Sunday, June 30, 2013

In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent

In college I knew a young woman who had studied the languages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world and taught herself to write elvish runes. At about the same time, I used to listen to the jazz-rock fusion band, Magma, led by eccentric French musician Christian Vander.  Vander’s lyrics were incomprehensible to speakers of French or English, but they reportedly told the history and mythology of an alien planet in that planet’s language, devised by Vander or, perhaps, revealed to him through interplanetary revelation. I also read a couple of instructional texts on Esperanto, achieving no conversational competence in the language, but acquiring enough to catch some of the dialogue in Incubus, the only feature-length film shot entirely in Esperanto, starring a youthful William Shatner.
I’ve always been fond of word games. Scrabble is the only board game I really like. Composing palindromes and limericks has helped me endure sitting through many a pointless meeting. Despite my attraction to wordplay and my early brushes with invented languages, though, I’ve never tried the grandest word game of all: making up my own language. That takes more perseverance and sustained concentration than I possess, so I’ll have to be content with spectatorship in that game.
If I weren’t already interested in constructed languages, I believe I certainly would be after reading Arika Okrent’s  delightful In the World of Invented Languages. Okrent draws us into this world with an anecdote about her own introduction to it through her exposure to the Star Trek language Klingon. Then, she traces the beginnings of modern efforts at language creation in the work of seventeenth-century thinker John Wilkins and a number of his contemporaries. As she describes it, the development of a universal philosophical language was a part of the Enlightenment effort to comprehend the whole of reality, and it arguably failed because that effort is beyond human capacity.
By the nineteenth century, the goal of language creation moved from capturing reality in classifications and toward communications.  One of the most curious and fascinating attempts was Jean François Sudre’s Solresol, composed of words built out of the seven notes of the musical scale, so that one could communicate by whistling or playing a musical instrument. 
Driven by the development of comparative philology, most of the constructed languages of the nineteenth century aimed at drawing on existing, mainly European languages to devise an auxiliary tongue that could enable to communicate across national divisions. The two main rivals were Johannes Schleyer’s  Volapük and Ludwik Zamenhof’s Esperanto. In Okrent’s telling Volapük was doomed at least in part by its creator’s refusal to abandon his beloved umlauts. Esperanto, by contrast, become the most successful of all invented languages, even if it does not appear to have contributed noticeably to Zamenhof’s aim of furthering world peace. I note that the spell-check on my computer accepts “Esperanto,” but not “Volapük.” Okrent presents Esperantoland as a worldwide community of charming eccentrics and I thought, after reading her description of Esperanto gatherings, that the world is a better place just for containing such people.
With the twentieth century came the third era of language invention, consisting of individuals working at the fringes.  Okrent finds a common motivation among many of those disparate language-welders, though. This was the belief that language was less a means of reflecting reality, as their Enlightenment forbears had believed, than of distorting reality, of giving rise to what C.K. Ogden called “word magic,” the tendency to confuse words with objectively existing entities. Some twentieth-century devisers of languages tried to overcome the word magic by creating languages that supposedly expressed fundamental truths through symbols that looked like or sounded like the ideas or objects they represented. Such languages would achieve clarity and, in theory, would be universally understood.  Blissymbolics, the invention of Charles Bliss, may have been the most influential and successful of these attempts because Bliss’s symbols found a use outside of his original intention. Bliss was inspired by his misunderstanding of Chinese written characters as pictographic. I was reminded of the Pound-Fenellosa thesis in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, a fascinating little book that happens to be completely wrong.
Unlike nearly all of the other languages Okrent describes, Bliss’s symbols ended up having a practical use. They were discovered by a Canadian hospital as a way of teaching communication skills to severely disabled, deaf mute children in order to move the children toward reading and writing. Unfortunately, Bliss proved to be such a difficult person that he became the worst impediment in this application of his system.
The Whorf Hypothesis, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, gave rise to modern philosophical languages. Benjamin Whorf had claimed that languages shape thought, so that varying cultural perspectives result from linguistic structures and classifications (I tend to think that the direction of causation goes the other way). In the 1950s, James Cooke Brown developed what he thought would be an empirical test of the Whorf Hypothesis, combined with some assumptions about the affects of word magic. If one developed a language guided by logic, would this make its speakers more logical in their thinking? Brown’s Loglan was intended to be just such a logical language.  Loglan did attract some adherents, but Brown’s possessiveness and paranoia led to the breakaway logical language of Lojban. Unfortunately, logical clarity and ease of use seem to be contradictory, so that contemporary devotees mainly study Loglan and Lojban, rather than actually use them for conversation.
At the end, Okrent returns to Klingon. Let me confess, at this point, that my favorite part of the latest Star Trek movie was the scene in which Zoe Saldana, as Lt. Uhura, attempts to negotiate with a group of Klingons in their language. The most wonderful thing about the Klingon language is its sheer pointlessness.  Created by linguist Marc Okrand to give verisimilitude to a fictional group of aliens, the language includes sounds found in all earth languages, but not together. Klingon speakers are apparently not drawn by the language’s ease, because its grammar is reportedly difficult. The attractions, as I understand them, are of two sorts. First, it is a kind of a linguistic puzzle. If it has no practical use, well, neither do crossword puzzles. Second, like Tolkien’s fantasy languages, Klingon is part of a complete fictional world, in which one imagines not only the creatures in an alternative universe, but the alternative world of words that their minds inhabit. Reading Okrent’s description of her efforts to learn Klingon did not make me want to take up the study, but it did make me see the people who do so as appealing characters.
I’m putting In the World of Invented Languages on my list of favorite books.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Young People: You WILL Serve the State

