Category Archives: Uncategorized

Subcomandante Marcos on board games

Marcos told a story: a group of chess players were absorbed in an important game of chess being played at a high level. An Indian approached, watched and asked what they were playing. No one answered him. The Indian came near to the chess table and considered the positions of the pieces, the serious and grim faces of the players and the expectant attitude of those watching them. He repeated his question. Only one of the chess-players bothered to reply: “This is something you wouldn’t understand, it is a game for important and knowledgeable people.”

The Indian watched silently and continued observing the board and the movements of the contestants. After a while, he ventured a question, “And why are you playing if you already know who is going to win?” The same player, who had responded to him before, replied: “You’ll never understand. This is for experts, this is outside your intellectual reach.” The Indian said nothing. He continued watching, and then left. After a short time, he returned bringing something with him. Without saying anything, he approached the chess table and planted in the middle of it an old bottle full of mud. The players were upset and looked angrily at him. The Indian smiled maliciously and said, “Checkmate!”

from..

http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article648


two paragraphs from chapter on anticipated objections

Taking language across the divide, from a natural, organic system that functions, however inexplicably, at worlds, to a formal logical system is itself a complex matter of translation.  The gulf between natural language and formal systems of logic is navigable only by giving something up,  translating in either direction. The problem is best exposed by reference to the degree of nuance available in natural language in writing fiction and talking about it.  Even with no firm guarantee that natural language means anything at all, a dialogue can be thrown together at a moment’s notice about the possibility, potentiality, plausibility, or proximity of fictional states of affairs.   Complex and only minimally dissimilar concepts are immediately available and distinguishable.  Developing a formal structure that gets some of  the same concepts up and running is a much more arduous task.  

It is best to avoid claims that suggest the bridge between the natural language in which fictional texts occur and the formal language by which they are analysed has properly been crossed.  Fiction is (almost always) composed in natural language and almost always talked about this way.  The formalisation of tropes of fiction is a process of abstraction that has purpose in examining patterns in language and the rhetorical effects of texts at worlds.  It is  possible to think about fiction logically, for the fruits this yields  although fiction employs natural, usually poetic, forms of discourse that forego the precise, well grounded but less flexible sorts of meaning afforded by logical discourse.   But the full import or complexity of natural language in fiction is not captured by this process. 


Climate Change Denial and the Pro-Slavery Lobby: A Rhetorical Comparison

In retrospect, 205 years after the abolition of slavery, the position of reactionary Pro-Slavery forces appears not only appalling and sinister but ridiculous as well.  Rotund men with large moustaches, wigs, top hats, waistcoats and petticoats rose in Parliament and other august fora and put the case for retaining slavery. Despite momentum in the slavery abolition movement in Britain from the 1770s on, the growing support of church, government, and the commons, it wasn’t until 1807 that slavery was finally ended in the UK.  And even then, since it remained legal in the colonies, and the West Indies in particular, it was decades more before Britain’s slave trade was entirely concluded.

The Pro-slavery movement was a success, inasmuch as it helped delay an end to a colonial slave-based economy for two generations in the face of mainstream opposition.

Centuries apart climate change and slavery are not overtly similar issues except perhaps on the points of polarisation and the scale of their effect.   But look more closely at the arguments that underpinned the Abolitionist and Pro-Slavery movements and the similarities multiply.  Of course, the polemic conceit in making this comparison is to suggest that two centuries hence climate change deniers, here likened to the Pro-Slavery camp, will seem equally preposterous. We can hope they won’t be equally successful.

Abolition was progressive, support for slavery reactionary.  Abolition would require substantial change, adjustment, and concession, pro-slavery was an argument for the status quo.  Abolition was a policy aimed at shaping the future – a policy, somewhat selfishly, partly for the British people of the future. Pro-slavery was an argument for retaining the comforts of the day.

From a modern perspective there are two things that might be seen as quickly differentiating  the issue of abolition of slavery from that of climate change action: first the scientific foundation on which arguments about climate change rest, and second the massive disaster that appears to await if nothing is done to arrest warming.    But in fact both of these were central to the Abolition debate. 

There was a central scientific question in the debate on slavery: that of whether slaves were or were not human beings. Fabulous, appalling but of genuine scientific interest to minds of the day.  Those in favour of abolition were generally those who answered this scientific question in the affirmative, those against often answered in the negative.

From a modern perspective a second difference between movements for action on slavery and climate change, 200 years apart,  is that slavery should be stopped to end current injustice and suffering, while action should be taken on climate change to avoid future disaster.  But Abolitionists, like some of those warning of the dire conditions that await us in a warming world, were prone to melodramatic pronouncements about the future. The point of reference for this doomsaying was impending moral rather than environmental catastrophe:  the long-term cost to Britain’s moral standards and standing.  Slavery may render economic benefits but comes at the cost of human decency: human cruelty.  How great that cost might be could not be judged. The fear for Britain’s soul was taken seriously, and linked to a pragmatic argument about future diplomacy.  If it was the case that slaves were human beings, and might be deserving of independence, future positive relations between different peoples of the Earth could depend on a swift end to their subjugation and mistreatment.

The most important factor in favor of abolishing the slave trade, however, was the morally degradating affect that this “cancer” of the mind was having not only on individuals, but also on the nation. It was seriously wondered where the moral and spiritual nature of the nation was going to end up, if the nation’s actions towards their fellow men continued in this way.

http://www.faculty.umb.edu/elizabeth_fay/debate.html Lorraine Martin

Imagine a Britain today in which slavery is still legal, and it is clear that the continued trade and subjugation of people would indeed foster a good deal of disharmony and disquiet from other nations.  In this sense the claim was reasonable, two hundred years ago.  But like arguments today about the catastrophe that awaits us sans action on climate changed, the threat to morality and diplomacy was often couched in sensational, melodramatic terms.  Essentially accurate, and invoked in the best of causes, the threat was nonetheless a propagandistic tool.  The most extreme depictions of a future warmed world and associated disaster can be seen similarly.

