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Saturday, November 30, 2013



It is very good book and it not a very good book. One is torn between the two point of views. I should think that if I were an Indian reader, I might not like it that much because by and large it paints a kind of sorry picture of India and Indians in the USA. Just about all the characters in the book are of the unusual sort and somewhat clichéd. Take the judge as a central protagonist: poor village boy makes good only to become a quite insane character: goes off to England and becomes a weird Indian student: comes back to India to become an even stranger judge and husband, abusing his wife, alienated from all his family: ends up in a ramshackle grand villa on the slopes of the Himalayas, with his cook and a pathetic attachment to his dog: and finally his grand-daughter arrives as an orphan only to undergo an upbringing that is less than satisfactory, given all the bizarre circumstances that arise, like a local uprising of the local Nepalese. The cook’s son too fares not very well once shipped off to the USA: as an illegal immigrant he is shunted from menial to more menial jobs in Indian restaurant kitchens, contending with his hapless peers (apart from a funny one from Zanzibar) and with the Indians that have the green card. When the cook’s son returns to India to his father he is robbed of all his possessions he brought with him as some sort of trophy from the USA and he lands in his father’s arms in a woman’s nightgown. And that’s the end.

On the other hand it’s all so true: there are these unfortunate individuals – not just Indians, hence the appeal to an international audience – who with their lives manage to concoct a story of perpetual misery, be they poor or not so poor, with the former of course providing less drama and opportunity to shine with literary gems. Desai certainly does the latter a great service, evoking the life of the educated classes as permanent witty dialogue, what with all the foibles and contradictions one encounters when being an Indian educated in the West – England most likely, but latterly in the USA. Given that India combines all imaginable human conditions, one would have hoped that the occasional average character comes into play. The problem with introducing a wide range of idiosyncrasies, one cannot quite believe the author – as the Olympic narrator – to have access to all thoughts in the heads of the protagonists, thereby often giving lesser souls – like the cook – an appearance of being an intellectual in his own right. By ‘intellectual’ I mean the sort of language that educated middle/upper-class people use these days, Kiran Desai included. Sure, the cook could be a true intellectual, much more so than the mentally off-balance judge but that would have required a different style of writing, perhaps akin to some of the other masters of the Indian genre like Vikram Chandra, Aravind Adiga and Arundhati Roy. The scenario of the Gorkhaland up-rising is also a bit flawed: while seemingly sympathetic on some pages, the overall description favours the middle-class characters who are all inconvenienced by the goings-on, plus – as one of the main protagonists –Gyan seems to recant in the end just to get back to Sai. While we do learn of local police brutality there is also the perception that the GNLF is a bunch of terrorist hoodlums even less desirable than a bit of random terrorism by the police.

The whole idea of poor Nepali boy –Gyan – and well-to-do orphan Sai – as an essentially confused Indian girl who was brought up in a Catholic convent reading Wuthering Heights twice while waiting for Gyan to return – having a sweet love affair is essentially a Mills and Boons plot that lacks credibility. A similar scenario in Roy’s The God of small things where the Kerala-Syrian solo-mother falls in love with the Hindu gardener is on the other hand a real gem and totally believable.

The misery of illegal immigrants in the USA is of course well-drawn in the manner of the classic tragicomedy, perhaps with some exaggeration towards the laughable, especially with the Moslem-Zanzibar character who becomes Biju’s best friend at times, playing out the absurdities that arise when a Hindu boy like Biju, having been brought up with a hatred and loathing of Muslims, has to admit that a real Muslim boy from Zanzibar isn’t that bad after all. The idea that the flamboyant Zanzibar boy takes advantage of the ‘ethnic chic’ prevalent in some quarters of US society, and thus shags all the teenage college girls – is also a bit of a cliché. That the Indian restaurant owner makes money from selling fake vegetarian food to new-age customers who are attracted by the restaurant’s name – Gandhi – is also a bit of a low point, especially if you are an Indian reader, I would think.

I am struggling to understand the colonial hangover some Indians, like Desai, surely carry around with them: I work in an educational institute where many of the students are Indian and a few of the tutors are too (some migrated to NZ, some were born here). To be totally dismissive of one’s so-called home country is not all too common but for example, I as a German citizen (in name) living in NZ, have no compunction to rail against Germany. For the expatriate Indian to rubbish India is another matter: it is a sort of betrayal that is very difficult to explain. Many an Indian is simply an economic migrant seeking a ‘better life’ and ‘better education for their children’ – a dreadful cliché nevertheless. They would gladly return to India if they could get a well-paid job and a guarantee that their children receive a world-class education. The English – and other Europeans – are after all prime examples of large-scale economic migration. Of course they did it in such numbers as to create English colonies in their wake. No other group of peoples has achieved this dubious honour in modern times. Certainly not the Indians which must be to their credit. Still, there are Indians everywhere, a bit like the Chinese, having left their home countries in search of a often very elusive better life. Of course I may be blind to the real lives of the Indians I see on a daily basis but none strike me as characters of The Inheritance of Loss  scenarios, hence my earlier criticism that just about all the characters of the novel are a bit unusual to say the least. On the other hand what would a novel be without them? A boring tale of everyday life where nothing unusual ever happens?

Desai tried her best to make it as exciting as possible, and there is a lot in her novel that merits praise. She does very well to evoke the landscape of the Himalayan region around Darjeeling, a region of stunning beauty if not eccentricity – and it is perhaps not surprising that certain equally eccentric characters are drawn to it, living through the extreme seasonal changes, paying a high price for the occasional glimpses of Kanchenjunga.  

Saturday, October 19, 2013


When Alice Munro received her Nobel Prize for Literature she was dubbed ‘Canada’s Chekhov’, presumably on the strength of a fellow traveller’s observation, quoted as follows:
Her subjects and her writing style, such as a reliance on narration to describe the events in her books, have earned her the moniker "our Chekhov," in reference to the 19th century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov -- a term affectionately coined by Russian-American short story writer Cynthia Ozick. 
Munro herself is only quoted as saying:
I have recently re-read much of Chekhov and it's a humbling experience. I don't even claim Chekhov as an influence because he influenced all of us. Like Shakespeare his writing shed the most perfect light - there's no striving in it, no personality. Well, of course, wouldn't I love to do that! 
Munro’s assertion that ‘he influenced all of us’ is a heavy dose of literary snobbery  in that she can align herself with many of the literary greats who have paid homage to Chekhov. While some are ambivalent, the overall verdict stands, such as that of Nabokov who is cited as complaining of Chekhov's ‘medley of dreadful prosaisms, ready-made epithets, repetitions’ but declaring that ‘The Lady with the Dog is ‘one of the greatest stories ever written’ and describing Chekhov as writing ‘the way one person relates to another as the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice.’( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Chekhov)

Whilst I am not a fan of either Alice Munro or Nabokov, I am again reminded of the eternal fame Chekhov seems to have garnered. Hence in line with Munro (above) I have re-read ‘The Lady with the Dog’ and ‘A Doctor’s Visit’ just in case I missed something during my previous attempts to get to like Chekhov as a writer of short stories - a genre I like myself as a writer of no note (hence always eager to compare myself to the one with that je ne sais quoi). Based on my previous reading experience I would of course never deny that Chekhov is a good writer – like a million other good writers. I just fail to see what is so special about him that elicits the heights of literary praise.

So let us do a close reading of the ‘Lady with the Dog’ and critique it mercilessly. This being a Yalta story one is of course aware that Chekhov himself frequented Yalta and as such knows the surroundings well. Yalta as a premier Russian resort town, where the well-off Russian hypochondriacs convalesced, attracted many a character rife for literary treatment, and as such the protagonists of the story, Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna fit the description, quite apart from Gurov’s observation that ‘the two peculiarities of a well-dressed Yalta crowd were very conspicuous: the elderly ladies were dressed like young ones, and there were great numbers of generals’. While neither of them belongs to this type of ‘well-dressed crowd’ they are nevertheless paragons of the Russian bourgeoisie, Gurov owning ‘two houses in Moscow’ while Anna is married to a reasonably wealthy man and as such a lady of leisure. Gurov as an obvious alter ego of the author – at least in my reckoning – is of course several degrees removed from all of that, even though on the surface of it he is married with children and holding down a job in a bank. Indeed his main obsession, if not occupation, seems to be to figure out the female species (arguably a fascinating topic under any circumstances), echoing Chekhov to the point, writing to Suvorin:
By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: everything must be as it has been hitherto—that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her ... give me a wife who, like the moon, won't appear in my sky every day. 
Letter to Suvorin, 23 March 1895.
and as paraphrased in ‘Lady with a Dog’:
From the past he preserved memories of careless, good-natured women, who loved cheerfully and were grateful to him for the happiness he gave them, however brief it might be; and of women like his wife who loved without any genuine feeling, with superfluous phrases, affectedly, hysterically, with an expression that suggested that it was not love nor passion, but something more significant; and of two or three others, very beautiful, cold women, on whose faces he had caught a glimpse of a rapacious expression—an obstinate desire to snatch from life more than it could give, and these were capricious, unreflecting, domineering, unintelligent women not in their first youth, and when Gurov grew cold to them their beauty excited his hatred, and the lace on their linen seemed to him like scales.
Is this a lady-killer speaking, or chauvinist or even a misogynist? That he cannot be the former is evidenced by the remark an associate of Gurov makes on his behalf:
The part of a lady-killer does not suit you at all, Dimitri.
Chekhov (and by implication Gurov) cannot not be considered a misogynist even though the idea of ‘capricious, unreflecting, domineering, unintelligent women not in their first youth’ isn’t exactly a flattering statement about women. Chauvinistic? Paternalistic? Quite possibly in today’s terms of political correctness, especially if one describes one’s wife as one ‘who loved without any genuine feeling, with superfluous phrases, affectedly, hysterically, with an expression that suggested that it was not love nor passion’. For is it not the failing of the man/husband to get himself into a situation that blames the female/wife as being disaster of sorts? At the very least the adjectives ‘unreflecting, domineering, unintelligent’ are more applicable to men who treat women as some sort of chattel and/or object of pleasure.

Since ‘Lady with a Dog’ might be considered a cautionary tale whereby an erstwhile chauvinist/hedonist is turned into a true lover (and devoted husband perhaps) one could construe the Gurov character as just that, i.e. the flaws in his character taking a turn for the better, and with a happy end in sight (‘a new and splendid life would begin’), and love conquering all:
Anna Sergeyevna and he loved each other like people very close and akin, like husband and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that fate itself had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband; and it was as though they were a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages. They forgave each other for what they were ashamed of in their past, they forgave everything in the present, and felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.
Never mind that along the way Gurov thought that ‘there's something pathetic about her, anyway’ and that he ‘felt bored’ by Anna’s pathetic self-accusations like ‘ … and now I have become a vulgar, contemptible woman whom any one may despise.’

Is Chekhov, the story teller, merely playing on life’s many contradictions or is there a sense of an inherent psychological disturbance? Chekhov in real life seemed to have a somewhat difficult relationship with the female species, preferring the brothel rather than domestic pleasures, preferring to have a somewhat platonic relationship with his ‘wife’. Sex seems to be a subject best not talked about and in ‘Lady with a Dog’ we are baffled by the quick and salacious line
"Let us go to your hotel," he said softly. And both walked quickly.
which ends in
Afterwards when they went out there was not a soul on the sea-front …
Did they do it? Did they just talk and steal a few kisses? Did Anna improve on Gurov’s wife who is said to love ‘without any genuine feeling’? What exactly is this love that ‘had changed them both’? Gurov/Chekhov invokes ‘fate’ as the progenitor, akin to the Greek Cupid shooting his arrow. How does this equate with his previous life in that women (lovers, wife, and daughters) are a nuisance incapable of true love? Isn’t love supposed to be something that develops and need s a lot of patience and tolerance? Chekhov seems to paint over these questions with a broad brush that belies a certain boredom with the very idea. It just doesn’t make much sense when Gurov complains
… he always seemed to women different from what he was, and they loved in him not himself, but the man created by their imagination, whom they had been eagerly seeking all their lives; and afterwards, when they noticed their mistake, they loved him all the same. And not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, he had made their acquaintance, got on with them, parted, but he had never once loved; it was anything you like, but not love.
This man is in need of serious therapy! Maybe one cannot deny that such men roam the earth, creating a lot of unhappiness (‘not one of them had been happy’) along the way, and that one can use them as a character in a short story. But what is the point? That they can be redeemed in the end with true love, love that only can ‘fate’ dish up? Chekhov cannot even contemplate what that would mean other than to say that ‘the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning’. This is yet another contradiction, for how can love as ‘fate’ be ‘difficult’? Chekhov does seem to have inkling that love – as a human endeavour – is ‘complicate and difficult’ but on the other hand he doesn’t want to have all these long-term complications and difficulties, preferring the one-night stand and a shake-down in the shower (as Leonard Cohen, the song-writer, puts it so beautifully) and then complain that this isn’t the answer either.

