Category Archives: Literature and philosophy

Science, Social Thought and Point of View

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell (Wikipedia)

Author: Raphael Gamaroff
Introduction

Language, thought and culture

Conceptual similarities and differences between cultures

Interpretation

Is social thought a science?

The genetic and social origin of beliefs (about reality)

Conclusion

Bibliography

Introduction

“Every man, where he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer’s day” (Bertrand Russell, 1938). The cloud of comforting convictions that encompassed Bertrand Russell – the pacifist sceptic and one of the great philosopher’s of the twentieth century – shifted across the same sky as the mystic’s cloud of unknowing that seeks penetration into the mind of God. Russell and the mystic – and God in the eyes of the mystic – have a mind, are both persons, and both exist, i.e. occupy a “world”. Yet all three – presumably – have radically different visions, interests – and perhaps different emotional states (Sowell. 1988). The trinity of mind-person-world, is a mysterious configuration of fragmentary abstractions, without which knowledge is impossible, and with which ignorance is probable. Science in humans is a product of vision – in the case of God, of provision. The vision is the view. What is a vision, a vision of mind-person-world? How does the mind-person, who is implicated in the order of the world, construct a view of the world?

Language, thought and culture

A point of view involves three constituents: language, thought and knowledge. It is not clear which shapes which, and how much the one shapes the other. In a sense, a point of view reveals a particular culture. By culture I understand that level at which social groups [or individuals] develop distinct patterns of life, and give expressive form to their social and material life-experience. Culture is the way, the forms, in which groups [or individuals] `handle’ the raw material of their social and material existence…Culture is the distinctive shapes in which this material and social organization expresses itself.

(Clark, Hall, Jefferson, & Roberts, 1975:10).

A segment of a social network

A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are thoughts language-relative (Humboldt, 1963; Whorf, 1956)? Or are they universal?; which would mean that they are only superficially modified by the differences between languages. Is “reality” an objective entity or is it a construction: a linguistic or a social construction? What is the relationship between the individual, society-culture and (the physical) environment with regard to language, thought and knowledge? Whorf’s well-known example comes to mind of the Hopi Indian‘s view of time and space being determined by the structure of the Hopi verb system. This example, even if it is claimed to be slender evidence for linguistic relativism, would be, according to Code (1980:251) strong evidence for linguistic relativism, because the way one views time and space has a determining effect on the rest of one’s experience . Pinker’s view (1995:63) is that Whorf’s “outlandish claims” is a product of bad analysis and “leanings towards mysticism”.

According to Jerison (1986:8), the early evolution of language had little to do with communication, because it is not communication that requires a large brain, but thinking about what to communicate. This is not only true of early man (both genders), but of modern man as well. This fact is not well understood in the language teaching profession where the main emphasis is on communication – the product. The product, however, is only the final stage of a long process of thinking about what one wants to communicate.

Conceptual similarities and differences between cultures

The higher one climbs up the conceptual ladder of abstraction, that is,  the more one moves way from bread-and-butter thoughts, the greater the difference between conceptual systems. These differences may exist not only between groups or individuals sharing very different languages (linguistic codes), but more importantly, also between groups or individuals sharing the same languages. Groups may be of a sociocultural nature or an interest-group such as a profession, e.g. science. But there must also exist conceptual commonalities between different languages as diverse as English and Japanese and Gujarati. If this were not so, there would be no explanation for the fact that the sciences are highly developed in America, Japan and India. The language of the sciences cross many cultural, environmental and linguistic boundaries.

Interpretation

Interpretation occupies a large part of mind activity. In any interpretation there are two key moments that comprise its equilibrium: Who/what is being interpreted (the object) and who is doing the interpretation (the subject). An important empirical problem is establishing valid and reliable criteria of interpretation. Interpreters (i.e. researchers and evaluators) are by definition subjective because they are time-space/relational beings concretised in a diversity of sociobiological configurations, which mean that they (can only) see from a particular point of view. One persuades another of one’s point of view, one negotiates one’s point of view, one creates one’s point of view, one reflects on one’s point of view, one resists another’s point of view. Everybody who listens, speaks, reads or writes, filters everything through a point of view, through a theoretical perspective. To this perspective the scientist adds a methodological orientation based on the chosen theoretical perspective

Is social thought a science?

Among scientists there are many different and theoretical perspectives and methodological orientations, which produce – as in the arts and religion – a multiplicity of expressive systems (“discourses”). By discourses I mean “ideologically determined ways of talking or writing about persons, places, events or phenomena.” (Wallace, 1992:68). Each person’s discourse is the product of a variety of different beliefs and experiences, and owing to our human nature “we should not be surprised to find that each side necessarily misreads and misrepresents the other side in order to reconstitute its own position” (Blundell, Shepherd & Taylor, 1993:26). Blundell et al. are speaking in the context of cultural studies, but the implied reference is to researchers in general, who all work within a cultural framework.

An important question in the social/human sciences is whether social science is a science. Choosing a scientific point of view – whether in, say, physics (a “hard ” science) or in, say, sociology ( a “human” science) may have less to do with science than with philosophy: the philosophy of beliefs, values and social practices (i.e. a world view) rather than with philosophical theories of knowledge and existence. Whether the domain of study be art, religion, physical science, psychology, social work or linguistics, it is the “paradigm [that] determines the identification and interpretation of “empirical evidence” [or of any other kind of evidence or experience] in a given discipline (Bizzell, 1979:764; my square brackets).

In the “Standard Social Science Model” (Pinker, 1995:23) the “human psyche [of which language is a part – brackets added] is molded by the surrounding culture.” This “soviet” approach became popular in America and Britain through the translations of writers such as Vygotsy and Luria, whose social practice is referred to in the “West” as a “social constructivist perspective” that envisages individual’s abilities not as a product of individual cognitive processes, but as a construction resulting from an individual’s interaction and immersion in society.

One’s penchant towards biological forces (Piaget and Chomsky) or social forces (Vygotsky) as the primary influence in social practice has far-reaching effects on the rest of one’s Weltensicht. The “social construction of reality” view is not at all solely of soviet inspiration . The West has always had its own clutch of Deweys and Durkheims.

The genetic and social origin of beliefs (about reality)

We are born with many of our beliefs, because they are one of the varieties of “cognitive adaptations” (Jerison, 1986:7). And,

(h)uman beings have all sorts of beliefs [whether they be physicists, philosophers. applied linguistics; to mention only the academic domain]. The way in which they arrive at them varies from reasoned argument to blind faith. Some beliefs are based on personal experience, others on education, and others on indoctrinations. Many beliefs are no doubt innate: we are born with them as a result of evolutionary factors. Some beliefs we feel we can justify, others we hold because of “gut feelings”.

Davies (1993:19; my brackets)

Pinker (1995:128) puts even more emphasis on the genetic origin of beliefs:

Not only are very general traits like IQ, extroversion, and neuroticism partly heritable, but so are specific ones like degree of religious feeling, vocational interests, and opinions about death penalty, disarmament, and computer music.

The aim of cultural studies, applied psychology and education is to change people – for the better; thus the kind of theoretical perspective and methodological orientation is often chosen in terms of the changes one would like to see. It remains a valid principle in science that one should always be aware of the limitations of one’s own paradigm. Bizzell (1979:766) points out that Kuhn is “acutely alive to the limitations imposed by a paradigm, limitations that may not only restrict free inquiry, but vitiate the social usefulness of the discipline.” In Kuhn’s words,

one of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions. To a great extent these are the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or encourage its members to undertake. Other problems, including many that had previously been standard are rejected as metaphysical, as the concern of another discipline, or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time…One of the reasons why normal science seems to progress so rapidly is that its practitioners concentrate on problems that only their own lack of ingenuity should keep them from solving.

