Saturday, July 21, 2012

Screech atheists

This post, by guest blogger Fatima Lipschitz, is part of a series of reflections on chief rabbi Sacks’ “The Great Partnership”. “Fat Lips” (as “Sacksy” calls her) complements my “left-brain” academic criticisms (I, II, III, IV) with a note of “right-brain” personal support for the chief rabbi’s call for debate amongst people as reasoning and reflective as himself, one that by-passes those infantile screech atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens.

The Chief Rabbi and I, being much holier than thou, don’t like screech atheists. Sure we have had our differences—eating gefilte fish from the small end, not the large?—but on this we see eye to eye. We soar like eagles, aloft and aloof, above the hawkish din of Dawkins and Dennett and the squawkish harrying of Harris and Hitchens. Our eagle’s eye view affords us an expansiveness that lowly creatures of hemmed in horizons cannot know. And what we pineapples of politeness think is, screech atheists are as yesteryear as the dodo.

Now, some people, far lowlier than thou, dare to claim that the Chief Rabbi’s disdain for screech atheists amounts to ingratitude of the intellect. (Honestly, what word less befits that gentleman!) If it weren’t for screech atheists marking out one extreme of the debate, they claim, the middle ground, which he and I so effortlessly command, would not be so clearly discernible. To decry the vanguard whilst following in their path is close to hypocrisy.

But do we need reminding? The Rabbi is a shmatta mensh, a man of the cloth. He has a tradition to defend: mankind wakes up, one fine apple-ripened morning, and perceives how nicely his world meets his needs. He doesn’t start rootling around in the undergrowth, trying to figure out how things got to be that way. He looks G-d squarely in the eye, and says, “Thank you L-rd, for giving us noses because, without them, our glasses would fall off and then we wouldn’t be able to see your handiwork clearly.” Maybe Dawkers and Hitchers did something to pave the way for the Chief Rabbi’s philosophical triumph; like G-d, I won’t be drawn. But you can’t expect to the Chief Rabbi to worry about evolution, about who tilled the field in which he spills his seed.

In fact, I met that atheist, Ms Millicent Flabbergast, at confession the other day—or maybe it was the mikveh—and she said to me:

“If it weren’t for screech atheists, the chief rabbi would never have been goaded to give us what is”—and here I paraphrase—“the strongest possible defence of religion and faith”—and not as Ms Flabbergast put it, the greatest thing since sliced bacon. “He should acknowledge that.
“Besides, religions are bullies. Maybe not in today’s cosmopolis, where they’ve learned some manners. But go elsewhere, to Jerusalem, Jedda, or Jacksonville, or take cosmopolites back to their childhoods, and there is religion, big and bullying. And what do you do to bullies? You stand up to them! Catharsis for some, protection for others.
“If some atheists screech, it’s only because they’re forced to, to be heard above the bellowing bollocks that billow from pulpits.”

For the Chief Rabbi to merit temerity of this order! There’s just no way of responding to such criticisms.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Abuse of alphabets in Jonathan Sack’s The Great Partnership

Now that I’ve gotten over my shock and horror (I, II, III), here is a straightforward summary of the errors that underlie one of the central arguments of the chief rabbi’s attempt at a grand synthesis of spirituality with science.

Sacks’ argument runs that Hebrew (being written right-to-left and without vowels) engages the right hemisphere of the brain (and so engenders or conduces a right-brain worldview), whereas Greek (being written left-to-right and with vowels) engages the left hemisphere (and so engenders or conduces a left-brain worldview). Hence, Sacks asserts, removing the Hebraic (Judeo-Christian) element of our society makes it, and us, one-sided, unbalanced, unstable: wholesome societies are comprised of whole people who use the left and right hemispheres of their brains.

What follows is simply a list of three types of errors in his writing-systems-based argument: failures of fact, of unconsidered alternatives, and of “big picture” synthesis. I leave you draw your own conclusions.

But please don’t read this as: “Oh, Sacks got his linguistics wrong. Guess I’d better skip that bit and read the rest of the book.” The questions the list of errors raises are: How difficult would it have been to avoid these errors? How likely is that The Great Partnership really understands and values science and scholarship? Is it really qualified to offer “big picture” solutions concerning society, knowledge, and meaning?

You can’t fight off a locust swarm with a fly swat. So, if I concentrate on the abuse of alphabets, it’s not because there aren’t problems elsewhere. I’m just tending to my own backyard. (Not that I’m ruling out adding in another couple of cents’ worth later…)

Errors arising from failure to check or reflect on basic facts

1. Hebrew does not write without vowels.

EVIDENCE. If so, gamal (camel), gamul (weaned), gimel (letter ג), and gomel (benefactor)—and gmala, gmali, gmalo (her/my/his camel), etc.—would all be written identically. They aren’t.

2. Presence of vowels does not mean that Greek (English) is read letter by letter, as opposed to ‘big picture’-wise reading for “vowelless” Hebrew.

EVIDENCE. The closest we come to letter-by-letter reading is when we encounter unknown words, like isobutylparaben. Otherwise, we recognise words in a single glance. This is the basis of the common psycholinguistic/neurolinguistic experimental technique of ‘masked priming’, in which subjects read words that are flashed at them so quickly that they are not aware of having seen anything.

3. Reading in Greek (English) versus Hebrew (Arabic) does not show opposite lateralization.

EVIDENCE. See the left lateralization (left inferior fusiform gyrus and left middle fusiform gyrus) of brains reading Hebrew and English here. (Besides a lit review, I followed up with researchers in Jerusalem, London, Paris, and in the joint New York University – Abu Dhabi research team.)

4. Purported generalization. Voweled scripts run left-to-right. Vowelless run right-to-left.

COMMENT. The Great Partnership asserts that the opposing voweliness and direction of Greek and Hebrew cannot be coincidence. If this statement is meant to cover just Greek and Hebrew, then it is a basic error of reasoning: with only two data points, any correlation could be a coincidence. The statement only has content if taken as a generalization, in which case it is clearly false.

EVIDENCE. Voweled scripts not running left-to-right: Ladino, Meroitic, Mongolian, Sogdian, Sorani, Thaana (Maldives), Yiddish. Vowels are largely predictable in Iatmul, Kalam, Maltese, Yimas, yet these are not written right-to-left.

Errors arising from failure to consider alternative explanations.

5. Ancestry and ambient systems, not vowellessness, account for direction.

EVIDENCE. Hebrew and other Semitic scripts inherit right-left direction from Proto-Sinaitic, which inherited it from hieratic. Voweled right-left scripts with inherited/borrowed direc- tion: Ladino (from Hebrew), Meroitic (from Egyptian), Thaana (from Arabic), Yiddish (from Hebrew). Similarly, Iatmul, etc. inherit direction from Latin (or daughter systems). Vertical inheritance or borrowing from Chinese (or daughter systems): Japanese, Korean, Manchurian, Mongolian, Old Uyghur, ’Phags Pa, Sogdian.

6. Being an Afroasiatic (Semitic) language accounts for the capacity substantially to underrepresent vowels (what TGP misnames “vowellessness”).

EVIDENCE. In all of the following cases, parent scripts are used for Afroasiatic languages, daughter scripts for non-Afroasiatic ones: Greek (Hellenic) added vowels to the Phoeni- cian script; Ladino (Romance), to Hebrew; Meroitic (isolate), to Egyptian (hierogryphs and hieratic); Sogdian (Iranian) to Syriac; Sorani (Iranian), to Arabic; Yiddish (Germanic) to Hebrew.

7. Underrepresentation of vowels in Afroasiatic languages is derivative of a grammatical quirk (not of directionality, or other causes).

