THE MESSICALS OF THE GREAT GOD.

Conrad, who (like Finnegan himself) has risen from the dead, has favored us with a tour-de-farce post that begins with The Plain People of Ireland—I mean to say, Ben Watson—pontificating on how the Wake is not at all the mysterious text bourgeois scholars pretend it is so that they can explicate it with their drafts and their allusions and their hypotheses, not at all, it’s as plain as the nose on your face, if only you have an honest proletarian consciousness! When you “read the Wake to the average person,… not necessarily intellectual, academic types, but just ordinary people with life experience, they get it immediately.” So Conrad takes him at his word and goes out to read the Wake to the average person, with hilarious results (“Unuchorn! Ungulant! Uvuloid! Uskybeak! I barked at a passing Rastafarian, who gave me such a terrifying look that I decided to stick to gentler passages from then on”).
From there he moves to the trope that “the academics have it all wrong, and that we have only to open our eyes to see the truth,” exemplifying it with M. J. Harper’s The History of Britain Revealed, which he bought and read after being enticed by my post about it. He quotes my conclusion “But equivalent nonsense about language is reviewed respectfully, and it makes me despair,” and reassures me as follows: “The fact is, Mr. Hat, nonsense about every subject under the sun has been reviewed respectfully. There’s really no need to despair!” And quite right he is, too. I urge anyone interested in populist blowhards and/or crackpot theories to refresh themselves with Conrad’s sly and unflappable prose.

Comments

  1. Ah, merci!

  2. Pas de quoi, mon vieux! The Dargle shall run dry the sooner I you deny.

  3. As far as nonsense-’x’ goes, it’s hard to beat nonsense-physics. ‘Relativity’, ‘quantum’, and (saints preserve us!), ‘entropy’ are all misused all the time– and with a force and a certainty that leaves linguistics in the dust.

  4. But misused terms are a far cry from complete denial of the basis of the science. It’s more as if everyone but physicists denied the very existence of relativity and entropy and insisted the world was flat, the sun revolved around the earth, and heavy objects fell faster than light ones, because it’s OBVIOUS.

  5. @MattF: don’t forget “chaos” and “nonlinear”.

  6. @dearieme:
    Y’know, I was thinking that mathematics was comparatively nonsense-free, but you’ve got a couple of good ones. ‘Chaos’ and ‘nonlinear’ do show up in physics (both with and without quotes) but I’d flag them as nonsense-mathematics.
    @Hat:
    I suspect there’s some deformation professionelle going on here. It’s the uneasy sensation you get when reading the newspaper and finding that the things you actually know about are always all wrong.

  7. But do you dispute my point that the wrongness is more serious when it comes to language? Believe me, I know how irritating the misuses you’re talking about are—I started out as a math major, and took some pretty advanced physics—but there’s a huge difference between misunderstanding the technical definitions of scientists whose authority you acknowledge and refusing to accept that there is such a thing as a science involved, denigrating the specialists as crusaders out to destroy the language and drag us all down to the level of savages (or whatever it is the prescriptivists are so afraid of).

  8. I’ll agree that it’s unacceptable that M.J.Harper’s Completely Bananas History of the English Language is given prominent display in major bookstores. But Jeremy Rifkin on Entropy isn’t much better.
    As far as prescriptivists go, I think they’re just unnerved by the fathomless and ever-mutating subtleties of everyday language. Their arguments come (IMO) from a need to hold on to something solid, and not so much from a pro- or anti- scientific attitude.

  9. But they constantly attack linguists as destructive elements. It’s not like they basically accept the authority of linguists but get confused about details, or think they go too far, or something. They deny the very validity of linguistics; “linguists” and “descriptivists” are red-flag words like “communists” and “water fluoridation.” I don’t understand it, but there it is.

  10. Pity the biologists, too! They have to put up with the creationist crackpottery, too. They even have movies made about how wrong and EVIL evolution is.

  11. Hat:
    The “special status” of linguistics as a BETE NOIRE from journalists’ or teachers’ point of view strikes me as easily explicable: journalists and teachers enjoy high status in society because of their mastery of the standard, and for them it is natural (and self-serving) to regard the standard as indeed being inherently better/clearer/more logical than non-standard varieties: after all, doesn’t this imply that those who (like them) master the standard are indeed more intelligent/logical/whatever than the unwashed vernacular-speaking masses? From their vantage point linguistics and its core message (standard varieties are not inherently better than non-standard ones) is VERY threatening, in a way physics is not.

