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The Kingdom Of Speech by Tom Wolfe

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The Kingdom of Speech
by Tom Wolfe
Little, Brown and Company. 169 pages (2016)

While some have identified this book as an assault on Darwinism, it is more appropriate to view The Kingdom Of Speech as a critique of the arrogance of science in drawing broad conclusions from scant evidence.

Wolfe approaches this topic by looking at the sub-discipline which inspired the title of the book, linguistics; specifically, he targets Chomsky-era “theoretical” linguistics in which academics invented conjectural theories and then defended them against actual evidence that refuted their assumptions. This was achieved when anthropologist Daniel Everett studied the Pirahã people of the Amazon rainforest and found that their language lacked a key Chomskian trait, recursivity.

That revelation in turn provoked another: language was not, as asserted, an inherent structure that arose from evolution itself, but a human tool for understanding the world, and it does not have a single structure shared among all people, or a universal structure. Universal structures support the idea that all humans are basically the same and suggests they share an origin; arbitrary structures show that humans are widely different and think in vastly different ways.

Everett didn’t so much attack Chomsky’s theory as dismiss it. He spoke of Chomsky’s “waning influence” and the mounting evidence that Chomsky was wrong when he called language “innate.” Language had not evolved from …anything. It was just an artifact. Just as man had taken natural materials, namely wood and metal, and combined them to create the ax, he had taken natural sounds and put them together in the form of codes representing objects, actions and ultimately, thoughts and calculations — and called the codes words. (141)

This point cannot be stressed enough: Wolfe has discovered Nihilism of the kind discussed in this journal. Language is arbitrary, or at least begins arbitrarily, and is an invention of humanity, not the other way around. It is a tool. It has no innate worth other than the fact that two or more people can use it to communicate. And as Nietzsche discovered, it is also a powerful weapon that can destroy good things:

But because man, out of need and boredom, wants to exist socially, herd-fashion, he requires a peace pact and he endeavors to banish at least the very crudest bellum omni contra omnes [war of all against all] from his world. This peace pact brings with it something that looks like the first step toward the attainment of this enigmatic urge for truth. For now that is fixed which henceforth shall be “truth”; that is, a regularly valid and obligatory designation of things is invented, and this linguistic legislation also furnishes the first laws of truth: for it is here that the contrast between truth and lie first originates. The liar uses the valid designations, the words, to make the unreal appear as real; he says, for example, “I am rich,” when the word “poor” would be the correct designation of his situation. He abuses the fixed conventions by arbitrary changes or even by reversals of the names. When he does this in a self-serving way damaging to others, then society will no longer trust him but exclude him. Thereby men do not flee from being deceived as much as from being damaged by deception: what they hate at this stage is basically not the deception but the bad, hostile consequences of certain kinds of deceptions. In a similarly limited way man wants the truth: he desires the agreeable life-preserving consequences of truth, but he is indifferent to pure knowledge, which has no consequences; he is even hostile to possibly damaging and destructive truths. And, moreover, what about these conventions of language? Are they really the products of knowledge, of the sense of truth? Do the designations and the things coincide? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?

Only through forgetfulness can man ever achieve the illusion of possessing a “truth” in the sense just designated. If he does not wish to be satisfied with truth in the form of a tautology—that is, with empty shells—then he will forever buy illusions for truths. What is a word? The image of a nerve stimulus in sounds. But to infer from the nerve stimulus, a cause outside us, that is already the result of a false and unjustified application of the principle of reason. If truth alone had been the deciding factor in the genesis of language, and if the standpoint of certainty had been decisive for designations, then how could we still dare to say “the stone is hard,” as if “hard” were something otherwise familiar to us, and not merely a totally subjective stimulation! We separate things according to gender, designating the tree as masculine and the plant as feminine. What arbitrary assignments! How far this oversteps the canons of certainty! We speak of a “snake”: this designation touches only upon its ability to twist itself and could therefore also fit a worm. What arbitrary differentiations! What one-sided preferences, first for this, then for that property of a thing! The different languages, set side by side, show that what matters with words is never the truth, never an adequate expression; else there would not be so many languages. The “thing in itself” (for that is what pure truth, without consequences, would be) is quite incomprehensible to the creators of language and not at all worth aiming for. One designates only the relations of things to man, and to express them one calls on the boldest metaphors. A nerve stimulus, first transposed into an image—first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by a sound—second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one. One can imagine a man who is totally deaf and has never had a sensation of sound and music. Perhaps such a person will gaze with astonishment at Chladni’s sound figures; perhaps he will discover their causes in the vibrations of the string and will now swear that he must know what men mean by “sound.” It is this way with all of us concerning language; we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things—metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities. In the same way that the sound appears as a sand figure, so the mysterious X of the thing in itself first appears as a nerve stimulus, then as an image, and finally as a sound. Thus the genesis of language does not proceed logically in any case, and all the material within and with which the man of truth, the scientist, and the philosopher later work and build, if not derived from never-never land, is a least not derived from the essence of things.

Wolfe explores this idea through a volume that is mostly historical, describing first the clash between Darwin and other competitors for the idea of natural selection, and then how that failed to explain language and this drove the rise of Chomsky and the theoretical linguists. The book then detours into the explorations of Daniel Everett and how these refuted the prevailing Chomskian regime, and how nastily and dishonestly that regime fought back.

