Sunday, 8 September 2019

Alexander Stern, Raymond Chandler & Witlesstein's bullshit

Alexander Stern, writing in Aeon, suggests that words can have meaning in either a designative or immanent manner.
In the film The Big Sleep (1946), the private eye Philip Marlowe (played by Humphrey Bogart) calls at the house of General Sternwood to discuss his two daughters. They sit in the greenhouse as the wealthy widower recounts an episode of blackmail involving his younger daughter. At one point, Marlowe interjects with an interested and knowing ‘hmm’.
‘What does that mean?’ Sternwood asks suspiciously.
Marlowe lets out a clipped chuckle and says: ‘It means, “Hmm”.’
Marlowe’s reply is impertinent and evasive, but it’s also accurate.
Actually, that isn't the case. The Faulkner Screenplay has Marlowe say 'Ah!'. He was expressing surprise but also a type of foreboding. Why? Because he hadn't heard that Sternwood was being blackmailed though, at the time, he was with the D.A's office. Clearly something improper had been done. A mess had been created.

Sternwood then explains that he'd used a man named Shawn Regan whom, it turns out Marlowe knew. Indeed, Marlowe is a sort of doppelganger for Regan- who, we gather, is equally a knight errant but one more morally in error. Chandler, who was classically educated at Dulwich, has introduced the mythopoeic theme of the Double. Faulkner's screenplay, a marvel of economy, enables Marlowe's foreboding 'Ah' to serve the purpose of narrative foreshadowing.

Stern, who must have watched a different film than the rest of us, takes a different view. Marlowe's frankness is transmuted into 'impertinence' and 'evasion'. But, if this were the case, the audience would expect Marlowe to swindle the rich dude rather than earn his 25 dollars a day at the cost of many a black eye and broken rib.

'Ah' means 'Ah'. It is something an honest man might say on understanding that he is being offered a job which might involve greater risk than first appeared. Hmm may mean something sly and evasive or skeptical and insulting. But it is not what Marlowe said. Faulkner did not put this word into Marlowe's mouth because it would have sullied it. The audience would want the hero to just stick it to all them rich dudes the way they stick it to the 99 per cent. But that audience would not be Chandler's audience, Faulkner's audience, Bogart's audience. This is not to say that an actor of Bogart's calibre could not substitute 'Hmm' for 'Ah' such that the audience hears 'Ah' and the old plutocrat, whose blood is corrupt, hears 'Hmm'.

Stern takes a different view- one which, if true, would mean Faulkner or Chandler or Bogart were no better than a stupid shithead like me. I guess them guys got paid the big bucks only coz they woz White. Boy do I have a grievance! I shall email Stern to ask him to explicate his theory of language so as to assist me in suing all them fancy Publishing houses and Talent Agencies for discriminating against me just coz I write like shit.

Before doing so, however, I need to check this Stern character will remain upright in the witness box rather than turning, under cross, into a steaming puddle of poo.

Stern says-

‘Hmm’ does mean ‘hmm’.
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, hmm is 'used to express reflection, uncertainty, or hesitation.' Thus, to say 'hmm' means 'I am reflecting on this and as yet uncertain and hesitant as to what I should say next.' No doubt, one could lie while saying 'hmm'. But one could lie when saying anything. Either there is something in the world which corresponds with what you are saying- at least, to your best knowledge- or you are lying or being sarcastic or playing some sort of game which is not 'against nature' but wholly strategic.

Stern's example tells against his own thesis. The fact is, Marlowe did not know that Shawn Regan had been involved. He genuinely hadn't heard about the blackmail. There is nothing evasive or mocking about the way Marlowe speaks. He frankly declares that it is 'common knowledge' that the plutocrat's daughters are 'wild'. But he does not say this in a gloating or impertinent manner. His speech act is only ambiguous because his knowledge base is not known to his interlocutor- or to the audience- but he clarifies this immediately. He says 'Ah means Ah'. I am getting new information. I did not know this. But, this new information is illuminative.'

Whether Marlowe says 'Ah' or 'Hmm' or just puckers his brow-  the fact is he immediately, on challenge, clarifies the meaning of his utterance or 'body language'. This means there is nothing 'immanent' in whatever word or gesture he used. It was wholly, and entirely rationally, related to something as much in the world as 'baseball' or 'thunder'. It wasn't vacuous or immune to a Ramsey test (w.r.t Belief Revision) in the manner of 'ideology' or 'attitude' or Wittgensteinian mischegos.

