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Thursday, November 9, 2023




“It is time for war”, says Netanyahu. “The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies”, Genghis Khan is supposed to have said. The Guardian reports with some glee that ‘Large-scale warfare occurred in Europe ‘1,000 years earlier than previously thought’. It would have been depressing to think that there was a distant time when there was no warfare. The Green Party Vice Chancellor of Germany, Robert Habeck says “Israel’s Sicherheit ist deutsche Staatsräson” (Israel’s security is German raison d'être). He argues that the Holocaust necessitates post-war Germans to do whatever is necessary to support Israel’s security, and her right to defend herself against Hamas, including a reoccupation of Gaza. And since Hamas is the elected government of Gaza, a war against Hamas is a war against Gaza, just like the Allies fought a war against the Nazis, meaning Germany. Bombing the hell out of Dresden – killing mostly civilians – obliterating Hiroshima and Nagasaki – killing mainly civilian – were, and still are, considered, if not justified but at least necessary to avoid prolonged bloodshed. As such contemporary Germans (and Japanese for that matter) always seem to be in a difficult position, having to justify the defeat of their evil ancestors. So, if Hamas gets defeated, will the people of Gaza have to justify their own suffering, their own defeat, since they were governed by a terrorist organisation that attacked and murdered Israeli civilians? Didn’t the Nazis enjoy a measure of popular support amongst the German population? Doesn’t Hamas enjoy popular support from the people of Gaza? Are the people thus to blame, and do they deserve everything that is coming to them? Worse, any German civilians that did not support the Nazis were either murdered by them or used as human shields. Same for Hamas? This constant analogy made by German and Israeli politicians in power is of course highly questionable but cannot be questioned. The historical contexts are clearly miles apart and as such not comparable in any way. All that seems to count is the present context: a terrorist attack that requires revenge: you killed 1,400 of us so we kill 14,000 of you – randomly selected, as the Germans did with the partisans. It sounds totally insane but there is method in the madness: if you manage to randomly kill civilians you demonstrate that the state (as the tsar in Russia) cannot guarantee the safety of his subjects, a revolution might be triggered. Hamas saw the Israeli mass demonstrations against Netanyahu and might have calculated that this is the right time for a ‘terrorist’ attack, triggering regime change in Israel. Obviously, it was a terrible miscalculation, at least in the short term. People who insist on the Nazi-Hamas analogy will ascribe the even more insane statement by Hitler and Co. that all Germans deserve to die because they failed miserably in the noble effort to ‘vanquish their enemies’. If there are any historical similarities between the 3rd Reich and Israel, it is the tragic descent into genocidal racism: Nazis defining the Jewish race as sub-human, and in a repeat of the cycle of violence, Zionists defining Palestinians (and Arabs in general) as less than human. The Palestinian journalist Arwa Mahdawi asks in a Guardian headline “Is it too much to ask people to view Palestinians as humans? Apparently so.” The propensity of so-called humans to de-humanize a perceived enemy may be some sort of primitive defence mechanism lurking just below the thin veneer of civilisation, and if so, the meaning of life is reduced to the ‘survival of the fittest’, a never-ending fight to the death, defending against disease, pestilence, vermin, weeds, wolves, witches, and the knives aimed at our backs. Unfortunately, the history of mankind is littered with evidence to support such a sad notion. A sideline of this evidence is the undeniable fact that such de-humanization is often accompanied by religious fanaticism which elevates the stakes to the level of divine retribution, what with martyrdom as the ultimate cause célèbre. That we, as humans, have been doing this for at least 5,000 years – evidenced by mass graves and broken skulls – is testament to the saying that we learn nothing from history – only to repeat it again and again. Given the technological advances in the weaponry employed – not to speak of the technologies that rape the earth – one must be sympathetic to a deep depression amongst people who harbour a faint belief that a better world is still possible. A faint belief in the peaceful coexistence of humans, joyfully accommodating mother nature as far as she showers us with her bounties of food and shelter while keeping a scientific eye on everything that can go wrong, with the motto of prevention being better than the cure. But wait a minute, there is no time now for such clichés, my friend, for now is time for war – as always.









Sunday, October 15, 2023

A ‘thrilling’ review of Eleanor Catton’s (2023) Birnam Wood

 A ‘thrilling’ review of Eleanor Catton’s (2023) Birnam Wood


Having reviewed Catton’s Booker Prize winning The Luminaries with mixed feelings, one was wondering what her follow-up effort would be like. The promotional endorsements on the black-and-white book jacket call it a ‘thriller’. I couldn’t agree more. In one line it’s even called a ‘literary thriller’. That I find debatable. In fact, I think the term ‘literary thriller’ is an oxymoron, for the following reasons: ‘Thrillers’ are almost by definition simple plots driven by unrelentless action, climaxing in the inevitable cliché of the high noon shootout. There is nothing ‘literary’ about it. To be unkind to the genre, one might offer a bit of a Freudian analysis: climactic killing action is a pathological sublimation of the genuine article - Catton’s depiction of sex in her ‘thriller’ is anything but thrilling, as we will detail later on. Given that her main protagonist, Tony, is a somewhat confused Kiwi Marxist, she might have let him note that vulture capitalism – as portrayed via the somewhat evil American Lemoine – can also be viewed as a sublimation of sorts. The next defining aspect of a thriller might follow the adage (attributed to Noam Chomsky) that nothing is impossible, but many things are unlikely, i.e. the story line is unbelievable but not impossible, culminating in the ‘thrill’ of the chase, as it were. In other words, the thrill is in its unbelievability. So, in my book, good literature is totally believable, often because the author writes from personal experience, inventing protagonists who are often autobiographical and/or characters they know well in real life. Take James Joyce, Doris Lessing or Ernest Hemingway as examples of authors who develop characters that resemble themselves in an environment that they know very well. An exception is the historical novel – obviously – but which has the potential of great literature if the research for the novel is based on real characters and real events. Catton did well with her historical Luminaries in as much she brings to life aspects of Victorian Hokitika and the associated goldrush of this era. One clever trick was to have a newspaper man as a character as she could use archival newspaper clippings from the time in question. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort, contemporary or historical, can be said for Birnam Wood.