  12. Hat:
    The “special status” of linguistics as a BETE NOIRE from journalists’ or teachers’ point of view strikes me as easily explicable: journalists and teachers enjoy high status in society because of their mastery of the standard, and for them it is natural (and self-serving) to regard the standard as indeed being inherently better/clearer/more logical than non-standard varieties: after all, doesn’t this imply that those who (like them) master the standard are indeed more intelligent/logical/whatever than the unwashed vernacular-speaking masses? From their vantage point linguistics and its core message (standard varieties are not inherently better than non-standard ones) is VERY threatening, in a way physics is not.

  13. Hey! I can TALK! I know as much about language as you do!
    Or thoughts to that effect…

  14. mollymooly says:

    I guess for a lot of people, common-sense_schoolroom_grammar is to modern_linguistics what old-time_religion is to wishy-washy_syncretism.
    Turning to abuse of mathematics, I vote for “exponentially”.

  15. IMHO reporters’ abuse of science is exponentially more chaotic when the science in question is a virtually non-linear one, like physics, than when it’s an extrinsically relativistic one, like linguistics. After all, what goes up must come down, and in no field is that more true than in the art and science of correct English punctuation.

  16. rootlesscosmo says:

    “linguists” and “descriptivists” are red-flag words like “communists” and “water fluoridation.”
    Have you ever seen a linguist take a drink of water? Vodka, that’s what they drink, isn’t it?
    You just keep your decriptivist hands off our precious bodily fluids.

  17. rootlesscosmo says:

    Aargh… “deScriptivist.”

  18. John Emerson says:

    In everything close to individual experience there will be people who insist on their own theories. Language and all social sciences are examples, but one that just popped into my head was a moderately successful dog-breeder I knew who’d go on and on about his ludicrous ideas on genetics.

  19. John Emerson says:

    In everything close to individual experience there will be people who insist on their own theories. Language and all social sciences are examples, but one that just popped into my head was a moderately successful dog-breeder I knew who’d go on and on about his ludicrous ideas on genetics.

  20. Oh, sure, there are crackpots everywhere, but when it comes to language, practically everyone who hasn’t studied linguistics is a crackpot. That makes it very hard to have serious discussions.

  21. John Emerson says:

    Fine words from a Darvidian-denialist, Hat!

  22. John Emerson says:

    Fine words from a Darvidian-denialist, Hat!

  23. michael farris says:

    Hey, I’m not anti-Dravidian, I’m a Dravidian-realist.

  24. Pity the biologists, too! They have to put up with the creationist crackpottery, too. They even have movies made about how wrong and EVIL evolution is.
    This is true, but there is an important difference. Biological crackpottery is indeed a major problem (and today is the day the propaganda film opens for paying audiences), but it tends not to get much support from serious journalists. Even Fox News agrees about how awful the film is. Linguistic crackpottery, by contrast, tends to get written up in serious newspapers and magazines.

  25. SnowLeopard says:

    I think part of the problem is that people have a hard time imagining the practical impact of linguistics on their daily lives — other than the assumption that they intimidate others and are killjoys at cocktail parties. Math can predict and “prove” “things”, physics brings us a thinner television sets, biology is dimly connected to medicine, they have the internet on computers now, and so on. But the average person probably assumes that linguists (a) make children cry; (b) Are Fluent In All Languages; and (c) where is that Star Trek universal translator, anyway? As a result, they may tend to assume that linguistics is highly politicized and unscientific, in the same way that political science is politics but not “science”, anthropology is imperialism by another name, sociology is political science for liberals, economists, chiropractors, and psychologists are all quacks with different licenses, and the practice of law empowers bullies, liars, and cheats. If the answer to a question is perceived to be political, as in the above (a creeping field in these anti-intellectual times), then accuracy and methodology tend to take a back seat to glib slogans, smug sneers, and sanctimonious posturing.

  26. You may have something there, SnowLeopard. I’ll have to cogitate upon that.

  27. When people have a hard time imagining the practical impact of linguistics on their daily lives, I tell them that it’s linguists who make video games talk. Works on the young, anyway.

