Grammar

 

Steven Pinker‘s early book, The Language Instinct (1994)–controversial among linguists, psychologists, social anthropologists and probably semiotics philosophers–is nonetheless relatively easy for the interested non-scholarly layperson to read. Pinker has since become well-known for his best-selling books, TED talks, and willingness to engage in lively debates on controversial topics such as violence in society and his claims for the embodied brain, scientifically-supported atheism, and rational culture. [Totally off topic, but I’m a great fan of his current wife’s novels and philosophy books–Rebecca Goldstein–what an amazing mind she has! Not that Steve Pinker is a slouch in that department, either…an intellectual power couple indeed. But I digress.]

The Language Instinct got me thinking more broadly about grammar, especially as the semester is about to begin and I’m once again wrestling with how to teach conventional writing skills to under-prepared, newly-minted college freshmen. I harbor no intentions of talking to them about linguistic theories. But I do want them to understand that they can already express themselves perfectly well verbally, with the help of body language (even students who are still learning English; even students who have told me that they have learning disabilities). The tool they need to succeed at the college level is the skill of writing that employs enough agreed-upon conventions–prescriptive grammar–to convey clear ideas to the standard reader.

Lots of assumed definitions there: who is the ‘standard’ reader? How many and which ‘conventions’ are enough, and who is it that agrees upon them? I have to let the students know that the answer is: “It depends.” They are seldom very pleased to hear it, but human beings are nothing if not adaptable.

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After defending slang, split infinitives, the ‘verbing’ of nouns, and other shibboleths, Pinker–in a chapter denigrating language mavens (hence his Jeremiah example toward the end of this excerpt)–writes:

The aspect of language most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also…a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and–probably most important–intensive exposure to good examples…a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively…Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, “Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times!”

Indeed, I agree with him here. Taking the time to read good writing frequently, and taking the time to revise carefully when writing pretty much anything (even a Twitter post) would go a long way toward improving anyone’s writing.

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Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

We do need concise, standardized, well-revised written texts, especially when we are relaying new information, instructing others how to do something, or convincing our professors that we comprehend the fundamental theories of the coursework. That’s not “grammar,” the magical tool that my students think they somehow missed learning in grades K-12, it’s craft, attention, and revision–with a few prescriptive rules, enough to level the ground on which the we lay our communicative foundations.  The rest is work.

 

 

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Process

William Stafford:

A writer is a person who enters into sustained relations with the language for experiment and experience not available in any other way…A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.

Writing is a process that elicits consciousness in the individual writer, often as the writing unfolds. Flannery O’Connor: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Joan Didion: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

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Perhaps oddly–perhaps not–Stafford’s definition that what a writer is comes down to what a writer does bears a certain resemblance to Gerald Edelman‘s “neural Darwinism” theory (ca. 1989 in Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, a more reader-friendly version of models developed in his neural topology trilogy*). Edelman basically says consciousness isn’t a “thing in itself” so much as it is a process that the embodied brain does. The brain’s processing capabilities are individual and endlessly myriad and they operate, claims Edelman, through the re-entry of information in intricately complicated links and physiological systems.  Thus, through evolution’s incremental layering of human beings’ brains, what we call higher-order consciousness makes its appearance.

And then on to gesture, semantics, lexicon, syntax, language, culture, &c.

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Gerald Edelman:

What is daunting about consciousness is that it does not seem to be a matter of behavior. It just is–winking on with the light, multiple and simultaneous in its modes and objects, ineluctably ours. It is a process and one that is hard to score. We know what it is for ourselves but can only judge its existence in others by inference.

…Once a self is developed through social and linguistic interactions on a base of primary consciousness, a world develops that requires naming and intending. This world reflects inner events that are recalled, and imagined events, as well as outside events that are perceptually experienced. Tragedy becomes possible–the loss of the self by death or mental disorder, the remembrance of unassuageable pain. By the same token, a high drama of creation and endless imagination emerges…The wish to go beyond these limits [of embodiment] creates contradiction, fantasy, and a mystique that makes the study of the mind especially challenging; for after a certain point, in its individual creations at least, the mind lies beyond scientific reach…the reason for the limit is straightforward: The forms of embodiment that lead to consciousness are unique in each individual, unique to his or her body and individual history. [italics mine]

To me, this passage–in a book about neural mapping and brain physiology–feels “poetic.” But what do I mean when I say the concept of embodied consciousness, and consciousness as a series of intricate, synthesized processes, coincides with being a writer? Or in my case specifically, a poet?

