Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"I'd like to eat with you and gaze into your eyes while we talk of UFOs"

As anyone who reads this blog already knows, it doesn't take much for me to make obscure connections and go off on a tangent. This week it's the juxtaposition of my reading Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto while re-reading Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" after having seen Denis Villeneuve's film, Arrival (based on Chiang's short story).

Iyer and Chiang are often mentioned by the same people (mainly writers), although I've been I've only recently managed to remember to look for Iyer during my forays into Half Price Books. I came across The Lady and the Monk twice, as it happens, not remembering the second time that I already owned an unread copy. The second was, fortunately, a nice hardcover edition and thus much easier to read out of doors, in the garden, during cat-watching time.

Many of us SF fans have only recently discovered Ted Chiang, most likely because he publishes so seldom, and because he doesn't write blockbuster trilogies that run to thousands of pages. Rather, he pens carefully crafted short works. When I found out that his story was the inspiration for Arrival (with its haunting and intriguing trailer), I looked him up online and found a rather wonderful story that reminded me of something out of Arabian Nights, called "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," which I read while I awaited the copy of his collection, Stories of Your Life and Others.

I'm not sure I'd have thought of recommending "Story of Your Life" to my daughter, despite resonances with our life together that emerged after I'd seen the film with her and re-read the story, but she saw the film before I did and "got" it before I did.  I was more intrigued by the connections between linguistics and physics explored in the story, and actually missed the "twist" that everyone's making a fuss about. Now that I do "get" it, however, and because I'm also reading Iyer's book, I'm somewhat overwhelmed with notions about language and time.

Many years ago, when I was wallowing in what was then a hotbed of controversy over Whorfian linguistics at Penn, I attended a small conference, the focus of which I can't even remember. Since it was job-related, it might have had to do with computers in university administration, but I'm not really sure. At any rate, during a break, after I'd given a short presentation on something or other, a fellow came up to me and asked me, "How old were you when you learned Japanese?" Now, truth be told, I never learned anything more than "baby" Japanese, the language of children I picked up during my year at a classical Japanese dancing school next door to our little shack in Kunitachi--when I was five or six years old. But apparently the combination of having been introduced to basic Japanese language structure along with the pattern-recognition inherent in the dance moves did something to my brain that caused me to bring unlikely topics into odd juxtapositions.

This is apparently what happened at the conference that made that guy ask me that question.  I guess I did tell him a brief history of my acquisition of what little Japanese I had, and would imagine that the dance training may have enhanced what ever brain changing that went on.  My use of the language actually got a boost in Taiwan when I was about ten and could use what I had to get around because all the old guys who drove pedicabs, sold noodles on the street, or conducted buses spoke leftover wartime Japanese. I could well have been a walking advertisement for linguistic relativity and the idea that language (at least in part) structures our cognitive engines.

In "Story of Your Life," the linguist learns the aliens' language, which in turn restructures her experience of time.  And while I'm not sure my baby Japanese has influenced my concept of temporal movement, it most certainly has provided me some insight into how Japanese translate English, especially as Pico Iyer has recorded it in his book--as well as some understanding of why that guy made the connection between quirky associations or metaphors and early experience with Japanese language.

So when I announce (as I often do after watching a Miyazaki film) that the Japanese are quite simply nuts, I mean it lovingly.  They well and truly are--but only if one sees the particular brand of "sanity" that comes out of America as the norm. The title of this post comes from a passage in the "Spring" section of Iyer's book; it's a sign in the window of a coffee shop where he goes to enjoy some melon sorbet. The book, which is an account of four seasons spent in Kyoto where he went to learn about Zen Buddhism (among other things), is stuffed to the covers with the peculiar admixture of East and West he experienced.

As a student of intellectual history and the role language plays in telling the human story, I often find the unexpected in books.  And because my own rather peculiar understanding of time seems to require that I layer my reading so that anywhere from two to ten books overlap at any given moment, I shouldn't be too awfully surprised that the connections between books frequently burrow through those layers.

Although I do think that Denis Villeneuve made a bit of a hash of Chiang's story--especially with all the military bullshit that seems to be part of the Language Of Science Fiction according to movie makers--it's still moving and beautiful and innovative and may do a lot to stir interest in linguistics and (to a much lesser extent) physics. In a nation where citizens seem to be getting less and less knowledgeable about maths, science, and even language, it really is a pleasure to see a smart movie about smart people who solve problems without blowing stuff up.

Perhaps the fact that WWII did so much mutual damage to both countries is both the cause and the effect of the oddity we perceive about their understanding of the world. Anybody who wonders at the mania for anime and manga and Hello Kitty over here should read Pico Iyer's book for a thoughtful account of the Japanese fascination for Western--and particularly American--culture. Ambitious Japanese children learn English almost as a matter of course. If American kids who are learning Japanese today manage to reshape their brains as a result of their engagement with a radically different world view, I can only see the result as positive.

Image credit: A 1930s-era travel poster, "Come to Tokyo," from the Library of Congress's Online Prints and Photographs collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Slouching Toward Dystopia

 Anselm Kiefer, Von den Verlorenen gerührt, die der Glaube nicht trug, erwachen die Trommeln im Fluss

Where to start?

