis of proto-languages, for example the backtracking from extant Polynesian languages to proto-Polynesian and further back to proto-Oceanic and finally to proto-Austronesian. I say ‘finally’ because historical linguistics is not concerned with speculative time-depths beyond the major language families of the world. The tools of historical linguistics are comparative phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics and it is difficult enough to arrive at a first-level proto-language, let alone reach time-depths of say five to ten thousand years. Furthermore if we accept the tenets of glottochronology - using lexicostatistics - whereby a language tends to change internally every 200 years to be mutually unintelligible, then how can we possibly claim that extant VN compounds declaiming ritual insults are potential ‘fossils’ of a time depth ranging from a 100,000 years to a few million?

Progovac with her fine knowledge of Serbian might have done herself a better service had she at least found supporting items from proto-South Slavic, or better still from proto-Slavic. Even then she could not make the link between any proto-language and the misused ‘proto-Merge’. This is not to say that evolutionary linguistics is not worthy of study - indeed it can be a fascinating thing to do - as attested by some of the papers presented in this special issue. Since this field of inquiry must remain highly speculative, one should test any given hypothesis first on the grounds of common sense in order to avoid highly fanciful accounts that are all possible but are also highly unlikely. Progovac is obviously a very good writer - but is it good science? Chomsky says that science operates like the drunk who looks for his lost keys under lamp post - because that’s where the light is (Barsky 1997:95). By analogy one would wish that Progovac gets a bit closer to the light and subsequently make great discoveries.

Last but not least we have The Third Factor in Phonology by Bridget Samuels. This contribution returns to the full support of the Biolinguistics program:

… I explore the idea advanced in many recent Minimalist writings that phonology is an ‘ancillary’ module, and that phonological systems are “doing the best they can to satisfy the problem they face: To map to the [Sensorimotor system] interface syntactic objects generated by computations that are ‘welldesigned’ to satisfy [Conceptual-Intentional system] conditions” but unsuited to communicative purposes (Chomsky 2008: 136).
No doubt considered by many (e.g. Pinker and Jackendoff) a radical proposal but logical enough when one follows the likes of Chomsky and Fujita. Samuels provides convincing arguments that a wide range of animals are capable of phonology. Her references are spot on; for example its is interesting to learn that ‘we know that rhesus monkeys are sensitive to pitch classes — they, like us, treat a melody which is transposed by one or two octaves to be more similar to the original than one which is transposed by a different interval (Wright et al. 2000)’. That some humans should have chosen tone as a major phonological feature, thus becomes somewhat less mysterious. The Dr Doolittle scenario also becomes less of a joke: given our shared capacities to vocalize, we can arrive at a rudimentary communication with our pet animals in particular. There is a funny Francis of Assisi sketch where he figures out that he cannot talk to the birds by imitating their singing but by hopping around as birds do when on land - well, according to the present theory he should have stuck with singing. Samuels is however cautious when she says that ‘the organization of bird song is particularly clear, though it is not obvious exactly whether/how analogies to human language should be made’.

Samuels also does well to reference a number of studies that make the point that human language is not necessarily predicated on our erstwhile ability to vocalize but may instead have emerged from ‘action’:

Perhaps, then, the precursors of linguistic syntax should be sought in primatemanual abilities rather than in their vocal skills” (Byrne 2007: 12; emphasis his). I concur that manual routines provide an interesting source of comparanda for the syntax of human language, broadly construed (i.e., including the syntax of phonology). Fujita (2007) has suggested along these lines the possibility that Merge evolved from an ‘action grammar’ of the type which would underlie apes’ foraging routines.

Samuels in her conclusion points out that the popular perception of language = speech is in fact based on a false premise:

Perhaps we should amend the ‘speech is special’ hypothesis: speech is special (to us), in just the same way that conspecific properties throughout the animal kingdom often are; but there is nothing special about the way human speech is externalized or perceived in and of itself.

