Overweening Generalist

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bride of My Chomsky Problem: An Excursus

It seems to me that asking an academic like Paul Robinson about something that was probably minutiae to him - some line from 1979 that, as he remembers it, the editor(s) stuck in - was somewhat impudent; the least I could've done was say I liked his writings about sex. Anyway...

To carve out a bit more about my Chomsky Problem, which I thought was 180 degrees from Paul Robinson's, but when I did all the calculations and applied matrix algebra and Fourier Analysis, it turns out my position is only 177 degrees from Robinson, I must say that, from my end, the part where, if you look at what Chomsky has to say about semantics in his entire linguistics oeuvre and then take a big breath and step back and look at what Chomsky is trying to do about making the world a better place via criticism of the State...it's unnervingly baffling. To me it is; hence I struggle with my own Chomsky Problem. Let me elaborate on this in a less Byzantine sentence-sequence:

What has made sense to me when I study political and social problems, is when an author/thinker/speaker assumes that language hypnotizes us; being aware of words and how they are used seems quite basic to me; it seems like part of a decent education or just becoming "an adult." If you enjoy eating meat every now and then, "a thick, juicy steak" probably sounds pretty good, especially if you are hungry. "A hunk of charred flesh from a cow" probably sounds not as enticing. But both terms refer to the same "thing."

("Well, what is it really?," a kid might ask. Yes. This seems worthy of philosophizing in the kitchen; this question of "really"? and "reality" seems tailor-made for the moral, creative and intellectual imagination of any bright 13 year old. And yet the very notion of even talking about bringing up the question of "reality" seems to truly spook a certain segment of our friends and neighbors. Why?)

A famous example of this is Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language." The General Semantics "school" of Alfred Korzybski has been of enormous impact on me in this regard. And, over the past nine or so years, the Frame Semantics of George Lakoff has been a marvelous and wonderful intellectual buzz, and I find it quite applicable. (Korzybski and Lakoff seem complementary to me, but I will kick that can down the road for now.)

I have been trained to look for the referent. If someone is trying to persuade me, I look and listen for words that are abstractions: words that have no sensory-sensual aspect in my existential-phenomenal world. If a word is being used that refers to some "thing" that I cannot smell, touch, taste, or see, I'm suspicious. Not paranoid. The context in which the word is being used modifies my response to abstractions. It's part of my own practice of mental hygiene.

Let me go further: when some politician talks about "freedom" I am very suspicious. We all have feelings about "freedom," but context modifies how I will receive the message of "freedom" and what surrounds it. Who doesn't love to be free? Aye, but language is regularly abused, and especially by - in my current way of thinking - politicians, advertisers, and religious leaders.

The tough part about making all this work is: you have to actually stay active and try to make sense of the world. You must read. When George W. Bush announced he was running for President in 1998, I thought that was a joke: I had looked into who he was and saw a complete fool of a rich kid; there's no way he could win. (He probably didn't, but let's not "go" there.)

When Bush gave speeches and talked about "freedom" I knew that the US was leading the world in locking up people, per-capita. And there was nothing in his past or his rhetoric and deeds that led me to believe he was for anyone's "freedom" except his cronies and other Fortune 500 companies.

When Noam Chomsky talks about "freedom" I think he means it in pretty much the same way I mean it.

My point is: we say "Well duh!" when I compare Bush and Chomsky. But that's retroactive. One must not only read Chomsky closely to see what he means when he says "freedom," I had to dig into Bush's background to see what he likely meant when he said "freedom."
Here's the problem: Chomsky cannot or will not talk about semantics in social-political discourse. Not in the way you would think the Einstein of Linguistics would talk about semantics. Why this seems so is a big part of my Chomsky Problem.

Since Chomsky revamped the linguistics world with his syntax-uber-alles book Syntactic Structures in 1957, linguistics has been dominated by syntax (the order of words). The other main branches are phonology (the study of sound patterns in languages) and semantics (meaning). Prior to Chomsky, linguistics was usually found in the Anthropology Department at the university. Chomsky, at the forefront of the revolutionary multidisciplinary "cognitive science," which began in the mid-1950s, developed his views on syntax due to a very interesting confluence of strong personalities - particularly Morris Halle and Zellig Harris - with ideas that were interesting to Chomsky, and via his facility for mathematics. 

I believe Chomsky's syntactical ideas have been inordinately influential in the latter half of the 20th century in the West because it made linguists believe that now they were physical scientists, and not mere social scientists. I think linguists had "physics envy." Physics in the early part of the 20th century was so spectacularly successful that it was the envy of other disciplines. 

