... this is an expanding selection of pics and of some of my shorter pieces of writing ... and other bits and pieces ... in German and mainly English ... and other strange languages ... COME BACK AND CHECK IT OUT ... COMMENTS WELCOME


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A review of the Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (2018)

 A review of the Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (2018)

Imagine you are familiar with Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Bukowski, Thoreau and various other progressive writers, and you are sufficiently impressed by Ted Kaczynski’s diary to quote from it at length in your next novel. What could it be about? Crime and Punishment? Getting inside the head of an American female version of Raskolnikov? Rachel Kushner does just that, at least from my reading of her book. Her protagonist, Romy Hall, is however no poor student whose intellectual faculties somewhat resemble that of the writer but a down-and-out SF sex worker who kills her insane stalker and is now in a Californian state prison for life. This scenario is vastly different from Raskolnikov and all the more unbelievable for the following reasons: to be brought up in an environment where drugs, alcohol, violence and sexual abuse are everyday facts of life will in most cases lack all literary interest simply because the damaged protagonists have lost all normal reasoning and civilized behaviour, hence are characterised by various mental disorders that are extremely difficult to deal with in a humanitarian way – but far more easily dealt with the American way of imprisonment (lock them up and throw away the key). Kushner as a social activist of sorts could have concentrated more on this aspect of crime and punishment, as indeed she does in giving her own voice to Gordon Hauser, the teacher whose job it is to teach the inmates basic literacy and numeracy skills. Whilst it is not inconceivable that a Romy Hall character is a working class intellectual that reads books like the Mars Room, it is quite unlikely. In fact the actual Mars Room as depicted in the novel is what every feminist decries: women’s sexuality exploited by men who are unable to establish a normal relationship with any woman. The myth that some women prostitute themselves by choice (earning easy money), is more or less trotted out here in the character of Romy Hall. 

So when Kushner gives voice to Romy Hall, it sounds like what Kushner imagines life would be like if ever she was in such a situation. First of all she must imagine how to write junkie street language – a contradiction in itself – and her idea is that people like that have a very simple English syntax. Kushner should have read Labov’s Language of the Inner City to get some guidance and found that black English at least has as complex a syntax as white English. That damaged street kids and subsequent lap dancers like Romy can have poetic thoughts is not impossible but also rather unlikely, as when she escapes from prison, hiding amongst the trees and at night sees the stars, she ponders ‘Here, I was halfway into the sky. Where people are gone, the world opens. Where people are gone, the night falls upward, black and unmanned’. Hey man, what the fuck is that supposed to mean! 

When Kushner gets into the head to Doc, the corrupt LAPD cop who also serves time for murder, she really lets go with the basest of stories and language, graphic sex and violence but punctuated with some positivist advertising: ‘People snub Budweiser for these dumb brands no one’s heard of, but Budweiser is the king of beers for a reason: it’s good.’ And then comes the explanation for Doc’s insane behaviour: his foster father had raped him as a kid and his foster father was loyal to Nixon and the Grand Ole Opry. So is there anyone to blame? Nixon? Nixon as the ultimate asshole of American politics? 

Good guy Gordon – the teacher and failed literature graduate (unlike Rachel Kushner as far as I can make out) – watches the news with his friend about Saddam Hussein being hanged. Kushner’s politics are best stated when Gordon notes that the women in prison are denoted as ‘monsters’ by straight society but tens of thousands killed in wars prosecuted by the American military produce no such monikers. While true enough, it is not feasible nor desirable to let the ‘monsters’ off the hook on account of them being victims of the poverty that breeds the crime. In reality the precariat (or lumpen proletariat in Marxist terminology) fostered by the ruling classes (Kushner’s middle class liberals included) breeds dysfunction to such a degree that political re-educations is almost impossible. Sure, to liberate the oppressed from oppression is a theoretically desirable pathway via a pedagogy of the oppressed, as described by Paulo Freire – Gordon Hauser is a Freirean if not stated as such – but unless there is a proletarian revolution that frees prisoners who killed their oppressors AND re-educates these prisoners to become aware of their political situation, pre- and post-revolution, there is no way out of the American nightmare of incarceration. Gordon’s remedy, that he cannot judge anyone but himself, is also a nice theoretical stance but totally useless in the real world.

The level of domestic violence as detailed in the case histories that Kushner uses to propel her story is abysmal. This is another criticism: to take the most extreme of such case histories and weave them together in a women’s prison population and thereby make it sound like your average demographics may be good for sensationalism but not for depicting reality. In New Zealand – my sphere of demographics – the level of domestic violence is some of the worst in the OECD, all predicated on highly dysfunctional family relations where drugs, alcohol, poverty and lack of any education make for a toxic brew that poorly equipped (and poorly paid) armies of social and mental health workers battle with. There are no insights to be had, no Marxist analysis by the low-end drug dealer about supply and demand, no Ted Kaczynskis or RAF or Italian Autonomes that are delivered by police to ED for medical and mental health triage. And BTW, Kaczynski seems to be pretty deluded to me, noting that in one of his diary excerpts provided by Kushner, he also wants to kill ‘communists’. 

All this being said, I do realise that the novel creates a very high emotional impact, of a personal tragedy that separates mother and son forever. That Romy loves her son Jackson is however as tragic as the other case of Romy’s fellow inmate, Laura, who killed her child to get revenge on her low-life husband. We all know that children are born innocent and when they become victims of abysmal neglect in wars and crimes (and war crimes) we have to wonder what humanity is all about. Kushner’s description of American women’s prison as hell on earth where women – as ultimate victims of insane men - nevertheless grind out life without parole, as a daily ritual, actually must defy mere literary description. 

Yet the narrative technique employed is flawless, weaving in and out of the voices of the main protagonists, with an ending that plucks at the heartstrings, so much so that some readers may consider the book unforgettable, having successfully appealed to their female emotional intelligence.

The book also has a strong sense of location, in particular SF, which Romy thinks is ‘a sad suckville of place’ and yet as a native of SF never gets out of it apart from a short sojourn to LA. The women’s prison in Stanville is a Californian nightmare amongst almond groves, established by agricultural corporations that use automated pest control and harvesting machinery. Gordon, who lives up in the hills (a bit like Kaczynski did), looks down on a mechanised landscape. 

Having stayed in SF in various locations for a while myself in 1970, including in a dump on Baker Street – which then was a mainly black area and no-go zone for the cops – I can appreciate the low-down streets like Market Street where Romy and friends hang out and never really get out of: where the whole universe revolves around derelict carparks, cheap burger joints and seedy strip clubs like the Mars Room. Stanville is a world away by prison bus but when you get there it is exactly the same from where you came from: a very small world where nothing good happens. Even when the protagonists drive cars the best they can do is to cruise to Ocean Beach, not to admire sunsets but, at least in my experience, to pull into the parking lot, let the engine run, shoot Budweiser (!) sixpacks and get wasted on whatever drugs available and drive back to Market Street. 

There is a bit of Americana Kushner seems to like when it comes to cars and bikes: Romy occasionally drives an Impala while others enthuse about Studebakers and the like. It is bit of a cliché that the good bad guy, Doc, rides his good ole Harley while the really bad bad guy (Kurt) rides his pathetic BMW K100. 