Why would a mild-mannered group of suburban gardeners, named after Birnam Wood, who plant crops on ‘unused’ land, be it private or public – elevated to some sort of eco-warriors by Batton – suddenly drive five hours to a disused farm, one of the co-founders, Mira, has read about in the news, and plant crops there? Only to meet the US billionaire who has concocted to buy the farm from a naïve Kiwi business couple, to hide his preposterous enterprise to secretly mine rare earth minerals from the neighbouring conservation park? Why would Tony, the former Birnam Wood member and short-time lover of Mira come back after five years from his failed socialist adventures in South America and figure out that there is a rat in this story, and indeed discover the secret mining operation only to be pursued by the evil Lemoine who poisons and kills everybody of the Birnam Wood crowd but with Tony, already half dead, escaping? Why is the naïve Kiwi business couple who are involved as a front for Lemoine suddenly suspicious to the degree that first he and then she gets killed as well? Why is the evil vulture capitalist Lemoine clever enough to seduce Mira’s sidekick Shelley who in any other way is portrayed as the timid bureaucrat of the group? The consensual sex described is nice as the evil Lemoine ‘had been a surprisingly attentive lover’. Well, a touch of Epstein would have added a touch of realism here, but as I said, nothing is impossible, but all of this is highly unlikely. Fast-forwarding Catton’s thriller, with the four or five main characters, could be done in a few pages, without missing a beat. To fill the pages (some 420 of it) she has to develop the already unbelievable characters by giving them cliched backgrounds, like Lemoine the self-made billionaire who escaped a dysfunctional upbringing, and on top of that, let them all have pages of internal monologue to presumably explain their twisted logic and thought processes, for none of them are normal in the sense of not requiring psychoanalysis or at least CBT in real life. Dysfunctional fathers, weird mothers, hostile siblings, being offensive, narcissistic (Tony, the Marxist, just wants to be famous, haha), sycophantic (the Kiwi business man) and what have you, are meant to define the characters. Whilst it may be realistic to draw characters as complex entities that are neither 100% good nor bad, it is a false premise that a mass-murderous character like Lemoine could have any redeeming qualities, such as Catton provides for Lemoine. First there are his amazing digital tech skills, outsmarting just about every known device known to mankind; to impress the average tech reader with items like an IMSI-catcher, one must merely peruse a few geek magazines and/or consult Google, and voila, Wikipedia delivers the goods in detail. Lemoine is an ‘excellent’ pilot making his fortune with manufacturing drones (how up-to-date is this), he is a teetotaller but does LSD micro-dosing, he is miles ahead of the Kiwi business couple who are portrayed as dumb but lovely (she shoots Lemoine in the end), he treats his subordinates with contempt, in short he is everything a billionaire these days should be in a twisted imagination, ruthless, clever, the American dream come true. I doubt Catton has ever met any billionaires of this calibre, so she must make it up from what one can read on social media that is forever fascinated by what lots and lots of money can buy. Maybe the subtext is centred on the aristocracy of money, i.e., if you didn’t inherit your wealth, and made it instead by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and escape your low class, you are bound to fail in the end, like the proverbial Epsteins who abuse their money as part of a low class throw-back to deviant behaviour. Moneyed aristocrats like Andrew may take part in such debauchery but are excused in the end because high class persons are essentially good people. Escape from your caste is prohibited. Maybe Catton should read Wilkerson and McGhee as a belated research project for her reconsidered characterization of Lemoine:


The Pulitzer-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson is right: behind the illusion of meritocracy, the US runs on a system of caste which she defines as “an artificial, arbitrary graded ranking of human value, the underlying infrastructure of a society’s divisions”.



Contrast this with Tony’s shrill pronouncements on billionaires as blood suckers of the worst sort, undeserving of life, calling out “you’re going down, you piece of shit … you’re going to rot in hell. You’re fucking done, you motherfucker” (p.399). Not exactly what a cool and collected Marxist, even when in great pain, would say. Tony sounds more like deranged terrorist. When, on other occasions Tony holds forth with his Marxist pronouncements it sounds again as if lifted from Wikipedia, echoing a somewhat doubtful rhetoric on this topic, namely that Marxism, if not dead already, is a somewhat dangerous theory that amounts to totalitarian regimes in China and North Korea. Better keep up with the American Free Market idea even if some of the billionaires turn out to be mad. Or is it just a good spectacle to let a mad Marxist fight a mad capitalist? Since I bet that Catton knows neither Marxist nor vulture capitalist from personal experience, she must manufacture their characters as a fantasy construct in her image of the world, which in this instance seems rather warped. What about the gardening club, the Birnam Wood characters (somewhat loftily lifted from Shakespeare, and of course all being university graduates)? Having become bit of a gardener myself, I don’t really see a genuine description of what a dedicated gardener is. Catton portrays the group around Mira and Shelly primarily as thrill seekers in terms of planting crops on land not owned by them. It is not about a genuine commitment to liberate food production and feed the poor. The semi-technicalities of planting and looking after crops in a sustainable way again seem copied from ever growing (excuse the pun) gardening websites that promote zero-carbon footprints. Bizarrely, some such gardeners are running around with apps in their hands following instructions on how to prune, plant, irrigate, control pests, harvest, make preserves, fertilize, compost, recycle, make food forests, raid supermarket waste bins, extract underground heat, install solar panels, and wind turbines, in short: save the planet by app. As such the members of Birnam Wood, Mira and Shelly especially, hang on their iPhone day and night (it is 2017), messaging with emojis and all the abbreviations we have come used to as the mindlessly twittering social media in-crowd. 


What is good about this thriller is its natural environment: here Catton knows what she is talking about but also being able to cut back to her Luminaries which is based in similar west-coast countryside. Her feel for the New Zealand bush is spot on, and we can just see Tony struggling through the undergrowth of ferns and tall grasses. Indeed, this New Zealand landscape is what makes New Zealand unique, her unspoilt conservation zones and national parks. That such nature is under threat is a good point made by Catton, except that the threat here is of unbelievable proportions. Actual mining concessions and gas and oil exploration are going full steam ahead with brakes only applied when useful as a green deal to show the world what we can do, and to appease domestic doomsday climate scientists.


