Monday, May 18, 2009

David Foster Wallace, Authority and American Usage

David Foster Wallace, Authority and American Usage, in Consider the Lobster, Back Bay Books, New York 2007

[Note] I teach college English part-time. Mostly Lit, not Composition. But I am so pathologically obsessed with usage that every semester the same thing happens: once I’ve had to read my students’ first set of papers, we immediately abandon the regular Lit syllabus and have a thee-week Emergency Remedial and Grammar Unit, during which my demeanor is basically that of somebody teaching HIV prevention to intravenous-drug users. When it emerges (as it does, every term) that 95 percent of these intelligent upscale college students have never been taught, e.g., what a clause is or why a misplaced only can make a sentence confusing or why you don’t just automatically stick in a comma after a long noun phrase, I all but pound my head on the blackboard; I get angry and self-righteous; I tell them they should sue their hometown school boards, and mean it. The kids end up scared, both of me and for me. Every August I vow silently to chill about usage this year, and then by Labor Day there’s foam on my chin. I can’t seem to help it. The truth is that I’m not even an especially good or dedicated teacher; I don’t have this kind of fervor in class about anything else, and I know it’s not a very productive fervor, nor a healthy one—it’s got elements of fanaticism and rage to it, plus a snobbishness that I know I’d be mortified to display about anything else. (70)

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage has no Editorial Staff or Distinguished Panel. It’s been conceived, researched, and written ab ovo usque ad mala by Mr. Bryan A. Garner. This Garner is an interesting guy. He’s both a lawyer and a usage expert (which seems a bit like being both a narcotics agent and a DEA agent). (73)

[Note] Or observe the near-Himalayan condescension of Fowler, here on some people’s habit of using words like viable or verbal to mean things the words don’t really mean: … (80)

[Interpolation] …given our best present medical and philosophical understanding of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is no way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,” appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life. At the same time, however, the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt” is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice./ This reviewer is thus, as a private citizen and an autonomous agent, both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. It is not an easy or comfortable position to maintain. Every time someone I know decides to terminate a pregnancy, I am required to believe simultaneously that she is doing the wrong thing and that she has every right to do it. Plus, of course, I have both to believe that a Pro-Life + Pro-Choice stance is the only really coherent one and to restrain myself from trying to force that position on other people whose ideological or religious convictions seem (to me) to override reason and yield a (in my opinion) wacko dogmatic position. This restraint has to be maintained even when somebody’s (to me) wacko dogmatic position appears (to me) to reject the very Democratic tolerance that is keeping me from trying to force my position on him/her; it requires me not to press [82] or argue or retaliate even when somebody calls me Satan’s Minion or Just Another Shithead Male, which forbearance represents the really outer and tooth-grinding limits of my own personal Democratic Spirit./ Wacko-name-calling notwithstanding, I have encountered only one serious kind of objection to this Pro-Life + Pro-Choice position. But it’s a powerful objection. It concerns not my position per se but certain facts about me, the person who’s developed and maintained it. (82-83)

The Descriptivist revolution takes a little time to unpack, but it’s worth it. (83)

If Derrida and the infamous Deconstructionists have done nothing else, they’ve successfully debunked the idea that speech is language’s primary instantiation. (84)

…the Descriptivists’ “scientific lexicography”…involves an incredibly crude and outdated understanding of what scientific means. It requires a naïve belief in scientific Objectivity, for one thing. Even in the physical sciences, everything from quantum mechanics to Information Theory has shown that an act of observation is itself part of the phenomenon observed and is analytically inseparable from it. (85)