Is there a correlation to Californian racism, spelled out as a hierarchy of white, black and Mexican for the Californian prison population and contempt for Asians who never do crime? While Romy was named by her German mother after Romy Schneider, a famous German actress, there is never any indication in the book that anybody ever has any racist opinion on this Teutonic matter. The only other hint is the inmate called Norse who is of course a trashy white supremacist. 


As a real life sequel consider the recent pardon of Cyntoia Brown (as reported by the Guardian): as a 16-year old forced into prostitution she kills a customer in 2004 and is jailed for life. Now after some 15 years inside, she is released as an act of mercy by the departing governor of Tennessee:

“Cyntoia Brown committed, by her own admission, a horrific crime at the age of 16,” Haslam said in a statement. “Yet, imposing a life sentence on a juvenile that would require her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration is too harsh, especially in light of the extraordinary steps Ms Brown has taken to rebuild her life.”

So what has she done to ‘rebuild her life’ while in jail? According to her own statement she is grateful to two lecturers from a university that enrolled her in a degree program that she has nearly finished – doing much better than Romy Hall under the guidance of Gordon Hauser in Kushner’s novel. Secondly and more importantly, as I see it, is her conversion to fundamentalist Christianity, praising the Lord for holding her hand. None of the protagonists in Kushner’s novel are ‘religious’ and none of them are sorry for what they have done, not because they lack empathy but because they lack insight. Cyntoia Brown is the exception to the rule by entering into a compact with the devil (or God, if you prefer) to appease the ruling class, for the only way to change from bad to good is by the grace of God (and a bit of university education). Criminal justice reform advocates are said to support the decision of the governor. Thank God, celebrities like the Kardashians are also on board. They all should read Rachel Kushner’s Mars Room so that they get to understand that state governors and politicians (and entertainment gods) in general are not the solution but the problem when it comes to Dostoyevsky’s conundrum in Crime and Punishment (also currently known as ‘law and order’ or ‘ten commandments’ in Western democracies like the USA).

Saturday, December 22, 2018


Ken Krimstein (2018) The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth.

This graphic biography is an excellent introduction to Hannah Arendt and her intellectual milieu. One learns an enormous amount of the intellectual history that shaped the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the Diaspora of escaped Jews and the post-war world up to Arendt’s death in 1975. Her upbringing is as fascinating as her early days as a philosophy student, mixing with all the icons, alas, with the unfortunate inclusion of Heidegger with whom she has a love affair that will haunt her throughout her life. Her social circle in Berlin extends far and wide into the intellectual scene that includes all the famous names one cares to conjure up, including luminaries such Albert Einstein and Walter Benjamin (the latter dying en route to Spain, the same escape route that Arendt also took). As a student and somewhat peripheral academic myself (at LMU and Otago and Auckland, as well as many other universities where I attended linguistics conferences) I can only lay claim to knowing Noam Chomsky (greatest intellectual of our time according to the NYT) but otherwise have never been immersed in an intellectual milieu that brings together an intellectual tour-de-force, not in the slightest approaching that of Hannah Arendt. One is quite envious if not depressed about it all. Of course, as a German expatriate myself, I cannot even begin to understand the situation Arendt was in when the Weimar Republic began to collapse and the Nazis took power. Her last-minute escape seems to be based on her observation that the rise of the Nazis was to be expected but what was never to be expected was the Holocaust. This crossed the line of utter degradation but when Arendt attended Eichmann’s trial in Israel she coined the unforgettable line of ‘the banality of evil’ that brought her lots of criticism. I personally find this to be the best characterisation of the Nazi atrocities: the pathological German predilection for bureaucratic totalitarianism knows no limits. Eichmann merely carried out orders as much as the obedient accountant tallies the ledger. Her volume on The Origins of Totalitarianism does however grate with me in that it gave rise to the equation of Stalinist totalitarianism with Hitler’s version. In my view, whatever crimes Stalin may have perpetrated, they cannot be compared to the outrages committed by Hitler. When Arendt comes face to face with being sent to a concentration camp when in internment in France, she just walks out and quite incredibly, by mere chance, finds her husband in a village nearby. Their subsequent escape via Spain and Portugal to the USA is legend amongst many of the Jewish Diaspora of the time. While the intellectual climate in the USA is dim there are at least all the escapees who find a foothold in academe and prosper accordingly. Arendt and her husband command a growing reputation amongst philosophers and political scientists, and Arendt’s literary output establishes her as a great moral academic voice in the post-war Western world. Ken Krimstein’s astute illustrations along this amazing journey bring life to what is otherwise a collection of biographical facts – with a bit of the imagination thrown in when it comes to picturing Arendt making love to Heidegger. Presumably Arendt’s last disastrous meeting with Heidegger and his wife in post-war Germany is also laced with Krimstein’s imaginary dialogue – and why not! Obviously this is an episode in Arendt’s life that is hard to explain apart from saying that love can be blind. On the other hand her continuing academic association with her erstwhile doctoral supervisor, Karl Jaspers, as the great post-war German philosopher is also a bit perplexing. Having read Jaspers somewhat sterile work (including the outrageous suggestion that an intellectual elite should rule the world) I cannot understand how Arendt kept up her admiration for him. Jaspers remained in Germany throughout the war but was of course in constant danger for having a Jewish wife, while his contemporary, Heidegger, was feted by the Nazis. Having also read the works by another famous post-war German philosopher, Juergen Habermas, who supports both Arendt and Jaspers, one comes to the conclusion that Arendt quite rightly refused to be classified as a philosopher, for many a philosopher of that era lived in the pseudo-Marxist ivory tower, espousing mild critiques of Marxist philosophy, and when it came to the 1968 student uprisings they locked themselves in. Hannah Arendt in contrast was in a league of her own, a lone female voice amongst her male peers, and Ken Krimstein has managed to produce a graphic biography that is also in a league of its own.

Jason Lutes’ BERLIN trilogy.

