Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Talking Is Who You Are?

Jared Loughner thinks that grammar controls us. No, I haven't a clue what he's talking about.  I'm talking about this because I have opinions about what happened in Tucson this Saturday that I'd be screaming at the Internet if I weren't sure that many people who are talking right now are not talking about what they're talking about. They're talking to be who they want to be.

Personally, I talk like a lot of people, shifting voice for any number of reasons.  Maybe it is all faking it, and I just need to speak to my authentic place in world and time.

But I can't! I'm not smart enough to sound that stupid!

So, by all means, let's talk about talking.

We can start with an old book, the kind that, frankly, shaped me a great deal more than Bill and Ted. Specifically, the second novel of Ursula K. LeGuin (b. 1929), from back when she was still producing beautiful, compressed stories in which people are observed instead of condemned in the name of Very Important Ideologies.

So, it's the future. There's these aliens called the Hainish. Millions of years ago, they spread across local space and established colonies.

Then they gave up on that stuff, because it was gauche. Until, just recently, they learned that some 'orrid space aliens, the Shing,  were on their way. So now it's, "oh, snap. Let's form Space NATO!"

And so the Hainish sent out anthropologists to make contact with all the funny not-really aliens. (Because the old-time Hainish liked to tinker with the genes of their colonists, so that eventually people could write planetary romances about them.) It works to the point that some other planets form their own anthropologist expeditions. Which, to my mind, is perhaps not the most effective precursor to space war, but there you go.

And that is how it came to be that, many years later, some Earth anthropologists are stuck way out on Sigma Draconis hanging out with yellow-eyed human-like natives with seasonal estrus cycles and wondering, "it's been, like, 800 years. Maybe there should be a supply ship soon?"

Ursula LeGuin doesn't actually tell us what happened back in the day at Space-NATO, though elsewhere she gives us a picture of what happened after. But you can guess that help isn't coming, and that the space anthropologists are in trouble on account of they've stopped being fertile, as though the planet itself were rejecting them. "Planet of exile" indeed.

So some northern barbarians are invading, because northern barbarians are always invading, and the heroic leader of the anthropologists decides to cross the chasm of scientific cool and make an alliance with the natives, and the result is a story with a sweet little romance, heroic action, superb scene-setting and even a callback to the Aeneid  --almost like real literature! It turns out that in the midst of various comminglings and cannoodlings, assimilation is the other side of rejection. It's a wonderful story about breaking through our self-chosen postures of alienation and embracing relationships that transcend cultural differences and create new communities. It is synoikise (the formation of a new socio-cultural-linguistic unit by combining others) as making family.

Sounds like fun. I'm totally going to do that one day. I swear!

But this is about anthropologists. Here's a shocker: LeGuin's father was an anthropologist: Theodore Kroeber (1876--1960). (Check the dates here for a sad story of life delayed. Or am I projecting?) Anyway, back in 1911 Kroeber met the much advertised "last of the Yahi Indians," Ishi, and proceeded to make up/reconstruct a story about the sad dwindling away of the Indians. He also studied the Yahi language, showed that it was related to various other American Indian languages "genetically," and made tortuous efforts to define "culture" and its relationship with individual culture bearers that, if you're interested, more here.  Kroeber shows one side of the ideas of his brighter graduate school mate, Edward Sapir (1884--1939), who took this whole complex of Indians-tribes-cultures-"genetically related languages" and ran with it all the way to make the claim that grammar controls us: The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.*

Yay! Back on subject!

Heard the one about how "Eskimo" has 50 words for snow? This is that. And the point of the claim isn't that Eskimos are really good at telling different kinds of snow apart, but that speakers of Eskimo can perceive all these different kinds of "snow" that non-Eskimo speakers can't. Are these perceived differences real? Uhm, it's all relative. Culturally relative, that is. You want to argue about what that can possibly mean? Look! Smart people! [Runs away].

