Saturday, December 22, 2007

Parting Words

This will be my last post on this blog. I hope I have made a few interesting contributions in the short time I was here. I am happy I took the class, and I loved our conversations. I have a video I would like to share with you all, I wish I had found it sooner as it would have provided some interesting discussions in the class.

For some reason I cannot embed the video here, so here is the link:

Feel free to look me up if you would like to chat, and if you are interested I will be keeping up on my livejournal ( have a read, and leave comments if you like.


~ Brent

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

At a Loss for Words

From 'Natural History Magazine':

The Native-American language Salish–Pend d’Oreille is on the brink of disappearing.
More than half the world’s 6,000 languages will be gone by the end of the century.

By Sarah Grey Thomason

John Peter Paul, a rugged, dignified man, was extremely ill during the summer of 2000. He was ninety-one years old and suffering from stomach cancer. Still, every week he insisted on wheeling himself into the (Longhouse) on the Flathead reservation in northwestern Montana. There, he and other elders of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribes would gather in meetings I had set up to expand and fine-tune the dictionary of their language and the collection of texts that we had been working on together for many years.

On one occasion in midsummer, when John’s illness reached a crisis point, he refused to go to the hospital because he didn’t want to miss our scheduled meeting the next day. As a result, he had to be rushed to the hospital in desperate condition the next morning. His fierce dedication to the task of documenting and preserving his language almost cost him his life.

Other elders I work with share his dedication to their language and the culture it expresses. Some are Pend d’Oreilles, like John; the rest are Bitterroot Salish (also called Flatheads). Although they are different tribes, they share the same language—which is called, logically enough, Salish–Pend d’Oreille—albeit with minor dialect differences.

But like so many indigenous languages on every populated continent, Salish–Pend d’Oreille is on the point of vanishing. Fewer than thirty fluent native speakers remain, and nearly all of them are elderly. The great majority of the roughly 6,000 Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribal members do not speak their ancestral language at all.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Language Sandwich

Language Language Language Sandwich Language Language Language

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Klingon Language Lessons

Room 101 - Marcus Brigstocke - Grammar Bullies

Language Sketch

Language and Film: Food For Thought

Andrew here. This is only my second post for this blog, so I figured I was overdue. Anyway, I have recently received some exciting news. My first feature film, Una Vida Mejor, has been accepted to Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, California. I'm not exactly sure what this will mean for me or my career, but I know its good. I bring this up because it gives me a little bit of credibility and because Torben is interested in the relationship between language and film. Having a BA in English literature as a filmmaker, I too am interested in said relationship.

So, the thought that I want to convey is this: no other form of art in the past 100 years has affected language as much as film. Film is one of the most vibrant and powerful art forms in the world today. People are reading less and watching more. Filmmakers have replaced novelists, poets, and painters, but as a lover of art of all kinds, I have realized that I can use my love of literature, poetry, photography, and painting, by making a film. What does this mean for language? Well, we certainly have new words, new ways to use them, and a new social consciousness. Most people I know find out about books through films. Millions of people see the movie and then read the book. Take Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Jarhead, The Kite Runner, Schindler's List, or The Namesake; my wife and I have read these books because of the corresponding films. In a perfect world, we would all read more, but I believe that film can influence one to read and seek out knowledge. While the opposite is also true, we simply cannot deny the power of film and its effect on our language. Just some food for thought.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Language Mutiations.

I just started reading this web comic and this one just kinda smacked me in the face when I read it. This is a very interesting way to think about the Evolution of language. Or the De-Evolution depending on your point of view. What is the purpose of adhering to specific rules for speaking if you actually understand what someone is saying regardless of their speech? If communication is fully possible in whatever way someone decides to speak, do we actually require proper grammar and sentence structures? I know that there are established “traditions” in speaking, but we also refer to languages as “archaic” and “old” when they get outdated. What's to say that our traditional language is not finally reaching that stage? Maybe language is finally evolving yet again. Guess there is only one way to find out....
~ Brent

Monday, December 3, 2007


Find out more about this video and project at Peter Cho's website.

Definr: Incredibly Fast Dictionary

Check out this incredibly fast dictionary at It's pretty fun to see it guess where you're headed as you type. By the way, this is officially our 100th post. This blog has been incredibly dynamic and collaborative thanks to the many contributors. Thanks!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Language, Communication and Connection Through Film

I picked up a book called "Sculpting In Time" by the incredible Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky at the SLC library the other day. I highly recommend his films, any of them, even though I've only seen a few of them now. The book is really incredible so far and I wanted to share a passage from the introduction of the book on this blog. Through part of the introduction to the book, Tarkovsky shares some letters that he received in the mail during a time that he was feeling very misunderstood and rejected by his audience. This is one of the letters that let him know that he was succeeding as a filmmaker and it also gave him encouragement to keep making films. I wanted to share one of the letters that he shares with us in his book here because it says some very interesting things about language in general and language, communication and connection through film...

“One woman sent me on a letter written to her by her daughter, and the young girl’s words are, I think a remarkable statement about artistic creation as an infinitely versatile and subtle form of communication:

‘...How many words does a person know?'
she asks her mother rhetorically. 'How many does he use in his everyday vocabulary? One hundred, two, three? We wrap our feelings up in words, try to express in words sorrow and joy and any sort of emotion, the very things that can’t in fact be expressed. Romeo uttered beautiful words to Juliet, vivid, expressive words, but they surely didn’t say even half of what made his hear feel as if it was ready to jump out of his chest, and stopped him breathing, and made Juliet forget everything except her love?

‘There’s another kind of language, another form of communication: by means of feeling, and images. That is the contact that stops people being separated from each other, that brings down barriers. Will, feeling, emotion--these remove obstacles from between people who otherwise stand on opposite sides of a mirror, on opposite sides of a door...The frames of the screen move out, and the world which used to be partitioned off comes into us, becomes something real...And this doesn’t happen through little Andrey
(Andrey, the main character in Tarkovsky's film "Mirror"), it’s Tarkovsky himself addressing the audience directly, as they sit on the other side of the screen. There’s no death, there is immortality. Time is one and undivided, as it says in one of the poems ( of the poems in the film, I’m assuming the film is “Mirror”). “At the table are great-grandfathers and grandchildren...” Actually Mum, I’ve taken the film entirely from an emotional angle, but I’m sure there could be a different way of looking at it. What about you? Do write and tell me please...’

This book was taking shape all through the period when my professional activities were suspended, an interlude which I have now forcibly brought to an end by changing my life; it is intended neither to teach people nor to impose my point of view on them. Its main purpose is to help me to find my way through the maze of possibilities in this young and beautiful art form--still, in essence, so little explored--in order to be able to find myself, fully and independently, within it.

