Overweening Generalist

Monday, January 7, 2013

Splatter-Riffs on Neologisms, Linguistic Relativity, ETC

The Case of the Missing Sex Words
The biologist and public intellectual David Barash wrote in his book The Myth of Monogamy (co-written with his wife, Judith Lipton!), that we have a sex-as-defined-within-marriage frame: premarital sex, marital sex, and extramarital sex. But notice we have no words for post-divorce sex, or widow or widower's sex. And let's imagine the case of a 45 year old confirmed bachelor's sex life. Surely we aren't willing to call that sex "premarital," right? What does this sort of stuff tell us about the semantic unconscious in our society?

                                                   Barash and Lipton

Peter Lyman
A U.C. Berkeley professor named Peter Lyman died in late June/early July of 2007. He had written a book called How Much Information? In the book he expressed concerns about terms like "virtual community" and "information superhighway" and "digital library." He thought those metaphors/neologisms could block thinking about real problems. Did he have a point? Jaron Lanier, in his discourses with Joel Garreau in the book Radical Evolution, seemed to think so, although Lyman's ideas weren't directly addressed.

Metaphors and Public Policy
Which reminds me of Lera Boroditsky. Today I ran across a paper she co-published with Paul H. Thibodeau, on how metaphors very subtly influenced how people reasoned about issues of crime, the environment, and the economy. I've only given it a cursory read so far, but it seems to strongly buttress the arguments about metaphor and political and social thought put forth in books by George Lakoff. If anyone's interested, it's HERE. (For progressives: frame the crime problem as a "virus"plaguing the commons, and not as a "beast" that needs to be captured and locked up. Thibodeau and Boroditsky give some reasons why.)

Roots of Neologisms?
What might be the ultimate goal of a neologism? How do they arise?

Glad you asked. One answer I like was given poetically by one of the great novelists of ideas in the 20th c, Robert Anton Wilson. Very late in his novel The Widow's Son, there's a long epistolary passage from the young hero to his mentor/uncle, the novel being set in the late 18th century. The young initiate is discussing at length his evolving understanding of occult ideas such as the "vegetative soul" "animal soul" "human soul" and something called the "fourth soul," which "perceives the invisible web of connections between all things; but it is no more infallible than the rest of the brain, or the gut, or the liver, or the gonads." (italics in original) With the "fourth soul," meaning seems to flow into us, but we forget we are making the meaning. We forget we did a lot of mental work, and then suddenly meaning comes to us, seemingly unbidden, as some sort of "revelation." What's most interesting is that we don't take responsibility for these sudden "meanings." We don't know how to exercise some sort of wisdom about these meanings, and this is why we have so many "holy fools."

But to the meat of the neologism thingy: the initiate says this meaning-making is equivalent to creativity and is the god-faculty in us. We get a meaning-making revelation and take the "word" with absolute literalness. Here's perhaps the salient passage:

"When beauty was created by a godly mind, beauty existed, as surely as the paintings of Botticelli or the concerti of Vivaldi exist. When mercy was created, mercy existed. When guilt was created, guilt existed. Out of a meaningless and pointless existence, we have made meaning and purpose; but since this creative act happens only when we relax after great strain, we feel it as 'pouring into us' from elsewhere. Thus we do not know our own godhood and we are perpetually swindled by those who assure us that it is indeed elsewhere, but they can give us access to it, for a reasonable fee. And when we as a species were ignorant enough to be duped in that way, the swindlers went one step further, invented original sin and other horrors of that sort, and made us even more 'dependent' upon them." (pp.386-387 in my old paperback version)

So: with Wilson, there seems to be some sort of continuum of invention of words: here they flow into us, as if by revelation. But because we have decided to entertain this idea of where language comes from, and how it works in our lives, many of us have suffered needlessly, because we think language came from some other realm. We made the "meaning" of the words that (much earlier) were made, probably via some Vichian utterances and grunts, and gesturing, singing, and poetic intoning. Gradually words become reified, and the ruling classes and their priests began shaping what the words "really" meant.

This passage also seems to imply that it's imperative that we not only figure out how we're "swindled" by language, but to own the god-power in ourselves (the only place "god" really exists?) and use language creatively, actively, to take back the power of language and to use it to better our lives.