The Kingdom Of Speech shows Wolfe at his most palatable. Starting with I Am Charlotte Simmons, a type of plain-spoken low-adornment speech crept into his usual bombastic writing, and here it flowers with mostly potent descriptive language bursting into occasional bits of what we might call “song.” Wolfe waxes lyrical with new expansiveness, bringing in cultural and political fragments as metaphor indirectly, giving his writing more of a broad halo of context than a straight narrative could allow.

In the end analysis, the attacks on Darwinism in this book are not attacks on Darwinism, but on its interpretation. Wolfe indirectly asserts parallels between the Chomskians and the Darwinians, pointing out that more is unknown than known, and that theoretical extrapolation is most frequently wildly, hilariously, and absurdly wrong. This allows his main topic to rise in an evanescent fashion from the center of his argument, which is nothing is universal nor inherent; these are merely things that occurred ad hoc as humanity struggled to evolve and then understand itself.

Following on his discussions of homo loquax from earlier works, Wolfe shows us how language is a weapon — and the Chomskians are exhibit A. He hints that their insistence on universalism in language was a method of backdooring egalitarianism into science, when no such assumption can be proven or has foundation. In his view, language when viewed as a tool becomes something more like combat than an expression of some inward truth shared between all humans:

Only speech gives man the power to dream up religions and gods to animate them…and in six extraordinary cases to change history — for centuries — with words alone, without money or political backing. The names of the six are Jesus, Muhammad (whose military power came only after twenty years of preaching), John Calvin, Marx, Freud — and Darwin. And this, rather than any theory, is what makes Darwin the monumental figure that he is. (165)

Careful readers will note that this is not Wolfe attacking Darwin, but pointing out that Darwinism as a concept has power far greater than science. It is a political statement and a social one, even religious if one views it as a replacement for religion. In the Wolfeian analysis, language dictates history, and the concepts in it have the ability to subjugate others and bend them to the will of whatever intention directs those concepts, which leads us to wonder if communication and manipulation are not one and the same.

His timing is fortuitous. Across the globe, a general backlash against universalism has begun that very likely will be as profound as the changes wrought by Darwinism. For example, in a parallel event to the research of Daniel Everett, researchers have found that human facial expressions are not universal, just as language is not, by finding an exception to the rule:

When you’re smiling, it may feel like the whole world is smiling with you, but a new study suggests that some facial expressions may not be so universal. In fact, several expressions commonly understood in the West—including one for fear—have very different meanings to one indigenous, isolated society in Papua New Guinea. The new findings call into question some widely held tenets of emotional theory, and they may undercut emerging technologies, like robots and artificial intelligence programs tasked with reading people’s emotions.

For more than a century, scientists have wondered whether all humans experience the same basic range of emotions—and if they do, whether they express them in the same way. In the 1870s, it was the central question Charles Darwin explored in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. By the 1960s, emeritus psychologist Paul Ekman, then at the University of California (UC) in San Francisco, had come up with an accepted methodology to explore this question. He showed pictures of Westerners with different facial expressions to people living in isolated cultures, including in Papua New Guinea, and then asked them what emotion was being conveyed. Ekman’s early experiments appeared conclusive. From anger to happiness to sadness to surprise, facial expressions seemed to be universally understood around the world, a biologically innate response to emotion.

In this case, what was assumed to be true of all humans turned out not to be, which causes us to reassess the idea of universality in itself, and brings up other challenging ideas like parallel evolution, if we assume that our traits cause us to make facial expressions in a certain way. Or perhaps like language, it is random, given that there are only a certain number of distinctive facial expressions that can be used to communicate.

To read more deeply into the topic introduced in this book, Wolfe writes about linguistic hacking, or the use of language to re-program other people to do the will of the speaker, especially if it is disguised through the use of categories to shape our understanding of the relationships between objects, or causes and effects. This idea comes to prominence in his analysis of Darwinism.

Like Chomsky’s idea of universal language, Darwinian natural selection is an idea so well entrenched in the scientific community that it is viewed as beyond assailing. Wolfe, who is an atheist, describes science — but even more importantly, the views of certain scientists — as a new religion which controls our thought as much as the words of Jesus or Mohammad are influential. In particular, Darwinism gives us a bias toward the present tense and our own civilization as it is now, because whatever exists now must have happened through natural selection, and therefore is as close to “good” as we will admit anything is.

Wolfe has made a career of crushing sacred cows and sacrificing popular idols. With The Kingdom Of Speech, he takes on the cornerstones of modernity itself: that our interpretation of Darwinism that favors our current state is correct, that people really are the same everywhere, and that humanity was shaped by external forces like language instead of inventing these things to help itself grow. Reading between the lines, he is tackling the myth of progress itself.

For a short book, and one in which most of the text is narrative, The Kingdom Of Speech packs a heck of a punch. There is plenty to think about here, and as usual Wolfe has zoomed in on the nexus of support structures which holds up our present-day self-conception. These attributes guarantee it a place in history, but it also provides a fast and enjoyable read for those who like seeing finer logic defeat popular ideas.

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