The Kekule Problem: Language and Consciousness

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  • 15 May 2017 at 5:47 pm #9418

    Candy Minx
    Member

    I thought Driftwood said he talked directly to chomsky….? Or was that there was a quote.


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    15 May 2017 at 5:49 pm #9419

    Candy Minx
    Member

    You all have a lot of nerve even mentioning prairie dogs around here. I mean…I’m sure Rick would know this….but aren’t they basically cousins to meerkats?


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    16 May 2017 at 4:18 am #9424

    Driftwood70
    Member

    Hi all-

    I did speak directly with Chomsky. (I mentioned it in another recent thread “Why is Blood Meridian So Compelling?” which seems to have been taken down. Anyone know anything about that?)

    I’m an editor of a literary journal in Berlin, the Berlin Quarterly, (you all might dig it), and I was just as captivated and stimulated by McCarthy’s essay as the rest of us. It is my suspicion that he is addressing Chomsky directly in the piece (and perhaps Chomsky only). There was also a similar (and kind of unfortunate) occurrence last year with Tom Wolfe and his book The Kingdom of Speech (and a Harper’s article) regarding Dan Everett and a direct confrontation with Chomsky.

    I had already had a few brief exchanges with Chomsky (via email) over politics and contemporary events, so after the McCarthy essay I reached out to him again and asked him if he had seen the essay and if he might like to respond to it.

    He had not seen the essay, so I sent it to him, and I made a few comments regarding what I found interesting about it – and what might be interesting for lay readers (of which I am one, as far as hard science goes). He read the essay, and he discounted it entirely, describing it as fun to read and amusing, but offering no substantiated claims whatsoever, and in fact not even worth responding to on his part.

    I pressed him quite a bit, firstly by pointing out that I felt McCarthy’s perspective might merit some consideration – that I feel it is more deeply considered (frankly less grandstanding than Tom Wolfe’s – although McCarthy does make these swipes toward “influential persons”). And I wondered aloud if there might be something interesting to an exchange, or a response, between an acknowledged absolute master of the written word and the preeminent linguist in the history of the world. Both these guys are at the epicenter of American Culture (subversively) and its relationship to language. Anyway, that’s me editorializing, but I did my best to try and get a more engaged response to McCarthy going because I think it’s a really compelling and worthwhile conversation of our time:

    A relationship between the unconscious and its expression; and its relationship with its tools and tool-networks.

    With regards to the McCarthy essay, Chomsky wouldn’t bite. Regardless of my prodding he quite simply didn’t view as being worth responding to in any way. Take that as you will. What is clear is that he fundamentally disagrees with McCarthy in no uncertain terms: that language does derive from the unconscious, was absolutely not invented, and the bulk of its operations are unconscious, despite the fact that it is learned extra-personally.

    It sets up a very interesting conundrum with regards to the sciences, relativity, and a lot of the culminating tensions of our day. [Additionally – and this is why I had commented on it in this other thread regarding Blood Meridian – I regard it as the primary structural tension in the book and in the Judge: the contradiction of the cinemascopic panorama (and pornography) of violence and the primeval landscape being rendered as language, perhaps the only tool which may contradict it via the full humanism that it requires and may mediate. Anyway, I don’t want to muddy the waters here. But I think there’s really something going on between McCarthy’s position, and Chomsky’s, which is interestingly applied in both directions.]

    At one point I referred Chomsky to McCarthy’s observation that images may arise from the unconscious while language seems to operate in the other direction, having little to no affect on the unconscious.

    Chomsky replied: “Since it’s unconscious, how would we know whether it is producing images? In fact, the production of speech/sign is almost entirely unconscious and inaccessible to consciousness.”

    This seemed to me to be a blatant contradiction: that if it’s unconscious we can’t know it; and yet in the very next sentence the assertion of speech/sign production is ascribed to the unconscious. How then could we possibly know that either?

    I really pressed him on this and he responded by saying that there is no contradiction whatsoever. That the hard sciences are capable of ascertaining such processes. That, for example (my interpretation) the sciences may differentiate between the processes of language that are accessible to consciousness and those that are not, even if we cannot fully elucidate those that are not. Such is the jurisdiction of the science of linguistics (and vision studies to which he compared it).