Think that's crazy? No, not Rorty! I first encountered Sapir-Whorf in a 1958 Jack Vance novel where a mad scientist (evidently modelled on the crazies in Kroeber's old Anthropology department across the bay), programmes whole cultures to become elite warriors with an artificial language. How's that work? Well, it doesn't, so examples are hard to come by. But how it could look is, for example, that languages where the active voice predominate produce active people, while languages that permit a passive voice produce passive people --or something like that. (So it might be a discredited idea, but your English teacher believes it!) Now that's crazy. Culture defines the way that we can think about the world via our language, which is somehow bound up in culture.

This makes language change an ...interesting question. Remember my queer Greek word, "synkoesis?" Trojans+Latins= Romans. And when we meet the descendants of the protagonists of Planet of Exile, they are linguistically and culturally very different from their ancestors. They are a merger of all the Hainish-descended people on Gamma Draconis, and they are tough and smart and ready to kick Shing behind.

 Sapir's language work, on the other hand, says that can't happen. Not directly, to be sure, but the whole point of these "genetically" related tongues is that languages and people have ancestors, and they're the same. If you've ever been told about how the "Aryans" descended from the Eurasian steppes in prehistoric Panzers to become the ancestors of the warlike Germans and English and Sikhs, you've heard the story. (We don't talk about the Italians.) Everyone speaks a language, which defines a culture. They pass it on to their descendants, and their descendants only. So if you find Athabaskans in the Yukon and in New Mexico, as Sapir was convinced that he had done --and I think we'd better have another look at that-- then at some point in the distant past, ancient Athabaskans must have migrated to New Mexico in just the same way that the Aryans migrated to Ireland and Bengal.

And culture/language defines the mindset of the descendants. Dig around in the mythology of Bengalis and Irish, and you're going to find an "archetypal" hammer-wielding Thunder God who likes to beat up the bad guys, or some other overwrought crap from the fever swamps of comparative mythology. All the modern descendants of those copper-axe Nazis are getting ready to bomb Iran tomorrow, because our Indo-European-Aryan language-culture-thing programmes us to be warlike Vikings!

This is all crazy talk: language, culture, mythology, analogy (people have "genetic" ancestors; not languages!) all blending together in a way that will not stand analysis, but does get you to imagining sexy blonde uberguys. To be as blunt and outrageous as blogging allows, this ain't science. This is Rule 34 country.

So throw out the idea that race, or "culture" guarantees the stability of language. What do you get? My answer is that grammar isn't the rules. The rules are the grammar. The government makes us talk a certain way. (And when I say grammar, allow that I mean rather more.)

So if you've got a problem with authority, and everyone does, and you're looking for a personal act of resistance, why not change the way you talk?  Teens talk funny: that's my read as to why. We come down on them because we need them to conform a bit more than they do -wear helmets if they're going to skydive on skateboards while texting and smoking sativa, that sort of thing. (Teens! Am I right?)

Grown-ups talk funny, too. And that's self-definition. And certain kinds of self-definition sound very much like the howled defiance of adolescence. What does it mean to talk about "Second Amendment remedies?" That you're a heroic rebel against a totalitarian state. Our rebellion against authority is no longer because the state is telling us to buckle our seatbelts and be home in time for dinner, but because it's bad! It oppresses me!

You might answer, "but you're not being oppressed! There is no totalitarian state!" And the answer would be, of course I'm not. That is totally not the point of why I'm rebelling against what the state is telling me. I'm talking like that's the issue because I'm not going to let stupid reality get in the way of validating my self-image! I will be a heroic revolutionary! As to the self-image that I'm rewriting --we won't talk about that. Too embarrassing. Take the failed chicken farmer who liked to talk about Nordic warriors smashing Jewish heads with their mighty hammers. Obviously he wanted to be smashed with a mighty Nordic hammer himself, if you get my drift. And I think you do.

 Hmm. Okay. That was kinda cool. Tell you what: I'm going to keep it and come up with a better story for it to be about. That story about being a heroic rebel against a totalitarian state. I wanted that once. I understand wanting it. It's just twisted back and bit me one too many times for it to be my story.

So I'll keep this thing, and turn it into a story about synoikise. Now that's teh sexy! As to what the story will be, that will fall into place if I can just find a way to talk about it. Talk the story, own the story, be the story.

Oh, and if you own the story, this is bullshit.

* (Hee. Whorf's a real name!)

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