Our language is full of interjections and verbal gestures that don’t necessarily mean anything beyond themselves.
Rubbish! We have evolved on an uncertain fitness landscape. That is why Language games are not Wittgensteinian. They feature coordination and discoordination focal point dynamics.

It may be that some interjections or other verbal behaviour are indeed spandrels representative of 'displacement activity'. My own oeuvre may well be considered under some such rubric and, for all I know, throw light upon some specific cultural or psychiatric malaise. I readily admit, my writing is meaningless shite. Alexander Stern, however, is made of sterner stuff. He says-
Most of our words – ‘baseball’, ‘thunder’, ‘ideology’ – seem to have a meaning outside themselves – to designate or stand for some concept. The way the word looks and sounds is only arbitrarily connected to the concept that it represents.
This is entirely foolish. There is nothing 'arbitrary' about the Schelling focal point of a coordination game. Furthermore, such language as is not phatic and which fulfills an economic or epistemological or aesthetic function answers to a protocol bound, 'buck stopped', hermeneutic decision procedure. 

It is a separate matter that most words are not onomatopoeic. However, even those which are get assimilated to a protocol bound convention. Thus cats say 'miaow' in English but 'nyan' in Japanese.
But the meanings of other expressions – including our hmms, hars and huhs – seem much more closely tied to the individual utterance. The meaning is inseparable from or immanent in the expression. These kinds of expressions seem to have meaning more how a particular action might have meaning.
If such expressions exist then they would be found in every language. It has been claimed that 'huh' is an example of speech disfluency which is universal. But this does not mean that there is anything 'immanent' about it. Speech fillers are an object of current research because of the booming market for speech to text software and voice controlled computing. Thus, since the thing is the subject of profitable scientific research, it is very much 'in the world'. There is nothing mystical or theological about it.
Are these two ways of meaning – designative and immanent – simply different things? Or are they related to one another? And if so, how?
There is only one way of meaning, though- in real time- we may hesitate and be uncertain about what we want to mean. To say something is 'immanent' is to shit higher than one's arsehole.
These questions might seem arcane, but they lead us back to some of the most basic puzzles about the world and our place in it.
Are these genuine puzzles or are they an attempt to wax poetic or have a bit of an intellectual wank?
Human beings are brazen animals. We have lifted ourselves out of the world – or we think we have – and now gaze back upon it detached, like researchers examining a focus group through one-way glass.
You don't have to be out of the world to formulate a structural causal model of something happening within it. Indeed, there is a current of thought in Physics that 'phenomenology'- i.e. stuff only observable within the system- may be all there is.
Language is what allows us to entertain this strange, but extraordinarily productive, thought. It is the ladder we use to climb out of the world.
Death is the way we climb out of the world. Yogic 'samadhi' does not involve language.
In this way, human detachment seems to depend on the detachment of words. If words are to keep the world at arm’s length, they must also be uninvolved in what they mean – they must designate it arbitrarily.
What's wrong with meaningless chatter? It's what we do most of the time- unless our voices are so horrible, people avoid us. Death will detach us from the world soon enough. Till then why not huddle together for warmth?
But if words fail to completely detach, that failure should tell us something about the peculiar – and humble – position we occupy ‘between gods and beasts’, as Plotinus put it.
The problem here is that it if there are words which are not designative but rather charged with the infinite power of immanence, then there is some formula such that we attain God like powers and 'An'al Haq' or 'Aham Brahmasmi' would be a literal truth.

In his Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein draws a distinction that mirrors the one between these two ways of meaning. ‘We speak of understanding a sentence,’ he writes, ‘in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other.’ (Marlowe evidently felt his ‘hmm’ could not be replaced.)
Actually, Marlowe immediately replaced his 'Ah' with a full explication of why what he was hearing was new information which gave him pause.
It is true, that once a sentence is uttered, its context is fixed. It can't be replaced. However, its context can be explicated. It is then possible to say how it could have been improved or rendered more intelligible.