(Kuhn, 1970:37, quoted in Bizzell, 1979:766)

The theory and data of the social sciences are basically concerned with the person-in-the-world. Trying to understand the nature of the relationship between the world and the person is “one of the more exasperating and contentious of all humanistic concerns, [namely] the proper nature of the relationship between the individual and society (or the state, culture, or community)” (Cuzzort and King, 1995:129). It is the person’s mind, specifically mental- processes- in-the-world, that I want to focus on now.

Luria (1976:3) emphasises the social and historical origin of mental processes: “It seems surprising that the science of psychology has avoided the idea that mental processes are social and historical in origin. And Vygotsky (1978:57) in a similar vein: “The internalisation of socially rooted and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature of human psychology, the basis of the qualitative leap from animal to human psychology.”

Bhaskar (1979:45-46) attributes an even more peremptory role to society:

The model of the society/person connection I am proposing could be summarised as follows: People do not create society. For it always preexists them and is a necessary condition for their activity. Rather, society must be regarded as an ensemble of structures, practices and conventions which individuals reproduce and transform, but which would not exist unless they did so.

Bhaskar’s individual is having his society and eating it: on the one hand, society always preexists the individual, but society would not exist if humans did not reproduce and transform it. This seems to mean that a thing (society) only exists if it is reproduced and transformed, but the thing (the individual) that transforms and produces it always post-exists it. This is at best a conundrum.

In contrast to Luria, Vygotsky and Bhaskar, Popper’s (1965) “natural science” view is that there “is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life” i.e. a fertile plurality of self-constituted principles. Popper’s natural science point of view is also a theoretical construction existing within the fertile plurality of other theoretical constructions such as those of historical meanings. This means that there can be no self-constituted principle, because all principles (or hypotheses) are rooted in the contingency of history. But this does not imply that society preexists the individual, but only that society is produced, reproduced and transformed by individuals and that individuals are, in turn, transformed by society into “social actors” (Miller, 1984:12-14).

In contemporary sociology, linguistics and education in the English-speaking world, there is an inordinate emphasis on social development, which consequently results in the neglect of the natural (i.e. biomental) realities of human development (Bickerton, 1981, 1990; Brown, 1991) Biomental mechanisms – I am thinking specifically of language and thought – are not only the roots of discourse; these biomental mechanisms ramify into the very branches of discourse. Thus it would be incorrect to maintain that “the use of signs leads humans to a specific structure of behaviour that breaks away from biological development and creates new forms of a culturally-based psychological process” (Vygotsky, 1978). The reality of higher cognitive processes is much more than social in origin. To adumbrate:

Reality cannot be reduced to (academic) disciplines. A panoramic picture of realities is provided by William James’ “sub-universes” (Bolton 1977:43):

1. The world of sense, of physical things, as we apprehend them.

2. The world of science, of physical things, as the learned conceive them.

3. The world of ideal relations and abstract truths believable by all – logical mathematical, ethical, metaphysical propositions.

4. The world of “idols of the tribe”, illusions or prejudices common to all.

5. The various supernatural worlds.

6. The various worlds of individual opinion.

7. The various (and numerous) worlds of “sheer madness”.

Each person creates his/her own picture of “reality”, which is the closest one can get to reality. In any one of the seven sub-universes above (and obviously in the seventh one) can be found “sheer madness”, depending on the “perspective” of the viewer who usually claims to be sane. (Lee, 1992:198) uses Discourse with a capital D and “perspective” interchangeably.

These multitudinous realities, because they are sown into the fibre of our being are “concrete”. Thus there exist a “multitude of concrete worlds” within an “abstractly unitary national language.” Bakhtin (1981:288). What we should know about these “concrete worlds” is more than the social, cultural and linguistic forces that play a role in fashioning them. It is also the relation between the “biological bases of behaviour and the social conditions in and through which human activity takes place” (Cole et al. in Vygotsky 1978:124) that should interest us as well. We should know about “mind in society” (Vygotsky 1978), but also about society in mind; or more correctly – owing to our ignorance of what is brain, what is mind – the brainmind in society and society in the brainmind.

Scientists search for (ever deeper) causes. All causes involve a transfer of energy. Thus science is regressionist and reductionist by nature, for there is no other way to know anything unless to analyse it, i.e. break it up (or down) into simpler bits. On the other hand, it is impossible to know how human beings function unless we also take into account sociohistorical influences. However, as Boyden (1987:v) points out, “a serious flaw in the historical approach [of human society, e.g. Toynbee, Marx]…lies in the fact that it takes far too little account of the biological components of the societal system with which it is concerned.” (My square brackets).

The relationship between genes and culture/history is not only extremely interesting, it is of central importance in the human sciences. The conclusions we reach on this matter and act upon, will have profound implications. Those who are opposed to the emphasis on biology in education and development can take comfort in the fact that human reasoning is limited. And thus it is safe to maintain that biology’s preeminent role in human culture is a matter of conjecture. Nevertheless, even though

it has not been possible to solve the more interesting empirical questions definitively: Is an explicit theory of the mechanisms of cultural evolution necessary? And, if so, what exactly should it be like? However, a deductive theory which clearly sets out the logical relationships between and cultural evolution does advance out understanding of such problems by more clearly showing what is at issue in controversies, such as those between human sociobiologists and their critics, which otherwise appear to be the result of irreconcilable “philosophical” differences.

(Boyd & Richerson, 1985:18)

Conclusion

Ultimately, choosing a specific conception of language development or of “reality”, specifically of the individual in society, is to a large extent a philosophical exercise which is based on value judgments. “Models of psychological reality cannot be proven right or wrong, correct or incorrect, by any objective criterion.” (Hillner, 1985). Some rational decisions have to be made, but these decisions are enmeshed in “all sorts of subjective and idiosyncratic considerations” (Hillner, 1985). Thus it is questionable whether “[t]here is only one way of seeing one’s own spectacles clearly: that is to take them off. It is impossible to focus both on them and through them at the same time” ( Campbell, 1985:19-20). It would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate the spectacles from the eye, which is why “I” see through a glass darkly, i.e. there is much subjectivity in science, of the “human” as well as of the “hard” kind. Theories are subjective expressions., and often it is the data that are driven by the theory rather than the other way round. To establish anything empirically without a theory to “drive” the data seems impossible. Theory , although tempered by the data, remains underdetermined by the data.

Cognitive psychologists theorise about “the events that causally mediate the production of intelligent behaviour” (Fodor 1975:9). These theories may be wrong, or it is possible that mental processes that mediate the production of behaviour are too complicated to understand. If we do carry on theorising in the hope of finding answers then mental events should not be reduced to behaviourial events. This is not to deny that mental events may turn out to be physiological events. The problem is finding a sophisticated enough vocabulary of physiology to explain these physiological events. Thus the ontological status of mental states could be physiological, but the epistemological status would have to be more, because another vocabulary is required to explain these events. Would the vocabulary of psychology be sufficient to represent our concepts? Concept formation feeds upon different kinds of realities (fear, love, enjoyment, knowledge, the struggle for survival). The problem is how to view and accordingly live these realities as a coherent happy whole.

Bibliography

Bakhtin, M.M. 1981. The dialogic imagination. Austin. University of Texas Press.

Bhaskar, R. 1979. The possibility of naturalism. Brighton: Harvester.

Bizzell, P. 1979. College English, 40(7):764-771.

Bickerton, D. 1981. Roots of language. Ann Arbor: Karoma Publishers, Inc.

Bickerton, D. 1990. Language & species. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Boyd, R. and Richerson, P.J. 1985. Culture and the evolutionary process. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Boyden, S. 1987. Western civilization in a biological perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Blundell, V., Shepherd, J., Taylor, I. 1993. Relocating cultural studies: Developments in theory and rsearch. PLACE: PUBLISHER

Bolton, N. 1977. Concept formation. Oxford. Pergamon Press.