If we assume that Chekhov deep down has a fairly cynical attitude to life (life is a bitch, or, again, as Leonard Cohen sings about the ‘homicidal bitch who decides who eats and how doesn’t’) we can find some evidence for it in his other story ‘A Doctor’s Visit’ which we will analyse briefly. Chekhov as a real-life medical doctor has of course developed that attitude common to all medics, namely that life is cheap and ever so transient, and that all our efforts to keep people alive is a somewhat perverse endeavour – but at least a well-paid one, especially if one attends to the richer hypochondriacs. In any case, this seems to be the crux in A Doctor’s Visit, the Muscovite well-to-do doctor attending to a rich but very sickly grown-up girl whose mother owns and runs a horrible cotton factory in the country-side. The main point seems to be to muse about the contradictions of life:
The strong must hinder the weak from living—such was the law of Nature.
Well said! If we spend our lives to observe this sorry spectacle we cannot but become crafty cynics – and in the case of Chekhov turn this into an accomplished art form. I myself find myself practising this form of black humour, for what else can one do? Become a revolutionary and be shot? Chekhov like his good Dr Korolyov in the story do know very well what is wrong with people and what medicine they need – even if it is only someone to talk to. Chekhov as the doctor was said to make less money from his doctoring than from his literary enterprises, treating many of his poorer patients for free. That he did not attend to his own illness (TB) was perhaps a sign of denial peculiar to some medicine men who let fate play out is design, not bothering to intervene, and as such Chekhov has the sad history of dying in Germany in a ‘Bad’ where sick people go to be cured. Korolyov on the other hand seems to epitomise the doctor who has everything under control, enjoying the snippets of life as much as he can, deriving some pleasure from a sunny Sunday:
…. but thought of the time, perhaps close at hand, when life would be as bright and joyous as that still Sunday morning; and he thought how pleasant it was on such a morning in the spring to drive with three horses in a good carriage, and to bask in the sunshine.    
This sounds like a strong dose of pleasure as only the lofty bourgeoisie can enjoy, a kind of meaningless trifle in the midst of the sea of mindless suffering. It sounds like what the bourgeois Americans did a century or so later, namely cruise in an open Cadillac and have some back-seat fun. Stories that peter out this way are of course lauded by the literary cognoscenti as being of the Chekhovian trade-mark, stories without beginning or end, excerpts from life, vignettes, snap-shots of time, short streams of consciousness, making cute observations about the absurdities of life, as no doubt Chekhov is master of (from his Notebook):
Aristocrats? The same ugly bodies and physical uncleanliness, the same toothless old age and disgusting death, as with market-women.
This is all true enough but disingenuous at the same time, for the market-woman would rather be an aristocrat, given half a chance. It is from this point of view that I find Chekhov difficult to like as a writer. I prefer writers who write of their visions to change the world, not writers who merely describe the world. That Alice Munro also belongs to the latter category is of course no surprise, as she a master of the local non-event, stuck in a Canadian countryside where psychological drama revolves around the choice of the breakfast cereal.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Als langwärtiger-bärtiger expatriat-Deutscher (in Neuseeland) kann man sich nur darüber wundern warum die Mehrzahl der wählenden Bundesrepublikaner eine so komisch-geile-geierlich rechts-gerichtete Merkel und ihre Partei gewählt haben. Oder vielleicht soll man sich überhaupt nicht wundern, denn das ist ja alles klar:

so-genannte demokratische Wahlen sind in Deutschland (wie auch sonstwo) dermassen von den rechts-gerichteten Eigentümern der manipulativen Medien bestimmt daß wohl niemand mehr seinen eigenen Verstand einsetzen kann oder darf
daß fast 30% nicht wählen muss doch bedeuten daß die Merkel-Union mit ihren über 40% + SPD oder Grüne keinesfall die Mehrheit aller Wahlberechtigten hat, ganz abgesehen von den nicht-Wahlberechtigten; d.h. wenn man schon von echeter oder „unbeschränkter“ (siehe Rosa Luxemburg, unten) Demokratie reden will, die Merkel nicht mal mit 40% irgendetwas gewonnen hat (und wenn man schon von Zahlen redet, warum kann die Mehrheit von SPD+Linke+Grüne eigentlich nicht die Regierung bilden?)
diese Form der Demokratie als Wettbewerb mit Gewinnern und Verlierern hat ja schon immer dafür gesorgt daß der Extremismus sich etablieren kann, wobei (Haus)Frau Merkel als eine Inkarnation von Margaret Thatcher den Geier-Kapitalismus (vulture capitalism, Loewenstein, 2013) dermas ankurbeln kann daß Deutschland und Europa bald ausverkauft sein werden
um ein paar Einzelheiten zu kommentieren: Rössler und die FDP haben wohl „verloren“ weil ein eingebürgerter Vietnamese doch nichts in der rassistischen Deutschlandpolitk zu suchen hat (auch wenn er das Kapital vertritt); das sieht man auch bei den Grünen mit ihren Türken, und auch noch damit daß die und die Linken ja alle Ferkel sind die man lieber in die Konzentrationslager schicken sollte; und laut Spiegel:
...die SPD konnte ihre klassische Klientel, Arbeiter, Angestellte und Gewerkschaftsmitglieder nicht mobilisieren - gerade einmal 27 Prozent der sozialdemokratischen Wähler waren Arbeiter (Union: 36 Prozent) und 26 Prozent Angestellte (Union: 40 Prozent) ... http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/bundestagswahl-ergebnis-nach-alter-geschlecht-beruf-sortiert-a-923376.html 
was wohl heissen soll daß das „klassische Klientel“ der SPD-Proletarier auch schon radikalisiert ist und nun Merkel wählt. Nun wird sich das „Klientel“ schon wundern müssen wenn es bei der nächsten Lohnrunde bergabwärts geht (es ist ja auch kein Zufall dass sich die „gewählten“ Nazis erst als „Arbeiter-Partei“ etablierten und dann die „Arbeiter“ zu „Zwangsarbeitern“ machten). Daß die Bayern wieder einheitlich die CSU wählen ist auch kein Zufall: die haben sich alle zuerst auf der „Wiesn“ angesoffen und haben dann immer das erste christliche Kreuz (das sie ja so gut von der Kirche und ihrem seltsam „früheren“ Hitlerjungen-Papst kennen) angekreuzt
man muss auch darauf aufmerksam machen daß natürlich alle die sich „wählen“ lassen und die, die sie „wählen“ sich ja gegenseitig verdienen, selbst wenn man davon ausgeht daß der „Wähler“ keine „Wahl“ gehabt hat; sogar die Linken die Gott-sei-Dank immer noch im „roten“ Berlin populär sind, sollten sich darüber schämen daß sie Rosa Luxemburg verraten haben, die ja geschrieben hat:
„Das Proletariat kann, wenn es die Macht ergreift, nimmermehr nach dem guten Rat Kautskys […] auf die soziale Umwälzung verzichten und sich nur der Demokratie widmen, ohne an sich selbst, an der Revolution Verrat zu üben. Es soll und muß eben sofort sozialistische Maßnahmen in energischster, unnachgiebigster, rücksichtslosester Weise in Angriff nehmen, also Diktatur ausüben; aber Diktatur der KLASSE, nicht einer Partei oder Clique, Diktatur der Klasse, d. h. in breitester Öffentlichkeit, unter tätigster ungehemmter Teilnahme der Volksmassen, in unbeschränkter Demokratie.“ (Rosa Luxemburg: Zur russischen Revolution. GW 4, S. 362 f.)
Man kann sich ohnehin Genosse Gysi schlecht als Klassen-Diktator und „unbeschränkten“ Demokraten vorstellen.

Loewenstein, A. 2013. Profits of doom. University of Melbourne Press.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A contradictory review of Lina Sun’s ‘Growing up in Red China: Representations of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in young adult novels and memoirs’

A contradictory review of Lina Sun’s ‘Growing up in Red China: Representations of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in young adult novels and memoirs’ in Vol. 7 No 2 (2013) of

Wolfgang B. Sperlich

In Lina Sun’s ‘Growing up in Red China: Representations of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in young adult novels and memoirs’ the Cultural Revolution and its main protagonist, Mao Tse-tung, are variously labelled as ‘authoritarian, paranoid, unjust, dark, malevolent, manipulative, brain-washing, torturous, totalitarian, abysmal, senseless, cruel, iron-fisted, fanatical, violent, masculine, dogmatic, indoctrinating, frenzied, extreme, frantic, suffocating, tyrannical, autocratic, inhuman, feudalistic, cowardly, oppressive, evil and abusive’ and at the same the reader is invited to consider Sun’s statement that ‘by serving as a witness and providing a personal testimony to the inherent “evils” in contemporary China, these writers are welcomed as guests in the West because they don’t critically examine the oppressive and hegemonic nature of the new world order’.

So is this a classical case for Mao Tse-tung’s (1937) famous essay ‘On Contradiction’? Maoism is after all not quite dead yet, as indeed China’s new leader Xi Jinping has reiterated recently (15 July 2013). Hence what is Sun’s purpose in writing this article? Since the question of the ‘audience’ is the famous sine qua non of Critical Literacy, one can only guess that the editors of the eponymous journal determined that Sun speaks to the Critical Literacy audience. Does Sun’s opinion piece go towards a reconciliation of sorts, hoping against hope that such an article will be acceptable to the academic establishment in Beijing? Are any of the readers of Critical Literacy sympathetic towards Maoism, in theory or praxis? Or even the Cultural Revolution? Let us assume a small possibility, hence my review.

If we employ Mao’s ‘two world-view’ metaphor, can we also employ Sun’s above adjectives to describe the current American regime? President Obama personally signs off drone attacks causing quite a bit of collateral damage (30 May 2012), and as Sun points out:

Actually, serious human rights problems also exist in contemporary American society, especially after the 9/11, such as racial discrimination toward the Muslims, surveillance of people’s private phone conversations, abusive treatment of prisoners of war in the internment camp in Cuba, subjecting immigrants to high levels of governmental scrutiny by creating detention centers for the undocumented immigrants and denying them medical
assistance …, as well as censorship on certain politically sensitive publications.

We could add Chomsky’s (2003) list of US war crimes as well as Loewenstein’s recent (2013) book on Profits of Doom in which he notes that the US has the largest prison population (per capita) in the world and largely made up of the US’s minority communities. Detractors will claim that these ‘crimes’ do not add up to the ‘genocidal atrocities’ committed by Mao, hence the US can still claim the high moral ground. Is there a neutral observer who can quote the relevant statistics of death and destruction in China and the USA? Shall we live by the maxim of the ‘lesser evil’ and employ Orwellian newspeak and rejoice with Sun that the ‘narratives culminate in their escape from China to the West, from political oppression to the ultimate freedom’. Is this ‘ultimate freedom’ the best we can hope for? Is it just a pragmatic stance that says that ‘(American-style) democracy isn’t perfect but is the best we have’?

What exactly then does Sun mean when she implores US teachers to use these texts ‘critically’ so that the students can ‘call into question the capitalist system on which this country is built …. express their frustrations and disappointments about stagnant social upward mobility …. indignant about unfair wealth distribution and bourgeoisie (sic, my emphasis) exploitation caused by blatant loopholes in the American political system’? Isn’t that what a young Mao did with respect to China and the rest of the world by studying Marx and Lenin (and who knew the word ‘bourgeoisie and how to use it)’ ? Or is there a sub-text like: in the USA students should be allowed to study Marx and thereby realise that he was all wrong and that it engenders people like Mao to become homicidal maniacs? Of course historians always tell us that Mao didn’t have capitalism in China at the time, and instead was dealing with a feudalist system, namely a serf-like system endemic in Russia, hence there was nothing to learn from Marx as he was much more advanced in tackling the question of ‘das Kapital’, only to get it horribly wrong, or did he? All in all there are so many contradictions that we cannot possibly allow Sun to call for a sort of academic freedom that Mao called ‘let a thousand schools of thought blossom’. While Sun bravely quotes the likes of Freire and Zinn, she does so in the jester’s knowledge that there isn’t a chance in hell that anyone in power in the US will pay any attention to them -  other than laugh about them. Is it therefore just some kind of nice academic posturing or is there a real sense of Sun’s concluding remark of ‘for teachers, critically examining the representations of the Cultural Revolution in young adult literature with students is probably a good start to embark on the journey of reading for social justice and a better world’?

Notwithstanding Sun, the only ‘revolutions’ that can be contemplated in the USA at present are those of the banking kind that ‘revolutionize’ the ease with which the tax payers have to fund the ‘profits of doom’ – to use Loewenstein’s metaphor. A young Mao today will have the greatest difficulties in writing ‘On Contradiction in the USA’ simply because the contradictions have multiplied from the binary model into a nasty bog of neo-feudal, post-modernist, pre-virtual, sexist, neo-fascist and fundamentalist religious proportions that leaves the socialist analyst perplexed to the degree of catatonic verbiage – the present author included. On the other hand, as Chomsky explains for linguistics and language in general, we are born with the binary brain and we can only solve binary problems. As such the baffling, binary question will remain: will the East prevail over the West, as Mao once predicted? If so, what would Sun’s and Critical Literacy’s position be in this new world order? It hardly bears thinking about.


Mao Tse-tung. 1937. On Contradiction. In Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung. Foreign
            Languages Press, Peking.

Chomsky, N. 2003. Hegemony or survival. America’s quest for global dominance.
            Metropolitan Books.

Loewenstein, A. 2013. Profits of doom. Melbourne University Publishing.

Newsmax (15 May 2012). White House: Drone Attacks, ‘Kill List’ Necessary to

South China Morning Post (15 July 2013). Xi Jinping turns to Mao Zedong's thoughts

Monday, June 3, 2013



It is old adage that the political left is its own worst enemy in that various factions devote most of their time attacking each other for presumed crimes against ideological correctness. If the forces of the left could only unite then they would have no difficulty in waging a war against the forces of the right – and stand a good chance of winning. There is some truth in this but of course real life is far more complicated than that. To certain degree it is also true to note that the forces of the center-right are often shifted to the centre or even centre-left as the extreme right becomes ever more established and claims the middle ground – as is obviously true for the current state of the politics in the USA, Canada, the UK, Germany and New Zealand to name but a few examples.

In the US anyone who ever worked for the Obama campaign in the mistaken belief that HE would make the world a better place, and when realizing one’s naivety, then shifted to a campaign that is slightly to the left of the centre-right Obama democrats (many of whom remain purely right-wing), one becomes an extreme left-wing lunatic in the reckoning of the new centre-right.

In New Zealand the right-wing National Party government now paints the Green Party as an extreme left-wing party even though the Green Party had – quite amazingly – signed an MoU with the government at the beginning of the term. The NZ Green Party in line with many other Green Parties in the Western democracies are as centrist as can be, ready to make deals for a piece of the action. With new elections looming, the right-wing parties must of course claim the middle ground and accuse the Greens as lunatics, lest they team up with an even more centrist party, the NZ Labour Party, and win the elections. OMG, they would force supermarkets to become ‘fair trade’ shops!