When we speak of understanding a sentence, we are stipulating that we understand what effect it has or had. We may be wrong. Someone may tell us we didn't understand the sentence because we were ignorant of some aspect of its context or else that we misunderstood a word, or idiom, or inflection in that utterance.
The first kind of understanding points to a peculiar aspect of words and sentences: two of them can mean the same thing.
How is that peculiar? If this weren't the case, a language could not be learned nor could it be translated.
As Wittgenstein points out, we’d never think of replacing one musical theme with another as if they amounted to the same thing.
Why not? Consider Maurice Jarre's 'Lara's theme' from Dr. Zhivago. It originally featured bongo drums and went- ba da boom boom boom. His wife wanted a new fur coat. She persuaded him to substitute a more schmaltzy musical theme so as to get a big pay-off from the producer. I just checked Wikipedia. Apparently, the story about the bongo drums isn't true. David Lean originally wanted a Russian song but couldn't get the rights. So he sent Jarre off to the mountains to write something for his g.f. Lean liked the result so well he substituted Jarre's musical theme for what he originally had in mind. This is not to say musical themes are identical anymore than sentences are identical. Indeed, the atoms in this chair here at this moment in time are not identical to atoms in that chair over there. So what?
Nor would we equate two different paintings or two different screams.
Or two different farts.
But with many other sentences, understanding the meaning is demonstrated by putting it in other words.
Just as learning music involves 'decomposing' a particular piece into simpler parts and showing how they are to be combined.
However, the meanings of the music, the painting and the scream seem to be immediately there.
Nonsense! The meaning of a scream is contextual. So is the meaning of music or painting of even the most abstract kind. It is true that the contexts different people give to the scream, the music, or the painting are different and depend upon something they have cultivated within themselves.
‘A picture tells me itself,’ Wittgenstein writes.
But Wittlesstein had a highly cultivated contextual reception for pictures. Stuff he liked was stuff most people at the time thought was shit. Proper oil paintings should feature dogs playing poker. They should tell us that Schnauzer's are sly creatures who peek over the shoulder of Alsatians to get a look a their cards. As Bernard Berenson said, that is the true purpose of Art.
There is no way to replace one expression with another without changing the meaning.
Rubbish! Meaning is contexual. In some contexts- the Law, Commerce, Science, Poetry, wooing your love object, drunkenly chattering to your mates in the pub- we routinely replace one expression with another without changing the meaning so as to comply with relevant protocols. Sometimes we have to apologize first or say 'I misspoke. What I meant to say was 'go away you obese swarthy gentleman whose parents were not married to each other', not 'fuck off you fat, black, bastard.' At least, that is my g.f's salutary practice.
In these cases, there isn’t really a sense of a meaning apart from the expression itself. It would be perverse to ask someone who has just let loose a chilling scream: ‘What exactly did you mean by that?’ or ‘Could you put that another way?’
Yet, police officers do precisely this. I am asked to confirm that the screams my neighbor's reported were not caused by my g.f beating me. Rather they were a product of my getting stuck on the top note while singing 'Sankaravaranam'.
Although these two examples of ‘understanding’ might seem of completely different kinds, Wittgenstein insists that they not be divorced from one another. Together, they make up his ‘concept of understanding’. And, indeed, most of our language does seem to lie somewhere along a spectrum between simply designating its meaning and actually embodying it.
All of our language is embodied. Why? We have bodies. Even a computer generated text emanates from something material. No doubt, if we believe in a Revealed Scripture whose origin is outside Time, then there is a text which has immanence. However, its reception is still embodied. The purpose for which the text was composed, concerned embodied recipients.

On one end of the spectrum, we can imagine, as Wittgenstein does, people who speak a language consisting only of ‘vocal gestures’ – expressions such as ‘hmm’ that communicate only themselves.
If we lose the power of speech, or never possess it, we can still achieve a great deal by non-vocal gestures