This approach also buries all the silly arguments about Chimsky vs. Chomsky since it is now clearly established that syntax (Merge) was the evolutionary leap that distinguishes humans from animals.

Perhaps above conclusion should equate with one for this whole review. Nevertheless since the editors of Biolinguistics, Kleanthes K. Grohmann & Cedric Boeckx, ‘encourage everyone, as with anything else published in Biolinguistics, to submit commentary and criticism’, I’ll add a few more words. Was it a good idea to have a special issue? Sure, it was, notwithstanding some of the papers that were off the mark. It is good to read contributions from emerging talents - especially as the selected papers came from a conference on Biolinguistics, Acquisition and Language Evolution (BALE), organized by post-graduate students. Since I have omitted to mention the Guest Editorial: Introduction to BALE 2008 by Nanna Haug Hilton, allow me to make amends by way of this postscript and quote her raison-d’être:

The research interests and backgrounds of us doctoral students on the committee varied across a number of linguistic sub-disciplines. It soon became apparent, therefore, that finding a topic for the conference could prove problematic. After some debate, we concluded that instead of addressing a subject that a few of the students specialized in, the conference theme should be one that unites different linguistic disciplines. The topic that emerged deals with a question that, in our opinion, is at the core of all linguistic research: What are the biological underpinnings of language, and what is the interaction between the innate knowledge of linguistic structure with the language input to which we are exposed?

My only gripe with her question in italics is that the second part of the question seems strangely redundant: since the ‘language input’ we are ‘exposed to’ arises from the ‘innate knowledge of linguistic structure’ in the first place, we are faced with a feedback loop rather than an ‘interaction’ between seemingly independent phenomena. I doubt this was the author’s intention as her first part of the question addresses the crux of the matter.

NOTE: all references but two are from the original articles and not listed below


Barsky, Robert F. 1997. Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. Cambridge MA: The MIT

Labov, William. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English
 Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010




BALI 19.2.71

B A L I         19.2.71

Bali ist eine magische Insel. Nicht jeder, der Bali besucht kann dies erfahren, sehen oder spüren; es sei denn, er habe Sinn für die Magie. Für den ausgemachten Magier ist Bali sicherlich der verborgene siebte Himmel. Für den magischen Laien eher ein seltsames Wunderland.





Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Sperlich, Wolfgang (2006). Noam Chomsky. Reaktion Books, London.

... also published in Spanish, Korean, Turkish, Hebrew and Chinese.


... an entry from my MS on The ABC of Neo-feudalism


Marx and Engels, following on from Hegel’s law of transformation, famously postulated the leap from quantity to quality, both to explain natural and socialist evolution. The latter seems to have stalled for the time being and instead we are experiencing an interlude of ‘if one does not learn from history one is condemned to repeat it’.

Apart from the trivial application of an increasing quantity acquiring a new quality - drops of water accumulating in an ocean - we have as yet no better explanation for human evolution. We have no idea how masses of brain neurons and associated bits and pieces of chemistry and physics give rise to language and mind. This state of affairs explains the still very powerful recourse to religion, superstition and other supernatural beliefs when it comes to the explanation of human nature as opposed to all other nature - which seems firmly in the grip of empirical sciences. Indeed the human capacity for irrationality - especially when dealing with other humans - is in itself a puzzle worthy of explanation.

One can only speculate. Perhaps the empirical sciences themselves offer a few clues as to the inexplicitness that exists. The aptly named quantum theory in physics together with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theory seems to have hit a glass ceiling with respect to the location of sub-atomic particles. If we make this analogous with the human mind, we cannot pinpoint as to where we are - mentally - at any given time but we can arrive at a high level of statistical certainty. Human nature and human evolution seem to follow this principle. There are always certain statistical trends in human populations but no individual can be picked with certainty to represent that trend. Indeed social and socialist theory may be predicated on this observation: the more socially homogenous a society is the more predictable are its operational trends - presumably an argument for socialism. The more heterogeneous a society - with a high degree of individuality - the less predictable its operational trends, resulting in the swings and roundabouts presently experienced. The high success rates of empirical sciences are of course predicated on near perfect statistical certainty of not being able to falsify so-called laws of nature. Gravity rules without exception - as far as we know.