Brown, D.E. 1991.Human universals. Philadelphia. Temple University Press.

Campbell, C.M. 1985.Learning and development. An investigation of a neo-Piagetian theory of cognitive growth. Unpublished Master of Arts thesis, University of Natal, Durban.

Clark, J., Hall, S., Jefferson, T. and Roberts, B. 1975. Subcultures, culture and class: a theoretical overview . Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 7/8:9-74.]

Code, L. 1980. Language and knowledge. Word, 31(3):245-58.

Cuzzort, R.P. and King. 1995. Life as a con game: The dramatic vision of Erving Goffman. In Cuzzort, R.P. and King, E.W. 1995. Twentieth-Century social thought (5th Edition): Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Davies, P. 1993. The mind of God: Science and the search for ultimate meaning. London. Penguin Books.

Fodor, J.A. 1975. The language of thought. Hassocks, Sussex. The Harvester press.

Hillner. K. 1985. Psychological reality. Amsterdam: North-Holland.

Humboldt, W. von. 1963. Man’s intrinsic humanity: His language. In Humboldt, W. von. Humanist without portfolio: An Anthology of the writings of Wlihelm von Humboldt. Tr. Marianne Cowan. Detrot: Wayne State University Press.

Jensen, A.R.1972.Genetics and education. London: Methuen & Co Ltd.

Jensen, A.R. 1973. Educational differences. London: Methuen.

Jerison, H.J. (ed.). 1986. Evolutionary biology of intelligence:The nature of the problem’ in Jerison, H.J., and Jerison, I. (ed.). Intelligence and evolutionary biology. New York. Springer- Verlag.

Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions. 2nd Edition. Chicago. Unviersity of Chicago Press.

Lee, D. 1992. Competing discourses: Perspective and ideology in language. London. Longman.

Luria, A.R. 1976. Cognitive development: Its cultural and social foundations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Miller, R. 1984. Reflections of mind and culture. Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press.

Pinker, S. 1995. The language instinct. London/New York. Penguin Books.

Popper. K. 1965. The open society and its enemies. Volume 2. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Russell, B. 1938. Sceptical essays. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Sowell, T. 1988. A conflict of visions. New Delhi: Affiliated East-West Press Pvt Ltd.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. (Edited by Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner and Ellen Souberman). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Wallace, C. 1992. Critical literacy awareness in the EFL classroom. In: Fairclough, N. (ed.). Critical language awareness. London: Longman.

Whorf, B.L. 1956. Language, thought and reality (edited by Carroll, J.B.). New York: Wiley.

Science, Social Thought and Point of ViewUnpublished articleIntroduction

Language, thought and culture

Conceptual similarities and differences between cultures

Interpretation

Is social thought a science?

The genetic and social origin of beliefs (about reality)

Conclusion

Bibliography

Introduction

“Every man, where he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer’s day” (Bertrand Russell, 1938). The cloud of comforting convictions that encompassed Bertrand Russell – the pacifist sceptic and one of the great philosopher’s of the twentieth century – shifted across the same sky as the mystic’s cloud of unknowing that seeks penetration into the mind of God. Russell and the mystic – and God in the eyes of the mystic – have a mind, are both persons, and both exist, i.e. occupy a “world”. Yet all three – presumably – have radically different visions, interests – and perhaps different emotional states (Sowell. 1988). The trinity of mind-person-world, is a mysterious configuration of fragmentary abstractions, without which knowledge is impossible, and with which ignorance is probable. Science in humans is a product of vision – in the case of God, of provision. The vision is the view. What is a vision, a vision of mind-person-world? How does the mind-person, who is implicated in the order of the world, construct a view of the world?

Language, thought and culture

A point of view involves three constituents: language, thought and knowledge. It is not clear which shapes which, and how much the one shapes the other. In a sense, a point of view reveals a particular culture. By culture I understand

that level at which social groups [or individuals] develop distinct patterns of life, and give expressive form to their social and material life-experience. Culture is the way, the forms, in which groups [or individuals] `handle’ the raw material of their social and material existence…Culture is the distinctive shapes in which this material and social organization expresses itself.

(Clark, Hall, Jefferson, & Roberts, 1975:10).

Are thoughts language-relative (Humboldt, 1963; Whorf, 1956)? Or are they universal?; which would mean that they are only superficially modified by the differences between languages. Is “reality” an objective entity or is it a construction: a linguistic or a social construction? What is the relationship between the individual, society-culture and (the physical) environment with regard to language, thought and knowledge? Whorf’s well-known example comes to mind of the Hopi Indian’s view of time and space being determined by the structure of the Hopi verb system. This example, even if it is claimed to be slender evidence for linguistic relativism, would be, according to Code (1980:251) strong evidence for linguistic relativism, because the way one views time and space has a determining effect on the rest of one’s experience . Pinker’s view (1995:63) is that Whorf’s “outlandish claims” is a product of bad analysis and “leanings towards mysticism”.

According to Jerison (1986:8), the early evolution of language had little to do with communication, because it is not communication that requires a large brain, but thinking about what to communicate. This is not only true of early man (both genders), but of modern man as well. This fact is not well understood in the language teaching profession where the main emphasis is on communication – the product. The product, however, is only the final stage of a long process of thinking about what one wants to communicate.

Conceptual similarities and differences between cultures

The higher one climbs up the conceptual ladder of abstraction, that is,  the more one moves way from bread-and-butter thoughts, the greater the difference between conceptual systems. These differences may exist not only between groups or individuals sharing very different languages (linguistic codes), but more importantly, also between groups or individuals sharing the same languages. Groups may be of a sociocultural nature or an interest-group such as a profession, e.g. science. But there must also exist conceptual commonalities between different languages as diverse as English and Japanese and Gujarati. If this were not so, there would be no explanation for the fact that the sciences are highly developed in America, Japan and India. The language of the sciences cross many cultural, environmental and linguistic boundaries.

Interpretation

Interpretation occupies a large part of mind activity. In any interpretation there are two key moments that comprise its equilibrium: Who/what is being interpreted (the object) and who is doing the interpretation (the subject). An important empirical problem is establishing valid and reliable criteria of interpretation. Interpreters (i.e. researchers and evaluators) are by definition subjective because they are time-space/relational beings concretised in a diversity of sociobiological configurations, which mean that they (can only) see from a particular point of view. One persuades another of one’s point of view, one negotiates one’s point of view, one creates one’s point of view, one reflects on one’s point of view, one resists another’s point of view. Everybody who listens, speaks, reads or writes, filters everything through a point of view, through a theoretical perspective. To this perspective the scientist adds a methodological orientation based on the chosen theoretical perspective

Is social thought a science?

Among scientists there are many different and theoretical perspectives and methodological orientations, which produce – as in the arts and religion – a multiplicity of expressive systems (“discourses”). By discourses I mean “ideologically determined ways of talking or writing about persons, places, events or phenomena.” (Wallace, 1992:68). Each person’s discourse is the product of a variety of different beliefs and experiences, and owing to our human nature “we should not be surprised to find that each side necessarily misreads and misrepresents the other side in order to reconstitute its own position” (Blundell, Shepherd & Taylor, 1993:26). Blundell et al. are speaking in the context of cultural studies, but the implied reference is to researchers in general, who all work within a cultural framework.

An important question in the social/human sciences is whether social science is a science. Choosing a scientific point of view – whether in, say, physics (a “hard ” science) or in, say, sociology ( a “human” science) may have less to do with science than with philosophy: the philosophy of beliefs, values and social practices (i.e. a world view) rather than with philosophical theories of knowledge and existence. Whether the domain of study be art, religion, physical science, psychology, social work or linguistics, it is the “paradigm [that] determines the identification and interpretation of “empirical evidence” [or of any other kind of evidence or experience] in a given discipline (Bizzell, 1979:764; my square brackets).