The fascination with the Weimar Republic is real: no other historical period has produced such an astonishing contrast between good and evil (the latter in Hannah Arendt’s terms), between capitalism and communism, between man and woman, between nature and nurture, between sanity and insanity, between yin and yang, between however and whatever. Looking in from the outside – and removed from time – is akin to a sort of Freudian long-term therapy session, trying figure out how and why this all had to happen. Jason Lutes as a visionary – in the literal sense of the word – can picture some of the scenarios and create a graphic novel accordingly. His understanding is not that of a historian but that of a struggling artist, him impersonating the main female protagonist Marthe Mueller. Since the reversal of gender roles is an age old story line, the Weimar Republic certainly put a new spin on such proceedings, and Jason Lutes gives a lot of space – visually and textually – to the sexual politics on one hand (Marthe, Kurt and Anna) and the singular female anti-fascist warrior (Silvia) on the other. If there is any criticism to be voiced at this stage, one cannot fail to mention the somewhat voyeuristic male gaze when it comes to sex between Marthe, Kurt and Anna. There is also the cryptic inclusion of one Margarethe von Falkensee – as Kurt’s high society liaison – who in real life was the notorious author of the trash-hedonistic and semi-erotic Blue Angel books, and who in Jason’s novel became a fundraiser for Hitler. What does all this obsession with sex mean? Perhaps Jason Lutes has an inkling when Silvia meets Marthe and the former calls the latter a ‘bourgeois bitch’. Is all this intellectual and erotic posing a symptom of bourgeois decadence? Lutes is clearly sympathetic towards the communists and attendant working classes, what with his generous advertisements for the K.P.D. and yet, his greatest admirations seems to be that for Carl von Ossietzky, the left of centre social democrat who became an early martyr in the war against the Nazis. Perhaps this was the greatest of the tragedies in that the social democrats saw the communists as the main danger for the Weimar Republic and not the fascists. True enough, in the novel as in real life it was the communists who fought the Nazis while everyone else seemed to sit on the fence, silently betting on the Nazis. Lutes’ portrayal of the Jews in Berlin is also conflicted: while giving shelter to the radical Silvia, the good deed comes with a cost (i.e. virtual house arrest). Since the novel ends in 1933, there is not much scope to dwell on what happened next to the Jews: the Holocaust and the banality of evil, so well characterized by Hannah Arendt (and unwittingly portrayed in Heimatby Nora Krug – as reviewed earlier). The other out and down Jew, Pavel, befriends Silvia in a pact of life on the streets, almost saint-like. So did Jason Lutes get into the heads of the Germans and come up with an explanation for the decline of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis? Being German myself and having lived in Berlin for a couple of years or so (1976-77), I cannot begin to understand what went on there. Since Germans are generally reluctant to confront their utterly horrific past, it is only fitting that ‘foreigners’ like Jason Lutes and Ken Krimstein try to visualize history in the making. The recent preponderance of ‘graphic novels’ dealing with Germany’s recent history is quite amazing (Lutes, Krimstein, Krug and Folman  - the latter for a graphic adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary) and while graphic novels and treatments of historical events are not new, I did in fact learn from Lutes that Frans Masereel – a Flemish artist – composed a novel without words as early as 1919. Lutes’ creative idea to imagine a budding female artist – Marthe – making the move to Berlin from Cologne and becoming enmeshed in the artistic, political and social life of Berlin during the Weimar Republic, is a stroke of genius, flaws included. The artist as a witness of history is not new either but in this case the art is peripheral while the uncertain life of the artist is the focal point. While history does not repeat literally, the failure to learn from it is a human weakness spread across the globe today as much as it was during the Weimar Republic. Let’s just hope that the consequences are not as bad. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A German review of Heimat by Nora Krug (2018)

A German review of Heimat by Nora Krug (2018)

There is probably some truth in the notion that even today a German migrating to an English-speaking country like the USA, UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand will be more like confronted with Germany’s Nazi past than a German in Germany, sometimes on quite a personal basis. When in the early 70s I was invited to my New Zealand girlfriend’s home to meet her parents I was aware that various of their relatives had died as soldiers in WWII somewhere in Europe. Her father went to great lengths to make me feel comfortable by playing Wagner records and talking about the great German philosophers. Of course I wondered if any of my soldier relatives had killed theirs. Of course the subject was not raised in such polite society, quite unlike as in the great comedy act in Fawlty Towers when John Cleese cannot help himself not to mention the war to his German customers.

When Nora Krug arrives in New York in the 1980s the second person she meets is a Holocaust survivor and the silent question is whether or not any of her relatives were part of the Nazi murder machine. Her subsequent investigation into this question, as detailed in her illustrated/graphic ‘family album’ as she calls it, is of course as painful as it is revealing. Her grandfather was a paid up member of the NSPAP, something she found out amidst feigned ignorance amongst her other relatives (parents included).

Such lessons in personal history should be confronted by all Germans rather than just listen to the vague history lessons taught in German high schools (as I and Nora Krug can attest). However there is no point in beating oneself up for being a post-war German. In the bigger picture there are any number of atrocities, past and present, that need close investigation and brave conclusions. As Chomsky points out, if the Nuremburg Trials were to be applied to atrocities committed by Americans in Vietnam, Cambodia and Syria (just to mention a few places) then quite a few presidents and their henchmen would be found guilty. This is a universal issue as portrayed so well by the North American counter culture lyrics Universal Soldier and What are we fighting for. Nora Krug fails to see this in her book. Hannah Arendt, the great commentator on Germany’s Nazi past, noted that the rise of Hitler was not a big deal (there have been and will be any number of Hitlers in the abhorrent history of the world) but Auschwitz was (BTW I will review another of the current crop of graphic novel accounts, namely The three escapes of Hannah Arendt by Ken Krimstein).

So my complaint about Krug is the linguistic and cultural relativism that pervades this otherwise very good book on what it might mean to be a contemporary expatriate German living in the USA. Why entitle it Heimat when otherwise writing in English? The German word Heimat has of course many shades of meaning depending on the context. So has the English word home. In some contexts the German and English words (or their various Germanic roots and derivations) are interchangeable, as in 

Ich gehe heim.
I go home.


It is well known that when translating from one language to another, there are what is called ‘lexical gaps’, i.e. a single word in one language cannot be translated by another single word in the other. This however is not proof for linguistic and cultural relativism. If a single word cannot be translated by another single word then two or more will do. This is called paraphrasing – something one can do even within one language, i.e. explain a word with two or more others (like in a dictionary definition). Indeed Krug presents a lengthy paragraph in which the German word Heimat is explained in its various contexts – some of which require a quite lengthy paraphrase or definition. Sure, there are some German words that have entered the English lexicon, like Zeitgeist or perhaps Schadenfreude but Heimatis not one of them, i.e. there are perfectly good translations available for Heimat, e.g. ‘home country’.

Having been based in New Zealand – as a German national – since the early 1970s, one is familiar with an obsession amongst certain New Zealand born New Zealanders who have to embark on a journey half way around the world to visit their ‘home country’, namely the UK, finding their ancestral roots, as it were. We also know another connotation of such roots in the Black American context. People who were forced from their home countries have obviously quite a different take on their respective home countries. Things can get astonishingly complicated, as for example in a recent documentary about the French New Caledonians who are of Algerian descent, their forefathers having been rounded up in Algeria and France before and during the war of independence and deported to New Caledonia. Should they now vote for independence from France, as the majority of the indigenous Kanaks do?

Many Americans who are descended from the home countries (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – the latter being a bit more complicated due to the existence of Northern Ireland) share the same enthusiasm for their Heimatas their compatriots in NZ, Australia and Canada, most notably in the infamous espionage arrangement known as the ‘five eyes’, namely to be English first and foremost, casting the proverbial sharp eye over anything that might endanger the English hegemony.

Such xenophobic and jingoistic trends are currently seen in Brexit and Trump’s US First politics (BTW there is a political Party in NZ called NZ First, and currently a coalition partner in NZ’s government that is otherwise lauded as progressive except that everything has to be seen through the lens of NZ First). 

I am not accusing Nora Krug of such tendencies but I am trying to make the point that to call a book Heimat, written in English, about being German, is a contentious choice. If the choice of word were ironic or better still, sarcastic, one would have to applaud, especially as Krug battles with Germany’s notorious Nazi past, trying to find out if her relatives, past and present, had anything to do with it. Given the Nazis’ exploitation of the term Heimat and the recent German neo-con reinvention of a Ministry of Heimat (so as not to be left behind the US where the Secretary of ‘Homeland’ Security wields immense power), one would have thought that this is a term to avoid at all costs in a serious personal investigation of Germany’s Nazi past and present. To the credit of Krug, she is suitably horrified when she finds out that her grandfather was a member of the NSDAP. That some of the towns people of Kuelsheim (note the suffix –heim), where most of her relatives come from, had participated in rounding up local Jews and sending them off to the concentration camps, is equally shocking to her. While she is relieved to some degree that none of her relatives were hardcore Nazi criminals (her grandfather was classified as a ‘follower’ by the Americans who investigated all known members of the NSDAP) she remains hugely embarrassed, not only because of the Nazi connection but also how her family treated the death of her granduncle, as a soldier in Italy. Surely as a pacifist one must decry all war casualties whether on the right or wrong side of history but as a member of a society (US and German in Krug’s case) that clearly supports the military option, one cannot be overly sentimental about a soldier’s death, as is most of Krug’s family, herself included. 

