Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Terminal Deferment . . .

Jorge Luis Borges
In a Hotel of the Universe of This Curse

Eli Park Sorensen has written another interesting column for The Korea Herald: "The gigantic, confusing library of the universe" (December 24, 2012). This time, he meditates on a writer who has fascinated me since I first read "The Library of Babel" at age 19, though I could, at that tender age, scarcely grasp its meaning. It is a rich text, as Sorensen reminds us:
Jorge Luis Borges imagines the universe as a gigantic library, consisting of an indefinite number of hexagonal rooms, each filled with rows of books. "Each book," writes Borges, "is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are in black color." Most of the text inside the books, however, consists of sequences of letters utterly incomprehensible and unreadable to the people inhabiting this mysterious library. Occasionally, some have made valuable discoveries of fragments of meaningful text; but "for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherence."

Who created this library -- let alone authored the books -- no one knows. For a long time, the inhabitants believed that these enigmatic books were written in old, forgotten languages. But since some of the books consist of only one or two letters, the language theory is eventually rejected. Finally, a librarian makes the deduction that the library is total - that everything which can possibly be expressed in any language at any time throughout history, every possible linguistic combination, is contained in these books. "Everything," writes Borges; "the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels' autobiographies, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue" -- and so on.
This library is a confusing farrago of the senseless and the meaningful, the stochastic and the orderly, the chance and the regular -- a bibliographication of the atoms and their swerve! Everything seems to repeat almost as though Nietzsche's eternal recurrence had congealed from temporal to spatial -- a point that one can ambiguously take, pausing either before or after "almost."

Sorensen himself goes on to make a number of interesting points, but I want to focus on his initial couple of points, which follow his above summary on Borges's story:
Borges' hilarious story illustrates an uncanny dimension of language; that our language has a limit, which in effect limits what we may say and think about the world. That is, language is essentially a vast, but finite, system of different signs and codes which in various combinations generate meanings, albeit not by referring to something outside the system, but rather from within the system itself -- between the different signs. Using a dictionary to understand the meaning of a particular word, for example, will lead to other words; these words, in turn, lead to new words, and so on. Somewhere between these words, meaning temporarily resides. However, the meaning -- of things, objects, phenomena -- is never permanently fixed, but constantly slides, or is deferred, along an interminable chain of signifiers.
First, Sorensen catches me by surprise by affirming that the story implies a finite universe of discourse. I had thought that by "indefinite number of hexagonal rooms," he meant an unbounded number, indicating that there is always 'room' for one more section of books, a bit like Hilbert's paradox of the Grand Hotel, a hypothetical building with an infinite number of rooms, each of them occupied, yet the hotel always accommodates more guests by moving the guests residing in the first room into the second room, those in the second room into the third room, those in the third room into the fourth room, and so on endlessly (suggesting that Mary and Joseph ought to have tried Hilbert's Hotel in Bethlehem).

But perhaps I've not quite understood. Maybe Sorensen means that language is finite, but the universe is infinite because every book occurs infinitely many times. Yet, if I recall, Borges doesn't state quite that, for he speaks of books that differ only by a letter or a comma, not books that are identical, nor does Sorensen say this either. Perhaps I'd better re-read Borges . . . or talk to Sorensen.

Second, Sorensen makes a point often found in Continental philosophy and Critical Theory, namely, that the meaning of a word is interminably deferred because checking a dictionary leads only to further words, which lead to more words, leading to other words -- in other words, endless deferral of meaning. But I think that there's a problem with this picture of how we seek meaning. Allow me to explain by drawing upon a point made by Jennifer Robertson in her article "Robots of the Rising Sun" (The American Interest, Volume VI, Number 1, Autumn (September/October) 2010):
What distinguished Japanese robotics early on -- and now almost all roboticists have followed suit -- is the concept of embodied intelligence or embodied cognition. Roboticists point out that intelligence cannot exist in the form of an abstract algorithm, but requires a material body. The emphasis on embodiment recognizes that the body (whether human or robotic) is actively and continually in touch with its surroundings. Moreover, cognitive processes originate in an organism's sensory-motor experience. Only dynamic interaction between a robot and its environment can generate emergent autonomous behavior; behavior initiated by some external control system cannot. Advances in artificial life, including nanotechnology and self-evolving genetic algorithms, have led to the development of new sensory, actuation and locomotion components for robots that, in turn, have enabled the actualization of artificial embodied cognition. Central to the emphasis in robotics on embodied intelligence are qualitative studies in the field of child development.

Data from studies of infants are also used dialectically, and Japanese scientists have taken the lead in both. In June 2007, the Japanese Science and Technology Agency unveiled the Child Robot with Biomimetic Body, or CB2, that will teach researchers about sensory-motor development in human children. The androgynous CB2 moves like a human child between the ages of one and three, although it is disproportionately large and heavy at 1.2 meters tall and 33 kilograms. Its 56 actuators take the place of muscles, and it has 197 sensors for touch, small cameras working as eyes, and an audio sensor. CB2 can also speak through a set of artificial vocal chords. With this robot, researchers hope to "study human recognition development" such as language acquisition and communication skills. (page 68ab)
My point is that the meaning of words does not ultimately derive solely from the meaning of other words. Continental philosophy is too fixated on the abstract level of Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistic theory, thus ignoring the concrete manner in which language learning is embodied. Language learning initially begins with the child learning rather concrete things through interacting with its environment and learning language by hearing what things are called -- though I don't mean that language is fundamentally a matter of learning nouns, even if, as Gertrude Stein noted, "A noun has been the name of something for such a very long time" -- but if meaning were really constantly deferred, the child would never learn to communicate.

I could of course -- as an adult -- prepare a lecture in which I offer a sequence, arbitrarily long, of words that I don't know defined in terms of other words that I don't know. But eventually, the words would lead to a word that I do understand, and deference to deferment would terminate. I could defer termination for an indefinite term only artificially, but not interminably, for "language is essentially a vast, but finite, system of different signs and codes," as Sorensen notes, and I thus must eventually encounter a word that I do know. I therefore differ on deferment . . . unless I simply don't yet know what this word means.

Now where did my dictionary get to . . .

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At 1:04 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I applaud your post, which tackles some of the essential nonsense of Continental philosophy, and by extension the poisonous postmodernist/poststructuralist theory that fills the brains of American (and, unfortunately, Korean!) humanities grad students with its noisome sludge. Derridean différance [sic] is a chimera, and the idea that language cannot refer to anything outside itself (cf. Derrida's [in]famous "il n'y a pas de hors-texte," from which he backpedaled in his later years) is ridiculousness incarnate. Of course I can use texte to refer to hors-texte: I have but to speak of the Unspeakable, the Unsayable, the Ineffable, the Nondiscursive, the Nondualistic-- and voilà: we've used text to move beyond text.

I've written a bit on this subject myself.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

On the other hand . . . Continental Philosophy is not without its insights. One must see its limitations, but it can be profitable and interesting. Unlike my friend Bill Vallicella, I can find intriguing insights in Derrida -- I liked much of what he said in his meditation on death (or remember liking it, though I no longer recall precisely why).

Jeffery Hodges

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