Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Limits of Language

Pawel Kuczynski
Since this is the height of the political season, I have decided that it would make sense for me to say something about politics which, of course, doesn't matter. And that, obviously, is a political statement.

Last night was the third and final round of what are commonly believed to be debates involving the two presidential candidates. What was said is not very interesting or surprising at all, except in one respect: the two contestants played their role in accordance with a certain unwritten and unexpressed rule of discourse.
This rule requires them to strictly adhere to a fictional, toy version of the world and of the role of the President of the US within it. We did not see two candidates campaigning to be elected into a position of leadership, but two actors auditioning for the role of President in a play that takes place strictly in the past. Now, in a normal course of events, if one candidate started carrying on like that, the other candidate would be a fool to not try to score points by pointing this fact out to the electorate. But this situation is different: here, both candidates know with absolute clarity that they are auditioning for a ceremonial role, nothing more, and that bringing even the tiniest bit of reality into it would only jeopardize their chances of being elected.

You see, they are auditioning for the role of someone who pretends to be “running” a country (whatever that means) that is itself not exactly running. It is by now defined by just two things: unstoppable inertia in the wrong direction, and a long list of broken promises. The federal government over which, if elected, they will pretend to “preside” (whatever that means) has two remaining choices: continue with the strategy of hemorrhaging debt and collapse in a few years once that strategy stops working, or don't continue with that strategy, and collapse now.

The topic of last night's get-together was foreign policy. And so here is a country whose diplomats cower behind blast walls afraid for their lives (which they sometimes lose). A country that has lost (in the sense of losing the peace) two major conflicts (Iraq and Afghanistan) and a few smaller ones, and where its efforts in places such as Libya and Syria have only succeeded in destabilizing them. A country whose very expensive military has highest suicide rates in the world and has not been able to pacify any place, even a place that was weak, disorganized, backward or pre-destroyed by other militaries. A country whose main tool of foreign policy is political assassination using Predator drones. From the point of view of electoral politics, it should be clear by now what the goal of foreign policy should be: the goal of foreign policy should be to avoid discussing it, and in this both of the candidates have succeeded admirably.

How did they do it? At first it seems difficult to understand how these two relatively well-informed individuals could navigate such a minefield of dangerous facts without stepping on a single one. At first, I thought that this must take a lot of training, some creativity, and even some luck. But then I realized that there might be a new rule operating at the level of language that makes the entire operation perfectly safe and risk-free.

We tend to automatically assume that human language—any human language—can (with the help of a trained translator if necessary) be made to express any thought; that there exists a universal, innate human capacity for language, and that language is a universal tool. Noam Chomsky is the undisputed champion of Universal Grammar, which is an attempt to formalize this capacity as a set of universal, abstract syntactic rules, but he has recently conceded that his creation is a mere potentiality that may not be fully realized in any given language. What caused Chomsky to qualify his claim to linguistic universality was the recent research into Pirahã, a language spoken by a small group of hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. Pirahã is a highly unusual language. For one thing, its form is highly redundant, allowing it to be either whistled or hummed without any loss of meaning. But most notably, it lacks recursion—the ability to say things like “This is the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.” Since recursion is considered to be a key element of Universal Grammar, this was taken by some to mean that Pirahã is not a complete language, possessing, as it does, a finite set of possible phrases rather than an infinite set of possible sentences. Another notable feature is that rules of evidence are wired right into the grammar: in Pirahã the source of information is obligatorily marked with reference to known individuals using a specific set of verb suffixes. Taken together with the impossibility of saying something like “Jesus said that...” this feature makes the Pirahã immune to proselytizing by missionaries: spiritual evidence is ruled inadmissible on a technicality. Lastly, Pirahã lack the ability to count, and, in spite of wanting very much to learn to use numbers, to avoid being cheated when trading other tribes, have been unable to do so. Pirahã appear to have one word to signify quantity, which can mean both “few” and “many,” the gradation between the two being a subtle tonal difference. It is not that they don't have the concept of quantity, but their experience of quantity is similar to how we perceive quality: it is analog rather than digital. In spite of these linguistic limitations, the Pirahã are a carefree, thriving little tribe who get on splendidly with each other and seem quite happy with their lot in life.

