Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Iron Law

It occurred to me, some time after writing up the latest iteration of the Daniel Everett vs. professional linguistics controversy, that this was a prime opportunity for me to finally commit to print something I've long been noticing about the way the popular press relates to the academic disciplines, and that I once -- in a rather over-hasty generalization -- dubbed the Iron Law of Academic/Popular Press Relations. It goes like this: the specialists in any given field whose works are most celebrated in the popular press, who are lauded as the greatest and most revolutionary practitioners of their speciality, will always be those who are taken least seriously and have the slightest impact among their peer experts.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Feelings They Don't Have Words For

I can recall at least one instance as a child -- and I think the point can shed some light on educational theories, or at least on debates as to whether or not there is such a thing as an unmediated experience, or whether having an "experience" at all already involves passing a sensation through some sort of conceptual apparatus -- as I say, there is at least one instance I can recall as a child, when I had a feeling first -- an emotional experience -- and only learned the word for it after the fact. Admittedly, I managed to describe the feeling at the time, by the use of other feeling words that I put together to build up to it, in a sort of Piaget-esque construction. It was sort of like I had been taught the primary colors of emotions, as it were, and was combining them to create the rest of the palette. But I know that I felt the thing first, and only afterward found a name for it that allowed me to say, "Ah... so that's what it was."

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tom Wolfe's "The Kingdom of Speech" (2016): A Review

When I learned that Tom Wolfe -- yes, the Tom Wolfe, of "Radical Chic" and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fame -- had resurfaced in 2016, of all improbable years, with the even more improbable claim that he had managed to upend all of modern linguistics and -- as if incidentally -- the Darwinian theory of evolution to boot (others have tried, Tom, others have tried) -- and all in a squib of only about 170 generously large font-ed pages, I knew that this was something I had to see. Plainly, this was an "episode" of literary history in the making -- a minor one, to be sure, a curiosity -- but a curious one for all that. Wolfe, after all -- while he may not be everyone's idea of America's greatest writer -- has played no small or unnoticeable part in American letters over the last half-century, first as exponent and practitioner of the "New Journalism" -- indeed, he christened the thing -- later as the attempted reviver of the long, Zolaesque naturalistic novel, and finally as the "literary intellectual" (if that is still the right term for him) who was always most keen on sticking his finger in the eye of the left-wing pieties of the other "literary intellectuals."

To hear that he had emerged now from the mists of all those remote cultural touchstones of yesteryear that one associated with him (Panthers! Ken Kesey! LSD! Vietnam! Astronauts!), and with a new crank scientific theory in tow, was sort of like finding out that Norman Mailer wasn't dead after all and instead was busy as we speak on an effort to finally synthesize the theories of particle physics and General Relativity. This was plainly to be an act of authorial chutzpah and genre-defying (and odds-defying) intellectual bravado that we don't see much of these days, now that so many of Wolfe's contemporaries have departed for the pure lands. It was to be a last hurrah of the stylistically-gifted but mathematically-challenged non-specialists-- the revenge of the literary journalists and generalists -- who insist on believing that verbal talent confers on them the right to wade into highly esoteric domains of thought in the same way that a press pass gets you behind the scenes at a convention.

Sunday, September 4, 2016


As one who works broadly in the field of religion, I'm usually nervous about admitting my profession to total strangers. While the response that follows can range from the grating to the ingratiating, it is almost certain to be colorful, and to require a response. There is the instant smirk of the default secularist, for one, who doesn't realize that many Unitarians were disbelieving in God before it became fashionable. They will typically start in with a question about a higher power (and people really do just gun straight for this, you'd be amazed, five minutes after meeting you), and if I am feeling playful, I may warm to the role for a little bit in response, perhaps pulling some infuriating liberal divinity school maneuver along the lines of well, it depends; what is your definition of.... If I just want to be myself for the day, however, I will try on them the line "Actually, I'm an atheist." And in response I usually get, after a stretch of blankness: "Oh, are you one of those 'spiritual but not religious' people?" -- this being the last remaining conceptual category in which to fit me. Nope! Try again! (My dad, a fellow practitioner, suggested when I told him this story that I could perhaps better be described as "religious but not spiritual.")