EVIDENCE. Afroasiatic languages have the property that prefixes/suffixes predict (to within a small margin of error) the vowels of the root. E.g., m (the present participial prefix; cf, English ing), prefixed to a verb determines the missing vowels (e.g., MSPR = mesaper; MTYL = metayel; MGMZ = megamez, etc.; or, if t is also present, e.g., MTPRD = mitpared; MTGDL = mitgadel; MTRSN = mitrasen; etc.).

COMPARISON I. Predictable material is generally omitted in writing systems. E.g., English does not represent the change in vowels triggered by ity in rapid ∼ rapidity (rapəd ∼ rəpid-ity), nor the stress shift (rápid ∼ rapíd-ity), nor the aspiration (rapid ∼ raphid-ity).

COMPARISON II. English, like most non-Afroasiatic languages, does not have affixes that deter- mine the vowels within the verb. Consider Wh’s dltng? The verbal suffix ng can only have its vowel filled in in one way, ing. But this tells us nothing about the vowels missing from the verb root: deleting, dilating, diluting, adulating, …?

Global, cumulative error

8. It is meaningless to compare Greek and Hebrew in point of vowels and direction.

REASON I. Hebrew direction is derivative of older systems. So, you should compare Greek with Proto-Sinaitic, or the Egyptian of Amenemhat III. Comparing Greek and Hebrew is as meaningful as comparing English/Yimas with Egyptian.

REASON II. There is no reason to believe that there is any significance to Greek direction. Where there is little or no pressure to preserve or adopt a given direction and/or the system is radically redesigned, there may be experimentation with alternative directions. Such experimentation may happen in the absence of vowels (e.g., Sabean).

REASON III. Presence/absence of vowels correlates with the grammatical properties of the linguistic families to which Greek and Hebrew belong.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Great Partnership, or Titanic meets Iceberg:
Why the chief rabbi’s alphabet soup has god spinning in his grave. Part I.

There are few things more exhilarating than seeing an argument that you disagree with put well. It’s been more than ten years since I first wrote about what atheists have that makes them atheist and what theists lack that gives them a gap for faith to fill (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism). Since then, atheism has become a hot topic, though one inclined at times to give off more heat than light.

Enter Jonathan Sacks, who weighed his Cambridge grounding in formal philosophy and found it wanting, who rose to become chief rabbi, and who now frequently runs the fevered gauntlet of the BBC’s Thought for the Day (in which a cleric must dowse a burning secular issue in the cooling balm of ancient creed).

With such qualifications, I fully expected him to emerge, like the biblical Daniel, unscalded and unscathed from the atheist inferno. I wasn’t awaiting conversion, but I did expect The Great Partnership, the result of his lifelong journey between philosophy and faith, to challenge ideas and arguments that satisfied me in my twenties.

Intending to write a review, I opened the book, sharp of mind and of pencil, filling the margins in my wake. Pretty soon, though, the marginalia ceased and the chief feeling I have on closing its covers is one of disappointment. The argument is largely concerned with reconciling science and religion. But Titanic’s problem wasn’t the tip of the iceberg but what lay beneath—which is why An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Atheism, from the start, plunged down to the worldviews that underpin science and religion, where Sacks, oblivious, skims along the surface.

The Great Partnership deserves Titanic’s fate. When he reviews arguments that others have made before him, Sacks is competent. But when his case demands originality of thought, whether to frame questions or offer answers, the result is not searing, but soggy. Not fireproof, but waterlogged. Platitudinous and complacent.

I won’t show this at length. I don’t think the book merits it. What I offer instead is a proxy-review, like those offered to Shmuley Boteach and Fred Reed. I’ll take just one part of the book and show that the high number of basic, easily avoidable errors disqualifies its author from the ranks of serious commentators.

Writing systems are central to how Sacks makes his case. Not only are they prominent in the book, but the difference between Hebrew and Greek was Sacks’ icebreaker on the BBC’s Start the Week. Doubtless, he could have opened otherwise (the book is, after all, mostly meandering and autobiographical, impressionistic and anecdotal). Yet, if aleph-beth versus alphabet is how he chooses to make his big splash, to prove he’s an intellectual supertanker, on national radio, on a Monday morning, then clearly this is not incidental to his thought. This proud prow of his case is thus a fair point for testing how seaworthy that thinking is.

But I must emphasize: this is not a review of the rabbi’s linguistics. Nor am I interested in what led him to make to errors so numerous, basic and avoidable (complacency? hubris? incompetence?). My point is that is if this is the intellectual prowess of this much praised salvo of newfangled anti-atheism—from an academically trained philosopher, a community leader, a veteran of public communication, a stalwart of interfaith dialogue—then it is a very sorry state of affairs. Little could do more to sink the idea that the religious voice will guide us through turbulent seas, or that it constitutes an intellectually defensible position, than this snapshot of (complacent? hubristic? incompetent?) analysis from The Great Partnership.

Big splash or damp squib?

Hebrew runs from right to left and is written without vowels. Greek runs from left to right and is written with vowels. This, Sacks claims, cannot possibly be coincidence. And, in the difference, he perceives deep cultural significance. To reconstitute the meaning of a vowelless text, you have to keep the big picture of the text in mind. Such synthesis is a very “right-brain” activity. To read a voweled script, you concentrate on the each individual sign. Such analytic assemblage is a very “left-brain” activity. Thus, the concerns of Jewish culture are about big picture issues of meaning—wholes and holiness—whereas Greek culture is about taking things apart and seeing how they function. More or less: Greeks are from Mars, Jews are from Venus, and you can see it in how they write.

Just this sliver of thought triggers three clarions of alarm bells: one for culture, another for neurology, and the last for the form and function of writing systems. Of course, the rabbi recognizes—or so he says—that his characterization of the two cultures, and of neurology, is a simplification. I’m not sure this is entirely fair to simplifications. It’s a slippery slope from simplification to oversimplification (or, perhaps more aptly, from dumbing down, down to dumb). Whenever the rabbi talks of left-brain cultures, or left brains, or brains, it feels to me we’re sailing in perilous propinquity to land of “Relativity says all things are relative”.

But many people founder on the logic of neuroscience, and thumbnails of cultures, so diffuse and sprawling, are easily misread, like reefs through water. Alphabets, by contrast, offer solid ground, concrete and familiar. The internet abounds with information for the curious (wikipedia, omniglot, ancientscripts). So, if you’re making claims about alphabets, directions, and voweliness, it’s easy to check your facts, encounter alternatives, and develop and test rival hypotheses.

How far and how successfully Sacks has done this speaks to the intellectual integrity of The Great Partnership, and possibly to that of the new anti-atheist enterprise (of which, to judge by the press, Sacks is something of a flagship). After all, if he can’t figure out how to collect facts and check hunches for such straightforward, well documented, hands-on things as ABC’s, what chance does he have of navigating his way, or his followers, through more abstract arguments, such as the relationship of science and religion, the nature of goodness, and the meaning of life?

Part II
Part III

The Great Partnership, or Titanic meets Iceberg:
Why the chief rabbi’s alphabet soup has god spinning in his grave. Part II.

Part I
Part II

Sacks’ facts I: No vowels?

Let’s start with something utterly basic, that no cleric who uses Hebrew professionally should err on. Is it true that Hebrew writes without vowels?

If so, the words gamal (camel), gmalo (his camel), gmala (her camel), and gmali (my camel)—not to mention gomel (benefactor), gimel (name of a letter), gamul (weaned) and their variants—would be written identically. By the time you’re halfway through Hebrew 101, you know they’re not. True, some vowels are not represented (gamal is just GML). True, the letter that distinguishes, e.g., gmali (GMLY) from gamal (GML) is read elsewhere as a consonant—but if i is a vowel in paid, then y is a vowel in pays, and, likewise, Y is a vowel in GMLY = gmali. But conceding these two points does not alter the core fact: these words are not written identically and this means that Hebrew does represent vowels.

