Is there nothing solid anymore?

April 8, 2010


A constant preoccupation of mine is the dissolving of things that seem fixed and solid into things, or groups of things that are anything but that. [See these posts on the truths of dots, and philosophy of dots]  Eternal verities that turn out to be contingent conventions; precise definitions that reveal themselves as maddeningly circular; substances that are mostly void, and so on.  A few examples:

  • Matter:  seems pretty solid, but as we know from modern physics, it’s mostly empty space.
  • Self:  long after David Hume noticed the self-deception inherent in the concept, the notion is being revised under the influence of contemporary neuroscience away from a unitary, unvarying core to something more fluid.
  • Organism:  the image of a well coordinated mechanical apparatus is giving way to the notion of a living thing as a community of smaller organisms and enormous collections of cells that somehow coexist in the same space.
  • More on the disappearing self, the void, and organisms here and here.

And just what does that have to do with the two marvelous books I’ve placed at the top of this post?  Of course, for some people, standard English, the Queen’s English (note, it doesn’t even stay as the King’s English) is an immutable and well-defined path from which only the uncouth will stray.  Jack Lynch demolishes this view in his book by giving an intellectual argument why this is absurd, and then providing individual historical treatments of the never ending battle between the language idolaters and the realists,  prescriptivists and descriptivists. 

He is remarkably fair in his assessment, giving the maven worshippers of linguistic non-change their due – useless to assert that fixed standards are never useful; just try to get an executive job with a corporation by speaking like a rapper in the interview – but even those fixed standards are not fixed in time.  We try to grasp the language in its static entirety and we come up with…nothing.  Like trying to get your arms around a drifting mist.  (You can read about my own struggle with my inner language snob here)

Just as I finished Lynch’s book, I started Robb’s on the geography of France.  The first several chapters are devoted to the mind boggling linguistic diversity that was French culture up until WWI.  Like examining a block of steel at the atomic level and finding vast reaches of nothing instead of solid stuff to bang your head against, when you try to reach in and grab the French Nation, there is nothing but a stupefying mix of local patois, communes, castes, entirely separate languages, and hardly an awareness that this thing called France – What, where is it?  In Paris, you say? – exists.  What a hoot that is, to conceive of the French State, the gold standard of centralized cultural and political authoritarianism, as something of an illusion!

How different is this from other countries?  My guess is that it may be similar to the cultural history of Italy, Spain, or Germany, but certainly not most of the English-speaking world.  Didn’t England succeed in forcing it’s language pretty much over the Isles long before the 20th century, despite the tenacity of local accents and dialects?  Certainly, the royal center made its presence known by edict and sword pretty uniformly.

Intellectual effort is often seen as the striving for the general and universal over the particular and contingent.  But these two books comprise an argument for the opposite view.   What good is system building if it is based on doing violence to the facts?


Police, adjective

December 28, 2009

From Avatar, a bloated techno-marvel of contemporary cinema, to the other extreme of the film world:  Police, adjective, a Romanian movie about, well about a cop with a conscience.  I’m not going to recommend this film, although I liked it a lot, because if you see it, you may never read my blog again – it’s hard to watch at times. 

When I was in school, my friends and I sometimes played a game that I called Dictionary Madness – we would try to find definitions in Websters that were totally opaque, unhelpful, and totally dependent on other definitions that nobody knew.  Dictionaries can be that way – circular and elliptical in their “helping.”  Sort of like the Molière character who explains that opium puts one to sleep because it has a “dormative virtue.”   Ultimately, this  film hinges upon a fit of dictionary madness in which the book of words becomes an instrument of authoritarian humiliation. 

Cristi thinks he has a “conscience,” but can he properly define what that means?  Who makes the meanings of words anyway?  The users of them, or the Romanian Academy, to which his grammar school teacher wife refers during their bizarre and arcane discussions of pop songs and rhetoric?  Or is it The Boss, to whom the hapless Cristi must report, and suffer his cold, withering, and totally calm application of the dialectial method?

My wife said this was the most boring film she’d ever seen, and I can’t really argue with her.  In  all those police and detective films you’ve seen over the years where they stake out a suspect, what do they do?  They sit in a car across the street, chat, eat doughnuts,  skip through time under the knife of the editor so that we feel that time has passed, but it goes pretty quickly.  Not a bad way to earn a paycheck, eh?  Not in this one!  Nooosirrreee!!  He waits, we wait, and wait, and wait, and wait…and wait some more.  Work for a cop in a decrepit post-communist state that hasn’t quite gotten with the democracy program is pretty bleak.  And what is he waiting for?  Evidence to nail some teenagers who smoke hash on the corner.

I loved the locations – I have a taste for the shabby and ramshackle – and everything in this movie is just that.  How does an entire country live in this environment? 

The title of the movie comes from one of the definitions of “police” that they read in the climax.  It can mean:

  • noun – the people who enforce the law:  The police subdued the criminal.
  • verb – to enforce law and order: The men were ready to police the concert grounds.
  • adjective – a type of story that follows the progress of a police investigation, sometimes referred to in French as a policier – a detective story, of which, of course, the film is an example.