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Archive for December, 2010

Clearing Up

A quote to-day from Chapter 23 of one of my Christmas presents — In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent’s delightful book on artificial languages, their inventors, and the communities that (sometimes) sustain them.

We should admire [the inventors of artificial languages] for their raw diligence, not because hard work is a virtue in itself, but because they took their ideas about language as far as they could go and really put them to the test. Who hasn’t at one time or another casually suggested that we would be better off if words had more exact meanings? Or if people paid more attention to logic when they talked? How many have unthinkingly swooned at the magic of Chinese symbols or blamed acrimony between nations on language differences? We don’t take responsibility for these fleeting assumptions, and consequently we don’t suffer for them. The language inventors do, and consequently they did. If we pay attention to the successes and failures of the language inventors, we can learn their hard-earned lessons for free.

We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural language and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery. We don’t have to know exactly what we mean before we speak; we can figure it out as we go along. Or not. We can talk just to talk, to be social, to feel connected, to participate. At the same time natural language still works as an instrument of thought transmission, one that can be made extremely precise and reliable when we need it to be, or left loose and sloppy when we can’t spare the time or effort.

When it is important that misunderstandings be avoided, we have access to the same mechanism that allowed Shirley McNaughton’s students to make use of the vague and imprecise Blissymbols, or that allows deaf people to improvise an international sign language—negotiation. We can ask questions, check for signs of confusion, repeat ourselves in multiple ways. More important, we have access to something that language inventors have typically disregarded or even disdained—mere conventional agreement, a shared culture in which definitions have been established by habit. It is convention that allows us to approach a Loglan level of precision in academic and scientific papers or legal documents. Of course to benefit from the precision you must be in on the conventional agreements on which those modes of communication depend. That’s why when specialists want to communicate with a general or lay audience—those who don’t know the conventions—they have to move back toward the techniques of negotiation: slowing down, answering questions, explaining terms, illustrating with examples. . . .

When language inventors try to bypass convention—to make a language that is self-explanatory or universal—they either make a less efficient communications tool, one that shifts too much of the burden to negotiation, like Blissymbolics, or take away too much flexibility by over-determining meaning, like Wilkins’s system did. When they try to take away culture, the place where linguistic conventions are made, they have to substitute something else—like the six-hundred-page book of rules that define Lojban, and that, to date, no human has been able to learn well enough to comfortably engage in the type of conversation that any second-semester language class should be able to handle.

There are types of communication, such as the language of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, I left my purse in the car. There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its flaws in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

—Arika Okrent (2009), In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. ISBN 978-0-385-52788-0. 256-258.

Something important to remember: we are, after all, so often calling for clarity in language (whether as philosophers or political radicals or…) and when we do that it’s often easy to think that what we need is language that is perfectly clear. But this is a will-o’-the-wisp; what is interesting and important is clarification as a practice — not the ex ante features of a language or a text, but the process of a conversation.

See also:

“Flaws or Features?” from Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages

Here’s an important passage from Chapter 23 of In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent’s wonderful and engaging book on artificial languages, and the inventors and communities who create and practice them.

The story of invented languages has not been entirely a story of failure. While Wilkins’s project did not become a universal language of truth, he produced an extraordinary document, a snapshot of linguistic meaning in his culture and era–and paved the way for the thesaurus. Esperanto did not become an auxiliary language for the whole world, but it did become a real, living language, and in the small sphere of people who use it, it does seem to promote a general atmosphere of international understanding and respect. Blissymbolics found a way to be useful, despite the wishes and actions of its creator, and Loglan lives on today, despite not having fulfilled its scientific mission.

One could argue that the success of these languages is only accidental, and makes their inventors no less naive, or misguided, or presumptuous. Just because they produced something that turned out to have some value for someone doesn’t mean they deserve to be admired. We should admire them, however, for their raw diligence, not because hard work is a virtue in itself, but because they took their ideas about language as far as they could go and really put them to the test. Who hasn’t at one time or another casually suggested that we would be better off if words had more exact meanings? Or if people paid more attention to logic when they talked? How many have unthinkingly swooned at the magic of Chinese symbols or blamed acrimony between nations on language differences? We don’t take responsibility for these fleeting assumptions, and consequently we don’t suffer for them. The language inventors do, and consequently they did. If we pay attention to the successes and failures of the language inventors, we can learn their hard-earned lessons for free.