The similarities between Pro-Slavers and Climate Change Deniers, in intention, tactics, and sincerity are substantiated by further examination of the former’s rhetoric. The principle argument against the abolition of slavery was economic. The cost would be too great.  The economy would suffer, perhaps crash. Standards of living would inevitably fall. As in the case of the climate change issue two alternative catastrophes were presented. Those against slavery warned of disaster in the long-term future.  Those who insisted on retaining slavery warned of economic Armageddeon as a result of the change of policy.

Other, peripheral arguments were less salubrious still than the economic argument against ending slavery. One appalling idea put forward was that the people of Africa were slaves by their nature: they had enslaved one another long before Europeans became involved in the trade.  Some challenged openly the idea that slaves were human beings, entitled to the same rights, possessed of the same faculties and capacity for suffering or free will.  Others, conceding the essential humanity of slaves, asserted that European and in particular British slavery was a civilising force that could only improve the lot of savages:

those in favor of keeping slavery believed that Africans were savages, heathens, who were in need of a master to teach them the ways of Christianity. These savages were unfit for freedom, as they were irrational and unschooled in true morality.

These arguments would never sway the increasing number of British citizens opposed to slavery at home or abroad.  But they did not have to: the point – their function – was as something to point to to say ‘Look, there are two sides to this debate.’  The pro-slavers did not need to actually win people over. As long as there was content to fill speeches in Parliament and in public and pieces in newspapers,  discussion – talk – about whether ending slavery was right could be prolonged indefinitely.

Most chilling is the realisation that over time the pro-slavery movement adapted to new moral norms, moving away from outrage at the very idea that slaves are properly human beings and might be freed.  It became instead an entirely cynical exercise in denying the inevitably total abolition of slavery.  The pro-slavery lobby   ‘used delaying tactics, for example, suggesting the need for further time or investigation, before consideration of the issue by the House, or supporting compromise solutions.’  To demonstrate their humane credentials, the pro-slavers drew up policies for easing the awful conditions under which slaves in the West Indies lived and worked. They argued for less radical action: not ending slavery altogether but improving it (echoes of ‘Direct Action’.)  The ‘amelioration programme’ proposed in 1823 would modernise slavery, recognising new understanding of humane treatment of those in servitude.

It was argued that in a period of economic depression especially, no-one in their right mind would even consider allowing the government to pay the compensation to the owners which was always called for in any argument for abolition.

Home Secretary Henry Dundas, a stalwart of the pro-slavery lobby, proposed a gradual abolition, a tapered reduction in the numbers of slaves. The intent was at this point purely delay: the extraction of profit from free labour for a few more years.

The arguments and activities of slavery abolitionists arose from commitment to a cause and to the future.  In retrospect the Pro-Slavery lobby appears obfuscating, obstreperous, and insincere. Its arguments were shrill and  constructed to serve a purpose – to profit from delay.  There seems to be little need to tease out in more detail the parallels between pro-slavery and climate change denial: they are self-evident.  It’s almost as though it’s somehow the same people, two centuries later, minus the handlebar moustaches, monocles and petticoats.  Or at least it’s their ideological descendents.

Next time: climate change denial likened to the pro-anorexia movement.


Inauthentic Representations of the Public Mind

 On ABC Radio National’s new Drive programme on Friday the authenticity of research came under discussion between host Julian Morrow and guest Amber Jamieson @ambiej in the Twitterati segment

Media reports indicated research had found it is now more expensive to live in Sydney and Melbourne than in New York New York. But an insightful blog article from a Matt Cowgill (here) debunked the media reports, observing that the research failed to take exchange rates and inflation into account.

Morrow placed fault with the media reporting on the issue, since the research had the valid purpose of assessing the expense of various cities for people working internationally and being paid in US dollars.  Authentic research had been mistreated by the media, a common enough phenomenon, anecdotally, and one that does occasionally receive media attention itself.

The research in this case was wrongly used to fabricate a story for media outlets.  But unless the story results in a flood of optimistic Australian emigrants falling on hard times in the Big Apple, it’s a relatively harmless example.  There are worse forms of abuse, when research credible and otherwise generate ‘facts’ of various degrees of inaccuracy  that populate the media and, whether we like it or not, contribute to our picture of what the world is like.

On the RN Drive programme on Friday at 730ish a worse form of abuse was imminent, since the political panel discussion that closed the show carried a particularly crass example of poorly represented public opinion supposedly grounded in (unreferenced) research.

Morrow described his Friday political panel as a ‘high council of political wisdom.’  This week the press were represented by Mischa Schubert, the tiny pseudo-intellectual class of tankthinkers by Chris Berg of the IPA, and the people were represented authoritatively by Ipsos Research Australia director Rebecca Huntley. Not the interests of the people. The opinions. Huntley, apparently, has her finger on the pulse. She can read the ‘public mind’:

Morrow:  Has the public mind moved to the opposition and the prospect of an Abbott government?’ 

Huntley:  The leader of the Opposition hasn’t come up much since the election. The general perception of him during the election is that he ran a good election…a disciplined election.

This is a casual comment on an end-of-week panel discussion on RN’s relatively light Friday Drive show. But in research terms – in terms of facts and data – Huntley’s made a big claim. It was only the first:

‘Despite the fact that the polls continuously say that Kevin Rudd is popular with people, what is clear is that the idea of him coming back isn’t one that makes people happy. People think the entire thing is a disaster.’

‘When people talk about the Labor time in Government they can’t believe it’s only been four years. For them it feels like eight years.  They actually have a feeling – the kind of fatigue you see from voters – that normally comes after three or four terms.’

This was how Huntley described the public mood following the election of the Labor Govt in 2007: 

Of course it started with an incredible sense – and we got it in our groups, which was extraordinary, cause most people don’t give two hoot about politics – but this sense of time for a change and excitement. And then a little bit of bewilderment – what’s this guy on about – and then a bit of concern around the GFC, and then some real frustration, and then just this sudden kind of this sudden act of getting rid of this man, that people were a bit worried about but weren’t actually ready to toss.

