Yesterday I had the kind of intellectual good luck that often occurs in a big city with really cheap used book stores – stores like the Book-Off in Akihabara, where I picked up the 2008 “Best American Science and Nature Writing” for 200 yen (about U$2.50). When I got home I settled down with a thimbleful of Kirin Fujisan whisky (not bad) and started into John Colapinto’s “The Interpreter,” originally published in The New Yorker. The article centers on the ongoing doctrinal struggle in linguistics between supporters of Universal Grammar, led by Noam Chomsky, and its upstart opponents. Universal Grammar is the idea that language ability is genetically coded, uniquely human, and, like the name says, universal – that is, unchanging in its basic nature across human populations. Those arguing against universal grammar are represented in the article by Dan Everett, who has spent a quarter-century studying the Piraha tribe along the Amazon. The Piraha, Everett argues, speak a language so unrelated to others, and with such a profoundly altering effect on their cultural character, that they defy the ‘universal’ part of universal grammar. Everett’s most profound observation is that the Piraha have little concept of the future or past, with limited collective memory or sense of history, and are unable to speak about anything outside of immediate sense experience. The basic stance of Everett and his allies is a version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – the idea that a cultural tendency to not think in abstractions is reflected and reinforced by the Piraha language’s lack of color terms, quantifiers, or numbers.
The debate is more profound than its limited academic scope might suggest.
What Chomsky is arguing is that, linguistically, all humans are essentially the same, with apparent variation just a matter of surface appearance. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, by contrast, argues that language, rather than an obscuring detail that conceals a deeper universality, is an index of radical difference between cultures. And both theories believe that language is more than just language – that it’s linked to our essential natures, not just as ‘humans,’ but as individuals. The really remarkable think about the Piraha, it turns out, is not just the fact that their numbering system consists only of terms for “few,” “more,” and “many,” but that after at least a half-century of sustained contact with the outside world, they have not come to behave, speak, or think in different ways, despite efforts to teach them Portuguese. Everett argues that they are deeply uninterested in anything outside of their own culture, in such a lasting and powerful way that the attitude seems unchangeable even over time. No argument is made about genetic difference – a Piraha child could, Everett insists, be taken out of the jungle at an early age and become behaviorally integrated into any society. But their language and culture have somehow embedded something so deeply in them that, as long as that cultural context remains intact, it is unshakeable.
The debate parallels that between Johann Fichte and Baruch Spinoza in the 18th century. Spinoza was a naturalist, believing that God was the only being in existence acting purely from the necessity of his own nature. Spinoza’s God was Aristotle’s Prime Mover, in relation to which every other event followed – including all human action. Fichte, on the other hand, argued for the ability of the self to create itself, and its entire world – maybe one of the most powerful concepts of the Western enlightenment (For all this, Frederick Beiser’s Hegel is amazing). We can see Chomsky here as a Spinozist, with Universal Grammar as a God-given common human feature; Everett and the Whorfians, on the other hand, seem to follow Fichte, pursuing some absolutely ineluctable grain within a particular language. Of course, the equation can be flipped easily enough, for the Whorfians also seem to argue that the seed planted by language, long before we are individuals capable of making choices, is inescapable for the individual, while the Chomskian framework offers the potential for motion and change between and across groups (There are parallels here with Lacanian psychoanalytic linguistics, which I’ll spare you).
In either interpretation, though, what is at stake is the possibility of human freedom. While Fichte and Spinoza posited the human against Nature or God as a context of creation and control, we now live in such a human-haunted world that we must define freedom against the influence of language, or more broadly, culture. We are so constantly limited and guided by one another’s ideas, by the images of art or advertising, that we can feel like nothing but the creation of others. While there are plenty of good sociological and philosophical reasons to think that’s not such a bad thing, it’s not surprising that we struggle with the sensation, particularly in the West, where Fichte’s individualism remains a powerful ideal.
But the stakes are high everywhere now, thanks to the global circulation of culture – globalization simultaneously installs the ideal of self-creation in ever broader contexts, and constantly challenges the possibility of its achievement. It is troubling enough to think that what I consider my ‘self’ – the way that I think, the things that I value, the actions that I take – is merely the product of the culture in which I was born and raised. What can I make of the possibility that I am not even the product of that culture, but born from pollen carried from far away on the winds of digital transmission?
The reason that I do “cultural studies” – and I mean that more in the general sense than in its association with a particular tradition of writing and thought – and the reason I am interested in global culture specifically, is that it is an experimental model for the confrontation between our passion for self-creation and the constant spectre of its impossibility. We live in conditions of global culture, and it is up to us, individually and collectively, to figure out how to craft a stable self – something that organizes our actions and experiences coherently. Part of this process is fully conscious and strategic, and there are two easily spotted tendencies, of which I suspect the ideas of Chomsky and Everett are closer to symptoms than descriptions. In Japan, you have the nationalists, those who pin their identities to something like the kernel that Everett finds in the Piraha – something completely different from the corresponding core of other cultures. Amazingly, this way of thinking does not mean rejecting foreign culture – it just means rejecting the idea that it actually affects one’s essential cultural grounding. On the other hand, there are the cosmopolitans, those who, not unlike Chomsky, believe that there is a universal grammar of culture, that the ingredients are all shared and the structures comprehensible across what they view as essentially artificial boundaries of national, racial, or ethnic groups. For people with this set of values, the culture they consume represents a truly free choice about who they are, often explicitly in rejection of what they see as narrow essentialisms.
But just as Fichte and Spinoza’s positions were mutually incompatible and, ultimately, separately unsatisfying, I think there has to be more to it than these two points on opposed ends of the spectrum. If we approach the problem from our own experience, we have to admit that both sides have a point – we all feel some connection to groups, and we also feel the draw of the exotic and individual. The most responsible and sophisticated thinkers about culture and globalization really are trying to square the circle, but we haven’t really broken through to the next paradigm yet, and those doing everyday administrative research on globalization tend to fall too neatly into one camp or the other. Within academia, obviously cosmopolitan liberalism reigns, but it’s of a very weird and self-conflicted sort that also sees individuals as pretty much the sum of their cultural parts. The question of the origins of the cosmopolitan liberal individual – the acting subject able to make all these free and self-creating choices in the global marketplace – remains mostly unanswered.
Harold Bloom finds part of the problem in the so-called School of Resentment, the academic drive to reduce the human strictly to the dimensions of cultural circumstance. He, by contrast, lists to the other side, towards a belief in individual exceptionalism and even traditionally-defined genius, concepts that have been largely abandoned because they seem authoritarian to most post-Marxists, but that I think philosophers of the human have a responsibility to keep sight of. At least for me, it’s the whole point of the enterprise – finding the people who are what they wish to be, and pointing toward the possible world in which we could all emulate them. We are born into identities – linguistic, national, ethnic – and I don’t think I’ve yet encountered a satisfying answer as to how we bring those inevitabilities with us into a free future.