Human language emanates from the human brain and as far as we know it must follow the laws of nature as far as we know them. Communication seems to be predicated in the same way: there is a good statistical reliability that people are able to communicate what they think via what they express through their use of the language. On an individual basis there is no such certainty. Indeed I myself may be a prime example of not being able to communicate what I think. People may not understand what I am trying to say, or if they get an inkling, they may not want to understand because the message is too much to take. I may strike a proverbial chord only in those individuals who, like me, seem to suffer from a certain statistical neglect these days. We are not recognized. We are not commercially viable. We are not trendy. We exist on the periphery. We are never there when society looks for individuals to celebrate. We are invisible to the naked eye of the empiricist. We are like light, unsure if we have substance or if we exist as electromagnetic waves only.   

We certainly lack in numbers - quantity - and as such seem unable to effect changes in quality. We survive in the hope that the reverse will happen: our quality of thought will effect quantitative changes, infecting like a virus all those who hitherto were immune to socialist reason. This effect in turn will create a chain reaction and vast numbers of the human population will make the promised leap to a new socialist quality hitherto unknown in human evolution. Unfortunately in the meantime, as repeated over and again, the current statistical trends point to a reversal of fortunes, namely to the crass elevation of  individuals to the realm of feudal lords and ladies while the masses will have no statistical value despite their strength in numbers.

The interplay between quantity and quality isn’t just a one-way street. Hegel’s law of transition needs further investigation.   

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The way is this way



Wolfgang B. Sperlich, 2010

A full moon
Magnified on the horizon
Where is he on moonless nights?
Gone the way of Milky Way?

I see the face in the mirror
Answers are forthcoming
Laws of nature
Some the face understands
Others not

The face turns, the mirror dies
Nothing matters
The moon shines again
Eyes closed forever
Blinded by the sun

Meaningless meaning
Works hard to survive
Wishing never to have been born
Blackmailing mental health
Extracting extra medication
For fake suicide

Night and day
The limelight shines
On your faces
Fame and fortune in the making
Happy to be
Blinded by lightning

Have another one
Until the six pack’s gone
Enjoy the delirium
Struck dumb by words
Coming from the mirror
Without a face 

Friday, August 13, 2010


                                                  TO SPEAK THE UNSPEAKABLE

… spoken by Wolfgang B. Sperlich, 1999

Jacques Derrida, an influential post-modernist and deconstructionist communicator of our time, in a recent lecture in Auckland explored the meaning of the word and concept of ‘to forgive’. He came to the conclusion that ‘to forgive the forgivable’ does not capture the intent of the word ‘to forgive’, rather it must be that ‘to truly forgive’ means ‘to forgive the unforgivable’ (see also Derrida 1997 for his latest book translated into English).

In a similar way I wish to explore the notion that to communicate/to speak the speakable (the conventional, the sanctioned, yesterday’s news, the obvious, the shallow, the acceptable, the thinkable …) does not capture the true intent of the word ‘to communicate’. When we communicate what is already known to us, we merely repeat and reinforce an old message. What is really worth communicating must be new, the unheard of, the yet unknown, the unthinkable, the newly discovered, the unwritten, the taboo.

