Feldenkrais & Gesellschaft

This piece in the NY Times reports that the latest U.S. Scripps National Spelling Bee co-champions are (again) from South Asia. Jairam Hathwar spelled “feldenkrais” & Nihar Janga spelled “gesellschaft,” arriving at a linguistic stalemate. There is no entry in the online OED for feldenkrais, but Wikipedia tells me that it is a way of training people’s movement to “increase . . . kinesthetic and proprioceptive self-awareness.” Gesellschaft shows up in the OED with this brief entry: “A social relationship between individuals based on duty to society or to an organization.”

Since reading this article a couple of hours ago I have been pondering whether it’s possible to draw any coherent implications from the fact that the two winners “are the ninth consecutive victors of South Asian ancestry, and the 12th in 16 years.” One is tempted to make invidious comparisons between the South Asian immigrant community & American nativist English-only fundamentalists. And though that particular social configuration currently packs a certain political wallop, its arguments are so incoherent they ultimately tear themselves apart.

So why this run of victories by South Asian elementary & middle-school students? My best guess would be that Indian immigrant communities (in the US & elsewhere) preserve the very deep Indian understanding of language. Combine that with the aspirational immigrant respect for education & one can begin to see how this run of South Asian spelling bee victories might happen. The claim about Indian cultural understanding of language would need to be further developed & I’m not expert enough to do that in an adequate way. I would simply note that there is a 4000 year textual tradition that begins with the Vedas. For the first half of that period the “texts” were oral, but there was a highly developed form of “oral literacy” among the priestly class that included an elaborate technology of memorization & error checking. Early Buddhists, faced with preserving the discourses of Gotama, adopted & adapted this set of values & skills for their own purposes.

I assume that the boys’ parents are immigrants who grew up bilingual in English & an Indian language & that the boys have grown up speaking American English. I hope they are also speaking the Indian language(s) of their parents–from the boys’ first names probably Hindi. India is an example of bilingualism / multilingualism on steroids. No doubt the boys’ families created an educational / study environment based on these values. The parents themselves would very likely be prepared to draw on their own traditions to help their children prepare. And this would be true of a certain percentage of similar immigrant parents, thus the long string of victories.1

These two particular words raise a question about how children study for the highest level of spelling bee competition. I assume they simply memorize long lists of common & even not so common words, but at some point this method will reach a point of diminishing returns. At that point competitors will need to shift to phonetics, including the phonetics of words of non-English origin. Feldenkrais is a Ukrainian / Yiddish (?) surname; gesellschaft is borrowed from German. I doubt these were on the boys’ To Memorize list.

 

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  1. I make no claim as to whether such training is in some larger way good–either in general or for particular students.

Guy Clark Dead at 74

The NY Times obituary covers his career but fails, to my mind, to suggest the combination of verbal high wit & deep feeling evident in Clark’s best songs. When the wit failed, as it did occasionally, the songs could slip over into sentimentality, as in “The Randall Knife,” “El Coyote” & “Hemingway’s Whisky.” This happens most frequently when Clark decides to draw a moral or teach a lesson. Clark’s crowd pleaser “The Cape” should fail on these grounds, but doesn’t, saving the lesson through a self-deprecating tone & the slight distancing of a third-person point of view.

Different listeners will have their own favorites, but my nomination for Clark’s best song would be the middle-period “Dublin Blues” & the late-career “Hell Bent on a Heartache” or (from the same album, My Favorite Picture of You) “I’ll Show Me.” Finally, I’m not big on the “novelty” songs like “Homegrown Tomatoes” & “Texas Cookin’,” with the exception of “Baby Took a Limo to Memphis,” which in any case I hesitate to put in the novelty category.

Moonrise

Since we moved my bed to the living room, putting it next to the big window overlooking the river, I have been able to watch the moon rise each night. Several days ago when I began observing, the moon was waxing gibbous until reaching full a couple of nights ago. (Though from my point of view it looked more full last night.) I have been staying up late, patiently waiting fifty minutes longer each night for moonrise. Tonight it rose a few minutes past ten.

In any case, during this same period the leaves on the maples out back have been budding out, obscuring more & more of the sky, though not completely blocking it. When it has first come up over the river these last few nights, the moon has been the color of cream & very close.

Sometimes I can see nearly the whole disk, but a few minutes later, screened by branches & leaves, only a bright fragment or two are apparent. If I wake very late in the night or in the early morning, I can see the moon’s whole face high in the sky, clear of the maples. But then it appears distant & silvery. Cold.

In Zen the moon is usually a symbol for realization (enlightenment) & we are warned “not to mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself,” but even here we are in the realm of symbolic discourse. Realization is seeing the real, but the only way to mark this is with symbols, metaphors & narratives, the latter giving rise to the immense & immensely tricky koan literature, a substantial portion of which features the moon.1

So I have been watching the moon, seeing it only partially as it changes constantly through the watches of the night.2 While I was writing that last sentence midnight came & went, moving me into the frame of a different day. The moon has reached the densest part of the maple canopy & I can see no glint or fragment at all. There is just Mars hanging there above the southern horizon. Let the moon stand for my realization, then. Ever-shifting & moving, sometimes bright, more often obscure & when bright, distant. But there it is, come back out of the blackness of the trees.

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  1. I am only a beginning student, but I think of koan as little chunks of anti-story meant to demolish our usual narratives, like anti-matter & matter.
  2. Last night I noticed a red glint in the southern sky: Mars, another symbol.

There is No Science of Consciousness; Or, Talking Animals

What follows is either a piece of grammatical / ontological speculation, or a shaggy dog story1–probably the latter. I was reading this report of a conference on the nature of consciousness in the NY Times when it occurred to me that there can be no “science of consciousness” because science is a product of consciousness. We can & do have consciousness of science, because science is a product of consciousness–an aspect–not the other way around. Maybe it’s just a trick of grammar & cannot be generalized, but it’s a trick that reveals something important. One does not say “the science of earth” for Geology (though we might well say Earth Science, which is itself revealing); nor does one say “the science of animals” for Zoology. Should one consider nouns like geology & zoology as highly compressed forms of apposition? If so, what does that imply? And why has no one yet proposed Consciousology as a name for this new science?

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  1. Scouting around for a brief definition of the phrase shaggy dog story, I found Wikipedia straightforward but appreciated the compact irony of the Urban Dictionary: “A joke, usually long, with a silly premise, often involving talking animals.”