    I didn’t press any further. I am not a scientist; I’m in conversation with Chomsky here after all; and I get what he’s saying – it also rings true to me. And yet my secret question is still: well then might those unconscious origins – or a relationship to origins – be examined via other means, vis a vis language itself; and by a master of language? Maybe not. Yet I find something overwhelmingly compelling in the continuum represented by the both of them. Too bad we couldn’t get Chomsky out to New Mexico and onto the same campus with McCarthy, but that seems not very likely, or from what I can tell, not necessarily even very productive. But you never know.

    Overall we corresponded of over the course of several weeks, which was rather extraordinary to me. At one point we were discussing the state of American Extremism and Religious Fundamentalism which he characterized as the norm, not the exception – likening it specifically to only a few other cases in the world right now like Saudi Arabia – extending back to America’s origins. So I asked him if he had ever read Blood Meridian. Unfortunately, he didn’t comment.

    So- I don’t have much clarity or consequence to bring to the issues here; but hopefully some food for thought; and I wanted to address the “Chomsky” question that came up.

    Cheers-
    Jeff


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    • This reply was modified 8 months, 1 week ago by  Driftwood70.
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    16 May 2017 at 8:31 am #9427

    Richard L.
    Member

    Thanks for that, Jeff. Always a pleasure to see you post here.

    I think that McCarthy and Chomsky are, in a way, both right. Language is not consciously invented, but rather it is unconsciously invented by the hardwired mathematical system encoded in our DNA. The trigger for the algorithm producing language is inherited, as is our predisposition to various other things.

    The early humans learned language exactly the way human toddlers learn language, as shown by the experiments that scientists have done with two-year-old humans. The attempts at language are rudimentary until a sufficient vocabulary is developed and becomes unconscious, then a syntax predisposition springs forward to develop first through phrases and then through sentences, which is why all languages share the same syntax and only differ in word placement and vocabulary.

    The math/language algorithm might well lay dormant for hundreds of years, awaiting only a tipping point of sophisticated vocabulary to spring into action. Then indeed, it spreads like a virus.

    Some of the other articles in the current issue also are interesting, such as the narrative of Lauren Marks, whose stroke left her with no internal monologue. We need the committee for this conversation in our heads, apparently.


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    16 May 2017 at 9:55 am #9429

    Candy Minx
    Member

    Wow, that was so delicious and amazing to hear about Jeff, my heart was pounding away as I read your account!!!

    And totally bummer about the “reading Blood Meridian” thread. I loved your comments there and sad to think it’s lost.


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    16 May 2017 at 10:27 am #9430

    Candy Minx
    Member

    I’m trying to get past my excitement here and write a decent post….but really this is so mind-blowing for me. I’m such a geek I can’t get past you talking about Chomsky talking about McCarthy, even if it was that interesting to Chomsky. I haven’t been this excited about a celebrity confluence since Herzog and McCarthy were on the radio together!

    Of course, I was also entranced by the Wolfe/Chomsky/Everett situation. I remember when Norman Mailer and John Irving were taking shots (in my opinion well-justified about genre/format/style) at Tom Wolfe…even though I have enjoyed a couple of books by Tom Wolfe….I was fascinated by their criticisms.

    I thought this was very good and solid to hear . To hear a real stand. Although I don’t see it entirely at odds with what McCarthy said in his article. The idea being that we can not say for sure because of it being the unconsciousness.

    Chomsky siad…. “Since it’s unconscious, how would we know whether it is producing images? In fact, the production of speech/sign is almost entirely unconscious and inaccessible to consciousness.”

    It seems to me that McCarthy is saying that visual/poetic/metaphor is easier for the human to comprehend than language.

    And then McCarthy ends by saying ….how can we know since all of this is in the unconscious…whn he asks”are you sure?”

    It actually seems to me that perhaps they are in somewhat agreement…except that it is said so differently.

    I think McCarthy is suggesting the influential person is claiming to know where and what language is located and emerging…..and then he says “are you sure?”

    And Chomsky also seems to be saying…it’s all in the unconsciousness …and I am sure.

    It seems a bit of a competition because of platform. In fact…this seems to be a little platform envy. And perhaps they aren’t at odds so very badly.

    I love the idea of a discussion in New Mexico.

    But it seems to me that this is more about venues and whether someone has an authorial position or not to be speaking.

    Certainly we see that people resent other people knowing something….sometimes we see that on this forum…or being the expert on something.


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    • This reply was modified 8 months, 1 week ago by  Candy Minx.
    16 May 2017 at 11:38 am #9432

    Glass
    Member

    Many thanks, Jeff. Great stuff, as always. I’ll be checking out the journal.


