Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Some thoughts on language and culture

Late last year I raised the issue of accents in relation to language-learning. I was thinking about the way my French teachers had exaggerated the importance of getting the accent right (over fluency and effective communication). There was a element of snobisme in this. For example, there was a joke about one of my high school teachers (of Social Studies, not French, though he later taught in the Italian Department of my university). The cosmopolitan Mr. Lionel Lobstein was known to speak ten languages – all with the same accent. (Very funny it seemed at the time.*)

I liked the man, actually. He was charmingly awkward and wore strange, brightly-coloured woven ties (of which he clearly had a very large collection). He used to tell us about his Greek holidays which he seemed to spend sipping drinks and talking in shady, paved courtyards. The Greeks, he said, had their priorities right and valued conversation above practical household tasks and duties like mowing the lawn (or paying the bills?). There was a hint of sexist double standards in his attitudes, even a trace of misogyny, but one had the sense that he had been disappointed in love.

Getting back to the theme of language, however, we don't expect the French or other non-native English speakers to eliminate their native accents (and in fact tend to be rather disappointed if they do), so why should we try to eliminate ours?

But, of course, the goal of a 'perfect' accent was always, in classroom contexts at least, aspirational only. The actual goal was not so much to eliminate as merely to tone down or minimize the learner's inevitable (and unconscious) tendency to apply elements of the sound system of his or her native language to the language being learned.

In fact there is a lot to be said for general prescriptive standards with respect to accents and language generally (as well as for other aspects of social life) so long as they are sufficiently elastic to allow scope for a certain degree of individual variation and sensitive to wider currents of social and cultural change. Changing standards reflect a changing world.

Standards can be associated with perceived prestige and can change quite rapidly. Certainly, perceptions of the status and desirability of various British accents have changed dramatically in recent decades and the same probably applies to other languages.

But, while perceptions from within particular linguistic communities can change quickly, global perceptions shift more slowly and tend also to be associated with geopolitical and economic factors. A form of British English persisted as an international standard long after the power of the British Empire had faded. Cultural prestige, you could say, is a lagging indicator of a nation's geopolitical fortunes.

Given America's recent global dominance, it is hardly surprising that American English is currently riding high, the vast majority of learners aspiring to master American English and the accent known as General American – even if the United States is now seen in many quarters as a fading (and increasingly unloved) centre of power. And because so many non-native English speakers have in recent times learned English in school from an early age, typically using American-produced materials, their English is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish from that of Americans born and bred.

English may seem a bit like today's equivalent of Latin in medieval Europe, a universal language, but a better comparison might be with Koine Greek in the Mediterranean world circa 2000 years ago. Medieval Latin was primarily an ecclesiastical language and a language of scholarship and the law defining a pan-European cultural and scholarly elite, whereas English, while it has become the international language of science and scholarship, is perhaps even more significant (as Greek was in the Roman world) as a language of commerce and popular culture.**

Though not having to learn a second language to get on in the world can be interpreted as an advantage accruing to native English speakers, there may also be a downside for them, especially for speakers of the standard forms. Leaving aside questions of the various intrinsic and extrinsic values which are sometimes associated with bilingualism – and of course there is nothing stopping English speakers from learning another language – there is another issue which is worth noting. Namely, that native speakers of English generally, and American speakers of General American in particular, may be seen to have suffered a strange kind of cultural loss in that they no longer have 'ownership' of their own language.

They can never retreat into that familiar and intimate linguistic realm defined by common ancestry and shared culture and memories which a native language has traditionally provided.*** For them language and accent have, to a large extent, ceased to operate as a badge and guarantor of cultural identity.

Moreover, native speakers of the standard forms of English have effectively lost control of their language as it becomes the common property of – and will increasingly be shaped to meet the needs of – the many hundreds of millions of people from very different cultural backgrounds who have adopted it.

* Something similar, I later learned, was said of John von Neumann. But when one is a supreme mathematical genius the small matter of an entrenched Hungarian accent is beside the point (or even an asset perhaps).

