The Horror the horror!

Apparently it is impossible to continue to exist without righteous indignation at the present. There are more than enough reasons to exercise your anger. In fact, it is becoming more and more difficult to continue to contain ones anger. Everyday debilitating news brings us close and closer towards breaking our own vows of resistance and restraint at social indifference and rampant callousness. This one takes the cake: A man waited too long for an ambulance to transport his wife’s body, and finally gave up. He had to wrap the body in a bed sheet and carry it slung over his shoulder in plain day light over the street! In this country where each undeserving political autocrat is given undue security from God knows what and has a whole retinue of cars and jeeps to accompany him or her wherever they go it has come to such a state that an ordinary citizen cannot avail of an ambulance to shift a dead body! Cry my beloved country! My indignation swells over and so would yours my dear reader I am sure in sheer helplessness.
I am reminded of a forgotten chapter in my own life. I had just about taken up a job as a Lecturer in a college in Kerala. My parents and my kid sister were then in Trivandrum. Those good old days did not have instant connectivity and communication facilities like the present, one had to depend on the now-old fashioned landlines to get some sort of connectivity outside, and that too after waiting for hours on end to get the operator to connect your call across districts through their trunk facility.
But of course one would write long letters with the aid of Indian posts and Telegraphs. However once it happened that I rushed home for no obvious reason only to find to my dismay the doors all locked and lights turned off. I enquired with our neighbours and got to know that my father had suddenly taken ill and my sister and mother had rushed him to the nearest hospital. Shouldering my bag I retraced my way to the hospital and ran from pillar to post to locate my family. Finally when I did find them my father was in a dangerous situation, and beside him crouched my mother and sister helplessly. I don’t distinctly recall my mental state but I dashed over to the doctor who was kind enough to let me know that the patient was in a critical coma and was in urgent need of higher specialised medical attention. He coolly told me to shift him to another bigger hospital without delay! To my indignation he also let me know that this had to be done within no less than six hours! I was at a colossal loss. I just didn’t know what to do. Somehow I managed to put on a brave face for the sake of not upsetting my mother and sister and withdrew to the porch in search of an ambulance. As was to be expected none was available just then and I had to resort to a way side shop and beg the shopkeeper for the use of his land phone to call nearby hospitals. I succeeded eventually to trace a driver who was condescending enough to bring his ambulance over within an hour or so. I had never felt the ticking of the seconds and the minutes so loud as then when I stood out in the rain all alone in a strange evening waiting for a strange ambulance to deliver my father to another hospital! Gradually the rain cleared or I thought it had cleared when they lugged him on to the backseat of a decrepit van. The three of us crowded round my father in the dingy space while the van tossed and tottered and tooted its way meandering through busy streets and byways. And finally we were in front of a super-speciality hospital. Some helping hands came aboard and rolled the patient inward. We got off to follow suit when the van driver sauntered over to me and demanded his fee: Rs 90/-. I was flabbergasted. This might appear to be a paltry sum of money for many youngsters these days, but back in those days this indeed was a good deal. I searched all my pockets and drew close to forty. But that won’t do. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do. I took off my watch and handed it over to the exasperated driver! But he was a good soul deep within. He handed it back to me and said: please get me the money as quickly as possible. Now you run after you father and get him all the medical help needed!
I was left holding the watch and for a long minute didn’t know what I was to do. But then I looked at the watch once again and realised how fast time was ticking. There was barely an hour or so left as per the first doctor’s instructions. I dashed in with the crowd and caught up with the stretcher bearing the patient. We were extremely fortunate to run into many medical practitioners who knew us as family friends and their timely help saved my father.
Come to think of it, I was extremely fortunate—there were indeed helping hands that were wilfully extended all through my life in times of dire need. But the situation of the unfortunate man I mentioned at the beginning still turns my insides. Where have we gone wrong as a community? What has happened to our human selves?
Among his favourite poems that my father used to recite was this one Only a Soldier by Agnes Macdonnell: see http://cambridge.dlconsulting.com/cgi-bin/cambridge?a=d&d=Chronicle18800529-01.2.4#

Unarmed and unattended’ walks the Czar’
Through Moscow’s busy street’ one winter’s day.
The crowd uncover as his face’ they see:
“God greet the Czar!” they say.

Along his path there moved a funeral,
Grave spectacle of poverty and woe –
A wretched sledge, dragged by one weary man
Slowly across the snow.

And on the sledge, blown by the winter wind,
Lay a poor coffin, very rude and bare;
And he who drew it bent before his load
With dull and sullen air.