  28. Richard Hershberger says:

    I too was seduced into buying M.J. Harper’s magnum opus. I enjoy a good piece of crankery, but found this one disappointing. Harper is a crank, but a lazy one. He doesn’t know enough about his subject to fake it well.
    Compare this with Holy Blood, Holy Grail (still pulling in royalties a quarter century after first publication!) It is complete bollocks, but it starts plausibly and builds upward. Someone with a decent amateur knowledge of history could read the part linking the Masons with the Templars and be persuaded. There are impressive footnotes, and the gaps in the chain of logic are disguised. The book builds on this credibility toward its real lunacy. I can only stand back and admire.
    This is, however, a lot of work. Harper doesn’t put anything like this much effort into his crankery. It is all quite vague, and he barely even tries to disguise his misrepresentations of standard scholarship. The result is that anyone who has even a superficial knowledge of historical linguistics will realize what he is doing.
    He is also far too slapdash about the gaps in his reasoning. He has a digression about Beowulf. Digressions can be used to good effect. You go off on a tangent for a few pages with some entertaining aside, and return to you main argument a few steps advanced from where you left off. This can be an effective smokescreen. But in his digression about Beowulf he explains that it is a Tudor forgery, making the argument that it is only found in one manuscript, which was “discovered”, and this is utterly implausible. The trouble is that it is actually pretty easy to imagine this sort of thing happening, which leaves the reader wondering if perhaps Harper isn’t a bit dim.
    He has a website which is mostly message boards, mostly private, and apparently dead. But there is a public section: http://www.applied-epistemology.org/foundation.html. It is worth a look, for those who enjoy such things.
    In the meantime, I note my all-time favorite crankery: http://www.amazon.com/Origin-Consciousness-Breakdown-Bicameral-Mind/dp/0618057072. Before such a work I can only stand in humility and awe.

  29. Jaynes’ book is clearly a masterpiece.

  30. John Emerson says:

    Recent research disproves the cockamamie theory in Holy Blood, Holy Grail:
    The Templars’ Secret Island

    Does the remote Baltic island of Bornholm hold the key to an ancient secret? A secret that links it to the enigmatic village of Rennes-le-Chateau in the French Pyrennes and the tunnels beneath Mount Sion in Jerusalem? What is its connection with the Templar Knights, and what were they trying to hide on such a distant isle? THE TEMPLARS’ SECRET ISLAND is a journey of awe-inspiring breadth and complexity, a journey that spans Europe and reaches into ancient Palestine, that first takes us thousands of years into the past and then back to our own time. It is a journey that casts new light on some of the most important enigmas of modern science.

  31. John Emerson says:

    Recent research disproves the cockamamie theory in Holy Blood, Holy Grail:
    The Templars’ Secret Island

    Does the remote Baltic island of Bornholm hold the key to an ancient secret? A secret that links it to the enigmatic village of Rennes-le-Chateau in the French Pyrennes and the tunnels beneath Mount Sion in Jerusalem? What is its connection with the Templar Knights, and what were they trying to hide on such a distant isle? THE TEMPLARS’ SECRET ISLAND is a journey of awe-inspiring breadth and complexity, a journey that spans Europe and reaches into ancient Palestine, that first takes us thousands of years into the past and then back to our own time. It is a journey that casts new light on some of the most important enigmas of modern science.

  32. Seems ridiculously unfair to put Jaynes in the same ranks as real cranks such as Harper, Rifkin or creationists. Jaynes theory is probably unprovable and certainly a little out there but it doesn’t radically contradict anything we currently know about neuroscience, biology or evolution. It’s more on the level of the “aquatic ape” theory – an intriguing theory that would explain quite a lot if it were true, but for which there just isn’t any evidence.

  33. John Emerson says:

    Erm….. apparently “disproves” should read “proves”.

  34. John Emerson says:

    Erm….. apparently “disproves” should read “proves”.

  35. Doug Sundseth says:

    For sheer volume of vitriol, accusations of dishonesty and corruption, and lack of intellectual seriousness, I think the diatribes aimed at medical chemistry are unmatched.
    “Vaccines cause autism.”
    “The pharmaceutical companies are hiding the good drugs so they can make money off the palliatives.”
    “They’re all just dirty price gougers.”
    FWIW, I’m in an entirely different industry; this isn’t special pleading. I just get really angry at people who are trying to destroy an industry that has helped most of us many times.

  36. Compare this with Holy Blood, Holy Grail
    Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed that book. If you’re going to distort history to make a buck, that’s the way to go! Remember, folks, entertainment combined with plausible pseudohistory works better than pure balderdash.

Speak Your Mind

*