Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Category: culture and science

A quiet place to go mad

Geneva is definitely not Paris. There is a quiet about the place, dare one say a provinciality, which remains untouched by the élites and oligarchs of many nations passing up and down the fashionable streets. Geneva was always quiet and sober, like its most famous citizen, Calvin, wanted it to be. Before the two world wars, which brought the League of Nations and later the United Nations and its various organizations, Geneva was really a backwater. It was a place to be alone and to do your own thing – perhaps brilliantly, perhaps eccentrically – or to go mad. Or both. As the poet said,

“Great wits are sure to madness near allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

Rousseau was definitely mad. He spent more time in Paris than in his native Geneva, but as the years went by he became convinced that he was the victim of a gigantic plot that included almost all his contemporaries. This, however, led to some of his finest writing.

Another among the great Genevans was Ferdinand de Saussure, who belonged to an old patrician family there. His great-grandfather Horace had been a scientist involved in the conquest of Mont Blanc, which he measured to be the highest mountain in Europe.

Ferdinand was a brilliant student of Indo-European philology and achieved fame with his Master’s thesis, in which he discovered an intricate pattern in the vowels of the language family with implications that were only grasped later. However, he did not fit in either in Paris or in the German universities, and he eventually got a job as professor in Geneva. Thereafter little was heard of him in the learned world; yet, all alone, he was devising a completely new science of linguistics and the movement that later became known as structuralism.

Saussure was also working on an eccentric project of his own. He became convinced that the Latin poets had been using a system containing secret messages – the coded names of gods. He was very excited by the discovery of this pattern. Trouble was, he also found it in an English late-Latin poet. Could the tradition have been secretly passed on down the centuries? Then he found it in a contemporary Italian professor who wrote Latin verse. He wrote to him and asked if he was using the code. The other professor, it seems, never wrote back.

At this stage Saussure must have been confronted with the illusory nature of the grand pattern he had detected. He lay low and didn’t try to publish his findings. This was not hard, because he never liked writing or publishing anyway. He didn’t even publish his masterwork, the Cours de linguistique générale. His students put the book together from their lecture notes and published it in 1916, after his death. The rest, as they, say, is history.

Warring states (2)

In his report to the Institut Jacques Delors on identity and myth in Europe, Canadian history professor Gérard Bouchard laments the lack of any real emotional or mythic unity in the European Union. He believes that a European mythology should be consciously developed, like the mythology that presides over the patriotism of nation-states. There is one gaping hole in his discussion. He doesn’t even consider the issue of language. Yet the plethora of languages, symbolizing national identities, is what has kept Europe divided for so long.

Once Europe did have a common language: Latin. Even after the Roman Empire collapsed, the language of that empire was kept up as the language of administration, education, and indeed most writing. When the universities were founded, they too operated in Latin. When printing was invented, the vast majority of printed books were for a time in Latin. Even Martin Luther, who struck a blow for vernaculars with his German Bible, and the other Reformers wrote in Latin most of the time. Unfortunately, with the rise of the nation-states and their languages, people who should have known better, like Descartes and Galileo, could not resist the temptation to write in the vernaculars, and made it fashionable to do so. This meant that to keep up with the movement of ideas in Europe, you needed to know several languages. Still, learned books continued to be written in Latin up till the end of the 18th century, and for a Dutchman like Spinoza, or a Swede like Linnaeus, it was the only way they could be sure of reaching an international audience.

Today the struggle for a common language has been lost, for Latin is ceasing to be taught in the schools, and indeed for generations it has been little more than a fossil. Due to external factors (the power of the USA in the world), English has been making headway in Europe and is now widely used as a vehicle of communication between people who do not speak each other’s languages. Yet it really can’t be a pan-European language any more than French or German can, for in Europe it happens to be someone’s language (embarrassingly enough, the language of someone who has just announced they’re leaving). Latin throughout the millennia of its widest use, was safely “dead” and thus not a national language at all.

Consider, in contrast, China and its history. Classical Chinese with its huge, ingenious writing system became a means of nationwide communication, at least written, between people who could not understand one another’s spoken dialects. Classical Chinese has found a workable successor in the official Putonghua variety of Mandarin.