The Emperor stopped and beckoned to the man:
“Who is it thou bearest to the grave?” he said.
“Only a soldier, sire!” the short reply;
“Only a soldier, dead.”

“Only a soldier!” musing, said the Czar:
“Only a Russian, who was poor and brave.
Move on, I follow. Such’ a one goes not
Unhonored to his grave.”

He bent his head and silent raised his cap;
The Czar of all the Russians, pacing slow,
Followed the coffin as again it went
Slowly across the snow.

The passers of the street, all wondering,
Looked on that sight, then followed silently;
Peasant and prince, and artisans and clerk,
All in one company.

Still as they went, the crowd grew ever more,
Till thousands stood around the friendless grave,
Led by that princely heart, who, royal, true,
Honoured the poor and brave.

This might be read by the rabid post-colonialists that we are as the very embodiment of hegemonial power structure, or even how power is maintained by such devious measures as the fostering medieval values of loyalty and chivalry which lead to heroism. But if one were to read some vestiges of human value into it irrespective of class and cunning, one can still see this short poem as engendering what is dreadfully lacking amidst us these days. A poor man’s dead body is casually being lugged across the street, and the Tzar espies this:

The Emperor stopped and beckoned to the man:
“Who is it thou bearest to the grave?” he said.
“Only a soldier, sire!” the short reply;
“Only a soldier, dead.”

Move on, I’ll follow, and so saying the Emperor of Russia followed suit. Eventually there are thousands: Till thousands stood around the friendless grave, paying homage to the departed. It did not take long for the Tzar to recognise the significance of this ordinary soldier who is not to be thus dismissed. Each and every human soul requires to be honoured. How can we just turn our heads at the sight of another’s grief? When did we become as callous as to disregard the cries of another human? Sartre has written somewhere: “…all our philosophies fade into meaningless gibberish at the hungry cry of a third world child!” Forgive the discriminatory terminology (the i/thou, we/they, first/third binaries implied in the French philosopher’s statement) and let’s perceive the essential truth behind the observation. Aren’t we human’s still? Or has the machine entered our soul?

The image of the wretched man with the corpse of his wife flung over his shoulder meandering the streets uncared for, overlooked and disregarded by the world that passes this sight by mercilessly is one that is going to haunt a whole generation no doubt. Is he just another soldier battling the unjust elements in a lost world bereft of humanity?
As I said earlier there are indeed several reasons why the sensitive intellectual cannot hold his/her own peace. Life these days is not without its own share of horrors and dreadfulness. “The horror, the horror!” This phrase occurs in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Many have discussed the meaning of this in terms of the horrendous experiences that Mr Kurtz undergoes in the wake of colonialism and imperialism in deep Africa; this has also been linked to the profound state of the protagonist’s sanity that as in a process of onion peeling just comes off layer after layer! But perhaps taken out of context this could fit quite well with our own present day situation. The horror the horror!

smurals@gmail.com

Extract from Jayanta Mahapatra’s Foreword to my Silverfish(2016)

​I’d finally like to say that Murali Sivaramakrishnan’s poems go on to make us participants in the wonderment, sharing the discovery in his poems rather than reading the mere reportage of private perceptions. We, as readers, are there at the creation, the beginning, the making of a bond, rather than receiving the final product, perfectly made, shiny and without flaws. This is perhaps, what makes Murali Sivaramakrishnan’s work human, bringing him closer to our lives. This poet never hesitates to remind us of our existence, and to talk ourselves into how and why we go on living.  It is not an easy thing to do for a poet.  In these sad and difficult times for our race—the human race, that is—it is comforting to people who love literature to know that there are poets and artists like Murali Sivaramakrishnan alive and working. 

JAYANTA MAHAPATRA

The Metaphysical and Aesthetic Implications of Chomsky’s Linguistic Theories : Possible Directions

My brain no more understands English than my feet take a walk—Chomsky

 

Perhaps hard-core Chomskeyeans would immediately take offence at the very outset with my claims to explore the metaphysical and aesthetic implications in Chomsky’s theorizing in consideration of Chomsky’s own disinclination towards such thinking. However, it is my belief that Chomsky’s linguistic theorizing which explores human mind and its possibilities for acquiring, using, and manipulating language, does proffer scope for extending his readings into how we know what we know and how we are also able to formulate an object in terms of its aesthetic qualities or functional equivalence, which made me attempt such an inter-reading. To believe Albert Camus, what one constantly disavows one certainly has a profound inclination toward.  Hence this exercise in extending the core thought of someone so profoundly international and so extremely individualistic like Chomsky, into fields as far remote as metaphysics and the aesthetic. Of course Chomsky himself has been so diverse in his thinking and responses: his interventions in fields like politics, media, and international relations have been certainly intense as well as timely.   