Which brings me to the sad case of Aaron Swartz which is highlighted by a Guardian lead story entitled ‘Aaron Swartz: hacker, genius… martyr?’ (June 2013) in which his former girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman reminisces as to the likely reasons for Aaron’s suicide. Taren is revealed to be a social activist and ‘executive director of SumOfUs, a global protest movement that seeks to hold corporations to account’. Her account – as edited by the Guardian reporter – makes, in parts, interesting reading:
His professional choices were guided by his conscience. In 2009, he chose to spend time as an intern in the congressional offices of Democrat Alan Grayson because he wanted to learn about how government operated before he set about the business of trying to improve it. Swartz had already compiled a report about the relation between candidates' wealth and their electoral success. During the period he spent in Grayson's office, he worked to help pass Obama's landmark healthcare reform. In 2010, he volunteered for the Democratic national convention in the runup to the midterm elections.
Unlike many social activists, who dismiss the political process as corrupt without seeking to understand what makes it so, Swartz was always seeking a deeper explanation from within the institutions he wanted to change.
To be somewhat disingenuous, one wonders what the second paragraph is meant to convey: do we have to join the NSDAP first in order to find out what makes it abysmally corrupt? How sadly deluded does one have to be, to work for someone in good faith who will ultimately kill you? Aaron was driven to his death by an Obama appointee, namely by US attorney Carmen Ortiz who prosecuted the case to set an example for anyone contemplating the freedom of the Internet by hacking into a commercial-academic (JSTOR) site to liberate academic articles. Aaron even returned all the articles and JSTOR withdrew the complaint, unlike MIT which is embroiled in a new right-wing takeover from Obama democrats. Ideological cleansing (read ‘murder’) within political parties and movements is nothing new but to snipe at harmless souls like Aaron is akin to the proverbial killing of a fly with a sledge hammer. On the other hand it has huge propaganda value to do the occasional overkill, just to demonstrate the absolute power of the powers-to-be. The Guardian in reviewing the case does just that, especially with the sly headline suggesting that Aaron could be mistaken as a ‘martyr’, a term we all know has the current connotation of mad Islamists.

My real point is however the question as to how much Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman has learnt from this tragic case. The Guardian portrays her as going back to work as ‘executive director of SumOfUs, a global protest movement that seeks to hold corporations to account’. If and when you visit SumOfUs as an example of an increasing number of like-minded web-based ‘protest movements’ you will see a list of the oddest co-workers that are introduced after the ‘executive director and founder ‘ of the web-site. Quite a few of the US based ‘campaigners’ have had previous roles in the Obama election campaigns while others have worked for various NGOs and government organizations that feed on each other. The European Campaign Manager, Oliver Moldenhaur, is credited with ‘in his spare time he likes good food and wine and hiking mountains – best of all good wine on top of mountains’: I mean, how much more bourgeois can you get? So what do all these good people do?

Well, they set up story boxes about naughty corporations that do the wrong thing and you can ‘take action’ by clicking on it and adding your name to a petition to remind the wayward corporation to pull up its socks, lest they get more bad publicity which could hurt their profits. One such example is the ‘Whole Foods: Stand up for exploited children’ campaign which notes that ‘America’s largest fair trade and organic retailer … Whole Foods has built a successful brand as an ethical retailer’ but actually fails to comply with its own doctrinal business and ‘fair trade’ ethics, such as sourcing and selling chocolate that is tainted by child slave labour. We can then electronically add our name to the following petition:
Stop stocking chocolate produced by companies that have not committed to eliminating child labor in their supply chains and purchase only fair trade certified chocolates.
Didn’t they just say above that Whole Foods is America’s largest fair trade and organic retailer’? It doesn’t take much detective work to figure out that the whole ‘fair trade’ movement has become a sham that puts Band-Aids on some of the most glaring crimes in international food production practices.

Returning then to the quip about the NZ Green Party, one can see the contradictions piling up on the contradictions whenever an established political party is subject to the wildest left-right fluctuations visited upon by rival parties just to the right of the other rightists. Is Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman serious when launching a campaign – and they won - to ‘Don’t let Wall Street block Elizabeth Warren from the Senate Banking Committee’? Is this a case of voting for the devil you know versus the one you don’t? In sum, SumOfUs is a ‘support Obama’ web-forum under the vaguely left-wing banner of a ‘protest movement’. No wonder, to entice potential donors, the site announces that ‘SumOfUs is a movement of consumers, workers and shareholders speaking with one voice …’. What an odd assemblage! Aren’t large corporations owned by ‘shareholders’?  Is that where the big donations are coming from to bankroll SumOfUs? What is going on here? Delusion? Self-deception? Agent-provocateurs? Material for conspiracy theorists?

Don’t they know that governments and corporations cannot be reformed? After all it was the democrats under Clinton that sanctioned the greatest aberration in the history of economics, namely investing corporations with the legal status of a person.  You cannot turn the NSDAP into a good party by signing a petition asking them to comply with human rights. You cannot turn disaster capitalism (à la Naomi Klein) into good capitalism: it’s a contradiction of terms, it’s an oxymoron. You cannot falsify Chomsky’s dictum in that if he were to become president he would send himself to jail: it is the office that corrupts (keeping in mind that most office holders were corrupt long before then).

Just to demonstrate that the US is not alone in these machinations, consider this story from New Zealand: Kim Hill is a National Radio presenter who does the Saturday morning show that has a media reputation as being savvy and  slightly to the left of center. I suppose to ‘balance’ her politics she must interview various wannabes from the corporate right wing in order to sneak in the occasional lefty, such as the UK’s Howard Brenton who calls himself a reluctant Marxist on her interview, and is as such a source of great amazement for Kim Hill. The mainstream right-wing counterpart is one Derek Handley, a ‘young and inspiring’ NZ entrepreneur who wrote a book based on his ‘recent involvement in The B Team, a global leadership group, led by Sir Richard Branson, focused on new models of business for a sustainable and prosperous 21st century’. In the interview with Kim Hill, he keeps repeating that all we need to make the world a better place, are enlightened leaders like SIR Richard Branson who demonstrates so well that we can make lots of money and make the world a better place by doing so.

No wonder the world is lurching ever closer to the brink of a new NSDAP. History has a sad tendency to repeat itself, first as at tragedy, then as a farce (as Stalin said), mainly because – the way I see it – various well-meaning people see the storm coming but their only solution is to propose to the storm to calm down. Aaron Swartz paid with his life. Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman and her supporters need to wake up to the reality of the situation and consider some ideas for a better world: one WITHOUT governments, presidents, corporations, entrepreneurs, knighthoods and quite possibly ‘executive directors’ of ‘protest movements’ in cyber space.





Friday, April 26, 2013



I must confess that I don’t usually read books like that but three felicitous reasons combined for this occasion. One, we were in India in 2012 and happened to come close to a wild elephant who had wondered into our resort in a nature reserve – the elephant ditch had not been an obstacle for him/her in order to get to the jackfruit that was on offer on the trees. Two, I recently happened to come across Heathcote Williams’ The Sacred Elephant, a great, long ode to wild elephants. Third, Sheldrick’s book was presented to me by a member of my wife’s family – who once were Kenyans – and indeed one of my wife’s uncles is mentioned by name in the book.

My wife was born in Nairobi in 1955, the same year as Daphne Sheldrick’s first daughter, Jill. My wife’s father and step-mother, now living in New Zealand, know many of the characters in the book. As such, while I have never been to Kenya, I have a bit of background knowledge based on the many tales I’ve heard, notwithstanding popular treatises like Out of Africa, The Flame Trees of Thika and Happy Valley. Being more interested in politics than wildlife, I’ve always wondered why some Europeans stayed in Kenya after independence while many others – like my wife’s family – left. So how come Daphne Sheldrick and members of her family stayed on? Surely I would find the answer in the book even if it was all about the wildlife. Don’t get me wrong, I am totally on the side of animal rights activists, and while I know next to nothing about elephants (apart from what Heathcote Williams tells us in his Sacred Elephant, which quite a mine of knowledge) I have no doubt that elephants are some of the greatest creatures on earth, and I admire anybody who deeply cares for them and their freedom (I hate people who keep elephants as circus and zoo animals).

Sheldrick’s opening gambit is rather flawed in this respect: she gets nearly killed by a wild elephant whom she mistakes as one of the former orphans she had reared and reintroduced to Tsavo National Park. This happened many years after she had left Tsavo, and it was many years after her second husband, David Sheldrick had died. While the stated aim by the Sheldricks had always been to reintegrate their elephant orphans (and other species like rhinos) into the park’s wilderness, there had developed such an anthropomorphic bond between Daphne and some of the orphans (like the one she named Eleanor) that she thought it only natural that she could meet them in the wild and they would come up to her and give her a cuddle. That she couldn’t tell for sure who is who in a wild herd is perhaps a reminder that such anthropomorphism should cease when such animals are returned to the wild. If a formerly orphaned animal returned to the park headquarters in Tsavo to say hello to Daphne and her caring assistants, one would fully accept it as a friendly gesture on behalf of the animal. There are many stories of animals that return to their former caregivers who do not recognize them by way of any distinctive features but by the mere fact that they behave in a way that is not normal for a wild animal, i.e. they make a friendly contact with the humans whom they remember as having saved their lives. Often such visits are fleeting and in time may cease altogether. The humans should accept this as a job well done. This may be easier said than done, as some people really do love their animals in the way one loves a best human friend who would do anything to help out in need. To let go of this bond is a great sacrifice to make, as Daphne Sheldrick often relates when she lets her charges go. She should not have sought out Eleanor in the wild herd of elephants when she should have known – as a person who had studied elephants all her life – that this was a risky undertaking as another elephant might well come up instead of Eleanor and be not recognized as such and thereby set up a situation that can dangerous for both animal and human very quickly. That this elephant merely threw her onto some rocks but did not kill her, she puts down to some sort of telegraphic communication between Eleanor and the said elephant, informing the latter to spare Daphne’s life. I doubt this to be the case as it sounds like another anthropomorphic assumption of which Daphne Sheldrick is so convinced about. I have no doubt that elephants amongst each other have quite sophisticated communication channels that may seem telepathic to humans but on the other hand there is simply no evidence at all that any animal, be it elephant or any other animal, has anything like the human capacity of language and communication. Daphne was just lucky that the elephant didn’t kill her, and the elephant was very lucky that Daphne wasn’t accompanied by any park wardens who would have shot the elephant. In any case, Daphne opens her book with this very unfortunate incident, setting the scene which, unwittingly perhaps, is a story of her life that leaves many of the more difficult questions unanswered.

Her life story begins with her ancestors’ great journey from South-Africa to Kenya in the early 1900s, responding to a call from the then Kenyan Governor, one Sir Charles Eliot, to settle on land given to them for free by the Governor. Daphne never questions this transaction – a British colonial administrator giving away African land to his countrymen -  instead describing her ancestors as hardy pioneers who endured countless obstacles to establish themselves as cattle farmers on Kikuyu land. The leader of her group of settlers was Great-Uncle Will who was a great hunter who ‘satiated his lust for land and animals’ – as Daphne puts it without much of hint of sarcasm or even irony. That European settlers decimated the wildlife as much as the dreaded African poachers later on, never really occurs to Daphne. She does however comment on her first husband, Bill Woodley (incidentally well known in his adolescence by my wife’s father) who as a game warden to protect the wildlife against poachers was a keen elephant hunter himself. Such a contradiction was apparently quite common amongst the European fraternity in Kenya, as it is indeed today with many of the so-called patrons of various wildlife charities who don’t mind a bit of blood sport themselves – note the notorious case of the current Spanish King Juan Carlos shooting elephants while being a patron of the WWF. Indeed Daphne’s first husband seemed to lack in other areas too, such as in his matrimonial duties – something Daphne doesn’t seem to mind making public knowledge – hence the inevitable second marriage to David Sheldrick whom she describes as her ‘soul mate’. David who more or less single-handedly created the Tsavo National Park out of nothing was of course that rare human being that considered all wildlife as sacrosanct, going all out to protect elephants from the African poachers who by then were the greatest threat to elephants and rhinos. Both David and Daphne shared the touching belief that elephants in particular – and all animals in general – exhibit behaviors that are very close to human experience, thus often being in opposition to the many scientists of the day who studied wildlife in Tsavo and elsewhere. When one of them demanded the cull of 300 elephants in Tsavo to study them, David reluctantly agreed but put his foot down and refused a further kill of some 900 or so as demanded by the crazy British scientist. Even to agree to have 300 elephants slaughtered sounds like a major tragedy if not crime committed against elephants and no different to the endless poaching for ivory that goes on to this day. One of the great things that David achieved was to prevent elephant culls in Tsavo in the name of balancing the natural ecology – as recommended by renowned British zoologist Julian Huxley – because of his realization that nature balances itself very well without such human intervention. That the great herds of wild elephants in Tsavo recreated the park in their image is a testament to his insight.

One of the contradictions in Daphne’s life is related to this whole issue of British elites determining the fate of nations as much as of animals. Heathcote Williams who in his Royal Babylon decries the crimes of British royalty committed against animals, is in stark contrast to Daphne Sheldrick and her ilk who venerate British royalty and everything that goes with it. Her acceptance of a gong (Dame Commander) by the Queen is obviously a highlight of her life. She wholeheartedly agrees that the high and mighty alone can change the course of history for man and beast while at the coalface she and her co-workers do the actual work. I do admire her for the latter part but I cannot understand her submission to an authority that ultimately is to blame for all the troubles she faces on the ground.

Another contradiction, if not omission, is a considered account of the Mau Mau period, from about 1950 to 1960. While she offers some vivid descriptions of personal experiences, there is a lack of insight into the causes of the Mau Mau rebellion. She claims that she and her ancestors, as white settlers in general, were ‘humane and totally honourable pioneers who had braved the unknown and, with blood, sweat and toil, brought progress to darkest Africa, promising law and order and good governance under benign British rule’. She does not once admit that the Africans, and the Kikuyu in particular, had any rightful grievances. This is in stark contrast to other Kenyan voices such as the eminent L.S.B Leakey, who in his 1952 book Mau Mau and the Kikuyu presented a long list, including the ‘colour bar’ as a sort of apartheid Kenya-style. While Leakey does brand the Mau Mau as a ‘terrorist’ organization, he does point out that the white settlers and the British rule had turned the Kikuyu in particular into a tribe of squatters who saw no way forward. The British military response resulted in a pyrrhic victory that saw Jomo Kenyatta as the eventual winner – driving out many white settlers and British government officials and workers (such as my wife’s parents and grandparents). That the Sheldricks stayed on was more of a financial necessity rather than a decision of principle. As they were not employed by the British government – and had no land assets to sell – they hoped for the best and continued employment under Kenyan rule. While David Sheldrick lost his job as Tsavo warden he was re-employed in another capacity which ultimately led to his early death. It is of course to Daphne’s credit that she was not deterred and stayed on in Kenya – for the love of the elephants and other wildlife.