The single most decisive factor for uniting a huge area like China or Europe is having a common language. Otherwise you’re doomed to be just a bunch of Warring States – when you could have been a Middle Kingdom.

Editing the program

One of the great taboos has been about altering what is written. Always, when something was talked about, it was just talk, but seriousness and commitment were indicated by “putting it in writing”, the idea being that it could not easily be changed afterwards.

The immutability of text has been a commonplace since the Bible. Pontius Pilate declares “what I have written, I have written”. The author of the Apocalypse curses the copyist who might presume to change his message: “if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book”.

In later times, the permanence of the written was reinforced by the technology of printing. The book was printed and reprinted mechanically, not copied by human hand, and every copy was certain to be the same.

The more modern technology of the computer has, however, irreparably undermined the permanence of the written. Now we can alter the text as we please, as long as we have an editable version.

Indeed, not only can we edit discourse, we can edit language itself. Language is something given, passed down from generation to generation, and the paradox of it is that it is always changing, but no-one has the power to change it. Men have long been discontented with this givenness of language. Particularly in the 17th century, people like Bishop Wilkins laboured at creating artificial languages for science and philosophy. Yet they were never used. Later artificial languages like Esperanto did not meet with much acceptance either, though people always saluted the effort.

Today the editing of the language code seems much more possible. It can be found in artificial standard languages created by linguists. In many parts of the world, the requirements of mass media encourage the development of such standard forms to unite dialects that were previously isolated from each other. These new standard forms often meet with resistance from speakers, but the fact that they can be, and are being devised is a sign that it is becoming conceivable to change our language at will.

We are encouraged to go upstream and change the language code itself by the metaphor of the program in the computer, of course. It is in the nature of programs to be explicit, and so they can be rewritten. If we don’t like the output – what the program does with the input – we can always go back and change the program.

This has an even more momentous effect on molecular biology and genetics, which rely on the idea of a code or a program for life forms. We can now go back and edit DNA, introducing genetic variants, even creating new species. Yet we cannot help feeling uneasy about altering life forms, uneasy about meddling with a level of things that may not be allowed us. The Author of the Book of Life, we suspect, will not take kindly to our ill-judged editing, and we may draw an Apocalyptic curse down on our heads.

The meaning of occidentalism

There has recently been much use of the word “occidentalism”, taken to mean dislike of the Western world felt by people elsewhere in the world. I find this usage unfortunate. The term is based on Orientalism, Edward Saïd’s term. This means the historic fascination of the Western world with the East (usually what we would now call the Middle East). If we have a term “Occidentalism”, it should by rights be used for the equivalent positive feeling, not a negative one. It should mean the Orient’s premature embracing of all things Western. Japanese playing golf. Chinese going to McDonald’s. That kind of thing.

There is a difference, mind you. Orientalism was a matter of sensibility, not of ideology. Westerners could get feelings from looking at the fabled East, or whatever they called it, but they didn’t get much in the way of ideas. They didn’t think that the Arabs, the Turks, the Indians or the Chinese were going to teach them how to run their society. They certainly didn’t think the ideas and feelings from the fabled East were universal. They were just quaint, exotic, belonging to the domain of “local colour”.

But Occidentalism, taken to mean the fascination of the East with the West, would be a matter of ideology as well. Chinese, Japanese, Indians et al. don’t just like hamburgers and golf, they read Anglo-American media and books, and consume the ideas contained therein. They go to Anglo-American universities to learn from the academics there. They copy what these people do and say in institutions and organizations at home.

Eventually they may ask themselves: why are we bothering to do this? But by that stage they may have abandoned the better part of their own cultures. The Cultural Revolution was an ill-judged rejection by a younger generation of their own past. Could a new generation be embarking on a new Cultural Revolution? Is this it? Occidentalism?




Snow’s world

For somewhat less than a century now, Western societies have been run from what I like to call “Snow’s world”. This is the world described by C.P. Snow in his novels and essays. It is a world of élites. It spans government, industry, academia and the professions.

It is the world of the “new men”, the managers, although it is apparent that it has grown out of tradition, and that the ghosts of former élites haunt it.  It is thoroughly modern, and of the modern world, although it continues the idea of an élite from earlier forms of society: the aristocratic and the bourgeois. The educational system, especially the élite secondary schools and the universities, have the job of keeping it fed with new recruits.

