Category Archives: Language

“White Negros” and hipsters

From Ulrich Adelt’s Blues Music in the Sixties: A Story in Black and White:

The complex identification of white people with black sounds has a longstanding tradition, as many scholars have traced. A key text to understanding white appropriations of blackness is Norman Mailer’s glowing description of the “White Negro”: a term that Paul Verlaine had introduced to characterize fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud. In his 1958 essay, Mailer equated the appropriation of black culture (in particular jazz spontaneity) with being a hipster, a view also apparent in many writings of the 1950s Beat Generation, like those of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. A few years earlier, Franz Fanon had vividly described what he saw as the alienation of black men in the face of white oppression. In an astonishing role reversal, Mailer envisioned black men as something real to aspire to in the face of white alienation. The White Negro drew mixed reactions after its publication. While James Baldwin criticized what he saw as Mailers sexual insecurity and romanticism, Eldridge Cleaver aligned Mailer’s hedonistic fantasies of primitivized masculinity with his own and connected the White Negro to student protests at the University of California at Berkeley.

Here is the wiki on The White Negro.

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Words that should be in the National Spelling Bee

Burahara: discrimination by blood group (unique to Japan). Link here.

H/T: Marginal Revolution


Margaret Atwood on Twitter

From The Guardian:

So what’s it all about, this Twitter? Is it signalling, like telegraphs? Is it Zen poetry? Is it jokes scribbled on the washroom wall? Is it John Hearts Mary carved on a tree? Let’s just say it’s communication, and communication is something human beings like to do.

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‘Zero Nominalization’

From the NYT:

Yes and no can accrue symbolic heft through what linguists call “zero nominalization,” whereby a noun is created from some other part of speech without adding a typical suffix like –ness or –ation. Nouny versions of yes and no have enjoyed quite a ride from the political class, but they also get plenty of play in pop culture. On the positive side of the ledger, Wendy Macleod’s play and subsequent movie adaptation “The House of Yes” tells the story of an entitled rich girl who will not be denied. Maria Dahvana Headley’s 2006 memoir of a year spent accepting dates from any man who asked her out is titled, naturally enough, “The Year of Yes.”


On Life Imitating Art

A discussion about Lincoln to be perhaps posted later pushed me to a secondary realization: the common trope about art imitating life is wrongly conceptualized. It is the case that art in the creation and experience is a human experience, and trying to distinguish human experience from human experience is silly.


A Financial Crisis of Metaphor

Peter Phillips, an economist with the University of Southern Queensland, Australia, writes:

Financial economics is a peculiar case. It is not necessarily new facts and experiences that emerge, having previously been unknown, to initiate a revision of the metaphorical models constituting the prevailing orthodoxy but a rising to the surface of elements of the financial economic reality that had been pushed aside—though they were always known to exist. The prevailing orthodoxy within the category of knowledge known as financial economics has pushed aside a very large number of the features of the financial economic reality and emphasised those features which are amenable to the construction of mathematical metaphors. The creation of further metaphor within metaphor on this basis further distanced the models of the prevailing orthodoxy from the financial economic reality it once sought to explain. The financial crisis has highlighted the distance that has been placed between the mathematical-metaphorical models of financial economics and the financial economic reality. The interaction of individuals, firms, banking institutions and governments, each attempting to salvage their careers, positions, liquidity, solvency and credibility, may be observed on a daily basis and has no analogue within the structure of the prevailing orthodoxy of modern financial economics. Yet it is the financial crisis that highlights this and brings these elements to the foreground when once they were relegated to the background. This is a financial crisis of metaphor.

The article is ungated on SSRN, here. I found the article to have a very interesting and fairly sophisticated discussion of specific mathematical models and how specific metaphors functioned, though it feels that the main argument is made a little too repetitively.

I did not (until recently) find much of this strain of thought reflected in economic writings, or at least in most of the curricular texts I’ve read. But these ideas are not new; they are described particularly well in the writings of Umberto Eco (Travels in Hyperreality) and the work of French theorist Jean Baudrillard. I am skeptical of a number of the deeper psychological conclusions critical theorists come to and especially in the ways in which Marxist theory seems to infect all strains of critical or cultural theory, but there is much of value to be found in understanding the ways in which metaphors serve to both enhance and degrade our understanding of reality.

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Great Lines in Economics, Vincent Ostrom Edition

It would be more accurate to call them paragraphs, actually, but this interview excerpt from Vincent Ostrom perfectly articulates an argument that I’ve made for a long time: that at the end of the day, a critically important feature of human institutions and interactions is that they are defined by complexity and nuance and that monolithic conceptions based on those interactions or institutions (like “socialism” and “capitalism”) are are intellectually straitjacketing. Worth your while:

Probably the best way to characterize our approach would be to start with one of our most influential themes: the idea that broad concepts such as “markets” and “states”, or “socialism” and “capitalism”, do not take us very far in thinking about patterns of order in human society. For example, when some “market” economists speak of “capitalism”, they fail to distinguish between an open, competitive market economy and a state-dominated mercantile economy. In this, they follow Marx. He argued that “capitalism” has a competitive dynamic that leads to market domination by a few large monopoly or monopoly-like enterprises. But what Marx called “capitalism”, Adam Smith called “mercantilism”. Similarly, many authors who write about “capitalism” fail to recognize the complexity of capitalist economic institutions. They overlook the rich structures of communal and public enterprises in societies with open and highly competitive market economies.