At least, Huntley gave a superficial impression of being an authority: on public opinion, on the Public Mind.  But she did none of the work that goes along with being an authority on a subject. Her language was sloppy (‘There was this kind of sense that..’). She did not give statistical evidence.  She did not refer to the methodology employed by Ipsos Research Australia, or its limitations. Specifically, she made no mention of the sample sizes of quantitative research, did not report what questions were asked, gave no account of the conditions in which the research was undertaken or how the participants were selected. 

Research companies often employ commercial databases or build their own databases of respondents. These are clearly not representative of the populace in general. To what extent is the research referenced here generalisable to the population of Australia? To the extent that Huntley’s research is  focus group based, it would again be instructive  be informed how many people have been spoken to, the method of interview,  and again, how the citizens were selected. 

None of this was raised in the panel discussion.  There was no mention, even, of the difficulty of capturing and presenting public opinion in an accurate way. 

Surveys conducted by market research organizations are often not based on random sampling, which makes them ineffective.  Questions asked in surveys are not necessarily available. Surveys are frequently of the ‘omnibus’ variety, concerning a range of different topics.  When we hear that people answered a particular way to a particular question on a particular topic it should be remembered that the people who gave those answers may have been on question 46 of a 60 question survey that asks about the supermarket shopping experience, nuclear energy, wine and gay marriage.

Not only does the wording of survey questions have a significant effect on results, the order and number of questions can also affect respondents answers.

Despite this total lack of the sort of rigour usually associated with credible research – and no mention of the specific research supporting broad political statements –  Huntley carries the credentials and readily assumes the knowledge to speak directly for the people.  Jules Morrow introduced Huntley as a director of Ipsos and reinforced her position of authority by asking her directly for information on the tenor of ‘the public mind’.

Huntley’s rhetoric is couched in a small cache of phrases like  ‘There’s a view.. People think…   They feel that… What is clear is that… We get very strong messages…’  even ‘They’re, like…’

These are very broad and non-specific catch-all phrases that brush aside any obstacles with respect to the source of their veracity. But as rhetoric some of these propositions have the form of the fallacy Argumentum ad Populum, the assertion that because many people believe something to be true it must be true.  The presentation of findings from a research company is ideally analysis, not persuasion.  These statements, though, have the form of the latter.

Huntley’s credentials as a researcher with a market research company provide grounds for broad generalisations about public opinion, taking the form of assertions about what most people think or what some people think.  After making a few assertions containing phrases like ‘people think..’ and ‘The perception is..’ and ‘There’s a view..’ anything Huntley said seems as though it probably must quite likely also be what most or many people think:

Morrow: Isn’t it the case that at some mystical point..

Huntley: Yes.

Morrow: ..people just turn off.

Huntley:  It’s true. And there’s this sense of which it’s not unlike a relationship.

Huntley says at one point of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott  ‘… the reality is that he now looks like one of the most stable people in the Federal Parliament.’  .Now this is confusing. Who believes this?  Huntley?  The Australian populace?  Who said this? How many people? In what forum? How were they selected? What were they asked, or how was the discussion steered?  If this is the reality it’s all terribly vague.

 Huntley is reprising a role that others have taken (spokesmouths from Rehame and Media Monitors are past and local examples) as a chronicler of public opinion.  But a for-profit multi-national company such as Ipsos-McKay (locally Ipsos Research Australia) has its own interests, makes decisions in these interests about what research it should undertake, what questions to ask, how to present results and conclusions.  This introduces a bias that must, at least, be taken into account.

In Europe, for example, Ipsos has conducted a series of surveys that included questions about the nuclear energy industry.  The first bits of research in this series were actually commissioned by the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association.  Later research was done spontaneously by Ipsos.  The latest iteration of the research has found that public support for the nuclear energy industry is surprisingly high, despite the relatively recent disaster at the Fukiyama nuclear power plant in Japan.

Given that the British nuclear energy industry’s lobbying or ‘umbrella’ organization has been a client of Ipsos it is clear that continuing this line of research could be of advantage to Ipsos, directly or indirectly.

If being cynical about arrangements such as these it might be suggested that Ipsos not only has an interest in conducting research in certain areas of interest to clients, prospective clients, friends and other companies associated with Ipsos, there is also a real vested interest for the company in arriving at certain findings vis a vis public opinion.  With respect to nuclear energy the company has an interest  in finding that public support for the industry has not been adversely affected.  This bias may be just a perception, but it is something that Ipsos should identify.  This is particularly the case since the company in Europe has personal as well as professional links with the nuclear industry. Ipsos director Yves-Claude Abescat is also an executive head of French finance giant Societe Generale, which defends its funding of nuclear power more directly on its own website   Abescat’s role at Ipsos may have nothing to do with the company’s self-funded research into public support for the nuclear industry, or the finding that there is a relatively high level of public support for the nuclear industry.  But there’s the perception..

Bias or perceptions of bias should propel Ipsos to take further care in the preparation and preparation of research.  There is always the danger that the company could be seen as attempting to manipulate rather than simply record the tenor of the public mind.  The same perception of vested interest could also affect the credibility of political research.  If a company such as Ipsos, operating in economic environments , finds it has a preference for one political party or another, there is at least the problem of a perception of bias by way of vested interest.  It is natural that a large company might favour the party promising lower corporate taxes, for example, or a more laissez faire economic environment.  A party that is a better friend to a big business organization like Ipsos.

In this case,  it is clear that Rebecca Huntley’s comment on Radio National Drive is susceptible not only to claims of a lack of rigour, or at least the presentation of such, but also perceptions of bias based on what is good for the company.  This is not to make the assumption that all research is suspect because based on self-interest.  People who heart big corporations are often heard to remark that absolute focus on enrichment of the corporation is in the nature of that kind of organisation , and that it is well and good that this is so.  This ethos is honestly stated, but can only promote suspicion as to which are the presiding motives of the organization in all that it subsequently does.