Six Faves

  1. Sturch: This hasn't seemed to have caught on. It's a word that implies the State and Church have mutual interests of control in mind. According to a 1961 article by Robert Anton Wilson in Paul Krassner's The Realist, Philip Jose Farmer, the wild science fiction writer, coined it.
  2. Santorum: Dan Savage gets credit for the coining of this one, but he canvassed his readers first. A good example of purposeful, mindful and creative use of neologizing capacity to attempt to discredit a political foe. What is it? For our non-Unistatian readers, it's "the frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the product of anal sex."And also the last name of a prominent anti-sex, very conservative Senator.
  3. Shordurpersav: Coined by the Church of the Subgenius, who acknowledge that our belief in deities can be temporary, if we want it, and it's a short way of saying a god or goddess or some other entity is one's own "short duration personal savior." 
  4. Sardonicide: Possibly minted by Hakim Bey, it means to laugh something to death, or something that was laughed to death. 
  5. Privateering: I was going to make all six start with "S" but I liked this one too much, at least recently. I'm not sure who coined it; it may be very old indeed. But George Lakoff suggests that those of us who object to the privatization of the public sphere -  by billionaires and others who do not have the idea of the common good in mind - should use this word for what they do. 
  6. Modeltheism: I got this from Robert Anton Wilson. It describes intellectuals, academics, or any one of us who stumbled onto one model of looking at the world, forgot it was only a model and not the Absolute Truth, and now seem to worship this model as if it was heaven-sent. When we do this, we block out millions of other signals; we make ourselves stupid this way. 


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...


Yes, it did come from Philip Jose Farmer:


This is interesting to me because I began reading Farmer when I was a teenager. Your citation shows that RAW was reading Farmer from way back.

BrentQ said...

Another interesting post on Neologisms. I can't help but think that in the years ahead that linguistics, psychology, computer science and philosophy of mind are going to become more interconnected in their research. I'm actually returning to school at the ripe old age of 30 to study cognitive science for this reason.

Also, I agree that RAW seemed to have a keen insight that language plays in our perception of the world. As far as the quote you mentioned, I think it was another way of expounding upon his mantras of 'The Map is Not the Territory' and 'We Are All Greater Artists' than we realize'.

Coincidentally, I've been reading about the left/right brain dichotomy in Gabrielle Rico's 'Writing the Natural Way' and she notes how the right brain non-linear, creative processes often can see the connections and gestalts - similar to RAW's Fourth Soul metaphor. And when the right brain has processed some idea or thought hard enough often the left brain will comprehend this same idea as a revelation flowing into us from out of nowhere.

Eric Wagner said...

Great stuff as usual. I've gotten so behind lately I haven't caught up on your wonderful blog.

michael said...

@Tom Jackson: I tried to find the source but couldn't. Somewhere RAW says he picked up on PJF because he was taking chances with sex in SF. Then they got to know each other...it's not in the 1981 Heavy Metal ish where RAW wrote on PJF and PJF on RAW:


I once began a semi-fictional family tree for RAW's characters (Sigismundo Celine is related to the actual historical figure condotiere Sigismundo Malatesta, master of Rimini in the 1400s that Pound admired and wrote early Cantos about), but I got bogged down in the Greystokes, and, with all the "missing time" of a classic UFO alien abduction story, I woke up under a large tree in Tarzana, CA.

PJF's Riverworld books are a great example of intertextuality, but when you read how RAW incorporated not only Riverworld material into his own books, but HPL, Hemingway, Joyce, etc, etc, etc: it's a tall order to keep it together. You need a team.

michael said...

Brent Q: thanks for the mention of Gabrielle Rico. It seems the right/left hemisphere discourse similarly dipped in the 1990s and is coming back.

You're probably at the ideal age to embark on the interdisciplinary stuff of cog sci, and RAW loved to hear that his young readers went on to study such stuff.

I tend to agree that all those fields will converge. What we knew in 2000 was astonishing, but what we know now dwarfs that, just 13 yrs later. When I say "we" I mean collectively: no one can keep up on all of that. I am blown away just reading Boroditsky's papers, Lakoff's books, Jerome Feldman's astoundingly interesting From Molecule To Metaphor, Gilles Fauconnier, Terence Deacon, and a few others. And I'm always going back to re-read Korzybski.

RAW loved to pre-figure latter-day knowledge and his own ideas in the Historical Illuminatus books. You're right on that he's restating The Map Is Not The Territory and "We're all greater artists." RAW's also suggesting a deeper occult lineage to Leary's and his Eight Circuit Model of the nervous system.

I'm excited about the right brain stuff I've read that's come out in the past three years. Thanks for chiming in and enjoy your studies!

michael said...

Prof Wagner wrote:

>Great stuff as usual. I've gotten so behind lately I haven't caught up on your wonderful blog.<

Thanks, man. Now: do you picture the "behind" as to your left, right, or "above" some point out in front of you?

Eric Wagner said...

I picture the stuff I perceive myself as needing and/or wanting to do as in front of and/or above me.