Marshal McLuhan (1967) who gave us ‘the medium is the message’ which might be changed to ‘the medium is the old message’ when it comes to the overlords of modern communication: the media. Mass communication, as Noam Chomsky (1988) has shown, serves ‘to manufacture consent’ by repeating again and again the commandments of a self-serving economic elite. US President Ronald Reagan, winner of the cold war, was bestowed the title ‘the Great Communicator’ by the mass media: we cannot think of a better example to illustrate the absurdity that those who are masters in saying nothing (new) – such as B-grade Hollywood actors barely being able to repeat the lines of a written script – are appointed great communicators. As many of us have come to suspect, politicians in particular, are the mere mouth pieces of gray operators in the background. Like chiefly orators of the Polynesian tradition speaking for the chief who is always silent in public, they tell us the good old news and the bad old news. The idea is that we better get used to this ‘new order’ which is so rotten and old that it can be easily called neo-feudalism. Welcome to a repeat performance starting 1000 AD. Remember that under feudalism, new or old, everybody is miserable, from bottom to top. In the past the top dog was most worried about his (sometimes her) mortality and spent all his energies (and all the people’s wealth) on monuments to his eternal body. Nowadays the top dogs and increasingly top bitches worry about their hold on global economic empires and how best to spend their vast wealth on inconspicuous mansions in the sky. The unemployed and other mentally ill outcasts of society rely on charities organised by the good ladies and increasingly good men of Remuera and other such holy denominations (Leonard Cohen, a communicator of gloomy lyrics sings in one of his songs aptly titled ‘The future … brother, it is murder’ about the homicidal bitch that comes into the kitchen to determine who will eat and who will starve). Karl Marx was nearly right when he pronounced that religion is the opium of the people: just substitute ‘food’ for opium (cf. the ‘dollar a day’ advertising drives of the charitable Christian children funding organisations … a dollar a day will buy them clean water and food … and those who believe in me will eat and those who do not, will not).

As a sign of resistance I wish to explore in greater detail what it might encompass to communicate the unspeakable. At one level one might begin with a discussion of the alleged problems inherent in ‘cross-cultural communication’ about which a great deal has been written not only in New Zealand/Aotearoa. The now classic Talking Past Each Other by Joan Metge and Patricia Kinloch demonstrates the ‘unspeakable’ due to cultural barriers. Of course the is a myriad of contexts where people ‘talk past each other’ – if they talk to each other at all – and we all know the self-help books on how to improve the situation and get into tune with each other, connect at the same wavelength, celebrate our differences and live in harmony. Sold as a universal panacea, often with religious overtones, up-grading one’s communication skills make us better equipped to figure out what the other guy is on to. It makes us more employable. Especially the young, the unemployed, the criminals, the social outcasts and failures lack in communication skills and they must attend remedial night classes and learn NLP (as an example take Bolstad and Hamblett, 1997, Transforming Communication, Longman). Those who are very successful in public and private enterprise are said to have excellent communication skills.

Quite clearly then, such communication skills are defined within the dominant paradigm and serve the covert aim to maintain cultural, economic and social barriers. The best one can say about such endeavours is that in the upper classes they weed out a certain amount of racism, sexism and other issues affecting the lower classes negatively (the motivation being that such attitudes make no economic sense when you earn five to five thousand times the average wage … hence the celebrity magazines can tell us glibly that the rich suffer fewer social ills than the down and out). Communication barriers remain, and are indeed reinforced at the levels of – and within – culture, race, socio-economic status, class. The well-to-do corporate Maori lawyer does not communicate with the Maori peasant just as the well-to-do corporate Pakeha lawyer does not communicate with the Pakeha peasant (it might be worse among Pakeaha than it is among Maori). Culture, ethnicity, gender, religion and other intra-class differences merely widen the already huge chasm in terms of disposable income and wealth.