Such overwrought sentimentality finds its way into Krug’s other theme that I would call cultural relativism: this idea that certain cultural manifestations are as untranslatable as the corresponding words, ending up with cultural stereotypes and clichés that are best left to questionable jokes about nationalities. Krug’s volume is interspersed with what she calls ‘Things German (from the notebook of a homesick émigré)’, listing a brand of bandage (Hansaplast) and soap (Gallseife) among others, things she says she cannot do without even when in the USA (one can buy such things on the Internet these days). Personally I find neither product as particularly iconic. Krug is also off-side with the term émigré, especially as used in the US, for German émigrés were mostly Jews who settled in the US to escape the Nazis. Krug is simply a German immigrant. That she is homesick is another issue. Travelling back and forth between New York and Karlsruhe in search of mementos to include in her beautifully illustrated graphic book, one can perhaps understand a certain nostalgia for things German (she clearly believes in) when domiciled in a cultural pot boiler called New York where nobody knows what’s what anymore (other than the New Yorkers called Trump, Giuliani and Bloomberg). But then again why not express some nostalgia for some of the more positive German concepts, like Dichter und Denker, like Gustav Landauer (from Karlsruhe). 

In her Epilogue, Krug mentions that in the 2017 German national elections the ‘extreme right’ has claimed seats in the German parliament, and then thinking back to what the mayor of Karlsruhe wrote to his chief of police in 1940, namely that ‘constant complaints have been made about the fact that local Jews have been behaving brashly and provocatively … and have refused to give up their seats for German women.’ Krug juxtaposes this with being in the New York subway when a ‘man in a yarmulke standing next to me’ asks a woman in the seat in front to offer her the seat, seeing, as he does, that she is pregnant. A fine gesture no doubt but in light of the quote from the mayor a somewhat unfortunate narration. Perhaps Krug should have looked on the Internet to find out that Karlsruhe now has two ‘extreme right’ city councillors who will make similar complaints about recent refugees.  

Krug, inadvertently perhaps (or perhaps with a suspicious mind) comes close to the crux of the matter, multiple contradictions included: since she grew up in Karlsruhe backing onto the American military base, she knew even as a child that there was something odd going on. There were the American in clear sight across the fence but as a German you never interacted with them. At school she learned the American soldiers were stationed there to protect the Germans from ‘resurging Nazism and the threat of Communism’. Later at high school she also learned about the Holocaust. When I went to high school in Germany (Abiturjahr = graduation year 1969, so a bit before the time Krug writes about) we too learned something about the 3rdReich and when some of us started to quiz our elderly history teacher as to what he had been doing the war, he threw a tantrum and forbade us to ever ask such questions again. We wrote to the Wiesenthal Institute asking for Holocaust material, saying we were doing a history project on this topic. They sent us a package with the most horrific photographs from the concentration camps (like one shown in Krug’s book). The director of our school was an associate of the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, a known Nazi but treated as a hero in post-war Germany and Austria. Heinrich Harrer was often a guest-speaker at our school. Some of us radical students (with long hair) found out about all these matters rather late in our time at this high school but just in time to have our Abiturfeier (graduation ceremony) cancelled by pasting posters all over the school the night before, showing an adaptation of the Orwellian ‘all animals are equal but some are more equal than others’ by substituting ‘animals’ with ‘teachers’ and depicting them as pigs. The police was called but they didn’t find out who done it. Looks like Nora Krug in her high school days in Germany did not gain an understanding of this history other than to be flabbergasted by it – and not even wondering much if and how her own relatives might have been involved. The Americans across the fence had only one mission by then (as reinforced by the daily news on German TV): to protect the Germans and the rest of the free world from the evils of communism. Strangely though the American soldiers and their families still didn’t interact with the Germans. Why not? Krug unearths the evidence: one seriously famous Dr Seuss (also known as Theodor Geisel) had produced a US War Department training film in 1945, saying things like ‘the German people are not our friends … trust none of them … stand guard … that is your job in Germany’. Not sure if Krug knows about Geisel’s grandparents from both sides having been German immigrants and yet him advocating that all American-Japanese citizens were to be detained as potential traitors but extending the same privilege to German émigrés only if they showed communist tendencies (like Wilhelm Reich for example) and of course not including American-German citizens (like, it could be argued, Dr Seuss himself). 

When dealing with the forces of fascism, in particular the German version of it, the contradictions are many, and seemingly ordinary folk like Krug and her German family are caught in a maelstrom of half-truths, conjectures, false beliefs, greed, insanity – all mixed up into the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt put it. Any subsequent feelings of national identity (and the whole identity politics) should have drowned in this horrific mess, be it German, American, French or whatever. In that sense Nora Krug has failed to show a way out, which in my opinion is, as a first step, to deny any adherence to any Heimat, nationality, race, religion, ideology, ethnicity and identity. What she did well was to graphically document the dreadful banality that Heimat implies, past and present, in Germany.

Friday, September 28, 2018



The following text fragment is on display at the Museum of Humans. It dates from approximately ten planetary years before the final demise of the human species. In the interest of authenticity the text was reconstructed in the dominant language of the time, namely English. The text, in digital format, was found in an area then known as New Zealand.

“New paragraph… as mentioned before when in 2018 a psycholinguist from the University of Auckland published a paper called The Consequences of Language Obsolescence in an obscure academic journal, there were only a few fellow travelers who nodded wisely. Yes, they had read it many times before, the dire warning of language species extinction, analogous to biological species extinction. Yes, they knew the simple analogy: while it might have been very economical to have just one species of tree for economical exploitation, there is the danger of some unknown disease wiping out the global plantations of Pinus radiata. Ipso facto, no more trees.Apso ficto, no more languages. Full stop.”

Now wait a minute, the uninitiated said. Scaremongering, the anti-climate and anti-language change proponents screamed Trump-like. Not possible. How could a language like English disappear? Languages do not get affected by viruses (well, computer languages might!). Next you crazy lefty greenies telling us that degenerative BUSH English ISIS the cause of all this non-existent climate change. In any case, in Orwellian 2018 it was considered a laughable proposition by new-speak, even by those who thought it quite possible that climate change might affect the earth adversely. Sure, the Maori language had been nearly wiped out, but weren’t there signs of a renaissance? Plus there were all these community languages in New Zealand. And English! English everywhere. The language of globalization. New Zealand was blessed to have native speakers of English, hence providing a sizable pool of teachers of English for those billions of people unlucky enough to have been brought up with a lesser tongue. Teaching English was a major industry. Worth millions if not billions. English as an ass-et.