Anyone familiar with the language can guess how Sacks has gone wrong here. Hebrew textbooks, as well as some religious texts and poetry, have orthographic measles: dots above, dots below, dots within, where newspapers, religious scrolls, and airport novels are sleek and minimalist. These dots indicate, amongst other things, vowels. The superficial conclusion: no dots, no vowels. But “some” is not “all”. Sacks has committed an elementary error of logic, and compounded it but failing to think through simplicitudes like “my camel”.

Sacks’ facts II: How we read

Sacks’ assumption that the brain works differently when reading Hebrew versus English script is also somewhat suspect.

As an English speaker, you can read this sentence simply and quickly. Not so for “Contains methylisothiazolinone, lauroamphoacetate, and isobutylparaben”, unless you’re an aficionado of soap bottles. Novel words slow you down precisely because you read them letter by letter. When you read at speed, you recognize whole words in fell swoops.

So, the fact that we write different amounts of pronounceable stuff in Hebrew and English doesn’t mean that, when reading English, we sit there putting the pieces together sound by sound, whereas Hebrew readers soar aloft surveying the big picture.

To make commit this oversight, Sacks had not only to ignore the very obvious facts just pointed out (maybe soap bottles, like wikipedia and omniglot, are off the rabbi’s reading list). He had to ignore a mass of research in neurology, an area about which he makes some to-do.

If Hebrew and English readers really used different hemispheres when reading, the difference would be seen in brain scans. Strange then that Reading in the Brain and like works fail to mention this; or that such differences as there are not hemispheric and look grammatical, not vowel- or direction-based. There is even a study that finds similar brain activation in blind (braille) readers and sighted readers (in the, evidently ill-named, visual word form area). It concludes that brains are task machines, not sensory machines. So, if reading Hebrew and English involved such different tasks as Sacks claims, this should be amply evident.

That Sacks contrived to wash his hands of such an elementary fact check is shocking. One is hard pressed to interpret it as anything other than a cavalier unconcern for evidence and stark disregard for truth, or a simple failure to realise that ideas, like actions, have consequences, for which one is answerable. Is this the great partnership The Great Partnership envisages?

Sacks’ facts III: Vowels vs slwV?

Even if Sacks didn’t run the obvious checks on whether Hebrew is really vowelless, whether realtime reading goes letter by letter, or whether brain scans show activation in opposite hemispheres for aleph-beths versus alphabets, you might expect he would at least have fact checked his banner headline: “no vowels = right to left”.

And you’d be wrong. From right to left and left to right, from western antiquity and eastern modernity, and from languages the rabbi has never heard of to examples that sulk, overlooked and accusatory, beneath his very nose, counterexamples abound to Sacks’ great insight.

The Book of Esther opens with a king who ruled from India to Kush. In the Kingdom of Kush lay the city of Moroe. Its alphabet, Meroitic, was used for some seven centuries, to write both Meroitic and Nubian. Contrary to Sacks’ pronouncement, the script had vowels and ran right to left.

Or consider the official writing system of the Maldives, Thaana. A comparatively recent invention, descended from a secret code of traders, it too runs right to left but represents vowels.

And there are counterexamples far closer to home than Meroe and the Maldives.

Yiddish is a language that no vaguely educated European Jew can be ignorant of. It is Middle High German in kosher aspic. Written in the Hebrew alphabet, it runs, like Hebrew, from right to left. Yet, like German, it represents vowels. Just as the Greeks adopting the Phoenician script coopted for vowels the letters needed only for Phoenician, so Yiddish resurrects א as a, ע as e, י as i (and y, like Hebrew, and English), and so on. The result is a language written with vowels, from right to left.

Ladino, “Judeo-Spanish”, too, is a language no vaguely educated European Jew can be ignorant of. Its writers innovated the same principles as for Yiddish, with Hebrew consonants standing for Spanish vowels. Yet that script too runs left to right.

Equally, voweled scripts have been taken on by languages with little, if any need, to write vowels. In several Sepik languages of Papua New Guinea, vowels are largely predictable. In Yimas, Iatmul, and Kalam, if you know the consonants, most often, you know the vowels. In fact, the world expert on Yimas, Bill Foley, told me years ago that Yimas speakers are frequently inconsistent in whether they represent vowels and if so, where. The peoples of Papua New Guinea lack Greek-like science, so, by Sacks’ criterion, they do not have a right-brained culture. Surely, then, Sacks would expect these speakers to have flipped the roman alphabet, just as Greeks did to Phoenician.

Examples from Papua are perhaps arcane. But it takes little online roaming (wikipedia, omniglot, ancientscripts) to arrive at Meroe and the Maldives. And for a European rabbi to overlook Yiddish and Ladino is inexcusable. If his core claim is disproven by examples ancient and modern, eastern and western, far-flung and familiar, one suspects that he simply didn’t bother to check any facts, or couldn’t imagine that there were any facts worth checking. And Sacks did behold his generalization and, lo, it was good. And he rested. End of story.

The next step

Except that a fact check is never the end of the story. Next comes “what else?”, the search for alternative explanations:

Part III

The Great Partnership, or Titanic meets Iceberg:
Why the chief rabbi’s alphabet soup has god spinning in his grave. Part III.

Part I
Part II
Part III

The next step

Except that a fact check is never the end of the story. Next comes “what else?”, the search for alternative explanations:

  • What else could account for why a script runs right to left, not left to right?
  • What else could account for whether a script ignores some vowels?
Here, too, the holeyness of this rabbinic scholarship is apparent.

Alternatives I: Direction from generation to generation

The factors affecting direction are extremely obvious. Yiddish and Ladino kept the direction of Hebrew, the alphabet they adopted. Meroitic kept the direction of the Egyptian writing systems from which it developed. And Thaana, of the muslim Maldives, runs right to left under the influence Arabic. Similarly, languages, like Yimas and Iatmul, that adopt the roman script, preserve its left-to-right direction. The same is true of vertical writing. Chinese passed on its vertical direction to Japanese, Korean, and, most strikingly, to the alphabet of Sogdian, an Iranian language—overriding the direction of its Semitic parent script, Syriac. Sogdian, in turn, passed its verticality on to Manchurian, Mongolian, and Old Uyghur.

Conclusion: writing is conservative. Pretty humdrum, huh?

Apply this thinking to the Sacks’ core cases, Hebrew and Greek.

Hebrew writing grew up in a wholesome, stable household, with a well established family of conventions around it. Preserving the ways of its forefathers, it ran right to left, because, Proto-Sinaitic, the Adam of all alphabets, ran right to left, too. (Sabean swung both ways, but there’s one in every family.) Proto-Sinaitic, which emerged in Middle Egypt, plausibly took its direction from a contemporary Egyptian system. The best known of these, hieroglyphs, had variable direction, both on monuments and in manuscripts. But more user-friendly hieratic robustly ran from right-to-left at the time. This direction was established under Amenemhat III. A learned rabbi might know whether Amenemhat’s culture was left-brained or right. But the conclusion would as irrelevant to Hebrew culture as the directions of English and Chinese are to cultures of the Yimas and the Mongols. In other words, Hebrew’s direction is purely incidental.

Unlike Hebrew, Greek grew up without proper oversight. The Phoenicians, whose alphabet they adopted, were, comparatively, highly literate, with writing in artistic, religious, and economic spheres all reinforcing a uniform direction. The Greeks were all but cut off from this tradition, and what little connection they had would have been overwhelmed by the need for a radical redesign to make the system suitable for Greek. They reshaped letters, added new ones, altered sounds. Absolved of pressure to write in a predetermined direction, they went left to right and right to left (just as precursors of our script did). They even wrote “as the ploughing ox turns” (boustrophedon), going one direction on one line, returning in the other on the next. If regimentation of a single direction was eventually to emerge, there was a coin toss’ chance it would be the same as Phoenician. So, the Greek direction looks coincidental.