Perhaps this blog-type tirade is all silly pedantry.  It’s the Friday evening drive time political panel, part of Radio National’s very slightly funky revamp, not intended as the most serious of political discussions. It is political discussion, though.

The presentation of research into public opinion is important because this sort of stuff – generalisations and statistics in the media – is the source material for what we as a community, a nation, a city, an age group, collectively think and believe.  Whether we like it or not, whether we’re cynical about it or not, having spent a lot of time thinking about how the media works or not,  it tends to affect, to some degree, our overall perception of ‘what society thinks.’   Public opinion, perversely, has a powerful influence on individual belief. 

Even where people reject the rest of society in forming their own views and convictions, work from first principles, a self-sustaining code, their actions in relation to their beliefs are affected by their idea of what society thinks.  What we think others believe powerfully influences aspects of our own identity in terms of belonging, isolation, and so on. Certain views are made acceptable or unacceptable, by virtue of public opinion and the way that we as a society measure it, talk about it, represent it.

Picking on Huntley and Radio National in particular may not be especially fair, but this case is representative of a more general thread that runs through the Australian media that that assumes public sentiment is easily measurable, known, knowable, suggesting it’s alright to casually summarise the public mood. 

Anyone who considers a handful of the people they know and the range of beliefs and opinions those people hold – on politicians, on social issues, in terms of what they think the universe is like, what they like and dislike – the idiosyncrasies and oddities and contradictions in the opinions of a few friends or colleagues or family members – must realise the fantastically complex task at hand in mapping and reporting the public opinion of a nation.  Impossible really, and the approximations that result should be labeled as such.

In this context the poll results printed on newspaper front pages and reported on in headlines on network news are gross approximations of the complexity and variation of sentiment in the Australian populace.  They fail utterly to record, for example, the citizens’ cynicism, complaints, disgust with the political system in general, forcing people into expressing a preference for one of the small range of potential political leaders they don’t choose.

An account of public opinion like the one given by RN’s Ipsos researcher is far worse. Research is not meaningless.  Nor is the idea of expertise. Rebecca Huntley may be full-time in the middle of the flow of political discourse, and this does bring insight.  Her research methodology may be rigorous, her focus groups well chosen, well directed, under good, readily repeatable conditions.  But the best research is presented together with information about its methodology, and its limitations. 

The best research findings are clear and specific.  Comment should be presented carefully, with proper qualification. Where there is not time or room to include qualifications, methodology, questionnaire questions and so on, there is the capacity to reference other media that does do that job in a publicly accessible way.  

It’s fair to speculate on the sentiment of the public in general, to make suggestions as to what the mood might be. It’s fair to present sound research, together with caveats, as an indication of public opinion. Taking care to maintain a high standard in this regard would befit Radio National and benefit Ipsos and its representatives.  Presenting public opinion as a fait accompli does both research and the ‘public mind’ a disservice.


Othello as Analogy for Argument

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Slipped Hegemony


Notes for a Tutorial on Humpty Dumpty

Language as Game of Power

… there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents –‘
`Certainly,’ said Alice.
`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’
`I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘
`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean –    neither more nor less.’
`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master … that’s all.

– from Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (Chapter Six)

QandA.

1. Is Humpty Dumpty right?  Can we make up language for ourselves – attach our own meanings to words? What advantages are there?  What sort of problems are we likely to run into? (In terms of advantages, how successful is Humpty Dumpty’s argument style?) How did we decide on particular meaning-word relationships in the first place?  Could we replace them all in order to free ourselves? Can we think without words?

Of course we’re free to do what we like with language and we can invent our own words.

 Advantages are that we can win arguments because nobody else can use our language like we can.  We need to make sure other people use our language, our style of language, not theirs. Ideally we want to attach a certain prestige to our style of language.  Give it a name, print it in journals with nice covers, develop more traditions that people should follow. Talk in it about serious sounding topics.

Some powerful traditions or styles of language that have been successful in following this path: legal, academic, particularly, news, religion, science)

We’re born into a culture already full of powerful language traditions. These influence us.. we can’t escape them.  Logic.  Mathematics. Argument. Academic. Some we have to follow because society demands it.  Some we have to follow because our own mind demands it. Can we think without language? Can we free ourselves from those traditions? That’s what Humpty Dumpty is trying to do.

Clarify not really talking about different ‘languages’  Not sure there really is such a thing? (everyone is speaking a slightly different language, they ‘change with the curve’, not all of a piece)

2. To what extent do people agree on the meanings for words? How are meanings developed and decided? How does this process relate to argument?

i.)    Symbolic interaction and construction of meaning
ii.)    Control of meaning and words in argument:

Gf and bf  (or bf/gf or bf/bf) arguing.. bf says ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’, Gf says ‘A good bf would never make his gf upset.’ What happened? Gf just defined the word ‘wrong’. Now anything the bf says must fit this idea of what’s wrong.  Of course he can argue that he did not make his gf upset (she becomes more upset).  Or he can suggest that ‘wrong’ means something else (she becomes more upset).

…suggests there is a contest around every word.. shows that language is inherentlypolitical. Not only do words mean different things to different people, they want them to mean different things and will fight to make that happen.

Assumptions behind premises.

Arguments in general usually contain a lot of assumptions – things that already need to be true so that the premise holds true and properly supports the conclusion. Meanings of words can be seen as a kind of assumption.

Lost at the edge of an an alien jungle two travellers faced a storm the like of which they had never seen.  ‘Life could never have evolved here if it wasn’t possible to survive the storm.’ said one traveller. ‘God will protect us,’ said the other.
The assumption behind a premise can always be argued prior to arguing the point of the premise. As long as there is time. So one device for attacking argument is to go looking for assumptions in an argument.  They’re usually easy to find, especially when you can just pick on the meanings of words. 

6.    What does Humpty Dumpty mean when he says ‘the question is only ‘which is to be master?’
Two possible answers..
First Humpty Dumpty might be asking whether language will master us or we will master language (can we rewrite language enough so that we are in control of our own meanings? Or is the external pressure too much?)