Artistic creation, after all, is not subject to absolute laws, valid from age to age; since it is related to the more general aim of mastery of the world, it has an infinite number of facets, the vincula that connect man with his vital activity; and even if the path towards knowledge is unending, no step that takes man nearer to a full understanding of the meaning of his existence can be too small to count.

The corpus of theory relating to cinema is still slight; the clarification of even minor points can help to throw light on its basic laws. This is what has prompted me to put forward a few of my own ideas.”

Weekly rescrap 11/26/07—12/02/07

Greetings! Class may be over, but Language Scraps lives on. Time for another look back on this week in scraps.

-Scott sparked discussion on obscenity/vulgarity and how class affects the definition of it

-Vegor peered through the microscope at microcelebrity in the age of social networks and internet ubiquity
-Grabloid waxed philosophical about the end of the term with An Ode to our "Language: Our Most Dangerous of Possessions" class

Thursday, November 29, 2007

An Ode to Our "Language: Most Dangerous of Possessions" Class

So, our class is pretty much over. I feel pretty bummed out about it. I can't wait to carry everything I experienced and learned into my future art, classes, research... I've also got a large amount of material to refer to, remember, and explore further...more Foucault, Nietzsche, Handke, Herzog, Benjamin, Hölderlin, Goethe, Pound, Crowley, Mallarme, Evenson...please...and all the rest...thank you...this class was just a starting point for me, a good start. I'll be lucky if I'm ever in another class that works out as well as this one did. The material, the complexion of the class, the interaction between students...teachers..., the approach and course that Alex and Scott took with teaching, everything somehow mixed together so well and culminated into an amazing experience. 

Thanks to everyone in the class, and anyone else who attended. Thanks Alex and Scott...not only for teaching us and introducing us to amazing ideas, but also learning/re-learning and exploring with us. I look forward to our last class on Wednesday and the get-together on Thursday.

I really hope that this blog stays alive...we all should continue to contribute and bring material from everywhere else we end up in our lives and from our other classes...etc.

Hope to see at least some of you in DADA.

(Also, if you want to become a contributor to this blog, just say so and I'm sure Torben will add you :)...)

How social networks are making us kinda famous

For my money Wired Magazine is the best place to see how technology is changing the way we live/communicate. There was a cool little article in this month's issue about the dawn of microcelebrity.

Clive Thompson on the Age of Microcelebrity, and Why Everyone's a Little Brad Pitt
Wired Magazine, December 07 issue

Microcelebs are those people who are well-known to a small set of folks...and nowadays we achieve this celebrity through the artifacts we leave behind on the Web. People we know (and even some we don't) can follow our every move by regularly checking out our flickr account, our MySpace/Facebook page, Twitter, blogs, etc.

As Heisenberg would say, whatever is observed is changed...So now that we have "fans" do we behave differently? Do anyone of you conduct yourself differently because you know what you do or say might end up on a friend's blog tomorrow?

Monday, November 26, 2007


Discussion today (mostly between Alex and me) was about the power language has and the danger it encounters with obscenity.

What we failed to discuss was the way that class influences our sense of what is acceptable and what isn't.

Rising from lower class life to higher and ostensibly more refined classes requires a sloughing off of vulgarity.

But I've always smelled a rat in that distinction. Upper-class refinement can mask violence and exploitation. So my instinct has been to learn all the things available to the upper class, to out-do them at their own game, and to bring along the so-called vulgarity of the lower class as an antidote to over-refinement.

Weekly Rescrap 11/19/07 - 11/25/07

- Scott explored the linguistic remnants of bipedalism in his post, On Standing

- Brent spooked all of us out with The Face of Altmann

Hopefully, we've all come back from Thanksgiving full of insights and scraps. Share them when you get the chance!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Face of Altmann

For no real reason I suddenly got the urge to look at exactly who Scott spoke of in class on Monday, and so I did a little research. For those of you who are also curious, here he is.
Interesting chap Klaus. Scott barely scratched the surface of the demon this man actually was when he told us the brief summary of his endeavors. Upon looking more into what he did, you have to wonder what kind of transformation takes place in the human psyche in order to become the kind of person who would not only do the things that he did, but enjoy them to the level that he did. There is a quote calling Klaus "a dedicated sadist." I wonder if this is something he would have been proud of.

If you are curious still, here is a link to his entry in the Jewish Virtual Library.

Care for some tongue?

~ B

On Standing

It is at least as old as the Sphinx’s riddle:

What being, with only one voice, has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?

Man, Oedipus answered, because he crawls on all fours as an infant, stands firmly on his two feet in his youth, and leans upon a staff in his old age. [Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: 2 (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955) 10.]

We call ourselves wise (homo sapiens) and argue that our language differentiates us from other species of animals. But even more substantially, we define ourselves by our ancestors’ revolutionary achievement of a standing posture (homo erectus). We became human, in one sense, because we stood up. In another sense, we are who we are because of what that physical act has been made to stand for. Reflecting the substantial nature of that original erection, our languages and cultures constantly, insistently, even obstinately establish superstitions and understandings related to the constituative circumstances of our existence by systematic reference to our station and stature as standing beings, as static and ecstatic beings whose destiny is to cause things to stand. As these words based on the *stā root illustrate, metaphors of standing determine our conceptions of time and space; they shape our understanding of existence and ecstacy; they are the tools and the subject of philosophy and painting, poetry and fiction, sculpture and law, history and psychology, anthropology and linguistics, archaelogy and teleology. Wherever, in short, humans have payed scientific or artistic attention to our status as human beings, we have done so through metaphors of standing.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Weekly rescrap 11/12/07—11/18/07

-Scott posted on the language-based work of Lawrence Weiner

-Brent wrote about virtual body language

It's Thanksgiving week in the U.S. Take a moment on a day off (if you have one) to come up with a good scrap to share.

Virtual Body Language

This is directly pulled from my Blog, but I think it has a place here as well.

It is an interesting thing to realize how much people use body language in typing these days. And it all spawned from games.. Those of you who text message, you're welcome.
For those of you who are now confused let me explain. If you text message, play online games, or do any communication through typing online, you should understand what I'm saying. For those of you who do not get it, pay close attention.

:) This is a smiley face. This is used to portray yourself as smiling.
:( This is a frown-y face. This is used to portray yourself as frowning.
>:O This is a "pissed the hell off" face. This is used to portray yourself as being "pissed the hell off."
8X This is either a sick face, or a disgusted face... subject to context.

Now, these are four of the most common used emotes, or texts used to convey emotion. Do you understand this? We are conveying body language through text! And it is WORKING! People use many other emotes all the time.

