Showing posts with label Language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Language. Show all posts

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Slandering My Good Name

My name, of course, being "Frug". It's a name of Russian-Jewish extraction -- my paternal grandfather used to say that we were related to the Yiddish poet Simon Frug (1860 - 1916)*, although my father doubts this, and I have no hard evidence either way. As far as I know, every Frug in the western hemisphere (a small number) is related to me, some quite distantly of course.

Now, the other famous meaning of "frug" is in reference to the 60s dance craze of The Frug. For all practical purposes, the dance hasn't been done by anyone in half a century, but it comes up from time to time in popular culture -- the most prominent case, I suppose, being the Rilo Kiley song "The Frug". But other references -- often in the gerund form, "frugging" -- pop up from time to time. Wikipedia's entry on the dance has a lengthy list of them (at least as of now, until some pompous, killjoy editor decides the list lacks importance). I've previously mentioned that the late writer Thomas M. Disch told me he wrote a pseudonymous story called "If You Don't Frug Baby Then What Do You Do?" which he described as the worst thing he'd ever written.

So: a forgotten (and seemingly bad*) poet, and a forgotten (and seemingly silly) dance craze. And my family. I can live with that.

But then, earlier this week, I read the following (via):
According to complaints on consumer-focused Web sites, some American Solutions calls begin with slanted polling questions before proceeding to a request for money. The tactic, known as "fundraising under the guise of research," or frugging, is discouraged as unethical by trade groups such as the Marketing Research Association. (emphasis mine)
"Frugging" a slimy fundraising tactic! Aghast! I've been slandered!!

Ah, but it gets worse. Trying to dig a bit into this usage, I stumbled upon the entry for "Frug" in Urban Dictionary. There are references to the dance, of course, and references to the words as short for "frugal" (I've heard that one before too -- I believe the Frugal Gourmet is called "The Frug"), but then there's also this:
2. fat, retarded, ugly.
3a. A person who is extremely tight-fisted with money. Considered cheap, miserly, penny-pinching, selfish. Always has a negative connotation - thrifty would not be a synonym.
4. An exclamation used exclusively when you've accidentally just agreed to go on a date with someone that you consider to be repugnant.***
...and a few more which are even more obscure or odd and which frankly I doubt have ever been used in human speech.

Trying to come up with an appropriate response to these vile slanders, I am reminded of a quote from an old episode of the TV show Babylon 5 (of which I was, at one time, a great fan):
I don't know who's been saying these things but I want you to know when we get back I am gonna sue somebody! I don't know how -- and I don't know who -- but by God I am gonna sue somebody!

-- Lyta Alexander, in "Between the Darkness and the Light", by J. Michael Straczynski
Word.

__________________________
* I've read a handful of his poems in translation, and they're all pretty bad. It's hard to know in translation of course -- it's possible the originals were better -- but the one person I've ever run into to read Frug in the original** confirmed to me that no, he was, in fact, simply a bad poet.

** A rabbi at my school (he was, much later, to read the Ketubah at my wedding) who, upon being first introduced to me, exclaimed "Frug! Famous name! Famous Yiddish poet!" and then walked around introducing me to people as "Stephen FRUG" the way one might say "Stephen WHITMAN" or something, which puzzled everyone else in the room since, as with the great mass of humanity (even the great mass of Jews) none of them had ever heard of the poet.

*** I have to admit that this notion -- accidentally agreeing to go on a date -- is so bizarre and amusing that I'm almost willing to forgive someone for ascribing a bad version of it to my name. (Almost.) It's a hard scenario to imagine; here's the sample dialogue from the Urban Dictionary entry:
Other person: "Hey, so, uh, what are you doing this Saturday night?"
You: "Oh, nothing much. Going to Coffee Shop X to study, probably."
Other person: "See you there!"
You: "Frug!"

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Wonderful Coal Consumption

In my recent foolin' around with Chinese*, I was looking at this bilingual web comic -- which, in this instance, was simply a translation of the opening phrases (no, not even the entire opening sentence**) of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities. (Note that I have no idea whether or not it's a good translation.) Looking at the way the comics artists translated "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" I was drawn to the characters that looked different in the two sentences (meaning, presumptively, "best" and "worst"):
那是最美好的时代,
那是最糟糕的时代;
The characters for "best" are 美好.

Now, one of the things I've found is that different dictionaries will translate the same Chinese word*** in different ways. So that if you look up 美好 in this dictionary it is translated as "happy, fine, ok"; but this dictionary gives "beautiful, fine" -- not quite the same. And then this dictionary gives "wonderful". All three, that is, give quite different meanings to the same word. (And none of them, incidentally, make it sound like a good translation for the English word "best". Now, I'm not saying the translators were wrong -- it's quite possible that in the context 美好 is a perfectly good translation for "best" -- but either they were wrong, or the dictionaries aren't giving very complete answers, or the context dependence is doing a lot of work here.)

But as it happened, I didn't actually look up 美好 directly. It happened that I knew the pinyin for those two characters (isn't true for a lot of characters, but it was of those), so it seemed easier just to type "meihao" into a dictionary (as it happened, this one) instead. As pinyin goes, that's incomplete, since I didn't mark the tones, either through accents or through the (far less aesthetic but easier to type) numbers. But it seemed like it would work.

And it did. It gave two options for meihao, spoken with different tones. It could either mean 美好, wonderful, or 煤耗, coal consumption.

Now, note the difference between the pronunciation of these two words is just the tone of the second syllable. (Ordinarily 美 is pronounced third tone, but before another third tone it switches to second, and comes to match 煤.) In other words, a tone slip in a single syllable could have you say, accidentally, "It was the coal consumption of times".

This is why I'm not studying Mandarin. I'm just fooling around with Mandarin. Because it's too damn hard to actually learn for real.

__________________________
* A reminder of what this means, from the earlier post: "The difference between fooling around with Chinese and studying Chinese is that I'm not expecting it to go anywhere, that I'm not claiming (even, or perhaps especially, to myself) to have learned anything, that I'm not being systematic about it, and that it's just for the pleasure of discovery rather than for anything that may result from it (since probably nothing will). It's less about Growth, Self-Improvement and Opportunity than it is about idle procrastination and lazy curiosity."

** "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." -- The comic gives about two-thirds of the sentence -- up to "other way".

*** Yes, I said word: most modern Chinese words are made up of more than one character.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Foolin' Around With Chinese: Translations of Children's Classics

So I've been fooling around with Chinese. The difference between this and studying Chinese is that I'm not expecting it to go anywhere, that I'm not claiming (even, or perhaps especially, to myself) to have learned anything, that I'm not being systematic about it, and that it's just for the pleasure of discovery rather than for anything that may result from it (since probably nothing will). It's less about Growth, Self-Improvement and Opportunity than it is about idle procrastination and lazy curiosity.

But it's fun, at least for me, and so I thought that I'd share a bit of the fun with my readers.

For this initial post, I thought I'd share three popular English-language children's books which have been posted online in Chinese.

In ascending order of age-appropriateness, the first is Eric Carle's classic The Very Hunger Caterpillar, a book designed for the tiniest of babies -- and, thus, appropriate for those who have only achieved the level of, say, a fairly impressive beginner in Chinese. (It has to be fairly impressive because, of course, we don't expect the babies to read it to themselves!)

Anyway, it's online here, in a translation pieced together by the bloggers from various existing commercial ones, picking what they liked of each. (They don't include the pictures or anything like that, but some of us -- say, parents of young children -- will have read it so many times that it doesn't matter.) It's just in Chinese, but if you mouse over any of the text the pinyin (for pronunciation) and the meaning of the word are given. It's a lot of fun, and good for learning things like the days of the week and the names of various fruits.