Snow experienced the system in England. There the old snobbery about the gentlemanly amateur was alive and well, even in the industrial age with its need for science and technology. He talked about this as the problem of the “two cultures”. He did note that there was a rising class of white-collar workers and technicians, but they did not have the polish or social self-confidence of the old élites. You had to go to university for that, a technical college wouldn’t do.

Snow, who came to this élite from the outside, was acutely aware of issues of class. His views were moderately left, and he served in a Labour government. A fellow like Snow, though he may be on the Left, does not really want to abolish the Establishment. He wants people like himself to run it. So he just ends up joining it. As the American historian Christopher Lasch has observed, when people from the working class get promoted into the élite, it just feeds the élite, it does nothing to better the lot of the working class; in fact it worsens it, because it deprives the working class of leadership.

Formerly, élites were thought to be leisured. Hard work was for the socially mobile on the way up from below. Today’s élites are no longer a leisured class – they are, as the British say, “running around like blue-arsed flies”. This is because Snow’s world is a technocratic world. The technical, the industrial has seized the initiative, and people have to be organized around it. The system is surprisingly neutral politically. It was able to function in the Soviet East as well as the capitalistic West. Snow’s world is a nomenklatura, to use a good Soviet word: a list of names from which élite vacancies can be filled. It has more in common with élites in other countries and systems than it does with the man in the street where it lives.

More recently, Christopher Lasch has talked about the “revolt of the élites”. That is to say, international élites are remodelling nations and societies to suit themselves, not the masses. Ordinary people are resentful, which expresses itself in right-wing populism; they know they are further from controlling the agenda of society than ever they were.





Surrealism and New Age

Surrealism, founded by André Breton in pre-war Paris, is largely forgotten as a movement. When Breton’s old apartment and contents in the Rue Fontaine were sold a few years ago, including his library and collection of artworks, the public authorities could not be induced to buy them, so they were dispersed by private auction.

Surrealism deserves to be better remembered. It was a bold attempt at harnessing the powers of the unconscious, as discovered by Freud, for literary and artistic creation. It dreamed of a marvellous and mysterious world in which le hasard objectif, later called synchronicity, would unfold itself and reign over human lives. This would be a reenchanted world, but a world in which science and technology themselves would be in the service of enchantment, expanding man’s horizons and exploring distant worlds, both literarily and metaphorically.

The Surrealist movement called for revolution, but a revolution within, much more radical than anything Marx or Lenin thought of. Yet it never caught on – except for a few flashy painters who managed to stay in the public eye. Breton’s indirect influence was great, but French thought, and thought in other countries, was going elsewhere, and after his death in 1966 the Surrealist movement dissolved itself.

The idea of revolution in society, of things getting better, has largely perished. The idea of revolution within the person has not quite. Today there is the New Age movement. Here the notions of harnessing powers within and synchronicity and reenchantment are alive and well, and being talked about. But the New Age movement has no hold on the intellectual world, nor is it really a mass movement, like a new religion. It can at best hope to have an indirect influence on the majority, which will never quite get the point, much less live by such a faith.




Over and (not) done with

Metaphors are very powerful. We take over the assumptions that go with them without even realizing it. Yet how could we get by without metaphors – especially when we need to let the tangible stand for the intangible?

Consider the past. We think of it as something previous, over, finished. But, influenced by writing and books, we think of it spatially, “back in time”: to the left of where we are now (to the right, if we use a Semitic writing system, I suppose). Yet we recognize two kinds of past. There is the past that is over and done with. We just register that it happened: “I saw the house” (and then I looked at something else). But there is a past that still has an effect; we express it by the perfect tense: “I have seen the house” (and now it is part of my knowledge).

Further spatial metaphors are used to express this still-effective, immanent past and its effect on the present. We think of it as either “below ground” or “upstream”. It is either like an archaeological dig in the middle of the modern city, or a hydrographic chart of a river system in a valley.

We know that the very language we speak has a history. The initial metaphor for this from Indo-European studies is the family tree. The branches are the modern European languages, the trunk is the classics like Latin, Greek and Sanscrit, and the roots, which we cannot see, are the conjectured protolanguage supposedly spoken by wandering Aryan ancestors.