Lol: Laugh out Loud
Rofl: rolling on the floor laughing.
Omw: On my way
Brt: be right there

This is NOT a short list! What makes body language so important that we have to be able to portray it to people who are not actually able to see us? And the method doesn't stop with shortening words or using symbols for facial expressions. Due to many Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) people now use / to represent an action.


And these actions become extremely complex with a simple word. And people who decide to go a little more Emo on the world have them too.

/wrist = slitting my wrists
/cut = cutting myself
/die = um.. dying
/cry = crying.... wait.. I used that one. Oh well, it belongs here anyway.

It is a true testament to how important our body language is when we actually have to find a way to emulate it into a non body form of communication. Body language actually can tell someone more than verbal or written languages, so it is obvious how much more useful body language is over the others. it is also one of the first forms of language and therefore a truly natural language. You can have a conversation with someone without doing anything more than conveying your feelings though body language. A rather impressive feat when you think about it.
Body language is a valuable thing, and I understand what makes people believe that they need to carry it with them into their extended forms of communication, but the interesting thing is this; Why did it take so long? Why did we not instill body language into written communication sooner? What barred us from it? I think that the shrinking of the world that is the Internet is the answer. People did not need to communicate body language before. People' networks did not extend nearly as far 20 years ago as they do now. most of the time when you spoke to someone you were actually talking to them. Now you can talk to people on the other side of the world, on a regular basis, and body language truly hits your conversations home.
Welcome to the age of virtual body language. You can thank the gamers.
~ B

Friday, November 16, 2007

language-based sculptor

This morning, an interesting article in the New York Times about a retrospective exhibition of Lawrence Weiner's work.

The Well-Shaped Phrase as Art

Richard Perry/The New York Times

Lawrence Weiner: As Far As The Eye Can See This retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art consists mainly of phrases in large letters. Also above, a work in which spray paint was applied directly to the floor.

Published: November 16, 2007

So here we are. Just about any scrap of canvas or even paper by Andy Warhol is worth at least a million dollars and usually several. Richard Prince’s retro “Nurse” paintings have cleared $6 million less than five years after they were made. And Jeff Koons’s least-interesting baubles, despite glimmers of anti-bauble intent, go for as much as $23 million.

Be grateful, then, for Lawrence Weiner’s mind-stretching 40-year retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which is respite, wake-up call and purification rite all in one. It should be required viewing for anyone interested in today’s art, especially people who frequent contemporary art auctions.

A joint effort of the Whitney and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, this profuse exhibition has been organized by Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s chief curator, and Ann Goldstein, the Los Angeles museum’s senior curator. It honors a Conceptual artist who has made history, and plenty of memorable artworks, while influencing Barbara Kruger, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Tony Feher, among others. Yet Mr. Weiner has largely and quite deliberately skipped over the production and marketing of salable, portable, immutable objects.

The show consists primarily of cryptic yet suggestive phrases in large letters, splayed across walls, ceiling beams and occasionally floors, that conjure up various physical situations but often leave to your imagination the objects or the scale involved. “A Turbulence Induced Within a Body of Water” could be hands splashing in a bathtub or a tanker churning waves behind it. “Encased By + Reduced to Rust” evokes a crumbling object, but it could also be a soul or an artist’s talent. (And there is that twist of “rust” where you expect “dust.”)

for more

Monday, November 12, 2007

Weekly rescrap 10/29/07—11/11/07

It's a bi-weekly rescrap this time, because the first week was a slow one. On to the scraps:

Tuesday 10/30:
-Grabloid asked, "Was there an ancient language of universal symbols?"

-Torben broke us out of the funk with Pecha Kucha and emotionally intelligent signage

-Scott shared thoughts and an article on geographical names
-Torben posted the video A Vision of Students Today

-Vegor linked to an article exemplifying integrated studies in action

-Rikker asked, "What's in a word?"
-Torben posted the video The Machine is Us/ing Us
-Scott gave notes from class

Friday, November 9, 2007

Notes from Today's Class

Joe sent me these notes he took during today's class (a couple of the ideas sparked wildfires in his mind). Some of the terms are Raymond Williams', whose work Joe has been thinking about for several years.

Some notes

Emergence – reinvention?



What is the difference between the artistic interior motive and the outward performative action?

Is there some clue as to a re-invigoration of a form that still retains the elemental attitude?or spirit – zeit – drive – or even a motive that isn’t quite residual? Can a form be reappropriated from the dominant? what or how is this to be termed? It is not residual. Is it re-emergence? In Benjamin is it merely a copy? What if the “artist” or the group is aware and is specifically the form and turning it from an innocuous dominant form into a new radicalization of emergence? Radicalized emergence? Radicalized residual?

What again is the difference between the artistic interior motive and the outward performative aspect. Is a performer only a performer? Is motive so important. Can motive take a dominant form and defy its dominance? Can a form be reclaimed? If a form or a group re-emerges will or can there be residual dominant elements? If so what role do those dominant elements play in the re-emergence, is the re-emergence then just a novelization of residual elements? Again what of motives? Can a group or artist purposely and effectively defy the dominant – or domination of a form. What is the role of motive?

More notes

Artificial lines of flight? Escapism?

Slot machines

No negativity in the home allowed

Disruption in the line of flight?

Ahab? Simultaneously searching and performing a role at work – disrupted in the search by his work

What is the balance?

Not distracted, disrupted!

Artificial vs. actual

How does language play into these disruptions?

Building today with yesterdays tool


Alphabet – loss of memory

Internet – loss of communication? Focus? Humanity? Communion? Experience?

Even more notes

Place as context

Group as context?

Group and place places

Multiplicity of context in various groups

and contexts

how do I articulate that in each group there can be multiple contexts (or locus) and each place can be a locus for multiple groups

can there be multiple locus for a group? (goner records/goner-board)

what are the hierarchies involved in this structure?

How do they hold, how do they not hold?

In groups – the typical personalities dominate

In places – availability? Historical context? Financial?

Internet based groups – participatory?

The hierarchy of personal contact Is not always king or on the power end of the binary wit? Quantity of post?

How does persona contact factor in?

Is it always necessary? How do internet message board groups function in relation to personal contact?

Goner – is the message board a locus? Is the store? Can two places be a locus for a single group?

Multiplicity of locus? (parallel authenticity?) goner is this, goner is also this.

Authentic in what sense? Authenticity seems to place an monetary or some other arbitrary value on the group

The Machine is Us/ing Us

Vegor linked us to this intriguing video on Scott's personal blog, but I thought that it also needed to be posted here because of its relevance to language. Why don't we work on stuff like this? It would be great to see videos like this from UVU. Why are we not podcasting and producing videos on the concepts we discuss here?

What's in a word?