Second in our ascending order of age-appropriateness we have this version of Beatrix Potter's Tale of Peter Rabbit. It is really a quite superb web presentation. They have many of the original illustrations (I think they have the core set; nowadays you can buy editions which include ones left out of the early printings, and that's the one I read to my son (thus the one I'm familiar with), but the ones they include are more than sufficient to tell the story). Each page has the same bit of text -- one to four sentences -- in both English and Chinese; you click one of the buttons at the bottom of the page to switch back and forth. Another button will play that snippet in whichever language is displayed (the English taken from the librivox recording). Hovering the mouse over the Chinese text displays the pinyin (just the pinyin, and the whole sentence in one lump, so that one feature's not quite as useful as the The Very Hunger Caterpillar presentation). All-in-all, a splendid version -- you could just keep it in English and let a child play with it, learning to play the text and go forward and back at will; or you can use it yourself to, well, fool around with Chinese. (Not, please, to learn: that requires textbooks and flashcards and furrowed brows; it produces Results.)

Finally -- and this is a book on a level that I am far beyond getting anything out of (just as my (two-and-a-half-year-old) son couldn't enjoy it, unlike the other two), but I mention it because I found it so why not -- is a translation of Alice in Wonderland into Chinese. This is at the same site as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, although the presentation is much less fancy. (The same site also hosts one of the best free online English-Chinese dictionaries.) I don't know anything about the translation -- for instance, I know there's a classic translation of Alice into Chinese that's supposed to be very well done, but I don't know if this is it or not. At any rate it is, as I said, way over my head -- well, all three are way over my head, but the first two are over my head in a it's-still-fun-to-jump-and-see-how-close-I-can-get-to-touching-them sort of way; the Alice is -- well, c'est du chinois. 'nuff said.

So there it is. If anyone else wants to try to fool around with Chinese -- or if you know enough to just read 'em -- or (in the case of the Beatrix Potter) you just want a good presentation of a marvelous children's book -- enjoy! And I may have more foolin' around with Chinese posts in the future -- keep an 眼睛 on this blog if you're interested.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Xu Bing's Book from the Ground

I'll get around to the explanation in a minute, but the main thing I wanted to do in this post is to quote the first paragraph of an avant-garde novel-in-progress, The Book From the Ground, by the contemporary artist Xu Bing. (The first name is pronounced -- very, very roughly -- like "shoe".*) So before I explain anything, let me quote the opening paragraph:

Go on. Read it. Yes, you can. Really. Just try. ... ... See? That wasn't that hard, was it?

-- that last of which is (if I understand it) precisely the point.

Xu Bing -- who was born in China, moved to the U.S. in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, but who seems to have recently repatriated to China -- is a conceptual artist. My experience of his work, however, differs from my experience of most conceptual artists in that I find that he's actually working with interesting concepts. The work which (as I understand it) really made his name was A Book From the Sky, which is described on the artist's site as follows:
An all-enveloping textual environment, "A Book from the Sky" is composed of massive sheets of Chinese characters, some left loose and some bound into books, which are suspended form the ceiling, pasted on the wall, and laid on the floor. Everything about "A book from the Sky" has the look of authenticity. Form its arrangement of headings and marginalia on the page to its string bindings and indigo covers, the work mimics in every detail the characteristics of traditional Chinese printing and book -making. While donning such a guise, however, "A book form the sky " is supremely inauthentic. Its characters are purely of the artist's invention and utterly without meaning. What is most [unsettling] perhaps is the way in which Xu Bing's characters approximate the real thing , for the artist has composed them from the variant parts that make up Chinese characters.**
The coolness factor here is a bit hard to grasp unless you understand the way in which Chinese characters are made from parts of other Chinese Characters, but if you do get this, it seems pretty cool indeed. (Or shocking -- apparently his work was very controversial when first displayed.)

The Book From the Ground -- a project begun eight years ago and still ongoing -- is conceived as a sort of thematic sequel (sidequel? something) to the previous work. Here's how Xu Bing describes the origins of the project on its associated web site:
Book from the Ground is a novel written in a "language of icons" that I have been collecting and organizing over the last few years. Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life... This project first began with my collecting safety manuals from a number of airlines... Then, in 2003, I noticed three small images on a pack of gum (they translate into please use your wrapper to dispose of the gum in a trashcan), and came to realize that in so far as icons alone can explain something simple, they can also be used to narrate a longer story. From that point on, through various channels, I began to collect and organize logos, icons, and insignia from across the globe, and I also began to research the symbols of expression employed by the specialized fields of mathematics, chemistry, physics, drafting, musical composition, choreography, and corporate branding, among others...
Xu Bing then connects this to earlier (in and of themselves false) descriptions of Chinese as a universal language:
In 1627, the French thinker Jean Douet, in an essay titled "Proposal to the King for a Universal Script, with Admirable Results, Very Useful to Everyone on Earth," first suggested that Chinese was a potential model for an international language. The word "model" is important here because Douet does not limit this "universal script" to the form of Chinese characters per se. He instead focuses on the universal potential of the system of recognition upon which the Chinese language is based. Today, nearly four hundred years later, human communication has indeed evolved in the direction predicted by Douet. We have come to sense that traditional spoken forms are no longer the most appropriate method for communication. And, in response, great human effort has been concentrated on developing ways to replace traditional written languages with icons and images. For this reason, among others, humankind has entered the age of reading images.
And lastly connects the project with his own previous work:
I have created many works that relate to language. This subject first took shape twenty years ago with a piece called Book from the Sky. It was called Book from the Sky because it contained a text legible to no one on this earth (including myself). Today I have used this new "language of signs" to write a book that a speaker of any language can understand; I call it Book from the Ground. But, in truth, these two texts share something in common: regardless of your mother tongue or level of education, they strive to treat you equally. Book from the Sky was an expression of my doubts regarding extant written languages. Book from the Earth is the expression of my quest for the ideal of a single script. Perhaps the idea behind this project is too ambitious, but its significance rests in making the attempt.
(Despite the length of those excerpts, the full essay is, in fact, much longer -- click through if you want to read more.)

Whether he's successful or not you can yourself judge. Certainly the above passage is comprehensible to me -- and, I suspect, will be comprehensible to many people who speak no English, so it's not that language that's clarifying it for me. (I have doubts about its universality -- it seems to me to be a sort of "language" of its own -- but I agree with Xu Bing that the attempt itself is worthy.)

I should forewarn anyone who wants to read more, however, that the web site's navigation is a bit counter intuitive -- I suppose Xu Bing didn't spend as much time clarifying that as he did trying to clarify his symbolic language. If you go to the web site and click on the "read" icon, you are directed to this page, which is called (in the web browser) "basic", which contains a six paragraph text (can I call it a text?) of which the above-quoted paragraph is the opening. This text is titled, appropriately enough, "". But there's no indication of any further text -- at first I thought that that brief passage was the entirety of the work. If you then click again on the "reading" icon, however, it takes you to this table of contents, which lists fourteen chapters (by number only), with a final page promising "to be continued". There isn't any indication (that I've seen) about the relationship between the initial text and the fourteen numbered chapters. I've only carefully read the former, so I may well be missing something, but a brief scan of the latter makes it seem like the original text is a sort of proof-of-concept sketch, which is then elaborated in (rather than continued in) the first chapter of the actual book.

Still, if you're looking to read more, you'll want to go beyond just the first page.

Since the table of contents lists only numbers, but the actual pages themselves have chapter titles (all in Xu Bing's symbolic language, naturally), I thought it might be of some small service if I were to provide a hyperlinked table of contents to the work as it exists so far:

Preface (?):
Chapter 1:
Chapter 2:
Chapter 3:
Chapter 4:
Chapter 5:
Chapter 6:
Chapter 7:
Chapter 8:
Chapter 9:
Chapter 10:
Chapter 11:
Chapter 12:
Chapter 13:
Chapter 14:

There it is, if you wish to read it. As with many tables of contents, I think you get at least a hint of the story's shape just from the titles. I can't recommend it -- again, all I myself have read is what I'm calling the "preface" -- which is interesting as language, but not so interesting as story. But it looks like the longer version may well improve on that latter score. Someday soon I hope to find out.

