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Saturday 23 February 2013

Review: William Dalrymple, Return of a King

I hesitated over buying this book: Would I really commit to reading 500 pages on the first British Invasion of Afghanistan, way back in 1839. But then I remembered Dalrymple as a fine writer from one of his previous books, From the Holy Mountain, and I remembered that the Taliban remember all our Invasions. They provide the context in which the Taliban view our current stupidities, such as the deployment of a spare Princeling Harry - a move we make without thinking or caring that it will immediately revive memories of the past inglories of our ruling classte.

Dalrymple's book is about the first of those inglories. We invaded Afghanistan in 1839 to overthrow a ruler, Dost Mohammad, perfectly well disposed towards us. But a paranoid fear of Russian Designs on Afghanistan clouded our judgement. At great expense in men and treasure, we re-installed his predecessor, Shah Shuja, who had been our pensioner for decades. But though he was at least reasonably capable of ruling in his own right, we made him appear a mere puppet. At the same time, we failed to get our own act together militarily (Elphinstone) and politically (Macnaghten, Burnes, Auckland). Right at the outset, the rape of a young Afghan girl by a drunken soldier (pp 172 - 73) concentrated the minds of Afghans on what it means to live under Foreign occupation and, in due course and after other affronts, the clergy sanctioned a jihad for the defence of Islam. Dost Mohammad's son, Akbar Khan, proved a capable military leader and within a short space of time Shah Shuja, Burnes and Macnaghten were murdered and the Army of Occupation forced into a harrowing winter Retreat which few survived.

Unwilling to accept humiliation,  we started again in 1842 and sent in an Army of Retribution under Sir George Pollock with a mission to loot, rape and kill - and, as if that was not enough to satisfy our need for Retribution, cut rings around Afghan fruit trees. We had no intention to stay and occupy, but the new Governor General of India, Lord Ellenborough, gave Pollock's Army and that of General Knott, based in Kandahar,  permission to "withdraw via Kabul" (page 440). By the time they got there, most of the Afghan population had left to hide in the hills. So the Armies had to take their vengeance on the city itself, burning it to the ground; they also attacked the few hundred  pro-British Indian traders who had remained in the city, foolishly thinking that it was their Friends who were arriving.

Having ensured that the fruit trees would die, we left - and in due course, allowed Dost Mohammad to resume his interrupted rule. He reigned successfully until his death in 1863, securing what are more or less the boundaries of modern Afghanistan. 

Dalrymple tells his story both from the well-known letters, diaries and historical narratives of the British (basically, English and Scottish) participants in the disaster but also from Afghan narratives, which he claims to be the first to utilise fully (see the "Author;'s Note" at pp.489 - 502). Quotations from these sources - often written in the form of epic poems - form a significant part of the book and throw into relief the lack of understanding, competence and clarity of purpose shown by the British leadership. 

In the end, it was not difficult to read these 500 pages, sobering as many of them are. At the end, Dalrymple lightly sketches their connection to the failure of the latest invasion of Afghanistan.

Dalrymple has done a terrific amount of research to write this book, has written it well, and deserves to have a wide readership.

Monday 11 February 2013

Review: Trevor Pateman, Language in Mind and Language in Society

This is a book about Nature and Culture - and about the Mind as the place where both can be found.  It's focussed through a close engagement with language development in individuals and language change in their societies. It seeks to defend a specifically Chomskyan project and a broader cognitivist project against philosophical objections - such as  those of the Wittgensteinians - which dispute the very possibility, the coherence or intelligibility, of such projects. It's an academic work, short (174 pages of text) and at times so compressed that you probably need to have beside you whatever book or article is under discussion: quite often, not much more than page references are given - the author rather assuming that you will know what he is talking about. At worst, there are footnotes which should be chapters.

I wrote this book starting in 1978, included some of it (along with other material on Pragmatics) in a doctoral thesis accepted in 1983, and finalised it in 1986. Oxford University Press published it in 1987 in an edition of 1000 copies. There were quite long reviews at the time, mostly positive, but there was never a need for a second print run.

It's the most academic of my book-form publications and, I guess, very academic even if it reaches out towards some very general claims. Writing it exhausted me, mentally and emotionally. I kept this stuff in my head for eight or nine years, expanding and revising, draft after draft. I read into subjects where I had no previous background, some of the material more technical than I was equipped to cope with. The Bibliography is pretty impressive.