President Cowen at the Aspen Institute Summit
As Tulane University President Scott Cowen enters his last year before retirement, I want to acknowledge his contributions to the university. President Cowen is a talented and charismatic individual who has worked tirelessly for the institution he has headed since 1999. Although Tulane's recovery from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina owed as much to its faculty and staff as to any administrator, President Cowen did play an important part in this recovery. My appreciation for President Cowen's work and my respect for him personally, though, do not imply agreement with all of his projects and initiatives. Among these, probably the one I disagree with most profoundly and intensely is his support for universal national service.

The university's public relations outlets are trumpeting President Cowen's participation in the 21st Century National Service Summit at Aspen, Colorado. Along with other public figures, including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, he is discussing the Aspen Institute's Franklin Project to establish a plan of action to create a national service program.  This plan aims to "link military and civilian service as two sides of one coin." It will do this by establishing five full-time national service corps. All young adults (aged 18 to 28) will be encouraged to serve at least a year in one of these corps, or in the military. The idea is to mobilize the citizenry in a unified (and regimented) system, directed by government in collaboration with educational institutions and other organizations, aimed at training people as citizens. They propose to establish this nation-wide system of regimentation through a Presidential Executive Order.

I find this a nightmarishly authoritarian image of the American future. The President will issue commands to redesign American society through a massive campaign of mobilization. Government will not be the product of freely associating citizens. Instead, government officials will organize and direct the civic training of individuals organized into corps established on the mandate of The Leader. Now, I'm not one of those accuses everyone he disagrees with of being a "fascist," but if there is any seriously considered public agenda in the United States today that comes closer to genuine fascism than the Franklin Project I haven't heard of it.

No one has to ask my permission to advocate any sort of policies. If President Cowen supports the top-down regimentation of American society,  he has every right to say so. But I do think that he should be clearer that this is only his personal view, not the official stand of his institution. On this issue, he definitely cannot speak on my behalf.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Did New Orleans School Reform "Damage" Community?

The New Orleans classroom of Jeri Hill (from the NYTimes article
Sarah Carr has an interesting article on the New Orleans school reform effort in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times. I believe she is correct in questioning whether improving schools can "fix" poverty-stricken communities. Her description of the current New Orleans school reform crusade as a "missionary pursuit" that may be unsustainable in the long run is perfect.  Both of these points echo arguments that my co-author and I make in our 2009 book Public Education: America's Social History.

Still, I think Ms. Carr is wrong in suggesting that the reform efforts in New Orleans have somehow damaged the community. In 2005, most of the city's public school children lived in low-income, single-parent families. Most of the working-age adults below the poverty level were not only out of work, but out of the labor force entirely. The violent crime rate in neighborhoods surrounding the schools was already skyrocketing. The school board was corrupt and incompetent. I cannot imagine what institutional changes could have weakened any further a community in this state.  While the civic society is probably not immediately bound for utopia, it is certainly no worse off because of charter schools and young educational missionaries.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, by Jonathan Sperber

Nearly a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the specter of Karl Marx continues to haunt our presses and blog posts. Supporters and opponents present Marxism as a modern ideology and a coherent body of thought. Jonathan Sperber's Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, argues that although Marx did intend to bring about a future different from his present, the German thinker was essentially a creature of that present. Drawing on the complete edition of the writings and Engels known by a German acronym as MEGA, a source that only became available after the end of the Cold War, Sperber maintains that Marx wrote in reaction to the events of his own day, that his thinking shifted over the decades, and that in basic assumptions Marx looked backward, in particular to the French Revolution.