A post script: two categorical queries

Is The Book From the Ground a Oulipian work, i.e. a work of constrained literature?

I would say it is not. It is an experimental work, certainly, but not I think "constrained" in the sense that that term is used by the Oulipo and its adherents. I can imagine some disagreement on this point -- the Oulipo has done some work on altered languages, such as Jaques Jouet's "The Great-Ape Love-Song" (published in English translation in Oulipo Laboratory). Nevertheless, it seems to me that a newly-invented language -- particularly one not related to any existing language, but pictorial in origin -- while involving, as every task does, certain constraints, is clearly not constrained literature in any plausible sense.

Is The Book From the Ground comics under the McCloudian definition ("juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer"***)?

Again, I would say no. It's not that I am unwilling to apply McCloud's -- to my mind, extremely fruitful -- definition broadly. (In fact, I have been criticized for doing so in the past (see comments.)) But it seems to me that Xi Bing's work is clearly not comics in any plausible sense of the spirit of the term (again, in McCloud's usage).

Again, I can imagine some disagreement here: one might say that Xu Bing's work consists entirely of "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer", so if it is not comics, then does it not represent a plain counter-example to McCloud's definition? I would say it does not, because what Xu Bing is doing ultimately is repurposing what were pictures and other images into a symbolic language, i.e. by the time he's "written" his "texts" what he's working with are no longer images in the sense that McCloud intends.

That said, I think that you could make a plausible argument to the contrary, and either understand what Xi Bing is doing as comics (it is derived, as noted above, from airline instruction manuals and the like, which McCloud does specifically include in his understanding of comics), or tweak McCloud's definition to exclude it (which risks accusations of monster-baring, but may be the best way to go). Alternatively, you could understand Xi Bing as taking comics and changing it into a textual language -- see it not as comics, but as a derivation of one particular form of them. This might be the most accurate approach.

Did you include this entire postscript just as an excuse to tag this post with "ou-x-po" and "comics", since you thought Xi Bing's work would be of interest to those interested in those categories, despite the fact that it isn't, basically, either Oulipian or comics?

We said just two questions.

________________
* I haven't seen any site which prints that in proper pinyin, i.e. with tones marked, or I'd reproduce that. Without tones, the pinyin doesn't give sufficient information to pronounce his name. (If anyone happens to know, please leave the information in comments! If it helps, his name in Chinese (according to Wikipedia) is 徐冰.)

** Be grateful I cut off the quote before he started talking about "deconstructive bricolage".

*** Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 9.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"And the whole world was of one language and of one speech"

A fun site I found last night (via) has the bible in multiple languages, formatted in parallel columns. This is not itself so rare, but this particular site has the bible in both Chinese and Pinyin (the standard romanization system for Chinese), which I don't recall seeing before. And you can line those up with English, or French, or a number of other languages. Fun for those of us who don't know Chinese, but who enjoy lusting after it from a great distance.

Now, the English is that of the King James Bible -- which is to say, it's pretty but also pretty inaccurate as far as translations go. And I have no idea, really, what the provenance of the other translations are -- whether, for instance, they were translated from the original languages, or from other translations, nor how accurate they are.

Still, y'know, fun.
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
Toute la terre avait une seule langue et les mêmes mots.
那时,天下人的口音,言语,都是一样.
Nàshí , tiān xià rén de kǒuyīn , yányǔ , dōu shì yíyàng.
That's Chinese in simplified characters; they also have traditional. Furthermore, they also have an audio recording of the Chinese -- pretty cool, frankly.

The one thing they don't seem to have -- an odd omission -- is the Bible in the original, i.e. Hebrew for the Tanakh, Koine Greek for the new Testament.
On the other hand, you can find that a lot of places (e.g.). The site above seems really to be designed for the Chinese.

Oh, and this quote, of course, is Genesis 11:1 -- the beginning of the creation myth that this most excellent of myth collections offers for the multitude of human languages.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Autoanto and other -nyms

This delightful page gives a list of autoantonyms -- that is, words that have two opposite meanings, i.e. are antonyms of themselves. It's not clear how widespread the term is; the page itself lists a series of alternate terms -- contranyms, contronyms, antilogies, Janus words and enantiodromes. But it's a neat concept, well worthy of a term, and "autoantonym" seems like a good one.

Now, very few of the words are what one might call strict autoantonyms: which is to say, words which can have two opposite meanings in the same context. Sometimes, the difference in context is so clear that even calling the term autoantonymous seems generous:
strike
• to miss (e.g. in baseball)
• to hit; collide with
Obviously, "strike" as in "miss" is a technical term; the latter is the common usage.

More often, the words appear at first blush to be strict autoantonyms; but I think that a careful imagining of the circumstances in which the word might be used will show two non-intersecting sets. For instance:
buckle
• to fasten
• to come undone; give way; collapse
The sort of things one buckles are very different than things which buckle; and I don't think there's going to be a case where "seatbelt buckles" might mean that it came apart, nor one which "a building buckles" would mean it fastened. (At least none come to find. Can anyone else think of one?) Similarly "clip" (meaning fasten, as with a paperclip) and "clip" (meaning cut, as in fingernails) are simply used in such different contexts that it is much a pair of homonyms as a single autoantonym.

I think these cases are the most common: a thing weathers well (meaning it persists) very differently than a thing is weathered (meaning worn); you bolt a door and bolt away, but it's only autoantonymic if you carefully define one to stick in place and the other to run away; otherwise they're just homonyms. No one would confuse something that's custom made (i.e. unique) with something that is customary (i.e. common); one's things, the other's habits. And so forth. Most are like that.

But there are others, and these cases slide, almost imperceptibly, into strict autoantonymism: the cases blur, the categories get less distinct, and soon you're getting words that are very nearly ambiguous: "it's fine", could mean just fine (i.e. ok), or very fine, i.e. high quality.

In practice, of course, we don't confuse them; the sets, while not strictly non-intersecting, and more carefully defined than it appears. As J. L. Austin wisely said, "our ordinary words are much subtler in their uses, and mark many more distinctions, than philosophers have realized".

But I think that "peer", "rent" and possible "temper" are pretty strictly autoantonyms.

Check out the full list and see what you think for yourself. If things seem strictly autoantonymous, however, be sure you're imagining very precisely the sorts of situations and cases in which the word is used; they may be "subtler in their uses" than you realize.

The same site, incidentally, has an entire page on -nym words. Many will be very familiar to educated readers. but speaking personally I'd never seen:
aptonymn (apt names, such as the famous Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia)
bacronym (a backwards coined acronymn, in which one starts with the final word and picks words to match)
capitonym ("a word which changes its meaning and pronunciation when capitalised; e.g. polish and Polish, august and August, concord and Concord.")
exonym ("a place name used by foreigners that differs from the name used by natives; e.g. Londres is the French exonym for London, Germany is an exonym because Germans call it Deutschland." -- That one's particularly useful.)
...and a number of others too. A number of them seem likely to have been coined but rarely if ever used -- we might term them dictionymns, words that exist only in dictionaries, perhaps? Or even coinonyms, words that were coined but never caught on and are rarely used save in reference to the coining. But, of course, all dictonyms and coinonyms can become real words if we choose. So take a look and see if any meet your fancy.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Stephen Frug Muses Upon Illeism

From the department of phenomena-you-didn't-know- there-was-a-word-for, we have today's vocabulary word (stumbled upon here): Illeism: "the act of referring to oneself in the third person" (from the Latin ille, that). One who practices illeism is an illeist.