The overarching theory developed takes its start from Heraclitus, "All things change" [ Panta rei]. However hard those entrusted with the task may seek to stop change in a society's culture - and specifically its language if it has one - they cannot succeed. That is a consequence, really, of just one thing: the way the Mind works.

New entrants to a society - children - develop a language before they know what they are doing. It just happens and the mental course it takes is partly ring-fenced against (premature) attempts at teaching and training. As far as a young child is concerned, the plural of sheep is sheeps and for a long time you will try to correct in vain. Language grows in the child and the mental resources which make that possible also determine that every language grown is at the same time broadly similar to others in local use - enough so that the child can be understood - but also at least a little different, so that adults can feel that there are things to be corrected. (Such correction is not offered in the interest of understanding; you can only offer to correct that which you have already perfectly well understood).

But even if the child could pay attention to advice and correction and wasn't programmed simply to disregard such well-meaning stuff, the mind of adults is simply not up to the full magnitude of the task of correction. They simply cannot formulate, articulate and hold in their heads the rules of the system they are trying to protect from error and change. On some fronts, maybe they are quite good. On others, such as the sound system of their language, they are hopeless. The way words are pronounced, the intonation pattern of utterances - these are things which change all the time and generally below the threshold of awareness. Even when noticed, changes are impossible to characterise and manage as they are happening. Time passes, children find their way into roughly the right ball park quite effortlessly and - as far as sound patterns are concerned - what they develop lasts a life time. But their own children will in turn find their way  into a slightly shifted ball park, and so it goes on.

If our Minds were less powerful, our Cultures would be less rich - indeed, utterly impoverished if minds worked the way Jesuits, behaviourists and Wittgensteinians have imagined. Because our minds are so powerful, our cultures constantly change. Over a long enough period of time, a continuous chain of transmission - generation to generation - yields a population which could not understand its ancestors even if they could speak to them. Cultural transmission is always a game of Chinese Whispers. All things change.

But it is not Mere Anarchy which the Mind looses upon the world. True, the evidence a beginner encounters underdetermines the conclusions to be drawn from it - just as philosophy of science has taught us (Peirce, Goodman, Quine, Kuhn ...). But the beginner is not open to all possibilities logically compatible with the evidence. This is fortunate. We are born with a bent to understand the actual world in which we find ourselves. It was Charles Sanders Peirce who seems first to have said that and realised its importance. Give us a limited amount of evidence and an inference is triggered which lands us in more or less the right place.. The child gets the hang of the language being used around it very quickly, really without trial and error and certainly without an exploration of logical possibilities. Whatever it is that children do, most of the time it isn't learning from their mistakes.

And if there is no language around, the child has enough mental capacity to generate one: this is the evidence from creolization (Derek Bickerton) and from the home sign-systems deployed by the deaf children of hearing parents (Goldin-Meadow and others). Mind as part of our Nature is a formidable device. It allows us to find a way of expanding our communication with people who haven't found much of a way of communicating with us. Tough - for Wittgenstein and his High Church followers, seeking only the child's Obedience to the Rules of which they are the Masters - but true.

But is Mind as part of our Nature more formidable than our encultured Mind, the Mind into which Culture (and, on some accounts, only Culture) has entered?

That question is premature. First, we have to do the science. And we can only do the science domain by domain. If you want to look at a domain other than language, then a good one is drawing. Here it is wonderfully easy to show cross-cultural universals in the development of children's drawing which for some considerable developmental period goes its own (charming) way independently of the adult cultures practised around it. In order to draw, children draw on their Natures. All Culture has to supply at this point is a crayon and a sheet of paper. You can give them to blind children and (as I understand it) the results are not very different. That blind children can't see doesn't mean they can't draw - anymore than it means they can't play football.

In contrast, if you want to look at a domain more favourable to the claims of the Enculturists - people who believe that our Minds are filled with Cultural stuff and nothing but Cultural stuff - then Arithmetic might be a good choice; it is the one which Saul Kripke used in order to mount his Wittgensteinian critique of Chomsky and cognitivism.

But even here it seems that children cotton on to the idea of counting well before anyone sits them down to learn their tables. Recently, I was playing a little game with my granddaughter, aged 15 months. I said "Beep", she smiled and replied "Beep", and I smiled and replied "Beep". As you can imagine, this can go on. Then it occurred to me to say, "Beep Beep". She hesitated a bit but came back with "Beep Beep". Do you count that as counting?