The chief rabbi pontificates that the opposing directions of Greek and Hebrew could not be possibly be coincidence. Not only are there no grounds for this wishful thinking, it’s not even clear that the comparison is coherent. Greeks took writing from the Phoenicians. So, if we compare cultures, shouldn’t it be Greek and Phoenician? Phoenician inherited its direction from Proto-Sinaitic, heir, in turn, to the scribes of Amenemhat III. So shouldn’t we compare Greek culture to Egyptian, or Proto-Sinaitic, whatever that is? It makes as much sense to compare Greek with Hebrew, as it does to compare Egyptian with English.

Alternatives II: Vowellessness

The other what-else Sacks should have asked is: What else could explain vowellessness?

Again, once you do your history homework, it’s obvious where to look for an answer. When the Phoenicians passed their writing to the Greeks, the Greeks added vowels. When the Syriacs passed their writing to the Sogdians, the Sogdians added vowels. Similarly for the transfer from Egypt to Meroe, from Hebrew to Yiddish, from Arabic, via Farsi, to Kurdish. There is a common theme here. The donor languages, written without vowels, are Semitic (or, better, Afroasiatic). The recipient languages are anything but: Germanic, Hellenic, Iranian, Romance, or, in the case of Meroitic, an unknown isolate.

The real generalization, then, is that Semites exports consonants, foreigners innovate vowels. Even without the spotting the significance of Semitic as a whole, Sacks should still have asked the simpler question: What else might explain why Hebrew can be written without vowels, is there is something particular about the language, rather than the culture?

Again, the answer is under his very nose.

Consider sentence of vowelless English (“Nglsh”?): Wh lks btng? Obviously, this is Who likes b—ting? But the last word could be baiting, bating, beating, biting, boating, or booting. Once you see ng, you know the vowel of the suffix is i. But that’s all the help the suffix, ng, offers. It doesn’t tell you what’s missing inside the verb, and what’s inside the verb massively changes the meaning.

And that is where Hebrew, and its Semitic relatives, are magnificently different from almost every other language on the planet. In Hebrew, if you know the consonant of the prefix or suffix, you know, to within a small margin of error, the vowels of the entire word. Consider MSPRT, MSXKT, MRKZT. These share the prefix M (like “ing”) and the suffix T (feminine). Together, these make the vowels predictable: mesaperet, mesaxeket, merakezet ((she’s) telling/playing/concentrating).

So, missing a few vowels in Hebrew is nothing like omitting them in English (or Greek, Kurdish, Ladino, Meroitic, Sogdian, or Yiddish). The grammatical structure of the language makes the indication of vowels largely irrelevant. It’s nothing more than English not bothering to indicate how the vowels a and i change from rapid (rapəd) to rapidity (rəpidity).

This grammatical structure is common across the whole of Afroasiatic: not just Hebrew, the whole swathe of languages from Western Sahara, through the Maghreb and Arabia, to easterly Oman, and from Malta down to Ethopia, and beyond. Worryingly for Sacks, this includes languages of traditional enemies of the Israelites, like the Amorites and Assyrians, Canaanites and Egyptians. Does the rabbi wish to suggest that what makes Hebrew so special is shared not just with just any old goyim, but with those in contradistinction to whom the Israelites sought to define themselves, “chosen above all other nations and exalted above all other languages”?

Of Hindenburgs and Titanics

Complacently overlooking the obvious, hubristically disregarding the evidence, and incompetently fabricating answers have long been hallmarks of religious thought. I did not expect them to be so richly abundant (and I’ve barely scratched the surface) in the work of a philosopher-cleric, who aims to connect the new world with the old and to steer path through the hazards of modernity, not just for the faithful, but for modernity itself. How can The Great Partnership fulfil its aim of reconciling science and religion, when it holds such scant respect for evidence and such a low regard for truth? And if this is a flagship, what does it augur of the rest of the industry of intellectually respectable theism?

Optimistically, though, The Great Partnership is a Titanic, not a Hindenburg. Travel by blimp perished with the Hindenburg, but ocean liners lumber on, after Titanic, into the jet age. True to Darwinian principles, religion—the mutating work of man masquerading as immutable word of god—is always adapting. Atheists, nonconformists, and people who are just too busy with the good to bother with a god have always pushed forward the bounds of our humanity. Religion resists, then reticently relents, then suddenly claims the new status quo as being what it meant all along. We need clerics, sympathetic to modernity, who are able to translate moral and intellectual progress into the vocabulary of the religious.

And, though we, the god-free, do not want converting, we would appreciate a coherent theism that eschews gross insult to sense and decency. Partly out of curiosity (it’s nice to know what the neighbours get up to). But mostly because moderate religionists share far more with moderate atheists than they do with fundamentalists and to overplay the difference between atheism and theism is divisive, misguided and wrong.

Those of us who had thought to find this coherent theism in The Great Partnership will be sadly disappointed.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Chomsky, the Pirahã, and turduckens of the Amazon

A seething dispute has burst back into life with the publication of Language: The Cultural Tool (Economist, New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education). I’ve yet to read the book, though I’m pretty sure I will. I admire its author, Dan Everett, as an ex-missionary, who saw the light in those on whom he had sought to foist salvation, as a fieldworker, whose time in the wild is something I can only dream of, and as a defender of one tribe's right to continue its traditions against the depredations of modernity. And I admire his detractors, amongst them, my professor from phd days, David Pesetsky, and my one-time neighbour at MIT, and now near neighbour at UCL, Andrew Nevins.

The Pirahã, and their language, are, Everett believes, different from other groups and other grammars, so different as to threaten Chomsky’s theory of natural language. I wouldn’t describe myself as a card-carrying Chomskian—or as a card-carrying anything. However, my work is inconceivable without the program of research he initiated, and, so, potential Pirahã problems interest me.

Before you venture into foreign terrain, you set your bearings. If all you can see is rainforest, with no clear line of sight to the horizon, then it’s easy to forget your general direction and get caught up in undergrowth and bogged down in mud. So, before I open Everett’s book (or any other), I ask myself what the argument would need to look like to make me reevaluate where my research is headed and why. I’ve found Pirahã very helpful for my work (it’s cited in my last five(?) papers). Does it really destroy the edifice I’m building?

The Pirahã maelstrom has had two vortices: recursion, and the language–culture connection. Recursion promises/threatens to slay Chomsky, who argues that much of grammar is innate. The language–culture connection promises/threatens to resurrect Whorf, who argues that language shapes how we think. I work on the latter and I’ve written (here, here) on why I choose not to work on the former. For now, I’ll concentrate Chomsky and recursion, because, truth be told, the “Pirahã slays Chomsky” headlines seem to me like errors in elementary reasoning. In other words, the kind of “because” abuse that this blog is named after.

Recipes for recursion

Recursion means sticking something you made earlier into something else. So, preparing perogi (I’m in Kraków just now) isn’t culinary recursion—you’ve just put filling in pastry and left it there—but making borsht with dumplings is—you put something in something to make pirogi and then put your pirogi into your soup. The ultimate in culinary recursion would be turducken, a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a chicken (stuffed inside a person).

“Turducken recursion” and “dumpling-borsht recursion” are different and both are found in human language. In “turducken recursion”, you take two things of the same type and put one inside the other—a sentence inside a sentence (Pawel ate the pirogi his mother wanted to sell) or a noun inside a noun (Pawel’s mother’s pirogi). In “dumpling-borsht” recursion, you put something inside something different—a noun inside a verb phrase (ate pirogi) inside a full sentence (Pawel ate pirogi).