Language log has a quick tour of the subject here, complete with a Zippy the Pinhead cartoon about (apparently well-known illeist) Salvador Dali, and the Wikipedia article has a charming list of examples. These include a fair number of politicians -- most famously (in recent US politics) Bob Dole, but apparently dating back to Julius Caesar -- a fair number of sports stars and similar celebrities, and an impressive list of fictional characters. The latter category includes Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Elmo from Sesame Street, Marvel Comics's Hulk and Doctor Doom, The Wire's Omar, Cerebus the Aardvark, The Dude from The Big Lebowski, Gollum, several Simpsons characters (such as Groundskeeper Willie), and (apparently) Tarzan.

Technically, illeism is any reference to oneself in the third person, such as the blogger writing this sentence is doing in it, but the most notable sort of illeism is when one refers to oneself by name. Language Log calls this proper-name illeism, and breaks it down into binomial* ("Bob Dole isn't a fringe candidate"), last name only ("You don't have Nixon to kick around any more") and first name only ("Omar don't scare.") This doesn't include people (and other creatures) known only by one name (Cerebus, Gollum, Hulk) nor by a nickname (The Dude), and I don't know where to categorize "Groundskeeper Willie".

I'm curious about the meaning of this device -- in particular, what it says about fictional characters when they do this. (I don't know if anyone's written about this, although this article discusses Shakespeare's use of proper-name illeism (called in the article "illeism with a difference") in several of his plays.) Is it simply a distinctive verbal tick? Perhaps, but I think it's more specific than that. The device often suggests grandiosity -- often a humorous grandiosity, but not always: I don't think Omar's use comes across as in any way risible. In many cases it presumes a fame on the part of the illeist (e.g. Ceasar, Doctor Doom, and in his own world Omar), but again not always -- not with The Dude, for instance, nor Gollum. But it does seem like importance -- whether genuine fame or ludicrous grandiosity -- is often tied up with it.

It occurs to me that some current technology forces a certain illeism on its users: think of facebook status updates, for instance, where the proper name is automatically attached, which, since the content is self-generated, leads to an illeistic situation even if the author doesn't intend it. (I wonder if this will lead to the device's changing rhetorical force, since it will sound more common and less forced? Or are these in a distinctive enough category that the cultural meaning won't bleed out into the other cases?)

Stephen Frug would be interested in any thoughts his Noble Readers have on the meaning conveyed by proper-name illeism -- in any context, but particularly in fictive ones. Comments are open...

_______________________
* The post also has some discussion of both third person binomialism and second person binomialism, as well as the first-person binomialism varient of illeism. Incidentally, "binomialism" seems to be a word invented in that language log post, not a standard term.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

"Ordinary" is a Context-Dependent Term

From one of the pages in which Cornell walks you through the process of electronically submitting a dissertation:
For most, a final dissertation or thesis is a large computer file -- too large for an ordinary 3.5-inch floppy diskette.
Dude, where's your web page update?

Of course, what "ordinary" means hasn't changed in a decade; it's simply that what is ordinary has changed in that time -- to the point where I found the statement incredibly funny.

This has been a commentary on the original intent theory of constitutional interpretation ("cruel and unusual punishment", for instance).

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

By Such Means: an Anecdote

From Cosma Schalizi's review of S. Robert Remsey's The Languages of China:
A conference of scholars and politicians met... to decide on a national language for the newly-declared... Republic. Ramsey opens with just that conference, which in real life began on 15 February 1913 in Beijing. It was not a success: the participants lacked linguistic knowledge and worked largely on the basis of political jockeying, the Mandarin-speaking North against the more linguistically diverse, and socially and economically advanced, South. ``As tempters flared, Wang Rongbao, one of the leaders of the Southern faction, happened to use the colloquial Shanghai expression for `rickshaw,' wangbo ts'o. Wang Zhao [a Northern leader] misheard it for the Mandarin curse wángba dàn `son of a bitch' (literally, turtle's egg),' and flew into a rage. He bared his arms and attacked Wang Rongbao, chasing him out of the assembly hall.'' By such means Mandarin was declared the national standard for pronunciation.
I have no idea if this is true or not, but it made me laugh.

Monday, March 10, 2008

In Search of the Univocalic Window

I dismiss nitpicking criticism which flirts with philistinism.

-- Christian Bök, Eunoia
If you think lipograms (texts written without using a particular letter) are silly, then you won't want to go anywhere near univocalisms: a univocalism is a text written employing only a single vowel: that is, it is a lipogram in four or five letters (depending on how its author treats y).

Surprising as it may seem to some, though, the univocalism is not uncharted terrain for literature. In fact, I know of a number of different univocalisms: Georges Perec (who wrote the most famous lipogrammatic novel, La Dispiration (translated as A Void)) wrote two: a novella all in E called "Les revenentes" and a short piece in A called "What a Man!" (the original title is in English despite the text itself being in French). Perec's univocalisms have both been translated by Ian Monk: the first under the title of "The Exeter Text" (in an anthology of Perec's writings called Three by Perec); the latter under its original title, as part of his own set of six univocalisms, "Homage to Georges Perec". Also notable in Monk's set is the essay, "Perec's Letterless Texts", a defense of the whole notion of lipogrammatic/univocalic writing. Finally, Canadian poet Christian Bök has written an entire book, Eunoia, whose main chapters are a series of five univocalisms (the entire book is online at the link, if you're curious).

It's an odd little corner of the literary universe, and one that will, without question, not be to everyone's taste (many will be surprised that it's to anyone's taste). I have had on my hard drive for over a year now a lengthy half-finished post, considering the aesthetic merits of these works.

-- But that's not what I'm here to talk about today. Today I just want to ask a question: what is the longest naturally occurring univocalism in English?

By naturally occurring I mean unplanned -- none of the texts cited above count: they were all deliberate. I want to know how long a stretch of prose can be found which unintentionally -- without the author even noticing (at a minimum until after the fact) -- uses only one vowel.

A parallel question concerning pangrams has been asked; it's the search for the shortest pangrammatic window (i.e. series of unplanned, naturally occurring text which uses all 26 letters; so far the record is 47 letters). But if anyone has asked about the univocalic window, I have yet to find it.

-- What's the point, you ask? That's easy: it's a game, it's fun -- a literary amusement. (Whether or not you think univocalisms can be literature, this quite clearly isn't: it's just for fun.)

So: can anyone think of any candidates? Idle thinking hasn't brought to my mind any longer than four words or so, but I bet there's at least a full sentence out there somewhere...

(My real hope here is not so much that my commentators will come up with a good example -- although that would be wonderful! -- but that y'all will spread the meme to bigger sites than mine, which will then lead to lots more people playing the game...)

Sunday, March 09, 2008

How We Like to See Ourselves: Finding Symbolism in the Small Things

The spell-checking dictionary for my copy of Microsoft Word (Version 2004 for the Mac) has "desegregation" listed, but not "resegregation". So, too, does the 2005 Apple Dictionary that came with this computer (which often has words that Word does not), the spell checker that comes with the blogging software upon which I am writing this very entry, and the automatic spell checking that Firefox provides which now (quite conveniently) underlines questionable words as they are typed. All of them flagged "resegregation" -- offering, as a possible correction, "desegregation".

A tiny fable about how we'd like to see ourselves versus how we really are.

(On the other hand, blogger doesn't recognize "Firefox" either...)

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Polemic That Accompanied the Invention of Language

Quote of the day:
Do you remember the polemic that accompanied the invention of language? Mystification, puerile fantasy, degeneration of the race and decline of the State, treason against Nature, attack on affectivity, criminal neglect of inspiration; language was accused of everything (without, of course, using language) at that time.

And the creation of writing, and grammar--do you think that that happened without a fight?