** The enthusiasm for all things Greek in Roman times – it was fashionable to have a Greek slave to tutor your children, I understand – is another example of cultural prestige long outlasting the power and wealth of the originating nation.

*** A linguistic matrix of this kind has been a key feature of most human cultures – the bedrock, in fact – and an important driver of creativity. For example, vernaculars formed the basis of much modern European culture, and early literary works (in, for example, the Romance languages or English or German, or, later, the Slavic languages) were often seen as social and political statements, implicitly affirming the value not only of the particular language but also of its associated culture.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano, who has been awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature, is one of the very few living writers who means anything to me on a personal level. I read a few of his novels after coming across Voyage de noces by chance about fifteen years ago and being impressed by its style and atmosphere and sense of place (but I remember thinking that it would not translate well into English).

A Reuters report quoted a comment Modiano made in a television interview three years ago: "After each novel, I have the impression that I have cleared it all away. But I know I'll come back over and over again to tiny details, little things that are part of what I am... In the end, we are all determined by the place and the time in which we were born."

Funnily enough, I have recently been trying to make a list of topics that particularly interest me, and one of them is not unrelated to Modiano's recurring preoccupations.

One item on the list runs as follows: The contingent (and unrepeatable) features of any individual's upbringing – which includes as a central element a unique and ever-changing cultural matrix – raises awkward questions about values. We like to think of our core values as being, if not objective or universal, then at least as having some permanent or abiding relevance. But do they?

I was thinking here of both aesthetic and moral values, by the way. Though certain very basic moral – and even aesthetic – ideas could be seen to have universal applicability, particular patterns of moral and aesthetic commitment (involving priorities and preferences) seem far more contingent on time and place and culture.

(My previous post also touches on some of these themes.)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sentimental education

Perhaps it has got something to do with having a father who was considerably older than my mother – and who himself was regularly mistaken for someone of an even earlier generation than the one he in fact belonged to – but I have always felt more culturally connected to times previous to my own. I am drawn, for example, to the intellectual culture of the early-to-mid 20th century, and to the latter part of that period for popular culture.

As a young undergraduate, I always used to prefer the late-in-the-day tutorials scheduled for the benefit of part-time, 'mature aged' students. They came on their way home from work in the city, the men in suits, the women smartly dressed and smelling of perfume. They knew stuff I didn't know and had strong opinions about things I had never really thought or even heard about.

There was a woman in her late twenties perhaps whom I used to talk to a lot when I was in my second year. She seemed slightly old-fashioned, out of her time somehow. And it turned out that she had quite – unusual – ideas.

For she had something of an obsession with someone I had only vaguely heard of, someone who was obviously a hero for her and who represented an apparently lost but (in her eyes) glorious cause – the fascist leader, Oswald Mosley. But politics (or political history) was not something I had strong opinions about at the time, and I just took her views as one aspect of a slightly odd and intriguing personality.

Not only the student population but also the academic staff (in stark contrast to today's equivalents) reflected a variety of political and social views, from left to right to totally apolitical.

I took a course on W.B. Yeats which influenced me quite deeply. It was taught by a Hungarian who had written a dissertation at Cambridge on 18th-century English gardens and who was very much in sympathy with Yeats's fin de siècle aestheticism as well as his general political tendencies and social views.

As a young student, I was – like the typical student character in a 19th-century novel – almost drowning in Romanticism. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Emily Brontë, Gérard de Nerval, Baudelaire.

Two French novels I read around that time, Adolphe by Benjamin Constant and L'Education sentimentale by Gustave Flaubert, were each centred on a relationship between a younger man and an older woman: dark unpleasant books both of them, but strangely alluring. They and other Romantic texts coloured all my interactions and relationships (or non-relationships!) at the time.

Everything – especially everything female – was seen by me through a kind of literary lens which in retrospect I could have really done without. All that Romantic and pre-Raphaelite baggage made me quite as blind to immediate reality as (in a rather different way) the Mosleyite woman was.