 

Noam Chomsky’s renown is certainly more far-reaching than mere recognition within his own chosen field of specialization—Linguistics. If his profound and timely responses and interventions as an outspoken, left-leaning liberal intellectual in political (especially that which involves his mother country—USA), social, ideological, and philosophical spheres are anything to go by to gauge his international fame, Chomsky, no doubt, is among the leading intellectuals of the present day world. He single-handedly wrought a revolution within behaviourist empiricism by leading it very craftily towards a structuralist cognitivism.

 

Chomsky’s postulations of Competence and Performance (cf. with Saussure’s langue and parole) have, as I would argue in my presentation, tremendous importance in our understanding of the world (as I and Thou)—which would account for their significance in our epistemology, and further as I would lead on to argue, have very deep metaphysical implications—ie., in how we make sense of what we sense. When one considers the discipline of creativity and artistic creation, from the point of view of Chomsky’s formulation of the cognitive capacity of human beings, linguistic freedom and creativity are not some faculty that is acquired, but something that always already exists as a governing a-prioi.

Any casual glance at the tremendously forceful and insightful articles and essays that Chomsky had authored over the last decade would reveal his full potential as a critique of American imperialism and anti-social ideologies. I provide in the appendix (ii) below a selection of titles that would themselves speak volumes. An intellectual extraordinaire like Noam Chomsky can never be silenced.  And considering the fact that he writes and speaks from with in a system that he critiques strongly and vehemently, his position as a thinking individual is definitely an extraordinary one. His international fame is no doubt on account of this.

Chomsky’s most significant contribution to Linguistic study has been the formulation of Generative grammar. He showed how language itself is a specific faculty of the human brain that allows for internalization of certain set of rules for each language and that would account for the generative capacity of infinite variety of sentences. He also drew attention to the surface and deep structures of language that could be called upon to explain the different levels of meaning that each cluster of words that form a sentence could bring about.

Eg

The machine tore up the hillside.

Flying planes can be dangerous.

He fed her dog biscuits.

However, such a faculty for internalizing and maintenance of grammatical rules also could produce such wrong sentences as:

Be quiet! The Principle just passed away!

I rided my bike and brang it home.

Don’t you dare to talk in front of my back

Both of you three get out of class

Why are you so late, say yes or no?

Take a five centimeter wire of any length

I have two daughters, both of them are girls.

All of you stand in a straight circle.

[with due apologies to many Indian speakers of English]

Now, more than attempting to formulate a general framework for grammar and syntax, these insights of Chomsky lead him on to the profounder levels of language, meaning and the human mind.  Further, even as he continued to write and speak against all kinds of political atrocities and ideological stances that his home country had committed or taken, Chomsky thought continuously about the relationship between language and the mind. It is to his fairly recent collection of essays bordering on these issues that I now return for a closer examination and interpretation. The volume under reference is New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

 

Chomsky’s vision of the history of ideas that have shaped the western mind, especially those that favoured the development of Science and technologies is at the basis of this collection of seven seminal essays that constitute this volume. He observes that this history of the advanced sciences has been a history of unification, a struggle to come forth with a unified field theory of all knowledge.

Take as a starting point the “mechanical philosophy” that reached its apogee in the seventeenth century: the idea that the world is a machine of the kind that could be constructed by a skilled craftsman. This conception of the world has its roots in common sense understanding, from which it drew the crucial assumption that objects can interact only through direct contact. … Rene Descartes argued that certain aspects of the world—crucially the normal use of language—lie beyond the bounds of mechanism.  To account for them he postulated a new principle; in his framework, a second substance, whose essence is thought. The “unification problem” arose as a question about the interaction of body and mind. This metaphysical dualism was naturalistic in essence, using empirical evidence for factual thesis about the world… (p.108)

The natural sciences or sciences that logically and rationally study nature and the human beings claim that it is possible to understand all phenomena rationally because all things depend on physically tangible laws that could be logically explained.  Descartes’ dualist claim on the other hand split the body and mind and laid open the ghost in the machine! Chomsky’s major concern throughout these essays remains thus attempts to postulate whether language and the human potential for linguistic thought could be treated as natural objects of study. His affinity for Cartesian dualism is also evidenced here. The human body can be treated as a natural object and subject but the infinite capacity for the generating of language would remain however elusive to such a pursuit.