In the “Standard Social Science Model” (Pinker, 1995:23) the “human psyche [of which language is a part – brackets added] is molded by the surrounding culture.” This “soviet” approach became popular in America and Britain through the translations of writers such as Vygotsy and Luria, whose social practice is referred to in the “West” as a “social constructivist perspective” that envisages individual’s abilities not as a product of individual cognitive processes, but as a construction resulting from an individual’s interaction and immersion in society.

One’s penchant towards biological forces (Piaget and Chomsky) or social forces (Vygotsky) as the primary influence in social practice has far-reaching effects on the rest of one’s Weltensicht. The “social construction of reality” view is not at all solely of soviet inspiration . The West has always had its own clutch of Deweys and Durkheims.

The genetic and social origin of beliefs (about reality)

We are born with many of our beliefs, because they are one of the varieties of “cognitive adaptations” (Jerison, 1986:7). And,

(h)uman beings have all sorts of beliefs [whether they be physicists, philosophers. applied linguistics; to mention only the academic domain]. The way in which they arrive at them varies from reasoned argument to blind faith. Some beliefs are based on personal experience, others on education, and others on indoctrinations. Many beliefs are no doubt innate: we are born with them as a result of evolutionary factors. Some beliefs we feel we can justify, others we hold because of “gut feelings”.

Davies (1993:19; my brackets)

Pinker (1995:128) puts even more emphasis on the genetic origin of beliefs:

Not only are very general traits like IQ, extroversion, and neuroticism partly heritable, but so are specific ones like degree of religious feeling, vocational interests, and opinions about death penalty, disarmament, and computer music.

The aim of cultural studies, applied psychology and education is to change people – for the better; thus the kind of theoretical perspective and methodological orientation is often chosen in terms of the changes one would like to see. It remains a valid principle in science that one should always be aware of the limitations of one’s own paradigm. Bizzell (1979:766) points out that Kuhn is “acutely alive to the limitations imposed by a paradigm, limitations that may not only restrict free inquiry, but vitiate the social usefulness of the discipline.” In Kuhn’s words,

one of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while the paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have solutions. To a great extent these are the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or encourage its members to undertake. Other problems, including many that had previously been standard are rejected as metaphysical, as the concern of another discipline, or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time…One of the reasons why normal science seems to progress so rapidly is that its practitioners concentrate on problems that only their own lack of ingenuity should keep them from solving.

(Kuhn, 1970:37, quoted in Bizzell, 1979:766)

The theory and data of the social sciences are basically concerned with the person-in-the-world. Trying to understand the nature of the relationship between the world and the person is “one of the more exasperating and contentious of all humanistic concerns, [namely] the proper nature of the relationship between the individual and society (or the state, culture, or community)” (Cuzzort and King, 1995:129). It is the person’s mind, specifically mental- processes- in-the-world, that I want to focus on now.

Luria (1976:3) emphasises the social and historical origin of mental processes: “It seems surprising that the science of psychology has avoided the idea that mental processes are social and historical in origin. And Vygotsky (1978:57) in a similar vein: “The internalisation of socially rooted and historically developed activities is the distinguishing feature of human psychology, the basis of the qualitative leap from animal to human psychology.”

Bhaskar (1979:45-46) attributes an even more peremptory role to society:

The model of the society/person connection I am proposing could be summarised as follows: People do not create society. For it always preexists them and is a necessary condition for their activity. Rather, society must be regarded as an ensemble of structures, practices and conventions which individuals reproduce and transform, but which would not exist unless they did so.

Bhaskar’s individual is having his society and eating it: on the one hand, society always preexists the individual, but society would not exist if humans did not reproduce and transform it. This seems to mean that a thing (society) only exists if it is reproduced and transformed, but the thing (the individual) that transforms and produces it always post-exists it. This is at best a conundrum.

In contrast to Luria, Vygotsky and Bhaskar, Popper’s (1965) “natural science” view is that there “is no history of mankind, there is only an indefinite number of histories of all kinds of aspects of human life” i.e. a fertile plurality of self-constituted principles. Popper’s natural science point of view is also a theoretical construction existing within the fertile plurality of other theoretical constructions such as those of historical meanings. This means that there can be no self-constituted principle, because all principles (or hypotheses) are rooted in the contingency of history. But this does not imply that society preexists the individual, but only that society is produced, reproduced and transformed by individuals and that individuals are, in turn, transformed by society into “social actors” (Miller, 1984:12-14).

In contemporary sociology, linguistics and education in the English-speaking world, there is an inordinate emphasis on social development, which consequently results in the neglect of the natural (i.e. biomental) realities of human development (Bickerton, 1981, 1990; Brown, 1991) Biomental mechanisms – I am thinking specifically of language and thought – are not only the roots of discourse; these biomental mechanisms ramify into the very branches of discourse. Thus it would be incorrect to maintain that “the use of signs leads humans to a specific structure of behaviour that breaks away from biological development and creates new forms of a culturally-based psychological process” (Vygotsky, 1978). The reality of higher cognitive processes is much more than social in origin. To adumbrate:

Reality cannot be reduced to (academic) disciplines. A panoramic picture of realities is provided by William James’ “sub-universes” (Bolton 1977:43):

1. The world of sense, of physical things, as we apprehend them.

2. The world of science, of physical things, as the learned conceive them.

3. The world of ideal relations and abstract truths believable by all – logical mathematical, ethical, metaphysical propositions.

4. The world of “idols of the tribe”, illusions or prejudices common to all.

5. The various supernatural worlds.

6. The various worlds of individual opinion.

7. The various (and numerous) worlds of “sheer madness”.

Each person creates his/her own picture of “reality”, which is the closest one can get to reality. In any one of the seven sub-universes above (and obviously in the seventh one) can be found “sheer madness”, depending on the “perspective” of the viewer who usually claims to be sane. (Lee, 1992:198) uses Discourse with a capital D and “perspective” interchangeably.

These multitudinous realities, because they are sown into the fibre of our being are “concrete”. Thus there exist a “multitude of concrete worlds” within an “abstractly unitary national language.” Bakhtin (1981:288). What we should know about these “concrete worlds” is more than the social, cultural and linguistic forces that play a role in fashioning them. It is also the relation between the “biological bases of behaviour and the social conditions in and through which human activity takes place” (Cole et al. in Vygotsky 1978:124) that should interest us as well. We should know about “mind in society” (Vygotsky 1978), but also about society in mind; or more correctly – owing to our ignorance of what is brain, what is mind – the brainmind in society and society in the brainmind.

Scientists search for (ever deeper) causes. All causes involve a transfer of energy. Thus science is regressionist and reductionist by nature, for there is no other way to know anything unless to analyse it, i.e. break it up (or down) into simpler bits. On the other hand, it is impossible to know how human beings function unless we also take into account sociohistorical influences. However, as Boyden (1987:v) points out, “a serious flaw in the historical approach [of human society, e.g. Toynbee, Marx]…lies in the fact that it takes far too little account of the biological components of the societal system with which it is concerned.” (My square brackets).

The relationship between genes and culture/history is not only extremely interesting, it is of central importance in the human sciences. The conclusions we reach on this matter and act upon, will have profound implications. Those who are opposed to the emphasis on biology in education and development can take comfort in the fact that human reasoning is limited. And thus it is safe to maintain that biology’s preeminent role in human culture is a matter of conjecture. Nevertheless, even though

it has not been possible to solve the more interesting empirical questions definitively: Is an explicit theory of the mechanisms of cultural evolution necessary? And, if so, what exactly should it be like? However, a deductive theory which clearly sets out the logical relationships between and cultural evolution does advance out understanding of such problems by more clearly showing what is at issue in controversies, such as those between human sociobiologists and their critics, which otherwise appear to be the result of irreconcilable “philosophical” differences.