In subsequent years I have come to reject just about everything associated with the Romantic movement. Except one thing, its one true – and overwhelmingly important – insight into the nature of reality: that, morally speaking, the natural world is value-free – there are no values in nature.*

The 18th-century philosophes saw themselves as science-driven and enlightened thinkers, but their deism perpetuated classical notions of a divinely guided universe. Ironically, it took the radical (and often self-consciously emotional) upheaval of the Romantic period to clear the way for a truly scientific and secular view of the world.

* Of course, I don't mean to deny that living beings have values and human beings have moral values, and that we constitute part of the natural world. But since the Romantic period it has been much harder to maintain the view that human values are somehow reflected in – or derive from – non-human realities, whether natural or supernatural. (This point – or one very like it – was made by Isaiah Berlin.)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Drama at Scientia Salon

[This is a revised account. (Sept. 11)]

A second essay of mine was published recently at Scientia Salon and it precipitated a heated discussion – or at least some dramatics and rather shrill claims and assertions on the part of one high-profile commenter* who, after an extensive and not very friendly interchange with another commenter (a British astrophysicist), announced that he would no longer be commenting at Scientia Salon.

The comment thread was closed after five days and over 300 comments.

I don't really want to write a commentary on this curious business, but I will say that I was not particularly impressed by the way 'Aravis Tarkheena' conducted himself. But others can read the essay and his reaction to it and to me and to fellow commenters and make their own assessments.

* He was writing under the pseudonym of Aravis Tarkheena, but his real identity is generally known: he teaches philosophy at a large American university.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Proposed changes

I have decided to link both of my blogs to Google Plus. The only significant change as far as current readers are concerned relates to commenting: you have to have or open a Google Plus account in order to comment apparently. Sorry about this, but Blogger minus Google Plus is an increasingly unattractive and inflexible platform.

I have also been thinking about other blogging platforms and options but will be sticking with Blogger for the present at least.

More generally, I have been thinking about topics for possible future posts and I'm putting together a short list of questions and ideas. Since most seem more appropriate for the other blog, I intend to post the list there.

I will, however, be continuing to put up new material here as well. Still have a conservative tendency I guess...

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Watching, waiting and thinking small

I haven't been posting much lately, partly because I've been preoccupied with other matters and partly because I'm a bit more uncertain these days, not about my basic values so much as how those values might relate to current political realities and options.

As I have explained in the past, my kind of conservatism is pragmatic and responsive to changing circumstances. Any intelligent strategy must be responsive in this way.

And circumstances are changing. In terms of global institutions, power relations and general culture, the post-World War II order is fading or failing and it is unclear what kind of order – or disorder – is going to take its place. One thing which is clear is that the more or less continuous economic progress which has underpinned stability in Western democracies seems to be coming to an end.

Continuing financial and economic troubles portend social and ultimately political crises in Europe and perhaps in the US and other developed countries.

As geo-political and economic realities change, political ideas must change. The basic principles and themes may remain the same but the way individuals interpret them and align themselves doesn't.

Sometimes old ideas gain new relevance, or standard assumptions are exposed as inadequate in the light of current events.

I'm not sure if the political center is shifting in Western countries or if we are simply losing that space which has allowed the center-left and the center-right to cooperate and compete and dominate the political landscape since World War II.

Nor is it clear whether the Chinese model of state capitalism or other possible alternatives to liberal democracy will continue to look viable. Corporatism seems to be making a comeback as well as various forms of economic nationalism. Patriotic protectionism is one of the key policies of many far-right Western European parties (the Front National in France, for example).

I am by nature an observer rather than a player, a political quietist rather than an activist. The distinction between watcher and participator is not a clear one, however. There is no neutral place from which one can watch history unfold; what happens inevitably has ramifying consequences, sometimes very significant consequences. And, if we are talking about epochal changes, everyone will be affected in one way or another.

Could what we are currently witnessing be described as epochal change? I think so. There is certainly a lot going on at the moment.

And, though these changes are driven more by economic realities than anything else, ideas play a part too: the crude, emotion-driven ideas that motivate ordinary people to support this or that leader, to protest or not to protest; as well as the more sophisticated ideas promoted by ideologues and intellectuals.