There I was, still basking in the glow of the Cubs having won the World Series, enjoying the moment and the metaphor: baseball as life. Work hard, play well, do the right thing and eventually (even after 108 years) the reward comes.

A week later, the world has changed and the future looks less than promising, at least in the short term.

For my entire academic career I have lived by and taught the principle that we are what we do: that in a moral world, the ends do not justify the means, and that ends and means must be identical. If we try to accomplish good by acting badly, we betray our humanity. To do good, we must be good.

I was also born into a family with a long tradition of respect for the life of the mind. My grandmother and  her sister both went to college when it was rare for women to do so. Their own mother had moved her family from the Nevada frontier to eastern California at the turn of the twentieth century so that her children could be better educated, and the intellectual cultivation she encouraged has fueled my own desire to keep learning.

But education in this country seems to have devolved into a political buzzword, and children are  taught in factories controlled by political agendas within an increasingly anti-intellectual environment. The products of elementary and secondary schools find their way into colleges without having developed the means to learn how to think, how to write, how to be good citizens. For twenty years I watched the intellectual skill levels of my first-year college students decline to the point where by the time I retired, few could read any of the books I had read in college, or write a basic essay, or produce a simple argument. Their ability to conduct research, especially in light of new technological demands (and perhaps because of the new tools), were negligible. And as earnest as some of them were, and as creative and talented as they seemed, they were no longer able to accomplish what I asked them to do. And so I essentially stopped trying, and called it quits.

In the last year, however, I've focused on my own intellectual needs, and have spent a great deal of time reading and writing and enlarging my universe. The same digital technologies that made it difficult for my students to learn to think (it's so much easier to Google something for an instantaneous "answer" than it is to look deeply into a subject) have allowed me to take online courses in astronomy, philosophy of science, Japanese books, and (most recently) sustainability. I've  been using the internet to fill in gaps in the various branches of my family tree, as well as digging into the trove of primary sources left behind by my grandmother to add to the database. I've spent more time on The Farm than I had been able to while teaching, and am grateful for the blogging program that allows me to get ideas out there for the two or three people who still spend time here.

Although I have tried not to be too overtly political, not wanting to offend the many members of my family who disagree with me on party politics, I can't let this particular moment go by without comment. And it's not because I was particularly surprised, having been warned by Michael Moore back in July that this could happen: This country has just elected a president who seems to violate the most fundamental principals of civil society and to espouse such abhorrent beliefs that we may be in actual peril.

What I can only hope is that he is not, in fact, prepared to act as he speaks: that he has only been pandering to the racists and bigots whose views he claims to support. That he is somehow not quite the blathering narcissist he plays on TV. But his disdain for education or intellectual endeavor,  his ignorance of science, his lack of respect for women and people of color, for Jews and Muslims, and his apparent lack of knowledge about the rest of the world--all of these "qualities" provide little evidence that things are any better than they seem.

If the President Elect is what he does, then we're all in  trouble.

Over the last three days T. S. Eliot keeps coming to mind. I remember discouraging one of my colleagues (about ten years ago) from trying to teach Eliot in her writing classes because it would be so difficult to explain all of the allusions. Even then students entered humanities classes with no idea of what the humanities were or why they should have to learn "that stuff." I now regret my advice and hope that she paid me no mind, because hers may have been the lucky students who might now recognize the refrain at the end of "The Hollow Men": This is the way the world ends . . . not with a bang but a whimper.

Although I can still envision the kind of apocalypse we used to imagine, as baby boomers in the fifties, embodied by a mushroom cloud on the horizon (especially since the PE has not ruled out use of nukes, even though he professes to abhor them), what I truly fear is the entropic death of human intellect and the consequent failure of democracy. An uneducated public cannot help but be swayed by deception, sleight of hand, and empty promises because it lacks the interpretive skills that reading literature and doing science teach us.

As long as the American approach to education focuses on careers at the expense of understanding (in the broadest intellectual sense), and denies students the basic skills (reading, writing, logic, maths, science) that make real learning possible, democracy will be held hostage to anger, ignorance, frustration, and greed. If what our kids learn to strive for is celebrity, the newest phones, the hottest games, the flashiest clothes, the fanciest cars, or the most ostentatious houses, we're doomed to a future filled with a trashed environment, bad air, crappy weather, more poverty, and a crumbling infrastructure.  Fixing things requires intelligent, committed people who understand that what they do will determine their own future.

The old fogeys who complain about it in their blogs now will probably have died off by the time things really get bad, and we won't even be able to say "I told you so." Unless, of course, this election really does turn out to be the beginning of the end.

There are approximately 727 days until the midterm elections in 2018.

Image credit: Von den Verlorenen gerührt, die der Glaube nicht trug, erwachen die Trommeln im Fluss, (The drums in the river came alive, beaten by the lost ones, who were not supported by faith), 2004, is permanently installed on a specially reinforced wall of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The photo was taken and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Wmpearl. When I was thinking about an illustration for this post, Kiefer came to mind because of his thematic explorations of German history and the aftermath of the Holocaust. Rhetoric that echoes what was heard in pre-WWII Germany was frequently encountered during the presidential election campaign, providing disturbing parallels. Coincidentally, we were watching the episode, "Storm Front" on Star Trek: Enterprise, when we saw this image of the White House.