His syntactical work has opened up the field tremendously. I understand his work in phonology with Morris Halle, on the sound-patterns of English, was a big breakthrough. (I have not read it and fear I wouldn't understand much of it if I tried.)

Chomsky has developed discovery procedures that have been immensely valuable in linguistics.

But a large body of his best students abandoned him and his approach to linguistics by the early 1970s, because Chomsky's schemes could not account for semantics in a way that was satisfying. (For those so inclined: not to be missed: Randy Allen Harris's The Linguistics Wars, which chronicles this period in American linguistics in a incredibly well-researched work written with wry wit.)
George Lakoff was one of those students who broke with Chomsky, and they have had some rather acrimonious exchanges since then. Chomsky has remained at M.I.T., while Lakoff has been at Berkeley since the early 1970s. 

If we look at my previous blog post, when David Barsamian asked Chomsky, "Could you discuss the relationship between politics and language?," Lakoff would have gone in a completely different direction than Chomsky did, and I highly suspect it would have been a more satisfying answer than what Noam gave Barsamian. Why? Well, basically, Lakoff's frame semantics makes much more sense to me than Chomsky's various syntactic-based schemas. Lakoff deals with a neural theory of language. But it's deeper than that.

Lakoff seems to dare to say that language works all-too-much like how advertisers, politicians and religious demagogues and "Public Relations" (the very term seems Orwellian) mystagogues have sensed it works: people have semantic structures that are instantiated in neural circuits that, via repetition in the real-world, and especially during childhood growth and development, are activated when certain words are used. 

That semantics - meaning - works in the real world like this? I shall call this Chomsky's Nightmare.
I hope I have not lost too many of you with this excursus. Back to the heart of the matter soon/sooner...sooniest? The OG is bogged down in his Noam, using figurative machetes to hack at the deep structural underbrush, through the trecherous alimentary canal armed only with gun and camera, wondering who will swallow my eventual solution.

I'd like to leave us with a recent short clip of Chomsky on the subject of love:


Sue Howard said...

Great video clip. Presumably Noam would also grant that personal kindnesses, selflessness, etc, don't arise exclusively from persecuted people who share his politics. Or at least I hope he would. I see such kindness most days from people who read nothing but rightwing tabloids, have never heard of Chomsky, are persuaded by pro-war propaganda, etc. This messy, paradoxical real-life data, seems, to me, "explained" in a more useful way by Lakoff's approach. Chomsky's statements sometimes seem to provide an opening for a virulent meme which reduces to a tribal "good us" vs "evil them". Although I wouldn't want to overstate any of this. I guess we "all" (certainly I do) have a tendency to see things that way: "The bad people are responsible for the bad things that happen, so we must point the finger at the bad people, as a solution". New semantic approaches ... new neural pathways out of this nightmare. Give it another ten or hundred or thousand years, depending on level of optimism. Chomsky's main advice: "organise". Lakoff's main advice: "think in new ways"?

michael said...

I think both Chomsky and Lakoff are for organizing and thinking in new ways. Chomsky often talks about "intellectual self-defense." He's often described himself as a "fanatic" in his researches. It's just that he seems to be working w/in a frame that seems to do disservice to his libertarian socialist vision. HOW to think in a new way is Chomsky's problem. He seems to be working under the assumption that, anyone can figure out what's going on if they just do some digging and are determined and use Cartesian Common Sense.

As for right wingers who do nice things: yes, it seems to fit Lakoff more; but I think Chomsky is not out to demonize anyone; he is hyper-critical of those in power and especially vehement about his fellow intellectuals with their privilege and knowledge and how they serve State interests rather than the interests of libertarian socialism.

As for the ordinary right wingers who act charitably and Chomsky: in my reading of him, I think he would point out discrepancies between acting kindly in one domain vs. their voting and other choices that ironically seem to force the need for charity in the first place...

In all my readings of Chomsky, the only Us vs Them-ist thought seems to be intellectuals who serve human needs vs. intellectuals who kowtow to the State. And he has a fairly thoughtful analysis as to why this happens: the system gradually weeds out those who are too wild. He has almost the same take on media/journalism/"news" figures.

As far as Chomsky himself and a dualistic social worldview, I truly think he's not oriented that way, even if hordes of his acolytes do seem to Us vs. Them. Chomsky seems to have his eye on human survival as a species more than Them. And there are passing remarks here and there that suggest his views on the prospects for humanity are not exactly sanguine...But that's just MY reading of him.