To say the unspeakable, on the contrary, is, for example, designed to bridge the gap both within and across endo- and exogamic classes (e.g. translating American Natchez Indian tradition into contemporary practice: every rich man/woman must marry a poor woman/man so as to effect some sort of wealth distribution, cf. Harris, 1983). The unspeakable truth is that what is granted to the few is denied to the many. The unspeakable truth might also be the recognition that a common humanity transcends all mankind and that those who seek to divide it, rule themselves out of the game. We remove the murderer from society. We chastise the thief. We follow the rules of civilized society. Those who break them are penalized. We do not generally question the rules in case they themselves are to blame for the break-down in civilized society. We all now understand the rules of Nazi Germany and how they led to barbarism of the worst sort. What set of rules have led to more recent genocide? East-Timor? What set of rules have led to Maori and Pacific Islanders providing 45% of the prison population in Aotearoa? What set of rules makes poor South Auckland children die unnecessarily from diseases long thought of banished? Who makes the rules? What is the unspeakable truth? The rulers who make these rules must be removed from society! It must be a crime against humanity. Poverty brutalizes people and those who promote poverty by virtue of their wealth are criminal accomplices of those who commit crimes on the street level (of course wealth also brutalizes people in ways that they are prepared to acquire and then defend their wealth by any means). It works in degrees: colossal wealth equals colossal crime.

As educators we have not only the opportunity but also the duty to communicate the unpalatable, to speak the obscene language of poverty, misery, slavery, oppression, injustice. Furthermore as the underprivileged, the disenfranchised, the dysfunctional, the mentally ill lack a voice (and not because they lack communication skills), it falls to us who have a voice and should have a social conscience to speak up and come to the rescue of those who cannot defend themselves.  How easy it is to decry poverty and then wine and dine at the revolving restaurant up in the sky. How easy it is to look down to survey the scenery, to feel sorry, to say it’s not my fault. And yet how many come up here to avoid the scum in the slum?

Even as we all agree that words are cheap (actions speak louder, but see Habermas 1981 who defines action as an important type of communication) we have succumbed to the rule that even talk that is cheap must not speak the truth. Not even the cheap truth. We must only allow ourselves to communicate what we know to be expensive lies, we must engage in small talk that shows how witty we can be, how elegant, how sophisticated, how daring we can be with innuendo. We must not use delicately designed brutish language unless we can afford it (NZ’s literary icon and communicator amongst good keen men, Barry Crump, reputedly asked middle-class ladies of Remuera at parties if they’d care for a fuck, and many of them blushed and accepted the invitation, for what else is there to do in Remuera). We must not talk about sex. We must not even look at it (except when it is sanitized in the movies with Nicole and Tom). We most certainly do it (… and the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor … sings Leonard Cohen yet again). The Listener (October 23-29, 1999) says 10 year olds are doing it. It is a real worry. The Listener bravely communicates the symptoms, lays bare the wounds, shows us the underbelly, the naked truth (well, not really, even the Listener has to keep up certain standards of ‘acceptable’ journalism). Sex is a dirty business and the less we talk about it the better. Talking about it merely arouses the interest. Shame! And shame on the Listener (ibid.) for quoting a woman from a Maori health organisation as saying that ‘there are some really strong stereotypes that we were close to the jungle, to nature, and that we have bred and had sex like apes almost, and I think a lot of people have unconsciously bought into those stereotypes …’. The voice of an oppressed woman repeating the worst possible racist nonsense imaginable (the oppressed take on the language of the oppressor … yet another feature of neo-feudalism … just as the ‘untouchables’ of Hindu classism chastise themselves for being lowly born). And considering that the Listener is supposed to be a liberal magazine, food for thought even, how much lower can we get?

Can we get right down to it, really, really low down and communicate? I suppose we can if we realize what communication really is. An important part of that realization is that ‘asking critical questions’ is at the heart of it.  Such a concept has been advocated by Habermas 1981 (who together with Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Benjamin and Fromm of the Frankfurt School of thought developed ‘critical theory’) in his seminal work Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns:

Things that are outside the boundary of ‘doubt’ appear to be without any problems; such un-problematic things are nevertheless the downfall in our life. Only under the situational pressure of an oncoming problem do relevant items of our background knowledge emerge from the comfort zone of the ‘unquestionable’. Only an earthquake will make us aware that the ground we stand on is not a solid foundation. (Vol.2, p.589 my transl. from German)

In other words, those who do not question the status quo, those who do not ‘actively’ communicate will regress to become puppets on a string. Or to use Karl Marx’s famous words ‘those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it’.