Why does recursion matter to Chomsky? Well, one of the ways to think about what he is up to (and how I explain my work at dinner parties) is to pretend the brain is a kind of computer, like an iphone. (Sorry for mixing metaphors, computers with food. But, well, iphones are apples.) Obviously, we share lots of our brain hardware with other animals. But other animals apparently don’t have anything like human languages, not even the vocal, gregarious, communicative ones, not even primates formally schooled in sign languages by eager experimenters. Chomsky has co-written that the crucial difference might be that our hardware at some point became capable of recursion.*

Which recursion does Everett think Pirahã lacks and should Chomsky care? (And why all this talk of “putting inside”, rather than “putting next to”? E.g., why is Pawel’s “inside”, not “next to”, mother’s pirogi?)

Turduckens, iphones, and irrelevance

Everett says that there’s no turducken amongst the Pirahã. No sentence-in-sentence or noun-in-noun. You have duck (Pawel ate pirogi) and you have chicken (His mother wanted their sale), but you’re not getting to ducken, with one inside the other.

But if Everett, and the media, don’t get turducken, they make hoopla. Everett’s claim has been portrayed as a Chomsky-slayer of a fact.** In truth, though, the turducken hunt is a red herring.

My iphone tags my photos to say where I took them. It tells me what’s nearby (cafés, restaurants, museums, shops, ...). It shows me where I am on maps and how to get to where I want to go and which of my friends are nearby. My mother never tags her photos, she never wants to know what’s around her, she never displays herself as a blip on a map, and, if she wants to know if you’re nearby, she calls. But that’s a fact about how my mother has set her iphone up. All location services are off. But that doesn’t mean her iphone can’t provide that information. The computational capacity of our phones is the same, her configuration is just different.

If the Pirahã don’t have turducken sentences, that’s a fact about how their language is configured. It’s not a fact about their hardware. If you kidnapped a Pirahã child (a practice inflicted on numerous indigenous communities) and raised it speaking Portuguese—or, less horrifically, if you exposed it to enough Portuguese for it to grow up bilingual—you’d expect them to be just as capable of learning Portuguese as any other child they were raised with. When Chomsky is concerned with recursion, he is concerned with hardware. The claim is about what brains can learn, not what a particular brain has learned. A dearth of turduckens of the Amazon just doesn’t matter.

Six degrees of separation

Here’s a different path to the same conclusion. “Six degrees of separation”. It’s every Chomskian’s favourite game. You pick some humdrum language, like English, and, with just a tweak here and tweak there, you get yourself up the Amazon without a turducken. The point is to show which exotic delicacies are just familiar fare in fancy sauce. Here’s a pertinent example inspired by the first paper I read in grad school.

What’s the difference between ask and wonder? A normal person will say it’s something about their meanings. Fair enough. But a linguist will it’s about recursion. You can ask what the time is or ask the time. Both are fine. Not so with wonder: you might wonder what the time is, but you can’t wonder the time. Such differences are widespread and don’t appear to depend on meaning. After all, ask and inquire are near synonyms, but I can’t inquire the time. I’m limited to inquiring what the time is.

And now we tweak. Imagine we go, verb by verb, taking everything like ask and making it like inquire, so that it can only combine with a noun, not a sentence-like, “concealed” question. By the time we’re done, English would be on its way to being Pirahã: verbs would no longer be the aperture through which you can turducken one sentence inside another.

Sure, there’d still be relative clauses (Pawel’s mother wanted to sell the pirogi that Pawel ate). But they depend on there being words like that. We could get rid of them too.

Yet, none of this would mean that “English-ish” speakers’ brains had become incapable of recursion. They’d just have turned off their iphones’ location services. No change in hardware, just change in use. So, again, finding a language without turducken recursion is, simply, irrelevant to deciding whether recursion is the crucial component of hardware that makes us computationally competent for language.

Back to borsht and dumplings

We have an expression in English, “to string words together”. This probably reflects what most people think sentences are. Words strung together. One of the major insights of early work by Chomsky & Co is that real generalizations about sentences aren’t phrased in terms of strings. To characterize what is possible a sentence in a language and how possible sentences are related to each other, you don’t talk about which bit follows which other bit. You talk about which two bits were combined first, and about which other bit their combination was combined with next, and so on. Language, in the computery, grammatical sense relevant to Chomsky, is not about strings, it’s about structures.

If Pirahãs’ lack of turducken recursion is irrelevant to Chomsky’s claims, can Everett make hoopla from dumpling-borsht recursion instead? Does Pirahã make us think that its sentences are not built up by this kind of recursion? Three things make me sceptical that Language: The Cultural Tool can show this.

First, the rhetoric. If Pirahã has such sentences, then it is remarkable for what it has, not for what is missing. It would have sentence types that can’t come from recursion, rather than merely not having certain types that do. Yet, all discussion I’ve seen has focused exclusively on what Pirahã lacks. Quite a U-turn.

Second, a point-by-point rebuttal of Everett’s earlier formulations, indicated where Pirahã is similar to Chinese, German, and Hebrew, amongst others. So, if Chinese, etc don’t have sentence types irreconcilable with recursion, then Pirahã probably doesn’t either.

Third, it is not hard to show what a theory cannot do. For all I admire Everett for his post-missionary enlightment, his time in the field, his advocacy of indigenous rights, and his desire to go beyond descriptive work and engage with the foundations of cognition—something I share—I have to recognize that discussion of turduckens and iphones suggests that Everett isn’t the person to do this. The task requires good basic logic and an understanding of the fundamentals of the theories you’re trying to engage with. Turduckens and iphones may seem like silly metaphors, but they reveal, in familiar and concrete terms, Everett’s errors in logic (arguing from irrelevant data) and in understanding (the crucial distinction between linguistic hardware versus its use in a given language). This does not bode well.

Ready for incursion

Not everyone is good at everything. My mother can’t use location services on her iphone, and, frankly, I’m not a fan of the thought of turducken. But my mother doesn’t preach the downfall of Apple and I don’t portray myself as an expert turduckenist.

There’s more to Language: The Cultural Tool than recursion (watch for future posts). But then why all this hoopla about its impact on Chomsky’s view of our mental hardware, if the main subject of the book in all likelihood has nothing of relevance to contribute? Having marshalled my thoughts, I will open the book with a heavy heart. I’ve seen a laudable fieldworker produce lamentable theory before.


*So all you need to get Dostoyevski is a monkey brain and recursion? No. When Chomsky talks about language, he’s talking only about our computational hardware. Your hardware needs a set of concepts to compute over and, once there are enough people who can also compile their concepts into beautifully articulated thoughts, it’s pretty handy to have some way of getting thoughts out of your head and into theirs: communication—which potentially raises new computational questions, about flattening thoughts built by recursion into sequences sayable/signable one bit at a time. For the curious, I should add that I focus as much on the store of concepts as on building by recursion, if not more. So, I’m not as deeply involved in these issues as some.

**There’s been debate about whether it is a fact at all: he previously found turducken in his neck of the Amazon, and there’s dis-ag-ree-ment about whether he’s been able to reanalyze the examples at stake as separate sentences standing side by side.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Multiple postings, and Dunning your Kruger

Sorry about all the posting and reposting on this week’s two posts (Language, Flat Earth and Goldilocks: Three riffs on evolution and The anti-evolutionist case: Fred Reed, “scurrilous” indeed). It took some fiddling to get the html to display indentation and suppress interparagraph struts in both Chrome and Safari (haven’t checked other browsers).