(Boyd & Richerson, 1985:18)

Conclusion

Ultimately, choosing a specific conception of language development or of “reality”, specifically of the individual in society, is to a large extent a philosophical exercise which is based on value judgments. “Models of psychological reality cannot be proven right or wrong, correct or incorrect, by any objective criterion.” (Hillner, 1985). Some rational decisions have to be made, but these decisions are enmeshed in “all sorts of subjective and idiosyncratic considerations” (Hillner, 1985). Thus it is questionable whether “[t]here is only one way of seeing one’s own spectacles clearly: that is to take them off. It is impossible to focus both on them and through them at the same time” ( Campbell, 1985:19-20). It would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate the spectacles from the eye, which is why “I” see through a glass darkly, i.e. there is much subjectivity in science, of the “human” as well as of the “hard” kind. Theories are subjective expressions., and often it is the data that are driven by the theory rather than the other way round. To establish anything empirically without a theory to “drive” the data seems impossible. Theory , although tempered by the data, remains underdetermined by the data.

Cognitive psychologists theorise about “the events that causally mediate the production of intelligent behaviour” (Fodor 1975:9). These theories may be wrong, or it is possible that mental processes that mediate the production of behaviour are too complicated to understand. If we do carry on theorising in the hope of finding answers then mental events should not be reduced to behaviourial events. This is not to deny that mental events may turn out to be physiological events. The problem is finding a sophisticated enough vocabulary of physiology to explain these physiological events. Thus the ontological status of mental states could be physiological, but the epistemological status would have to be more, because another vocabulary is required to explain these events. Would the vocabulary of psychology be sufficient to represent our concepts? Concept formation feeds upon different kinds of realities (fear, love, enjoyment, knowledge, the struggle for survival). The problem is how to view and accordingly live these realities as a coherent happy whole.

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Babel: Can Derrida’s Tour (Surprisingly) Translate Us Anywhere?

See related post The Deconstruction of Messiah: Always Arriving Always Departing.

Journal of Literary Studies, 13 (3/4), 397-415, 1997. (I have changed the published title “Can the Tour (Surprisingly) Translate us anywhere.”)

Abstract

I The via rupta

II Language and context

III Communication and expression

IV Aporias

V The detour of Babel

VI Derrida’s error

VII A lot of BILBOOL

VIII The law/lore of deconstruction

IX The erasure/signature signed/erased

X The Grammargraph

Abstract

Jacques Derrida’s writing begets monumental problems, and also possibilities, for translation/interpretation/communication, which are central problems in linguistics, literature and philosophy. It is playfully argued (the jeu continues to enrage serious writers) that translation/interpretation/ communication is the detour, the exile, the abusage, the death of (m)Other. Using an error made by Derrida, the Tourney (winding, tricky journey) twists through the detours of confusion between rhetorical excursions and philosophical discourse: of Babel. It is this confusion which is the imaginative playground of deconstruction, where every loss is always aGAIN.

I The via rupta

Deconstruction repeatedly reminds us of the ways that (natural) language subverts and scuttles the writer’s project. “[W]here can deconstruction lead us, if anywhere? (Merrill 1984: 126). To the via rupta?

One should meditate upon all of the following together: Writing as the possibility of the road and of

difference, the history of writing and the history of the road, of the rupture, of the via rupta, of the path that is broken, beaten, fracta, of the space of reversibility and of repetition traced by the opening, the divergence from, and the violent spacing, of nature, of th

e natural, savage, salvage, forest.

(Derrida 1985a: 107-108)

(“Savage”, in French sauvage “wild, untamed”; “salvage”, in French sauver “to save”).

In deconstruction, language – the sediment of the desire to mean, to communicate – has no locatable centre nor retrievable origin; its existence is a network of differences between signifiers, each tracing and tracking the other. In deconstruction there is no necessary connection between the desire to signify (to mean) and the signifiers that evoke that desire. Desire for such a connection results in nostalgia; the return (nostos) of suffering (algos):

[I]f language is not inherently determined by a set of univocal meanings, then language use, given an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time, becomes an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for “origins”.

(Derrida 1981a: 278-93)

II Language and context

The centre is presence, of individual things, torn from context:

[D]ue to the Western World’s “metaphysics of presence,” rhetoric has been systematically pushed under the rug. As a result, all languages, mathematical, logical, and natural – particularly in the Chomskyan sense – are usually conceived to be context-free. In contrast, especially with respect to natural languages, Derrida stresses the dangers of overlooking contexts. Without them there can be no real meaning, for natural language does not refer directly to the world of things whose beingness and self-identity is perpetuated through them.

(Merrill 1984: 127)

Merrill’s (and Derrida’s) view that Chomsky’s “language” is “conceived to be free of context” requires comment. Most of Chomsky’s “linguistic” writings is not about “language” in the sense of pragmatic language, or language use, but about “grammar”, or “grammatical/linguistic” competence, because that is what Chomsky is interested in studying. Chomsky’s scientific interest is in grammar and in the “language acquisition device”, which makes it possible for a human being to learn and use language – in context, in a discourse.

In the French tradition all language units beyond the Saussurian sign are referred to as discours. The sentence is discours and straddling sentences (the intersentential) is “extended” discours (Michell 1991: 103). Chomsky is praised (Ricoeur 1973; 1984) for making sentence meaning (Ricoeur’s sémantique of discours) the minimal unit of analysis instead of Saussurian signs, i.e. words and bits of words (Ricoeur’s sémiotique).

Recall (above) Derrida’s “language use, given an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time, becomes an unrestricted interaction of signifiers, the Nietzschean affirmation of free play without nostalgia for a “center” or for “origins”. For Ricoeur the unlimited number of contexts of the signifier (and the unrestricted play it affords) needs to be “blanched”, or drained, of excess meanings – la mythologie blanche “white mythology” (Derrida 1974). For Ricoeur and Chomsky the contextual constraints imposed on the polysemic creativity of the signifier by the sentence makes communication (discourse) possible. In deconstruction, in contrast, constraints on polysemy constrict the free play of language. Under-determinations (Chomsky and Ricoeur) versus overdeterminations (Derrida), it seems. The problem in interpreting Derrida is how to reconcile the free play of overdeterminations with Derrida’s insistence that language is context-bound. I elaborate on this problem later on.

III Communication and expression

The problem for interpretation, translation and communication that Derrida poses is whether it is possible to ever know what Mother’s made of through all the pulling and tearing at her syntactic joints and semantic flesh (Johnson 1985). Can Mother ever communicate her text through translation into another language or, perhaps just as problematic, into the same language – from one person’s Greek into another person’s Greek – where conflicts of interpretations are not rare (Lawlor 1983; Scholes 1988).

Chomsky suggests that expression, not communication, is the central function of language ((Chomsky 1979: 88; also Kinneavy 1983: 131). Ryle (1959), at the end of his introduction to “The concept of mind”, states: “Primarily I am trying to get some disorders out of my own system. Only secondarily do I hope to help other theorists to recognise our malady and to benefit from my medicine.” Ryle’s main reason for writing is to purge his system. I suggest that this is true for Chomsky and Derrida as well. (The French tympaniser means “making banging noises” or “criticising” and tympanisme means “chronic flatulence”. Derrida skips this latter meaning in his “Tympanum”).

The difference between Chomsky and Derrida lies perhaps in this: Chomsky is interested in how we construct thoughts or reality; Derrida in deconstructing thoughts or reality. But, and Derrida isn’t unaware of this, deconstruction depends on – and is kept afloat by – the very Western metaphysical “constructs”, or traits, that it tries to topple.