The second answer is that Humpty is acknowledging that language is a game of power, by which it is decided who rules (and who sets the rules).

At every point in society where language enters in.. where meanings and words are related and must be used to make society work… those are points of entry for argument.. places where good language can change power relationships, build arguments, redefine words (Law, Marketing and advertising (Culture Jamming), politics – satire.

Power games of language present opportunities for oppression through changing meanings and also an opportunity for opposition.  George Orwell in 1984 wrote about a Communist society where a deliberate effort was being made to control language so that established power would last forever.  ‘If you want to imagine the future of the human race, imagine a boot stamping on a person’s face forever.’

More optimistic view:  Bakhtin’s dichotomous forces in discourse, language, media: monoglossic (centripetal) and heteroglossic (centrifugal).

‘Law must retain useful ways to break with traditional forms because … the forms of Law remain when all justice is gone.’ Frank Herbert

Words and who controls them

Have said that there is a game of power around many, many words, and that to some extent we are all involved in games of power about language. In consideration of the political games around the meanings of particular terms, consider:

1. There might be more than one ‘player’.

2. what benefits flow from control of language and words.

Eg Crazy, love, welfare, capitalism, freedom, democracy… These games around definitions for words are a major reason for the way language changes… of course there are other reasons, like trying to make it shorter to fit it into tweets and texts.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.


A Cogent Argument on the Republic

Scroll down for pictorial counterpoint

 

 

 

 


brief Excerpt from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

1

A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. Surprised – it always surprised him to find himself awake without prior notice – he rose from the bed, stood up in his multicoloured pyjamas, and stretched. Now, in her bed, his wife Iran opened her grey, unmerry eyes, blinked, then
groaned and shut her eyes again.
‘You set your Penfield too weak,’ he said to her. ‘I’ll reset It and you’ll be awake and-‘ ‘Keep your hand off my settings.’ Her voice held bitter sharpness. ‘I don’t want to be awake.’
He seated himself beside her, bent over her, and explained softly. ‘If you set the surge up high enough, you’ll be glad you’re awake; that’s the whole point. At setting C it overcomes the threshold barring consciousness, as it does for me.’ Friendlily, because he felt well-disposed toward the world – his setting had been at D – he patted her bare, pale shoulder.
‘Get your crude cop’s hand away,’ Iran said.
‘I’m not a cop.’ He felt irritable, now, although he hadn’t dialled for it.
‘You’re worse,’ his wife said, her eyes still shut. ‘You’re a murderer hired by the cops.’
‘I’ve, never killed a human being in my life.’ His irritability bad risen, now; had become outright hostility.
Iran said, ‘Just those poor andys.’
‘I notice you’ve never had any hesitation as to spending the bounty money I bring home on  whatever momentarily attracts your attention.’ He rose, strode to the console of his mood organ. ‘Instead of saving,’ he said, ‘so we could buy a real sheep, to replace that fake electric one upstairs. A mere electric animal, and me earning all that I’ve worked my way up to through the years.’ At his console he hesitated between dialling for a thalamic suppressant (which would abolish his mood of rage) or a thalamic stimulant (which would make him irked enough to win the argument).
‘If you dial,’ Iran said, eyes open and watching, ‘for greater venom, then I’ll dial the same. I’ll dial the maximum and you’ll see a fight that makes every argument we’ve had up to now seem like nothing. Dial and see; just try me.’ She rose swiftly, loped to the console of her own mood organ, stood glaring at him, waiting.
He sighed, defeated by her threat. ‘I’ll dial what’s on my schedule for today.’ Examining the schedule for 3 January 1992, he saw that a businesslike professional attitude was called for.
‘If I dial by schedule,’ he said warily, ‘will you agree to also?’ He waited, canny enough not to commit himself until his wife had agreed to follow suit.
‘My schedule for today lists a six-hour self-accusatory depression,’ Iran said.
‘What? Why did you schedule that?’ It defeated the whole purpose of the mood organ. ‘I didn’t even know you could set it for that,’ he said gloomily.
‘I was sitting here one afternoon,’ Iran said, ‘and naturally I had turned on Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends and he was talking about a big news item he’s about to break and then that awful commercial came on, the one I hate; you know, for Mountibank Lead Codpieces. And so for a minute I shut off the sound. And I heard the building, this building; I
heard the-‘ She gestured.
‘Empty apartments,’ Rick said. Sometimes he heard them at night when he was supposed to be asleep. And yet, for this day and age a one-half occupied conapt building rated high in the scheme of population density; out in what had been before the war the suburbs one could find buildings entirely empty … or so he had heard. He had let the information remain
second hand; like most people he did not care to experience it directly.
‘At that moment,’ Iran said, ‘when I had the TV sound off, I was in a 382 mood; I had just dialled it. So although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn’t feel it. My first reaction consisted of being grateful that we could afford a Penfield mood organ. But then I realized
how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting – do you see? I guess you don’t. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it “absence of appropriate affect”. So I left the TV sound off and I
sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair.’
Her dark, pert face showed satisfaction, as if she had achieved something of worth. ‘So I put it on my schedule for twice a month: I think that’s a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything, about staying here on Earth after everybody who’s smart has
emigrated, don’t you think?’
‘But a mood like that,’ Rick said, ‘you’re apt to stay in it, not dial your way out. Despair like that, about total reality, is self. Perpetuating.’
‘I programme an automatic resetting for three hours later,’ his wife said sleekly. ‘A 481. Awareness of the manifold possibilities open to me in the future; new hope that -‘
‘I know 481.’ he interrupted. He had dialled out the combination many times; he relied on it greatly. ‘Listen,’ he said, seating himself on his bed and taking hold of her hands to draw her down beside him, ‘even with an automatic cut-off its dangerous to undergo a depression, any kind. Forget what you’ve scheduled and I’ll forget what I’ve scheduled; we’ll dial a 104 together and both experience it, and then you stay in it while I reset mine for my usual businesslike attitude.

– from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

Philip K. Dick, 1966.