We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural language and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery. We don’t have to know exactly what we mean before we speak; we can figure it out as we go along. Or not. We can talk just to talk, to be social, to feel connected, to participate. At the same time natural language still works as an instrument of thought transmission, one that can be made extremely precise and reliable when we need it to be, or left loose and sloppy when we can’t spare the time or effort.

When it is important that misunderstandings be avoided, we have access to the same mechanism that allowed Shirley McNaughton’s students to make use of the vague and imprecise Blissymbols, or that allows deaf people to improvise an international sign language–negotiation. We can ask questions, check for signs of confusion, repeat ourselves in multiple ways. More important, we have access to something that language inventors have typically disregarded or even disdained–mere conventional agreement, a shared culture in which definitions have been established by habit. It is convention that allows us to approach a Loglan level of precision in academic and scientific papers or legal documents. Of course to benefit from the precision you must be in on the conventional agreements on which those modes of communication depend. That’s why when specialists want to communicate with a general or lay audience–those who don’t know the conventions–they have to move back toward the techniques of negotiation: slowing down, answering questions, explaining terms, illustrating with examples. Convention is a faster, more efficient instrument of meaning transmission, but it comes with a cost. You have to learn the conventions. In the extreme cases this means a few years of graduate training or law school. In general it means getting experience with the way other speakers–of English, Spanish, Greenlandic Eskimo, or whatever language you’re interested in learning–use their words and phrases.

When language inventors try to bypass convention–to make a language that is self-explanatory or universal–they either make a less efficient communications tool, one that shifts too much of the burden to negotiation, like Blissymbolics, or take away too much flexibility by over-determining meaning, like Wilkins’s system did. When they try to take away culture, the place where linguistic conventions are made, they have to substitute something else–like the six-hundred-page book of rules that define Lojban, and that, to date, no human has been able to learn well enough to comfortably engage in the type of conversation that any second-semester language class should be able to handle.

There are types of communication, such as the language of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, I left my purse in the car. There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its flaws in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

–Arika Okrent (2009), In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. ISBN 978-0-385-52788-0. 255-258.

Joseph Déjacque – The Humanisphere (Preface)

Now available thanks to Shawn P. Wilbur at Contr'un:

The Humanisphere:
Anarchic Utopia

Joseph Déjacque

UTOPIA: "A dream not realized, but not unrealizable."


ANARCHY: "Absence of government."


Revolutions are conservations. (P. J. PROUDHON)


The only true revolutions are the revolutions of ideas. (JOUFFROY)


Let us make customs, and no longer make laws. (EMILE DE GIRARDIN)


So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty…. Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.


For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (SAINT PAUL THE APOSTLE)


What is this Book!

This book is not a literary work, it is an infernal labor, the cry of a rebel slave.

Being, like the cabin boy of the Salamander, unable, in my individual weakness, to strike down all those who, on the ship of the legal order, dominate and mistreat me, when my day is done at the workshop, when my watch is finished on the bridge, I descend by night to the bottom of the hold, I take possession of my solitary corner and, there, with teeth and claws, like a rat in the shadows, I scratch and gnaw at the worm-eaten walls of the old society. By day, as well, I use my hours of unemployment, I arm myself with a pen like a borer, I dip it in bile for grease, and, little by little, I open a way, each day larger, to the flood of the new; I relentless perforate the hull of Civilization. I, a puny proletarian, on whom the crew, the horde of exploiters, daily inflict the torment of the aggravated misery of the ...

Read the whole thing at Contr'un.

Jeanne Deroin, "Letter … on the Organization of Credit" (1851) – 3

Now available thanks to Shawn P. Wilbur at Two-Gun Mutualism & the Golden Rule:

Letter to the Associations on the Organization of Credit

[Conclusion; continued from Part IPart II]


Revolutions cannot produce the well-being toward which the suffering classes aspire, they almost always serve as stepping stones for a few ambitious types to come to power.

And when they are achieved, they continue the habits of the past. They find no other means to combat poverty, when the sufferers grow weary and irritated, than the compression which provokes resistance and prepare new battles.

