Wednesday, October 10, 2007

An Inconvenient Truthiness

You should have laughed reading the title of this post.

You would have laughed if you were an insider to USA pop culture. (None of the friends of mine from Argentina, Brazil, China, Colombia, Mexico, Korea, Kyrgyzstan, or Morocco laughed at this title phrase today. None of them are north American culture insiders).

So why laugh? If you’re in on the inside joke, then you laughed at the play on the plays on words. Huh?

Yeah. I get the first part. An Inconvenient Truth is the title of Al Gore’s book and documentary on global warming.

We get the word play without anyone telling us in England or America or anywhere else: truth just isn’t supposed to be inconvenient. Often we laugh when our categories become incompatible, unwittingly (as with Freudian slips) or intentionally (as with making witticisms).

"So what does the author intend?" This seems to be THE question many readers (and even sophisticated linguists) run to first for “the meaning” of a “text.” “What does the text say?” is the sequitur, logically, as if an alphabetized page or a motion picture has agency and voice and personality to speak to us. Well, the safer presumption (a safe guess no less) is this: that “what the text says” depends entirely on “what the author intends.” So, then, in his three hundred and twenty eight page text, author Gore uses the phrase "inconvenient truth" just five times (depending on what the text of the dictionary or linguistics textbook says a "phrase" is). So, just 5 in 328? I'd say that's an inconvenient truth. But (there's hard numbers and math here and) here's his clue: the author uses the word clear as in the phrase unmistakably clear in four of those five phrases of inconvenient truth. (He also compares "our [conveniently unnamed] leaders" to "Hitler"). To read those phrases, you have to click here and be a member of, or just get the book or watch the movie as my children in gradeschool and middleschool were made to do. (Unmistakable. Inconvenient. Truth. If you don’t want to be stupid. If you'd like to be a real insider.)

If less of an insider, then google (just by clicking here). Oops. Now we’ve got more than the author’s intention. Here are promotionists, archivists, encyclopedists, critics, and film and book sellers. And if we google images, videos, news, maps, blogs, books, groups, products, or academic scholar-ship, then we've got “an inconvenient truth” of many sorts in many places for many prices.

Yeah. I get the second part. Truthiness is what the American Dialect Society authorizes. A comedian author made the society laugh at his neologism. Now the Amerian-Webster dictionary makes "truthiness" a real American word, and a blogger and a op-ed text say more. You guessed it. I just googled truthiness.

And yet, reading nothing at all of Stephen Colbert’s coinage, we still get it. We can remember we're linguists or pretend that we're linguists:

“Truth + y” = “truthy” (or the new adjective form of the noun) and “Truthy + ness” = “truthiness” (the new noun form of the new adjective form of the old noun; but with the “i” instead of “y” because that’s just what we do when we write formal alphabetic “texts” with an authorized spelling convention. If you don’t want to be stupid. If you want to be an insider.)

Yeah. I get the third part. I'll remember that I'm a philosopher or a sophist or a rhetorician. Or I'll just pretend: "An Inconvenient Truthiness" is a Hegelian synthesis. And now I'm having fun as a mathematician again: thesis + antithesis = synthesis. (And now I'm a greek scholar).

But lest you think I think I'm just oh so clever, google again. Did you see how "An Inconvenient Truthiness" is the title of so many other bloggers' posts. And all the meanings of those texts. The different meanings. The varieties of contexts and punchlines. Various insiders. All sorts of laughter. Most I don't get yet.

My punchline? I do hope someone gets it.

If Plato translated an inconvenient truth-iness into his Hellenism, it'd end in the pejorative feminine suffix, -ική. Somewhere else, I tried to show he got that from Homer or Hesiod, who were looking for something to have some man say about some virgin.

Ironically, with some serious funniness, Plato and his student Aristotle would coin feminine words that leave women out.

So, I'll talk about one of my teachers who took Greek suffixes to talk about being on the outside and on the inside. That incredible teacher, who sought to make others insiders, coined his own phrases. The two most famous are emic and etic. At the recent Feminism(s) and Rhetoric(s) conference, a feminist rhetorician used those terms (pronouncing them differently than my teacher did, but using them nonetheless. Pike would have been proud, for he was quite interested in what other people said about emics and etics).

Of course, those of you now insiders to linguistics and anthropology and about twenty other disciplines know I'm talking about Kenneth Lee Pike.

Pike called his way of working "tagmemics." I call it feminism, or at least feminist-ics. The early developers of tagmemics (Ken Pike and Evelyn Pike and Eunice Pike; and Robert E. Longacre and Shin Ja J. Hwang, who did much more with texts) would not have used this label.

Anyway, a label is too much like "an inconvenient truthiness." For one it means one thing. For another, it's the thing to be mean about.

So let me give my humble opinion. Tagmemics allows for ambiguities, celebrates ambiguities, fosters humility. (So now, google "Ambiguity and humility" to see what others very brilliantly say). I say Pike's approach is very much in contrast to that of masculinists such as Aristotle and his Aristotelianism and Noam Chomsky and his abstractionistic approach. The former approach is lowly and inclusive; the latter high and exclusive. (It's weird how tagmemics has all but died in the organization where Pike worked. Before that, it was misunderstood and killed off in composition and rhetoric. I wrote about that somewhere once. But emics and etics are alive and well. And one on the internet (google him) calls tagmemics "the theory of everything." And another "culture" (google PERL and Larry Wall) uses tagmemics to make a computer language more like our sloppy human language, our wonderful truthiness langauge.

In contrast to the cold, impersonal, calculating, abstract, and abstracting from context objectivity, Pike insisted on subjectivity, on ambiguity, on letting people inside for the joke. He would always laugh at "an inconvenient truthiness."

P.S.: here are a few things I remember Pike saying:

"What we need is radical relativism within rigid restraints" (Pike's paraphrase of Nelson Goodman in Ways of World Making)

"I'm interested in talking about 'talked-about' reality. What else is there to talk about?"

"Person is always above logic. Person always has the choice of perspective [i.e., particle, wave, or field] in any given context as a conceptional hierarchy."

"One of my teachers once declared: 'What we need is one and only one word for each concept.' I simply asked: 'But, sir. How then would we learn language?'"

"Language is N-dimensional."

"I know of a language in which there are no numbers beyond 'one' and 'two' or perhaps 'three.'" (I'm quite sure Pike was thinking of the language of the Pirahã of Brazil).

"The observer adds part of himself to the data that he [or she] looks at or listens to . . . . A
bias of mine -- not shared by many linguists -- is the conviction that beyond the
sentence lie grammatical structures available to linguist analysis, describable by
technical procedures, and usable by the author for the generation of literary works
through which he [or she] reports to us his [or her] observations. (page 129 College Composition and Communication, October 1964)"


voxstefani said...

This post is fantastic beyond words, and I even laughed out loud twice. I don't have much to add to your brilliant (and deliciously clever) discussion, but I'm afraid you have not properly honored Stephen Colbert. I might just have to tell on you! ;-)

J. K. Gayle said...

From you, my friend, I take that as a high compliment! To tell the truthiness, I may just have to ask you: "What is Stephen Colbert?"