-- François Le Lionnais, Oulipo: First Manifesto (Translated by Warren Motte, Jr.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Of Eddie Campbell, Useful Distinctions and Distracting Distinctions

Sigh. After many months of determinedly not engaging with Eddie Campbell about definitions of various terms circling (what I but not he would call) comics, I fear I am about to succumb once more. I don't like doing so, because a) I find Campbell a frustrating debater (who abandons the debate every time I feel I've pushed the issue home; see here and here, for example), and b) because I have so much respect for the man's work that I hate to piss him off on a topic he clearly cares deeply about. But what can I say? I'm a sucker for intellectual debate. So, once more into the wolf's mouth (as they say in Italian opera):

In a recent entry on his blog, Campbell wrote:
Anyone who HAS been reading with care will know that I have no interest in naming anybody's medium and I just stand on the sidelines and illuminate assorted moments of verbal befuddlement, just for the sport of it, and also I suppose in some vague hope that those who write nonsense will start to think more clearly.
I think this is disingenuous, however. Claiming to try to get people "to think more clearly" in an intellectually contested terrain is misleading, since rather than simple clarity, what Campbell is after is to convince people of certain things. To claim to merely be making sport of befuddlement, or to seek clarity, is to hide (perhaps from himself, I don't know) the fact that he is actually pushing a particular view of the cultural world -- one which a great many other people disagree with.

But it's a powerful pose, because it lets him retreat behind the "I'm just mocking" claims when pressed on his actual intellectual position.

Ok, putting that aside, what do I think (I might be wrong, of course, as anybody might be wrong about anything) that Campbell is trying to convince people of? I think the answer lies in an earlier sentence in the above-cited blog post:
I reject the notion that there is a great big shapeless field of activity that can all be gathered under the one name (here 'graphic fiction', a term I have never once used).
I submit that this is the key claim that Campbell is pushing in all of his various discussions of the definitions of various terms circling (what I but not he would call) comics. Campbell wants to draw distinctions -- to divide the sheep from the goats.

Campbell is frustrated about the blurring of lowbrow and highbrow culture (he uses these the former of these historically paired terms; I dislike them, but they'll do for now). His oft-repeated quip (which he quoted in the name of "my pal Evans"), "Did Ingmar Bergman have to justify Star Wars every time he sat down for an interview?", is an example of this. As is this related rant:
Bergman is great, Star Wars is fun. Neither needs to know about or explain the other. My beef: everywhere I go, why must I always have to represent the whole customary f*****g stereotype of comic books? It is tied to my ankles like clattering tin cans.
I think the fact that Campbell has made so many of what even he would call comic books, and that he has made many other pieces of art that others (but not he) would call comics, disguises the fact that he disagrees with people about fundamental issues -- namely, the aesthetic value of (what he but not I) would call lowbrow culture. For example, Neil Gaiman wrote on his blog that "suddenly I find myself turning into Eddie Campbell, and wanting to explain that Graphic Novel just means comics anyway, and Graphic Short Story actually means er, comics". But apart from the fact that Campbell rejects the word comics (in the McCloud-like if not strictly-according-to-McCloud sense that Gaiman uses it here), Gaiman is actually moving in the opposite direction from Campbell here: Gaiman is trying to blur the lines between high and low cultures, between serious literature and comic books, and get people to see them all as similar things -- i.e. why be pretentious and call it Graphic Fiction, when it's all simply comics? Whereas Campbell is explaining and explaining to try to make it clear that there is a vast gulf between what he takes seriously (which he refuses to name, but which I would call comics of serious artistic intent which lack certain genre elements) and what he doesn't -- comic books and comic book culture.

This is what makes Campbell so different from others (e.g. Douglas Wolk, or SF writer and (superb!) literary critic Samuel R. Delany, etc.) who contest the definition of various terms surrounding (what I but not Campbell would call) comics: Wolk and Delany disagree with the lowbrow/highbrow distinction, and see the incorporation of narrative art with both words and pictures (including, e.g., Maus and Campbell's own Alec books) into the realm of seriously considered art as part and parcel of the twentieth century's deconstruction of the lowbrow/highbrow (popular culture/high culture, etc.) distinction. I think Gaiman, too, is with Wolk and Delany on this -- he, too, has no patience for the high culture/low culture distinction. It's all comics to Gaiman, which means that it should all be read and evaluated on its own terms -- not subdivided into highbrow and lowbrow.

Campbell, however, insists on it. ("Bergman is great, Star Wars is fun.") Campbell wants it drawn strongly enough that his serious work -- his Alec books certainly, probably others of his work, although I don't know what he would and wouldn't include -- is sharply divided in the public discourse from his non-serious work -- his Batman comics certainly, perhaps others of his work, although again I don't know where he divides the lines. (A list would help. How about it, Eddie? You've said in the past that Graffiti Kitchen was a graphic novel, and Batman a comic book. I know you've abandoned the term "graphic novel" -- but how about expanding the list? Which of your works do you think of as merely fun, and which of them are (or aspire to be) great?)

What differentiates Campbell from anti-low-culture curmudgeons like Harold Bloom is that he wants to expand what's traditionally taken seriously to some degree -- enough to let in books which include pictures with their words, not only his own, but others that he likes too. Campbell is thus in a bind -- he wants to open the door of aesthetic respectability wide enough to admit some works, but narrowly enough to exclude others. (Of course, he might say that claiming the aesthetic seriousness of all of (what I but not he would call) comics simply disgraces the whole lot -- as seen in his annoyance at "the whole customary f*****g stereotype of comic books" being "tied to my ankles like clattering tin cans."

Let me add with the caveat I've put in nearly every time I've discussed this issue: I love Campbell's work. And Campbell and my taste, when discussing specific works, is probably not that different -- I found his list of worthwhile graphic novels (he was still using the term then) at the end of How to Be an Artist to be one of the most reliable guides to good reading that I've used. But I think his distinction between lowbrow and highbrow culture -- and his refusal of terms which deliberately blur it, such as "comics" and (now) "graphic novel" -- to be wrongheaded -- aesthetically, in terms of cultural politics, historically, and in every other way too.

And other people who argue this issue should realise: if you think that popular culture should be taken seriously, if you are against the ghettoiszation of culture into popular and elite forms, than Campbell is not on your side. The fact that he has made some first-rate popular culture shouldn't mislead people here.

One of the reasons that Campbell's stance is often misread is that it goes against the equalizing tenor of our culture. I remember having the greatest difficulty in explaining to high school students (when I was teaching them history, some years ago) how many of the revolutionaries in the English Civil War could be fighting to widen the franchise... but not want a universal one. Rather, they saw those people who would argue for a broader franchise as opponents to their cause... since (in their mind) proponents of an even broader franchise discredited the more limited expansion that they argued for. It's not a move that our contemporary culture understands easily -- but it's the move Campbell is making. He wants serious readers to take seriously books like Maus and his Alec books and others -- and he sees the means to this end not in the destruction of the highbrow/lowbrow cultural distinction (leaving a big stew, each item of which must be judged on its own), but in the redrawing the line in a different place.

Campbell is annoyed that people use Maus to justify Dark Knight Returns -- he rejects terms like "comics" and "graphic novels" precisely because they muddy that distinction. Of course, muddying that distinction is precisely what I (and many, many others) want to do.

I agree that there is good work and bad work; I just don't think the distinctions can be identified as whether or not something is associated with comic book culture or not. (Even superheroes: Watchmen is, to my mind inarguably, a great work -- all about superheroes.)

But Eddie Campbell doesn't want to be associated with the riffraff of comic book culture -- which, despite his participation in it, he really dislikes:
The issue is not about the words. You can have the words. It's about whom I have to be associated with. Thus, if 'graphic novel' now means exactly the same thing as American style comic books, then I don't come under either of these headings. It's like olympic boxing and pro wrestling. They kind of look the same, and there's nothing against being interested in both, but there's no way they can take place in the same ring at the same time. They are in opposition. So let those terms refer to the same thing, and that leaves another opposing thing over here that doesn't have a name. My pal White and I have taken to referring to it as 'that thing of ours' like they did on the Sopranos.