When in 2019 there was a sudden and dramatic increase in the incidence of a variant of Alzheimer’s Disease in the English speaking world with ageing populations, a noted Chomskyan neuro-linguist from MIT (not the one in Auckland) came up with the thesis that the disease was caused in part by a degeneration of the language capacity (an organ in the brain) which in turn was caused by English mental stresses which in turn were caused by modern life styles, etc, which in turn, etc, etc. Case studies seemed to provide evidence for the proposition. Most worrying of all was the high incidence of variant Alzheimer’s in English speakers in their thirties. For a while the mass media picked up the story and there was a popular debate on whether or not medical science had shot itself in the foot. Do we live longer only to lose our English minds faster? Even the old joke reappeared whereby English-speaking men, young and old, maintain erections with vast supplies of Viagra but cannot remember what for. Soon, of course, the debate was overtaken by other weather news. A gigantic tornado had wiped out large parts of Kansas City. Hundreds of thousands died. The drought in Australia had become so severe that a state of emergency had been declared and vast tracts of land were placed under the command of the military forces that regulated the remaining water supplies on behalf of water corporations. In the UK, a 200-year flood event arrived first with a 10-year frequency and lately as an annual event. In New Zealand a 1,000-year flood covered most of Northland for weeks on end (the commonality of hundred year floods had necessitated upping the ante exponentially). 2019 was a bad year alright. Most people blamed it on the accelerating climate changes. Governments around the world scrambled to halt the decline. The New Zealand Parliament formed a grand government coalition and banned the use of private cars below 1,000 cc, private boats and private jets below 1,000 cc for private use. It became a national past time to define, refine and redefine ‘private use’. The working classes were forced to use scarce public transport, having to get up two hours earlier to go to work, waiting in long queues at bus and train stops. Public air traffic quadrupled. Air taxis became the favoured mode of transport for those with disposable incomes. Drunk flying and carnage in the skies became a bit of a problem. In 2020, however, there were hardly any new natural catastrophes of note, and the world and the transport and knowledge industries sighed a collective sigh of relief. Only the ongoing drought in Australia led to large-scale riots in the major cities which were forced to drastically reduce their water consumption. Civil unrest and civil wars continued at their usual level of intensity. The United States government and its armed forces, as usual, were fighting evil insurgencies in various vassal states and the mimicry of the Roman Empire extended to a Nero-type president incinerating a large part of Washington DC. The president blamed a barbarian group of evil extremists with headquarters in Barbados. All and sundry were nuked out of existence. It was later claimed that the president and his women had confused Barbados with Bavaria (both beginning with B). The whole spectacle was a fantastic opportunity for a start-up interactive Internet service called Inferno. 

As we all now know now, the first signs of the oxygen fluctuations were reported from Christchurch in the same year. A bizarre confluence of cosmic and local events indeed: a spot of extreme ozone depletion coupled with the Christchurch Föhn and an electric storm served as a catalyst for oxygen in the air to form allotropic ozone. This went on long enough for people and animals to suffer respiratory difficulties leading to some 50,000 items of collateral damage in humans. Scientists assured us that this was a one in a billion year event. Ha, in 2027 we knew new now better semi-colon.

It’s hard when you cannot breathe. Like an asthma attack of asthma. You suck air into the lungs but you cannot expel it. You feel like exploding. Sure, just about everyone was running around with inhalers and a bottle of oxygen and stuff. Like, like way back when people, like, ran, like, around with bottles of water. In the beginning it was status symbol. Oxygen bottles in many fashion colours. Like, a cool accessory. Clean green oxygen from New Zealand sold well all over the world. Cynics like you and me pointed out that oxygen is oxygen all around the world makes the world go around. A severe oxygen fluctuation in 2029 around and around Shanghai killed 10 million people. There was not enough oxygen to go around go around. Even mild oxygen depletion affects the brain. Or is it the mind, English or otherwise? It affects your language exclamation mark. You become incoherent. You tend to babble like Bertrand Russell who became my English mantra:

After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans and Hitlers. This, however, I believe is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will again become incapable of supporting life, and peace will return. 

                                                                                    [1950, Unpopular Essays]

In moments of doubt and sufficient oxygen I caught snippets of Wittgenstein. What did he say?Quardle ardle wardle doodle? No, know, now not that one! It’s on the tongue of my tip. It’s all a game. I never felt so happy as never before. It’s a game. It’s really funny. Shame on the trilobites. What a word. In the beginning was the word. You see. English words like word. Crazy Germans have a funny word for that: sich totlachen. I can hardly breathe.

Today looks like a good oxygen day. Our Coromandel commune is waking up to the latest news that Auckland now looks like a scene from Quiet Earth. One of our scouts had tramped there and returned to tell the tall tale. I remember this from my English lessons. No, no, nothing to do with Smith’s Dreamor Bruno. There’s a name for it. A row of words all beginning with the same consonant. I know it but I cannot remember it. I know a lot of things. Lucky I don’t remember. But Auckland, how could I forget. I lived there all these years ago. Taught English. Brought up a family. Had a mortgage. I can still recite the poem ‘the farm’s still there, mortgage corporations couldn’t give it away, and quardle ardle wardle doodlethe magpies say’. See ‘say’ I say to my students, bloody brilliant, present tense, you see. They don’t, never learnt no English grammar. They think I’m mad. So does the management and I lose my job, never to get another one. Yes, how could I forget when the bubble burst, as foretold by my father-in-law. We had signed an unconditional agreement to buy this lovely 10 acre persimmon and olive lifestyle block in Katikati to get away from it all. We borrowed and paid the ten percent $740,900.00 deposit. It all depended on us selling our super-duper she-sells-sea-shells-on-the-sea-side home in Gulf Harbour and the up-market apartment in the city. It was just a matter of weeks, said our nice real estate man, especially if we meet the market, he said with a twinkle in his eye. It would sell, but it didn’t because it was a leaky home and then the global financial bubble burst and it was too late to meet the market. Deposit gone. Noah’s Ark flooded. Timber not treated. No job, no income. Market collapsed. Yes, I remember. Bloody disaster alright. Great, really great depression followed. I shall – future is not a tense – now not now remember now what happened now next. I cannot remember. Member. Me. 

Today smells like a bad oxygen day. There is a fly around in my brain. I try. Breathe, baby breathe. Tihei mauriora. Kia kaha. Excuse my relapse, te reo pakeha, the language of darkness. 

Pen-ultimate paragraph(sic, sick). The sun did not rise today. I rage against the darkness. The journey north. Soulless souls. Unable to even speak in tongues. Ethereal English. Devoid of all alliteration, allusion, antonym and anality. Blank. Blank. Spacebar. Battery very low. Close down. Computer speaks English for the last time.

We have reached Cape Reinga. Hip-i-ti-hop hop-it-i-hip, oh what fun, we all jump.