As I have argued elsewhere, these latter kinds of ideas – the more elaborated and intellectualized ones – are often merely post hoc rationalizations or justifications, attempts to make courses of action decided on for other reasons appear morally or intellectually respectable. But ideological structures also play an active role in recruitment and in defining and sustaining political groupings.

Ideological structures, however sophisticated they may appear, are always inadequate as models of social and political reality. They are merely useful (or dangerous) abstractions, attempts to impose some kind of value-based order on an immensely complex social and political landscape.

When we move from the personal to the political, from the particular to the general, there is always some distortion and loss of meaning. The concepts become thinner and more abstract and run the risk of losing touch with psychological and social realities altogether. At least in the social sciences quantifiable measurements are made which guarantee some kind of link to the real world (tenuous though that link all too often is).

I try to keep my orientation empirical and my main focus on the particular rather than the general, on psychology rather than on political or social theory, on cultures and customs rather than on universalizing ideologies, on particular languages rather than on language.*

In line with this way of thinking, the basic values that I cleave to manifest themselves at the level of individual experience, at smaller rather than at larger scales.

This is reality. This is where we truly live.

* Even the notion of a language is at several removes from reality. There are, of course, dialects and regional and social variations. And, as Noam Chomsky has emphasized, in the end there are only idiolects which change over time: the linguistic structures or sets of structures which each of us has internalized are in the final analysis quite individual and unique.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Time capsule

This smoke-permeated Canadian TV discussion program – an episode of CBC's Fighting Words! – was recorded in May 1960.* Paul Raymont of Philosophy, lit etc. unearthed and posted it last month. It represents the only known (to him, at least) video footage of two interesting but very different mid-century thinkers, George Grant and Max Black.** The other panelists are Toby Robins, an actress, and Michael Barkway, a newspaper editor.

I have come across Max Black's writings from time to time: his interests happen to coincide with mine at certain points, and I admire his clarity, his pragmatism and his restrained and unpretentious intellectualism. (I may have more to say about him at Language, Life and Logic sometime.)

Notice how Black, a logician at heart but one who understood limits of logic, seems to relate better to the newspaper editor than to the other philosopher. This may have more to do with general cultural background than with intellectual or ideological matters, however. Though Barkway was a clergyman's son from Yorkshire and Black was born in Azerbaijan to Russian-Jewish parents, Black's parents emigrated when Max was still an infant, ending up in England where he was raised and educated. Both Black and Barkway were graduates of Cambridge University.

Barkway lights a cigarette for Black after Black's initial cigar has mercifully (it seemed to produce an inordinate amount of smoke) run its course.

Grant is also an interesting character. He was clearly a more emotional and politically engaged thinker than Black, and his take on the nature of philosophy is also very different. He was a Canadian nationalist and 'Red Tory'. His deep religious (Christian-Platonist) and metaphysical (Hegelian) commitments informed both his politics and his view of the nature of philosophy. He doesn't mention metaphysics and only makes a brief allusion to religion in the discussion program but his strong moral views are clearly evident. He was particularly scornful of the view that charm has any importance.

Although Michael Barkway also expressed reservations about charm (seeing it as merely superficial) he clearly saw himself as a charmer. But his patronizing and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to charm the actress Toby Robins ("...all this and brains too.") put me off him somewhat.

Robins, though her political views were naïve, comes across as a very open, warm and intelligent person. She saved the program from greyness. That's what she was there for, of course.

"Toby, very nice having you, dear," says the host Nathan Cohen at the end of the program. Not quite as bad as Barkway's remark, but close.

* Reference is made to the U-2 scandal which had just played out, and which involved the downing of a U.S. U-2 spy plane in Russia. The elaborate story which the American administration put out was exposed as a complete fiction by the Soviets when they revealed that they had captured the pilot alive. This incident was a turning-point in the Cold War, leading to increased tensions.

** Both men had previously appeared on the program but whether those tapes still exist I don't know.