Also, Danny G from Sydney points out that what I called “Kruger-Dunning” is normally called “Dunning-Kruger”. I noticed this too, in the wiki link. But by then I’d used “Dunning” as a verb and I didn’t want to lose the grammar geekage. The original paper is by Kruger and Dunning, not Dunning and Kruger. And, after all, this blog is about truths, not norms :-)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The anti-evolutionist case: Fred Reed, “scurrilous” indeed

The student mentioned in yesterday’s post sent me four of the anti-evolution articles that she was impressed with. No offence to her—students are there to learn and learning to spot unreliable sources is particularly tricky—but they are far worse than I was expecting. Here are the two emails (with minor changes for readability) that I sent back this morning.

I’m posting them here for two reasons. In case any else needs alerting to the atrocious incompetence of Fred Reed’s writings (read my other posts to see that I don’t go in for exaggeration). And as an illustration of how to avoid being duped by a Kruger-Dullard, someone who mistakenly believes themself expert enough in an area to offer “scurrilous commentary” on the “foolishness” of others (to quote Reed).

It’s common sense. Before you trust someone in foreign terrain, you test them on ground you both know. When it’s my mother’s medical musings, where I have minuscule factual knowledge, I go for the statistical/experimental jugular: if a “trial” can’t possibly show what the authors think it proves, then they can’t tell bad science from good. They’re Kruger-Dullards.

In the case of biological (rather than cognitive) evolution, I’m competent only in the shallows: when the argument dives deep, the details drown me. Fortunately, Fred warms up with a potted history of science and some comments on what scientists think they’re doing. This is bread and butter stuff. And he gets diametrically wrong, attributing to scientists in general, and Newton in particular, the very opposite of what they say, believe, and do. A Kruger-Dunning delusive if ever there was one.

I started off with a general piece about two world views (ah, rival world views, like my first book) and, after a quick skim, this was my response (“smooth-tongued” picks up on a comment of the student’s about Reed’s writing style):

Hi ******,
Thanks for forwarding. I’ve skimmed one and I’ll take a look at the other three, but so far I’m not impressed. The writer understands some basic principles of science, but also makes several errors that are typical of highschool-level understanding: mechanism died with Newton, determinism died with Poincaré (replaced with chaotic determinism, or deterministic chaos), the digression into ethics and evolution misrepresents what evolutionary theory actually posits and covers and wholly ignores the contributions of cognitive science, where, incidentally, Chomsky has addressed the “problem of consciousness” and the significance of volition, which Fred presents as arch-problems that science has ignored. Not a promising beginning.
What’s really weird though is his premise that, if we divide the world into those who think we can know it all and those at peace with the inevitability of ignorance, then scientists fall in the know-it-all camp. The claim is quite bewildering. Knowing/asking/understanding are all biological processes. They are therefore limited just as every other biological process is. Just as there are speeds we can’t run at, and sounds we can’t hear, and wavelengths we can’t see, so there are questions we can’t conceive of and answers we can’t give. And even if that weren’t true, we’d never have enough time to answer all our questions. So ignorance is inevitable and anyone who gives the matter a moment’s thought knows as much. Enlightenment scientists were aware of this, reviving a tradition that goes back to Aristotle at least (suppressed under religious influence in the interim).
If somebody, especially a smooth-tongued somebody, tells me that they’re going to tell me the problem with science and then makes so rudimentary an error as to claim that scientists believe all questions to be answerable, then I conclude that they are either ignorant or dishonest. Either way, I’m disinclined to trust anything else they say. After all, if they get the basics wrong, they’re only going to get more confused when it comes to the details.
Let me know if you disagree. More as and when. Regards, Daniel

I’d intended to stop there, but there’s nothing like bollocks for breakfast and a quick click brought me to a critique of judicial rulings on intelligent design in science classes. My response:

OMG, this is appalling!
Next came Newton. There were others before him, but he, though he was himself a Christian, was the towering figure in the rise of mechanism, the view that all things occur ineluctably through mindless antecedent causes. He said (remember, I’m simplifying exuberantly) that the physical world is like a pool table: If you know the starting positions and velocities of the balls, you can calculate all future positions and velocities. No sprites, banshees, or Fates, no volition or consciousness.
This is the exact opposite of what Newton said. Descartes was the billiard ball physicist. Newton was accused precisely of reintroducing “occult forces” on a par with sprites.
OK, this guy is way too ignorant to be worth reading. I’m stopping here.
Regards, Daniel

The misunderstanding was so preposterous, there was no point going on. I regret to say, Fred Reed isn’t “simplifying exuberantly”. He’s an exuberant simpleton. And on science (at least), he writes pure rubbish.

(Hmm, this post is more ad hominem than I’d like. Sorry Fred.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Language, Flat Earth, and Goldilocks: Three riffs on evolution

A blonde girl with big lips surprised me after my talk in Toronto yesterday. Double surprised me, in fact. I thought she’d been asleep but I guess she’d been listening with her eyes shut. I had just argued that language, analysed à la Chomsky, reveals the stages by which our minds evolved. Minds don’t leave fossils. So, the common wisdom says, we can only get at cognitive evolution indirectly, by examining artefacts, like cave paintings and tools. Finding that the capacity for language is itself a fossil bed of mental evolution turns the conventional wisdom on its head. But Eyes Shut had been reading articles by a journalist—not religious or christian, she hastened to add—who had found lots of problems with evolution and she found his case convincing. Her question: so what did I think about that?

The classic Kruger-Dunning conundrum! To know whether you can trust the journalist and his assessment of evolution, you need to judge his level of expertise. But to judge expertise, you need expertise. Which makes the journalist useless: if you’re expert, you don’t need to rely him; and if you aren’t, you can’t. But people engage in because charades. They don’t believe things because they’re true, but because they sound like what they want to hear. So, they assume that unreliable sources are reliable and, worse still, assume that they have gained expertise by reading them.

Eyes Shut seemed more open than this, but I know from experience how difficult Kruger-Dunning delusions are to dislodge. My mother is always Kruger-Dunning me. She insists on having unearthed all manner of esoteric truths in health and healing by reading about herbs, and electro-medicine, and magnesium, and potato skin soup fasts, and coconuts, and …. But without expertise, you have no way of knowing whether what you’re reading—electro-medicine, evolution, etc.—gives correct answers, or competent answers, or complete answers, let alone whether it asks the right questions to begin with. Anyone can make a case sound convincing by ignoring everything that’s inconvenient and, if you’re not expert, you don’t know what they’re hiding from you, or from themselves.

So far as evolution and language go, though, I can answer with some expertise. And the power of Darwin’s idea seems to me little short of miraculous.

For instance, I recently finished a paper that argues against the “geometric hypothesis”. In brief, think of the brain like a computer. Language is one of the tasks it can perform (like playing dvds, or word processing). My job is to discover the program that the brain runs which makes it fit for language. Hence, what are building blocks of the program and how are they put together? The geometric hypothesis says that some combinations of building blocks are ruled out, even though the computational system would have no trouble with them. The opposite view, which I believe in, is that there are no such restrictions: the brain welcomes all inputs. It’s like kosher versus treif: some combinations of food are fine for the digestive system (meat and milk, meat and fish, …), but you’ll never find them on a Lubavitcher buffet.

There are two ways to disprove the geometric hypothesis.

In one, you go off and describe hundreds of languages (in this case, we’re interested in pronouns, verbs, and words like this/that, here/there, hither/thither). You then pool all the data to see which types of languages the brain is capable of producing. Then you simmer away for years to boil the data down to a set building blocks all combinations of which are used by some language or other—hoping that the whole thing doesn’t blow up in your face like an ill-set pressure cooker.

Given the hundreds of languages you need to document, the hundreds of hours that go into describing each one, the hundreds of hours that go into conducting initial, then larger, then yet larger cullings of the data, and the hundreds of hours that go into devising and evaluating successive proposals, a reasonable estimate is that it has taken this approach some 100,000 “thought hours” to show that we’re not at a Lubavitcher buffet: the geometric hypothesis is wrong.