Here Catton could have engaged in some real politics – Realpolitik – describing the shady deals between the Green Party and Labour versus the right-wing parties (now in power) that are hell-bent on extracting fossil fuels, minerals and gold from the land and sea, not to speak of intensive farming and pesticidal horticulture, to keep the capitalist economy on a roll. When writing this, the elections were a week away and Labour struggling in the polls, what with the corporate media salivating over the far-right, presenting live animal export lobbyists who want to have the ban on life animal exports lifted, with the argument worthy of a Lemoine, namely if we don’t do it someone else will, and we lose out on the profits to be made. So, what was that all about, a rusty old ship loaded with some 6,000 live NZ cattle bound for China sinking along the way? Sorry, mate, accidents happen. The green economy is a joke, they say. NZ’s methane emissions from intensive life-stock farming are way beyond acceptable limits, so there are always promises that by 2050 or so it will be reduced by 5% or so. This would be real Tony-speak! That Tony thinks the Lemoine mining operation is in cahoots with the NZ Government is of course another vast exaggeration put in his mouth. We know this would never happen, so there, you crazy Marxist Greenie! That Lemoine has the CIA in his DNA (via both of his wayward parents), commanding a military unit that extracts the rare earth minerals and causes a landslide, borders on slapstick dark humour. In what perhaps amounts to real NZ literature, we have Smith’s Dream (1971) by CK Stead, where US Marines put down a NZ left-wing revolution – it’s a dream but sounds quite realistic even today. Tony wouldn’t stand a chance when the fascist NZ Government calls in the US Marines! Catton also allows Lemoine to voice the current bogeyman, China, as a respectable excuse to engage in a bit of criminal behaviour if only it helps to defeat China. It is one thing to put words into the mouth of others to make them appear as uninformed populists but is quite another thing to then let them massacre a group of gardeners. It’s like saying that Hitler wasn’t all bad since he built the Autobahn. 


So, what is the final verdict? Good thriller if you like a massacre for a climax. The book is suspiciously written like a film script, and I bet that Catton will receive respectable bids for the rights. Since the TV version of her Luminaries wasn’t exactly a great hit – to stage historical drama requires expensive sets, so the solution was to film the outdoor scenes in dim lights so as hide the fact that the street scene set was used again and again. Birnam Wood as a contemporary thriller has no such obstacles: the likes of Taika Waititi would make a good fist of it, given that he is a master of taking the mickey out of pretentious scripts. Indeed, Waititi might turn it into a great satire as he did in parts of his Jojo Rabbit movie, featuring Hitler as a madman. Or maybe Sir Peter Jackson might be a more amenable director as he takes his humour very seriously, like his early work on the zombie movie Braindead. Catton on the other hand might have difficulties with Jackson’s knighthood that made him SIR Peter, since her bumbling Kiwi entrepreneur SIR Owen in Birnam Wood is ridiculed as a poster man for conservation, when everyone knows that he hasn’t the slightest interest in such matters. Saving endangered birds is not his forte but is clever enough to use it as a public relations stunt in cahoots with Lemoine. After all, as a nice rejoinder, when in the end LADY Owen gets down to the farm and sees that a plastic drum with 1080 and other poisonous chemicals is missing – taken, as we soon find out, by Lemoine to feed it to the gardeners for breakfast – we come to understand that SIR Owen (now also dead) was in fact, as an owner of a pest control company, a purveyor of 1080 – an infamous animal poison. SAFE, a NZ animals rights organisation headlined an article in 2019 as below:


            1080 poisoning an animal welfare catastrophe for New Zealand


Sir Owen as an avid hunter had taught his wife on how to use a gun, which was useful in shooting Lemoine in the head. It’s hard to imagine a more bizarre story, but then again, that’s the appeal of a good thriller, as a book or as a movie.








Monday, September 18, 2023

A review of William O’Grady’s (2022, version 3.2) Natural Syntax, an Emergentist Primer

         A review of William O’Grady’s (2022, version 3.2) Natural Syntax, an Emergentist Primer 




 O’Grady’s Natural Syntax traverses many of the topics that have been elaborated by Generative Syntax, from anaphora to islands, intended to demonstrate that Natural Syntax is a better theory (more about this later on). Evaluating Natural Syntax by itself, I find most processes perfectly plausible but will add some observations about ergative languages that Natural Syntax seems to struggle with, putting paid to the notion that any linguistic theory can account for any and all linguistic phenomena. 


In the first instance, what I like about O’Grady’s Natural Syntax, is his basic assumption, i.e.


Semantic representations do not come ready-made of course; they must be built. My key proposal in this regard is that all mappings between form and meaning start with a maximally simple template, called a semantic base. As depicted below, the semantic base consists of a position for a predicate (PRED) and a position for a single argument – henceforth the base argument (represented by the symbol β).


The semantic base




The semantic base is the sine qua non of syntax – the minimal and least costly semantic representation needed for forming and interpreting a sentence of any type.


I have always assumed (studying and teaching languages) that the VERB is the centre of all sentence production/comprehension. It is the VERB that selects its nominal arguments. I have always wondered why a sentence is defined as a subject-predicate configuration (mirrored in generative syntax by NP VP) whereby the predicate (VP) is only the VERB when it is intransitive but is VERB + OBJECT (V NP) when transitive. Not sure why O’Grady chose the notation PRED when he clearly means the VERB (transitive or intransitive) which then selects its nominal arguments accordingly. Or else, since O’Grady terms PRED as the semantic base, the meaning (sic) of PRED is somewhat different from the narrow syntactic terminology. It doesn’t really matter, as he says these representations ‘must be built’ (why he is so opposed to ‘building’ tree structures will be discussed later). As we learn how to map the nominal arguments, and depending on word order, see the many permutations, we can only agree with the procedures in ‘building’ a sentence. 