We can think of it in archaeological terms too. If we dig down below our modern languages, we find their ancestors, or what is left of them in terms of written texts and inscriptions.

Yet the ongoing relationship of dead and living languages in the Western world is so real that we have come to think of the classical languages and IE itself as being somehow “upstream” from all the the modern languages. In other words, what is historically earlier is “above”, “on the high ground” like the source of a river. That hydrodynamic metaphor does a better job of capturing the idea of a past that continues to influence and shape the present.

We think of all our rivers of language as coming from a single source, the IE protolanguage. Tribes and nations like to trace their origin to a common ancestor. This single-source IE model provides a myth narrative for a unitary “Western civilisation”. But of course we have known for quite a while that the single-source model is an oversimplification; we should be thinking of the contribution of a mass of tributaries as well.

In Chomskyan Generative Grammar, the historical metaphors are recycled in accounting for how language is generated in the present moment. The “surface” structures of speech are created out of “deep” structures; theoretical items not empirically evident are said to be “underlying”. Then again, the other metaphor is used in talk of an abstract, “higher” level, a “higher order of abstraction”, from which the empirical “lower” level is “derived”. The clash of dead metaphors reveals our struggle to express the idea of the past that is ever virtually contained in the present.

It’s a no-brainer – unfortunately

German neurobiologist Gerald Hüther, writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and in a recent book, has pointed out that we use our brains and bodies as efficiently as possible, with as little expenditure of energy as possible, so that we get into habits and routines.

From the beginning of the industrial age, machines have helped us save energy by freeing us from laborious tasks. We have, of course, got too comfortable with these labour-saving routines. We get out of physical shape. Then we have to do something like regular exercise, so that we get back in touch with our body and its needs.

The new electronic machines like computers and smartphones make things easy not just for our bodies but for our brains. They act as an artificial memory. And so we get mentally lazy, no longer needing to do sums or remember names or numbers or the like. We are overloaded with information, and our machines help us handle the overload. It’s a no-brainer. Our new machines even fulfil the function of “affect regulation”. That is to say, they help us control our moods by distracting and entertaining us at will.

Hüther warns that we need to get back in touch with our brains to maintain mental flexibility and the ability to innovate, just like we need exercise to put us back in touch with our bodies and keep our muscles in trim.

Years ago, Julian Jaynes pointed out how much of our so-called thinking and consciousness is in fact subconscious. We know a whole lot of things without being aware of them. We go through everyday life like sleepwalkers. Our brains depend on habits and routines for negotiating the familiar. This frees us from the burden of making conscious decisions about every little thing we do.

Jaynes quoted the well-known example of playing the piano. When a person plays, they engage in a complex interaction with that machine, using their two hands to play melody and harmony on the keyboard, depressing the pedals where required, at the same time reading the music from the stand, and being aware of their surroundings. If they became fully conscious of playing or of any component of the performance, they would falter and have to stop.

The transfer of the word “keyboard” to typewriters and later to computers was a hint that operating these machines is a similar activity – another kind of piano playing. We strike the keys to produce letters, not notes; we control our performance by keeping an eye on the screen in front of us, like open sheet music; and the mouse takes the place of the pedals (some people have even come up with mouse pedals).

In days gone by, when there were a lot of amateur piano players, they usually didn’t spend the whole day at the keyboard. The trouble is, we do. It occurs to me that we are playing our piano (the computer or similar device) too much and too long every day.

Now, of course, I am writing this piece on a computer, and you are reading it on a computer or smartphone. Try thinking about the matter when you are away from the screen. I will try too. Hopefully we can both remember what the point at issue was (without being prompted by a display) – and even manage to have some further ideas…


The I Ching of Everything

In Who wrote the book of life?, Lily Kay recounts that, after the description of the genetic code as sequences of letters that in each case spell out a biological message, some people had the idea that this code could be better accounted for by symbols of the I Ching. At first, it seemed to be a joke. But there was something to it.