Thursday, September 6, 2018



Recommended to me by artist and fellow social activist, Zarahn Southon, this book makes for interesting reading. The central theme of people who work in bullshit jobs – and know this being the case – seems to be somewhat facile in the first instance since the much larger problem are people working in bullshit jobs they themselves value very much. Such as soldiers, policemen and all the true believers in what David calls ‘the sadomasochistic dynamic of hierarchical work arrangements’. The managerial feudalism (I have advocated for the term ‘neo-feudalism’ for many years) so rightly decried by David does exist because it affords sadistic pleasure for the managers. David’s allusions to sexual politics in this context are poignant, delving into what might be called Freudian or Reichian domains. His description of Foucault’s supposedly positive transformation after embracing BDSM is hilarious even though the message is supposed to be serious: BDSM as a work place scenario is Ok because we can call ‘orange’ to terminate the game at any time. In the real work place scenario, the worker detecting ‘bullshit’ cannot call ‘orange’ and is instead forced to submit to utter humiliation if not worse. David as the consummate academic/teacher provides the slogan of ‘mutual manipulation of teacher and student (power-good), versus the tyranny of the authoritarian pedant (domination-bad)’. As a teacher/academic myself I certainly agree with the latter but I am not so sure about the former.  Given David’s support for Universal Basic Income as a possible solution to the perverse problem of bullshit jobs, one wonders if David would call ‘orange’ on his current employer (LSE, where bullying seems less pronounced than in his previous position at Yale) as much as I would do so on mine. As we know, much of the teaching/academic profession is populated by sadistic characters so well portrayed in Pink Floyd’s music video for ‘teacher leave us kids alone’ (a more literary example I would recommend is Alfred Andersch’ Der Vater eines Mörders(1980), The father of a murderer, translated by Leila Vennewitz (1994), which fictionalizes the real story of Himmler’s father as a sadistic high school headmaster). 

On a more anthropological (David is after all an anthropologist) and sociological playing field, David provides many a valuable insight on the nature of work itself (he does subtitle his book with ‘a theory’). I like his assertion that real work is service based – caring for others or even for oneself – rather than production based as conceived in many a theoretical treatise on the value or values of labour. The perverse biblical definition of labour as a punishment from god is traced through to the English Puritan and Protestant obsessions with work as a character-building exercise, down to the diminishing factory worker and the subsequent rise of bullshit jobs (especially in the so-called service industries, like banking and insurance). His critique that the both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum are beholden to work as a right (by the Left) and as a commodity (by the Right) may be a bit misleading, especially as he seems to equate the Left with politicians like Clinton, Obama and Blair. We know that these characters are anything but from the Left (it would be interesting to find out what David now thinks of Jeremy Corbyn). Citing Karl Marx on a few occasions, in mainly positive terms, one cannot deny the premise that labour adds value to products. Nurses as a ‘caring’ profession rely on ‘useful’ health products as much as any other caring profession relies on their version of useful products. On the other hand, a much sharper critique might have focused on the mad proliferation of ‘useless’ bullshit consumer products, a sort of double-whammy of having a bullshit job making bullshit products (like the armaments industry – notwithstanding that quite a few workers in this industry might feel they are doing a sterling job). Instead David focuses on bullshit jobs that often involve doing nothing at all, or not very much, so that the worker feels guilty about it, affecting his/her mental health in the process. Some of the many anecdotes (call them case studies if you must) come from the software programming industry where low level programmers have to fix (with ‘duct tape’) the many bugs left behind by higher-ups, a sort of mindless drudgery played out in the Silicon Valleys of our modern times. Embedded in this theme is David’s thesis that AI, robotics and automation have indeed taken over many of the jobs formerly performed by human workers but the real consequence should have been to free the workforce from the 40-hour working week, reducing it to a 15-hour working week. Instead workers now have to work 70 hours a week to make ends meet, working in bullshit jobs that substituted the ones made redundant by automation. An even more schizophrenic situation is built into another type of bullshit job that involves social welfare workers whose job it is to deny the poor their rightful assistance by making it as difficult as possible to get through the red tape associated with it. It is sad but true that in our Western society anybody who does not work and is therefore poor, must be punished, at least as a character-building exercise. In this context David does make a very good point: the liberal Left (such as the Labour party in NZ, my ed.) attacks this ‘unemployment’ problem by promising full employment and a minimum wage (but not even a ‘living wage’ as demanded by some of the more progressive unions) when the solution is in fact a radical reduction of work (and throwing the ‘work ethic’ into the rubbish bin of history) if not total abolition of it. On the political Right, ‘unemployment’ (between 3% - 8%) is of course most desirable as it allows for sadistic competition in the workplace. Human freedom, as David bravely notes, is not at all predicated on regular work (as forever abused by the Nazis' Arbeit macht frei) but on getting a sustainable livelihood. In historical terms, as he reminds us, this meant working for food and shelter during the growing seasons and taking it easy during the fallow seasons. Quoting Orwell, he also reminds us, the ruling classes cannot conceive of the working classes as having time off lest they get up to all sorts of mischief, like hatching plans to usurp the power of the few, or else engage in fun and games for the sake of a bit of enjoyment if not sexual pleasure. Endless work, meaningful or not (as bullshit jobs), keeps us workers imprisoned in a system that David correctly identifies as ‘perverse’. A terrible indictment, really, but also a call in the wilderness to break free (but see where it got Freddie Mercury if we continue with the 1960’s anti-establishment theme which David considers as evidence that young people then could envisage a life outside working nine to five). To break free from neo-feudalism will require a kind of anarchic revolution never seen before. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018



One of the most bizarre commentaries by climate change deniers is promoted in the influential German news media Der Spiegel, by one Axel Bojanowski, who entitles his article with ‘Überhitzt’ (over-heated) which is meant to be a pun on the supposed Doomsday Sayers who raise the alarm on the planet overheating. The argument is that rising temperatures are a godsend because they will avoid a new ice age that could wipe out large proportions of the human species!

One might employ a perverted medical analogy: cancer is a good disease because it prevents people from dying from heart attacks instead!

On a serious note one cannot avoid the suspicion that maliciously fabricated news are not within the purview of some demented social media outlets but rather are promoted by traditional, mainstream media that in the past had the mantle of relative objectivity. Pushing the boundaries to absolute rubbish has its historical precedents: the German corporate media should be particularly careful as it, like no other, facilitated the rise of fascism before. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018



According to David Graeber in his anthropological study Bullshit Jobs(2018) the highest human achievement is the capacity for make-believe. To imagine aliens arriving and wondering what, if any, language they speak or use, must therefore rate as a very worthy project. However in recent times the alien has taken on the form of the beast already being here, made by humans, Frankenstein-like AI robots that evoke fear and loathing lest they turn out to be as stupid as the humans that make them. To discuss the language of the alien is therefore a two-sided affair.

While in the first instance humans and aliens can imagine everything and anything, they are unlikely to be able to escape the laws of nature as we know them, and as such the universe (or multiple universes) and everything and everyone in it, are absolutely constrained by the laws of nature (e.g. E=mc2). Language is no exception, unless we invoke the ‘following the rule paradox’ (via Wittgenstein and Kripke) that states that we cannot apply known rules to unknown phenomena.

So, at the level of present human knowledge we do not know if we know all the laws of nature (e.g. the particle responsible for gravity was only recently confirmed). The ones we do know certainly define and constrain our existence (language included).

Since human language(s) seem/s to have the unique ability to reflect upon itself/themselves, we are tempted to ascribe to language a super-natural aspect simply because we can express such sentiments. Following Chomsky and bio-linguistics we assume that languages and thoughts are generated by biological processes in the brain, hence there is no constraint on output, at least in terms of infinite expressions that can be generated via MERGE and iteration. That many of these expressions may not be reflections of the real world is well attested, both as pathology and as poetic licence (something similar confounded Wittgenstein).

Science fiction (a hybrid between reality and fantasy) exploits the grey areas between what are known laws of nature versus scientific hypotheses and speculations. 