The science will get better as we find more precise ways of describing "higher" level mental activities, open to introspection and reflection, and "lower" level activities or processses which go on below the level of conscious awareness and are known (indexically, symptomatically) by their consequences. Sometimes the two levels come into conflict: even when we have been told that the Müller-Lyer lines are of equal length, well, they still look unequal. Being told makes no difference ; it's that thing teachers fear most, water off a duck's back.

Finding the right way to theorise all this is hard - my book reviews some fairly technical discussions in the Philosophy of Mind (Fodor, Burge, Stich, Kripke and others) which grapple with the problems which arise when you try to ascribe mental states to an individual without making essential reference to the community, the culture, in which they live.

"All things change". Children bear the burden of my argument in support of this claim. So it's perhaps not surprising that the Epigraph for the whole book is a (heretical) remark of Walter Benjamin's, "Children are Representatives of Paradise".

Saturday 9 February 2013

Review: Trevor Pateman, Language Truth and Politics

I wrote this book forty years ago. It was typed and re-typed in a rented thatched cottage in a Devon village: I had a job in a nearby college teaching "Liberal Studies" to apprentices - bricklayers, plumbers, hairdressers - on Day Release. I was 25 and just back from a year studying in Paris.

The book is what I wrote instead of the Ph. D. I was supposed to. After graduating in 1968, I was awarded three years' State funding for doctoral work at University College, London. I had a Supervisor - the late Professor Richard Wollheim - and eventually a thesis title, "False Consciousness". But after two years I gave up, found a one year Temporary Lectureship at the University of Sussex, and then (on a Leverhulme studentship) went to Paris  where Roland Barthes (notionally) supervised a (notional, never-submitted) dissertation on Waiting for Godot.

All the time I was working quite hard and sometimes very hard on notebooks, essays, seminar papers and lectures, eventually re-worked into this 1973 book. Re-reading it for the first time in years, it's clear I was never taught (and never bothered to learn) the Harvard system for referencing. Each item in the Bibliography is presented alphabetically but also numbered, from 1 to 127. So every time I had added something to the Bibliography, every reference after it had had to be re-numbered.... only an obsessive would fail to switch to a better method. But it does add to the auto-didactic feel of the book, a feel I probably wanted.

Despite the fact that I was familiar from 1968 on with the contemporary Women's Liberation movement, I simply did not have the imagination to realise that "he" can be replaced by "he or she" or "they" - nor that "People" is a very serviceable substitute for "Men". Despite this, the book - when it was eventually published in 1975 - got a generous review in Spare Rib.

The book presents itself as a Handbook or Manual with Practical Intent. The stated aim is to provide something Useful to those engaged in left-wing / radical / revolutionary "Consciousness Raising" or "Political Education". The stated assumption is that this work is going to be hard work because the "False Consciousness" of the workers / the masses is much more complex and deeply embedded than has  been assumed. Here I took my cue from Herbert Marcuse:
Repulsed by the concreteness of the administered society, the effort of emancipation becomes abstract, it is reduced to facilitating the recognition of what is going on, to freeing language from the tyranny of the Orwellian syntax and logic, to developing the concepts that comprehend reality ... where the mind has been made into a subject-object of politics, intellectual autonomy, the realm of pure thought, has become a matter of political education (or rather: counter education)                                                      (From the 1965 essay, Repressive Tolerance)
To develop these claims, I deploy material drawn from analytical philosophy, classical political theory, developmental and clinical psychology, psychoanalysis, theoretical linguistics, sociolinguistics, semiology, Marxism ...Alphabetically, the list is what you might expect from the 1960s and 70s: Althusser, Barthes, Basil Bernstein, Feyerabend, Foucault, Freud, Roman Jakobson [ * see footnote], Thomas Kuhn, Lacan, R D Laing, Marcuse, Marx, J S Mill, George Orwell, Wilhelm Reich, George Steiner, Vygotsky .... summing to that total of 127 works. All of them are pressed into service to develop what is basically Marcuse's position.

Today, I read it as the work of someone taking a very large hammer to crack a probably non-existent nut. Revolutionary uprisings, major social upheavals, are not the result of the determined consciousness-raising activities of book-in-hand activists from the local university. Discontinuous social  change - itself something rare - is the product of complex conjunctures which always take by surprise those who think they have seen the future. None of us (for example) ever foresaw the disintegration and dissolution of the Soviet Union.