I just read on Sustaind that the LDS church has changed a single word in the introduction to The Book of Mormon, which was originally written by Bruce R. McConkie and added to the book in 1981.

1981 version:
"After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians."

2007 version:
"After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians."

See the difference? They're stated as "among the ancestors" instead of "the principal ancestors". (Read more at the Salt Lake Tribune [Update: Article "no longer available" from the Tribune, but Google finds it saved on other sites, including here, and here].) I don't mean to get all Mormon-y, but I think this is an interesting example of how a few carefully chosen word changes represent a potentially significant change of popular conception. What say ye?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Integrated Studies in Action

So I brought a copy of this article to Scott...but I thought all of us might enjoy it.

This guy Jonah Lehrer says that science and art should work together because they both are searching for truth. I thought it dovetailed nicely with the Richard Rorty stuff we were studying a few weeks back.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Vision of Students Today

I think this video is interesting when thinking about the "language of learning." Check it out:

city names, country names

This morning's Washington Post had this essay on geographical names. My favorite misuse of a difficult (for English speakers) city name came when Bill Clinton exited a Cologne / Koeln restaurant and told 2000 adoring Germans, including hundreds of media people: "Ich bin ein Koelsch." He figured he was echoing John Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner," but was rather stating "I am the kind of beer Cologne is famous for: Koelsch. Should have said: "Ich bin Koelner."

The Globe, Politically Corrected

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Sunday, November 4, 2007; Page B02

When the England cricket team last toured India, fans back home had an interesting choice. They could pick up one newspaper in the morning to read the report of a game played in Bombay, or another paper to read about a game played in Mumbai.

It was the same game and the same town. The "gateway to the East," whose colors and scents Rudyard Kipling always remembered from his early childhood, was known to most of the world for centuries as Bombay but has now had its name politically corrected (as it were) to Mumbai.

Most Western newspapers have obediently followed suit, but then that has been the fashion of the age. For years, baffled readers have pored over the news from Sri Lanka only to realize that it was what they used to call Ceylon, and then from Myanmar, only to work out that it was Burma. Before the name Myanmar was imposed on us by its repulsive junta, it was Democratic Kampuchea instead of Cambodia, to please the Khmer Rouge, of all groups.

This continual tinkering with names is not only environmentally wasteful -- think of all the road signs and textbooks that have to be altered. It's also tedious and illogical. Maybe it's time to call a halt.

In the case of Myanmar, Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times, justified his newspaper's decision to follow these governments' leads essentially in terms of good manners: "It is not our business what a country wants to call itself." Indeed it isn't, but is it that country's business what we call it? I once wrote an article for Lelyveld's paper about the brilliant musical life of the country its citizens call Suomi, but that might have puzzled readers, so I called it Finland. And if Myanmar, why not Deutschland or España?

Meanwhile, there has been a separate tendency toward "geographical correctness," so that atlases more and more use local versions of names. Traditional English forms such as Rheims and Lyons are frowned upon and become Reims and Lyon. But this too is obviously inconsistent, otherwise we should be writing about "the 1938 München agreement" and "the 1957 Treaty of Roma."

Across Europe and elsewhere, the English formed our own way of saying and spelling names, which was more flattering than insulting -- and was, after all, reciprocated. An Italian or Frenchman should be no more displeased by my saying "Venice " or "Marseilles" than I am by him saying "Londra" or "Édimbourg." In fact, some of those older forms do survive in specific contexts. Are any feelings hurt if we wear clothes made of cashmere and angora (not Kashmir or Ankara), or keep leghorn chickens (not Livorno)?

To be sure, place names have often been fighting words. Some were changed for political reasons, over and again, so that a man could be born in St. Petersburg, grow up Petrograd and live in Leningrad before dying in St. Petersburg, without leaving the same street. And sometimes they reek of bitter national conflict. Whether you called the self-same town Pressburg, Pozsony or Bratislava depended on what national statement you wanted to make, German, Hungarian or Slovak, and so it went with Smyrna/Izmir (Greek or Turkish) or Fiume/Rijeka (Italian or Croat). In the far northwest of Europe, they facetiously say "Stroke City," intending the oblique stroke in the middle of Londonderry/Derry, as Protestant Unionists and Catholic nationalists respectively call the town on Lough Foyle (though the latter really ought to say Doire, the original Gaelic form).

While all such political and communal passions are sad enough, the worst reason of all for changing names is what the great H.W. Fowler in "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage" condemned under the heading "Didacticism." For centuries, English-speakers called the Chinese capital Peking, until one day we were all told to say Beijing. This wasn't even to placate national sensitivities; it was to appease academic drudges who thought there was a "correct" spelling of Chinese, though how can there be one in a language written in ideograms?

All this incessant, restless change makes language harder to understand. British soldiers used to write acronymic endearments on the back of envelopes to wives or sweethearts: "Holland" was "Hope Our Love Lasts And Never Dies," and "Burma" was "Be Undressed Ready My Angel." What can Myanmar possibly stand for?

And spare us the grand lady-who-lunches ordering an extra portion of Mumbai duck for her Beijingese.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Strange Death of Tory England" and "Yo, Blair!"

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Pecha Kucha and Emotionally Intelligent Signage

I figure it's my responsibility to break us from our current funk :) I'm sure we're all busy (and maybe a bit burnt out?). Anyhow, here is an interesting presentation I found recently:

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Was There an Ancient Language of Universal Symbols?

I stumbled upon this the other day and thought that I would point to it from over here on this blog:

The link is to a blog post about commonalities in petroglyphs found all over the world...(and an archeologist from BYU is mentioned).

Monday, October 29, 2007

Weekly rescrap 10/22/07—10/28/07

A busy Thursday in an overall slow week.

-Torben made us wonder whether Chinese youth really get crazy English tattoos (answer: it's a spoof)

-Torben posted the story of war graves defaced with Nazi symbols
-Torben shared the connection between music and human speech
-Torben pointed the way to Glottopedia, a wiki-based encyclopedia of linguistics
-Torben stumbled across the Endangered Language Fund
-Scott wrote on pledging allegiance to the flag
-Rikker linked to Multibabel, a machine translation game of "telephone"

Thursday, October 25, 2007

High-tech "telephone" game

Carl Tashian's Multibabel is like that game we all used to play in grade school. It takes an English sentence as input, and plugs it into the AltaVista machine translation tool to interpret it into another language, then back into English. It then plugs that result into another language, and translates that back into English. After five cycles of this (or eight, if you click the button to include Chinese, Japanese and Korean), it's pretty amazing what you end up with. I tried:

Languages Scraps is my favorite blog!
After round 1 (Japanese):
The language scrap is blog of my taste!
After round 2 (Chinese):
The language discards is my taste blog!
After round 8 (Spanish):
The strong languages are blog of the mine the pleasure!