If 'comics' means 'sequential art', then that's not the medium I'm working in either. You can have the words, I don't want them. The medium I'm in is not restricted by McCloudianism and includes regular panel cartoons and EXcludes a lot of stuff that McCloud INcludes, like the Bayeux tapestry and William Hogarth. Including such things as these comes under the heading of 'The lowbrow colonisation of culture' and is despicable. I wouldn't want anybody to think I'd condone that.
But many people -- including me -- don't agree that to "let those terms refer to the same thing, and that leaves another opposing thing over here that doesn't have a name ": we see them as one thing. We are not, contra Campbell, confused about this: we are disagreeing about this.

(I find it ironic that Campbell rejects definitions as excluding things -- "usually about excluding something, throwing out the riffraff", as he just put it -- where it is he who is excluding, trying desperately to keep Bergman safe from Star Wars, Maus safe from Dark Knight: keeping the lowbrow riffraff out of serious illustrated books.)

In addition to disagreeing about Campbell about many other things, I think Campbell is simply wrong that one can include Maus in serious discussions (in general, not in any given instance) without blurring the lowbrow/highbrow distinction totally -- or if not Maus (which sometimes gets a special holocaust exemption), then the Alec stories, certainly. I think the elimination of the lowbrow/highbrow lines will not eliminate good taste, but will simply let us see good works (or, rather, argue clearly over which works are good and which are not), without being bothered by artificial class lines.

Incidentally, I think that Campbell (or his pal Evans, or whoever said it) is dead wrong in the implication of the question "Did Ingmar Bergman have to justify Star Wars every time he sat down for an interview?" -- not perhaps in specific (the timing of Star Wars and Bergman is probably wrong), but in its implication: high artists in film did have to justify film -- long considered a low-brow medium, and used to dismiss all film makers. This ended not when people defined Star Wars and Bergman films as essentially different things, but when film as a medium accumulated enough works of artistic power that people could no longer dismiss it (and when people who grew up with film became the majority in cultural discourse, too). That's when great filmmakers no longer had to apologize for their medium -- not by dismissing the lesser work as something different, but by getting film as such seen as a legitimate form, in which work of all qualities and natures existed.

Returning to where I began, Campbell wrote in his recent post the following comments on the term "graphic novel":
graphic novel: variously and confusingly used to indicate 1)all comic books, 2)a specific format of comic books, 3)indeed the physical object itself (as opposed to the work it contains), 4) what would in prose be a novel but illustrated as a comic, 5) a new form of pictorial literature. Since it is not much use for the purposes of communication, my feeling is that it's better to ditch the term altogether though of course it's much too late for that. However as an overview, I feel that posterity will come to see it as representative of a certain ambition to make something grand out of the elements of the strip cartoon. Its failure will be due to its inability to escape out of comic book culture.
But I think Campbell's wrong that the term "is not much use for the purposes of communication"; it's just that what it communicates (including the blurring of the highbrow/lowbrow culture lines) is not something that Campbell agrees with. (People who argue that "homophobia" is a bad term usually do so because they disagree with an assumption embedded in it, namely, that whether one is straight or gay is a morally neutral question.) But for those of us who take the highbrow/lowbrow blurring for granted -- and as a good thing, not a bad thing -- it is a very clear term: a graphic novel is a book-length work of comics.*

Nor do I see the term graphic novel as failing "due to its inability to escape out of comic book culture"; I think it's succeeding -- readers who would not previously read books with pictures are now reading graphic novels, reviews are discussing them as, well, just normal books, etc. Obviously there is a long way to go -- and a long way to go to overcome the presumption of non-seriousness that some people have about any narrative with both pictures and words (what I but not Campbell would call comics). But the term "graphic novel", the term "comics", and the blurring of the highbrow and lowbrow that these both assume, is helping, not hurting matters -- and, ultimately, leading more people to more good work, rather than the reverse.

Campbell and I would probably agree that promoting interesting, sophisticated works is a good thing. But I strongly disagree that we should see popular culture works -- comic books, to use his term -- and more highbrow works -- for which Campbell has no term, I believe -- as different things. They are one medium -- just as film is one medium, whether or not it's Star Wars or Igmar Bergman. Bergman may not have to justify Star Wars -- but he's clearly working in the same form, albeit to different ends.

If the goal is to talk clearly, then it's easy... as long as one doesn't try to radically distinguish in one's very vocabulary things-Campbell-takes-seriously and things-he-doesn't in the vocabulary one uses: comics is a perfectly clear term (Tom Spurgeon labels some items "not comics": it's clear what he means and what he doesn't.)

If the goal is to get serious works taken seriously, then trying to say that these picture-word combinations are something totally different from these... and Maus has nothing to do with Dark Knight... is also a totally wrongheaded move. The idea that a medium can do lots of different things is a common concept for people, which they assimilate quickly when a metaphor such as film is used. Whereas Campbell's efforts are in fact muddying not clarifying.

...I could keep going, I suspect, but I'll stop here. I hope my point has been made clearly (and accurately); if not, I hope responses will let me understand where I need to clarify.

(Housekeeping note: this long post notwithstanding, my current blog-slowdown will likely continue for the rest of November, and possibly even into December.)

_________________________
* Well, there is some confusion, since "graphic novel" currently means any book-length work of comics, whether its fiction or non-fiction -- thus works that in prose form would not be called novels are still graphic novels (e.g. memoirs). Like the fact that "comics" don't have to be "comic", I think this is simply a separate meaning that we should simply use and accept as a new meaning arising out of etymologically-but-no-longer-semantically related terms.

Monday, September 10, 2007

RIP Alex the Loquatious Parrot

I just found out that one of the most famous birds in the world died last week. Alex was an African Grey Parrot who had been taught by Brandeis professor Irene Pepperberg for years. He knew more words than any other known bird, I believe (more than a hundred); Dr. Pepperberg believed he understood all sorts of abstract concepts, including that of zero.

Dr. Pepperberg wrote a book based on her work with Alex called The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots, published by Harvard University Press in 1999.

Alex died at the age of 31. He worked through the last week of his life -- "on compound words and hard-to-pronounce words" according to the NY Times obituary from today.

More Alex Links:
Alex's home page (with information about Dr. Pepperberg's research) is here.
Video of Alex (and Alan Alda) here. Really worth watching him in action (Alex, not Alda).
An older article about Alex from the Times can be found here.
Alex's Wikipedia page is here.
NPR Story about Alex's death is here.
An article by Dr. Pepperberg about her research with Alex is here.
(Update, 9/18) Alex's obituary in the L.A. Times is here. (via)
and the Boston Globe's article (not as obituary like as the NY or LA Times) about Alex's death & bird intelligence more broadly is here. (via)

Rest in peace, little guy.

Update: Just to be clear, I had not yet seen Grrlscientist's blogging about Alex when I chose the same picture that she did (I got it from here), and when I came up with the same final line as she did. Her posts are worth a visit, though (the former is her main post on the topic); Grrlscientist is a biologist, and even met Dr. Pepperberg, so actually, y'know, knows what she's talking about.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Wikipedia's Really Taken the Smeg This Time

I am on record with my love for Wikipedia. But they have a really bad habit of deleting awesome articles. When I compiled my earlier list of wacky (wonderful!) Wikipedia lists, I noted that in the time I was collecting them, some of them had already been deleted.

But this fracking takes the gorram cake. Wikipedia has deleted its list of fictional expletives!! All of their reasons are total kark -- various smeg about it being "indiscriminate", "unverifiable"... a lot of which seem to boil down to it not having the Dignity of An Encyclopedia Topic.