…New Critics [refers to T.S.Eliot and I.A. Richards and F.R.Leavis and Cleanth Brooks and Wimsatt & Beardsly and the whole autotelic Close Reading school that dominated literary criticism from the Thirties to well into the Seventies.] Recall their belief that literary criticism was best conceived as a “scientific” endeavor: the critic was a neutral, careful, unbiased, highly trained observer whose job was to find and objectively describe meanings that were right there, literally inside pieces of literature. [85] … they believed that there was such a thing as unbiased observation. And that linguistic meanings could exist “Objectively,” separate from any interpretive act. / The point of the analogy is that claims to Objectivity in language study are now the stuff of jokes and shudders. The positivist assumptions that underlie Methodological Descriptivism have been thoroughly confuted and displaced—in Lit by the rise of post-structuralism, Reader-Response Criticism, and Jaussian Reception Theory, in linguistics by the rise of Pragmatics—and it’s now pretty much universally accepted that (a) meaning is inseparable from some act of interpretation and (b) an act of interpretation is always somewhat biased, i.e., informed by the interpreter’s particular ideology. (85-86)

Even if, as a thought experiment, we assume a kind of 19th-century scientific realism—in which, even though some scientists’ interpretations of natural phenomena might be biased, the natural phenomena themselves can be supposed to exist wholly independent of either observation or interpretation… (86)

[‘Interpolative Demonstration of the Fact That There is No Such Thing as a Private Language’ within footnote 32]…the proposition that language is by its very nature public—i.e., that there is no such thing as a private language. [note: It is sometimes tempting to imagine that there can be such a thing as a private language. Many of us are prone to lay-philosophizing about the weird privacy of our own mental states, for example; and from the fact that when my knee hurts only I can feel it, it’s tempting to conclude that for me the word pain has a very subjective internal meaning that only I can truly understand. This line of thinking is sort of like the adolescent pot-smoker’s terror that his own inner experience is both private and unverifiable, a syndrome that is technically known as Cannabic Solipsism. Eating Chips Ahoy! and staring very intently at the television’s network PGA event, for instant, the adolescent pot-smoker is struck by the ghastly possibility that, e.g., what he sees as the color green and what other people call “the color green” may in fact not be the same color-experiences at all: the fact that both he and someone else call Pebble Beach’s fairways green and a stoplight’s GO signal green appears to guarantee only that there is a similar consistency in their color experiences of fairways and GO lights, not that the actual subjective quality of those color-experiences is the same; it could be that the actual subjective quality of those green everyone else actually experiences as blue, and that what we “mean” by the word blue is what he “means” by green, etc. etc., until the whole line of thinking gets so vexed and exhausting that the a.p.-s. ends up slumped crumb-strewn and paralyzed in his chair. / The point here is that idea of a private language, like private colors and most of the other solipsistic conceits with which this reviewer has at various times been afflicted, is both deluded and demonstrably false. / In the case of private language, the language is usually based on the belief that a word like pain or tree has the meaning it does because it is somehow “connected” to a feeling in my knee or to a picture of a tree in my head. But as Mr. L. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations proved in the 1950s, words actually have the meanings they do because of certain rules and verification tests that are imposed on us from outside our own subjectivities, viz., by the community in which we have to get along and communicate with other people. Wittgenstein’s argument centers on the fact that a word like tree means what it does for me because of the way the community I’m part of has tacitly agreed to use tree. What makes this observation so powerful is that Wittgenstein can prove that it holds true even if I am an angst-ridden adolescent pot-smoker who believes that there’s no way I can verify that what I mean by tree is what anybody else means by tree. Wittgenstein’s argument is very technical but goes something like: (1) A word has no meaning apart from how it is actually used, and even if (2) “The question of whether my use agrees with others has been given up as a bad job,” still, (3) The only way a word can be used meaningfully even to myself is if I use it “correctly,” with [87] (4) Correctly here meaning “consistently with my own definition” (that is, if I use tree one time to mean a tree and then the next time turn around and use tree to mean a golf ball and then the next time will-nilly use tree to mean a certain brand of high-cal corporate cookie, etc., then, even in my own little solipsistic universe, tree has ceased really to “mean” anything at all), but (5) The criterion of consistency-with-my-own-definition is satisfiable only if there exist certain rules that are independent of any one individual language-user (viz., in this case, me). Without the existence of these external rules, there is no difference between the statement “I am in fact using tree consistently with my own definition” and the statement “I happen to be under the impression that I am using tree consistently with my own definition.” Wittgenstein’s basic way of putting it is:/ Now how is it to be decided whether I have used the [privately defined] word consistently? What will be the difference between my having used it consistently and its seeming to me that I have? Or has the distinction vanished? … If the distinction between ‘correct’ and ‘seems correct’ has disappeared, then so has the concept correct. It follows that ‘rules’ of my private langue are only impressions of rules. My impression that I follow a rule does not confirm that I follow the rule, unless there can be something that will prove my impression correct. “And that something can not be another impression—for this would be as if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that whit it said were true.” / Step (5) is the real kicker; step (5) is what shows that even if the involuted adolescent decides that he has his own special private definition of tree, he himself cannot make up the “rules of consistency” via which he confirms that he’s using tree the way he privately defined it—i.e., “The proof that I am following a rule must appeal to something independent of my impression that I am.” / If you are thinking that all this seems not just hideously abstract but also irrelevant to the Usage Wars or to anything you have any interest in at all, I submit that your are mistaken. If words’ and phrases’ meanings depend on transpersonal rules and these rules on community consensus, [There’s a whole argument for this, but intuitively you can see that it makes sense: if the rules can’t be subjective, and if they’re not actually “out there” floating around in some kind of metaphysical hyperreality (a floating hyperreality that you can belief in if you wish, but you should know that people with beliefs like this usually get forced to take medication), then community consensus is really the only plausible option left.] then language is not only non-private but also irreducibly public, political, and ideological. This means that questions about our national consensus on grammar and usage are actually bound up with every last social issue that millennial America’s about—class, race, sex, morality, tolerance, pluralism, cohesion, equality, fairness, money: you name it. / And if you at least provisionally grant that meaning is use and language public and communication impossible without consensus and rules, you’re going to see that the Descriptivist argument is open to the objection that its ultimate aim—the abandonment of “artificial” linguistic rules and conventions—would make language itself impossible. As if Genesis 11:1-10-grade impossible, a literal Babel. There have to be some rules and conventions, no? We have to agree that tree takes e’s and not u’s and denotes a large woody thing with branches and not a small plastic thing with dimples and TITLEIST on it, right? And won’t this agreement automatically be “artificial,” since it’s human beings making it? Once you accept that at least some artificial conventions are necessary, then you can get to the really hard and interesting questions: which conventions are necessary, then you can get to the really hard and interesting questions: which conventions are necessary? and when? and where? and who gets to decided? and whence their authority to do so? And because these are the very questions that Gove’s crew believes Dispassionate Science can transcend, their argument appears guilty of both petitio principiici and ignoratio elenchi, and can pretty much be dismissed out of hand. (87-88)

