Wednesday 21 September 2016

The Kingdom of Speech

(September 2016)

Not a book so much as (very) long-form journalism, and exemplifying both the strengths and the weaknesses of the genre. I will refer you elsewhere for far more erudite refutations of Wolfe's linguistic scholarship than I could hope to manage. It should, however, be noted early that the concern of this book is only tangentially language; The Kingdom of Speech is really interested in how ideas are born, tested, and accepted or rejected. Almost by accident Wolfe gives us something far more interesting than his fatuously simplistic notions of linguistic evolution. Behold instead the 'Swinging Dick' theory of scientific advancement.

Now, your archetypal long form journalist is typically concerned above all else—above chronology, above facts, above ethics—with telling a story. It's the story that matters, it's the story that makes the piece, it's the story that's frequently worth riding roughshod over propriety and veracity and simple common decency for. And what are stories driven by if not conflict? The genre further demands that we be given characters with whom to sympathise, or by whom to be appalled. In his wisdom Wolfe gives us not one conflict but two, not two characters but four: Charles Darwin vs Alfred Russel Wallace, and Noam Chomsky vs Daniel Everett.

For all of Wolfe’s inarguable élan as a stylist, the naked transparency with which people, events, and theories have been, well… let’s be charitable and say ‘interpreted’ in order to fit the author’s selected narrative is quite astonishing. After a brief and (early alarm bells ringing here) almost disingenuously naive prologue marveling at how “…endless generations of academics, certified geniuses, [are] utterly baffled when it comes to speech”, the first half of the book then forgets about language completely, and instead focuses on dramatically reconstructing some skullduggery over academic primacy, in which Charles Darwin and his upper-crust, ivory-tower cronies pull a fast one on Alfred Russel Wallace to half-inch the Theory of Evolution. It’s essentially a character assassination of Darwin, who’s portrayed as a vainglorious, flaky, hypochondriac recluse, as opposed to Wallace’s vigorous, thrusting young man risking life and limb gathering data in the field, only to be denied his due by establishment chicanery back home.

After seventy pages Wolfe remembers that he’s meant to be writing about language, and so throws in a couple of tenuous and half-hearted criticisms of Darwin’s ‘failure’ to adequately account for its the evolution. He then jumps forward over one hundred years and gives us another suitably embellished David vs Goliath tale, in which Daniel Everett’s research among the Pirahã tribe in Brazil is pitted against Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar. This time it’s Chomsky’s turn in front of the assassin’s blade, but to ring the changes he’s portrayed as a vainglorious, pompous, publicity-seeking elitist, as opposed to Everett’s vigorous, thrusting young man risking life and limb gathering data in the field, only to be denied his due by establishment chicanery back home.

In both these cases, Wolfe is not really concerned with the hypotheses or theories, he’s concerned with the personalities, with the people. This is not human progress as a contest of ideas. This is human progress as an academic pissing contest between relatively well-off white men. This is kind of depressing.

There’s undoubtedly a kernel of truth to it, however—if we’re willing to replace ‘human’ with ‘Western’, of course. But, in amongst all the other (justified) scholarly criticism this book has been receiving, it’s definitely worth pausing to highlight just how fucking white it all is. There is and always will be inherently political aspects to the fieldwork it lauds so highly, which, in the two specific cases it addresses, means inherently colonial. Wolfe’s clearly aware of this, as evidenced by the repeated hedging of the word indigenous in reference to the subjects of Everett’s work. (This is one of the few truly dud rhetorical tricks here—it gets repeated so often that by the time it’s revealed Wolfe really wants to use the word primitive, it comes across not as daringly transgressive speaking of non-PC truth to right-on power, but as an infant screaming ‘bum’ in the playground.) Yet Wallace gets a free pass, as if the imperial plundering of the non-European world for trophies was somehow less worthy of comment or censure. Or perhaps it’s just less easily brushed aside with petty sarcasm.

Wolfe has a similarly shaky and Eurocentric grasp on the history of linguistics, claiming that “…generations of Darwinists and linguists kept their heads in the sand…” in the period between Darwin and Chomsky, and confining himself almost entirely to consideration of white, Anglophone linguists. This is most glaring in his description of a research project featuring, “Three [seemingly nameless] Japanese psychologists and one American, Robert C. Berwick…”, while even a passing familiarity with Saussure would have spared him a lot of misplaced self-congratulation regarding his personal eureka moment (apparently language is a mnemonic, you see), to say nothing of the total absence of the extensive history of linguistics in, say, India or China. If you’re going to harp on about privileged elites conspiring against the underdog to rob them of due credit, then maybe you want to make sure you’re not doing the same thing yourself. Look, there’s even a Wikipedia article on it, and while it’s certainly less stylishly written than this book it’s infinitely more thorough, well-researched, and accurate. Which, all said, is probably the best way to summarise things: The Kingdom of Speech; less reliable than Wikipedia.

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