AI in its various forms claims to model human learning (via computer models) and thereby surpass human efficiency and speed of calculation. Popular imagination is fired by ill-informed journalism that tends to sensationalise the scope of AI. More circumspect opinion claims that AI is as good as its human designs, so there cannot be a scenario in which AI robots take over human intelligence. AI may be able to enhance human languages, thoughts and communications, thereby further enhancing human intelligence but AI cannot ever catch up to or surpass human intelligence.

AI as a refined form of technology can be very useful in applications that aid human endeavours (medicine, engineering, transport) and of course communication in as far we now have social media channels that both enhance and stupefy communication.

Assuming that AI is truly intelligent – at least in the sense of human intelligence attributed to great scientists, philosophers and revolutionaries – how would we as humans communicate with AI? Given that AI is far superior to us in terms of efficiency and speed – not having to contend with limits of memory and processing bottlenecks – AI would have to translate their thoughts into human language, slowing down if not dumbing down content. While the language of the AI robot would be constrained in the same way as human language (via the synthetic biology of its computational brain) and use MERGE and iteration as starting blocks, we humans could not keep up with the sheer volume of output, now already known as information overload. 

So what would two AI robots communicate about? Space exploration? Sub-atomic particles? Evolution? Love and procreation? Or something beyond our comprehension? If the latter were the case, say on scientific principles that we have not yet figured out, say time travel or any such science fiction ideas, then we would be simply amazed. Simply amazed as the knights of the realm were when a 20thcentury American (àla Mark Twain) landed in their castle, his time travel having gone haywire. In fact our literary thought experiments may well be on the level of what AI robots talk about – or maybe not.

We could equally imagine that any AI alien would talk to us as we talk to our pet animals, or maybe as human parents talk to their babies, i.e. in a very simplified form that allows the cognitive apparatus to get the message. 

That leaves the question as to what kind of mechanisms AI aliens would use to convey their thoughts. How would their language be designed (to use Hocket’s inquiry)? Direct thought transmission, known by humans as telepathy? A form of sign language? The parable of St. Francis may be useful in this context: as he tried to figure out on how to communicate with the birds in the trees in his monastery, he obviously took the view that he should learn how to sing like the birds, as that seemed to be the way they communicated. However as he mastered their singing no communication took place. It finally occurred to him that the birds communicated by that characteristic hopping on the ground, and as he imitated that hopping (which in the movie version is of course very funny) he could finally communicate with the birds and the bees (with the latter by way of flying in particular formations to indicate where the flowers are). 

As Chomsky famously noted, an alien from Mars would figure out human languages in five minutes, and speak all of them accordingly. Would the alien be equally quick in figuring out why humans seem singularly unable to live in peace and harmony? Or would the alien treat us like a benevolent farmer who talks to his cows? Or simply use his/her/its superior technology to enslave us even though our language and thoughts are on par?

What do we want to communicate to aliens? The content of the gold plated data disc placed in the Voyager spacecraft is based on the assumption that the human species’ greatest achievements in science, music and art – and language itself – are what defines us and is worthy of communicating to aliens who may then consider us as worthy neighbours in space. But what about the real human condition? Why not communicate our worst moments in history? 

Maybe the point is not to communicate anything at all but try to explain our means of communication the best we can – an endeavour that seems paradoxical because an explanation (even in the form of a law of nature) can be considered a type of communication. Nevertheless there is a well-established dichotomy in terms of language, i.e. the Saussurean langueversus parole, or in Chomsky’s terms competence versus performance. Analogies are pure versus applied science and theoretical versus applied linguistics. The former categories are generally considered value-neutral while the latter subdivide again into good versus bad applications. 

So how can we best explain human language to the alien?

Since there is no agreed procedure amongst linguists, philosophers and others who have an interest in the subject, we might have to select representatives from at least the currently dominant schools of thought – which itself should be of interest to the alien in that we have no common understanding of how we communicate, let alone of what we communicate.

In the first instance the representative of generative syntax/minimalism/Chomskyism/etc. will assert that communication in itself has nothing to do with what language is all about, i.e. it is not the functional use that determines its design. A radical stance might be that language equals thought – a process that occurs in the brain and predates the externalisation of thoughts via speech. A less radical approach might be that cognitive processes include language together with other modules. Interdisciplinary research comprising neurolinguistics and neuroscience in general has produced various insights like mirror neurons and quantum alignments that can explain some fairly basic cognitive feats like navigation in birds and memorization of conceptual words in humans but as Chomsky has observed, we are still at the stage of Galilean mechanics or Cartesian philosophy when it comes to understanding human language.

Maybe the alien will be much surprised at this level of humility given our technological and scientific advances that allow us to land a small explorer craft on a meteorite, suspended from a satellite that travelled some three years through space to get there. On the other hand our relative lack of understanding of linguistic and cognitive processes might explain our dreadful history of human degradation, assuming of course that the alien society has achieved a much higher state of development, perhaps something akin to what humans can imagine only in terms of a paradise. 

Even so a binary design of language in terms of MERGE and iteration may well impress the alien as many of the laws of universal nature appear to be manifested in such a way. Take the computational power achieved by humans: the very idea of an artificial intelligence is predicated on such a design, so why not imply that language is artificial intelligence squared (L=AI2). 

Maybe the alien will have perfected the attempt that Wittgenstein made in investigation the construction of human language as a purely logical system that cannot but speak the factual truth at all times. Of course Wittgenstein famously failed and suggested that language is better explained via game theory, i.e. a functional approach whereby the rules of the game are finite but the output is infinite and mainly predicated on winning the game. 

At this stage of the game then we hand over to the representative of the functionalists, pragmatists, behaviourists, generative semanticists and others who hold that the use of language (mainly as a communicative tool) determines its design. Our alien will carefully listen to this argument, as it sounds quite interesting, especially in evolutionary terms. What was it that turned a bunch of primates into our human ancestors? Many animals have communicative abilities but never on par with the human ability, hence is it this very extension that made us human? Did the brains accommodate this evolution by growing neural networks that allows us to communicate in a fairly efficient manner? Darwinian theories of selective adaptation sound probable, as much for language as for finches’ beaks. Then again the study of evolutionary processes has not yielded a straight progression of adaptive advantages but rather a punctuated process in which random mutation is as important as steady adaptation. Here Chomsky and Co. might interrupt the proceedings and tell the alien that MERGE is one of these random mutations that happened some 80,000 years ago, and voilà, human evolution took off in a hyperbolic curve that might yet lead us to the promised land (current setbacks are only due to adaptive behaviours that favour short-term individual gain).

As this is a hypothesis lacking empirical evidence we can dismiss Chomsky for the time being. The alien is nevertheless surprised at the way the debate develops, given that most if not all linguists seem agreed that languages have syntax, be it determined by communication, cognition or specific genetic endowment. So what is syntax? That’s all the alien needs to know so as to appreciate how languages (or language in general) generate sentences, based on syntactic rules. In fact the formulation and description of grammatical rules has been around for thousands of years what with Pāṇini’s grammatical rules of ancient Sanskrit, followed by many a descriptive treatise, covering many of the world’s languages. From dead languages to languages that nowadays have fewer than a 1,000 speakers, there is a rich tapestry of grammars, admittedly mainly from a Eurocentric perspective. Amongst the 6,000 or so languages still extant, there are still many to be described but the descriptive enterprise has lost its mainstream appeal because it appeared that when comparing the grammars of the world’s languages, there is an underlying typology if not universal system of syntax. Even those who reject this approach out of hand will admit to at least a continuum of languages that have very little syntax to those that are ruled by syntax alone. 