…Dr. Charles Frie’s introduction to an epigone of Webster’s Third called The American College Dictionary… This is so stupid it practically drools. (89)

Descriptivist…It isn’t scientific phenomena they’re observing and tabulating, but rather a set of human behaviors, and a lot of human behaviors are—to be blunt—moronic. Try, for instance, to imagine an “authoritative” ethics textbook whose principles were based on what most people actually do. (89)

The reason the Descriptivists can’t see this is the same reason they choose to regard the English language as the sum of all English utterances: they confuse mere regularities with norms. / Norms aren’t quite the same as rules, but they’re close. A norm can be defined here simply as something that people have agreed on as the optimal way to do things for certain purposes. (89)

As Steven Pinker puts it, “When a scientist considers all the high-[92]tech mental machinery needed to order words into everyday sentences, prescriptive rules are, at best, inconsequential decorations.” …vulnerable to objections. The first one is easy. Even if it’s true that we’re all wired with a Universal Grammar, it doesn’t follow that all prescriptive rules are superfluous. Some of these rules really do seem to serve clarity and precision. The injunction against two-way adverb (“People who eat this often get sick”) is an obvious example, …Granted, the Philosophical Descriptivist can question just how absolutely necessary these rules are: it’s quite likely that a recipient of clauses like the above could figure out what they mean from the sentences on either side or from the overall context… It’s debatable just how much extra work, but it seems indisputable that we put some extra interpretive burden on the recipient when we fail to honor certain conventions. … Not just more considerate but more respectful somehow—both of your listener/reader and of what you’re trying to get across. (92-93)