Instead, we should expect to find some combination of market and non-market structures in every society, and we should recognize the complex configuration of institutions behind labels such as “capitalism”. We might usefully think about combinations of private and public economies existing side by side. However, it’s important to stress that not all forms of public enterprise are, or need to be, state-owned and operated. Markets are diverse and complex entities. Markets for different types of goods and services may take on quite different characteristics. Some may work well under the most impersonal conditions. Others may depend upon personal considerations involving high levels of trust among trading partners. In other words, the options are much greater than we imagine, and we can see this is true if we don’t allow our minds to be trapped within narrowly constrained intellectual horizons.

A later edit or post will talk about my experiences coming to this line of thought through the rich world of critical literature.

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Words from Nabokov

Some words I found in Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: fubsy, joggle, glebe, harridan, lavabo, crepitated, oriflamme.

Next week: love words.

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Controlling the Debate

Every good debater knows the importance of controlling the argumentative ground. The basic theory is that if you’re able to control the framework and parameters that the debate happens in, you’re in pretty good shape. Part of that is not just having the right argument but controlling the semantic ground available. Take for instance the ridiculous debate over gay marriage. Social conservatives spin this debate in profoundly anti-intellectual and discriminatory ways, linking the advent of gay marriage to everything from pedophilia to the end of civilization as we know it.

I choose to reframe this debate. Because the debate over gay marriage is really not a debate over gay marriage. It’s an argument about basic human freedoms: the right to enter into private, legally binding contracts. And this is a powerful argument against conservatives, because it exposes the fundamental flaw in their mindless opposition to gay marriage. Conservatives, after all, draw a large chunk of their ideology from legitimate libertarian ideas about property rights and the freedom to enter into fundamental contractual relationships, like the freedom to trade with other people. Framed this way, opposition to gay marriage is really an authoritarian viewpoint because it says government can exclude people from entering into specific contracts. And you get to access powerful arguments about the role and nature of government itself as additional offense; for instance, instead of debating over whether homosexuality is “natural” or not you get to talk about why we have government at all and what liberty means. Essentially, you get to out-right the right-wingers by taking powerful affirmative stances on property rights and the role of government as the enforcer of basic rights.

It’s a well known fact that the GOP is losing market share and my thesis is essentially that a large part of it is the irrelevant focus on social issues. Young people in particular are very sensitive to these issues: we understand that there are far more important things that government should be doing (ending genocide in Darfur, restructuring the nation’s economic architecture, etc) and don’t understand why Republicans seem to care more about protecting the sanctity of marriage in a world where close to half of marriages end in divorce anyway.

So. Control the semantics, you control the debate. Easy win.

EDIT: Just came across this sound byte on Kelo vs. New London from the indomitable head of the Republican Party, thrice divorced Rush Limbaugh:

“There’s an added element to it, and that is the importance — maybe even of more importance than the right to free speech — of the right to own property in a free country,” Rush said. “Without the right to own property, even with the right of free speech, you don’t have a free country — not when the government can come in and take whatever they want whenever they want it, not pay you anything for it or very little for it, and give it to somebody else or use it themselves.”

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Google Changes Everything, India Edition

Fresh from the Google Blog:

Until now, there hasn’t been a good way to send email to friends and family in Hindi, my native language and their language of choice. That’s why I’m happy to announce a new feature for Gmail that lets you type email in Indian languages. If you’re in India, this feature is enabled by default. If not, you’ll need to turn it on in the “Language” section under Settings. Once enabled, just click the Indian languages icon and type words in the way they sound in English — Gmail will automatically convert them to their Indian language equivalent.

They now support Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Malayalam (the native tongue of my father’s side of the family in Kerala). Note that these languages tend to be spoken in the south, particularly Malayalam and Tamil, two of the most prominent languages in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Kerala particularly is the most literate and educated state in India as well as the only place that I know of that has ever had a democratically elected communist government. Keep in mind Kerala communism is intrinsically different from regular communism, which I put down to major differences in the structure and nature of Indian society.

Imagine a world where communicative barriers are so low as to be practically non-existent. It’s kind of like a reverse Tower of Babel effect.
Related thought: It seems to me that places like Kerala are extraordinarily fertile places for studies of political and micro-political behavior. Is it true for instance that certain political behaviors are more characteristic of large, densely populated places? And what effects do cultural differences have? Most of the work in political science that I know of uses datasets culled from Western populations; it would seem to me that some extremely valuable insights could be found.