To formulate, if not to discover, syntactic rules one must at least agree to some building blocks that make up a grammatical sentence. To that end just about everyone agrees that there are lexical items that fill categorical slots, generally known as word categories. How words have evolved is another matter but again it is generally agreed that we have categories like verbs, nouns and various grammatical markers that all interact to make up a sentence. One may again take up polarised positions in this context: generative grammarians may claim that the lexicon arises from syntax while communicative functionalists may claim that the lexicon determines syntax. Be that as it may, syntax is the systematic, rule-based matrix of a sentence. The next polarization is around the fundamental question as to whether syntax has top-down rules or bottom-up. For a long time the top down approach prevailed, i.e. a sentence is made up of a subject and a predicate while the predicate is in turn made up of a verb and an object, drilling down to the word categories and their morphology (if any). The latter received a lot of attention in traditional grammar schools, mixing grammar with learning Latin and Greek (which Hegel thought to be the ultimate education experience), having to rote-learn declension and conjugation tables without much understanding what case and TMA actually mean. As such grammar became a dirty word in modern language learning pedagogies, preferring instead communicative and experiential models that matched the new linguistics of functionalism.

Early functionalism found its guru in Skinner who declared language to be verbal behaviour, which in its crudest form was taken over by the emergent advertising industry, betting on Pavlovian responses. Along came Chomsky who restored grammar (as syntax) to its former glory. Building on phonological feature and rule systems from the Prague school he singlehandedly elevated sentence syntax to the top of language science. Using a dynamic model of generation rules, sentences could now be derived bottom-up. This fitted with the binary design of the new computational sciences, building up complex structures via cyclical rules, evoking mathematical bracketing formulae and eventually changing over to the now ubiquitous tree-structures. 

Surely this must impress our alien who in all likelihood has a highly evolved mathematical science at his disposal. Cautionary tales from the remaining descriptivists and newly discovered pragmatists that such a hypothetical language design does not always match the actual language data (especially from newly described languages) is thrown to the wind. Building on Greenberg’s language universals, the Chomsky school of generative syntax declares UG as the ultimate matrix of all human languages. Chomsky himself makes the alien comparison: if and when a Martian alien comes to earth, he will figure out all human languages in five minutes and arrive at an underlying design very similar to UG. Chomsky’s Principles and Parameters set up a flurry of ever more complex rules for language features that otherwise defy traditional, static rules of grammar. Island constraints, local binding (especially for anaphors), move a, trace and a plethora of logical rules turn generative linguistics into a highly sophisticated science of language that can only be understood by experts in the field. 

Analogies to psychology and later to biology appear. Humans breathe instinctively but few know how it actually works. So for human language, everyone is a perfect user of language but few understand how it works. Lenneberg’s Biological Foundations of Language eventually convinced Chomsky that this is the way to go by reducing syntax to a system of minimal design, declaring that language is an organ in the brain. 

Our alien at this stage may become alarmed at the turn of events: he knows all about biology and the primary building blocks of life but then again even he does not really understand life to the degree proclaimed by Feynman’s adage that if he cannot make it he cannot understand it. While our alien has advanced AI and the most sophisticated robotics at his disposal, he is still light years away from creating life in the test tube.

Maybe the alien is struck by the apparent language paradox: language cannot explain itself. So what is Chomsky and Co. up to? Are his binary mechanisms of MERGE and MOVE and ITERATION really equivalent to neurological processes in the brain? Is neurolinguistics a branch of bio-linguistics? What about quantum physics in the brain? What about neutrinos from far-away galaxies? 

The alien looks around and sees the human condition and is confused. What on earth (literally) is going on? What is language and what is it good for? Scientific discovery of the highest order? To conduct primitive warfare amongst tribes of robotic humans? Where he, the alien, comes from life has evolved in different ways, where ‘freedom’ is not a concept, where ‘love’ is not an emotion, where … but hold on we are now talking language performance not competence! 

Let’s get back to syntax. Maybe that’s where the alien will question the absolute distinction between competence and performance. He will know that highly complex organisms, such as his, are subject to Murphy’s Law, as much as humans demonstrate by way of their dismal history. Maybe the human language design is not optimal as it is based on biological laws of nature that can and will go wrong. Going back to Wittgenstein, his failed attempt to design a language that is purely logical, maybe the problem is not in performance but in competence as well. 

Investigating the chess analogy a bit closer – will the alien be unbeatable? – it is beyond doubt that the rules of chess are unambiguous, logical and few in numbers, and yet, to win a game means that the clever application of the rules led to an advantage. That many chess games end in a draw is equally informative. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that language rules are equally unambiguous, logical and few in numbers, despite Chomsky’s best efforts to have a minimalist design. Going back to his earlier Principles and Parameters – or even to his Aspects – where highly complex rule systems were designed, it would seem that the possibility of messing up the rules is a real possibility, ending up in at least partially ungrammatical utterances which the listener/reader can recover via pragmatic strategies, i.e. applying the rules correctly. We see this quite often when native speakers recover ungrammatical utterances from L2 speakers. Testing for pragmatic interpretation of anaphora may involve similar conundrums: 

The king commissioned his architect to design a palace for himself.

Given that the syntactic interpretation yields an unlikely scenario, the native speaker may infer that the sentence has an error *himself and that ‘him’ was the intention of the speaker, i.e. the sentence will be reinterpreted accordingly. Of course there is the slight possibility that the king did indeed ask his architect to build a palace for himself. Wider context may or may not disambiguate. Since nobody denies that there is an interface between form and meaning – including Chomsky’s former LF – there must be countless ways to end up with utterances that deviate from the initial thought processes (‘think before you speak’) through to intentional obfuscation (infamously attributed to politicians and corporate money men).

Our alien will have to take all of this into consideration in his communications with earthlings whilst the earthlings have to take into consideration that they know very little about the alien’s language design other than it must be based on the universal laws of nature. Perhaps the earthlings will have to bring to bear their pragmatic skills much more than their knowledge of syntax, at least for the initial contact period. Later on an in-depth understanding of the alien’s communicative language design can be arrived at after studying the subject – as is done via the scientific method with all other subjects.

Then again the scientific method is just another way of telling a story, as Nietzsche observed, where nothing is certain except uncertainty. A recent (2018) paper by Sanders, Drexler and Ord re-evaluates the probability of alien life, with the conclusion that ‘our distribution model shows that there is a large probability of little-to-no alien life, even if we use the optimistic estimates of the existing literature’. 

Human language as such is the highest point of our evolution, however flawed the language design may be. Perhaps language design can be compared to a highly advanced technology, vulnerable to breakdown, neutral in value with the potential for good and bad when used. As far as AI and language is concerned, one can argue that in fact nothing humans say and do results in anything ‘artificial’ in the sense that nothing in AI goes beyond the bounds of language. AI is a highly developed sub-set of language, designed to parse and compute with speeds unavailable to human brains. Sophisticated algorithms that engender so-called deep learning, based on statistical matching of big data, are equally subsets of subsets of mathematics. Again as a technological tool, AI is already known to be used for both positive and negative1endeavours.