…a phenomenon that SNOOTs blindly reinforce and that Descriptivists badly underestimate and that scary vocab-tape ads try to exploit. People really do judge one another according to their use of language. (97)

…acknowledge something that in the Usage Wars gets mentioned only in very abstract terms: “correct” English usage is, as a [97] practical matter, a function of whom you’re talking to and of how you want that person to respond—not just to your utterance but also to you. (97-98)

[Interpolation] …the avoid-terminal-predispositions rule is the invention of one Fr. R. Lowth, an 18th century British preacher and indurate pedant who did things like spend scores of pages arguing for hath over the trendy and degenerate has. The a.-t.-p. rule is antiquated and stupid and only the most ayotolloid SNOOT takes it seriously. (99)

[Interpolation] Plus, the apparent redundancy of “Where’s it at?” is offset by its metrical logic: what the at really does is license the contraction of is after the interrogative adverb. You can’t say “Where’s it?” So the choice is between “Where is it?” and “Where’s it at?”, and the latter, a strong anapest, is prettier and trips off the tongue better than “Where is it?”, whose meter is either a clunky monosyllabic-foot + trochee or it’s nothing at all. (99)

[Interpolation] Using “He don’t” makes me a little more comfortable; I admit that its logic isn’t quite as compelling. Nevertheless, a clear trend in the evolution of English from Middle to Modern has been the gradual regularizing of irregular present-tense verbs, a trend justified by the fact that irregulars are hard to learns and to keep straight and have nothing but history going for them. By this reasoning, Standard Black English is way out of the cutting edge of English with its abandonment of the 3-S present in to do and to go and to say and its marvelously streamlined six identical present-tense inflections of to be. (Granted, the conjugation “he be” always sounded odd to me, but then SBE is not only of my dialects.) (100)

[Interpolation] …Latin even though Latin is a synthetic language and English is an analytic language. [A synthetic language uses grammatical inflections to dictate syntax, whereas an analytic language uses word order. Latin, German, and Russian are synthetic; English and Chinese are analytic.] (100)

…there are—as you and I both know and yet no one in the Usage Wars ever seems to mention—situations in which faultlessly correct SWE is not the appropriate dialect. (102)

The reality is that an average US student is going to take the trouble to master the difficult conventions of SWE only if he sees SWE’s relevant Group or Discourse Community as one he’d like to be part of. And in the absence of any sort of argument for why the correct-SWE Group is a good or desirable one (an argument that, recall, the traditional teacher hasn’t given, because he’s such a dogmatic SNOOT he sees no need to), the student is going to be reduced to evaluating the desirability of the SWE Group based on the one obvious member of that Group he’s encountered, namely the SNOOTy teacher himself. (106)

…SWE is the dialect of the American elite. That it was invented, codified, and promulgated by Privileged WASP Males and is perpetuated as “Standard” by same. (107)

…it obviously helps his rhetorical credibility if the teacher presents himself as an advocate of SWE’s utility rather than as some sort of prophet of its innate superiority. (107)

