This is abstract and ridiculous

October 21, 2010

Draft for a Squib

Above linked is a late draft for a small paper I’m writing just to explicate my understanding of some of the theory I’ve been grappling with for my independent study this quarter. I’ll happily take notes from the peanut gallery on this– the more the merrier! Flames, etc., completely welcome on this post. Go for it.


further notes on squibs and science

October 12, 2010

Sometime before I ran away and hid in the countryside all summer, I wrote an essay about my thoughts on squibs. I announced that I was tired of separating my personal life from my academic life, as they are innately inseparable, and that I was tired of neutering my academic writing of its emotional strength. To demonstrate how I felt about this, I accompanied it with a (singularly mediocre) “Midterm about Drinking.” This was my Syntax II midterm, which combined the actual assignment with a fictional narrative framing the exploration of the topic as a demonstration of how my peers and I actually get good work done: that is to say, we get good work done over beers and with friends, through the medium of fights and drinking songs and hugs and hat-stealing and general antics. My actual analysis of the material was flawed, but I still maintain that my presentation of it was not. We do our best work when we don’t separate it from our lives, when we involve it in all conversations, when we care about it enough to bring it up at the bar, or the beach, or in bed.


That said, I’m not really going to follow that template for this next squib. This research was done sitting alone on the floor of my living-room in my crummy apartment over the pizza place on the west side of town. I did the entirety of it in boxers. I text-messaged a lot of people to consult them on basic premises of my exploration, and a lot of the responses were “…What?” I cannot synthesize a situation in which anyone especially cares to debate narratology with me in the Poet and the Patriot on a Saturday night; it is a simple fact that the people who care about this stuff are the ones at home reading on a Saturday night instead. That said, this research is not a-personal for me; where linguistics is my extroverted side, literature is my introverted side. This is the side of my research—which is in essence a different approach to the same material—that I want to do alone in bed, drinking tea and reading poetry, closing the blinds and listening to cello solos until I cry.


Let me explain, momentarily, why this is so emotional for me: the divide between res and vox and intellectus—that is, the Gap, of which I spoke earlier, between “actual” reality, linguistic reality, and mental reality—is where my absolute fear of the abyss comes in. I can approach it from either linguistics or literature; both are my attempt at a scientific, logical, rational way of finding the exact boundaries of the Gap. I don’t honestly believe they are separate disciplines, but rather separate methodological approaches to the same basic question: What in the hell is up with language? Sub-questions include Why and how does this shit work? and What is it about language that we dig so much?


To quote Jakobson (and I’m always up for a Jakobson quote– there’s a reason all my notebooks have “Mrs. Kirby Jakobson” drawn with little hearts on the inside covers): “Insistence on keeping poetics apart from linguistics is warranted only when the field of linguistics appears to be illicitly restricted, for example, when the sentence is viewed by some linguists as the highest analyzable construction, or when the scope of linguistics is confined to grammar alone or uniquely to nonsemantic questions of external form or to the inventory of denotative devices with no reference to free variations” (64). I’ll extend that, though: the insistence on division is also occasionally warranted when poetics starts relying on ex nihil or inductive arguments, where the theory defines the data, rather than the other way around.


To clarify, I am saying that both fields have flaws in their methodological approaches. Linguists can be a bit defeatist or limiting (and with excellent reason; no one knows better than a scientist how goddamn ignorant we are about the world), and (for lack of a better word) philologists can be a bit spurious or overly declarative without sufficient evidence for the arguments they postulate.


Between this, I’m sort of trapped. With the way the contemporary university is arranged, it’s extremely difficult to be both a scientist and a humanist, and there are very few of my peers who are in the equivalent situation of studying their chosen subject from two completely different angles. The only ones who come to mind are people who, like me, find themselves accidentally double-majoring in Literature and Linguistics. There seems no other discipline so awkwardly straddling the divide, and I think this is a downright shame, in a way. Should not a painter also study the physics of light? Should not a singer also study acoustics and phonetics?


No matter; I’m not completely unique, just uniquely complete. I’ll do syntax in bars and poetics under my bed, both by flashlight and with much melodrama, both without any regard for suggestions that I keep my life out of it; this is my life, and I simply could not ask for any greater or more satisfying purpose than to muck around in language forever.


linguistic entropy and me could have a bad romance

October 6, 2010

I’m working on a paper right now for my “senior seminar” independent study in literature that involves me making the head of the literature department read Chomsky. So I’ve assigned myself, in this, the task of writing a squib next week about UG as an analogy for narratology. Meanwhile, my housemate is doing some work in phonology class that leads towards (but not exactly to) OT.