10,000 Deaths of Valques – death the fourth

He was there on the steps as I left the solarium. He wore a long overcoat despite the dry desert heat, his thin face poured with sweat, his long hands twisted and shook.

As I began the long climb up the mountain, he fell into step beside me and sniggered nervously, his eyes squinting against the blazing sun.

“I’m Gadfafl,” he said, groping for my hand. “Alan Gadfafl.”

“Orwell Bibblenib,” I grunted, gripping my umbrella a little tighter.

“Pleasure of your acquaintance,” said Gadfafl. “Actually, Dr Bibblenib, I know who you are. I have seen you on television, and I have read your book – in fact, both of your books.”

I stopped walking, and Gadfafl turned to face me, something like triumph crossing his narrow features. His lank moustache twitched and dripped, and a soggy cigarette curled snugly behind his ear.

“Mr Gadfafl,” I said. “I am afraid you are mistaken. We are poor people in these parts: I have never seen this television, much less appeared on it. I have not written any books, and am besides a computer technician, and not a doctor, as you suggest..”

Gadfafl cleared his throat as if beginning a speech.

“Dr Bibblenib,” he leered earnestly, flashing impeccable teeth, “no doubt you are a busy man, and I will not keep you long. But I promise that if you give me a few minutes of your time what must seem like gibberish now will become perfectly lucid.”

I resumed walking, exasperated. Gadfafl hopped along beside me, sweat patches developing alarmingly rapidly on his thick coat.

“Look, I really must insist,” I began, determined to set this nonsense aside, but Gadfafl cut in over me, leaping excitedly.

“Before I explain,” he twittered,” I must alert you to a limitation existing regarding this conversation the result of forces entirely beyond my control. Certain chronological continuities must be preserved, and therefore, somewhat inconveniently..”

“Look here,” I tried again. The man was mad. Why, he…

“You see, doctor, I can’t hear a word you’re saying. I mean, well I can hear you in a literal sense, of course, but I can’t respond in the normal way.”

“What do you mean?” I asked tremulously. This Gadfafl was beginning to frighten me.

“Forgive me if I appear somewhat melodramatic, doctor, at what must seem a time of insignificance and perhaps irritation, rather than one of any great import or moment . I can only tell you that from my perspective, this meeting is profoundly important, the apex, in fact, of a decade-long project, and the cusp, if I might be bold, of my life.”

I quickened my pace, but he kept up easily, striding energetically up the slope, waving his hands in the wind.

“This conversation, Bibblenib, like all others, of course, monumental or irrelevant, is entirely predetermined. Preset. Unalterable. A causal certainty. Immutably fixed in history’s amber. A combination of predispositions, both genetic and environmental, will inevitably shape the nature of our thoughts, our line of reasoning, and our responses to the responses of the other. The continuity of cause links chains of events preceding us in this point of time by a thousand years or a few hours , which accompany us into the future, manifesting our unenvisaged will in accordance with a trillion parameters of effect..”

I said: “I’m not sure I understand you, Mr..” I but Gadfafl swept on, ignoring me entirely.

“There is, as I’ve said, nothing exceptional about this particular exchange in itself, in terms of its causal arrangement. But in this instance, my friend, one of the participants has had advanced perusal of the dialogue. I mean, me. And in fact, having the advantage of you, Dr Bibblenib, having read the script ahead of time, by means that will shortly become clear to you, carries with it a significant responsibility.”

“You mean you know what were going to say before we say it?” I offered cautiously, upset by Gadfafl’s sudden animation.

“In short, I know exactly what we’re going to say, “ he repeated, “before we say it.” He grasped my arm. “The problem is, now I’m here, talking to you my prior knowledge of our meeting avails me nothing at all. I assume I cannot break with the script, but, wary of disrupting some fundamental fatalistic harmony, have rehearsed every word countless times. The fundamental laws of the cosmos forbid me to deviate from the original course of events, or else irreparably alter the Earth and the universe for all time to come.”

There was a pause.

“What do..?”

“Patience, dear Bibblenib – patience. It…”

“But you don’t. know what…”

“Yes I do,” said Gadfafl quickly, “you were going to ask why the…”

“But…”

“…why the fundamental laws of the cosmos should concern you. Suggest that the future hasn’t happened yet, that, it’s an open book, it’s what we make it. That we’re all responsible for our destiny, not locked into a pre-determined sequence of actions, words, and thought… ”

I had been about to ask almost exactly that, but: “it’s just that it’s extremely irritating never to be allowed to finish,” I said, sounding, I realised, peevish and staid. But it had been a long day, and the path was, in places, steep, and I was preoccupied with the imminent prospect of Pasquito’s excellent tortillas, which had been promised for dinner, and an early night. Besides, I thought, if he has, by some supernatural agency had prescient insight into the course of our interaction, he’s had every opportunity to examine his rather discourteous conduct, and despite any regret, he evidently feels compelled to repeat it. It must have appeared rather odd on the page, I remember thinking at the time – my part in the exchange was nothing so much as a series of monosyllabic truncated utterances, punctuating Gadfafl’s virtual soliloquy.

“I was nervous coming here.” He appeared nervous now, his fingers digging into his neck, his eyes never still for more than a second, examining the distance in all directions. You see, though you may be confused at present, this meeting will in time have had considerable impact on both of our lives.“

“It’s preposterous,” I cried, turning on him angrily. “ Firstly, you descend upon me, mistaking me for some author and doctor, and then insist upon a precognitive ability that allows you complete insight into..”

I stopped. Gadfafl was looking at me expressionlessly. Then I realised. Regardless of the absurd delusion this man was entertaining, as far as he was concerned, my outburst was useless. He was following a script, and would not easily be deterred. Had, in fact, as he saw it – for whatever reason – no choice but to continue.

“How long have you known all this?” I asked, after a long moment,..

“Ten years,” he said, in a rare burst of continuity. “Ten years, since I found that book.”

“Book? What book?”