Oh, the possibilities! (Or, Good contingency!, if you prefer.)

[Found via Notes from a Linguistic Mystic]

I pledge allegiance to the flag

Last night was "Meet the Candidates Night" for our hometown. Lyn, along with several other candidates, is running for City Council. A representative of the League of Women Voters ran the meeting, reading questions written by members of the large audience. Each candidate had 90 seconds to answer each question. It was a hurried but informative hour and a half. But the really interesting part came at the end when citizens had a chance to ask questions of individual candidates.

Let me get straight to the point, an ex-mayor's wife asked Lyn. There's gossip going around town that you won't salute the flag or say the pledge of allegiance. Is that true?

That's true, Lyn answered, and then explained her reluctance to swear allegiance to any symbol. I try to let my deeds stand for my commitment to this democracy, she said.

The explanation didn't seem to sit well, and certainly the gossip will have heated up by this morning.

I don't say the pledge of allegiance either, and while walking our dog this morning I reviewed my reasons:

1. I have seen Leni Riefenstahl's film "Triumph of the Will."
2. I have an aversion to the coercions of crowds.
3. I believe in the separation of church and state.
4. I don't believe that I or this country are "under God."
5. Loyalty oaths make me break out in hives.
6. I believe that symbols are only what we make of them, and I'd like to make as little of this symbol as possible, given its role in an often sketchy history.
7. I love Jimi Hendrix's version of "The Star Spangled Banner.

In fact, the last pledge of allegiance to the flag I enjoyed went as follows:

30 October 1996, Orem

A Cub Scout “pack” meeting in the church gymnasium. The boys and their Den Mothers are wearing costumes for Halloween. Bishop Gunderson, wearing a trim Scout uniform, asks us to rise for the presenting of the colors. He salutes smartly. The rest of us place our hands over our hearts. The first boy in the color guard wears a blue-and-gold Cub Scout uniform. The third boy is dressed like a bloody but elegant vampire. Marching between the Cub Scout and the vampire, carrying the flag, is my son Samuel. In the dress and wig his brother Benjamin wore last year. There are scattered chuckles as Samuel levers the flag into the heavy brass stand. I pledge allegiance, the vampire begins. Samuel rips the wig from his head and holds it over his heart. To the flag of the United States of America.

Endangered Language Fund

I stumbled across this site today and thought that I would post the link in light of our brief conversation about language preservation a month or so ago.


Is Wikipedia not meeting your linguistic needs? Try Glottopedia, the free encyclopedia of linguistics.

Essential Tones Of Music Rooted In Human Speech

From Therapy Times:

The use of 12 tone intervals in the music of many human cultures is rooted in the physics of how our vocal anatomy produces speech, according to researchers at the Duke University Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.

The particular notes used in music sound right to our ears because of the way our vocal apparatus makes the sounds used in all human languages, says Dale Purves, the George Barth Geller Professor for Research in Neurobiology.

It's not something one can hear directly, but when the sounds of speech are looked at with a spectrum analyzer, the relationships between the various frequencies that a speaker uses to make vowel sounds correspond neatly with the relationships between notes of the 12-tone chromatic scale of music, Purves says.

The work appeared in a recent issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Purves and co-authors Deborah Ross and Jonathan Choi tested their idea by recording native English and Mandarin Chinese speakers uttering vowel sounds in both single words and a series of short monologues. They then compared the vocal frequency ratios to the numerical ratios that define notes in music.

Human vocalization begins with the vocal cords in the larynx (the Adam's apple in the neck), which create a series of resonant power peaks in a stream of air coming up from the lungs. These power peaks are then modified in a spectacular variety of ways by the changing shape of the soft palate, tongue, lips and other parts of the vocal tract. Our vocal anatomy is rather like an organ pipe that can be pinched, stretched and widened on the fly, Purves says. English speakers generate about 50 different speech sounds this way.

Yet despite the wide variation in individual human anatomy, the speech sounds produced by different speakers and languages produce the same variety of vocal tract resonance ratios, Purves says.

The lowest two of these vocal tract resonances, called formants, account for the vowel sounds in speech. "Take away the first two formants and you can't understand what a person is saying," Purves says. The frequency of the first formant is between 200 and 1,000 cycles per second (hertz) and the second formant between 800 and 3,000 hertz.

When the Duke researchers looked at the ratios of the first two formants in speech spectra, they found that the ratios formed musical relationships. For example, the relationship of the first two formants in the English vowel /a/, as in "bod," might correspond with the musical interval between C and A on a piano keyboard.


War graves defaced with Nazi symbols

By Auslan Cramb, Scottish Correspondent

Last Updated: 1:40am BST 25/10/2007

The graves of British soldiers killed in the Great War have been covered with Nazi symbols in an act condemned as "appalling desecration".

Vandals painted swastikas and SS insignias on the headstones of 32 Scottish soldiers who died during the Battle of the Somme.

The attack caused thousands of pounds worth of damage at the Peake Wood Cemetery near Contalmaison, France, just days before Remembrance Sunday.

The cemetery marks the spot from which the final assault was made on Contalmaison on July 1, 1916, the first day of the battle on which nearly 20,000 men lost their lives.

The 16th Royal Scots, known as McCrae's Battalion, lost almost 75 per cent of their troops.

Many of them were laid to rest at the small cemetery, which records 103 fallen Allied soldiers.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chinese Youths Crazy for English Alphabet Tattoos

This is all a joke, but still funny and relevant :)

“The guy at the tattoo shop told me this means brave and proud warrior in English,” said beaming Beijing teenager Hao Tsang as he pointed to the letters GARF freshly inked onto his left bicep. “It’s perfect for me because I am very bold and confident, yet spiritual.”

Tsang’s friend Yuan Chi Hao also went under the needle for some English language characters. “Mine simply says FRUNK. The letters are so beautiful and flow so smoothly into each other. The word actually means old soul with young spirit in English. How cool is that?”

Apparently, very cool.

Throngs of Chinese youths are flocking to tattoo parlors looking to colorfully emboss their bodies with “meaningful” English language words.

“I couldn’t decide between CRYMPH or DLECH,” said Chengdu high school student Mingmei Lee. “I know they both mean beautiful flower dancing in the wind in American, but I can’t decide what looks prettier.”

This strange trend mirrors a popular body art movement in the US where many Americans — especially professional basketball players and young celebrities — get Chinese language characters tattooed on their bodies. Many believe the Chinese characters add an air of spirituality to their beings and help present them as enlightened individuals who respect and admire foreign cultures.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Weekly rescrap 10/15/07—10/21/07

-Torben rocked our wor(l)ds with Urban Dictionary, fo shizzle
-Torben posted on the campaign against signs with obvious warnings

-Scott pondered another sign of intelligent life in Nevada... with alien jerky!

