The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Friday, March 24, 2006


From The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams:

Structure and meaning

‘Structuralism’ was one of the great informing notions of the second half of the twentieth century. It was a philosophical movement that had roots deep in Western thought. It has also been a diverse movement that has opened up enquiries into the relationship between the human mind and the material world. To guide us through the maze of structural approaches it is useful to distinguish between, on the one hand, ‘structural analysis’, a general method of analysis that examines the ways in which a ‘structure’, framework or mental template, of which people may not be aware, orders the ways in which they think and act, and, on the other, ‘Structuralism’ (with an upper-case S) which refers to a specific kind of structure comprising binary oppositions and mediations of those oppositions. Both kinds of structural theory can be discerned in an important eighteenth-century book.

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) was an Italian jurist and classical scholar. In 1734 he published Principii di una scienza nuova (Principles of a New Science). Impressed by the work of such natural scientists as Newton and Galileo, Vico proposed a science of human society, what today we would call ‘social science’, as opposed to the ‘natural science’ of physicists, zoologists, astronomers, chemists, and so forth.

Writing in a period of European expansion and intense interest in the ‘primitive’ people and ‘savages’ whom the explorers were encountering, Vico began by challenging the current notion that such people had a different kind of mind from ‘civilized’ people. Rather, he said, the myths and explanations that they gave for natural phenomena were not simply nonsense based on ignorance; they were ‘poetic’ or ‘metaphoric’ and not intended to be taken literally. Way ahead of his time, Vico was ignored and the notion of a ‘primitive mentality’ endured through to the beginning of the twentieth century - and beyond.

Vico was astonishingly modern, even post-modern, in another way. He argued that the human mind gives shape to the material world, and it is this shape, or coherence, that allows people to understand and relate to the world in effective ways. The world is shaped by, and in the shape of, the human mind, despite the fact that people see the world as ‘natural’ or ‘given’. In performing this task of shaping the world, humanity created itself. This being so, there must be a universal ‘language of the mind’, common to all communities. Structuring, making something coherent out of the chaos of the natural world, is the essence of being human. [pp 50-51]

I include the first paragraph more out of curiosity than anything else. I’m never sure whether this sort of complex theory, which often uses familiar words in unusual ways, requiring quite a lot of mental gear-changes on the part of the reader, is genuinely useful or merely another example of human intelligence being self-indulgent and generally too clever for its own good. (I got very frustrated at university because so much time was spent comparing the theory of Professor X to that of Professor Y, neither of which seemed to have much to do with the real world, or seemed determined to ignore the half of it that wouldn’t fit. Probably very good for maintaining academic careers, but not very educative. But then what is the real world? What is real? What is is? Ad nauseum.)

The bit that took my interest is in the last paragraph, because it chimed with this, from a paper given by Alan Garner:

‘What a piece of work is a Man? How noble in reason? That is the question. And I think that the answer may be “flint”. For a long time the dividing line between Homo and other animals was the definition of Homo as the only tool user. But many animals have been seen to use tools in order to solve problems. The important difference is that the tool is used, then abandoned after the problem is solved; whereas Homo makes a tool, and therefore has an image of its intended form before it can exist [my italics]; and after use, keeps it.’

One wonders to what degree the way in which we view the world is part of our hardwiring. Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar (if I’ve got this right) suggests that the rules of language are built into us, because there is no other way to explain how an infant manages to learn so quickly something so big and mind-bogglingly complex as a language. While in a conversation with Matthew last year, he was explaining to me how the theory of ten (possibly eleven) dimensions and infinite parallel universes manages to knit together quantum theory and relativity, and is supported by what maths we have, but is routinely rejected by scientists with such vehemence that some are beginning to wonder if we’re physically incapable of coming to terms with it.

In re-reading Garner’s speech in order to find the quote above, I found another one:

‘University teachers, from all parts of the world, tell me of their concern that the majority of colleagues concentrate primarily on the critic, then on the theory, so that the student is in danger of not seeing the importance of reading the texts that were written, but not written in order to produce theory or clothe critics.’

I suppose there’s a link here, in that one could view this as a misuse of the pre-formed image, of placing a total reliance on it, regardless of the reality it’s supposed to help us relate to. It might also explain the attraction of various forms of Buddhism, which try to suppress the human perspective in pursuit of the ideal mind ‘like a mirror’, reflecting all things, and bound by none.

Deep thoughts. On a Zen note, it’s bloomin’ cold in Embra tonight.


At 29 March 2006 at 21:37 , Blogger Yvonne said...

Someone once said that if an idea is worth expressing it can be expressed clearly and simply - not dumbing it down, not simnplifyinmg it, just exprerssing it as elegantly and clearly as possible. Considering that I managed to explain the ideas of Michel Foucault more effectively when I was drunk than a certain university lecturer could when sober - I resht my caishe, m'lud.

At 29 March 2006 at 23:37 , Blogger Joe said...

A lot of psychological research does support the view that language learning is built into us from birth (or before since we know babies react to voice and song in the womb). I remember one example one of my lecturers used which was a group of deaf children who had parents that, for some reason, didn't want them to learn sign language. The group, denied being taught sign language developed their own themselves to communicate with each other. As with all human languages, regardless of how different they seem, it shared vocabulary, grammar, tenses and representations.

It may explain why certain tales repeat forever throughout the centuries, fireside tales which become myths which in turn are re-interpreted in contemporary poetry, fiction, song and movies. Not only do certain archetypes fulfil our emotional requirements in any millennia it may be that the very structure of the lingusitic centres of our brains make them universal.

Regarding the web though, perhaps we shouldn't look for a model to constrain it - although it has much in common with other, older media it is also something quite new and evolving rapidly as more minds partake of it and change it. I agree it is unlikely to replace books (actually it has been used effectively to support authors) but with some luck the malleability of language (and medias) on the web may alter the way we view language itself and so ideas too, in the same way Bill Burroughs' ideas of cut and paste generated new ways of looking at words. Then eventually we might be able to deal with Matthew's ten dimensional beard.

At 2 April 2006 at 14:39 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Foucault's your besht mate, is he?

Isaac Asimov said that Samuel R. Delany could be clean-shaven one week, and have a face covered with mattress stuffing the next. I never believed this was possible until I met Matthew.


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