Tag Archives: Christine Kenneally

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; Continue reading