-Rikker shared the classic tale of Ladle Red Rotten Hut (and other tales in the Anguish Languish)

-Scott linked us to further research on the language gene in Neanderthals

-Grabloid tagged LS with thoughts on graffiti

Saturday, October 20, 2007


I have been meaning to write a post on graffiti for this blog for quite some time now. Graffiti is such an interesting way to communicate and it is such an interesting art form. I can’t even begin to describe the diverse cultures that surround all of the different kinds of graffiti art. For those interested and/or unfamiliar, the following documentaries might prove to be an interesting introduction for you: “Who is Bozo Texino?” (by Bill Daniel) and “Style Wars”. These documentaries will give you a small glimpse into two very diverse graffiti styles and cultures. There are thousands of other great films/documentaries, zines, books, and blogs out there to look at that have amazing images and stories.

What is it about graffiti that I find so interesting?

Many of us are born graffiti artists. I remember the little elementary schoolboy that I used to be who couldn’t resist carving a name or a phrase into the desk or the window nearby.

What does it mean to put your name on something? Are you claiming that thing to be yours? Are you just communicating that you were there (“________ was here”)? Are you desperately attempting to communicate with others in a world that you are largely alienated from? Is it an expression of anger? Passion? Pleasure? Love? Frustration? Disgust?

What is graffiti? Nowadays I’m scared that many people would say that it is another style of highly commercialized art. It has been co-opted by the “mainstream” world and pigeon holed as merely a flamboyant, rambunctious and very colorful style of painting, perhaps associated with some kind modern west coast vs. east coast gangster brawl and bad rap music. This is unfortunate because, while that culture may have roots in a richer culture that was involved in doing graffiti, the commercialized version has completely missed the point. It has sucked the very meaning, purpose, and danger out of it.

What is the goal of the artist? A main goal for artist is to have her art seen/heard/experienced by others. Traditionally, artists do their art in or through their chosen medium at home or at a studio of some sort. When the art is finished or perfected, the artist tries to find people to show it to. This can be done in many ways. Art galleries can buy it, or show it and possibly help you sell it. You can show it or perform it in any chosen venue. The main goal is to get people interested in viewing, hearing, or experiencing it. It is natural for the artist to want to share the work that they have created.

Graffiti takes a different approach. My friend Vegor pointed out that graffiti is the most effective form of art because its medium is ANYWHERE the artist chooses. Where art is done interacts with, compliments, and adds various meanings to the image or message. It (the medium) is just as important as the image, performance, or message itself. The whole world is the graffiti artist’s gallery and venue.

What does it mean for a graffiti artist put a message on a piece of property? Does it call into question the concept and legitimacy of private property and ownership? Is it just an effort to communicate or share ideas and creative expression in a common area? This part of graffiti has been watered down and misunderstood into claiming the property as the artist’s own. This not productive, it merely sparks a battle for power and territory. Why is graffiti against the law? Should it be?

Does uninvited, unstaged, and/or spontaneous performance, installation or poetry qualify as being graffiti?

Graffiti shows an innate need to create and to share. There is a very interesting short documentary film called “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal” that is very appropriate to mention at this point. Check it out! (That link leads to a written introduction to the film and has a link to an excerpt of the film.)

My intention was to write a sweeping and far reaching post on the meaning and purpose of graffiti (ha ha ha...). But I now realize that this is completely over ambitious and absolutely impossible. (I’m not writing a volume of books here...) This post, more appropriately, can hopefully spark a discussion about graffiti and its purposes, meanings, successes, mistakes, etc.

So...what do you think?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Neanderthals May Have Had Gene for Speech

Published: October 18, 2007

Neanderthals, an archaic human species that dominated Europe until the arrival of modern humans some 45,000 years ago, possessed a critical gene known to underlie speech, according to DNA evidence retrieved from two individuals excavated from El Sidron, a cave in northern Spain.

The new evidence stems from analysis of a gene called FOXP2 which is associated with language. The human version of the gene differs at two critical points from the chimpanzee version, suggesting that these two changes have something to do with the fact that people can speak and chimps cannot.

The genes of Neanderthals seemed to have passed into oblivion when they vanished from their last refuges in Spain and Portugal some 30,000 years ago, almost certainly driven to extinction by modern humans. But recent work by Svante Paabo, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has made it clear that some Neanderthal DNA can be extracted from fossils.

Dr. Paabo, Dr. Johannes Krause and Spanish colleagues who excavated the new bones say they have now extracted the Neanderthal version of the relevant part of the FOXP2 gene. It is the same as the human version, they report in today’s issue of Current Biology. . . .

more at

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ladle Red Rotten Hut

Can you guess what the title of this post means? Think well-known children's stories...

Enough suspense. It's Little Red Riding Hood, and at Exploratorium you can find an entire version of the story written in common English words that are near-homophones of the normal words. Here is the first paragraph:

Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge dock florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry ladle cluck wetter putty ladle rat hut, an fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.
The translation of this would, of course, be "Once upon a time, there was a little girl..." and so forth. It's amazing how difficult it really is to interpret when you think too much about it. Much of this, of course, is because the words they use don't maintain the word boundaries of normal English. You have to sit back and sound the thing out to yourself. Fortunately, the website has a link to listen to the story in (the antiquated) RealPlayer format, too.

Here's a great line: "A nervous sausage bag ice!" (= "I never saw such big eyes!")

According to Exploratorium, this version of Little Red Riding Hood was written in 1940 by one H. L. Chace, a professor of French. He "wanted to show his students that intonation - that is, the melody of a language - is an integral part of its meaning."

So what do you think? Did he succeed?

[Addendum: This type of English has cleverly been termed "Anguish", and you can find more examples of Anguish in Chace's 1956 book "Anguish Languish" (i.e. English Language), the full text of which is here.]

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Following on the last post about useless signs, there's a potentially useful but confused sign at the east end of Nevada's ET Highway. It busily signifies, but I can't make out what is being signified.

Jerky that's as fresh as aliens?

Fresh jerky from aliens?

Are the olives stuffed with aliens?

Is the honey made of alien fluids?

Are the Area 51 gifts radioactive?