Here’s the Darwinian alternative. You consider whether geometries are evolutionarily necessary (they aren’t), whether they’re evolutionarily stable (they aren’t), and whether they offer informational, hence adaptive, advantages (they don’t). In fact, if we ever had geometries, evolution would expect us lose them. So, if it’s a sunny day and you have some good coffee, you can probably get all this thinking done under 10 hours.

Darwin didn’t have that much to say about language. Indeed, we can apply his ideas to the geometric hypothesis only because several scientific and mathematic revolutions separate us from him. For his ideas, in such radically foreign intellectual terrain, to deliver in 10 hours what nose and grindstone only churn out after 100,000 strikes me as close to miraculous.

* * *

“Thought hours” is a useful way of guaging the robustness of an idea and the concept came up again in my conversation with Eyes Shut, in a moment of superb irony. As said, it’s up to experts to assess critiques of evolution. However, if the problems are so obvious that an enthusiastic amateur can unearth them, then you’d think that theory would have been debunked long ago. There is, after all, no “scientific establishment” that protects bad ideas. There is only a scientific disestablishment, that finds the false and roots out the wrong. The bigger the ideas are, the more credit you get for making them fall.

However, Eyes Shut observed, it had taken centuries for people to stop believing that the earth is flat. “Evolution, your days are numbered” was the subtext, I guess. The comparison, though inapt, is fascinating.

Evolution and flat-earthism may be of great age, but, in its time, evolution has withstood hundreds of thousands of hours of criticism, modification and reform. Flat-earthism dies once you watch a ship vanish over the horizon: hull first, mast last. Age in thought hours, not years, is what matters.

What keeps me smiling as I type (and reread) this is the latest twist in the evolution of anti-evolutionism. Flat-earthers are the archetypal rejectors of progress, the possessors of undislodgeable delusion. Evolution, by contrast, is an idea so revolutionary that, long after it became the mainstay of the natural, social, and cognitive sciences, the religious still struggle to accept it. Yet at least one anti-evolutionist wants to equate evolution with the flat-earthism, the symbol of (religious) recalcitrance.

* * *

Before Toronto, I was at a mine in northern Quebec. The highlight was watching professional geologists in action. Scrutinizing tray after tray of dreary rocks, consulting the chemical analysis, plotting and comparing the drill sites, then having an animated discussion about how long this now upturned, underground volcano had been active and underwater, how long it had remained hot after it ceased erupting, why millions of years later it had withstood the pressures that had distorted the neighbouring geology.

Here’s how the discussion did not run:

“Let’s pretend that god created this bit of the earth so that it looks like there was a volcano here.”
“Yes, and let’s pretend that he put a basalt cap at this end so that we would think that the convection currents would have remained active longer.”
“Good idea, and let’s also pretend that this a magma chamber and that this is swarm of barren dykes.”
“Great because if we pretend that god did all of that, then we’ll know where to look for which metals.”
“Yes, but let’s just hope though that god made this pretend volcano like all those other ones.”
“True, you can’t be too careful. You know how god loves dykes. He might have just put them there to test us.”

Geology makes a nonsense of the bible. But so does physics. So do linguistics, genetics, and cosmology. And yet only evolution seems to hold a special place in the hostilities of the godly, as a shibboleth of the faithful.

I think it’s because evolution is the goldilocks science. Linguists are too abstract for anyone to care to question them. And geologists and physicists are too concrete for anyone to dare to question them (the bible belt likes its oil and mining companies and the GPS that guide them). But evolution is about us. It hits home. Plus you can deny it without personal cost. Deny physics, and your GPS navigator becomes black magic (“Begone Satan, I shall perform no U-turn in 100 yards”). Evolution is—as the faith-fooled bleat—“just a theory”.

And yet, as genetics advances, it builds a bridge between evolution and technology (think of the bible belt’s love of GM soya). The debunkability of evolution is declining market.

Besides, it’s only a matter of time before the religious discover a special fondness for evolution. As cognitive science finds the fossils that reveal why the mind creates gods, and why groups of minds create religions, the godly will suddenly proclaim that evolution provides the ultimate proof of god’s existence: he has programmed us to believe in him! Well, we’ll deal with irony when we come to it. First, let’s deal with his charade of making gold mines look like superannuated subaquatic volcanoes…

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Knights erroneous and gulag dentists

[This essay accompanied the first solo exhibition of the artist whose work it details. It’s unrelated to the blog topic—no because-charade—but it’s thematically related to my previous post. The next post will be on topic again, probably on the fiction of the judeo-christian ethic, at last.]

The knights that fill Andro Semeiko-Antelidze’s imaginings are paradoxical: deeply foreign yet quintessentially quotidian. They are precise, minute vagrants in landscapes of lush and giant vagueness. The expert detail of their execution contrasts with extravagant simplicity of a world ready to engulf them. And yet, the activities that occupy them seem oblivious to these disparities. They are the humdrum details of our own daily existence: lighting, cleaning, grooming, … But these paradoxes, though fanciful and comical, reflect something deep and unique that only Semeiko-Antelidze could bring to his artistry.

Every culture that has forged its existence in battle against neighbours and invaders reveres the warrior. Russian and Georgian literature, like the Homeric and Anglo-Saxon traditions, begin with poetic epics, from the twelfth century, in which heroes battle forces of evil in quests that are simultaneously personal, spiritual, and, from a modern perspective, national. Both epics—the anonymous Lay of the Host of Igor, from which stems Borodin’s Prince Igor, and Shota Rustaveli’s In A Panther’s Skin—are texts with which the Russian or Georgian schoolchild—and Semeiko-Antelidze, as his name suggests, was both—becomes familiar.

And where there are epics, there is knightly travailing and knightly prevailing, honourable deeds and righteous creeds. Indeed, Rustaveli’s epic is often translated under the title of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, though the Georgian title itself is more laconic. And, following in the tracks of two centuries’ crusades—one of the definitive acts of the knights of Europe—Rustaveli pilgrimaged to Jerusalem, where his visit is recorded on a (very recently defaced) pillar of the Monastery of the Cross.

Yet, it would be a mistake to see Semeiko-Antelidze’s knights as stemming from the—to him—familiar childhood characters of Prince Igor and his brothers, or Prince Tariel and the nobleman Avtandil, for these are not knights in our sense.

On the one hand, our knights are far more ancient. Whereas the English word is so deeply embedded in the language that half of its letters have fallen silent as its pronunciation has evolved, the abundance of “equivalents” that Russian dictionaries offer shows that this is an alien concept filled by borrowed words. First, from the north, came vityaz, harking back to marauding hoards of Vikings. Then, from the east, came various forms of the Altaic bagadur, consolidating into Russian bogatyr. And last, from the west, came German Ritter, manhandled by the Poles into rycerz, and arriving in Russian as rytsar. The same word yields Georgian raindi, which enters the language five centuries after Rustaveli, with the humble meaning of horse-trainer, only later acquiring is nobler connotations. The concept, then, like the word, is borrowed, not indigenous.

On the other hand, our knights are far more modern and actual than their Russian and Georgian “equivalents”. As children, we are enchanted by fairy tales recounting their daring and romances. As teenagers, we are excited by films and television depicting their bravery and gallantry. And as adults, we greet with delight, outrage, or indifference the regular bestowing of knighthoods of those—scientists, artists, sportsmen, politicians, businessmen—whose personal quests for excellence (or personal connections to power) have materially affected the nonmaterial wealth of the nation.

To the Russo-Georgian Semeiko-Antelidze, resident now in England, knights have moved from foreign and fictitious to part of the cultural furniture of daily life. Small wonder, then, his knights are so curiously quotidian in a landscape that it so deeply foreign.