When Daphne was first married to Bill Woodley – and was pregnant with her fist child – they nearly got killed in a Mau Mau ambush, and one can understand her reluctance to engage with the macro-politics of the time that could shed light on the individual experiences that were of course tragic in many cases for the white population. Even after the Mau Mau rebellion, and when Kenyatta had taken over, there were many challenging times for the remaining whites. Indeed Daphne’s first child, Jill, as a grown-up was robbed in Nairobi together with her French partner, and they left for France, establishing their base there. To remain apolitical in all these situations must come at a price. The Sheldricks were tolerated as white Kenyans only because they were useful in attracting funding from white countries (mainly Britain and the US). Even the famous Leakeys had mixed fortunes in post-colonial Kenya. As I write this the new Kenyan president, Jomo Kenyatta’s son, is inaugurated with Damocles’ sword hanging over him. The ‘darkest’ Africa has become darker still. Once the British, German, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese colonizers had left, all hell broke loose in the regions where tribal borders re-emerged from what were arbitrary lines drawn in the sand by the colonizers. There can be little doubt that Africa as a whole came off worst from colonial rule and is still reeling from it. Daphne Sheldrick is wrong in saying that the colonists ‘brought progress to darkest Africa’, i.e. Kenya, especially as L.S.B. Leakey points out that the pre-European Kikuyu were a society that thrived and had a sophisticated land tenure that ensured sustainable agriculture. As with many indigenous peoples around the world, the Kikuyu did not alienate land by sale but willing to have it tenanted by mutual agreement. This was their understanding when ceding land to the white settlers, and when they were confronted with the European claims that they had bought the land in perpetuum, the Kikuyu rightfully felt cheated. In addition to this item of ‘progress’ brought by the colonizers there are all the usual diseases and Christian religions that wrought havoc amongst the Kikuyu and other African tribes. This is not to romanticize African tribal societies in the face of European colonizing nations: both are subject to the yin and yang of life but there can be little doubt that colonization is the one of the most denigrating processes that history has ever seen - and continues to see.

David Sheldrick, whom Daphne describes, as mentioned before, as her ‘soul mate’ is by all accounts an amazing person who moves heaven and hell to give African wildlife a leg up. Daphne credits him with an anthropomorphic understanding of flora and fauna, thereby being in conflict with the scientific community at the time – zoologists in particular. On the other hand he welcomed the scientific attention given to ‘his’ Tsavo National Park, hosting many a scientist. Daphne credits David for her own extensive wildlife education and paired with her maternal instincts towards all manner of animal orphans, she developed a much more personal – hence anthropomorphic - relationship with her charges, enabling her and her co-workers to save many an orphan from certain death.

David’s untimely death after having left Tsavo to undertake a new role for the newly independent Kenyan government is traced back to David’s reluctance to face up to his heart problems first diagnosed when they were on a South African visit many years before. It seems to me though that his removal from his beloved Tsavo must have caused much proverbial and literal heart-ache, so much so that he went downhill quite rapidly. Whatever the causes of his death, there is now a new chapter in Daphne’s life.

The Kenya government eventually agreed for her and her two daughters to set up house inside the Nairobi National Park where she continues to raise orphans, especially elephants and rhino. Both her daughters became avid wildlife activists as well and helped to establish the now famous David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, attracting world-wide funding, thus being able to expand operations and lobby governments and wildlife organizations to intervene in the cruel trade of elephant ivory and rhino horn, reign in destructive poaching and uncover wide-spread corruption that allows these practices to flourish. She is unflinching in her dedication to the cause, and while she is given to collect local and international awards, allowing her to travel far and wide, one must admire her for her down-to-earth attitude, living a simple life inside the Nairobi National Park.

As always she does remain somewhat contradictory in her approach to animal welfare: a supposedly hilarious episode demonstrates this well: the Pope visits Kenya and wants to bless a rhino – how absurd! – and Daphne is asked to help out by ‘taming’ a suitable rhino, and she agrees. In my mind she should have denounced such a bizarre request but I suppose she saw the advertising potential in that such a scene would be televised work-wide and as such attract further funding. Of course she is also a devout Christian and fails to see the Pope as one of the problems of the world.

The late 1980s also saw Daphne come into contact with Richard Leakey who had been installed as Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, only to end in near tragedy when his plane crashed and he lost his feet – some say that his plane was sabotaged. Daphne doesn’t say so but continues to complain about the general corruption and mismanagement that plagues the Kenyan government (now under Arap Moi) and its wildlife service, what with the elephant population in Tsavo having decimated to some 16,000 in 1990 (out of well over 100,000 two decades before). Indeed, her David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust assumes the de facto running of Kenya’s wildlife service by attracting ever larger funding and commitments from various sources, thus being able to provide services that the government agencies are increasingly unable to.

In 1994 the incident occurred with which Daphne opens her book – as described earlier - namely being attacked by a wild elephant she mistook for Eleanor, the hand-raised orphan elephant who had returned to the wild. Daphne spent six months recuperating, receiving bone and skin grafts in South Africa. She was then invited to Japan to undergo further treatment. Her elder daughter Jill, who after her first marriage had shacked up with a Frenchman, and had a child with him, and was living on a farm they had acquired, continued to work in the elephant nursery in Nairobi. As also mentioned before, she was held up at gun point and forced to hand over cash from the kitty that paid the workers. Her French partner couldn’t cope with such a situation and to Daphne’s great sadness they moved to France permanently (Jill returning every now and then). Angela, her second daughter (by David Sheldrick) had in the meantime also married a local white Kenyan, and they went off to manage a resort in northern Kenya. However before long they returned and built a house next to Daphne’s (still inside the Nairobi National Park). Angela took over many of Daphne’s day to day running of the Trust as well as establishing a working satellite field base at Tsavo National Park, thereby more or less returning to Tsavo that her father had established.

Daphne finishes her penultimate chapter by musing over why Eleanor – the elephant – never returned to meet her in Tsavo, concocting a rather strange explanation: Eleanor was afraid that Daphne would ‘hijack’ her offspring, assuming that Daphne had ‘hijacked’ all the other orphans before and after her. If we take the anthropomorphic angle, I’m sure that Eleanor would have known very well what an ‘orphan’ was and that Daphne obviously didn’t ‘hijack’ them. Surely there are other more appealing possibilities: maybe Eleanor didn’t want to ever again face Daphne because she felt guilty about her ‘friend’ having nearly killed Daphne; or else  Eleanor wanted to make the point that David Sheldrick had always made, namely that animal orphans saved by humans must be returned to their natural environment lest they become human pets.

Indeed in the last chapter dedicated to David, he is quoted as saying that animals are ‘other Nations’ – a notion so well captured by Heathcote Williams in his epic poem called Whale Nation and he could have easily entitled his other poem Elephant Nation instead of his Sacred Elephant. David Sheldrick also echoes the latter by saying that we need a ‘more mystical concept of animals’. Personally I prefer, as it were, Animal Society, inasmuch animals are living beings like we are, largely living in communal societies, minding their own business in accord with nature – indeed embodying nature, and not like some in-human humans are apt to, to conquer nature, and to colonize and exploit those other humans who only expected benevolence when meeting them. Daphne Sheldrick no doubt fits the description of a good human who is dedicated to Animal Society as a friend and saviour – it’s just that sometimes she doesn’t realize that her own British/European/American society harbours many a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing, and she falls for the cuddly sheep, like Winfrey Oprah, The Warner Brothers, the Queen and all the other celebrities that have elevated her, in her senior years, into a society that couldn’t care less about Animal Society other than using cute animals in advertising campaigns. She also sometimes seems to forget about Kikuyu and other tribal societies that struggle under the weight of globalization and Western Market domination. She does well to remember the words of the elder L.S.B. Leakey who noted that the Kikuyu and Masai tribal societies of old regarded the elephants as a Nation that held prior tenure over the lands they roamed.

There is also an antidote to the Sheldricks’ anthropomorphism which may apply to humans and animals alike, one that Werner Herzog in his film Grizzly Man called ‘the overwhelming indifference of nature’ – after all Daphne Sheldrick nearly paid the price for it. That she bore no ill will is both a sign of her naïvety and of her touching belief in the essential goodness of nature.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A review of the second Special Issue of Biolinguistics Vol. 6, No. 3 – 4 (2012) on the Embodiment of Language

A review of the second Special Issue of Biolinguistics Vol. 6, No. 3 – 4 (2012) on the Embodiment of Language

In the editorial ‘Introducing Embodiment of Language’, the editor, K.K. Grohmann, makes the unusual admission that the topic of this special issue left his band of reviewers baffled to such a degree that more suitable reviewers had to be found – and that the original instigator of the issue, R. M. Allott from Oxford University, pulled out as guest editor. One wonders why? Hopefully not because of a case of dis-embodiment.

As to the raison d’être of the topic itself, the editor says being ‘intrigued’ about the ‘emerging field of “Embodiment of Language”, especially as it includes research on ‘mirror neurons’ which seem to have something to do with language. This in turn awakened my interest as our son is currently completing his PhD thesis in linguistics which proposes, amongst other things, that ‘pragmatics’ is as innate (embodied) as syntax, mediated via mirror neurons that seem to provide a biological foundation for neo-Gricean pragmatics. Of course I have lots of interesting discussion with my son, especially as I subscribe to the Chomskyian school of thought.

So what is this emerging field all about? A programmatic summary is one from the original conference at Oxford University:

The embodiment of language (as well as cognitive embodiment) is a much-debated topic. It offers a different approach to language function in the brain from the hitherto widely accepted account in terms of words as symbols, parts of an essentially psychologically researched conceptual system. Progress in neuroscience, notably with the discovery of mirror neurons but also with refined neuroimaging techniques, has opened up the possibility that words in the brain are not simply labels for concepts but integral parts of perceptual and motor organisation (embodied semantics).

From a scientific and common sense point of view it has always been clear that the Cartesian ‘cogito, ergo sum’ arises from the brain but because hitherto we cannot figure out the mechanics of the brain, we have no choice but to deal with the output of the brain, namely the so-called mind – hence the scientific investigation of the mind as psychology (and linguistics therefore being part of psychology, as Chomsky famously postulated). Now neuroscience – and neuro-linguistics - seem to make such progress that we can put our fingers on language itself. Chomsky has of course always maintained that linguistic theories should be in conformity with what we know about biological-computational systems.

Equally obvious to me is that we meet with a paradox here: the snake biting its tail. Everything we know, we know through language. How can we possibly know language through language? How can we describe a biological-computational system, namely the human brain, and end up with language? It’s not that we shouldn’t try, and indeed Chomsky has been the most convincing linguist of our time in positing a theory of language that at a basic level conforms to current biological knowledge but at the same time is a sophisticated model of language as a mental representation. For example the principle of binary Merge operations seems to conform to basic concepts of neuroscience in that neurons ultimately operate with “on” and “off” switches. On the other hand we must be clear about the relative paucity of knowledge we have about the brain despite what seems to be progress in neuroscience. It would be putting the proverbial cart before the horse if we now proclaim that we can deduce language from what we now know about the workings of the brain – and unfortunately this is exactly what this special issue of Biolinguistics seems to be about. What seems to me even more unfortunate is the focus on language evolution via purported human brain evolution – for we know even less about either, and as such end up with a type of speculation which Chomsky describes as ‘nothing is impossible but many things are unlikely’.

In the course of these odd pursuits one is doubly puzzled by the first – programmatic? – contribution to this special issue, namely Bernard H. Bichakjian’s ‘Language: From Sensory Mapping to Cognitive Construct’ which opens with the old and baseless refutation of Chomsky by Evans and Levinson:

            [t]he claims of Universal Grammar … are empirically false, unfalsifiable, or misleading in that 
            they refer to tendencies rather than strict universals. Structural differences should instead be 
            accepted for what they are, and integrated into a new approach to language and cognition that 
            places diversity centre stage (2009:429)

and then going on to show how embodied ‘perceptual’ language morphed (= evolved) into disembodied ‘conceptual’ language, thereby heaping contradiction upon contradiction, and in a strange way confirming Chomsky’s innateness theory by trying to disprove it. In other words Bichakjian first suggests that ‘incipient’ speakers had a very much embodied language based on perception which then ‘evolved’ to become more ‘efficient’ as ‘conceptual’ language. Apparently languages – at least language families – evolved in their own peculiar ways so that they end up as pretty much unrelated by anything resembling UG, quoting Dunn et al, 2011:

            We show that each of these [four] language families evolves according to its own set of rules, 
            not according to a universal set of rules. That is inconsistent with the dominant ‘universality 
            theories’ of grammar; it suggests rather that language is part of not a specialised module distinct
            from the rest of cognition, but more part of broad human cognitive skills.

So we are back to cognitive linguistics of old. Nothing new here. Even so one of the more surprising supporting examples given by Bichakjian is the ‘evolution’ of writing which moves from the perceptive pictogram to the conceptual alphabet we have today, and took a long time to achieve, says Bichakjian, more than two millennia. The word ‘evolution’ is here misused in its Darwinian sense for everything evolves all the time in the sense of ‘change’ – including of course the surface features of language. To cite writing as an example of ‘evolution’ of language – starting with the mythological ‘incipient speaker(s) – is as ludicrous as suggesting that that the evolution of the Internet is an example of the evolution of human cognition – starting from the mythological incipient thinker(s). There are also some outright dangerous implications when suggesting, as does Bichakjian, that the so-called evolution from the perceptual to the conceptual afforded the human species with ‘selective advantages’ using the example of changes in measurement ideas:

… these anthropomorphic units of measurement, molded on the perception of the outside world,
 have been replaced with the conceptually devised metric system, which has considerable 
selective advantages.