As mentioned above of particular interest for me is his treatment of ergative languages that place the patient (PAT) before the agent (AG), O’Grady showing how this is supposed to make sense in even tricky word order schemes. Having studied an ergative language myself, namely Niuean (a Polynesian language) I would have liked a wider and better treatment of this phenomenon. Let’s remind us of the basic scheme:


            V(intransitive) N1(absolutive)


            V(transitive) N1(ergative) N2(absolutive)


In traditional descriptions (e.g., Seiter, 1980 p.28) both Nare declared ‘subjects’ which begs the question why Nhas the same case marking as N1. The other structure that needs explaining is that the N2 (absolutive) is often elided (or optional), rendering the structure as:


            V(transitive) N1(ergative)


which gives rise to yet another question, i.e., is the VERB in this instance transitive or intransitive?


As is elaborated in some treatments of the ergative constructions (Chung, 1978, Seiter, 1980), this is related to the passive-to-ergative drift hypothesis for Polynesian languages, as exemplified by NZ Māori. Since the passive voice is not accounted for in Natural Syntax, let us remind us what the active-passive transformation is in English:


(a)   The cat ate the mouse.

(b)  The cat ate.

(c)   The mouse ate.

(d)  The cat slept.

(e)   The mouse slept.

            (d) The mouse was eaten by the cat.

            (e) The mouse was eaten.

            (f) *The mouse/cat was slept.


where ‘the mouse’ is the accusative object in the active voice, and the nominative subject in the passive voice. It seems to make sense that some languages drifted to a system whereby the canonical sentence with a transitive verb was in the passive voice, with the subject (patient) being marked by a special case, the ergative, while all agents were marked by the absolutive case. Such a system put into question the concept of transitivity (or valency), as the agent-less passive construction (e) only has one nominal argument, as have so-called intransitive constructions (d, e). Even in English (b, c) are questionable, i.e. while the verb ‘to eat’ is traditionally a transitive it can also be used as an intransitive. In terms of valency one can say that some verbs have one or two arguments. How such a system operates when the passive construction becomes the unmarked sentence (and the anti-passive the marked one) is a question that should occupy O’Grady in more detail, so his Natural Syntax has greater explanatory power, other than simply assigning argument slots that need to be filled (or elided). For example, as below, Niuean distinguishes (c - absolutive) and (e - ergative) by different case markings while the verb remains in the same form (as opposed to English where the difference is achieved via different verb forms). Note however that (c- absolutive) is a marked anti-passive construction not commonly used (to a degree similar to the English (e) sentence being marked/unusual). 


(d) V (eat) N1(mouse - ergative) N2(cat - absolutive) ‘The mouse was eaten by the cat/The cat ate the mouse’ (note that for translation purposes, one might select the English active construction as to convey the unmarked Niuean equivalent)

(e) V (eat) N1(mouse - ergative) ‘The mouse was eaten’ (unmarked)

(c) V (eat) N2(mouse - absolutive) ‘The mouse ate.’ (marked)


Also, of interest to O’Grady’s theory may be that the Niuean ergative (passive) system is drifting back to the English-type accusative (active) system because the Niuean education system under New Zealand control is largely English-medium based. A ramification of current efforts to reverse such trends, i.e. the renaissance of indigenous languages like Niuean and NZ Māori via more enlightened language policies, is that such indigenous languages are taught as second languages (English being the first) with the unintended consequence to further cause grammatical shifts, as mentioned above. 


Given above observations, we can now address O’Grady’s apparent obsession with constantly comparing his sentence mapping procedures with that of Chomskian generative and/or minimalist processes, consigning the latter to the historical dustheap. While I understand the Popperian dictum that much of natural sciences is occupied by falsifying theories, I do not understand how this can be applied to linguistic theories that at best can have a psychological reality (i.e. linguistics being a branch of psychology). Sure, Chomsky alluded to what a linguistic theory should accomplish, e.g., have explanatory power and be elegant, defending his theories against the onslaught of competing theories. Chomsky always prefaced his theories with ‘assuming that X is true, then y will follow’, e.g., in its present incarnation, assuming that MERGE is a basic computation, then most sentence structures can be accounted for by following various procedures. In the same way O’Grady assumes that PRED is the basic building block for processing most sentences. To make categorical statements about the value of one linguistic theory over another seems to contradict O’Grady’s introductory notes, namely that the ‘quest to explain language may lie beyond the reach of the only creatures who are able to use it’. 


I wouldn’t call this ‘a deep irony’ though, rather a paradox, in that any explanation of any phenomena requires a meta-language (actually, better called sub-language) so that the snake doesn’t bite its own tail. The natural sciences have evolved ever more sophisticated meta/sub-languages, not to speak of the various attempts of explaining mathematics (cf. Russell’s Principia Mathematica). That we now have a plethora of computer languages is testament to the ironic idea that subsets of natural language can be the basis of programming AI to learn natural languages – i.e., one can detect here an irony in that the acquisition of language by humans appears to be child’s play. If we could only figure out how the brain gives rise to language even at such an early age! Assuming that the human brain is or harbours anything like a computational system, some neuro-linguists have embarked on a wild goose chase to attempt the impossible. The reason being that language cannot be explained by language – a system cannot explain itself. I have likened this paradox to the biblical (nonsensical) story of the prohibition of eating fruit from the tree of knowledge, lest one is a god. In other words – in the beginning was the word – only a god can explain language. Not that this confers a certain status on linguists like O’Grady or Chomsky who at least agree on the notion that we should nevertheless try our best to explain what cannot be explained. Being a lesser linguist myself, I would – nevertheless – claim that linguistics is the crème de la crème of all sciences. Einstein and Co. might laugh at the suggestion, given that they are busy explaining the universe down to the last particle at CERN. That they too communicate their findings in terms of language – or a subset of language incomprehensible to common man – would escape their view of the world, likely to disagree with Nietzsche’s contention that science too is a form of storytelling. On that count we wouldn’t have Einstein begin his paper Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper with an exposition on the philosophical assumptions underlying his technical claims. Writers on highly technical subjects tend to launch into the details of their proposals, leaving the layman behind in quick time. Chomsky’s seminal Aspects of the Theory of Syntax took no prisoners on that account either.