“..and every minute of the intervening period has been spent in preparation. You can’t possibly know how it’s been for me – the anticipation of meeting you.. The long years of study, and then experimental research. Everything sacrificed to a single dream, dedication fuelled by complete conviction.”

I decided I’d heard enough. The man was clearly a fanatic of some kind. “I’m not …”

“Dr Bibblenib, as difficult to apprehend as this might be, I find myself compelled to put it to you without further preamble. I’m from the future. Well, as you understand it. From my perspective, of course, I’m visiting the past.”

“You’re actually a time traveller?” I laughed, but he said forcefully “Yes. Exactly. ”

I sighed, resigned to hearing him out. Perhaps he was harmless, after all. A harmless deranged madman. The wind was strong higher on the slopes of the mountain, and the village was still some distance away. For a moment I wondered what would happen if somehow I managed to divert this discussion, or perhaps end it altogether. But the very attempt would give credence to the fantastical notions this odd Gadfafl had proposed: in some way it seemed I might inadvertently validate whatever peculiar world Gadfafl had chosen to subscribe to. He shrank a little inside his coat and continued.

“When I was nineteen, by chance I found an old library in a long abandoned suburb of the city, now theoretically preserved as heritage. But mine is a disposable age in general, and forward looking. No one had been in there for years. The books on those old shelves were archaic, some of them centuries old. Before I learned how to properly preserve the relics housed in that museum of words, several valuable books were destroyed, crumbling in my hands.

“I myself had previously had no interest in history, occupied like other adolescents with thhe latest groobules and fostifurbs, but now I was fascinated. I went there every day to read. One of the most ancient tomes in the place particularly interested me – and not, perhaps, unsurprisingly, since the book’s name was my own: Gadfafl.

“Naturally I assumed at first I was uncovering some chapter of my ancestry, a biography, perhaps, of a forebear, one of the more remarkable Gadfafls of another century. But almost immediately I began reading, once I got the book home, I realised this was something considerably more important. The volume was an account of a strange meeting the author had had with a crazy man who claimed to be from a distant future, and claimed, what’s more, to be the inventor of a time machine, which had borne him centuries into the past, just in time to keep an important appointment.”

Now I was becoming engaged in Gadfafl’s story. This was reasonably familiar territory, after all, as I am an avid reader of certain of the science fiction masters to whom the causal conundra of time travel are stock in trade. Delusion or no, I was intrigued. But in the dramatic pause which followed his convoluted near monologue, as I struggled to comprehend the import of this knotted ribbon of time, an epiphany struck me – a future vision, a premonition of my own. Sensing a sort of drab doom looming for the ungainly creature loping along beside me, I slowed my hurried progress up the path, gasped for air, and was showered with spittle as Gadfafl began again…

“The account made it indisputably clear, Dr Bibblenib…”

“I’m not a doctor.!”

“however unlikely it may appear..”

“Just Orwell is fine.”

“..that I was the focus of the book , and not an ancient relative, as I had supposed. The implications were tremendous. Nothing could make this so clear, you understand as discovering the actual words of this conversation printed in the book’s pages – I was able to read exactly this exposition of the success of my work, just as you are hearing it now. So you see, I knew I was destined to come to this place ten years hence, four hundred and forty years ago, and hold this conversation with you.”

“With me?”

“How odd it seemed to have unearthed my own future in a long-forgotten relic of the past..”

“Mr Gadfa…”

“You, Dr Bibblenib” thundered Gadfafl, looming over me exultantly. “are the author of that small but instrumental volume. When I startled you earlier, doctor, (and as I have explained I had no recourse other than to do so) with talk of television, books, and ph ds, I was talking of things still in your future. Events and achievements as yet unrealised. ”

My senses reeled. His story had about it a sense of plausibility. Ridiculous as it was, this gaunt harried man appeared to be telling the truth. I attempted to recover my composure, folding my umbrella and flossing my teeth inconspicuously.

“We,” Gadfafl went on impressively, “are two men caught up together in a peculiar eddy of the universe’s insensate temporal winds, the destiny of each impossible without the other. Without you I would never have been inspired to build my time machine. Without me you will never achieve the short-lived fame and considerable wealth that is your fate. And so, Dr Bibblenib, pleasure of your acquaintance, and may we both fulfil our respective parts. Not,” he added, “that we really have any choice.”

Gadfafl stopped talking and gulped furiously, wiping at his eyes, and wobbling on his high-heeled shoes. He peered hopefully at me through the waterfall cascading from his brow.

We had come to a halt, but almost upon the village – it was just a few hundred metres away, the path snaking between the anthills clinging to the side of the mountain. I began to roll a cigarette from the mixture of herbs I kept in a pouch at my belt. Gadfafl was still silent – evidently the script called for me to speak.

For a few long moments I said nothing, drawing deeply on my cheroot, enjoying Gadfafl’s urgent nods and muffled grunts. For the first time since he had begun his tirade I had a moment of relative calm and objectivity.

“Mr Gadfafl,” I said, at last, sternly, “I have no doubt as to the authenticity of your tale, or at least that you yourself believe it. But I fear you are guilty of a gross oversimplification.

“What?,” said Gadfafl, flapping smoke away from wide eyes. “What do you mean?”

“My point is that I suspect the universe to be a far larger place than you suggest. And I refuse to accept your tidy time loop theorem.”

“But it’s watertight, Bibblenib.”

“Just the reason I don’t like it..” It was a pity Gadfafl had not come upon some of the 20th century’s science fiction works in his ancient library. Something by Stanislaw Lem, or Philip K Dick, or Robert Silverberg that might properly have warned him against dabbling in the vagaries of extra-chronological travel. It appeared that now it could be too late.

I strummed my lip ruminatively. “At the commencement of this conversation,” I said, borrowing Gadfafl’s high style, “you made it clear that you could do nothing more than recite the dialogue you found in that arcane book all those years ago. Have you ever really looked at that dialogue? This dialogue? It’s nonsense. It’s just not coherent. Sometimes you seem to respond normally, otherwise you take no notice, or deviate wildly from your original point. Your exposition is patchy, leaving me to piece its content together myself, although you appear confident of a powerful and inescapably persuasive rhetoric .”