…here is a condensed version of the spiel I’ve given in private conferences [I’m not a total idiot] [107] with certain black students who were (a) bright and inquisitive as hell and (b) deficient in what US higher education considers written English facility: / …From talking with you and reading your first couple of essays, I’ve concluded that your own primary dialect is [one of three variants of SBE common to our region]. Now, let me spell something out in my official teacher-voice: the SBE you’re fluent in is different from SW in all kinds of important ways. Some of these differences are grammatical—for example, double negatives are OK in Standard Black English but not in SWE, and SBE and SWE conjugate certain verbs in totally different ways. Other differences have more to do with style—for instance, Standard Written English tends to use a lot more subordinate clauses in the early parts of sentences, and it sets off most of these early subordinates with commas, and under SWE rules, writing that doesn’t do this tends to look “choppy.” There are tons of differences like that. How much of this stuff do you already know? [STANDARD RESPONSE = some variation on “I know from the grades and comments on my paper that the English profs here don’t think I’m a good writer.”] Well, I’ve got good news and bad news. There are some otherwise smart English profs who aren’t very aware that there are real dialects of English other than SWE, so when they’re marking up your papers they’ll put, like, “Incorrect conjugation” or “Comma needed” instead of “SWE conjugates this very differently” or “SWE calls for a comma here.” That’s the good news—it’s not that you’re a bad writer, it’s that you haven’t learned the special rules of the dialect they want you to write in. Maybe that’s not such good news, that they’ve been grading you down for mistakes in a foreign language you didn’t even know was a foreign language. That they won’t let you write in SBE. Maybe it seems unfair. If it does, you’re probably not going to like this other news: I’m not going to let you write in SBE either. In my class, you heave to learn and write in SWE. If you want to study your own primary dialect and its rules and history and how it’s different from SWE, fine—there are some great books by scholars of Black English, and I’ll help you find some and talk about them with you if you want. But that will be outside class. In class—in my English class—you will have to master and write in Standard Written English, which we might just as well call “Standard White English” because it was devel-[108]oped by white people and is used by white people, especially educated, powerful white people. [RESPONSES at this point vary too widely to standardize.] I’m respecting you enough here to give you what I believe is the straight truth. In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWU. This is just How It Is. You can be glad about it or sad about it or deeply pissed off. You can believe it’s racist and unfair and decide right here and now to spend every waking minute of your adult life arguing against it, and maybe you should, but I’ll tell you something—if you ever want those arguments to get listened to and taken seriously, you’re going to have to communicate them in SWE, because SWE is the dialect our nation uses to talk to itself. African-Americans who’ve become successful and important in US culture know this; that’s why King’s and X’s and Jackson’s speeches are in SWE, and why Morrison’s and Angelou’s and Baldwin’s and Wideman’s and Gates’s and West’s books are full of totally ass-kicking SWE, and why black judges and politicians and journalists and doctors and teachers communicate professionally in SWE. Some of these people grew up in homes and communities where SWE was the native dialect, and these black people had it much easier in school, but the ones who didn’t grow up with SWE realized at some point that they had to learn it and become able to write fluently in it, and so they did. And [STUDENT’S NAME], you’re going to learn to use it, too, because I am going to make you.’ / I should note here that a couple of the students I’ve said this stuff to were offended—one lodged an Official Complaint—and that I have had more than one colleague profess to find my spiel “racially insensitive.” Perhaps you do, too. This reviewer’s own humble opinion is that some of the cultural and political realities of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever really changing them. (107-109)

[Politically Correct English] This reviewer’s own opinion is that prescriptive PCE is not just silly but ideologically confused and harmful to its own cause. … PCE’s core fallacy—that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes. (111)

…PCE functions primarily to signal and congratulate certain virtue in the speaker—scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dig-[112]nity of all people, sophistication about the political implications of language—and so serves the self-regarding interests of the PC far more than it serves any of the persons or groups renamed. (112-113)

[Interpolation] The unpleasant truth is that the same self-serving hypocrisy that informs PCE tends to infect and undermine the US Left’s rhetoric in almost every debate over social policy. Take the ideological battle over wealth-redistribution via taxes, quotas, Welfare, enterprise zones, AFDC/TANF, you name it. As long as redistribution is conceived as a form of charity or compassion… then the whole debate centers on utility… Opinion: The mistake here lies in both sides’ assumption that the real motives for redistributing wealth are charitable or unselfish. The conservatives’ mistake (if it is a mistake) is wholly conceptual, but for the Left the assumption is also a serious tactical error. Progressive liberals seem incapable of stating the obvious truth: that we who are well off should be willing to share more of what we have with poor people not for the poor people’s sake but for our own; i.e., we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people. (113)