IV Aporias

Deconstructionists – unlike Chomskyans, who, like all good scientists, regard details (data) as subservient to laws – seek out the aporias: the flaws, the uncanny moments, the blind spots, in written texts,

where a text involuntarily betrays the tension between rhetoric and logic, between what it manifestly means to say and what it is nonetheless constrained to mean. To ‘deconstruct’ a piece of writing is therefore to operate a kind of strategic reversal, seizing on precisely those unregarded details (casual metaphors, footnotes, incidental turns of argument) which are always, and necessarily, passed over by interpreters of a more orthodox persuasion.

(Norris 1987: 19)

Norris speaks of “strategic reversals” of deconstruction, which seems to suggest that he knows what he is strategically or deconstructively reversing from and moving towards. If, however, one knows (the origin of) what one is looking for and seeks to find it, this would reduce the free play of language to a straightish line, which is what “logic”, as opposed to “rhetoric”, seeks to do – and that would mean the destruction of deconstruction and also of the playful narrative that is shortly to follow. Deconstruction does not involve strategic (i.e. linear) reversals, but criss-crossings or, better, cross-slingings, and that is perhaps what Derrida means by the “space of reversibility” (Derrida 1985a: 107-108).

Let’s return to our aporias. The claim of deconstruction, according to Merrill (1984: 137), is that deconstruction, in the process of discovering flaws, cannot make mistakes. There can be no mistakes in deconstruction, because deconstruction is the dissemination (of signifiers) not the missemination of signifieds. Whatever deconstructionists find in the text is neither surprising, errant, aberrant – or diff-ERRant (I explain this unsurprising word later on):

Perhaps the truth of the matter is that, during the act of deconstruction, “mistakes” cannot be made because the results always run exactly as expected – i.e. there can be no surprises. Such exactitude is alien to the sciences, as is now becoming well known.

(Merrill 1984: 137)

V The detour of Babel

An expected surprise is not a surprise. The same applies to rhetorical journeys. If one is not all pumped up and ready for a tour (tour in French = “trip”, “excursion”, “tower”, “trick”, “turn”), but instead merely wants to get from point B to point B – Babel to Bethel, the journey that we are about to take will turn out to be merely yet another well-trodden and tedious detour of Babel and its limitrop(h)es.

The journey begins on p.5 of Derrida’s (1984) Signsponge: Consider the translation of the following sentence: Francis Ponge se sera remarqué; “Francis Ponge will be self-remarked.” Is Rand’s translation a good one? Compare the original French with the English translation. The dictionary meaning of the verb remarquer is “to notice”, “to observe”.

Se remarquer “to notice oneself”, “to observe oneself”. Derrida’s object, however, is different to the dictionary meaning. Marque is also the mark, the margin, the step (the step in marching, and the step in ladder, stairway; marche “step”). Se remarquer contains at least the following deconstructable signifieds: 1. The doubling (re-) up of one’s self in the margin-text. 2. The double self in the double mark. The self in this context belongs, it seems, to Francis Ponge.

How successful is Rand’s translation? Rand seems to have captured the deconstructive abusual turn of the marque but loses the synchronic usual and useful meaning. The translation makes deconstructive sense but constructive nonsense. One can sympathise with Rand in his dilemma, but unless the translator provides interminable footnotes to back up the translation, it’s going to be very difficult for any motivated reader to appreciate deconstruction, because one will not be working from a constructive base of usual meanings. Another example: the understanding of such deconstructive terms as supplement can only be appreciated when the examples of supplementarity are supplemented by usual meanings.

Ponge Proper re-marks his common self. A simultaneous signature and erasure. A signature within the erasure – a translation, a translating, a translating Derrida.

What is the signification of translating Derrida? It is confused, at least double: 1. Derrida practising translation; 2. Derrida as a practice in translation.

In French the technical terms for the two languages involved in translation are referred to as the langue d’origine (the source language) and the langue d’arrivée (the target language). tRacing from one place to another, transalting (saltare [Latin], sauter [French] “jump”), transexalting, translating, transporting, transforming Derrida, carrying Derrida, transferring Derrida, (meta)pherrying Derrida, arriving Derrida at the departure lounge.

Derrida versus Derrida. A catastrophe between the presence and the non-presence of Mother; between philosopheme and nonphilosopheme. A passage en passant:

It [translation] is a difficulty inherent in its very principle, situated less in the passage from one language to another, from one philosophical language to another, than already, as we shall see, in the tradition between Greek and Greek; a violent difficulty in the transference of a nonphilosopheme into a philosopheme. With this problem of translation we will be dealing with nothing less than the problem of the very passage into philosophy.

(Derrida 1981b: 71-72)

In order to construct (poeisis “construct”) successfully, one needs to move smoothly between the paradigm and its exemplification. Architecture as paradigm is disrupted by its limitation to a site; a limitation that distorts the paradigm (image). Similarly, in translation it “goes without saying, translation is anything but a smooth and efficient circulation between signifiers [paradigms] and signifieds [exemplification, site]” (Sallis 1992: 30).

Like Leonardo chipping away at the white stone, the translator/interpreter endlessly chips away at the articulations between the cladding stones, seeking entry into the sacred tetrahedron. After each disappointment he gapes in bewilderment at the bavel of bevelled tiles below. Reluctantly, he abandons the hope of ever finding the entrance which would lead him to the tomb of priceless treasures. But he cannot return empty-handed. Exhausted, he sits down on a heap of tiles. The limestone feels cool to the ruptured hot skin. Bemused, he strokes the smooth surface with bruised fingers, fondling its subtle textures. He arises, refreshed, packs his camel high with claddings, and returns home to build a mosque out of past failures. And so, our translator, although he couldn’t move the right stone, is happy; after all, he did save face. (During the previous centuries no one managed to find the inner chamber of the Great Pyramid until Caliph Al Moumon, who upon finding no treasure, planted his own in order to placate his crew of weary diggers. About the year 1000 A.D. the Caliphs of Egypt stripped the polished white casings of the Great Pyramid, which were then used to build mosques and palaces. What made the stripping easier was a great earthquake that shook the casings loose [Smyth 1978: 19-20]).

VI Derrida’s error

An error in Derrida’s (1985b) “Des Tours de Babel” will help us see that writing/reading is an endless re(t)reading of and retreating from the path, the trace, the detour – of Babel. Before taking this detour, let us read the original Babel story, as it appears in an English translation of the book of Genesis (Chapter 11):

And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech [my underlining] … And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the East, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there … And they said … let us build ourselves a city and tower [MiGDaL; GDL “big”], whose top [head] may reach into heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth. And the Lord [YeHoVaH] came down … And the Lord said … Behold the people [is] one, and they have all one language … Let us go down, and there confound [mix; the same word for mixing the mortar to build the tower] their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them … and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth.

Of one speech (of “common” speech) in Hebrew is DEVARIM ACHADIM – a plural form. DEVAR ACHAD means “one thing”, the IM is the plural suffix. DEVAR means “thing” as well as “word”. The consonants DVR form the root of the verb “to speak”. Translation loses the plural meaning of the suffix IM. Translation also loses the connection between NILBENAH “let us make [bricks]” and NABELAH “let us mix up” (Sallis 1992: 27). The builders of the tower mixed together the ingredients of building material in order to join many bricks into one building. The Lord mixed up (scattered, segregated) the common language in order to destroy that arrogant unity. This is why Babel is a monument (a memorial to the dead). As Sallis (1992: 27) puts it: “The monumental building that was to have secured the community led instead to the loss of the common language and the dissolution of the community – to a detour.” In other words, the monumental (size, space) building led to a monument (memorial to the dead diaspora).