“I…”

“It sounds to me, Gadfafl, suspiciously as if this is actually a jumble of slightly dissimilar conversations, piled on top of one another. “

“What do you mean?” Gadfafl said again.

“According to the scenario you outlined, Gadfafl, you were inspired in your time, four centuries from now, to build a working temporal travel device. Although you have hardly explained the minutiae, I suppose I’m to understand that you have the necessary training, and access to components and energy sources almost beyond the lurid fantasies of scientists of my own time. Quite by chance you find a passage in a book written by an obscure 20th century technician, and expect to fulfill your destiny with a single hop, and an absurdly easy meeting with the author of your inspiration.

Gadfafl stared at me in disgust. He had become so agitated he “Simply? Hardly – hardly simply, doctor, if you knew the time and expense I’ve..”

“I’m not..”

“Just finding this ridiculous costume was a substantial undertaking. I was forced to raid a museum – I worked there for six months just laying the groundwork…”

That’s fine. I don’t. doubt it,” I assured him. “But don’t you see it, man,” I continued, as gently as I could,. It’s tacky.

“Tacky?”

“It’s Hollywood material. Schmooze.”

“What’s hollywood?”

It was hopeless, but I tried again. “Time, Gadfafl, can’t be parcelled up and shuttled about in pieces at our convenience. That sort of meddling can only backfire.” I lapsed into silence, giving the man a moment to absorb what I was trying to tell him.

By this time we were sitting on rocks in the sun, passing a pipe. Gadfafl was drawn and pensive – his perfect teeth ground noisily together. Suddenly he looked silly, with his big coat and thin arms, long fingeres scraping along the ground.

“Look,” I said, after a time, “it seems to me your fallacy is in your expectation this loop you’ve created will endlessly repeat itself identically. But I’m not the Dr Bibblenib who wrote your book. I’m part of a different chronology, a different version, a simple technician from the village on the mountain. Like the dialogue we are currently engaged in, this patch of reality appears to be a series of overlays, each similar to the last, and somehow, seemingly, affected by it..

I’m no philosopher, Gadfafl, and would perhaps be ill-advised to offer counsel on metaphysical matters. But I’m convinced that you yourself are on some level aware of the truth underlying your amateurish assumptions about the nature of time. If you’ve subjected this conversation to even the most rudimentary linguistic analysis, you should have seen in your own language a deeper current of understanding, although it runs contrary to the reasoning of your conscious mind.”

“I don’t understand you, Dr Bibblenib, and I refute this nonsense absolutely,” Gadfafl started bravely, but I was warming to my theme. “When you explained your presence here to me just now, Gadfafl, in describing the discovery of the book which so inspired your course, you referred to your experience, quite naturally, with the use of the past tense. ‘I discovered an abandoned library,” “I was forced to raid a museum. All these events, while occurring in some objective sense four hundred years in the future…”

“Four hundred and forty.”

“Alright, four hundred and forty. Regardless, the events you related, while occurring in some objective sense in the distant future, are in fact, from your perspective, objects of the recent past.”

“The past?”

Your past., Gadfafl.”

Sand showered my shoes as Gadfafl scraped his fingers back and forth along the ground, his anxious face papery and yellow.

“Even had your amateurish conception of time held water, Gadfafl, your preparations for the trip appear at best primitive. Merely learning the script for a conversation you were to hold in the past is hardly sufficient protection against the subversion of causality in a world in which a gust of wind can become a cyclone, and a microbe multiply to decimate a population. I mean, you’ve barely taken any notice where you’ve stepped, or what wildlife you might have destroyed., You’ve coughed and spluttered, and sweated, heedless of the certainty that your body carries viruses which are 400 years’ more advanced than anything my immune system has had to cope with. It’s simple stuff, Gadfafl, no doubt second nature to the more seasoned travellers in time who will come after you.”

Gadfafl was silent. At this crucial moment his script had failed him. And in the absence of any genuine idea as to how to help this refugee of another chronology, I kept talking. What do you say to someone who’s falling through a crack in the universe?

“ Whatever the case, Gadfafl, I’m afraid there’s no guarantee that the future I’m looking forward to will exactly resemble the one you’ve left behind. In fact, the reverse is much more likely. ”

“I’m surprised,” I remarked, “that having read all this in that book of yours, you didn’t abandon the project immediately.”

“Oh,” said Gadfafl.

“What’s that?” I said.

“Oh. This – well, it was different. It was different in the account you wrote..

“Not me..”

“You were enthusiastic, encouraging, you questioned me on details of your book, to furnish yourself with a starting point., ideas for structure and style. We – we’ve abandoned the script.

“Don’t panic,” I said, knowing it was useless.

“Don’t panic?” barked Gadfafl, springing to his feet and tripping over a rock. ”Ten years I’ve worked towards this moment, whole-heartedly devoted to a single noble aim, the zenith of my life..” He picked himself up and straightened his thick-rimmed spectacles.

“Ten years, and now it’s all – it’s all – oh.” He stopped.

“Oh,” he said again after a moment.

“What is it?” I asked, knowing full well.

“It’s just – presumably, four hundred years from now, another Alan Gadfafl will have found this version of the dialogue in that library, never become a temporal physicist…”

“Gadfafl,” I cut in sharply, “I’m not going to write a book.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he cried. “Don’t you understand? There’s another version of me walking around in the future wearing my life. The life I should have had, a sane, ordinary life. And Bibblenib, where does that leave me?”

I knew already it was too late to do anything, even if I had known what to do. Gadfafl was already thinning out at the edges, losing substance.

“I’m a ghost,” he said thinly, and I had to listen hard to hear him. “A phantasm.” He tried to take a few steps, but sank into the sand almost up to his knees. The look of surprise on his already indistinct face was too much to bear – I directed my eyes at the ground.

When he was gone, I collected up my pipe and umbrella, and went on towards the village, only another minute’s walk from where we had sat.