These concerns, as he goes on state, at the origins of modern science, have something of the flavor of contemporary discussion of the “mind-body problem.”… Thomas Nagel [“The Mind Wins” Review of Searle (1992) New York Review, 4th March 1993 rpt. in Other Minds, OUP, 1995; 96-110] observes that “the various attempts to carry out this apparently impossible task [of reducing mind to matter] and the arguments to show that they have failed, make up the history of the philosophy of mind during the past fifty years.”(109). Chomsky’s own position is somewhere between the claims of hard sciences that the powers of thought and sensation can be reduced to a particular organization of matter, as much as sound could be seen as a necessary result of  a particular concussion of the air (113) and that of an idealist position which attributes consciousness a separate state of existence. The linguistic world is a world that exists separately.  This, Chomsky, makes out so very carefully:

More cautiously we may say that in appropriate circumstances people think, not their brains, which do not, though their brains provide the mechanisms of thought.  I may do long division by a procedure I learnt in school, but my brain doesn’t do long division even if it carries out the procedure. … People in certain situations understand a language; my brain no more understands English than my feet take a walk (113).

He calls for a natural scientific inquiry.

Naturalistic inquiry is a particular human enterprise that seeks a special kind of understanding, attainable for humans in some few domains when problems can be simplified enough. Meanwhile we live our lives facing as best as we can problems of radically different kinds, far too rich in character for us to hope to be able to discern explanatory principles of any depth, if these even exist. (115)

[This insight perhaps afforded him the dualistic principle that he advocates: there are among the many things which we take for granted the coexistence and shadowy presence of this double think. we see during sunset in the evening the sun sinking below the sea or mountains and also simultaneously believe in the celebrated view of Copernicus that the earth goes round the sun. We see a wave move and speak of its movement and displacement and yet believe that only energy is transferred as per the explanations of physical sciences.]

Linguistic ability is a unique factor of the human being, as Chomsky believes.  The acquisition and use of a language on closer inquiry are quite a complicated affair. A person or child may be exposed to a certain language and in the process acquire some talent in using the same. The implications of this fact are much more wide ranging than what at first would appear to be. Learning a language or being skilled in its use (even in learning and using a second language) calls for another abiding ability in the human being.  Chomsky calls it the I-language.

 

I language

Earlier Behaviourism and other related schools of thought had given rise to the study of linguistic science in terms of descriptive logic: language was analyzed within the circle of its potential for producing infinite meaningful sentences. Chomsky developed a different   cognitive and analytical study. “Language acquisition,” he writes, “seems much like the growth of organs generally; it is something that happens to a child, not that the child does.” (7) A genuine theory of human language has to satisfy two conditions, the descriptive adequacy and the explanatory adequacy. (ibid).

The grammar of a particular language satisfies the condition of descriptive adequacy in so far as it gives a full and accurate account of the properties of the language, of what the speaker of the language knows.  To satisfy the condition of explanatory adequacy, a theory of language must show how each particular language can be derived from a uniform initial state under the “boundary conditions” set by experience. In this way, it provides an explanation of the properties of language at a deeper level. (7)

For the purposes of properly understanding the acquisition and ability to wield a language we need thus to be clear about the internalized structures of language that are apriori present in the individual.  For according to Chomsky language in any form involves three kinds of elements (10)

The properties of sound and meaning called features. [sabda artha]

The items that are assembled from these properties, called lexical items [Peter/tall etc]

The complex expressions constructed from these atomic units [sentences]

However adept or skilled a speaker becomes in any language this factor alone does not help in the acquisition or imbibing of another language. As Chomsky phrases it: the generative procedure that associates with utterances structural descriptions, including semantic properties, and has other capacities of mind that allow [one]to produce and interpret linguistic expressions making use of these structural descriptions.  (70)  He calls this generative procedure the I-language where I-suggests internalized (in the mind/brain) and intensional (in that the procedure is a function enumerating structural descriptions, considered in intension with a particular description). This I-language is an a priori, sort of  arche writing.  This is like the self-reflective cogito of the Cartesian kind. Such an inbuilt quality or characteristic ability is a prime human quality. [by extension cf. sahrdaya—a term in Sanskrit aesthetics which means an ideal spectator/reader, of-like-heart]

The pursuit of language and its relations with the human mind that Chomsky advocates thus is one based on internalist naturalist inquiry. (see 134 ff)

The seven essays that comprise the New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind 

reveal the dazzling intellectual and theoretical daring that typifies Chomsky’s thinking. Language and its multiple dimensions in internal and external manifestations are studied with an extraordinary depth of sensitivity and scholarship by this expert scholar in human language and linguistics.  Nevertheless what remains for us to pursue is to follow the logical developments of these insights in other areas of human action. And this is what I propose to do in what follows.