What makes the detour inevitable was the supplementary reading of the first few pages of “Des Tours…” (Derrida 1985b), where Derrida writes about his reading of Voltaire’s “Dictionnaire Philosophique.” We find an astonished Voltaire interdicting the Hebrews for mistranslating BABEL to read “confusion”. Here is the relevant passage quoted in “Des Tours…”. Voltaire is speaking:

I do not know why it is said in Genesis that Babel signifies confusion, for Ba signifies father in the original Oriental tongues, and Bel signifies God; Babel signifies the city of God, the holy city. But it is incontestable that Babel means confusion, either because the architects were confounded after having raised their work up to eighty-one thousand Jewish feet, or because the tongues were then confounded; and it is obviously from that time on that the Germans no longer understood the Chinese; for it is clear, according to the scholar Bochart, that Chinese is originally the same tongue as High German.

VII A lot of BILBOOL

I cannot say much about Bochart’s possible philological blunder or such monstrosities as Pre- or Neo-Babelian Chinese Heideggers or German Lao-Tses, but regarding those portions of Voltaire’s text touching on confusion, there is something amiss. Look again at the relevant sections from Voltaire’s text. Firstly the following:

I do not know why it is said in Genesis that Babel signifies confusion, for Ba signifies father in the original Oriental tongues, and Bel signifies God; Babel signifies the city of God, the holy city.

We have the following equation:

BA = father, city

BEL = god, holy

And the second section:

But it is incontestable that Babel means confusion, either because the architects were confounded after having raised their work up to eighty-one thousand Jewish feet, or because the tongues were then confounded.

Voltaire seems to be arguing that the Hebrews:

1. Ingested the non-Hebrew sign BABEL “father-god”, “holy-city”.

2. Evacuated the signified “father-god” from the sign BABEL.

3. Then recolonized the signifier BABEL with the signified BILBOOL “confusion”.

This seems to be a flawed porTrait of the Jewish tract. I attempt to show why. The root of Hebrew verbs are usually triliteral, i.e. they consist of a compound of three consonants. Consider the following Hebrew consonantal clusters:

BLL (balal) = “confuse”

BLBL (bilbool) = “confusion”

BVL (Bavel) = ” Babylon”

Two observations are pertinent here:

1. BLBL and BVL are both noun derivatives of BLL.

2. In Hebrew the consonants B and the V are homographic. The [b] phone is obtained by the addition of a dot to the V.

BAVEL is a hebraisation of the original Assyrian-Akkadian name for Babylon, viz. BABILI or BABILU, which is a compound of BAB “god” and ILI or ILU “gate” (New Caxton Encyclopedia, Webster’s Dictionary and Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary). Therefore, Voltaire’s split into BA “father” and BEL “god” is illegitimate. It should be noted that the EL in BABEL, in spite of its homophonic and homographic liaisons with the EL in such words as SAMU/EL (“heard of God), BETH/EL (“house of God”), ISRA/EL (wrestler with God) and, indeed, RAPHA/EL (healer of God), does not refer to the Hebrew for God, but to the Assyrian-Akkadian for ILU “gate”.

(Since writing this article, it seems that I [unsurprisingly; in mitigation, deconstruction has no surprises] was also confused, for BAB means “gate” and ILU means “God.” So Derrida was right about ILU meaning “God,” but remains wrong for translating BAB as “father”).

I imagine it is historically correct and a central issue in this argument – the appeal to history has its source in the historical sedimentations of deconstruction and therefore of translation – that the word BABILU “gate of god”, which must have pre-existed the Hebrew people’s knowledge of it, preceded the Tower of Babel story; in fact there is no doubt in my mind that BAVEL is a hebraisation of BABILU. Now what I think happened was this:

The Hebrew BALAL “confusion” pre-existed the Hebrew people’s acquaintance of BABILU (later to be hebraisised as BAVEL). It is logical to suppose that the Hebrew BALAL “confusion” preexisted BAVEL, if only because it’s difficult to assign the label “confusion” to something like an eighty-one thousand Jewish foot Babylonian tower unless one knows what confusion is; which assumes (but not always) that one has a word to describe this feeling.

What catches the eye is the similarity between (1) the Hebrew roots BLL and BLBL (VLL and VLVL) and (2) BVL (BABEL < BABILU “gate of god”). With regard to the link between BALAL and BABEL, there is a more plausible explanation than the one offered by Voltaire. As I mentioned earlier, the Hebrews had to have been acquainted with BABILU either before or concurrent to the Book of Genesis. Most likely before, otherwise the Babel story would have been a biblical, if not a primaeval, scoop. The Hebrew name for BABILU is BAVEL. The Hebrew scribes, not news reporters, must have been aware of the coincidental connection between the signifier BALAL and the BAVEL tower before writing their text. They created the tower story (not the term BAVEL) in order to historicise (mythologise?) the confusion of languages. History, in this episode, was caught with its mythological pants down. Or the other way round.

Thus, there is indeed in the Hebrew account of the Babel story a connection between BAVEL and BALAL; but I argue that there need not have been any intentional fusion between BALAL and BAVEL. It could have just re-markably worked out that way, and it is that very outworking and inworming that deconstructing narratives is all about (Wood 1979: 18).

I would like to think it was the Hebrews – an historical, not a mythological, people – who invented or discovered deconstruction – which I freely and playfully theorise is that elusive language rediscovered by the Jew Jacques Derrida. Unfortunately there is not enough evidence to settle the matter. However, although the Law of Moses does not explicitly mention any strict observation of deconstruction, one can infer – if only negatively – that it was encouraged; if this were not so, it would have been codified with other obscenities such as the rupturing of smooth surfaces.

Voltaire’s mistranslation of the Assyrian-Akkadian tongue leads Derrida, the reader, and Derrida’s readers into all kinds of bother, to a catastrophe in fact; to the diaspora, the scattergram, the missemination of Mother. To show why this is so we need to read Derrida writing about reading Voltaire. So we displace the focus out of the “secondary” text (Voltaire’s text) into the “primary” text of “Des Tours…”.

We saw that Voltaire makes the following assumption:

BA = father

BEL = god

We follow Derrida following Voltaire. Derrida embarks on “Des Tours…” by referring to Voltaire’s observation that Babel besides being a proper noun has, as a common noun, two further meanings, namely (1) disorder, and (2) perplexity, i.e. the perplexity which confronted the architects before the interrupted work. All these senses, he claims, became confused. This is so. But watch what happens.

We observe Derrida in “Des Tours…” imitating Voltaire’s interpretation of Babel as “father-God”. But what if Voltaire is wrong, if BEL has nothing to do with God? We saw earlier that Babel derives from BAB-ILU and does not mean “father-God”, but “God-gate”.

A deist might argue that Voltaire’s displacement of a god is of no serious consequence, because, as everyone knows, moving a god around is no skin off its omnipresence. The point, however, is that Derrida via Rue Voltaire inflicts illegal ruptures on the Via Rupta. Deconstruction is not an irresponsible lapse – by Derrida’s own admission – into libertinage; but rather a legal contract between the alertness “to the implications… of the language we use” (Derrida’s words) and the “grammar, rhetoric and pragmatics” of rule-governed texts (Derrida’s words). Here are Derrida’s relevant paragraphs (my italics):

Here or there I have used the word deconstruction which has nothing to do with destruction. That is to say, it is simply a question of…being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentations of the language which we use – and that is not destruction.

(Derrida 1972: 271)

What I, on the other hand, must recall to your attention – and I will remind you of it more than once – is that the text of an appeal obeys certain rules; it has its grammar, its rhetoric, its pragmatics. I’ll come back to this point in a moment, to wit: as you did not take these rules into account, you quite simply did not read my text, in the most elementary and quasi-grammatical sense of what is called reading.

(Derrida 1986: 157)

(The context of the second quotation is Derrida’s response to McClintock and Nixon [1986] whom he lambasts for misunderstanding the context in which he was using the term “apartheid” and for gross distortions, according to Derrida, of histheory of deconstruction).

