Saturday, November 01, 2008

Noted: Gabriel Josipovici

Leafing through Gabriel Josipovici's novel Moo Pak for the purposes of wrapping up my brief notes on that novel, I happened upon this passage, late in the book, which I remember, but which in the wake of some of the anthropological stuff I've been reading jumped out at me even more:
The whole history of language and of human culture, he said, is to be found in the decision to renounce the immediate pleasure for the long-term benefit. Aaaaah to Ma-Ma, as Roman Jakobson has so well described it. The task of art, on the other hand, he said, is to find a way of returning to the Aaaah! but in such a way that it can be grasped by others, that it enters the sphere of the social. Is it a coincidence do you think, he said, that both Jakobson and Chomsky are Jews? That Chomsky's first published work was on the Hebrew language? I am of course not suggesting that Hebrew was the original language or is closer to the origins of language than any other language, just as I am not suggesting that Jews were the first at anything whatsoever. I am only wondering out loud, as others must have wondered, though no-one has, to my knowledge, put such ideas into print, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, he said, the power of Chomsky's work has perhaps retarded rather than advanced our understanding of the origins of human language. For, like so many thinkers before him, but now in full awareness of what he is doing, Chomsky has found the means of cutting man off from his past and so from all other animals. There is a fierce rationality about Chomsky, he said, which more than one commentator, taking up hints in his own writing, has compared to that of Descartes. I myself, he said, prefer to see it as a Jewish trait, like the burning intellectual intensity of a Spinoza or a Wittgenstein. But if he is to be compared to Wittgenstein, he said, it has to be to the young Wittgenstein, for though Wittgenstein lost none of his intensity as he grew older he came to see that our confusions and failures are at least as important as our triumphs and successes and as much in need of explanation. Confusion for Descartes, on the other hand, he said, is something to be eliminated, much as Luther and Calvin wished to eliminate sin. But I am with the later Wittgenstein in this, Jack said, that I believe we eliminate sin and confusion at the cost of eliminating our humanity. On the other hand, he said, we should obviously not make a fetish of failure and confusion.


stuart said...

"Nonetheless, he said, the power of Chomsky's work as perhaps retarded rather than advanced our understanding of the origins of human language. For, like so many thinkers before him, but now in full awareness of what he is doing, Chomsky has found the means of cutting man off from his past and so from all other animals."

Brilliant summary! In a previous life, I started to research what contemporary scholars have to say about the origins of language, and I think this about sums up the view of many.

Edmond Caldwell said...

An interesting passage to me on two counts:

My wife (a researcher in cognitive psych. and linguistics, among other things) is fiercely anti-Chomsky, because his view of the origin of language leaves no role for learning and sociality. She says that she's in a minority in her field, though; the Chomskian view is hegemonic.

For me, though, it's interesting to think about the conclusion of that passage in terms of the modernist "aesthetics of failure" (Fail again, fail better, etc.). I would have to see how it plays out in Josipovici's novel itself, which I haven't read (nor any of his work). So now I have two reasons - thanks for the post.

Richard said...

Hi Edmond -

I agree with your wife, as does Stuart, who commented above. You should check out a) Stuart's blog From Despair to Where? (linked to on my blogroll), but also b) the latest issue of Radical Anthropology, in which Stuart interviews Chomsky. You'll see how he isn't interested in going into it. Anyway, I always used to take for granted that Chomsky's theories were correct, since he was so well-regarded, and because he's so accurate on political matters. But I didn't know anything about his resistance to discussing origins until relatively recently.

I've written a handful of posts touching on these matters, collected here under the heading "Chris Knight", the Marxist anthropologist who has a particularly interesting and compelling theory on the origins of language.

Richard said...

Re: the Josipovici passage itself: Josipovici is of course very concerned with this question of failure. To my mind the modernist concerns have relevance to the origins of language, and play, but I need to work on this idea in detail, when I have time to think it through.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Well, for what it's worth, the arch-Chomskian cognitive scientist / evolutionary psychologist / pop-science superstar Steve Pinker is hostile to modernist art. It makes sense that an 'innate-ist' might be a conservative in matters of culture. And think also about the bonds between evolutionary-psychological determinism and the rhetoric of "success." Therefore the corollary might also be the case: that those who reject forms of 'innate-ist' determinism also might embrace modernism and the modernist aesthetic of "failure." Just a thought.

Dan Green wrote an article on Pinker's aesthetics a while back. A betting man would put his money on your already having read it, but here's the link:

Thanks for the Rad Anth & Chris Knight references. I've been a long-distance CPGB fan for a number of years now, so I've read some of the material that's been posted on their site, but I think it's time for a closer look.

Richard said...

Yeah, I have read that review of Dan's, thanks.

What I think is amusing about the "innatists" being against modern art, is they don't seem to account for its existence. Why is it there, then?