O’Grady’s title Natural Syntax, an Emergentist Primer sounds technical in the first part and non-technical in the second. The word ‘syntax’ does not ordinarily evoke common understanding, being mainly associated with linguistics at the graduate level, to distinguish the concept from the more lowbrow term of ‘grammar’ (cf. the use of Grammar School in the British education system). With regards to the ‘Primer’ idea, O’Grady informs us that


As its subtitle suggests, Natural Syntax is intended for an audience with little or no background in the study of emergence or its possible relevance to the understanding of language.


He then seems to contradict himself by elevating his subject as follows:


Linguistics – and especially syntax – has been a hotbed of controversy for many decades, for reasons that await scrutiny and assessment by scholars of the history and philosophy of science.


Now we are at the level of ‘scholars’, warning an unsuspecting audience that what we are dealing with awaits ‘scrutiny and assessment by scholars of the history and philosophy of science’. Based on this observation one might expect O’Grady to submit his syntax proposals and then await scrutiny and assessment. Alas, there is quite a way to go before we get to that. Given that linguistics is not an exact science like physics, chemistry or mathematics – Chomsky proposed it being part of psychology, cognition included – we can of course expect some loose talk, especially when directed at competing theories. Chomsky himself and authors allied with him are not above such remarks, dutifully quoted by O’Grady, such as:


            … there is good reason to think …

            … There is no longer a conceptual barrier to the hope that …

            … any linguistic theory is going to have to meet two conditions …

            --- We can all agree that …

            … it is impossible to draw any conclusion …

            … No rational person can believe that …

            … there is no coherent alternative …


Not that O’Grady and his fellow travellers are immune from it either:


            … The phenomena of language are best explained by …

            … the structure of human language must inevitably be shaped around …

            … Clearly no one denies that …

            … there are compelling reasons to believe that …

            … Everyone pretty well agrees that …

            … All researchers agree that …


Neither O’Grady’s nor Chomsky’s linguistic theories are hardly at the level where we could legitimately say that ‘Clearly no one denies that … 1 + 1 =2. In today’s anti-scientific, conspiracy-driven, fake world there would be plenty influencers who even deny that. As such, the more extreme versions of academic revenge-competitiveness have resulted in the infamous ‘linguistics wars’ promoted by the likes of R A Harris and C Knight (I engaged in minor skirmishes with both). In this context it is also interesting that O’Grady seems to suggest that various linguistic talents were wasted due to a supposed adherence to a particular school of thought – mostly generative syntax a là Chomsky, until he supposedly reversed his theory to the Minimalist approach (to be discussed in more detail below). Academia, especially in the human sciences, is replete with academic departments hiring only adherents of the school of thought (ideology), the chair of the department represents. So it is not only anti-Chomsky academics who missed out on being hired but also pro-Chomsky ones. I might include myself here for the latter, getting my linguistics degrees at the University of Auckland, at a time when the anthropological linguistics department was dominated by descriptivists who derided Chomsky for his theories (from a satirical poem composed by A Pawley who had attended Chomsky’s lectures in Bloomington, Indiana in 1971):


            My kernels appear in most of the journals

My trees can be seen in their pages

No transformations but by my operations

will be permitted for ages and ages


No wonder when a teaching position came up, and I applied, I was turned down in favour of a religious SIL-type descriptivist (my chance at last to affect some revenge). Equally, somewhat earlier on when I attended LMU in Germany to study psychology in 1970, hardcore behaviourists dominated the proceedings and beat out all my enthusiasm I had garnered from Reich and the likes. Little did I know then that a certain Noam Chomsky had already debunked Skinner’s behaviourism in 1959, so I joined the APO under an anarchist flag instead, breaking off my studies at LMU and leaving Germany to escape the draft, and eventually settling in New Zealand.


In any case, O’Grady seems to have escaped the linguistics wars unscathed, happily ensconced at UH, developing his brand of Emergentism. As noted above, in the human sciences it seems desirable to first state one’s adherence to a certain school of thought, if not outright ideology, be it Marxist or McCarthyite, before getting down to the technicalities (Chomsky famously divorced his political activism from his linguistics).  As such O’Grady is at pains to first establish his philosophical credentials for Emergentism, citing British philosophers Lewes and Mills who advocated a distinction between ‘resultants’ and ‘emergents’, by way of saying that ‘resultants’ clearly show their components while ‘emergents’ don’t. O’Grady uses Mill’s example of water not showing its components of hydrogen and oxygen, hence water being an ‘emergent’. Personally, I find this rather obscure. In Chemistry I cannot think of one example that would demonstrate a ‘resultant’ rather than an ‘emergent’, other than two elements that do not react to form a compound. In Physics there are no resultant elements (as in the periodic table) either. Sure, there are resultants like ‘mass’, similar to the result of 1kg + 1kg = 2kg (arithmetic is also an example of a complex system, the components (numbers) of which are inherent to that system only. The rainbow is cited as an example that is a ‘resultant’ showing its component colours, and yet the ‘organisation’ of these colours gives rise (emerge) to the concept of the rainbow. As such it would be fairly obvious that any painting is a resultant, as one can see the different colours that make up the painting. The literature on these matters seems quite uncertain as to the definitions of ‘resultant’ versus ‘emergent’ (cf. https://eldervass.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Elder-Vass-2005-Emergence-Realist-Account-of-Cause-JCR-PPV.pdf.


Nevertheless, O’Grady goes on to explain ‘emergence’ as a particular phenomenon in nature so that ‘things are often not what they appear to be’. He calls this ‘understanding the mysteries of nature’. The two statements either add up to an oxymoron or to a truism: a ‘mystery’ is at best a phenomenon not yet explained by science, or more commonly a phenomenon which has a scientific explanation but is denied by various mystics (nowadays called conspiracy theorists). Obviously, old wives’ tales or certain aspects of folk science are myths that are debunked by science every day – albeit to no great effect as currently evidenced by climate crisis deniers (possibly in the same league as former holocaust deniers). Not that academics are immune from inventing myths - see Chomsky’s critique of Skinner.