Monday, October 15, 2007

English campaigners against senseless signs

Linked from

On September, 2007. London campaigners who fight for the effective use of English attacked a growing tendency for obvious and senseless public information posters and instructions, such as a police sign: "Don't Commit Crime."
"They assume a lack of intelligence on the part of the reader - says their spokeswoman. 'Do not commit crime. Pay for your fuel' is hardly a deterrent to a criminal who has every intention of driving off without paying."
The Plain English Campaign cited other examples including:
"Warning: Platform ends here" on the end of rail station platforms,
"May cause drowsiness" on sleeping pills,
"Warning: contains nuts" labeled on packets of nuts,
"Caution: water on road during rain"
"May irritate eyes" on a can of self-defense pepper spray,
"Do not open door while airborne except in emergency" on emergency exit doors in planes,
"Removing the wheel can influence the performance of the bicycle" from a Dutch bicycle manual,
"Do not iron clothes on body" from packaging on a steam iron,
Supermarket Tesco - which also warns shoppers that cream contains milk and that salted butter contains milk and salt - defended itself, saying it gave customers "all the possible information they should need."
The Plain English Campaign said politicians were also guilty of the trend.
"Politicians declaring 'We are taking the terrorist threat very seriously', or 'We are committed to improving the health service' is just rhetoric," he said.
He added: "Our advice would be say what you need to plainly and simply then stop. If nothing needs to be said, say nothing."

Check This Out Peeps

Peep out this online slang dictionary, ya dig? Click on da picture above to see whatsup.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Weekly rescrap 10/8/07—10/14/07

-Torben shared a great George Carlin clip
-Torben gave us food for thought about worn out metaphors
-Torben showed why America is #1! wo0O!1!

-Grabloid responded to Torben's metaphor post

-Torben excerpted an article on tracking language evolution
-Don asked, "What the F*** is goin on?"

-Rikker mused on writing without communicating
-Torben linked us to the Online Etymological Dictionary
-Rikker led the way to Name Voyager

-Rikker wondered about criminal nicknames, Confucius, and Adam & Eve

Zodiac, Unabomber, Adam & Eve

Fitting with recent discussion of the rectification of names, I enjoyed this article about why police give nicknames to criminals of unknown identity. The interesting part is that the article claims the act of giving a criminal a name serves to "plant mental images of the suspects in the minds of patrol officers and the public, improving the odds of spotting and catching the crooks."

This is something of a different take on names. Instead of things having one proper name that must be discovered, rather it pits named vs. unnamed things, as if something without a name is somehow less real than something named. This brings to mind a post from last October on my friend Ben's blog, entitled "A name by any other rose." Incidentally, he and I are working on a new project together, and the name was the first thing we came up with after the basic concept.

But perhaps this isn't really so far off from Confucius. In both interpretations of the significance of names, there is a strong connection between name and identity. Confucius says if you know the true name, you can truly understand the thing. And when cops give a name to an unknown criminal, they are giving him an identity, and in a way creating him.

And all of this reminds me of the Judeo-Christian doctrine that as first man on earth, Adam named everything. From KJV Genesis 19-20: And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. But it also sounds like Adam named Eve. After God takes the rib and creates woman, he brings the woman to Adam (just like it says he did with all the animals). KJV Genesis 3:20 says, And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living. Compare that with Moses 4:26, from the LDS Pearl of Great Price: And Adam called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of allliving; for thus have I, the Lord God, called the first of all women, which are many.

In the PoGP version it sounds like God came up with the name, but even the straight biblical account has some ambiguity--it says he "called" not "named" her Eve. So was Adam told the name, or did he divine the "correct" name through inspiration? And if the latter, did Adam really name anything, or was he revealing the proper names of things?


[Criminal nickname article found via The Lexicographer's Rules]

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Name Voyager

If you're interested in names, you'll enjoy the Name Voyager, I promise. Even if you have no impending need to select a baby name. (Me, I do. Baby girl ETA December 5th.)

Basically, it's a little flash application that graphs the popularity of a given name that you enter, by decade, based on U.S. Social Security data. There are other sites that do this, but the execution of Name Voyager makes it fun to use. It shows you all names which match the pattern you type. So if you type "Joseph" you'll see the stats for both Joseph and Josephine, and you get to watch the graphs rise and fall like so many ill-fated civilizations as you type every letter. It's quite diverting.

A few examples of what I learned from typing random things on Name Voyager:

  • Orange was the 970th most common name in the 1890s, but Apple doesn't show up in the top 1000 in any decade (Gwyneth Paltrow probably checked).
  • Frank seems, frankly, headed for extinction.
  • Names whose heyday came and went in the mid-20th century: Stuart, Barry, Nancy, Janice.
  • A name that didn't survive World War II: Archibald.
  • A name that didn't survive the Spanish-American War: Horatio.
  • Norma and Stephanie have steadily been more popular (although sometimes only slightly so) than their respective counterparts Norman and Stephen.
Names really are a language of their own. Not that it makes it any easier for my wife and I to pick one.

Online Etymology Dictionary

Check it out here.

Writing without communicating

The language of academia can be a daunting thing. Every field has its terminology, its jargon, its buzzwords and catchphrases. These stand like the sentinel at the gate to enter the club of a particular discipline. If you don't know the password, stay out.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who tends to find this frustrating. In this 1999 article from the Wall Street Journal, Dennis Dutton discusses the "language crimes" of academia. Fed up, he helped start the Bad Writing Contest. The task was to pull out a sentence from an actual piece of academic literature and submit it to the judges. I love this excerpt from Dutton's article, which gives the 1998 winner of the contest and his commentary on it:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.

Amen to Dutton's assessment. Now, I'm sure there are people who genuinely understand that sentence, and even I can sort of make out what it's saying, but egads, does it make you want to keep reading in any way? I'd say writing clear prose on a difficult topic is the more difficult task, and perhaps even a sign of greater intelligence. I saw my share of this stuff in college, and professors whose lectures sound like this snippet don't do much to inspire the enthusiasm of students. Luckily I didn't meet many.

It's not just academia though. I've heard of another bad writing contest, the long-running Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (also see the official website), named after the man who originally penned that oh-so-classic phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night." The best purple prose wins the prize, but in this case they judge original submissions. That is, entrants try to come up with the worst opening sentence to a novel possible. Here's the 2007 winner:
Gerald began--but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash--to pee.
Jim Gleeson, Madison, WI
Finally, I must say this all reminds me of a (humorous) book I read in middle school which included convoluted versions of everyday sentences. I still remember one of them clearly: "My gastronomical satiety admonishes me that I have arrived at a state of deglutition consistent with dietetic integrity." (That is, "I'm full.") Touché!

Friday, October 12, 2007

What the F*** is goin on?

Recently someone I love told me that my language is "the most vulgar language you could imagine".

Why did I use asterisks instead of the rest of the obvious word? Why do we swear, what does it mean to swear? How has swearing changed? Is there a reason not to swear, and conversely, reasons to swear?

Goddam if Stephen Pinker hasn't written a fucking good essay on the subject.