To this Julia Kristeva (1981), the noted French post-modernist thinker, added the important idea that ‘critical’ communication also shapes the identity of the communicators:

Questioning is the supreme judicial act, for I who asks the questions, through the very act of asking these questions (apart from the meaning of the request) postulates the existence of the other (p.153).

A newborn child is said to ‘communicate’ its needs by various means, but as these needs are largely instinctive, such communication with those who also largely instinctively provide for those needs is not exactly a deliberate act of communication. Neither are commands, instructions and similar speech acts when we turn to language as communication. Language does however come to be a supremely communicative tool when we realize that we can access crucial knowledge outside ourselves, namely by critically questioning the other. This is in itself a complex procedure inasmuch a child will soon learn that the answers – if at all forthcoming – are subject to considerable interpretation. To naively take an answer at face value may lead to unexpected consequences. The answer may be a lie or the truth or something in between. By clever use of logic we can figure out which direction to take at the Cretan cross roads when we know that all Cretans are liars (hence how easy it is to figure out where our so-called nation is going as we know that all politicians are liars).

The idea that communication is essentially the act of accessing the knowledge of the other leads to the realisation, at least in some, that there is a collective knowledge, and that knowledge shared – via critical questioning - is communication per se. The commodification of knowledge, on the other hand, and the ownership thereof (intellectual property) is designed to undermine communication and restrict it to the realm of the privileged few. The current promotion of a ‘knowledge industry’ is in itself a sign of neo-feudal trends, just as in the Dark Ages the Catholic Church controlled all knowledge by claiming total ownership thereof. Critical questioning, even if glaringly logical à la Galileo, was met by rigorous suppression. Nowadays censorship is effected through commercial publishing and broadcasting, simply by announcing that the ‘unwanted’ is not commercially feasible (notice for example the circular argument that we cannot develop educational resources for small  minority languages because it is not economical to do so, and where the real agenda is to hasten the demise of these languages and cultures). The threats can be extreme: take the Telstra ad on TV which clearly says that if you cannot adapt to present market conditions you will die.

The idea that communication and the media are so closely related is not surprising, as the historical development of language as ‘writing’ became an important extension of communicating with the other on a super-personal level (i.e. the other is not physically present) Perhaps more importantly, through ‘publication’ the ‘writer’ can reach many ‘others’ who will never reply and such mass communication is indeed devoid of any ‘communication’ as it is one-directional. This is not to say that all such one-directional communication lacks any merit. If the written word (published or broadcast, and in a moment we will enter cyberspace) asks critical questions it is still of value, but only second best to ‘direct’ questioning.  Of course this consigns large sections of the written word – and the media – to the scrap heap of a manufactured, violent, pathetic and worthless history.