One should remind Bichakjian that the Americans still use aspects of the ‘anthropomorphic units of measurement’ such as ‘foot’ and are no worse off than those other highly advanced peoples who use the ‘conceptual’ metric system. More importantly, one should remind the author that ‘writing’ does not bestow a Darwinian selective advantage, since as much rubbish is written as it is spoken. Bichakjian comes close to racism when he claims that certain ‘incipient’ grammatical features (like certain noun classes) are still present in aboriginal (sic) languages and ‘survive’ as certain features in languages such as German and French. If taken this to its logical conclusion, the speakers of aboriginal languages are stuck at the level of perceptual evolution while the Germans and French have made the grade as conceptual speakers. We know for sure that this is false, based on the simple observation that if we take the aboriginal baby and bring it up in a German or French speaking family, the child will have no difficulty whatsoever in acquiring one of these supposedly superior conceptual languages. In other words, the brain of the aborigine child is as fully ‘evolved’ as that of anyone else on this earth. The equally unpalatable alternative is to say that the aboriginal child does have brain power to acquire any language on earth but when exposed to a ‘primitive’ language the child will regress cognitively, at least in terms of its measurement terminology. Ipso ergo, Chomsky is right in assuming that the language capacity is like an organ, situated in the brain, and just like the human heart or lungs have not ‘changed’ (or become more efficient) in the last hundred thousand years or so, neither has the language capacity. Therefore all extant languages are at the same level of competency, for even if there were some languages more sophisticated than others, Chomsky’s noted ‘poverty of stimulus’ puts to shame any notions of sophisticated or more evolved input. Of course humans have ‘changed’ technologically in many ways over this time, and they keep on changing – some say with increasing speed towards species extinction, contrary to the expectation that humans and their language is, according to Bichakjian, ‘an instrument that keeps evolving — becoming ever more cerebral and, by so doing, ever more efficient.’ On the scale of Darwinian evolution, humans are only a blip on the clock, and if one shares the pessimism about the (very short) human history in it, one can always quote Russell:

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, is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return. (Unpopular Essays, 1950)

In conclusion, Bichakjian’s conclusion below is entirely wrong:

It is our cerebral nature that explains the developments that were discussed in the foregoing, and
 they in turn support and confirm the view that language is not an instinct or a steady-state 
attribute coded in our genes, an organ as it was once claimed (Chomsky 1980: 37), but an 
instrument that keeps evolving — becoming ever more cerebral and, by so doing, ever more 

On the positive side, the author does unwittingly confirm the status quo by claiming the ‘evolution’ from an embodied perceptive language to an disembodied conceptual one, echoing the old body and mind dichotomy and/or the biology versus psychology one, thereby lagging behind Chomsky and others who have long solved the problem by asserting that the mind arises from the brain – just nobody at this stage quite knows how, and perhaps never will (language as paradox). Bichakjian to his credit doesn’t mention neuroscience once, and thereby seems to negate the whole enterprise of ‘embodiment of language’ in the first place. I don’t want to give the impression as if the whole quest is hopeless (citing again and again Chomsky’s dictum that science is like the drunk looking for his keys under a lamp post because that’s where the light is) hence I repeat one of my ‘conceptual’ speculations about language and mind in the brain: the hyperbolic accumulation of knowledge and its storage in the brain may have come about by some subtle changes, namely the collapsing of neurological pathways into cyber-highways, i.e. if I compute or think about, via my language, a certain problem many times, I will organise the storage retrieval by the shortest and fastest neurological pathway, thereby setting up cognitive hierarchies that allow me to shortcut computation to the point where only new and puzzling information intervenes. Note that computers can only increase the speed of computation (and possibly surpass the computation speed of the human brain) but they cannot replicate the human biology of being able to merge a multitude of neurological pathways into super-highways – of course I have absolutely no neuro-scientific proof for this assertion. In passing one should also remind contemporary linguists that Chomsky is the only one who has contributed a major bit/byte to computer science, commonly known as the Chomsky Hierarchy, whereby formal languages are organised as ‘regular, context-free, context-sensitive and recursively enumerable’. It is worth paying attention to a brain like Chomsky’s. In exercising his brain he has obviously managed to collapse quite a few neuron pathways into major highways, thus being able to analyze vast amounts of scientific data and being able to synthesize a credible theory of language, allowing him to be the science genius he is generally acknowledged at being. All human brains are capable of such cerebral feats in principle but few actually do the rigorous exercises needed to get there, maybe in analogy to the physical feats achieved by exceptional athletes. Linguists like Bichakjian thus strike me as slow runners who claim that the exercise regime of the world champion runner is all wrong. As a silly aside one may add that in sports one can enhance – à la Lance Armstrong – one’s performance with certain drugs, while in cerebral contests like the proverbial linguistics wars, nobody worries about how you stimulated your brain to come up with credible theories of language. Chomsky’s advice on this aspect of academic life is to peddle as fast as possible, so you won’t fall off the bicycle.

Having made my point of view abundantly clear, lets move on to the next article by Valentina Cuccio, entitled ‘Is Embodiment All That We Need? Insights from the Acquisition of Negation’.

Following Bichakjian’s strategy to propose a grand theory that is then supported by snippets of data, Cuccio declares:

The aim of this paper is to present the hypothesis that speaking is a complex ability realized by means of at least two different mechanisms that are likely developed at different and consecutive steps of cognitive and linguistic development. The first mechanism has a neural explanation grounded in the notion of embodied simulation. The second implies socio-cognitive skills such as Theory of Mind. In order to fully develop the second mechanism, a symbolic communication and interaction with a cultural community are needed. This hypothesis will be tested by looking at the acquisition of linguistic negation.

Negation is of course an important aspect of any descriptive linguistic enterprise but to use it to support above hypothesis is like claiming that the mechanics of the left foot is a test case for the overall theory of human physiology – of course it is. The point is that there are myriads of other aspects that could still falsify the hypothesis. Data driven research assembles as complete a picture as possible and only then a hypothesis or theory is proposed to cover all the known aspects. It is of course quite impossible to assemble all known research about language(s) – knowing also that there are still many more gaps in the knowledge – and then arrive at a credible theory of language. Chomskyian linguistics is often accused to be overly theory driven which when applied to specific languages fails to account for certain data. This Popperian obsession is often exercised by unearthing obscure language data known only to one researcher – e.g. Everett’s Piraha controversy – and used to ‘falsify’ a major theory. On closer analysis such data often turn out to be misleading and can in fact be incorporated into the recognised paradigm. Chinese anaphora, for example, are a more credible challenge for the Minimalist Program and while many linguists grapple with it, there are many solutions proposed, some of which fit the model while others don’t, giving rise to a vigorous scientific debate which is the nature of science in general. A good starting point is that a general theory covers most of the known facts but not necessarily all of them.

In any case Cuccio also follows Bichakjian in this strange case of disembodying embodiment by first stating that ‘cognition and language are embodied’ and then follow up saying that this ‘embodiment’ may not be enough to explain linguistic ability, hence the additional disembodied necessity of the ‘Theory of Mind’ which is mediated by a ‘symbolic communication and interaction with a cultural
Community’. If Cuccio were to admit that we simply do not know how exactly the mind arises from the brain, hence in the meantime (or forever) seek recourse in a sort of disembodied psychology, I would concur. As Cuccio seems to make a principled distinction in terms of the old dichotomy, I do not concur, for the putative ‘symbolic communication and interaction with a cultural Community’ arises from the brain as much as anything else. Does Cuccio provide a proof for her contention in terms of negation?

She starts with the not so surprising observation that in child language acquisition negation proceeds from the concrete to the abstract. The concrete involves early ‘rejection’ and refusal (“no, I don’t want to eat this banana”) and the abstract involves ‘denial’ (“no, this is not a banana”). Cuccio explains that the concrete phase corresponds to the ‘simulative embodiment’ mechanism of language use, i.e. the motor neurons ‘simulate’ the action and as such correspond to the same neural activity that occurs when the action is performed in reality. Cuccio then contends that the abstract uses of negation, like denial, cannot be simulated that way, hence need different neural mechanisms (sic) which seem to be associated with the above ‘cultural community’ by inferring the meaning via mind-reading of others. The author goes on to support this idea with observations from autistic children who seem to have difficulty in ‘mind-reading’, hence perform poorly in this use of negation. Strangely enough Cuccio ascribes the famous mirror neurons as belonging to the simulative mechanisms, thereby unable to ascribe any specific neurons to the mind-reading processes, making it almost disembodied again. One would have thought that autism as a neurological disability may in fact involve the pathological lack or damage of mirror-neurons that other authors ascribe to the ability to ‘empathise’ with other minds.

It is an interesting idea to limit the definition of ‘language embodiment’ to ‘simulative’ processes, thus associating motor-neurons with language, and then requiring other neurological processes to account for more abstract or ‘higher’ cognitive language tasks. The trouble is that this dichotomy can again be kidnapped for the old body-mind dichotomy, giving rise to disembodied souls, spirits and other ghostly/ghastly thoughts and beliefs that defy (or ‘deny’ – excuse the pun) rational thought. Personally I do not get the point as to why human communication needs something called higher-order ‘mind-reading’ in order to correctly infer what the other person is saying or writing. When the child says ‘no, I don’t want to eat this banana’ (where mother’s request was ‘please at this banana’) it doesn’t need to read the mind of the mother more or less when confronted with the situation of mother putting an apple in front of the child and saying ‘please eat this banana’ and the child denying (correcting) her mother by saying ‘no, this is not a banana’. Sure the mother may be joking or committed a faux-pas but by the same token the request to eat the real banana may have all sorts of hidden messages in it as well that need ‘mind-reading’. Straightforward communication is devoid of the necessity to read the ‘ineffable’ (see last article of this issue) mind of the other (cf. Gricean rules of implicature). This applies even more so to scientific communication. I do not have to second-guess Chomsky’s mind when I read his articles. I do not ascribe weird mental motives to Cuccio and Bichakjian, thinking they make all this stuff up in order to score brownie points over Chomsky. I just ‘deny’ the probability of their arguments. Even the most sophisticated arguments put forth by Chomsky and the like are grounded in the embodiment of language, arising from the language organ somewhere in the brain. Trying to figure out what someone is ‘really’ thinking as opposed to what they are saying is just another occasion of using one’s brain and language capacity. There are no disembodied language processes. Cuccio may well be correct though in asserting that there are various different neurological processes that account for various uses of language (parole) whilst language itself (langue) is much more likely a confined and constrained computational system in the brain (hence Chomsky’s metaphor ‘organ’).

The next article by Marco Fenici entitled ‘Embodied Social Cognition and Embedded Theory of Mind’ makes the same assertions as Cuccio but testing his thesis via the False Belief Test (FBT) in child cognitive development. Fenici does go into more detail what exactly is meant by ‘embodiment’ but in the end it comes down to the statement that echoes Cuccio:

I will claim that early social cognitive abilities are probably embodied inasmuch as available evidence is consistent with their implementation by cognitive processes integrating sensory–motor information. On the other hand, I will argue that late social cognitive abilities are embedded in social and dialogical practices — and, in particular, that the ability to pass FBT at age four denotes the acquisition of a minimal capacity to explain people’s reasons to act.

Fenici concedes that ‘late’ development may also be partially ‘embodied’ but nevertheless argues for an at least partial disembodiment which is ‘embedded in social and dialogical processes’. One wonders why the obsession to cling to at least a bit of disembodied cognition and language (esp. if one equates language and cognition, as I do). If what seems like lower-order thought/language being based on bodily simulation, why should so-called higher-order thought/language be based on something ethereal and ephemeral? What is so special about ‘social and dialogical practices’ that elevates them above embodiment? Does the detection of False Belief not entail a simulation of sorts: “this banana is an apple” as a False Belief is grounded on simulation as much as “Dilige et quod vis fac” (Augustine). Those who want us to believe in False Beliefs do so by manipulating our emotional intelligence, instilling fear and offering a security blanket by way of a community of false believers (‘the church’) who then must defend their beliefs to the death.

Fenici also concedes that passing the FBT relies on ‘language acquisition’ but then goes on to say that this isn’t enough, that there needs to be some ‘dialogical’ practice – which goes without saying. The common game theory analogy (à la Wittgenstein) is that in order to play the game you need to know the rules of the game before you can play it. What happens afterwards is not a function of the rules of the game alone: practice makes the master of the game. The analogy equates to ‘language competence = langue = grammar = rules of language = language acquisition device = biolinguistics VERSUS ‘language performance = parole = functions of language = x. The ‘x’ indicates what we don’t know about why one of the many functions of language seems to be the generation of ‘false beliefs’. That autistic children seem unable to pass the FTB (presumably the ‘Sally-Ann marble test’) does say something about the inability to put oneself into frame-of-mind of Sally who doesn’t know what the observer knows – but does it prove one way or the other that the whole scenario does or doesn’t arise from a biological brain of all concerned? Fenici makes the case that certain aspects of language performance (‘dialogical practice and social enculturation’) take place in an dis-embodied realm of cognition because we cannot find the connection between these types of cognitive abilities and the human body (whereas we seem to be able to posit bodily connections for ‘lesser’ cognitive abilities). Since autism and other degenerative brain diseases are obviously of yet unknown biological-neurological origins we cannot simply turn around and say that the healthy (normal) brain is somehow not the immediate origin of what passes as ‘normal’ behaviour and ‘normal’ cognitive ability such as passing the FTB. Pathology has always been the prime vehicle for trying to figure out how the ‘healthy’ human body works. To figure out how the ‘healthy’ mind works has hitherto been the realm of psychology, from Freud’s investigation into hysteria to the FTB by Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith (1985) in their study of theory of mind in autism. Fenici no doubt makes a valuable contribution to this field but contributes nothing to the theory of the ‘embodiment of language’ as a possible aspect of biolinguistics, as originally conceived by Chomsky.

The next article by Leonardo Fogassi & Pier Francesco Ferrari entitled ‘Cortical Motor Organization, Mirror Neurons, and Embodied Language: An Evolutionary Perspective’ is thankfully more down to biolinguistics as various neurological explanations for language are proposed. From the outset my main criticism is that ‘language’ seems to end up as a by-product of various neurological processes, be they motor and/or other sensory processes. There can be little doubt that language (as a bodily organ in the brain, as proposed by Chomsky and others) has inputs from many parts of the brain and the authors come close to this notion when they concede that ‘according to some linguists, syntax function can be defined as a regulator of language (Pinker & Jackendoff, 2005)’. Hence ‘syntax’ must reside somewhere in the brain ‘regulating’ all the inputs and outputs. It’s a bit sad that the authors cite Pinker and Jackendoff as ‘some linguists’ who in fact are not well known as defenders of syntax models being central to language. Chomsky as the supreme syntactician is only cited as part of the Hauser et al. publication on ‘The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?’ But never mind, let’s have a look at Fogassi & Ferrari’s section on ‘Action Sequences and Syntax’ which seeks to equate hierarchical action sequences with sentences being a hierarchical sequence of words:

The hierarchical sequencing of motor acts into a specific action (for example, (a) grasping a piece of food, (b) bringing it to the mouth, and (c) biting it) aims to a superordinate behavioral goal (eating the food). If the order of the motor act is changed (e.g., biting the food with the mouth, bringing the hand to the mouth, and grasping the food with the hand: c–b–a) the action goal can change (take the food out of the mouth). Similarly, the meaning of a phrase is given by the sequential organization of words. By changing the position of the words in a sentence, its meaning changes or is lost.