Tracking the evolution of language

Researchers discover that irregular verbs change in a predictable manner -- just like genes and living organisms.
By Denise Gellene, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 11, 2007

Tracing the evolution of English verbs over 1,200 years -- from the Old English of "Beowulf" to the modern English of "The Princess Diaries" -- researchers have found that the majority of irregular verbs are going the way of Grendel, falling to the linguistic equivalent of natural selection.

The irregular verbs, governed by confusing and antiquated rules, came under evolutionary pressure to obey the modern "-ed" rule of regular verb conjugation, according to a report today in the journal Nature.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

In Response to Torben’s “Worn Out Metaphors” Post and Scott’s Comment About It

So...I’m hoping if you’re reading this you have already read Torben’s “Worn Out Metaphors” Post and Scott’s Comment on it, because this post is in response to them...or was sparked by them. I would’ve just put this as an additional comment on that same post but it was becoming to long, with too many links, and to I’m having it as it’s own post.


That is all incredibly interesting! I didn't make this connection (which I'll get into in a minute) until just now...after reading Scott's comment about Torben’s post.

Why in the hell would we want to move away from the body toward abstract images and metaphors anyway? Scott's mother referring to bowel movements as “bee-em’s”, and the George Carlin post, in the context of our discussion on Nietzsche and “worn out metaphors” reminded me of an amazing book that I read a few years ago called "The Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker. The book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 (after Becker's death). Becker's main goal was to point to the work of psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who studied closely with Sigmund Freud. After several years of working together, Rank was rejected by Freud over some trivial disagreement. Rank pretty much disappeared after that, but wrote many amazing books that are now being rediscovered. Rank's book "Art and Artist" is pointed to over and over in “The Denial of Death”. Becker also constantly refers to several Kierkegaard books and passages and also Norman O. Brown's book "Life Against Death".

Anyway, how does this tie into Torben’s last post and Scott’s comment on it? Our body is constantly decomposing. It is rotting, aging, decaying and slowly dying. These bodily processes (especially "bee-em's"/shitting), according to many psychoanalysts, subconsciously remind us of our own death...of our mortality. Many psychoanalysts talk about the concept of anality. Becker also talks about anality and makes a very interesting connection that is helpful to us in this discussion. I grabbed this quote quickly, offhand, in an online review of Becker's book... it helps see anality in the way that Becker sees it relating to our behavior: "...anality is viewed as an attempt to deny the possibility of accident or death, to insist on our separation from nature..." (from the California Literary Review). Trivializing and moving away from the reality our natural bodily processes helps distance ourselves from the sometimes depressing fact that our bodies are slowly dying.

So shitting reminds us of our temporary nature and how we are like all other organisms on the earth...we will eventually decay and die and return to our simpler parts that make up what we are through natural processes. But us humans have this weird thing that other organisms don’t have...a sense of irony (telling jokes), a deep cognition, an articulate language that allows us to conceptualize infinity, to think into the future, reflect on the past and relate it all to the present. As Becker points out, this makes us both god-like and worm-like..."this is the human condition", he says.

Again, why in the hell would we want to move away from the body in the way that Plato is encouraging us to and in the way that Nietzsche is telling us to avoid falling into? Moving away from the thing/the body helps us cope with our grim human condition, a way of dealing with our existence, a way of being in the world. The psychoanalysts that I mentioned would obviously say that we want to move from the thing/the body because it is our body that is the reminder of our demise...and we don't want to think about that shit! (ha...where's Alex to out-pun me?) They also point out that, as humans, we are obsessed with our youth (look at any advertisement), obsessed with defying death and the aging process, etc. We build pyramids to preserve and ensure our eternal life. Becker equates all of our creations/buildings/artwork with the building of pyramids...the thirst to be important, to be seen, thought of, to be eternally remembered...including his desire "to write the great book". We create symbols that are supposed to communicate who we are and what our existence means, we create ideologies and religions and we are willing to defend them and fight wars over them, we want to dominate, we want to outlast the other, we want to leave our mark, we want to be remembered. As we have seen in the class, the symbols and the language always (necessarily) fail to do exactly what we want it to do.

My good friend Greg Bennick co-produced a highly praised documentary with a guy named Patrick Shen called “Flight From Death: The Quest For Immortality” (Greg was here at UVSC screening it about year and a half ago). “Flight From Death” completely focuses on Becker’s book and the current research and application of Becker’s ideas about defying death, symbols, language, identification as individuals/countries, violence in defense those symbols and identification, etc. (Very interesting, highly recommended).

Hopefully you all are following my line of thinking...maybe you’d have to see “Flight From Death”, or read “The Denial of Death” to follow...or maybe I’m not making any sense at all???

Coming back to our I’m thinking about Alex in class saying how he was, and will forever be, ‘a recovering Platonist’ and that ‘I (he) always need a good dose of Nietzsche to bring me back home (back to the body)’. Observe Torben’s diagram below. (I’m assuming that they are the same notes taken from what Scott was writing on the board in class on Monday.) Plato is pushing us away from the body, into thinking in images and metaphors and using them as tools...something we all do to cope with our human condition (the human condition as described by Ernest Becker). Nietzsche and Aristotle...and might I add the stuff that Alex read from William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”...are all pushing us back toward the body. (Blake: ...the body is not separae from the soul, the body is connected to energy, energy is eternal delight...etc.) This is an absolutely crucial reminder that we are temporary creatures, that we don’t dominate over the physical world. The physical world allows us to exist and we are only a part of it, it can easily annihilate us and we will, without doubt, return to it in death. Who knows if our thoughts, concepts, metaphors, symbols are at all important or if they live on into another form?

As Scott mentioned in class, both of these systems of thought are important for us worm-like/god-like humans. But a balance is necessary! Don’t become Goethe’s character Werther...trying to get so close to the thing/the body he blew his brains out because he couldn’t relate to anyone else, couldn’t not express the ‘thing in itself’, couldn’t use ‘the lie to tell the truth’. At the same time don’t get caught up in dead metaphors...they are only tools to help us think through and compare things, don’t believe the lies you use to tell the truth. I’m trying to think about what would happen to a person on the other extreme from Werther’s suicide...some sort of insanity or complete disconnection from the body (schizophrenia)...??? (If that is true, then it is ironic that Nietzsche went insane instead of killing himself!)

I see this balance as being extremely crucial to our personal mental health/well being as well as a world-wide health/societal well being. I think that this is pretty close what Ernest Becker concludes in “The Denial of Death”...I wonder if he read any Nietzsche or Plato.

What do you think?

P.S. - (I highly recommend "The Denial of Death". Also check out The Ernest Becker Foundation if you are interested.)