Random Thoughts on Reading Kenneally’s The First Word: The Search for the Origin of Language

Re: the first chapter, on Skinner vs. Chomsky vs. generative semanticists.

So, while Chomsky did publicly discuss the utility of language, whenever he mentioned evolutionary theory, it was mostly to discourage its value as a solution to the origins of language. He said, reasonably enough, that you can’t assume that all traits are selected for. [Certainly not! Never would I make such a claim.] In one of his most concrete statements on the topic, he wondered aloud whether a genetic mutation might have been responsible for the property of discrete infinity, which he considered fundamental to language.

I recall a debate with my ex touching this subject: he was convinced that language was necessary for our ability to think at all (as opposed to forming abstract concepts), whereas I, reading the earlier works of Antonin Artaud, was struck by his struggle to express himself at the very edge of language, and despaired of “containing my thoughts.” He wrote (translation by Susan Sontag*):

What I lack is words that correspond to each minute of my state of mind.
“But that’s normal, everyone at times is at a loss for words, you’re too hard on yourself, no one would think so to hear you, you express yourself perfectly in French, you attach too much importance to words.”
You are asses, from the intelligent to the dimwitted, from the perceptive to the obtuse, you are asses, I mean that you are dogs, I mean that you bark in the streets, that you are determined not to understand. I know myself, and that is enough for me, and that should be enough, I know myself because I watch myself, I watch Antonin Artaud.
“You know yourself, be we see you, we see very well what you are doing.”
“Yes, but you cannot see my thought.”
At each of the stages of my thinking mechanism there are gaps, halts–understand me, I do not mean in time, I mean in a certain kind of space (I know what I mean); and I do not mean a series of thoughts, I do not mean a full sequence of thoughts, I mean a SINGLE thought, only one, and an INNER thought; I do not mean one of Pascal’s thoughts, a philosopher’s thought, I mean a contorted fixation, the sclerosis of a certain state. Take that!

When I first read this, I was jolted and thought, I know what he means, too! He could sense in himself the process of his thought shaping itself, and yet without language, before language, a proto-thought; he sensed that it occupied space in his mind, attempting to create a shape for its own containment, but that failing in its form, his thought “decayed.” Other people described reading Artaud as “excruciating.” Indeed he can be (especially later, in his throes of paranoid schizophrenia; I do not assign to him the quasi-oracular status that some gave to him but recognize that he was a brilliant, but deluded and tragically ill man). However, his earlier writings on consciousness, as well as his later construction of the Theatre of Cruelty startled me because of my immediate and visceral sense that I understood him. Yes, emphatically, I am convinced that even without language it is possible to form a thought. Language takes us farther, gives our thoughts specialized content, but first the brain must erect a structure in which language can germinate.

Kenneally later says:

The more we learn about what’s going on in the heads of other animals, the more we realize that many different species have a lot to think about and their ways of thinking are quite sophisticated. Despite centuries of believing otherwise, we now know that it’s possible to have a complex inner and social life without syntax and words. Most significantly at this state of language evolution research, the overwhelming accumulation of evidence for animal cognition resets the parameters of the problem–there can be no more easy assumption about human uniqueness or the special status of our mental lives [emphasis mine].

This is not “scientism”! It is no more scientism than was the discovery that Homo sapiens sapiens belong to one race despite how we have constructed our society around our naïve view of skin and hair color. That animals pass on learned information to their young in the form of (nonfiction) stories has long been a suspicion of mine since my early teens, when I learned about evolution from Sagan and Gould. Perhaps we have the most diverse and sophisticated toolbox of language on this planet, or perhaps we have a challenger – what is the fear? What exactly are those in their humanities silos afraid of – that I would reduce Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Du Bois to a statement about the decline of western civilization, or that I wish to distill my favorite novel – indeed, not just a novel but the initiation of my seventeen-year-old self into the delights of what literature is capable of, given an unreliable and selfish but erotically attractive narrator with a incandescent wit, some artfully placed parentheses, and my ardent longing plus the frustration that Humbert should prefer her to me, the bookworm, his near-Galatea – that I, with Dawkins, Coyne, et al at my side like so many flying monkeys, would reduce Lolita to “Old Europe debauching Young America” or “Young America debauching Old Europe”? I do believe that that rubble has already bounced, and without any bombs from me.

I’ve said if before and I’ll say it again: science will triumph, not only against ignorance and superstition, but over its manipulation, distortion, and misuse (for these foster scientism) by societies, when humans conquer their bigotry toward the non-human. Animals are individuals. Studying them is not going to harm the humanities, nor our humanity. Quite the opposite.

*Recommended readings on Artaud: Selected Writings by Susan Sontag and biography by Martin Esslin


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