So, all that plus some pumpkin ale and listening to Bad Romance over and over has led to an exciting new pet theory, which I shall now inflict on y’all: The Gaga artistic project is a realization of the asymptotic approach of poetic language towards the removal of all constraints within optimality theory.

My argument is mainly in the use of lyrics like the “ra ra ah ah ah” line (as it is typically transcribed by non-linguists), which is essentially a repetition of minimally marked phonemes (schwas and glottal stops) within a minimally marked prosodic template (heavy single syllables, and one trochee; in short, bimoraic feet). This line is not semantically void, and the phonological patterns which it takes to the extreme do color the rest of the pronunciation of the lyrics in the song. When I can talk my pet phonologists into doing so, through threats or bribes, I will show some more detailed data which demonstrate this. The point is, this kind of poetic/linguistic representation of entropy is essentially the eventual conclusion (which, since it is an asymptotic approach, no language will ever reach) of markedness constraints.

Meanwhile, I’d argue that a similar thing happens in the syntax/semantics realm with Kenji Siratori’s book Nonexistence, a book which many from my Cyberpunk class with Professor Godzich reported to be essentially gibberish and (to a bunch of literature majors) thus a little traumatizing. Originally I sort of agreed, but later found this essay on the matter, which I quite enjoyed. To extend further the idea of reading like a nonhuman entity, I would argue that this smorgasbord of synesthesic symbols comes a breakdown of the links between writing and sound, and furthermore between language and meaning. By introducing to a linguistic creature (say, a hundred lit majors) a pattern of things that resemble linguistic behavior but in fact are not language, you cause an upset. Why did no less than three students cry in Professor Godzich’s office that week, and seriously consider switching out of their literature majors altogether? Because the very foundational assumption of their field– the assumption that linguistic material signifies semantic content– was being directly challenged.

It’s that assumption that holds OT together against entropy, too: to combat the markedness constraints that should push us all into “rah rah ah ah” territory, there are faithfulness constraints which bind sound-signifiers to semantic units which they represent. You cannot, within the faithfulness constraints, stray too far from the original signifier without confusing the heck out of your listener. When, however, you strip the semantic connections, as both Gaga and Siratori do, you can get either meaningless sequences of wordlike things (Nonexistence) or you can get meaningful sequences of unwordlike things (Bad Romance).

This isn’t actually going anywhere, if you’re curious.

Um, also I think UG is neat. The end!


Another brief linguistic interlude (now with meat)

August 8, 2010

So I was eating a burger, right? I’d never had Five Guys before, so someone insisted I try it, so I was eating a burger and it was bigger than my FACE and was sort of too much for me. I said to my companion at the time:

“Augh, I am being conquered by meat!”

After giggling to ourselves like twelve-year-olds for like twenty minutes, we resume eating. Later, though, she says to me, “How’s the meat-conquering going?”

And I pause, and think about this, because I was pretty sure that the meat was conquering me, not the other way around. But she didn’t see anything wrong with the sentence she’d said, even though the reading was pretty clearly the exact opposite of what the pragmatic context would demand.

Now, I keep running into this because I still haven’t really sorted out gerunds or gerundives in a real methodical way, so I have no grammar to deal with this as of yet. However! I do know that it gets pretty weird when there’s a passive involved:

(1x) # How’s that ((you)) meat-conquering going?
[How’s that you-conquering-meat going?]

(1a) # How’s that meat-conquering ((you)) going?
(1b) * How’s that getting conquered by meat going?
(1c) * How’s that being conquered by meat going?

(1x) is the normal sense of how gerund-compounds work: the object moves to the front of the verb, and the subject is unpronounced. Other examples:

(2) Book-reading is the best path to literacy.
(3) Cigarette-smoking is terrible for your lungs.
(4) Beer-drinking makes you smell funny the next morning.

In (2)-(4), we see that the objects of the gerundicated verbs (shut up, I get to make up words when I want) all get appended to the left of those verbs. In (1), we’d assume that the pattern would go the same way.

Now, what’s really fascinating to me is that my companion opted to pronounce (1x)/(1a), and did not notice any sort of semantic error until I pointed out. (1b) and (1c) are both syntactically horrific, though, and I think it’s fascinating that a speaker will opt for a semantic error over a syntactic one. I have an inkling (not yet solid enough to be a hypothesis, even) that this will prove to be a very consistent pattern among different kinds of speakers. Keep your eyes and ears out for more of these and let me know, yes?