But that is only part of the story. In earlier work, Semeiko-Antelidze created micromorphologically accurate portraits of solitary, ordinary objects. Those that played with light were a particular favourite: a headlight, a spoon, a well-glazed chocolate cake, a woman’s boot or businessman’s shoe. Then, from somewhere in the vaults of the Royal Academy, a medieval knight’s helmet with visor, bearing an accidental resemblance to Mickey Mouse. And, in its wake, another helmet, then full suits of armour, then models, then knights farming, knights surfing, knights gingerly entering Hockneyesque swimming pools, knights formally posed for Van Dyckesque portraiture. Where does this fascination come from?

Semeiko-Antelidze grew up at a pivotal moment in Georgian history. Communism was waning and the country was beginning to look westwards again. For him, this westward gaze took a very particular form. Part of his childhood was spent in his grandparents’ house, in the mountains of Guria, where the dangerous Agi Dzaghla river emerges from the forests, dragging the more than occasional tree trunk, boulder, or as its name suggests, drowned man with it.

There, he saw how his grandfather would frequently treat for free the teeth of the local poor. And, when he asked how his grandfather had become a dentist, he was told the story of the onetime Minister of Justice, anonymously denounced, who become a gulag inmate. A death sentence for many, he was fortunate in advancing, eventually, to gulag dentist.

Gulag dentist. Few juxtapositions of words can sound so gruesome. But the position ensured both survival and reunion with his family.

Many lives inflict unimaginable suffering, but for such suffering to arise as a result of striving for justice in a movement purportedly dedicated to social equity and human betterment ought to be particularly embittering. Yet some people—and Semeiko-Antelidze’s grandfather was clearly one of them—emerge from the crucible of their suffering with a generosity and goodness that one can barely comprehend except, perhaps, as an act of defiance.

This was the background that Semeiko-Antelidze brought to his adolescent discovery of the art of Aubrey Beardsley. One hardly needs to explain the appeal of Beardsley’s work to anyone, let alone a young artist. Nonetheless, Beardsley proves to have been a potent particular influence—beyond the obvious parallels in Beardsley’s curves and Semeiko’s swirls.

First, his work was western and, so, of the moment. More important, though, is the prominent place it afforded to Arthurian legend, to kings and knights and nobles, to quests and perils and prizes.

The mountains, forests and rivers of his childhood gave Semeiko-Antelidze the perfect landscape with which to vivify these images. And the dangers and trials that the world had hurled at his grandfather, and the implacable magnanimity with which he responded, afforded him an ideal model of knightly virtues. What was missing, though, was the knightly code. If communism’s treatment of his family had not been enough to debunk that code, its systematic collapse in his childhood would have been. And the mere wish to be more western was not particularly contentful: freedoms of thought, association, and expression are fine, but what thoughts and associations does one use those freedoms to express?

This codelessness is key to the foreignness of Semeiko-Antelidze’s knights. In a landscape in which they are deeply alien, where, oblivious, they carry on with quotidian activities and strange rites, what they lack is purpose and direction. Their quest is to find a quest itself.

When Tunisia’s recent election mustered a turn out of 80%, whereas ours are barely quorate, when Libya’s population fight for freedom, whereas ours riot and go loot, one cannot help but think that questless foreignness of Semeiko-Antelidze’s knights depicts something that is very close to home.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Opening night of Anatomy of an Afternoon: Nice dance, shame about the title

Anatomy of an Afternoon—Paul White’s hour of solo dance, choreographed by Martin del Amo—had me thinking throughout, not of its titular inspiration, Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, but of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed…” Except, here, the transformation is not from human into “horrible vermin” but from reptile into human.

An hour of uninterrupted movement has to be well paced, for the dancer’s sake, and Anatomy opens with gesture rather than dance: deliberately awkward placement of limbs, and then torso, then hips, then finally feet and legs. The positions are interesting enough, and lend themselves to various interpretations, garish angles that evoke birds or lizards, but could equally be the choreographer’s musings on what one might look like if dropped from buildings of various heights—from which you’ll guess that I was rather indifferent about the performance at this early stage: admirable technique, but little emotional effect.

The piece picks up as the choreography becomes more generous, leading the dancer across the stage on all fours, his body close to the ground, one leg outstretched, the other bunched near his hip; arms likewise. Evocation of a lizard is clear, well crafted and well executed. In retrospect, the opening makes more sense, evoking the inching, rippling spread of mobility from “finger” to “toe” as a cold-blooded reptile awakes. But we are still in the scene-setting phase of performance and everything veers on mime and imitation. A “plot” has yet to develop, or anything to affect the watcher (or, at least, this watcher).

This changes soon enough in what is one of the most striking moments of the performance. White is seated V-shaped, his torso and limbs floating in effortless suspension, like a sleeping child being carried to its bed. Then gradually he relaxes towards horizontal, and, as if the invisible person carrying him worries he might fall, the grip is tightened and he returns to his original, closely clutched V. This opening and closing repeats several times (“as when the heart of this flower imagines the snow carefully everywhere descending”) and delivers the very feeling of intimacy that holding a sleeping child creates.

But then, suddenly, the lizard is awake again and aware of some danger, searching, checking, alert. The dancer strips almost naked and—to my mind—the reptile has shed its skin. But what emerges from the ill-fitting shell—loose trousers and t-shirt—is a human suddenly aware of himself and the world. In the exploration of self and surrounds that follows, the disjointed angularity of the opening sequence returns as lithe force and lissom fluidity, and, in a fugue-like sequence, is even inverted, with the dancer on his head—this ought to be gimmicky, but is so naturally excrescent from, and complementary to, the dancer’s exploration of his metamorphosed body, that it creates a similar sensation to the sleeping child sequence.

Intimacy, and, indeed, tenderness and vulnerability, recur throughout Anatomy. In another sequence, reminiscent of the sleeping child, White transitions repeatedly from prone to supine, again with limbs and torso in apparent weightless. His shapes alternate between a child stretching in the womb, encapsulated and suspended, and a person falling unconscious through air or floating in water.

In places, the choreography interferes with the artistry. When the lizard is crawling across the stage, it opens its mouth and sticks out its tongue. This tipped things from mime (which I wasn’t crazy about) into pantomime. A muffled titter from the audience. Later, the newly transformed human explores his body by smelling the fingers he had just stuck in his crack. Titters, tuts, and a few guffaws, and then two couples make a dash for the door. These moments break the connection between audience and performer. White’s phenomenal artistry and physical self-mastery are able quickly to repair the rift, but removal of these moments would be an improvement.

(The early exit incident was inadvertently amusing. Just after the first couple left, White pulled down his pants completely and bent over so his arse was facing the door they’d used. He may have been executing preplanned choreography, but, by a coincidence of timing and location, he managed to moon the people who’d just given his performance the finger. Honestly, who leaves a performance because of five seconds of arse? Well, probably people who get put off by the first five minutes of micromovements and who find their excuse to quit sandwiched between White’s buttocks.)

My only real gripe is with the title. Anatomy of an Afternoon is neither anatomical nor postmeridian. You could call it Composition of a Morning or Reductive Evening without impacting on the experience at all. Which means that the title misses the mark. What it does instead is record where the choreography draws its inspiration from. Such facts about process belong with the creators’ bibliography in the program notes. The title should reflect something of where the audience is transported to, not where the artists departed from.

Precisely where the audience is transported will vary, of course, from member to member. The juxtaposition of lizard and human inevitably reminds me, a cognitive scientist, of our own reptilian brain. So a dance shared between lizard and human—sometimes angular, sometimes inverted, at other times, liquid and powerful, or floating and fragile—looks like a musing on shared inheritance, an imagining of what our natural movement might have been, if only we had evolved or developed differently. White is the perfect vehicle for the exploration and the compelling, engaging, touching result left me both humbled and uplifted.