The example given is a bit bizarre, especially the notion of changing the sequence. It is well known that computational models of language that parse a sentence as a string from left to right, will fail. Language is full of disjoint/discontinuous features and either way it is overly simplistic – and most probably wrong – to say that ‘by changing the position of the words in a sentence, its meaning changes or is lost’. Synthetic languages like Latin are famously independent of word-order, i.e. one can change ‘the position’ of certain words without changing the meaning at all. What the authors mean to say is that there might be a correlation between the ‘motor act’ and the ‘verbal expression’ of that motor act. Such a claim seems eminently reasonable if only because we can visualize the similarity without difficulty. Indeed it would be most concerning if there was no match between the two. The real question is how the ‘syntax’ module manages the input from the motor neurons and transforms it into an equivalent sentence. As we know that this is a human-specific feat, it seems rather speculative that the authors claim that the ‘syntax’ organ in the brain developed from enhanced use of motor activity – surely primates ‘eat’ in the same sequence of ‘human eating’ and eat as much, if not more than we do but never got around to verbalizing the process. Surely, the syntax organ must have developed in an evolutionary process but to put it like Fogassi & Ferrari do in their concluding remark below, seems somewhat vacuous:

Thus, although the transition from action to language could have been long and may have required a complex adjustment of the mechanisms involved in sequence organization, nonetheless the existence of a motor substrate endowed with a motor meaning, organized in chunks and accessible by visual and acoustic higher order input, seems an important prerequisite for both language construction and its comprehension.

Practically all evolutionary processes are ‘prerequisite’ for the next step, from lower to higher animal species, but what caused the unique syntax (language) leap in the human brain remains as unanswered as ever. The best description we have so far, in my mind at least, is that of the old Marxists who argued for the famous leap from quantity to quality.

The next article ‘From Gesture to Speech’ by Maurizio Gentilucci, Elisa De Stefani & Alessandro Innocenti is a densely argued research paper that proves its point that there is a close neurological connection between speech and gesture but then suffers from an immediate misconception of language, namely that ‘speech’ equates language. It might sound quite appealing – as the authors do – to suggest that gestures (especially to do with ingestion) trigger certain movements on the mouth which in turn trigger the formulation of syllables which in turn combine to make words – and voilà, we have speech and language. It has been noted by others (e.g. Samuels) that vocalisation is common to many species, hence it is questionable that vocalisation itself leads to human language. It seems far more logical to assume instead that language/syntax arose as an organ in the brain which then used the vocalisation ability to turn language into speech. It may well be that vocalization in itself arose in the ways explained by above authors but then jump the gun and proceed to explain language evolution as arising from this process as well. It is well established by Chomskyian linguistics that the PF interface is the last step of language output as speech, constraining language in many ways such as motor skills and phonotactics. Gentuluci et al. make a good case for a feedback loop in that gestures are obviously very important in the expression of language – as speech – and that speech and gestures are very much interlinked. Once the language/syntax organ in the brain was fully established there was no doubt a secondary feedback loop established between language/syntax and gestures themselves, as evidenced by sign language as a substitute for vocalized speech. It is noteworthy in this context that fully fledged sign language is only in minor ways connected to the natural arm and hand gestures, as say, in the ingestion process as proposed in the previous article (‘sign languages are not mime – in other words, signs are conventional, often arbitrary and do not necessarily have a visual relationship to their referent, much as most spoken language is not onomatopoeic’ says Wikipeadia). As such language/syntax gives rise to sign-language as much as to speech – not the other way round.

The next article (one of two on the subject of colour) by Loïc P. Heurley, Audrey Milhau, Gabrielle Chesnoy-Servanin, Laurent P. Ferrier, Thibaut Brouillet & Denis Brouillet, entitled ‘Influence of Language on Colour Perception: A Simulationist Explanation’ tackles the intricate and supposedly neural connections between perception, simulation and language.

While we can readily follow the argument of ‘simulation’ in the sense given by another set of authors (Michiel van Elk, Marc Slors and Harold Bekkering (2010)) as:

Following the notion of communicative motor resonance during speech perception several studies have shown that reading verbs referring to concrete action results in the recruitment of effector-specific regions of primary motor and premotor cortex, comparable to the activation observed when moving the effector most strongly associated with these actions.

We (I) find it more difficult to understand how this could apply to colour. In the first instance psychology and linguistics have long grappled with these notions, and indeed biolinguistics arose from one of these battlegrounds, namely when Eric Lenneberg first postulated linguistic innateness via colour codification experiments. Since then countless colour studies have taken up positions between biolinguistics and cognitive linguistics, now followed by neurolinguistics. Given that languages are replete with more or less complex colour terminology, one wonders how this comes to be in the first place. Of course one can summon various ecological reasons like the well-established notion that Eskimo perceive many shades of white (snow and ice) while those in luxuriant tropical environments may perceive the rich hues of green and blue much more extensively than their arctic counterparts, and so on. While the physiology of colour vision makes no such distinctions, it is of course conceivable that the actual use of colour vision very much depends on the environment and as such gives rise to linguistic labels we are familiar with. It is also conceivable that it is not so much the colour itself which we perceive, label and memorize but the common objects imbued with the colours in question – take the orange colour of the orange as an obvious example. Our authors (i.e. Heurley et al.) do make exactly this observation when they say:

In short, these various experiments and also others (see Bramão et al. 2011 for a review) suggest
 that colours stored in memory can facilitate or disrupt perception of objects presented in colour.
Moreover, they demonstrate that this influence is produced by reading the linguistic stimuli that 
denotes colour related objects, suggesting an interaction between memory, language, and object

Unfortunately they then jump to conclusions that are unwarranted. In the first place it may also be conceivable that objects can be ‘simulated’ as much as action sequences, assuming a sort of memory-colour-photo-copy we make of an object like an orange. It is also feasible that once such an object is stored in the memory, it may then, as the authors say above, ‘facilitate or disrupt perception of objects presented in colour’. These are performance issues that have nothing to do with language per se. If and when I have ‘orange’ in my lexicon, I will of course ‘use’ it in many ways but my syntax-box will no doubt assign ‘orange’ to either a noun or adjective category, thereby delineating its uses from a purely grammatical point of view. When I retrieve ‘orange’ from the lexicon to slot it into a sentence and proceed to the semantic interface I may well light up regions in my brain that store experiential ‘simulations’ of the term ‘orange’ and as such confuse or facilitate my semantic interpretation – for example my recent realisation that not all oranges are orange but can be quite green. Lexical labelling may well be directly associated with ‘simulation’ storage in the brain, and a feedback loop may operate subsequent to its acquisition but language as syntax has no conceivable recourse to such ‘simulation’, precisely because language is an organ in the brain that is independent of any other system. To operate (use, perform) the language as syntax system requires input from the lexicon in the first place and memory and practice in the second place. As such Heurley et al. should restrict their claims to the lexicon alone and not make claims about ‘language’ as in their conclusions

… the possibility that language can influence perception through a simulation process (and also the reverse influence) … According to this approach memory, knowledge, language and perception function in a coordinated way which can either alter or facilitate perception.

Language in the Chomskyian sense cannot and does not ‘function’ in a way that can ‘alter or facilitate perception’ – unless one defines ‘function’ as the Saussurean parole. If so, Heurley et al. make uncontroversial observations about the use of language.

Next in line is ‘Digitized Fossil Brains: Neocorticalization’ by Harry J. Jerison who thankfully asserts even in his abstract that he is writing about ‘the evolution of language as a hominin specialization’, thus saving us from the assumption that language is an amalgam of various motor and cognitive skills. The author provides evidence for the growth of the neocortex in primates and humans and speculates that in the ultimately much larger human brain, it was the neocortex that provided the blueprint for human language. This article shows both how much we know about the brain and its evolution and how little – if next to nothing – we know about the physical evolution of language. My guess is that neurolinguistics will never rise above the basic tenets of biolinguistics, leaving us with the black box best explained with mental representations that have logical links with laws of nature.

Following the paper by Gentilucci et al. on ‘gesture and speech’ it is perhaps not surprising that this is followed up by Manuela Macedonia & Katharina von Kriegstein on the topic of ‘Gestures Enhance Foreign Language Learning’. On the surface of it this seems an uncontroversial claim even though one generally associates gestures much more with the production of speech rather than with the learning of a foreign language. A bit more mysterious is their ‘proposal’ in the abstract that they ‘propose the use of gesture as a facilitating educational tool that integrates body and mind’. Does the disembodied ‘mind’ arise again? The funniest comment is then the authors’ assertion that ‘gestures accompanying foreign language items enhance their memorability and delay their forgetting’. First, what are ‘language items’ and second, what on earth is a ‘delay in forgetting’? I always thought that ‘learning’ is indeed predicated on ‘not forgetting’ – hence a failure to learn is equal to forgetting. Anyway it is very nice of the authors to suggest ways and means to ‘delay’ the failure to learn. On a more serious angle it has been known for ever that various likely and unlikely associations aid memory, e.g. learning of vocabulary of a foreign language, and as explained by the authors as ‘over the past three decades, laboratory research has shown that action words or phrases such as cut the bread are memorized better if learners perform or pantomime the action during learning than if they only hear and/or read the words’. It would have been better to try to explain how this works for actual foreign language acquisition (as it sure works for native language acquisition), for if I am learning a foreign language like German and the near equivalent phrase to learn is schneide das Brot, how does it help if I mime the action which I already have in my memory from my native language? Maybe the Germans cut bread differently? The point I am trying to make that in this instance the accompanying gesture may or may not facilitate the memory up-take of the foreign phrase. The use of flashcards is widely known in teaching reading/writing to native speakers but the use of the same aid is questionable in its effectiveness for foreign language learners, precisely because the visual image – like a gesture – is already in the memory bank. If anything we need to disassociate our image cum gesture if needed as a memory aid: perhaps a bizarre image/gesture will do the trick better! When Macedonia and Kriegstein discuss the actual strategy of ‘the body as a learning tool’ in foreign language teaching/learning, they quite bizarrely accuse Chomsky and Co. as having hindered its development due to:

theories based on a universal grammar (Chomsky 1959) considered language learning to be an innate process (Fodor et al. 1974; Chomsky 1975). Accordingly, like mother tongue acquisition, foreign language was thought to emerge by mere listening and without tools of instruction because it results from innate processes (Feyten 1991; Krashen 2000). Explicit explanation and vocabulary teaching by any means, and therefore, also by action, were considered superfluous. Although there were other opinions in the field sustaining that child language acquisition and adult foreign language learning are fundamentally different (Bley-Vroman 1990), the mainstream followed the mentalistic view of a core grammar present in the learners’ minds. This view implicitly ruled out the body as a possible learning device …

The authors demonstrate a very poor understanding of the ‘innate’ acquisition process because the ‘mere listening’ was in fact the ‘poverty of stimulus’ that led Chomsky and Co. to assert that a native language cannot be leant by input but is acquired via an innate Language Acquisition Device (LAD). There is also the perennial misunderstanding of ‘universal grammar’ as a ‘mentalist’ construct that has no basis in the biological make-up of the human species: the very notion of ‘biolinguistics’ means that language resides in the brain and that any descriptions and explanations thereof must be constrained by what we know about biological and computational systems in the brain. Nobody from UG/MP/biolinguistics has ever ‘ruled out the body as a possible learning device’ whatever the limited merits of the strategy may be. When I play ‘Simon says’ with my ESOL class, I do get some mileage out of practising the English names for body parts and movements thereof but I am equally aware that various proficiency levels will treat the input (language and body part gestures) differently: beginners will use the translation method and the combined language+gesture may well aid the speed of translation but may equally hinder it if the gestured association in their native language is at odds with what I do, i.e. point to the ‘forehead’ and the German learner of English (at beginner level) will latch on the ‘head’ and correctly translate it as ‘Kopf’, thinking I mean the ‘head’ as opposed to the German ‘Stirn’. Such lexical conundrums need careful ‘verbal’ explanations rather than vaguely pointing in the direction of the desired object. There is also the problem of the use of gestures as an idiosyncratic device, or even as a characterization of certain extrovert people who ‘speak with their hands’, and on top of all that there is the well know problem of cultural differences in body-language. Even so nobody would argue against using gestures as a learning aid, and as such it is quite a bizarre claim by Macedonia & von Kriegstein that their proposal is somehow a new idea arising from the supposedly new paradigm of the ‘embodiment of language’.

The next article entitled ‘Bidirectional Influences of Emotion and Action
in Evaluation of Emotionally-Connoted Words’ by Audrey Milhau, Thibaut Brouillet, Loïc Heurley & Denis Brouillet again suffers from the this strange assumption that until the recent advent of the ‘embodiment of language’ campaign everyone else suffered from the delusion that language and cognition were ‘disembodied’ phenomena, something like ghosts and spirits dreamt up by religious fundamentalists. In their programmatic abstract they say that

… the bidirectional character of influences between language and action will be addressed in both behavioral and neuropsychological studies, illustrated by the specific case of emotionally-connoted language. These reciprocal effects are grounded on the motor correspondence between action and the motor dimension of language, emerging from a diversity of source such as adaptive motivation, past experiences, body specificities, or motor fluency.

On one hand one can only agree with the authors on the uncontroversial claim that ‘emotionally-connoted language’ is somehow ‘grounded on the motor correspondence between action and the motor dimension of language’ but on the other hand the authors seem to hark back to the bad old times of ‘behaviour’ and ‘neuropsychology’. Do we get a new equation of ‘behaviour = language’ à la Skinner? Such an approach was famously debunked by Chomsky as a potentially dangerous if not neo-fascist attempt to ground language as manipulative action - as so enthusiastically embraced by the advertising industry and all Orwellian state-run propaganda departments. To employ ‘neuropsychology’ as an intermediary between ‘neurology’ and ‘psychology’ merely attests the problem at hand: how does ‘psyche’ arise from the ‘neurons’ and how does the proverbial mind arise from the brain? The term ‘biolinguistics’ is also an intermediary between ‘biology’ and ‘linguistics’ and attests to the Chomskyian research project to explain the latter by the former – and not the former by the latter as a retrograde project by the likes of Skinner. When it comes down to the substance of the authors proposals we also see some extreme claims, like ‘one major contribution of embodied approaches is the redefinition of memory as a memory of processes and no longer a memory of content’. It would be wholly uneconomical to claim that lexical memory is purely process based, i.e. I remember the term ‘hammer’ only via the re-enactment of hitting myself on the thumb with it and I uttering the emotionally-connoted language “effing shit!”. Indeed one should correctly assume that ‘process’ is impossible without ‘content’. That the authors travel down the dangerous road of ‘behaviour = language’ is further evidenced by their descriptions of ‘motivation’ quoting Elliot as follows:

Elliot (2006: 112) explains: Positively evaluated stimuli are inherently associated with an approach orientation to bring or keep the stimuli close to the organism (literally or figuratively), whereas negatively evaluated stimuli are inherently associated with an avoidance orientation to push or keep the stimuli away from the organism (literally or figuratively).