[Interpolation] …it is when a scholar’s vanity/insecurity leads his to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed by pleonasm and pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer’s erudition) and by opaque abstraction (whose function is to keep anybody from pinning the writer down to a definite assertion that can maybe be refuted or shown to be silly). (115)

The problem I failed to see, of course, lay not [116] with the argument per se but with the person making it—namely me, a Privileged WASP Male in a position of power, thus someone whose statements about the primacy and utility of the Privileged WASP Male dialect appeared not candid/hortatory/authoritative/true but elitist/high-handed/authoritarian/racist. Rhetoric-wise, what happened was that I allowed the substance and style of my Logical Appeal to completely torpedo my Ethical Appeal: what the student heard was just another PWM rationalizing why his Group and his English were top dog and ought “logically” to stay that way (plus, worse, trying to use his academic power over her to coerce her assent). (117)

[WHY BRIAN A. GARNER IS A GENIUS (II)] Bryan Garner is a genius because A Dictionary of Modern American Usage just about completely resolves the Usage Wars’ problem of Authority. The book’s solution is both semantic and rhetorical. Garner manages to collapse the definitions of certain key terms and to control the compresence of rhetorical Appeals so cleverly that he is able to transcend both Usage Wars camps and simply tell the truth, and to tell the truth in a way that does not torpedo his own credibility but actually enhances it. His argumentative strategy is totally brilliant and totally sneaky, and part of both qualities is that it usually doesn’t seem like there’s even an argument going on at all. (120)

The hard-line Descriptivists, for all their calm scientific and avowed preference for fact over value, rely mostly on rhetorical pathos, the visceral emotional Appeal. As mentioned, the relevant emotions here are Sixtiesish in origin and leftist in temperament—an antipathy for conventional Authority… (121)

…Descriptivists are, all and essentially, demagogues; and dogmatic Prescriptivists are actually their most valuable asset, since Americans’ visceral distaste for dogmatism and elitist fatuity gives Descriptivism a ready audience for its Pathetic Appeal. / What the Descriptivists haven’t got is logic. The Dictionary can’t sanction everything, and the very possibility of language depends on rules and conventions, and Descriptivism offers no logos for determining which rules and conventions are useful and which are pointless/oppressive, nor any arguments for how and by whom such determinations are to be made. (121)

Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage is thus both a collection of information and a piece of Democratic rhetoric. Its primary Appeal is Ethical, and its goal is to recast the Prescriptivist’s persona: the author presents himself not as a cop or a judge but as more like a doctor or lawyer. This is an ingenious tactic. In the same sort of move we can see him make w/r/t judgment and objective, Garner here alters the relevant AHD definitions of authority from (1) “The right and power to command, enforce laws, exact obedience, determine, or judge” / “A person or group invested with this power” to (2) “Power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience” / “An accepted source of expert information or advice.” ADMAU’s Garner, in other words, casts himself as an authority not in an autocratic sense but in a technocratic sense. And the technocrat is not only a thoroughly modern and palatable image of authority but also immune to the charges of elitism/classism that have hobbled traditional Prescriptivism. After all, do we call a doctor or lawyer “elitist” when he presumes to tell us what we should eat or how we should do our taxes? (122)

ADMAU’s preface quietly and steadily invests Garner with every single qualification of modern technocratic authority: passionate devotion, reason and accountability (recall “in the interests of full disclosure, here are ten critical points…”), experience (“…that, after years of working on usage problems, I’ve settled on”), exhaustive and tech-savvy research (“For contemporary usage, the [123] files of our greatest dictionary makers pale in comparison with the full-text search capabilities now provided by NEXIS and WESTLAW”), an even and judicious temperament (see e.g. this from his HYPERCORRECTION: “Sometimes people strive to abide by the strictest etiquette, but in the process behave inappropriately”), and the sort of humble integrity (for instance, including in one of the entries a past published usage-error of his own) that not only renders Garner likable but transmits the kind of reverence for English that good jurists have for the law, both of which are bigger and more important than any one person. (123-124)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home