This new biography is impressive for its detail and insight. Among other virtues, it provides an excellent portrait of Marx as a human being. Irascible, sarcastic, and prone to personal attacks on those with whom he disagreed, he was also a doting parent to his legitimate children and devoted husband (despite fathering an unacknowledged and neglected illegitimate son with the family servant). Dedicated to the cause of revolution, he was no bohemian, but struggled to maintain a bourgeois way of life for his family through economic hardship.

Sperber's two most valuable contributions, in my view, consist in the discussion of the role of the French Revolution in Marx's thought and in the description of the tension between Marx's Hegelianism and positivism. Until the 1851 coup d'etat of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte finished off hopes that the 1848 revolutionary movement would be a more successful and thorough repetition of 1789, Marx pinned his hopes on just such a recapitulation of history. Revolution in France would spark a continental revolutionary movement that would create unified republics in his native Germany and elsewhere, explode into another revolutionary war against reactionary Russia, and establish the rule of Jacobin terrorists. This new upheaval, though, would not lead to another Napoleon, though, but move onward to communism.

After the new Bonaparte seized power as Napoleon III, though, Marx moved away from his faith in the French Revolution as a strict model.  In The Eighteenth Brumaire, coining his famous phrase that historical events occur first as tragedy and second as farce, Marx attacked French radicals for seeing 1848 as another 1789. Sperber points out that lashing out against those who held positions that had been his own was Marx's usual way of changing his mind. Despite his abandonment of the French Revolution as the pattern for the future, though, throughout his life Marx continued to conceive of the coming uprising in terms of two stages, a liberal seizure of power followed by Jacobin radicalism. Thus, even after his rejection of the French Revolution as model for the future, Marx continued to look backward at the seminal event of the eighteenth century.

Originally an aspiring academic in Hegelian Germany, Marx saw history as progressing according to an internal logic. He famously believed that he had found Hegel standing on his head, since the master portrayed events as the working out of ideas, and put the older philosopher on his feet, by casting material relations among people within events as the driving forces of history's internal logic.  Still, Marx's theories came from deductive reasoning about the movement of history, not from inductive considerations of empirical observations. Sperber finds that Marx became more of a positivist later in his life and gave greater emphasis to economic facts and details. As a materialist, Marx was also drawn to the increasing scientism of his century. This positivism rested uneasily with Hegelian abstraction.

In particular, the tension between Marx's Hegelianism and his positivism affected his attitude toward the theories of Charles Darwin. While Marx was somewhat favorably impressed with Darwin, he was less enthusiastic about Darwinian evolution than later generations of readers have believed. Unlike many in his own time, Marx understood that Darwin offered no promise of progress: species change through adaptations to an environment. The species do not necessarily become higher or more complex. The revolutionary thinker tried to reconcile his own ideas of progressive historical stages with evolution by turning to obscure revisions of Darwinian thought. Only after Marx's death did Engels create the image of Marx as an uninhibited admirer of Darwin and as the equivalent for social thought of the founder of evolution.

Much of what we now know as Marxism began as the reformulation and codification of Marx's thought by his friend, collaborator, and supporter, Friedrich Engels.  When a mass labor movement took shape at the end of the nineteenth century, its leaders took over Engels's ordering and interpretation of Marx's vast body of work. These leaders then shaped Marxism as an ideology and a political movement.

In the last sentence, Sperber remarks that "Marx's passionately irreconcilable, uncompromising and intransigent nature has been the feature of his life that has had the deepest and most resonant appeal, and has generated the sharpest rebukes and opposition, down to the present day" (p.560). While Marx's oppositional personality did help to make him a symbol of resistance, I think those attracted to doctrines associated with him and those who have rejected those doctrines have been moved by more than the symbolism of character. Throughout his life, Marx sought to uncover a secret code that would be the key to understanding all economic and social relations. The idea that such a universal code is attainable and that it can be found in Marx's ruminations motivated Engels and subsequent adherents and interpreters. Related to this effort at discovering the theoretical key to human history, Marx attempted to reduce human interactions and relations to identifiable systems that could be replaced by other systems. Having found the secret of history, one could replace the messy reality of market transactions and pursuit of multiple group and individual interests with the ideal system of harmony and productivity. This commitment to an alternative realm, I think, is the reason that Leszek Kolakowski began his Main Currents of Marxism by deriving modern Marxist thought from ancient gnosticism. This pursuit of an another world has made Marx's work an appealing starting point for utopians. The goal of total change has also meant, though, that the tendency toward totalitarianism has been inherent to his legacy.