It has something to do with taking in the world–through the senses, which is all my body’s really got–and synthesizing all those years of experiences, memories, books I’ve read, poems and plays I’ve loved, people I’ve known, relationships with the environment and with human beings and with other creatures, the whole of my personal cosmos. Referents and reentrants. Relationships actual and imagined. “The remembrance of unassuageable pain.” The process of loafing through the world.

Writing, where much of my so-called consciousness dwells. Not in the outcome, the resulting poems or essays, but in the doing.

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More about writing-related processes and politics here: Poet Bloggers


* Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection; Topobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology; The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness.

Friendships

April: a busy time. During my busy times at work or on the home front, I often spend less time with my friends.

The best thing about that is: my friends understand. They will still be there when I crawl out from under whatever has me crushed for time, whether it’s illness, job stress, time-consuming family-related challenges, home maintenance, garden or lawn work, travel, or depression.

[insert here, me, waving to my friends!]

Social media is no substitute, although I confess to using it to keep connections with those I care about. Social media, for example, has been significant in helping me to stay in touch with poetry colleagues; but much as I admire and learn from other writers, they play different roles in my life than friends do. Also, even from the beginning of my Facebook use, I knew the platform essentially was a “me and those like me” social bubble.

The specter of “us vs. them” has raised its snarling head on social media sites ever since the early days of chat rooms. There’s a reason for that, and Natalie Angier of The New York Times reports on some recent findings in this article:

 

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Meanwhile, on the “unalloyed good” side of friendship–The real friend listens, gets busy herself, drops a line now and then if I’ve been absent for awhile, and drops everything if I find myself in difficulties and ask for help.

She or he also shares my brainwaves, apparently–and not just metaphorically! The studies Angier writes about in the article below offer some really intriguing possibilities about human beings as social animals and how our brains work. PubMed.gov lists a large number of research articles that examine the topic of health, neuroscience, and sociability; the interconnectedness strikes me as relevant and fascinating.

 

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Boy, do I love neuroscience! This work synthesizes physical actuality with metaphorical possibilities in ways that inspire me.

Probably, there will be poems. Meanwhile, if you want to watch some brain functions in action, some cool animations: http://www.neuroplastix.com/styled-99/therapeuticanimations.html

 

Bounds against chaos

It is easy, even comfortable, to think of the past as a linear narrative; but that is not actually how brains record and archive our experiences.

Marilyn McCabe notes: “So much of the past is only what we think we know based on what we remember, or think we remember. The past is a fun-house maze of stretchy mirrors and blind corners.”

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The brain and consciousness intertwine through so much complex, possibly fractal, and certainly inter-relational connections that chaos looms as an option all the time; human experience is an edge phenomenon. I have long considered the meadow and forest, the clearing or glade, the hedgerow, the riverbank, ditch, or roadside berm as metaphor for what keeps us curious–interested in life and its inter-relationships, its connectedness and its chaos.

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By complete coincidence, a biologist/blogger posts a poem by Robert Duncan; an excerpt here:

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
Robert Duncan

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Yes. Often I am, myself, permitted to return to a meadow. Pretty much daily, when I’m home. And what I learn there! What the edges and the chaos (and the patterns, and the simplicity) reveal to me!

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As an aside: Dave Bonta writes poetry blog roundups here: https://www.vianegativa.us/2018/04/poet-bloggers-revival-digest-week-14/ Each of the links he posts is worthy of a read.

Dave has even posted his wedding to Rachel Rawlins–video, context, porcupine, open-sourced wedding vows, poems, & all: https://www.vianegativa.us/2018/04/mountain-wedding/

When it’s done well, lived well, marriage can be one of the bounds that hold against chaos, “a place of first permission”–even for anarchists.

Namaste! And keep reading poetry.

Lacunae

With some encouragement from friends and colleagues, and with some trepidation, I am posting for the next few weeks some unfinished poem drafts and some poems from my Red Queen Hypothesis manuscript. That’s the plan, anyway. Plans, especially creative writing plans, seem often to go awry.

Given that my last two posts concern how we tell stories and what interrupts us from our narratives, I present herewith a draft of a poem concerning just that. I experiment here with gaps in form; I think of erasure poems (see Dave Bonta’s erasure poems on Via Negativa or Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration”) though this is not one–the “erasure” here is internal, a series of neurological gaps and stutters.

I don’t know if the poem works as is, could use more tweaking and re-arrangement, or is so confusing as to be far off-base. Perhaps that depends upon the reader.

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Lacunae

Writing self

Among the students I have tutored over the years was a young woman recovering from a traumatic brain injury. Writing was difficult for her on several levels. Reading on the screen or page tired her eyes and made it hard to focus; while using voice-activated software helped for that part of the writing issue, it did not resolve her larger cognitive loss: she found she could no longer tell a story. The ability to tie together research, concepts, and chronological moments to compose a logical narrative evaded her.