On the other end lies ‘a language in whose use the “soul” of the words played no part’. Here, ‘meaning-blind’ people, Wittgenstein writes, would use words without experiencing the meanings as connected to the words at all.
Wittlesstein was meaning-blind. He was writing shite coz he was stooopid. What he meant by what he wrote is 'I'm a smart guy saying something smart'. But the actual meaning of what he wrote was 'I'm a pretentious gobshite'.
They would use them the way a mathematician uses an ‘x’ to designate the side of a triangle, without the word seeming to embody the meaning in any way.
The guy uttering the word has a body. So the uttered word is 'embodied' and has a context such that other people find it meaningful.
‘Livre’ might mean book but it doesn’t mean it the way that ‘book’ does.
Rubbish. It means it in exactly the same way though the context may be different- i.e. a French speaking one, rather than an English speaking one.
But neither of these imaginary languages seems capable of anything like the range and expressive richness of actual human language.
How would blathershites like you know? What have you ever uttered which had any extraordinary range and expressiveness?
The former seems to place human language (and our world) closer to that of animals and infants; the latter, closer to that of computers, for whom it couldn’t matter less how something is said.
WTF! It matters a great deal how something is said to a computer. It won't perform the desired action unless the correct protocol is followed. You can't just say 'let's groove baby' to Alexa and expect her to put on Barry White and assume the position. On the other hand, Alexa doesn't want to get preggers.
Still, the examples might provide some clue as to how these ways of meaning relate to each other. The language of gesture would seem to have to come before the language of signs. It’s difficult to imagine a little girl first learning to communicate her needs with arbitrary signs, and only later learning how to communicate by gesture.
Babies first communicate through different types of crying and wailing. Gestures come later.
Even once we do come to use words in an arbitrary, designative manner, they – at least, many of them – still seem to have their meanings in themselves. When I first learn that the French ‘livre’ means book, the word is associated with its meaning only in a mediated manner. I remain, at this stage, meaning-blind with respect to the word. I know what it means, but its meaning doesn’t resonate in the material aspects of the word. As I become more fluent in French, however, the word’s meaning becomes sedimented in it. ‘Livre’ begins to sound like it means what it means.
So you say. But would you say it if you weren't writing a shite article for Aeon so as to sell your worthless book about Witlesstein? This is simply crap phenomenology trying to shit higher than its arsehole.
Full understanding, in Wittgenstein’s sense, seems to involve not just being able to replace ‘livre’ with ‘book’, but also in the experience of the meaning in the word. To put it another way, ‘livre’ might mean book but it doesn’t mean it the way ‘book’ does.
Utter crap. There is no need to 'experience the meaning in the word'. A shite Guru who is swindling you might say so because the fucker has to say something to get you to part with your hard-earned. But he might equally tell you to experience yourself breathing or experience your own heart beating or experience your own Bank Account getting drained by a charlatan.
We can of course imagine a person (or machine) using words competently without having this experience of meaning, but is what we imagine really human language use?
Nothing you imagine isn't shite coz u got shit for brains, mate. Most of us do. That doesn't stop us imagining we can get off with a Kardashian and she'd be all, like, your man-boobs are so sexy! Come live in my mansion and give me lots of babies.'
It’s hard to see how such a person would have access to the whole range of practices in which we use words. Subtleties in certain jokes or emotional expressions would escape them. Meaning is more sunken into words than the practice of replacing one term with another suggests.
This is a good excuse to stick with a failed chat-up line. Everyone says 'stop approaching girls and saying 'I just found out I've got an inoperable tumor and have just 24 hours to lift. Please help me. I don't want to die a virgin!' The truth is, if you want to get laid, you need to coyly lower your lashes and say 'I'm not wearing any panties!'

You may reply 'the meaning sunken into my words can't be replaced in the manner you suggest.' The result is you die a virgin 24 hours later.
The idea that words themselves might harbour meaning used to be more intellectually respectable.
Back when intellectuals were utterly shite.
Deciphering the relationship between what words mean and how they sound, which seems absurd with all but a small subset of our vocabulary, used to be of great interest.
To notorious shitheads of the sort satirized by Aristophanes.
In Plato’s Cratylus, the title character indulges in the speculation, common at the time, that certain words are correct: that they name the things they refer to accurately. Etymology can therefore provide insight. ‘Anyone who knows a thing’s name also knows the thing,’ Cratylus says.
Plato’s Socrates prefers to gain insight into things by grasping the ‘forms’ behind them, instead of through the contingent, and often mistaken, names given to them. The production of names or words – ‘onomatopoieo’ in Ancient Greek – tells us only how an individual name-giver saw things, Socrates tells Cratylus. There’s no way to adjudicate the ‘civil war among names’ and decide which get at the truth.
Socrates would have been better off saying- 'you guys got shit for brains. I'm gonna get a job and make something of myself instead of hanging out with you losers.' After all, the only reason anyone of us has heard about Socrates is coz Plato got a job running the Academy where Aristotle studied and he in turn set up a Lyceum and so on and so forth. As the 'Lysis' shows, what followed was pedagogy as a sort of sublimated pederasty which paid you a decent enough wage provided you concentrated on gaslighting your victims to bugger with their brains, not their bungholes.

Stern concludes his article, which for some reason starts genuflecting to Walter Benjamin, thus-

There is, in the end, only one kind of meaning. As Wittgenstein puts it, if the abstractions of philosophy are to have a use, ‘it must be as humble as that of the words “table”, “lamp”, “door”.’ He might have added ‘hmm’.
But really ought to have confined himself to 'bullshit.'


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