Syntactic methodology in rural Virginia

July 30, 2010

So it’s time for a thought experiment! I’m driving through rural Virginia. Really really rural. Really really Virginia. And there are signs here (I’ll add a picture whenever I can get one without causing an accident) that read:

(1) Stop for SCHOOLBUS loading or unloading CHILDREN.

Leaving aside the inexplicable EMPHASIS, I considered briefly the loading or unloading children phrase.

So imagine, for a moment, that I’m the DA in… what county am I in? Harrisonburg, or somesuch. Imagine also that I am faced with a man, let’s call him Joe, who is contesting a traffic ticket he got for passing a schoolbus unsafely about 100 feet after one of these signs. Joe claims that he was under the impression that he was required to stop for a schoolbus only when he was loading or unloading children.

Mind, we know logically that this is highly stupid. Most judges would just tell him that, fine him, send him to traffic school, and buy the trooper who pulled him over a beer after work. This judge, however, has a deep weakness in his heart for proving that the letter and the spirit of the law are somehow matched. So he takes me into a back room, and tells me that if I can prove that the defendent has no linguistic excuse (assuming he’s a native English speaker, and we will for the moment do just that) to have misinterpreted the sign, then he’ll take me and all my linguist buddies out for drinks after this.

Once I am appropriately motivated, I of course start in on the syntax of the sign. Now, I have not yet personally tackled gerunds/gerundives in my syntactic exploits, so I don’t totally know what to do with the [loading or unloading childred] chunk. For now, I declare it an adverbial PP, with the head [while] assumed to be silent. This fits in with both readings:

(2a) (You) stop for schoolbus (while) (it is) loading or unloading children.
(2b) (You) stop for schoolbus (while) (you are) loading or unloading children.

The defendant claims that (2b) is a reasonable reading of (1), while I must prove that syntactically (2a) is the only reasonable reading. How shall I do this? Well, PPs are quite mobile, aren’t they?

Now, in the adverbial PP above, we have the head P selecting as its complement an entire TP which just so happens to be in the present progressive. This means that somewhere in that TP, there’s a VP, and somewhere in that VP, there’s a subject to the verbs. This is, at some level, what we’re after– but more importantly, we’re after the ability to move or delete that subject, since it obviously does not appear in the surface form.

One way for me to test this would be to test a series of similar sentences that have the anaphoric structure of (2a) and (2b), to see which would be more likely to allow for the deletion of the second subject. This would provide very strong evidence in my favor: [schoolbus] is the closest noun to the deleted subject, which strongly implies that pragmatically it would be the most favorable. However, the fact that (2b) is a felicitous sentence at all suggests that this is not enough to fully prove (2a)’s dominance.

Back to the PP mobility issue. As an adverbial PP, the structure should be able to adjoin directly to the VP (stop for schoolbus) on either side. Let’s test this:

(3a) (While) (it is) loading or unloading children, (you must) stop for schoolbus.
(3b) (While) (you are) loading or unloading children, (you must) stop for schoolbus.

Interestingly, this stifles the deletability of the head P (while) and the subjects:

(4) *Loading or unloading children, stop for schoolbus.
(4x) While unloading or loading children, stop for schoolbus.

In (4), we find that we can’t delete the head P at all. If we retain it, however, we get (4x), which has a very strong (if slightly nonsensical– but that’s the defendant’s problem, not mine) reading that You is the subject of the loading/unloading. This is once again a proximity thing in terms of the anaphora: you is at that point the closest possible subject. This is some stronger evidence in favor of proximity deciding the pragmatic content of the deleted subject.

This is the tricky bit. We put the court in recess while I go find a bloody mary. (Sobriety is for those who don’t have to write about syntax.)


A Requiem for My Problem

July 28, 2010

My phone just died.

It is– was– a little brick of a phone, and lasted me something like seven years. It was my second cell phone ever.

It is called PROBLEM. This is because Professor Godzich taught a class this spring with the title “Problems,” and no further explanation in the course catalog. Some friends of mine discussed this, and it was decided that the esteemed professor would simply discuss anything he deemed to be sufficiently problematic. I labeled my phone PROBLEM as a way of testing this– the hypothesis being that it would get discussed in the class. I unfortunately hadn’t enough time in the day to take the class (Spring quarter nearly killed me as it was), but it was reported to me that my hypothesis proved incorrect. Me being a scientist, I was as pleased by proof to the negative as proof to anything else.