Which is a load of total dren. First, have they seen some of the stuff that they do have articles on? I mean, really? Second, this whole "not notable" thing... it's the fraggin' internet!?! It's not like you need to save space! If it's not notable... don't read it. Let those note it who care.

Basically, this seems to embody a sense of Taking Itself Seriously which, as far as I'm concerned, misses half the point. Yeah, Wikipedia is a good resource (sometimes) for standards subjects. But it's a really kick-ass resource for weird and random smeg. It's what makes the whole thing fun, keeps it worth looking at.

I mean, yeah, fortunately the web archive site comes through with this preserved version of the list. And yes, there are similar lists that exist on other sites. But if it can't be changed and updated... if it isn't on Wikipedia... it's just not the same.

Wikipedia, you really frelled up this time.

Frack.

(Update) Other Lost Lists:

Going through my earlier list of wacky Wikipedia lists the following lists have also been deleted in the last 8 and a half months. I liked all of them. (Links are to archive.org-preserved versions of the lists, where available.)

List of fictional people who were cremated
List of fictional characters with one eye
List of fictional cities
List of fictional road numbers
List of fictional frogs
List of people who became famous only in death
• List of people who became famous through being terminally ill
List of places by Jedi (i.e. number claiming to adhere to the religion)
List of people widely considered eccentric
List of songs over fifteen minutes in length
List of sets of unrelated albums with identical titles
• List of songs parodied by Weird Al Yankovic
List of real people appearing in fictional context

May they return speedily, in our days.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

God and the Masculine Pronoun

Some of my favorite people in the world resolutely speak about God in non-gendered terms; others use "She", "Her" and so forth for God, as a counter-linguistic move to try to undermine the traditional (masculine) notions of God. I understand what they are doing and why, and once upon a time I used to (inconsistently) follow their example. But recently I am finding that I don't anymore; I am calling God He.

Now I should say that in general I am a big supporter of gender-neutral language. I wasn't always, but I have come around. Of the two counter-arguments that once seemed persuasive to me, I think that the "it's just grammar" argument is both clearly fallacious -- both studies and individual reflection show that people simply don't equally think of men and women if "he" is used (purportedly) for both -- and also begs the question, since grammar changes and the question is what language ought to be rather than what it has been (which, in any event, itself supports such things as the singular they). The other argument is the aesthetic one -- that locutions such as "he and she" are simply clumsy -- and I still think that that's a valid point, but the claims of both accuracy and justice simply override it -- or, rather, compel us to do aesthetic work to find better-sounding formulations for what accuracy and justice demand. So yes, in general, I am definitely on board with not using "he" when we mean "he or she" or "one" or "they" or whatever.

But with God I am still using He. Why?

I think it's because I am an atheist.

If I were a theist, I would probably try hard to use gender-neutral language about God.* Certainly the theology that I (albeit as an atheist) find most interesting and compelling include the notion that God is neither female or male. There is good biblical justification for it too in various places (although of course there is biblical justification to the contrary also) -- the very text of Genesis 1:27 -- "So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He Him; male and female created He them." -- can be read as saying that what it means, or at least a part of what it means, to create man in God's image precisely is to make man both male and female. (Although even here the language, at least in translation, is sending decidedly mixed signals, with its "man", "His" and "He Him"; and even if one notes that the Hebrew word for "man" is "Adam" which has the meaning of "human" not "man" (which is "ish"), the same can't be said for the pronouns, which are male -- as are, for that matter, the verbs.) In any event, I won't go into further details of theologies and interpretations which I don't, in fact, believe; but I do have more respect for (or at any rate interest in) theologies which describe a gender-neutral God than I do with theologies that hold -- at least implicitly -- God to be male. And certainly I agree with the politics of those that describe God in gender-neutral terms -- their ends, insofar as they are political (in the sense of cultural politics) are ones with which I agree.

But here's the thing: I'm not a theist. I'm an atheist. And as an atheist, the only God I believe in is the fictional character believed in by actual believers. When I talk about God, I am no longer talking about a being which I believe exists; I am speaking only about a hypothetical object. Sometimes I talk about God as an abstract concept which, I happen to think, corresponds to no reality -- as I might speak of vampires or unicorns or the analytic philosophers' beloved current Kings of France, say. At other times I talk about God specifically referring to the entity believed in by others but which I happen to think they are mistaken about -- as I might speak of astrology or the valid justifications for the war in Iraq. But either way it is no longer a case of my language asserting what I believe: I am talking about others' beliefs -- they, and not I, get to define the concept under discussion.**

And most people talk about God as male.

I admit that this isn't a clear-cut case. The God of the theologians -- the abstract-concept use I referred to above, God as defined as the Unmoved Mover, or as an omnipotent omnibenevolent being, and so forth -- is pretty clearly not gendered. But the God of popular belief and language is -- in the vast majority of cases -- male. (And here I think that one has to include in "cases" the history of the concept, i.e. historical uses not just current ones. If the current conception were divorced from the historical ones, this might not be true; but since the current conception is specifically, overtly and deliberately grounded in the historical one -- even by those who deny some aspects of the historical one, such as its gendered character -- I think that the historical voices should count equally (not more, but not less) than the present-day ones.) That I may sympathize (for political and intellectual reasons) with my friends who use non-gendered neutral language for God doesn't change the fact that they are, clearly in the minority. They are endeavoring to change the culture -- a culture with millennia of inertia on the other side, but which (at the same time) they are not willing to simply discard (which would make the inertia irrelevant) -- but they haven't yet changed the culture, not by a long shot.

Why shouldn't I then help them in their quest to change the culture? Again: because I am an atheist, not a theist: it's not my place. As a comparison, I sympathize with those Catholics who wish their church to be more inclusive of gays and lesbians -- mostly for political reasons, although I might be able to come up with some theological ones as well (talking about the portrayal of Jesus in the bible being strongly focused on inclusion, for example). But the point is, I'm not Catholic; I'm not even a Christian (I'm not even a cultural Christian the way I am a cultural Jew); it's not my fight; and clearly, as it is constituted now, the Catholic church is not accepting of gays and lesbians. And if it is to be made so, I can't be part of that: again, it's not my fight.

And I think that the same holds true for the gender of God.

I think that non-gendered notions of God bear something like the same relationship to the mainstream of religious tradition that Kirk-Spock pornography does to the rest of Star Trek. By this I mean both that it is arguably implied in the more mainstream canonical literature; that it is an interesting and subversive reading that makes the resulting fiction even richer and more interesting; and that the proportion of Star Trek fans who think about Kirk and Spock getting it on is roughly the same as the proportion of the theists who think of God in gender-neutral rather than masculine terms. There is, to be sure, a difference insofar as the Star Trek universe is owned (by Paramount) and its owner resolutely denies the validity of the K/S tradition, whereas religious traditions are endlessly multiple and some of them actively promote the reality of gender-neutral language for God. Nevertheless, I think the points are more similar than different: in both cases the minority view is compelling but overwhelming denied, or even more ignored, by the majority of those involved with the fictions in question. And it would be bizarre to launch into a serious discussion of Star Trek -- not as a cultural phenomenon, and not focusing on K/S fiction, but speaking about the fiction as a whole -- with the presumption that Kirk and Spock were lovers.

Okay, perhaps I exaggerate a bit. But the point stands.

If in talking about an abstract conception we're talking about a reality, or what I believe to be a reality, then I can argue for my view of it. But if in talking about God we're talking about a fiction -- and I believe that we are -- then the fiction is what its authors -- believers en masse -- make it. And, mostly, they talk about God as male. The God I disbelieve in -- the God that I am saying they are wrong about -- is the one they are asserting; and for the most part, that God is referred to as He. So I will continue to say, of God, that I disbelieve in Him; since it is (mostly) He, and not She or It or other language that is offered, to which I am asserting my skepticism.