Maybe O’Grady wants to point out that the ‘mystery’ of language is just an old wives’ tale of Chomskian proportions, and that his brand of linguistic science will debunk any such mystery and come up with the scientific goods. In that case we are back to square one, or so it seems. If we were to accept that ‘resultants’ and ‘emergents’ are neutral scientific terms for certain natural phenomena – and in which in my book refer to quite different categories – then we might be quite open to O’Grady’s suggestion that language is an ‘emergent’, were it not for his next claim that ‘emergents’ solve mysteries while ‘resultants’ are part of ‘essentialism’ which in turn are items ‘unique to a complex phenomenon itself’. In other words, a complex system that is defined by components that cannot occur by themselves. Here one might straight away jump to a linguistic (synchronic) phenomenon where certain roots of words do not occur by themselves or whereby many prefixes/suffixes/infixes do not occur by themselves. Is that a case of essentialism? Or is it a case of emergentism in that one can explain many of these items in terms of diachronic developments? Not surprisingly there is also the suggestion that complex system harbour both resultant and emergent processes – an idea not commensurate with O’Grady’s either-or theory.


In any case, this is the trail that leads again to Chomsky (of the generative syntax and UG era) who is accused of being an essentialist, one who claims that the components of language are unique to language and cannot be derived from phenomena outside language. I presume this also makes Chomsky a ‘resultant’ orientated scientist who claims that language ‘resulted’ suddenly and inexplicitly from a genetic mutation in the brain some 150,000 years ago, while O’Grady is an ‘emergentist’ who claims that language evolved/emerged over time from cognitive processes that predate language and/or work in parallel with language. I am not even sure if this amounts to some sort of fundamental difference. In common and scientific language use one can just as well claim that the ‘result’ of combining certain cognitive processes is language – just as much the ‘result’ of a genetic mutation is language. Maybe descriptivists have a point here: we don’t care where language comes from, we just want to describe what is in front of our eyes and ears. The child that acquires their language has no inkling (nor does it need it) where this language comes from, nor that it evolved/emerged/resulted from a single cell billions of years ago, nor that they resulted/emerged synchronically from a couple of cells (sperm and egg). 


Verbal semantics aside, what really seems to irk O’Grady is that Chomskian bio-linguistics and Universal Grammar explain language as a self-contained system. However, before we continue, we should qualify language here as syntax, the rules of constructing a sentence. This so-called Chomskian essentialism presumes that categories like verbs, nouns and combinatory processes are quite unique to language. So, what is wrong with that? Isn’t O’Grady using the very same concepts in his sentence processing?


Again, O’Grady and others submit to the Popperian obsession (for the human sciences) to have to falsify a competing theory, in order to verify their own. O’Grady is even more encouraged to do so as it appears that Chomsky himself saw the light and abandoned UG in favour of the Minimalist Program, a program that could almost be called Emergenist – if only! O’Grady quotes Chomsky:


There is no longer a conceptual barrier to the hope that the UG might be reduced to a much simpler form, and that the basic properties of the computational systems of language might havea principled explanation instead of being stipulated in terms of a highly restrictive language-specific format for grammars.

(Chomsky 2005:8)


The problem is that silly Chomsky and Co. haven’t quite given up on UG, what O’Grady calls ‘Rebooting Universal Grammar’. Since Chomsky’s biolinguistics under the Minimalist Program posits a Language Faculty that has UG as a basis, we are back to square one:


The term Universal Grammar (UG) is a label for [the] striking difference in cognitive capacity between “us and them [humans and animals].”

(Chomsky, Gallego & Ott 2019:230)


It has taken O’Grady some 16 pages to deal with Chomsky, and only now we get down to what is O’Grady’s theory, introduced as The Strict Emergenist Protocol. The first axiom is ‘direct mapping’ between sound and meaning, as opposed, alas, to Chomsky’s ‘mediated mapping’ as explained by a Jackendoff quote:


 the correlation of sound and meaning is mediated by syntactic structure ...

(Jackendoff 2007:3)


A diagram of a structure

Description automatically generated

 Now, I don’t know if binary tree structures are still alive in Chomsky’s Minimalist Program but I since the MERGE operations are also binary in nature, I wouldn’t be surprised if they still were, as a useful metaphor. Be this as it may be, O’Grady’s solution is called, as mentioned above, ‘direct mapping’, represented like this:






Harry left





Since we are now wondering how ‘direct mapping’ might work – other than saying so – we see O’Grady backpedalling a bit:


To avoid possible confusion, two clarifications are in order. First, the rejection of syntactic structure applies specifically to ‘tree structures.’ It does not deny that speech involves words of particular types (nouns, verbs, etc.) that are inflected and linearized in particular ways. Second, I am not proposing that syntax can bedispensed with, only that it should be reconceptualized as a set of operations that map strings of words directly onto semantic representations and vice versa in ways to be explored in the chapters that follow.


So, we still have N (noun) and perhaps NP (noun phrase) and V and VP, and T (tense) just like in the rejected tree structures – and we still have syntax! This seems to contradict O’Grady’s note:


[Language] maps a string of words directly onto a semantic representation without the mediation of grammatical principles or syntactic structure. (O’Grady 2015:102)


In conclusion then, to get back to the beginning, I find O’Grady’s theory quite appealing due to his assumption of PRED being the basic template. Other than that, as he uses the concepts of syntax just like anybody else, be it Chomsky or Panini, I don’t see the need to assert his notion that his theory is any better than any other. Linguistics, like many other human sciences, benefit from Mao’s dictum to ‘let a thousand schools of thought blossom’ simply because human nature is, and always will be, as un-speakable and contradictory as the traits that make us uniquely human, namely language (langue) and language use (parole). While the likes of O’Grady and Chomsky are very good at de-mystifying language (langue) as systems of syntax, we have no one to explain why humans use language to shoot themselves in the foot as much as to elevate themselves beyond the gravity of earth (Chomsky as a political activist, tries his best but in his long and distinguished career he has not been able to make the world a better place, only warning us of pending, man-made, language-mediated catastrophes). 





Chung, S. L. (1978). Case marking and grammatical relations in Polynesian. Austin: University of Texas Press.


Seiter, W. (1980). Studies in Niuean Syntax. Garland Publishing, New York & London.