There had always been suggestions that the genetic code pointed to something like a universal language at the basis of life; perhaps it might even be the stuff of the physical universe. Roman Jakobson, the chief figure in structural linguistics, was a believer in this theory; it had been enabled by the rise of Information Theory in the 1950s, which held out the possibility that all kinds of scientific laws, from social to physical, could be accounted for in terms of information.

Now, if this was so, surely something so universal, so more-than-human, as the genetic code could not, should not be accounted for using the terms of any particular culture. The trouble is that the letters of the alphabet are not universal, but are a Roman invention which has been generalised for use in Western European languages. It seemed presumptuous to say that DNA spells out a genetic code in terms of anything so culture-specific as that. The I Ching seemed to some a far more promising candidate. It was Chinese, to be sure, and also a product of a particular culture, but those who revere it claim universal validity for it, regarding it as a repository of the ancient wisdom of humanity.

Even before the discovery of the genetic code, another great linguist, Whorf, subscribed to what he called “the idea, entirely unfamiliar to the modern world, that nature and language are inwardly akin.” So he was well on the way to Jakobson’s position. On the other hand, Whorf was critical of the sheer unexamined Westernness of science: “The world-view of modern science arises by higher specialization of the grammar of the Western Indo-European languages.”

Indeed, Whorf is remembered as the chief relativist in linguistics. He thought languages were so different from one another that a universal level was implausible. He came to the conclusion that upstream from languages is not Language, but Patterning. “The different tongues are the real phenomena and may generalize not down to any such universal as ‘Language’, but to something better – called ‘sublinguistic’ or ‘superlinguistic’.”

Whorf’s musings are similar, in turn, to Hermann Hesse’s vision of the Glass Bead Game as a universal language that could enable the gamer to play with every pattern – from astronomers’ equations to sayings of Confucius. Hesse, of course, was an enthusiastic reader of the I Ching.

In the end, maybe there is something up there, out there, a superlinguistic level of patterning as applicable to life and nature as it is to language and thinking. If so, it would be “the I Ching of Everything”.

When science meets culture

Claude Shannon was born just a century ago. He was an eccentric American genius who, among other things, studied the mathematics of juggling and built an “ultimate machine” the only action of which was to reach out and turn itself off when it was turned on. But he is best remembered for developing Information Theory in 1948. This turned out to be of great importance. Not only did it provide a basis for work with the new computing machines that were being developed at the time, but it influenced a whole range of sciences – in fact, it would be hard to think of a science that it didn’t influence. Yet one wonders if the whole craze wasn’t just a recycling of old cultural patterns.

Shannon always emphasized that he was interested in information only as an engineer; that is, he wanted to know how it might be transferred between machines. Now this kind of transfer could be called communication, but it had little to do with human communication. Shannon was not interested in meaning. His definition of information did not include meaning as it was not quantifiable. Information was just how much or how little you told me that I didn’t know before – which was quantifiable.

Yet soon enough information theory was on the radar of every science. Not just physics, where it seemed information might be some kind of basic element like energy. In the social sciences, they talked about information being transferred within and between social systems. In linguistics in particular, they started accounting for language in terms of information. They conveniently forgot about Shannon’s discounting of meaning, which surely is the key element in language. If you read the linguistics textbooks and the structuralist gurus of the 1960s, Information Theory is all there, cited again and again like a revelation from on high.

But the most important and lasting influence of Information Theory was in the new science of molecular biology. After Watson and Crick discovered the double helix, Nirenberg and Matthaei “cracked the code” of DNA. It turned out to be a code with combinations of letters. François Jacob extended this with “messenger” RNA. Linguists (who should have known better) as well as others toyed with the idea of language being just one instance of patterning in life and in the universe, a patterning which turns out to be – information.

Molecular biology got a further boost around the turn of the millennium with the project of the human genome. Now there was all kinds of talk about the Book of Life. A very Biblical-sounding phrase, to be sure. As historian of science Lily Kay pointed out, the language/code/book-of-life complex is a metaphor, which turns out to be a reworking of age-old commonplaces in philosophy. Molecular biology could operate without this, but just uses it as a convenient mythology.

Mythologies like this are dredged up from the past of human thought – maybe from the collective unconscious – and form the cultural side of science, which is too often underestimated. Science – even so-called “hard” science – is not as pure and unaffected by culture and ideology as we like to think.