VIII The law/lore of deconstruction

Therefore, it is Derrida himself who insists that his writing obeys certain rules, the abuse of which leads to misreading his intentions. Accordingly, Derrida does believe in communication, i.e. codes that mean (Lawlor 1983; Scholes 1988). So, I see no fundamental difference between Derrida’s rules and (to return to Chomsky) Chomsky’s rules, between the constraints of deconstruction and the constraints (conceded by Derrida) of grammar – and the vast potential of both. That is why the presence of rules (the rules of presence) to control the dissemination of deconstruction does not – cannot -demolish deconstruction, but conflates and confuses, opening up fresh tracts of creativity.

In Derrida there is a communication, a message, an interpretation, a translation in the offing. Although translation and interpretation are imperfect vessels of meaning, they nevertheless mean. One of the main problems between language and thought has to do with parentage; “Did Mother have a mummy and how did s(he) die”? Do meanings precede language or do they become(dis)embodied within the death of language. The term aufhebung (sublation) – “to clear away” or “transcend” as well as “to preserve” – illustrates the paradox, namely, the simultaneous preservation and transcendence of the structure/function antithesis. Language structure has to be cleared away and preserved in order to convey its function/meaning.

The sad, incarcerated carp

Who reasons perfectly:

“Could I but smash this bowl of glass

My spirit would be free.”

(The poem “Good theology, bad move”, Ferguson 1992).

Derrida, aware of the deconstructive conflation of confusion, pronounces: “The signification of ‘confusion’ is confused, at least double” (Derrida 1985b). At least double. To explain why: the evidence indicates that Voltaire’s BABEL, which is a miscastration of BABILU, may signify more than a bibelot. If this is so, Derrida’s confusion may go deeper than Voltaire’s, in fact has to: the consequence of the Babylonian diaspora scatters itself across the whole nebula of language. A wandering jew (le jeu-juif errant – “the Jewish game of errors”) – for whom the choice of staying home does not exist – exile. The Rimbaldian Paul Claudel describes this exile:

La séparation a eu lieu, et l’exil où il est entré le suit. [A literal translation would be: The separation has happened, and the exile which he has entered follows him].

(Claudel 1959: 118)

And the deconstructive translation of Claudel’s line:

The separation has happened, and the exile of his being spills within and follows him.

Can Derrida dismount from his structural humanity and escape “interpretation as an exile” by affirming play, by refusing to turn toward the origin, toward genesis (Derrida 1981a: 292)? This cannot be done because exile is the text-context-outside-text that cannot be shaken off. Exile is the canon of Derrida’s polysemic quest, spilling within the red mythology of his history.

What does Derrida’s “Des Tours…” lose in taking the wrong detour? Not much is lost on the BA(B) because what Derrida considers to be the father seme does not disseminate into the remains of his tortured text. But it is the unbeautiful gate ILU, mistaken for BEL (God) which ties the rest of “Des Tours…” into an unsacred knot (p.203-4 of “Des Tours…”).

We meet Derrida on the brink of concluding his “Des Tours…” firmly in the sAddle of Babel:

That is what is named from here on Babel: the law imposed by the name of God who in one stroke commands and forbids you to translate by showing and hiding from you the limit.

(Derrida 1985b: 203)

However, towards the end of his “Des tours…”, Derrida is upset in the saddle of his own interventions: an unstrategic spillage, displacing the displacement of his own pluralities. Here is Derrida’s text again, but we now get him to use gate instead of God, as he should have done:

That is what is named from here on Babel: the law imposed by the name of gate who in one stroke commands and forbids you to translate by showing and hiding from you the limit.

The law/lore, the “rule” (Derrida above) of deconstruction imposed on the text sanctions (commands and forbids) Derrida to pass the gate off for God; ILU for (B)EL. The question is whether this disclosure of the sediments of repetition and reversal of gate and God weaken the foundations of deconstruction? On the contrary, it is these very fortuitous (strategic?) repetitions and reversals – every loss is always aGAIN – which make more explicit the hidden dimensions of differAnce. I try and show why this is so:The gate re-opens (is it the same gate?), revealing a path (the same path?), a track, a trace, departing from the tower of Babylon and arriving at a stairway in Bethel. The stairway rests on the earth and reaches up to heaven. On the stairway (marche, marque, marge) angels coruscate up and down. At the top of the ladder stands the God of Genesis; at the bottom, Jacob, the heEler (the calque, the calcis, the trace, the marche, the marge) of God; asleep:

I am the Lord the God of your Ab[FATHER]raham and the God of Isaac [LAUGHTER]. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the West and to the East, to the North and to the South. All people on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.

Jacob awakes; filled with awe he bursts into worship and praise:

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it…How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of God.

Jacob’s gate is the gate of El, while Jacques’ gate; well, that’s his BEL.

JAC[OB]QUE.

IX The erasure/signature signed/erased

My text of Derrida’s misreading of Voltaire misreading BABILU may also suffer a misreading, which would strengthen my argument for repeatability, for undecidability, for diff-ERRANCE; which suggests that the jeu – the sponge of deconstruction – is not a fossilized issue. The value of the jeu depends on what is absorbed and what is erased.

An anonymous reader of my unpublished text remarked that behind the confusion which is so playfully spun out, there lies a simple trick (tour), namely that I am simply translating Derrida back into metaphysics – making deconstruction into a new version of the very metaphysics I was trying so hard to deconstruct, hoping that my readers would fall for that. Can deconstruction, by definition, seriously deceive? Is deconstruction really concerned with true or grand narratives? Another anonymous reader remarked that I was undertaking the grandiose messianic project of assuming that Derridean deconstruction is a panacea for all the ills of Western thought. I was surprised. Deconstructionists are surprised by nothing and so I cannot have such grandiose or messianic projects in mind. Illness does, however, as the anonymous reader correctly pointed out, come into it; an illness unto death: death by language (Groddeck 1977) through the offering of the Proper in the sacrificial erasure of the signature executed outside the city gates.

To sign into a signature is in a way to loosen the moorings of self-preservation; it is to unsheath the canon of one’s ungainliness (French gain “sheath”), one’s nakedness, one’s mortality – a mo{NUmen}tal exposure. The monument is simply death remembered; nothing of “monumental” import.

In aNONymous there is a no to death, a no to the other, a no to the name (NOM); a resolute NON to sacrifice, to signature, to exposure, where every hidden gain ends in loss. FranciSponge is erased in the sign sponge. Anonymous cannot depart because it has never consummated. Signature is a dissemination, a consummation. Anonymous, like translation, is an illegal (s)pillage of sema, an OnAnymous and monumental retrait de ( “from” and “of”) la tombe. (See Derrida’s pp. 57 and 61 of “Signsponge” for the “monumental” death of the signature).

And yet, signature, although (in the) departure, is not a departure from the Proper, for how is it possible to translate the Proper signature? (see the end of Derrida’s “Des Tours…”). Signature is untranslatable. BABILI is also a proper name, and therefore is also untranslatable. The effort to try and translate it into the common noun “confusion” is the beginning of architecture, of the impossibility of translating (transfixing) an image into its site (Sallis 1992: 28).

Or is the Proper merely a Vedantic illusion? “The individual is only separated from his body in name. When this is not recognised you have been fooled by your name … you come to believe that having a separate name makes you a separate thing. This is – rather literally – to be spellbound” (Watts 1989).

X The Grammargraph

The contexual split between the Hebrew YHVH and the Vedantic `Self is It’ is a ré-jouissance of confusion-and-nostalgia for Mother rupturing the thELimitrophe, an eternal re/s/igning, re/z/ining, and reassigning the GRAMMARGRAPH of the marque {FranciSponge will be self-remarked} within the erasure/signature which is signed/erased

See related post The Deconstruction of Messiah: Always Arriving Always Departing.

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