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    16 May 2017 at 12:55 pm #9433

    Richard L.
    Member

    Re: Driftwood: [Chomsky] “. . .read the essay, and he discounted it entirely, describing it as fun to read and amusing, but offering no substantiated claims whatsoever, and in fact not even worth responding to on his part.”

    I’m with Chomsky there. I’d like to engage Chomsky and McCarthy on Keith Devlin’s THE MATH GENE. I’m sure that McCarthy is aware of Julian Jaynes’ THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND, and he doesn’t question that it happened, he only wonders how it happened (“So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said, Wow, one thing can be another?”).

    Well, Keith Devlin provides the answer for that, through those experiments with two-year-olds. The process for early man was the same.


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    16 May 2017 at 4:15 pm #9436

    Driftwood70
    Member

    I will admit it was quite something to be corresponding with Chomsky about McCarthy and other contemporary madnesses. As I said, from the outside, and from a literary perspective, I find the continuum between their positions to be utterly rich and compelling, potentially watershed. And as has also been mentioned here there is a tendency to wonder if they might be saying the same thing but in different ways. I suppose with deeper analysis that might be so. But I put it to Chomsky in as many ways as I could. For example:

    McCarthy states that “There is no selection at work in the evolution of language because language is not a biological system and because there is only one of them. The ur-language of linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved.”

    He goes on: “To repeat. The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not.”

    I think this is quite an extraordinary, and extraordinarily interesting statement.

    Chomsky’s reply was along the lines of: There are no arguments, no evidence, and the claims make absolutely no sense.

    So- I think there’s probably a fundamental difference in method and conclusions.

    That said, I can’t wait to revisit McCarthy’s essay again now.

    ******

    Regarding the Berlin Quarterly – I think some of you here might really dig it. I try and bring geo-literary perspective to it. There’s a new issue coming out now in which I interview Nat Geo photographer Cristina Mittermeier. But the previous issue BQ5 has a lot of McCarthy Society friendly material: I produced a feature on Gypsies living in remote Portugal; a feature interview I conducted with American artist/geographer Trevor Paglen (which I think some of you might really love); a painterly aerial photo portfolio of the American Southwest; and among other things, some whopping excerpts from John Ehle’s The Land Breakers which could be a companion piece to Blood Meridian (and Suttree) (as well as Undaunted Courage) but whom seems to be generally under the radar.

    In any case, none of this belongs in this thread – but it led into my Chomsky connection in some way, and I thought some of you might dig it.

    *****

    Keep a light in the lighthouse!
    Jeff


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    • This reply was modified 8 months, 1 week ago by  Driftwood70.
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    16 May 2017 at 10:29 pm #9443

    mother_he
    Member

    Driftwood70: Chomsky’s reply was along the lines of: There are no arguments, no evidence, and the claims make absolutely no sense.

    Žižek has countered with the side-swipe that nobody had been so empirically wrong throughout his life as Chomsky. He brought up Chomsky’s supposed support for the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and Chomsky’s later self-justification that there hadn’t been empirical evidence at the time of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. It has all got rather heated and intemperate, but then, debates on the left are like that. More time is spent ripping flesh out of each other than it is trying to find a common cause against an apparently invisible and impregnable enemy. But terms have to be defined, ground has to be laid out.

    Chomsky is also probably still smarting from his encounter with Michel Foucault in 1971, on questions of human nature versus socialisation. Foucault argued that human society produced ideas in individuals which were the product of the power relationship between those individuals and society. In Foucault’s view society took precedence and individuals are unable to uncouple themselves from the power relations at play and which soaked through everything. In which case, it is necessary to have a speculative theory about how the relations of power might work in psychoanalytical terms.

    Zizek on Chomsky’s methodology:
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/19/noam-chomsky-slavoj-zizek-ding-dong
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1tLz_9xmLKI

    Chomsky is one of my heroes and really the only living intellectual I put on the same level as Cormac, but it is so difficult not to interpret his responses to others’ criticisms as arrogance sometimes.

    Chomsky still adheres to the idea that reason can pull humankind out of its wretchedness (though he doesn’t have a teleological view about it, having rejected Hegel), and this is diametrically opposed to Cormac’s conclusions, views he seems to have held since at least the writing of Outer Dark. To bring up Hegel again, Cormac also seems to have at least a certain degree of reverence or respect for Platonic or transcendent philosophy, for which Noam has never had time (or patience).

    All of you, argue about this and elucidate, I’m the least erudite person on here and this is the old man fight I’ve been waiting on for a lifetime.


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