Tuesday, September 5, 2023

A review of SIBLINGS by Brigitte Reimann (English translation by Lucy Jones, 2023)

 A review of SIBLINGS by Brigitte Reimann (English translation by Lucy Jones, 2023)


First published in German in 1963 in the then GDR/DDR (East-Germany), this book came across my horizon some 50 years later, in English, due to my long-time relocation from Germany to New Zealand. It may sound odd for a native speaker of German to first read a German book in English but living in an English-speaking country a long way from Germany means, it is not that unusual to come across English translations of German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and what have you of both contemporary and past literature. Indeed, there has been an upswing is such translations, given perhaps the somewhat arid field of contemporary English literature. In any case, I am very grateful to now have read Reimann’s Siblings – with a wish to someday read the original version in German, if only to find out if the German version matches the very good English equivalent. Often one finds that a translation is second best but occasionally it is the other way round, and I suspect this may well be the case here. As a living witness of the 60s Zeitgeist in Germany – and eager onlooker and occasional visitor from afar since then – I am thrown back to my West German upbringing in Bavaria, as a child of refugees from the Sudetenland, what with my relatives always looking back to their ancestral East, East-Germany included, as I had friends whose parents had fled Leipzig, telling stories about the good life they had had there before the evil Russians came, and how the obedient German communists took away their factories and mansions – a bit like Reimann’ Elisabeth Arendt tells the story of her grandfather’s factory being nationalized, albeit here with full consent by the main protagonists. I, of course, grew up with a heavy dose of anti-Soviet and anti-Communist propaganda, only questioning the gross manifestations, like the emerging neo-Nazi movements in West-Germany, when I was in the last year or so at high school (the fairly prestigious Gymnasium Hohenschwangau). Some of our younger teachers were liberals who somehow managed to get our class of 69 to go on a trip to East-Berlin to see a Berthold Brecht play at the Berlin Ensemble. Obviously, we had to pass through the land corridor to West-Berlin first and then be taken to the border crossing into East-Berlin, through a warren of fences and gates, only to emerge on the other side, on a dimly lit road that led to the Berlin Ensemble. The play, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (German: Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui) was probably lost to most of us but I do remember a certain realisation that life in the DDR was ‘real’ and not a figment of the imagination dreamt up by the West-German media (and the West in general) whereby the poor East-German people were brutally oppressed by sub-machine gun toting Stasi characters. Years later there was a longer sojourn in West-Berlin in 1977/78, where our daughter was born before we moved back to New Zealand. During that time, we never made it to the East. I worked in a factory that produced dynamos for bicycles, and some of the older workers there told me stories of how their families had been split up by the ‘wall’, sometimes sure, sometimes unsure who to blame. We lived in Kreuzberg, and we took walks along the wall, not being the ‘heroes for one day’ according to one David Bowie who had also spent some time in West-Berlin. This was the time of the RAF and sub-machine toting West-German Berlin police stood at the entrances to the subway, watching out for the dreaded terrorists. To read now what was going on, on the other side, during the late 50s, early 60s, is therefore quite a revelation, even if it technically is a book of fiction. Calling myself bit of a socialist now – who has never lived in a socialist state – I do wonder if by chance I had been born on the other side, and grown up in the DDR, having graduated from high school and then what? Study psychology as I initially did at the LMU in Munich in 1970, only to be a severely disaffected student who joined the APO (Außerparlamentarische Opposition - German for extra-parliamentary opposition, commonly known as the APO)? Looks more likely I would have studied engineering, as the socialist DDR needed such dedicated folk to run the factories and lift the economy of the DDR to the heights of an egalitarian utopia. Or as a more rebellious character I would have enrolled the arts, as Reimann’s character Elisabeth Arendt did, painting in the genre of socialist realism. Since in the early days, before the borders closed, it was no problem to just walk over to West-Berlin, and all those who did, like Elizabeth’s older brother Konrad, and then be transported to West-Germany proper. Later with the wall from 1961 onwards the so-called escapes became more difficult – or murderous from the Western perspective. In fact, in the early days, it was no problem to cross from East-Berlin to West-Berlin and back to East-Berlin without too many problems, as in the story of the ‘siblings’, when Konrad comes to West-Berlin inviting his mother and sister to come over to the Kurfürstendamm and have coffee at the Kempinski (an upper class hotel). The meeting is a disaster because Elisabeth cannot come to terms with her traitorous brother who forsook his good socialist home for the capitalist West that is drenched in blood from the exploitation of its workers. When her younger brother Uli also wants to defect, drastic steps need to be taken to counter Uli’s disillusionment about how he was treated by the Party, i.e. not getting the job he deserved because of some vague connection he had with his professor at university who had defected to the West. This type of Communist Party corruption – and Uli not being a Party member – seems to be rife, so Elizabeth has to convince her brother that this actually is not the case. As such she retells the long story of her own brush with the almighty Party: she is maligned by a senior artist at her work, whom she considers a bad painter who sells his kitsch works to the factory at inflated prices, by virtue of being a Party member. His ruse is that he suffered under the Nazis and as such has superior socialist credibility. It turns out that was banned from painting under the Nazis but was merely exiled, i.e. not suffering that much. As he nearly manages to derail Elizabeth, the good Party secretary listens to Elisabeth’s final appeal, and he relents: an investigation reveals the bad artist’s misdeeds who throws his Party badge across the room when ordered to apologize to Elisabeth. Elisabeth is rehabilitated as a good socialist artist even though she is not a Party member. QED (an expression Reimann also uses). Socialism may not be perfect but it is the best system of government we have. Of course, the other side makes the same claim for their ideology, like JFK in 1963 in West-Berlin, saying “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us”. For Uli though his sister’s feel-good story is not enough to convince him not to defect. It’s not that he believes the propaganda of the West – as his older brother apparently does with some fervour – indeed, he tells his sister that he is not giving up on communism and that he would join the (outlawed) KPD in West-Germany when he gets there. This sounds like an odd statement but there are historical precedents whereby communists flee their communist country, in order to fight for a better version of communism elsewhere, Trotsky being a prime example. Probably the best German example is that of Rudi Dutschke who finally crossed over to West-Berlin from East-Berlin in 1961, unhappy with the SED (the Socialist Unity Party of the GDR/DDR) while still an adherent of Rosa Luxemburg’ participatory radical communism. Dutschke became the leader of the Socialist Students Union (SDS) in West Germany, and that country's broader "extra-parliamentary opposition" (APO). Dutschke narrowly survived an assassination attempt by a neo-Nazi nutcase. Uli might have been of that mould. His sister’ failed attempt to convince him to stay needed drastic action: she tells her lover/fiancée Joachim, a very good, very intelligent and faithful communist and leader of an engineering work brigade. Joachim, the supreme rationalist talks to Uli and Uli gives in, unpacking his bags but bitter about his sister’s betrayal (he had said he only trusted her): “I won’t forget this” and  “I’ll never forgive you”. This is how the novel begins and ends; a clever ‘who done it’ revealed at the very end. The figure of Joachim as the lynchpin of the story is perhaps the most surprising one: his unflappable seriousness, his command of scientific dialectic materialism, and his humanitarian love of people (and Elisabeth in particular) sounds almost too good to be true: a Soviet hero of extraordinary proportions living the most ordinary workers’ life imaginable. This may be wishful thinking on Reimann’s behalf but it is the most beautiful idea for an idealist communist utopia that all progressive people around the world wish for. Faced with the ugly truth of the current state of the world we are almost resigned to the impossibility of such a communist utopia and yet we know that there is no alternative. Riemann’s book underscores this with her extraordinary vision of an artist group in a socialist workers brigade, documenting the workers and their industrial landscapes. She has no patience with the art genre of socialist realism that merely produces posters of socialist clichés, as described via her bad artist who paints bad portraits of workers with clenched fists, decried by Elisabeth and her fellow workers as a painting of a trained ‘monkey’. Her idea of social realism is to paint the workers in their natural state as part of a wider aspect of nature that in essence is beautiful. Her vivid descriptions of the flora surrounding her house, her housing block, her factory, be it a humble walnut tree or a wilted forsythia, blend in with the man-made industrial landscapes that speak to a noble endeavours of the workers, be it a shipbuilding yard or a briquette factory. Her mentions of artists are as eclectic and as undogmatic as can be: Liebermann, Leibl, the ‘cheery landscapes’ of van Gogh. In her arguments with the bad artist who notes Kandinsky and Dufy as ‘anti-realists’, Elisabeth defines realism as imbued with human feeling rather than taking a photograph of something – as the bad artist is prone to. Later she comments on being a painter who does not need to ‘rack her brains over electronics or nuclear reactors or the concept of crisis theory’. Adding:


            Not before I’ve worked out the mystery of the light sources in some of Rembrandt’s

and Correggio’s paintings anyway, with their surreal radiance emanating from a forehead or folded hands, a miracle that’s been pondered for centuries.


The art of the artisan as such is no different from the art of the engineer who, like Joachim, is fascinated by cybernetics. Joachim tells Uli that ‘we need you’ to build our socialist state, we need your expertise, your skills, the knowledge gained in our system of education, to realize our collectivist dreams, to love each other. Uli is perplexed but kind of hopeful:


            What kind of people are you anyway?


As we know now, the dream of a socialist utopia, in East-Germany and in the rest of the world did not eventuate – yet! Unlike Reimann who died young in 1973, we have witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, Putin’s Russia and his claim on the Ukraine resulting in a brutal war, China’s claim on Taiwan, NATO launching counter-offensives, the climate crisis, and so on and so on, as if we have learned nothing from history, only condemned to repeat it. The Guardian’s review of the book is testament to that: apart from the pseudo-liberal courage to feature such a book, the reviewer has absolutely no clue as to what this novel is about. For him this is just an ‘autobiographical’ account (which it is not) of ‘the horrors of dictatorship against the loyalty to one’s home’. There are no ‘horrors of dictatorship’ in the DDR in this book. Nor is it just a family saga, as the reviewer assumes, reminding us ‘that, east or west, there is nothing so strange or surprising as families’. Given the current UK politics sliding from bad to worse, one would have thought that the journalistic intelligentsia of the Guardian might have reflected for a minute or two what ‘east or west’ means in this context, apart from repeating the old JFK propaganda of East = dictatorship versus West = freedom and democracy. When families split up in the West it is usually not because one of them defects to the East, e.g. the unusual case of a US Gi defecting to North Korea. The miseries of life in the West are enough cause to break families apart. To situate sibling rivalry without political context is like saying that sporting competitions are some sort of neutral domain (should Russian tennis players be banned from playing in the West?). Reimann reminds us quite clearly that the break-up of a loving sibling relationship is based purely on politics. The reviewer also misses out on the important question of art in socialist society       as opposed to the arts in the West. Reimann exemplifies workers’ art forms as situated within the work brigade, artists alongside workers, engineers, Party secretaries, and art celebrating the vibrant collectivism with human emotion. I just received an email from the NZ Arts Foundation that says:


Relieve the joy from our favourite night of the year – our Laureate celebration. With a stacked room of creative legends, generous givers, friends and whānau, and curious arts lovers; these pictures showcase what we're all about!


This in view of NZ’s recent scandal of a ‘generous giver’ – a wealthy business man and patron of the Arts – being convicted of sexual abuse, luring young artists into his den, promising them financial aid in their artistic careers if only they perform oral sex on him. Art as a business for rich collectors results in art that is worse than the bad art kitsch produced by Elisabeth’s near nemesis. No wonder that in above text the presumably penniless ‘art lovers’ come last. What is celebrated here in NZ are the endless contradictions inherent in a capitalist society. Corporate art critics pour scorn onto emerging artists who paint, with feeling, workers and industrial landscapes. To pay the rent they are forced to accept commissions from narcissistic patrons. Reimann, the genuine artist, lived a tragically short life in a vastly different era, and in vastly different place but she caught glimpses of what a better socialist world can be like. I shall endeavour to read her book in German so that I might get a bit closer to the real thing, lest Lucy Jones, the ingenious translator, has beaten me to it.