The Pirahã are definitely a linguistic outlier, but once you get used to the idea that human languages are not all that universal but are all limited in one way or another in what they are capable of expressing, you begin to see all around you linguistic limitations, be they evolved or self-imposed, standing in the way of cognition. And this includes the presidential debates. Here, the new rule is not a grammatical rule but a discourse rule. Discourse does have rules, covered by a branch of Linguistics called Pragmatics. An instance of discourse is a single conversation, but it can also apply to an entire national political conversation in the course of a campaign. A discourse contains a certain set of discourse antecedents, which are elements that have previously been introduced into the discourse as new topics. The process by which new topics may be introduced into a discourse varies, and may be more or less difficult. But whenever a new topic is introduced into a conversation, that act must have some motivation behind it. The new rule is simple: play with the discourse antecedents—the kit of parts of contemporary political dialogue—and don't try to introduce new ones. The reason for the rule is obvious: any one of these new bits of information might turn out to be booby-trapped—tainted with the unspeakable reality of the country's true predicament.


Richard Larson said...

No doubt - the actors not wanting to open a can of worms. And no doubt this country is trapped to play out the debt-based economy to the bitter end.

Russia will get Alaska back dirt cheap!

forrest said...

And also rule B: We [Official Persons] can introduce new 'discourse elements' any time we want; anyone else attempting to do so is a "nutcase" and his efforts are no-ops.

and C: If 'We' [Official Persons] do introduce new 'discourse elements' that threaten to derail the Big Shopping-Cart Ride Downhill, anything we say will be used to reduce us to nutcase status (see B.)

Glenn said...

Nicely said Dmitry.

Discourse that passes for the political in America is restricted to the act of alluding to "that which must not be said."

Luciddreams said...

Politicians have to operate within the language of the American Hologram or those trapped in it won't be able to understand the words coming out of their mouths.

Their brains will not compute.

Reverse Developer said...

New information is an insult.

Terrace said...

"But this situation is different: here, both candidates know with absolute clarity that they are auditioning for a ceremonial role, nothing more, and that bringing even the tiniest bit of reality into it would only jeopardize their chances of being elected."

It seems to me that all presidents these days are merely possessed by a single entity we might call "POTUS." And the candidates are merely auditioning to be the next human host. POTUS is beginning to give up the pretense of hiding behind its human hosts, however, which is why all our presidents are two-termers now.

DeAnander said...

It all reminds me of R D Laing.

Rule 1: we don't talk about it.

Rule 2: there is no Rule 1.

DeVaul said...

Very interesting essay!

I studied Noam Chomsky's generative grammer theory in college as part of my major in German languages and linguistics. I was fascinated by grammer, but I lost my hearing and lost my dream career as well.

I found the part about "discourse" enlightening. Perhaps that is what happened during the French Revolution, as you wrote about some time ago. The "few radical speeches" given at the Societe Generale may have been nothing more than introducing new discourses into an otherwise stagnant and conventional conversation about monarchy.

Perhaps the introduction of new discourses into the public domain is what causes revolutions, or at least gets the masses riled up in a dramatic way.

Joshua Eastlake said...

It would seem that most of the rest of the world (especially America) could learn much from the "lowly" Pirahã.

Robin Datta said...

Politics is the means by which the apparatus of the state is made to point its gun at someone else. The actual wrestling that controls this outcome may be concealed, with a charade played out for public display.

Black said...

People are often unaware that the person they are speaking to speaks a different language than they do.

This is why blacks and whites are often uncomfortable with each other, and explains the overwhelming white male support Mitt Romney is receiving from voters. They don't understand why they don't understand each other (failure to recognize the language barrier combined with ingrained nationalism).

People seem to believe in the feeling: "If someone doesn't like me, it means they are a bad person." Being a bad person makes you a bad person, not disliking certain people.

Michael J. Petro said...

Great observations, and well said, @forrest.

signsonthequad said...

Keep in mind that the only reason the majority of the people watching the debate fail to see through the “lies through adhering to the rules of discourse” is that they themselves limit themselves to the topics rendered safe by the discourse presented to them in the media.

Last year a man who long ago figured out how playing by the rules of the discourse game was keeping people stupid and unhappy stood out on the campus of a university with signs bearing non-standard messages and simply recorded what people’s reactions to them were (without trying to push any agenda). Some of his signs:

The blog is here: signsonthequad.blogspot.com

Raziel Abulafia said...

BoingBoing has an insightful interview with Daniel Everett, the linguist who studied the Piraha language:

Protoprotestant said...

Our media is not really right or left. It's establishment in its mindset. It accepts concepts like America is 'good'. Our troops 'serve' and are 'heroes'. We have a 'Defense' budget, etc...

The two parties won't allow third party candidates to participate and non-establishment media has no access. The process and theatre that goes with it is hermetically sealed off from reality.

Instead I saw two blood-thirsty power mad megalomaniacs speaking a code language loaded with symbolic and evasive euphemisms.

Anyone with the least bit of knowledge should be offended. I sure didn't vote for either of them. I wouldn't vote at all except for the fact that maybe if 10 million or so people actually voted for a 3rd party....the powers that be would get scared.