As we worked together, I learned how writing can restore the self. She began to reflect, through writing, on her process and her memories and to tether things together on the page so that they “made sense” to me–her sounding board. When something made sense to me, she would re-read it and decide if it reflected what it was she had been trying to say. Gradually, she felt more restored to herself, a slightly altered-by-trauma self, but a cohesive self who could tell a story again.

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When I tutor students who are multilingual, particularly if they are fairly new immigrants here, I find that writing plays a similar role in reflecting or re-creating a self. These students learn to work and write using American English as their mode of persuasive communication, and in the process they develop as people who live in the United States and who consciously employ those terms, phrases, writing techniques, and concepts. They are much more conscious than “native” speakers about the fact that they are using Americanisms and writing in an American style; what they end up with is a self that they can deploy when necessary in American society.

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Brain diseases, strokes, and dementia dismantle the story-telling ability. Whether we use the metaphor of braiding, warp & weft, or nuts & bolts, we mean that story has structure–and in dementia, structure comes undone. With that structural demise all too often comes the unraveling of the self. Each gap weakens the links that give us our own story-made self and leaves the human bereft of that consciousness we rely upon for being. The person whose brain has stopped constructing self stories is no less human, physically; but the self–that sentient, much-valued ego–disappears.

When I am with a hospice patient whose mind has stopped composing narratives, I see that the narrative of pain and envy and sorrow seems to depart. Is there a story that contains only peace? Could that even be a human story?

I don’t know what to make of all of this.

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Sometimes, I wish I had the peace and confidence of a house cat.

Evolution of the neuron

I have just read, albeit slowly, Werner R. Loewenstein’s Physics in Mind: A Quantum View of the Brain. Having finished the book, I can attest I understand his argument even though my grasp of the physics involved is decidedly at the novice level. The last three chapters of the book were what drew me to reading it in the first place–those chapters cap the text with his model of how Evolution (he anthropomorphizes the theory) “chose to design”–in its exemplary, concise way–complex systems that led not just to life but to sentience.

Loewenstein compares neuro/biological processes with computers in terms of their being processors of information from the environments. He seems enthusiastic about computers in general, but he argues that artificial intelligence remains far away from evolving into sentience because consciousness requires many kinds of parallel processing that intersect and interact and filter out information. That complexity, he claims, will be difficult to engineer; yet over eons, the process of evolution accomplished it through a combination of physics, chemistry, and biology.braintrust-small

Loewenstein prioritizes the physics aspect: how electrical pulses in neurons parallel electrical pulses (attraction and repulsion) in atoms, how these behaviors can combine to create compounds or release energy; he uses analogies and spends several chapters on the eye, its neurons and dendrites and cones and rods, to demonstrate how a system of information reception and filtering can occur that relays information to the brain and then back to other information receptors and actors in the body of a worm, bird, or human being. Get enough relay systems going, and sight + touch + smell + hearing + taste evolve into the living animal. At some point, the multiple parallel information systems develop into consciousness (Loewenstein does not speculate where that point occurs–it is still “a mystery,” he admits).

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Douglas Fox, writing in Aeon, quotes neuroscientist Leonid Moroz as saying, “There is more than one way to make a neuron, more than one way to make a brain.” In this fascinating article, Fox follows Moroz’s lengthy study of ctenophores, jellyfish-like creatures about which little is understood–though Moroz and his team of researchers are changing that. At the same time, their work suggests that our previous understanding of brain development is not necessarily the only model out there for how neurons and synapses can get information processed and acted upon to sustain a life. If that life is lived under very different environmental circumstances, maybe evolution might “choose” different paths of systematic information processing (ie, “thinking”).

…when he failed to find common neurotransmitters in ctenophore nerves back in 1995, it wasn’t simply that his tests weren’t working; rather, it was because the animal wasn’t using them in any way. This, says Moroz, was ‘a big surprise’.

‘We all use neurotransmitters,’ he says. ‘From jellyfish to worms, to molluscs, to humans, to sea urchins, you will see a very consistent set of signalling molecules.’ But, somehow, the ctenophore had evolved a nervous system in which these roles were filled by a different, as-yet unknown set of molecules.

Fox poses the researchers’ questions this way: “how divergent can nervous systems be? Do we truly understand how life senses its surroundings and behaves?” Science has generally, post-Darwin, followed a straight-line approach to evolution; but good scientists recognize that sometimes the road less traveled by has made all the difference.

 

Although the very idea of “sentient jellyfish” might appall many people, I wonder what sort of consciousness ctenophores would develop.  🙂