Wednesday, 4 July 2007

the secret pain of the hipster

For hipsters, prevailing ideas and values are not necessarily oppressive, just stupid; not necessarily worthy of anger, just ridicule. (They generally focus on cultural output from the recent past, for reasons we have yet to consider.) Thus for example hipsterism encourages its adherents to propose, in writing, on their t-shirts, to sell moustache rides for five cents, not because they intend to give anyone a moustache ride, and not even because the apposition of ‘moustache’ and ‘ride’ is seen as a source of humor. What is humorous is that in some imagined Country Comfort Lounge in Amarillo or Cheyenne a generation ago some big slab of a man actually sported a moustache of which he was proud, which he believed could function directly and un-ironically as a sexual attractant.
This from Justin E.H. Smith, who says hipsters
construct their social identity primarily in opposition to the prevailing sensibilities of the age, without however conceiving this opposition as political.
This, I think, takes me out of the running for hipsterhood for good. The only thing that annoys me more than justifying actions based on accord with prevailing sensibilities is justifying actions based on opposing prevailing sensibilities. Perhaps this is what unsettles me slighly about hipster irony, or "snarkiness." There's an insidiousness to it. Hipster irony avoids the heavy-duty destructiveness of traditional against-the-man political opposition, but it isn't exactly lighthearted. Snark is smug, and it's not constructive. It serves to point out the absurdity of the status quo, but it offers no real alternative. There is, I think, some frustration there, as in John Mayer's über-hip Waiting on the World to Change:
me and all my friends
we're all misunderstood
they say we stand for nothing and
there's no way we ever could
now we see everything that's going wrong
with the world and those who lead it
we just feel like we don't have the means
to rise above and beat it

so we keep waiting
waiting on the world to change
Step three, I'd say.

recursive (adj.) see recursive

Daniel L. Everett says recursion might not be essential to language after all. Recursion, or self-reference, plays a central role in most human languages. It gives language its incredible power and flexibility. Parmenides exploits recursion in his famous liar's paradox, "this sentence is lie." But
Pirahã culture, Everett claimed, was unique: it was totally focused on immediate experience and it lacked basic number skills, a vocabulary for colours, a past perfect tense and a creation myth.
The Pirahã, Everett says, do use recursion in their language, it's just not built into their grammar. They have to construct self-reference by telling stories in which, for example, one part is subordinate to another. The modern paradigm of linguistics was framed by Chomsky 50 years ago, amd the fundamental feature is the Universal Grammar; the biological basis for language. Disagreements in linguistics are supposed to be about determining the elements of that universal grammar, not about whether it exists (although strong arguments exist on both sides of that question as well. I always found Chomsky more reasonable, but Fodor's arguments are infuriatingly hard to dismiss. Indeed, the only thing harder than arguing against Fodor is agreeing with him). In any case, recursion is one feature of language few thought to deny.

Assuming Everett is right, what are the implications? (not for Chomsky, for

For one, Pirahã seem not to count. Mathematics is heavily recursive, to the point that an elementary exercise for computer scientists learning about recursion is to formulate the recursive rules of arithmetic--counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and (this one's tricky) division.

Pirahã are an interesting folk, and it's hard to know which (if any) of their values are related to their recursionless grammar. Everett started out as a missionary, but found it hard going trying to convince the Pirahã. This is partly because one of their strongest values is "no coercion."
When I began to tell them the stories from the Bible, they didn't have much of an impact. I wondered, was I telling the story incorrectly? Finally one Pirahã asked me one day, well, what color is Jesus? How tall is he? When did he tell you these things? And I said, well, you know, I've never seen him, I don't know what color he was, I don't know how tall he was. Well, if you have never seen him, why are you telling us this?
The Pirahã, who in some ways are the ultimate empiricists—they need evidence for every claim you make—helped me realize that I hadn't been thinking very scientifically about my own beliefs.
In striking contrast to the way we tend to think of empiricism, however,
the Pirahã are not that curious about what we have. They haven't shown interest in a number of things that other indigenous groups [have].... The Pirahã have been in regular contact for a couple of hundred years now, and they have assimilated almost nothing. It's very unusual.
Everett thinks this is because of thir focus on the immediacy of experience: they just aren't interested in things "if they don't know the history behind them."

Everett is building a case for culture making architectonic demands on language, amd it's intriguing to turn the question upon ourselves: what linguistic demands is our culture making? Supposing we undergo a cultural change, what implications might it have for language?

To connect this narrowly to my field, what has this to say about incommensurability between scientific paradigms?