My phone has enabled a number of friendships that would not have otherwise existed. My dear friend Gloria and I used to talk cross-country for hours. This the phone on which I read Dorian Gray to her for two hours until she fell asleep. This is the phone on which I coordinated hundred-person parties in the woods. This is the phone that got me through high school and college. This phone has been through something like thirty states with me. This phone has been to Hawaii and Alaska.

This phone’s convenient little brick-shape is especially valuable to me, honestly. I throw it at the wall after frustrating conversations. I love slamming it shut. I drop it constantly. It’s a downright wonder it’s even lasted this long. This phone has endured sand, smoke, and snow. It tucks into my hand like a rock, like a worry-stone, and the weight of it in my hip pocket is so comforting that I have a hard time leaving the house without it.

While I know it’s time for a new one– I cannot be this far adrift in the world without a way for my parents to call me, and I guess a way for me to call the cops or whatever– I want to take a moment to seriously memorialize this item. It is an item in the world, a consistently solid piece of reality that has enabled me to bridge the gap between my world and the world of my friends, associates, family, loved ones, and annoying telemarketers for a significant part of my life. This phone is a physical representation to me of a lot of relationships, a lot of words, a lot of conversations.

Anyways, I’m totally getting one with a QWERTY keyboard today because I am going to tweet like a mofo.


two points don’t make a line in the gap

July 23, 2010

When did the Gap become all I am interested in talking or writing about? It’s sort of getting embarrassing. Ah, well, I’ll stop soon.

So, on twitter, a mild non-debate. Benladen, one of my esteemed colleagues who keeps what I consider one of the weirdest blogs ever, also known as That Guy Mark Yudof Kicked Out of Twitter for a while, posted this:

next time you think something is “beyond words” or you’re experiencing something “past language,” please fucking die you idiot


I retweeted it, which is what Ohhhlala, a good friend of mine, responded to thusly:

There are ways of communicating “beyond words.” A soft touch, a kiss, a smile, tears. And more often, those are more powerful than words.


Now, I’m in a bit of a pickle, because I mostly don’t think anyone’s an idiot, especially on this topic. But I do think there are a couple main points regarding the first tweet which need to be better articulated:

1. Language is an infinite resource. Lexicographers and English majors really don’t like hearing this, but there’s no actual rule about who has the authority to create new words and use them. Which words survive and which never get out of a circle of five assholes on a street corner is sort of up to usage and spreading patterns, but there’s no law that you have to have a PhD in Literature to be allowed to coin words. People do it all the time. Moreover, there are mathematically infinite combinations you can make with existing words, because syntax is iterative and recursive, so you can keep adding on those similes and prepositional phrases with adverbial content until you are literally blue in the face, and there’s no language cop gonna pull you over for speeding.

2. Reality is totally subjective. A bold statement, but not a new or inventive one. To be clear, I do ssssssort of believe that there is some external, objective reality off of which we all base our subjective models in our heads, but since the ones in our heads are the only ones we can prove to actually exist, we’re sort of stuck. Language is one of the mechanisms we use to try and physically realize some arbitrary symbolic code representing the reality in our skulls, so that someone else can interpret those symbols and try to piece it together in their own skull. If we ever encounter a thing, an event, or an idea that doesn’t seem to be able to be expressed in words, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any words for it, just that we don’t have words in our particular understanding of language. Also, see point 1.

Now, on the other side, some equally important points:

3. Not all communication is language. Not every tenuous bridge over that scary two-layered gap between two humans is going to be made of language. Besides the basic so-called “body language” (which has no grammar and the vocabulary of which is largely intuitive but that’s not my specialty and I’m not getting into it), there’s still music, art, dancing, throwing rocks at people… these are all ways of communicating that are not within the mathematical abstract body that we can adequately call language. Are there things in the world that can only be symbolized or actualized in the world by way of throwing rocks at someone? I actually don’t know; that level of specific abstraction makes me suspect that throwing rocks would then become semi- or at least para-linguistic. Ish. Don’t quote me on that.

4. Language is a flawed tool. As demonstrated by all sorts of wonderful people totally misunderstanding me when I try to have serious conversations over text message, language alone is obviously not enough. Actions “speak” louder than words (and I use that cliche very carefully), and there are many things that would be misconstrued or not cleanly and clearly communicated in words that are very, very easily communicated by throwing rocks.

So, uh, there. For any confusion with my weird idiosyncratic gap metaphor I refer people back to my illustration of The Gap

Edit to add: In Ben’s defense, he immediately also posted this, which I then failed to retweet because I didn’t see it. It’s possibly the most crucial point in the whole debate.