And when the sufferers resign themselves, alms, which adds moral degradation to poverty, and which is an outrage to human dignity.

It is because the rights of the disinherited are misunderstood that revolutions are providentially necessary; and, in that case, the justice of the people is the justice of God.

And it is the disagreement on the choice of means to combat poverty and constitute well-being which has caused reactions up to the present.

But social science had come to bring the light.

Socialism is the synthesis of all the social truths taught by the reformers.

The various schools differ in the means of organization, but, deep down, they all have the same basis: SOLIDARITY;

The same principal means: ORGANIZATION OF LABOR;

The same goal: WELL-BEING FOR ALL.

They differ on the degree of solidarity;

On the mode of organization;

On the nature and enlargement of well-being that suits the human being.

These differences manifest the wisdom of the ways of Providence, which intended that the teaching of social verities should simultaneously penetrate the various classes of society, in the forms most in harmony with their various needs and aspirations.

And the discussions that rise from these differences must cast light on the great questions of social economy.

But practice alone can give a certain solution to these ...

Read the whole thing at Two-Gun Mutualism & the Golden Rule.

Jeanne Deroin, "Letter … on the Organization of Credit" (1851) – 2

Now available thanks to Shawn P. Wilbur at Two-Gun Mutualism & the Golden Rule:

Letter to the Associations on the Organization of Credit

[continued from Part I]

The circulation of these bills of credit assuring to each of the associations adhering to the mutual credit the business of all the other subscribing associations.

In order to form a mutual credit bureau, it is not necessary to form public gatherings. All that is required, to give the first impetus, is a few associations of various professions which have understood all the present advantages and all the possible results of this mode of credit.

The bills of credit should have a character of unity, and come from a common center, in order to give the mutual credit a more powerful guarantee, and to avoid making an emission of bills surpassing the resources of the credit.

But when two or three associations of different professions resolve to establish the mutual credit, and take the initiative to establish a credit bureau, no discussion will be necessary to lead the other associations: those who do not want to take part will not receive the bills, and they will await the results.

There will be nothing to discuss; it is not a question of a theory, but of a practical fact, and practical means are the best means of propaganda; the least fait accompli often has more value than an axiom.

The associations that wish to subscribe at the founding of the Bureau of Mutual Credit, will make a loan to that bureau, by subscribing an emission of bills of credit which cannot surpass the amount of consumption that they can make of the products and labors of the other adherent associations for three or six months.

That loan must be based on consumption, because it is an advance made in proportion to the consumptive needs of the lenders.

...

Read the whole thing at Two-Gun Mutualism & the Golden Rule.

Jeanne Deroin, "Letter to the Associations on the Organization of Credit" (1851)

Now available thanks to Shawn P. Wilbur at Contr'un:

The radical literature that any of us are actually familiar with always seems to be just a drop in the bucket. There are masses of largely ephemeral publications in every language, and all of the advances in digital archiving have only really begun to make any sort of dent in the work to be done. We can't ignore all that ephemera, unless we're content with a sort of abstract, top-down understanding of our traditions. After all, for every Proudhon, there were a dozen Greenes and Langlois, and for every one of them there were dozens of Junquas and Blackers, and for every one of them there were hundreds and thousands of rank-and-file radicals, many of them with ideas all their own. When we scour all the radical papers, we'll still only get a sample of the real history of the radical movements—but at least it will be a start.

In the meantime, a lot of the work to do involves relatively "big names" in radicalism. Some of that is, of course, translation. There's still a lot of work to do on Proudhon, and we've hardly started on his collaborators. We've also hardly started on his critics—and the literature of direct responses to Proudhon is huge by itself. This last weekend, while I was tabling the Portland Anarchist Bookfair, I dedicated my transit time to a pair of pamphlets debating the merits of Proudhon's work: "Histoire de M. Proudhon et de ses principes," by "Satan" and "Réponse à Satan au sujet de M. Proudhon" by "l'Archange Saint-Michel." "Satan" was apparently Georges-Marie Dairnvæll, the author of a number of other works, and the "Response" was published by the Société d'Education Mutuelle des Femmes, a group founded by Jeanne Deroin and Desirée Gay. I recently translated the manifesto ...

Read the whole thing at Contr'un.