An extension of the other, explored by postmodern thinkers, is that both individual and collective identity may be based in communication. In the first place we can only establish an identity if we recognize the other: we see ourselves in the other (to only see oneself in oneself is the fate of Narcissus, a fate favoured in today’s star struck society, and the idea that God created man in his own image is the ultimate narcissistic act; the idea of cloning the German race … now a real possibility visited upon NZ sheep … is of course recognized as the ultimate in fascist narcissism). In the beginning the significant other was always ‘real’, in the flesh. As such the idea to communicate with the ‘dead’ and other supernatural beings is also highly narcissistic as all ‘replies’ are supplied by or through ‘self’. When it comes to communicating with ‘virtual’ others we seem to loose out on that earlier function of communication to establish our own identity. However, postmodern thought is making a virtue out of this rather than a problem. Some of our postmodern artists, especially in the area of performance art (Carter 1979, Olalquiaga 1992, Sperlich, 1999), relish the possibility to acquire multiple identities, both in relation to real and virtual others. When communicating with ‘virtual’ others it is no problem to assume any identity one wishes to take on. For example ‘gender-bending’ in Internet chat rooms is now commonplace (for an excellent website for communication studies go to http://www.aber.ac.uk/~dgc/medmenu.html. and for IT and gender issues go to http://www.aber.ac.uk/~dgc/it02.html ). Multi-culturalism can be one source of assuming multiple identities. Today I’m a Maori/woman, tomorrow a Chinese/man, the day after a Pakeha/gay. After all, ethnicity, gender, sexual inclinations are things of the mind – one’s preferred cultural associations – and there is a myriad of evolving possibilities that go beyond and transcend traditional aspects of culture, ethnicity, class, gender, language, locality, sex, art. Part of this new found transcendence is based on critical, postmodern communication which recognizes no absolute truths, no firm yardsticks, no points of absolute reference, where meaning has to be constantly de-constructed and re-constructed. Such fluid relativism sounds like fun , especially in art (and more seriously is backed up by modern scientific theories such as Einstein’s relativity of motion or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in quantum physics, see also chaos theory in mathematics). The multiplicity of language itself (the forked tongue, the mother tongues) is celebrated as it affords ever changing perspectives, and as the major tool of communication, allows us to endlessly re-phrase and paraphrase those critical questions whether or not they yield answers, and if they do, will in turn become the material for more questions. The old adage of ‘the more you find out the less you know’ will be turned into a gay quest (or as Nietzsche said ‘fröhliche Wissenschaft/gay science’) of ‘the more you know the more there is to find out’ and one might look with some confidence to our young artistic intellectuals who will turn this world up-side down, part of it in cyberspace, part of it in the native forests of Aotearoa, part of it in the urban jungle where Pasifika music subverts the capitalist system, where Maori and Pacific Island languages save us from the English plague (as the one and only International Language), where plurality, even in religion, takes over from a dreaded singularity (the one and only God), where what, where nothing, this sentence has gone on long enough (to paraphrase Samuel Beckett in First Love). Or as performance artist Laurie Anderson (cited in Howell 1992) puts it:

            I feel this desperate need to get out of myself.

Or perhaps to quote an icon of the 60s, Janis Joplin, desperate for intense communication … ‘Oh Lord, I’m feeling so useless down here, I can’t find someone to love …’)

Such euphoria, however, can induce a state of uncritical thinking. Let us return to earth and communicate. For there is a little bit of bad in everything good (and a bit of good in everything bad). There are warnings from cyberspace: Kali Tal (1996), an American woman of color and cultural activist http://www.kalital.com/ writes:

I have long suspected that the vaunted "freedom" to shed the markers of race and gender on the Internet is illusory, and that it masks a more disturbing phenomenon - the whitenizing of cyberspace. Ironically, African-American critical theory provides very sophisticated tools for the analysis of cyberculture, since African-American critics have been discussing the problem of multiple identities, fragmented personae, and liminality for more than 100 years. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.10/screen.html.

Perhaps one can read something positive into this: something almost biblical: the meek shall inherit the postmodern world, where the formerly oppressed peoples of all shades, genders and color, thanks to their experiences of crises of fractured identity are now well placed to adapt to a potential modernity of different proportions (i.e. where communication takes place and multiple identities reside in each of us … and where talking to oneself, especially in the form of self-criticism, becomes a real possibility rather than a narcissistic one). The descent into a new dark age of glib and glossy neo-feudalism is an alternative scenario too horrible to contemplate, even though the signs are everywhere.

In free fall from the edge I’d like to conclude with a subversion of the ultimate bible of one-directional communication: the Bible: which begins, quite appropriately with ‘in the beginning was the word’. Unfortunately the second line is very illogical (‘and the word was God’), because if in the beginning was the word, then the word must have been ‘word’. In the beginning was the word, and the word was word. Do not be deceived by English syntax and tell me that as the sentence starts with ‘in the beginning …’ the first word must have been ‘in’. After all, this sentence was first written in Greek. Perhaps a better translation (and I’m only making this up), more literal, is: ‘word was the first word’. The final critical question I put to you, the significant others, is, was ‘was’ the second word?


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