A parallel might be made for other minority traditions about God. I disbelieve in the God who is morally imperfect just as much as I disbelieve in the traditional omnibenevolent God; but since the latter is more usually what is talked about, the latter is what I will be more usually denying if the subject arises. Mutatis mutandis, I disbelieve in Odin just as much as I disbelieve in YHVH; but the latter is what believers today mostly assert. And I disbelieve in the genderless, or feminine, God just as much as I disbelieve in the masculine one. But when theists discuss God, they usually mean the latter; so I must do likewise.

I suppose the one exception that might be taken to this is that, by my own admission, the most interesting theists assert a gender-neutral God, so that while (in sheer numbers) theists are biased towards God-as-He just as they are towards God-as-omnibenevolent, in terms of the people one might actually be most interested in engaging with they are far more likely to assert God-as-genderless. This is a fair point, and in some specific cases -- were I to discuss some particular theologian, say -- I would probably try to follow their example. But the point is that when theists talk about God, they are generally talking about a shared concept, albeit one that they have a particular take on. So mostly I need to talk to the shared concept to.

So when I speak of God, I shall continue to say that I don't believe in Him.

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* I think; as I say above, the theologies that I currently, as an atheist, find most compelling are those that view God in gender-neutral terms. But, of course, I don't find those theologies compelling enough to believe them. It's hard to say whether a hypothetical theist me should be imagined as believing the theology that seems (to my actual atheist self) most compelling, or if instead the very act of my conversion would lead me to some strange other place -- an orthodox Roman Catholic, or something -- which is as likely to have a gendered as a non-gendered view of God. My inclination is to say that personality, culture and viewpoint tend to remain consistent even through religious conversions, and so that the former is more likely... but that answer is basically begging the question, since it assumes a natural rather than a supernatural conversion. If God were to truly speak to me, and convert me, who knows what form that conversion would take? -- But, of course, I consider this impossible. -- And since I could keep going around this bend endlessly, I'll stop here.

** This is not to say that anything goes; "that's not what 'God' means" is still a perfectly fair reply, and one I might make to (to take a random example) Mordecai Kaplan. But I would justify it not by claims about God (since I don't think that that word corresponds to anything real) but to other people's beliefs about God. It would be not like saying "whales aren't fish" (which one would back up by giving facts about the world) but would be like saying "unicorns don't have two horns" -- one would back that up by pointing to other imaginary depictions of unicorns in fiction, art, myth, etc. That's not to say that someone couldn't write a perfectly good book about a two-horned unicorn. But it would be deliberately altering the concept -- fair in fiction, unfair in philosophical debate (at least without admitting it explicitly).

Tangentially related announcement:The 53rd Carnival of the Godless has now been posted, including both my post Fruitful Inconsistencies (which I personally wouldn't have categorized as "debunking theism" -- it's about the role of inconsistencies in both religion and literature -- but whatever), and the post of Sean Carroll's that inspired mine, The God Conundrum, and lots more besides. Take a look.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Other Reasons I Love Firefly (Part One)

Other reasons, you say? Was there a previous post in the series? No. It's just that if I were to list the main reasons I love the show, they'd be some version of the obvious ones, the reasons why I'd recommend the series to anyone (or, really, any fiction to anyone): it's superbly written, wonderfully acted, with nine characters who grab you and won't let you go -- subtle and insightful, graceful and humorous, exciting and fun. It jumps from humor to horror to action to drama and back, often in a sentence. In other words, it's just great fiction, in the form of great television. That's why you should watch it, if you haven't.

But there are other reasons I love it too -- idiosyncratic reasons. These aren't the reasons I'd push it on anyone. They're just small things or particular twists that add to my particular love for it. Without the wonderful writing, acting, characters and stories, they wouldn't mean anything. But on top of a great show, they're a marvelous garnish.

Some of them are more substantial, some less. I'd hoped to start with some of the more substantial ones -- but I think I won't get around to it before Serenity opens. So instead I'll start with a minor, but extremely delicious, reason I life Firefly: the Chinese.

The future history of Firefly imagines that the U.S. and China formed an alliance and colonized space. Thus the future is bilingual -- including all nine of the main characters, no matter how little education they have ("If I wanted schooling, I'd have gone to school.") Chinese writing is all over -- signs, the name of the ship, art in the captain's cabin. A danger message the ship broadcasts in one episode is given in both English and Chinese. It's not that a big deal is made of it; the world created by this alliance is simply bilingual -- being bilingual is just standard in the culture (which is historically quite reasonable, actually: many cultures have had a wide degree of bilingual; America's monolingual nature is arguably the exception rather than the rule).

And the characters speak Chinese -- regularly, in the show. This Chinese tends to be phrases that the viewer can not understand without any interruption of understanding (it's not subtitled) -- thus the most frequent uses are curses, ranging from the simple (哎呀, "damn") to the absurd (大象爆炸式的拉肚子, "the explosive diarrhea of an elephant"). Besides these, the Chinese phrases are things like "thank you" (谢谢) or "little sister" (妹妹) -- stuff you can easily 明白 from context, even if you don't know a single word of Chinese. (Though if you're curious, all the Chinese used in Firefly, visual and oral, is translated here.)

Now, since none of the actors really spoke Chinese, they speak it pretty badly -- even I can hear that sometimes, and I don't speak a word of Chinese! (Well, one word: 谢谢.) It's possible that anyone who actually knew Chinese would be driven crazy by this -- possibly even to the point of finding the show unwatchable. Though certainly some fans of the show on the net know Chinese; but then, those who hated it and turned it off are unlikely to hang out on Firefly sites! (Strangely enough, though, in the Serenity comics (a three-part series comprising a single story which takes place in the six-month gap between the final episode of Firefly and the start of the film Serenity) the characters appear to speak it perfectly. The benefits of having letterers do it rather than actors, I suppose!)

The show also, to its credit, tries to mix a Chinese aesthetic with a western one ("western" in two senses: broadly in the sense of Western Civilization, but specifically in the sense of the old U.S. West, as the show is envisioned as a space western (a notion which, before I'd watched it, turned me off -- it seemed utterly silly, the sort of thing mocked decades ago in print SF -- but which Whedon makes work very well.)) This is noticeable in the visuals of the show -- costumes and sets -- as well as the show's music, for example. The show tries to be deeply bicultural, albeit extrapolated into the future and mixed with other things as well. And it does pretty well, I think.

But what I love is the use of the language. It's spread to Firefly fandom, unsurprisingly, so that (e.g.) the Firefly podcast, The Signal, has a regular feature "How to Speak Chinese" translating bits of Chinese used on the show. The advertisements for Serenity all have Chinese in them, so I'm hopeful that this will not get discarded in the film (although none of the snipets of dialogue from the trailer have any Chinese in them -- but I'm betting that they thought this would scare off audiences and omitted these deliberately.)

Why do I like this? Well, I'm a language geek, who -- despite an utter lack of any aptitude for them -- loves languages. And in particular I've for some time been fascinated and enticed by Chinese. I think the script is beautiful, the language fascinating and wonderful -- and likely to be increasingly important. So while, as a language geek, I'd probably think it was neat to have any language routinely used in the show (for instance, I always liked that Red Dwarf takes place on a bilingual ship which uses English and Esperanto -- although that's all in background signs; the characters don't generally speak it, although in one episode one tries to learn some, with hilarious results), the fact that Firefly uses Chinese in particular just warms my heart. I just love it. I like when the characters use it; I like seeing it in the background. I like having an excuse to learn little scraps of the language. I like the idea of a bilingual future, and that it's an English/Chinese one. I like seeing Chinese on Firefly websites, using it on message boards and in emails to Firefly fans without an additional excuse. I've loved having an excuse to include some Chinese in one of my posts on this website. It's just cool -- and one of the other reasons that I love Firefly.

serenityimage