This is partly because our knowledge of the Soviet Union, as of the Warsaw Pact countries, China and Cuba was minimal. Appallingly so. Read my book and you will see that I was simply not curious about these regimes. At the same time, it's clear that I felt that if only they understood ...the working class / the masses here - next door to me in my Devon village - would rush to change the economic and political order under which they lived.

If only they understood ... I suppose this is an obsessive way of thinking, like that of the seminar speaker who needs just five more minutes to make just one more point and then five more minutes to make just  one final point ...

Forty years on, it looks as if I believe that they're never going to understand. I don't ever watch TV, listen to the radio, vote, go to meetings or demonstrations. I read quite a lot, write a bit and publish it on the Internet for free. That's it.

Language, Truth and Politics originally appeared in an edition of 2000 copies which quickly sold out. It was extensively and generally favourably reviewed. A second edition with Second Thoughts and even more cumbersome numbering (subscripts!) appeared in 1980 and never sold out. Both editions were self-published in co-operation with my then partner, Jean Stroud. The cover of the first edition, shown above, was designed by the poet Denise Riley.

* An anecdote: when I was in Paris, Roman Jakobson - by then an old man - came to lecture at the Collège de France. The hall filled up well in advance. A short man, well-dressed and with fine silver hair, stood up in his seat near the front, right  through the time in which we were waiting for Jakobson to appear. It was Lacan.

Review: David Edgerton, Britain's War Machine

Between the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940 and the Normandy landings in 1944, Britain was not fighting a land war in Europe and most of its Army was at home polishing its boots: the Middle East and North Africa did not empty Britain of troops, partly because Indians and Poles and other proxy groups were fighting there for us.

But Britain's Navy was busy destroying and neutralising Germany's, blockading Germany but keeping the shipping lanes open for the movement of Allied troops and material, military and civilian. Britain continued to import vast amounts from its Empire and its friends in countries like Argentina.

The Air Force bombed Germany from ever greater heights and with ever greater effect, deploying aircrews under the command of Arthur "Bomber" Harris which included Czechs, Poles, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders. Planes were built in Canada as well as the UK and shipped over. From 1941, the RAF was joined by US planes flying under US control from bases in Britain.

Area bombing killed German civilians in vast numbers, but an even nastier war was fought on the ground in Eastern Europe - in the Bloodlands to use Timothy Snyder's expression - where the Red Army and the Wehrmacht were pitted against each other and where the latter was enmeshed with a vast organisation for enslavement and extermination of the local populations.

People in Britain never experienced anything a fraction as terrible as the RAFs carpet bombing or as horrific as what happened all over Eastern Europe. They did not live in fear and they did not go hungry. Not many were killed.

A confident war-time government in the UK felt no need to suspend the democratic process: elections took place and fierce debates in Parliament. It felt able to buy freely on credit from the Dominions and Colonies, which built up vast sterling balances in London. It created a vast, well-funded and generally well-oiled war machine.

David Edgerton's book is full of intriguing detail about that machine - about how it was created and managed, about its productive capacity, and about its shortcomings.

All the initial reviews of this book see it as a game-changer, offering a fresh paradigm for thinking about the War the British fought. Edgerton's principal thesis and leitmotif is that Britain "was never alone and never had to fight a total, people's war of the sort that was fought on the Eastern front" (p 302)

This seems true and important, though much of the actual book is taken up with thumbnails and what are basically Lists. These do not so much sustain the main thesis as illustrate how Churchill's government ran the business side of the War - deciding on weapon priorities, getting the right weapons produced in the right numbers, ensuring improvements were made, responding to changes in the enemy's military capacity, and so on. This is interesting and brings into focus the work of thousands of engineers, scientists, businessmen and scientific civil servants who together organised a vast, functioning war machine of new factories and research establishments.

I did feel that one of my own beliefs had to be revised. I had thought that the War opened careers to talents - that to some degree it broke down the class system simply because Britain could not afford to sustain the incompetence and inefficiency it entailed. Edgerton, by contrast, sees continuity between pre-war and war time institutions and practices with public school boys, mostly Tories and cronies, running the shows that mattered. There are a few Lefties and working class boys in Edgerton's story. There are no women.