Such stimulus-response explanations are fine for the Pavlovian dog but fail miserably for language (as per Chomsky above). The authors cite many so-called research findings, some of which are laughable as being evidence for behaviour and language being interlinked on a one-way street, like this one:

            They were listening to an auditory message explaining this reform, and while listening, they had 
            to move their head either horizontally or vertically, under the cover story of judging the quality
           of headphones. Results showed that participants who had shaken their head vertically were more
            convinced by the message than the ones who had shaken their head horizontally.

This is the advertiser’s dream come true: subliminal messages will sell the product, like it or not. There is no doubt that people always try to manipulate other people by devious means if the message itself is a load of nonsense, like ‘this car is your dream come true’ because the beautiful blond in the ad shook her head vertically. Where and what exactly is the loaded and embodied ‘re-enactment’ when the lovers say to each other “I love you”? What emotional highs did Einstein achieve when he figured out
E = mc2? To the credit of the authors, they do advocate a ‘bi-directional’ association between ‘embodiment’ and language inasmuch language can trigger the associated bodily process. I suppose they would agree that psychosomatic diseases are as real as the opposite effect of the 60s slogan ‘make love not war’ can have: by saying it first you can actually find a way of putting it into action. Sadly, as we all know, the world by and large still operates on the exact, psychosomatic opposite - make war not love – (distorting language along the way of Orwellian newspeak) because not enough people seem to have access to the intelligent political messages by the likes of Chomsky and other syndicalist anarchists. Hopefully Milhau et al. will from now on proceed in the same direction, biolinguistically and otherwise.

For the next article I’ll declare my bias first: I am anti-vivisection and for animal-rights; I am a vegetarian whenever I have the choice, hence will not go to war against meat-eaters. As such I don’t really know what the point is of ‘The Human-Fostered Gorilla Koko Shows Breath Control in Play with Wind Instruments’ by Marcus Perlman, Francine G. Patterson & Ronald H. Cohn, especially as I also dislike the practice to keep animals in captivity to teach them stupid tricks (I fully endorse Heathcote Williams for his passionate treatises on elephants and dolphins, not to speak of pathetic royal blood sports and President Obama killing a poor old fly with great relish). I do have some admiration for people like Jane Goodall – who is quoted in the text – who spend a life-time studying animal behaviour, thus providing insights of animals are all about. The authors quite bizarrely accuse her of not getting it right when she observed that ‘even Jane Goodall, after many years observing the chimpanzees at the Gombe Reserve, came to the conclusion that, “the production of sound in the absence of the appropriate emotional state seems to be an almost impossible task for a chimpanzee”, especially as the authors set out to prove that ‘human-fostered’ Koko the Gorilla does have breath control and thus can utter sounds at will. They even cite the detestable practice of humans giving primates cigarettes to smoke – as evidence of breath control. The authors then jump to the conclusion as some others do in this special edition, in that ‘speech’ equates language, and since speech requires breath control, the primates, especially human-fostered ones, may well have been or are on the way to acquire speech and language. This is of course total nonsense. The only amusing point the authors make is to maintain that developing breath control is adaptive for its flexibility, rather than for any function (or set of functions) in particular’ (as claimed by Fitch). In other words, evolutionary adaptation can be for fun (like playing wind instruments) and profit, not profit alone.

With the next paper entitled ‘Three Ways to Bridge the Gap between Perception and Action, and Language’ the author Jean-Luc Petit announces his grand scheme in the abstract as to ‘assess the remaining distance from neuroscience to a science of language’. I am a bit puzzled by the word ‘remaining’ as it seems to suggest that there is only a small gap to close. I’d say that this is a wide chasm that may never be crossed, reminding me of a Leonard Cohen lyric that says something like ‘we’ve burnt all the bridges so now we don’t have to cross them ever again’. By way of a bit of extended metaphor we submit is that some linguists burn the bridges in their enthusiasm to cross them, setting themselves up for a Sisyphusian task. Petit doesn’t make it easy for himself either as he demands a three-way highway across the ‘remaining’ divide, although I have no real idea what he means by ‘from an eidetic standpoint, one must build the transition between perceptive, pragmatic and semantic morphologies’. Does he mean that we have a photographic memory for embodied action sequences which we then translate into and/or associate with language? What does he mean by ‘morphologies’? Forms in general or in the narrow context of linguistics? His next question is more to the point but equally mysterious: ‘from the point of view of subjective experience, one must understand how it is possible that we move from our sensory and kinaesthetic experiences to verbal expressions of a
sense that could be shared by others.’ One hopes that Petit concurs with his friends Milhau et al. in that there is a bi-directional relationship between language and experience inasmuch we use language to make sense of our ‘sensory and kinaesthetic experiences’ – rather than the other way round. Indeed one may answer his question in this way: it is through the language capacity that we share as humans that we succeed in communicating our idiosyncratic experiences in a way that is comprehensible to others. Of course this doesn’t answer the question how this works at the level of neuroscience nor at the level of biolinguistics, nor at the level of psychology. I am also worried by Petit’s use of the term ‘verbal behaviour’ which seems to locate his paradigm in the realm of behaviourism I so decried above.

In his main text he seems to spend quite some time explaining how the current paradigm of ‘embodiment’ has saved us from the mentalese ‘disembodied’ theories of cognition, again forgetting that biolinguistics has done this job already and, in my view, a whole lot better than the ‘embodiment of language’ scenario. Petit, as some authors have done above, again cites Chomsky as somehow being responsible for all the ‘mentalese’ claptrap we have had to suffer under. Accordingly Chomsky’s ‘strict’ distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘performance’ led to the postulation of a ‘brain-machine’ that is ‘indifferent to its program’. In other words, competence being indifferent to performance. Petit calls this an ‘ideology’ and goes on to say that ‘a recent alternative to this ideology, the identification of linguistic information processing with neural dynamics itself and its laws of association is yet another form of embodiment of language (cf. Pulvermüller 2002)’. At least Petit seems to concede that Chomsky’s ‘brain-machine’ is also somehow embodied. The purported progress seems to be the integration of competence and performance in this ‘yet another form of embodiment of language’. I think the point Petit misses is that the ‘brain-machine = competence’ is in fact ‘indifferent’ to the ‘program = performance’, for as by computer analogy the hardware is of course designed with the potential of being programmed but ultimately the hardware is totally indifferent to the actual program installed on it. Even if this is splitting hairs, there can be no doubt that some computer scientists concentrate on hardware while others specialize in software. Chomsky never said that ‘performance’ wasn’t worth studying. He simply concentrated on ‘competence’ as a stand-alone module, and rightly so. Petit repeats the old jealousy of applied scientists complaining about the arrogance of theoreticians who pay scant attention to the practical applications of their research.  

Petit as a philosopher then poses the question if we are now stuck in a kind of limbo in ‘that everything happens as if current neuroscience sought a basically inadequate substitute for this phenomenology in authors who hesitate between behaviorism and cognitivism, between mentalism and physicalism, between computation and simulation’? It seems we can solve this mind-body dichotomy only via ‘Merleau-Ponty, the One Acceptable Phenomenologist’ as he alone seems to build a bridge between body and mind, perhaps as a kind of Nietzschean ‘beyond good and evil’ concept. All this philosophizing, I must say, seems to lead down the proverbial garden path, and whilst, for once, I do not necessarily share Chomsky’s point on such matters, namely that French post-structuralists/deconstructionalists/etc. tend to produce a lot of incomprehensible verbiage, I do get the feeling that Monsieur Petit does on occasion become so dense in his prose so as to become obtuse. Petit quoting Husserl in German – presumably as a sign of polyglot sophistication amongst clever philosophers -  does the same for me, e.g. ‘Der erste und einfachste Ausdruck ist der des leiblichen Aussehens als Menschenleib, er setzt natürlich „Sehende” und “verstehende” voraus” …’ (BTW “verstehende” should be quoted properly with a capital “V”, denoting a noun like “Sehende”), namely either stating the obvious by means of unnecessarily complex sentence structure, or else stating something that is incomprehensible. I do like sophisticated language play in the style of Nietzsche but am sorry to say that I find Husserl lacking in that department. Petit does of course credit ‘Husserl’s overcoming of a prior Cartesian solipsism which posed communication as inessential to thought promoted body expression to the status of linguistic expression and his subsequent foundation of subjective experience in intersubjectivity involved the founding of expression in communication’ thereby giving the Cartesians like Chomsky a bad name. Again a bizarre notion when we assume we are all engaged in something called ‘biolinguistics’. When coming back to neuroscience and/or neurolinguistics Petit is far too optimistic in stating that ‘for the first time in history of the knowledge of man we see on the basis of data of empirical research a possibility to trace the uninterrupted course of events inside the organism that goes from perception and action to communication through language’ – we are nowhere near that possibility. To cite a few neurological ‘embodied’ processes that seem to have parallels in language are far too vague to account for language per se. Petit again brings Husserl to the rescue by proposing that morphology, syntax and semantics give rise to a sort of  ‘incompleteness-dependence’ grammar that elevates ‘nothing’ to a mysterious binding force between morphemes, words and phrases, resulting in a sentence with ‘meaning’. That certain prepositions and spatio-temporal deixis in general can ‘be reconstructed by equations of differential geometry’, as suggested by Petit, is nothing new in cognitive linguistics where this is used as evidence of the embodiment of language. The neuronal simulation of such processes AND its translation into human language is the crux of the matter – the point being that according to Chomskyan linguistics at least, it is not the neuronal processes of perception and action that give rise to language but that there is a human-specific language capacity in the brain that puts all this and so much more into words, phrases and sentences.

In the end Petit concedes that all this ‘is a bet made by a neuroscience of language that would aspire to naturalize our phenomenological experience of meaning’ – a ‘risky’ business. Using German metaphors, he says that Lebenswelt is far more wide-ranging than Einfühlung (empathy via mirror neurons), hence speech/language conveys far more than bodily simulated functions. Even basic social speech acts cannot be accounted by the ‘embodiment of language’.

In conclusion Petit reverts back to an extended dualism of body and mind, indeed a ‘trinitarian’ approach (no doubt to be ridiculed as a ‘holy trinity’):

(i)             neurophysiologic investigation of the organic substrate of the continuous linkage between perception and action, and language;
(ii)           eidetic-geometric morphodynamics as norm a priori backing the transformation of forms/schemes in syntactic or semantic structures; and
(iii)          transcendental constitution of the Lebenswelt of a community of perceiving-acting personal subjects who interact by words and
gestures drawing on bodily capabilities and other operations of meaning-giving.

Petit is apologetic by imposing item (iii) for the imposition is a phenomenologist philosopher’s one, treading on the toes of the hardened empirical scientist who have already nailed item (i) and are supposedly on the way to crack item (ii) – none of which is true, as far as I can see. The seeming incompatibility between this tripartite assembly is further excused by Petit as arising from the philosophers’ Erlebnis (italics added by me) which he explains as ‘the lived experience of an unresolved tension between ultimately possibly incompatible approaches which nonetheless impose themselves as contingent context of the quest for truth’. As a native speaker of German I am forever hopeful that the Germans will eventually fulfil their role as Dichter and Denker, hence I do appreciate the French philosopher’s predilection for German Zeitgeist terminology but I’m damned to know what Erlebnis has to do with the price of fish or biolinguistics for that matter, other than Husserl using this fairly common word occasionally in his treatises. Sure, for the purpose of translation, languages are littered with lexical gaps, and occasionally one may elevate a word to a technical term used in the target language so as to avoid to have to use lengthy paraphrases – Erlebnis seems highly questionable for this purpose as it is simply translated as ‘lived experience’ as indeed Petit does in the first place. His added ‘philosophical’ meaning is as idiosyncratic as anything I have ever read, and as far as I can determine, lacks actual meaning. Since when do scientists and/or philosophers tell the truth about language?

Having spent quite some time on critiquing this paper I must admit that it was the most enjoyable, if quixotical, read so far.

The penultimate article by Claudia Repetto, Barbara Colombo & Giuseppe Riva, entitled ‘The Link between Action and Language: Recent Findings and Future Perspectives’ again opens with a bizarre anti-Chomsky statement that assigns him to the dustbin of linguistic history. It is worth quoting the authors’ introduction as it reveals their bias:

            Traditional theories of cognition are based on the idea that knowledge is represented in the brain
            in the form of concepts and stored in memory system as semantic information. Concepts, from 
            this perspective, are conceived as amodal, abstract and arbitrary (Fodor 1975), then independent
            from the brain’s modal system of perception (e.g., vision, audition), and action (e.g., movement,
            proprioception). Chomsky’s theory of language (Chomsky 1965) is completely aligned with this
           view: The theory of Universal Grammar considers language as a corpus of abstract symbols
           combined together according to formal syntactic rules; two properties, among others, are 
          distinctive of human language, the generativity and compositionality.

In more recent years, nevertheless, a radically different conception of knowledge has been taken
 into account, that brings together data from different methodological approaches such as
 neurobiology, brain imaging, and neuropsychology: the theory of Embodied Cognition (Wilson
 2002; Gibbs 2006). According to the embodied cognition hypothesis, concepts are not amodal
 and knowledge relies on body states and experiences. Therefore, there is a tight link between
 concepts, action, and perception, to the extent that conceptual knowledge is mapped within the
 sensory-motor system. The notion that cognition is grounded in action and perception is 
encapsulated in the term ‘embodiment’.