Chomsky’s contribution in terms of his linguistic analysis has been broadly three fold. 1. He moved the emphasis of linguistics from the strictly descriptive and inductive level (the level of endless cataloguing of utterances from which conclusions about grammar could then be drawn) to the ideal level of competence and deep structure, the level which opens up a creative aspect in language.  This revealed that language was something more than mere material execution.  2. He brought about a reconsideration of language learning by arguing that language competence is not acquired inductively through a behaviourist stimulus-response conditioning, but is the consequence of an innate cognitive capacity possessed by humans. In other words, linguistic freedom and creativity is not acquired, but always already exists as a governing apriori. 3. The distinction between competence and performance has served as a metaphor for structural thinking in related disciplines as Philosophy and Sociology (cf Habermas’s notion of communicative competence[i])  [ see John Lechte, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity. London and New York: Routledge, 1994;49]

The later development of Structuralist and post structuralist thinking has revealed the significance of non-linguistic textures like history, class, race, gender, and nature, on the acquisition, production, and wielding of language by an individual. But Chomsky’s thinking would lead us to recognize an individualist idealist position, by virtue of which the individual is able to cognize the world of the human and non-human and respond or interact. Through a slight extension of his notion of Competence one could consolidate the position of the creator and producer of language as an idealised speaker-hearer—a sort of implied reader in the text and the implied spectator (sahrdaya) in a work of art. The Chomskyean notion of I-language would also lead us on toward the recognition of a pre-written text in the human mind that fabricates the experience in the world. All experience is a record of interaction that is written as a palimpsest. Further Chomsky’s dualist naturalist position that resists a reductive thinking in terms of the physical sciences, but still continues to be realizable, would lead us towards a world that is also reflexive and self-conscious. Perhaps this is closest to the recognition of an idealized world of consciousness as a fundamental category of existence–ontological and epistemological at the same time.

Chomsky’s notion of the individual, and the adequacy in terms of competence and performance, could also help one to review aesthetic sensitivity to aesthetic creativity and art objects.

Objects-d’art

How to do things with Objects—function utility and art– see Salvador Dali Mae West Room; Rene Magritte This is not a Pipe, Surrealist Painter Rene Magritte and his brother Surrealist Plumber Rodrigo (Cartoon) [see appendix (i)]

What I am attempting to do in this section of my presentation is to close examine the possibilities of extending Chomsky’s idealism into the field of aesthetics. Aesthetic experience calls for a distancing of vision—objects of art serve a different function from their everyday use and utility of course. In our daily living we resort to the utility function of all available objects and live with them.  But however when they appear as objects de art or are made to be so by artistic representation we need to acquire a different view in order to appreciate them. This calls for an aesthetic sensibility. I have resorted to two classic modernist examples in order to show this functional shift. Responding to everyday objects does not call for any special cognitive functions from the common man or common woman nor does it make any heavy special demand on the cognitive qualities.  However when the shift into the world of art takes place, there is also a definitive qualitative perceptional shift as well. This is where Chomsky’s notion of the I language would come to our aid. Even the most unqualified insensitive aesthete (if at all there is anyone like that!) would not imagine that the pipe in the picture can be taken up for use! Nor will such a person not be able to experience the figure of Mae West that appears on first perception of the room designed by Dali.  Further one could also argue that learning to see and sense in art is very much an acquired skill that can be honed at will if one takes pains for it, very much like learning a new second language.  The tools and rules of the game are already innately embedded in the human mind. Only the ways in which the game is played are altered.

[i] A Communicative speech act according to Jurgen Habermas is oriented towards coming to an understanding with others. Such a speaker claims to do the following: 1. Say something intelligibly. 2. Give the hearer something to understand. 3. Make herself thereby understandable 4. and thereby come to an understanding with another person.  This specific kind of communicative action that stands for comprehensibility, factual truth, sincerity ,and appropriateness, is distinguished from strategic action that is oriented to success which would entail deception and manipulation of the former communicative action. (See Paddy Scannell, Media and Communication. Los Angeles: Sage, 2007; 249 passim)