For a start it shows how much the authors are out of touch with the biolinguistics program and the Chomskyian Minimalist Program – by quoting Chomsky’s 1965 ‘Aspects’ volume, which no doubt was a major treatise in the history of linguistics but has long since been further elaborated as a theory of language that locates language in the brain as the modus operandi. The implicit claim that Chomsky’s theory of language is ‘amodal’ when in fact it should be ‘modal’ according to the authors is a false claim. Chomsky has quite a modular conception of language even though he is mainly interested in the syntactic mode of language. It is not entirely clear if the authors also reject the notion of ‘generativity’ as being distinctive of human language but if they do, they do so at their peril. For what is the alternative? A finite set of learnt language behaviours linked to ‘concepts, action, and perception, to the extent that conceptual knowledge is mapped within the sensory-motor system’? This leads to the simplistic, if not fascist, behaviourism decried by Chomsky so long ago. The creative aspect of language – its capacity to generate an infinite number of new sentences – cannot be constrained by the sensory motor-system which in humans is often far less sophisticated than that of other animal species. Universal Grammar never envisaged language as a ‘corpus of abstract symbols’ in the sense of some airy-fairy mind game. Even Wittgenstein’s game theory of language is far more sophisticated than that of the authors’. Modern Chomskyian approaches like binary ‘merge’ as a fundamental syntactic operation are closely aligned to computational theories that work well for fundamental biological cum neurological processes.

As pointed out again and again in the previous incarnations of this article, the notion that language is also ‘grounded in action and perception’ is not disputed by anyone. Perhaps sadly so, as the daily banality of life and death seems ever more ‘grounded in action’ of the military sort giving rise to Orwellian newspeak. Maybe this is a human condition we will never escape even though language is creative enough to envisage the ‘better world’ as also advocated by the likes of Chomsky.

It seems quite ridiculous to suggest, as the authors do, that ‘the mind is no longer confined to the brain but also includes other body parts, such as hands, legs, eyes’ thereby claiming to have discovered something new. It is perhaps instructive to note that ‘neurolinguistics’ once upon a time referred to the new-age idea of ‘neuro-linguistic programming’ as developed by renegade linguists Bender and Grinder, to make a big deal out of eye-movement and how it reveals your innermost thoughts such as hoping your kissing the frog will turn your fortunes around and set you up with a prince of your dreams. For if motor-movement links directly to language – as it sometimes no doubt does – we should be able to predict by the movement as to what the subsequent thought – as expressed by language – is. When you point the gun at me and demand that I raise my arms, and I do so, you may well deduce that I am thinking of giving myself up. On the other hand this may be a trick, reminiscent of the joke whereby three ex-world leaders (say, Kohl, Blair and Bush) are condemned to death by firing squad by Mexican rebels, and they ask for their last words, and first-up Kohl shouts ‘revolution’ whereby the rebels panic and let him escape, and second-up Blair shouts ‘earthquake’ and again the rebels panic and he escapes, and last-up Bush exclaims ‘fire’! The idea being in this context that language can simulate dangerous motor-experiences that can trigger either real motor-panic or the motor-action of pulling the trigger.

When Repetto et al. go on to discuss the literature of current TMS studies, they attempt to account for ‘contradictory’ data such as:

For example, Papeo et al. (2009) reported an increase of MEPs recorded while participants read action verbs compared with what happened while they read verbs describing abstract concepts; in contrast, Buccino et al. (2005) described a reverse situation during language comprehension: MEPs recorded from hand muscles was lower while participants heard hand-related action verbs compared to foot-related action verbs, indicating an effector specific inhibition.

Research like this is no doubt very interesting but the conclusions drawn are far to general in terms of predicting linguistic patterns as related to MEPs. Consider for example the ancient idea - as espoused now by theosophical healing methods – that one can generate heat in one’s limbs by mental control, or for example that artificial limbs can be controlled by mental activity: these are as yet poorly understood processes and it is quite unclear if language is involved at all. Do I simulate the limb’s movement to grasp the egg, or do I tell myself in so many words “I will now grasp the egg!” (or is it better to use the present tense?). That through language I may be able to command my motor-movements may well be on the cards to a certain extent but to claim that the reverse is true is quite illogical. My actions may be supported by language (e.g. “heave-ho!”) but my actions do not give rise to my language, especially when it comes to the vast realm of my language that has absolutely nothing to do with any of my motor skills. To explain above contradictory results, Repetto et al. revert to speculation with regards to the many imponderables of experimental design. My son who just completed a PhD thesis in experimental second language acquisition, just concentrating on a single item (the acquisition of the Chinese anaphor ziji by learners of Chinese from English and Korean backgrounds) found that issues like timing can have a significant effect on survey responses, and the 500 ms quoted by Repetto et al. may well be a crucial difference to how responses are encoded. Furthermore, as also somewhat acknowledge by the authors, there are an infinite number of possibilities on how to frame linguistic tasks, hence an infinite number of possible responses. Of course the authors prefer to believe that the task variety can be so severely constrained that one researcher can compare them all:

Tomasino et al. (2008) compared systematically the effects of different timings of stimulation during different kind of tasks (silent reading, motor imagery and frequency judgments) and found that M1 plays a role only during motor imagery, so they concluded that the recruitment of motor networks during language understanding is not required, but it occurs only when explicit motor simulation is requested.

I am sure that Tomasino, as many others, must be aware that experimental design for language research must be as multi-faceted as language is itself, as otherwise one reduces language to a mono-syllabic instrument for communicative action processes (as preferred by army instructors around the world). Even so Tomasino above found that no conclusions could be drawn. The authors also present another example which unwittingly perhaps demonstrates yet another contradiction:

Recently TMS protocols have been employed to discover the role of morpho-syntactic features on the activity of M1: Papeo and colleagues (Papeo et al. 2011) compared MEPs recorded during reading tasks of action vs. abstract verbs presented using the first or the third singular person (I vs he/she); they found an increase of MEPs amplitude selectively for the action verbs at the first person, deriving from these data that motor simulation is facilitated when the conceptual representation of the verb includes the self as agent. Furthermore, a sensitivity of the primary motor cortex to the polarity of sentences was high-lighted: Active action-related sentences suppressed cortico-spinal reactivity compared to passive action-related sentences, and either active or passive abstract sentences (Liuzza et al. 2011).

Whilst it seems logical enough that ‘first-person’ action sequences trigger higher MEPs than those of ‘third’ persons, there must be something wrong with the observation of the second part, namely that ‘active’ sentences ‘suppress cortico-spinal activity’ while ‘passive’ sentences do not. The authors characterise the ‘active-passive’ distinction as ‘sentence polarity’ which is a highly questionable description. Traditionally the term ‘voice’ is used in grammar to account for this distinction (and there are not just two voices to be accounted for either, as is well known to grammarians). The point here is, however, that so far all the literature seemed to point to the idea that ‘action’ in words triggers motor-responses in the form of MEPs, so why would active sentences ‘suppress’ cortico-spinal reactivity? Did the authors mix up the results (I haven’t checked Liuzza et al. 2011)? Or is there something weird going on here? Jokingly I have sometimes suggested that ergative languages and those speakers giving prominence to the marked passive voice in English are more sympathetic people than those action-driven maniacs who speak accusative (sic)  languages and  who currently rule the roost. Maybe the proverbial mirror-neurons kick into action if we imagine ourselves in the role of the victim (the ‘subject’ of a passive sentence) rather than that of the ‘actor’ (the subject of an active sentence)? Sadly, as we know, speakers of ergative languages can be as ‘active’ and violent as anybody from the accusative languages. To prove my speculative assertion we could design an interesting experiment!

Indeed ‘mirror-neurons’ are the next topic in Repetto et al.’s paper. This whole idea about sympathetic/empathetic mirror-neurons is quite fascinating, inasmuch we can read each others minds and complete half-finished sentences on behalf of our interlocutors, not to speak of body-language and smiles and tears and the like. To be able to simulate and replicate an action or skill in our brain – encoded in addition in language perhaps – seems to be the domain of higher animals, and perhaps the ability to learn in the abstract is only in the human domain, presumably as it can be reinforced or is driven in the first place via our language capacity. It is of course far too early to jump to any conclusions, for neither the brain nor language – that arises from it – is well understood, as in fact acknowledged in part by the authors:

            Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that there is not a strong consensus about a somatotopic 
            organisation of action words meaning representations, and this fact is not astounding    
            considering that the organization of the premotor cortex is still poorly understood.

For that reason one has to be sort of thankful for any research results even if they only confirm what anyone could have predicted, as for example the following observation:

“if understanding action words involves mentally simulating one’s own actions, then the neurocognitive representation of word meanings should differ for people with different kinds of bodies, who perform actions in systematically different ways” (i.e. right- vs. left-handers): This prediction has been corroborated by fMRI data which showed a preferential activation of the right premotor cortex during lexical decision on action verbs for left-handers, and the opposite pattern of activation for the right-handers.

Maybe at this juncture it is worthwhile to cite Chomsky again, namely the idea that ‘intuitions’ and deductive reasoning about language – especially when one is a linguist of the calibre of Chomsky – should be taken at face value. As such Chomsky related the story of his erstwhile thesis topic on Hebrew which his then mentor Zellig Harris imposed on him, requiring him to do fieldwork with Hebrew speakers, only to realize that he himself (as a speaker of Hebrew) had already all the answers without having them to be elicited from others. In other words I don’t need to do empirical research on what is glaringly obvious. One might include in this category the above topic on right-left handiwork as well.

In the final part of this paper Repetto et. al suggest that Virtual Reality (VR) scenarios could be great research tools in determining the relationship between language and action. After all we can simulate just about any action as VR, from flight simulators to ‘shoot’em’ video games that have now become reality in drone warfare. Indeed the authors make a rather coy reference to this fact:

Thanks to different input devices participants could virtually perform any action, even those typically not performable in an experimental setting (to jump a rope, kick a ball, or shoot something, for example).

There have already been reports of drone war-fare operators experiencing the same or similar ‘feelings’ as real soldiers in combat, even using the same (primitive) language that is associated with killing the enemy. No doubt the US Army is already providing research grants to find out what exactly the relationship is between action and language in these VR contexts. One hopes that Repetto et. al will resist the temptation – which even MIT couldn’t resist and still doesn’t resist, despite of Chomsky having joined RESIST a long time ago.

Whilst it is obvious what I think of such VR scenarios, I will not deny that some VR applications may indeed be useful research tools in biolinguistics. I seriously doubt however that Repetto et. al have thereby opened up some new and amazing avenue for research, for VR never really lives up to the real thing. The idea of remote controlled robots - like the American drones, and more benignly medical-surgical robots – are not science fiction anymore but at the same time add absolutely nothing to our understanding of language. Neither does pure VR.

The last article in this special volume is by Nicholas Unwin, entitled ‘The Language of Colour: Neurology and the Ineffable’. I suppose this belongs to the category of solving some sort of paradox, like Derida’s famous question if the unforgivable may be forgivable – thus asking if the ‘ineffable’ can be effable? When one compares this article to the other one above on colour, namely the one by Loïc P. Heurley et al., one is struck by the latter’s assumption that the language of colour is indeed linked to neurological events, simulating real colour perception (the physiology of it), while Unwin revisits the old conundrum, asking if there is a connection at all, calling it a ‘body-mind’ problem. Since Unwin makes a convincing case for the ‘embodiment’ of the language of colour, one might as well congratulate him and leave it that – for there is no real argument to the contrary, however much Unwin seems to do battle with it. To maintain that the language of colour (and therefore language itself) is living proof of cultural – if not cognitive – relativity is of course still a hot topic for the relativists but hardly one of interest to bio-linguistics where the matter has been settled ever since Lenneberg (as mentioned in my review of the first article on colour). Unwin really makes his life more complicated than need be: his examination of colour-related terminology like as ‘warm, cool, sharp, fresh and citrusy’ as needing to be confirmed by neurological processes:

            I shall argue that an ideal sort of explanation of why red should look warm is that there be some 
            appropriate neurological connections between the visual and tactile parts of the brain (currently,
            the issue is undecided).

Unwin questions the common assumption that ‘red’ is ‘warm’ because of its association with fire when a gas-flame is blue (the colour of water and ice, hence a cold colour). If the history of language is parallel to the history of homo sapiens we can assume that the language of colour was once of the earliest feats of encoding natural phenomena. That a burning wood fire is red-hot cannot be some vague metaphor alone: it is a fact deeply ingrained in our consciousness. The relatively recent discovery of natural gas yielding a blue flame does in no way detract from ‘red’ being a warm colour. Of course humans and human language change, so why not the language of colour? Maybe in a thousand years red will have lost all its association with a burning wood fire – the blue flame having taken over. Quite obviously there are myriads of possible colour associations, both idiosyncratic and ecologically determined – and I don’t doubt cultural influences such as fashion colours – and as such it seems rather futile to want to track down all the neurological processes in terms of bodily simulation and/or perception. In fact what Unwin demonstrates is the state of knowledge we have in terms of how the brain generates language, namely very much in its infancy if anything at all. That the brain generates language is inescapable – it’s a scientific fact. Chomsky revolutionized linguistics by suggesting some clever syntax formulae that can generate language, in analogy to what we know the very basic biological principles to be. To be really dramatic: Chomsky delivered us from the past and current intellectual darkness that maintains that the mind – hence language – is a phenomenon somehow unconnected to the living brain of humans.

The embodiment of language being a new research trend in linguistics, as claimed in this special issue, is greatly exaggerated, especially when quite a few authors state that Chomsky and his school of linguistics are somehow in opposition to it. That language is embodied is simply a catch-phrase that is easily subsumed in the term of bio-linguistics. The idea that we are at the stage of pin-pointing neurological processes in regards to language is also greatly exaggerated by research using neuro-imaging – however advanced the techniques may be – in association with language stimuli, especially as this type of research seems to fall back to an outdated – if not perverse -  behaviourist model of language. At this stage neuro-imaging is still a very crude instrument to investigate language with, especially as we hardly know what the basics are of our motor processing skills. To neurologically test for ‘verbs of action’,  ‘negation’, ‘false beliefs’, ‘the language of colour’ and the like (as exemplified in this issue) seems light-years away from yielding meaningful results vis-à-vis wholesale claims about language and its syntax. There is nothing wrong with educated guesses, theories and even speculation in the absence of empirical certainty: it makes for interesting reading. To jump to vast conclusions in the face of a paucity of meaningful data, on the other hand, makes a reader like me irritated and dismissive of the content of this Special Issue on the so-called Embodiment of Language.