A CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER
I just finished two books, The Social Origins of Language, a book of essays responding to the work of Robert M. Seyfarth and Dorothy L. Cheney, edited and introduced by Michael L. Platt (Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2018), and A Clear and Present Danger, a work of right wing corpratist fiction, by Tom Clancy. One of these books is in my wheelhouse, the other should have made me want to bathe. Surprisingly I survived Clancy unsullied and pleasantly surprised.
The essays in The Social Origins of Language explore the evolution of language from the perspectives of evolutionary biology, neurobiology, psychology and linguistics. Seyfarth and Cheney propose, based on their research on baboon communications, that language didn’t evolve first as an internal thought system but rather as a product of complex social relations, and that baboon communications are an example combining semantics with syntax. This is a result of baboon complex social hierarchies, which individuals must understand. I am no linguist, and am at best a lurker in the debates of nature vs. nurture that rage across these disciplines. Chomsky’s work, to the extent that I understand it, always made sense to me. The rules of grammar are too complex to be the product of conscious thought. The idea that internal, unconscious brain processing would slowly emerge to be modified in the social context is logical. But it always sat uneasily with me. It is logical but does it make sense in the world we actually observe? Animal language and cognition studies have become more detailed and astonishing. So much philosophy is rooted in profound ignorance of animal behavior and evolutionary biology, and in the humanities, which filter a lot of my information, theories with their roots in Freud and Marx and the French philosophical tradition dominate. They of course dismiss biological arguments and genetic programming in favor a radical social origins position. They do so however while maintaining human uniqueness, a thorough going anthropomorphism that is rarely questioned. Both sides regard human language as utterly unique. But research has slowly erased the boundary between animal and human in all sorts of areas. There must be broad continuity. If evolution is true then we must be able to find in evolving brain structures, behavior, and communication systems precursors to human language use. Ljiljana Progovac in her essay Where Is Continuity to Be Found, reverses the process and asks, are there vestiges of animal communications to be found in human language? And she provides a delightful answer: in rudimentary syntactic structures. What the hell are these? you may ask. Aha! They are two-word small clauses, verbs and nouns that don’t distinguish between subject/agents and objects/patients grammatically but by context. A ’two-slot mode’ that produces: pick-pocket, scare-crow, turn-coat, rattle-snake, cry-baby, stink-bug, ass-hole. ‘Besides grammatical simplicity of verb-noun compounds, the reader will notice that the majority of these compounds are pejorative, especially the ones that refer to humans.” She goes on to discuss lust and hostility and a host of other enticing aspects of human society and cognition. I loved the work out these essays gave to my brain. They are certainly easily understood by a layperson, though I would hate to replicate the arguments here for fear of sounding like an idiot.
For Fear of Sounding like an Idiot! Well, I am in fear of it when I come to praise Tom Clancy’s book A Clear and Present Danger. I only read this door-stop (656 pages!!!!) because my son, an avid gamer, gave it to me for Christmas. I could have put it with all of the sweaters I have never received, and the ties I don’t get, but I thought, (internal complex reasoning), Jon, you write sci-fi thrillers with secret agents, armies, presidents, shit blowing up, assassinations, conspiracies, maybe you ought to read a master of the thriller genre? I did not think of him as a master, just one in a host of names my snotty intellectual soul has sorted into a category of meh. Especially bad is when a host of big bad actors star in movies based on these tomes. Ah, but I did like The Hunt for Red October. It’s a fine bit of underwater fun. So I sat down and opened it and started reading. It took way too long to finish. (I’m a fucking slow reader). But from the first page I had to know, I turned the page, I kept going, even though he was still introducing new characters on page 120, and he really was allergic to adjectives. A Clear and Present Danger starts with the president ordering his national security advisor to do something about this damn plague of cocaine coming in from Columbia. Eventually this will involve the FBI, CIA, army, navy, air force, coastguard, NSA, the Columbia drug cartel, police and prosecutors, and a rogue former Cuban intelligence agent, the Machiavel of the piece. Clancy is no idiot. He can write, he creates cardboard characters that are believable and cunning, you come to like some of them, and the sniveling weaklings are the real villains. He has a grudging respect for the Cuban agent, Felix Cortez, who is the best of the lot. He trots out regulars (one reads realizing a true fan knows a lot about this universe from other books). There is the Superbad John Clark, CIA assassin, and Jack Ryan, a boy scout. The plan is to secretly invade Columbia and disrupt drug shipments to the US, by shooting down the planes, and blowing up the processing centers. Well, it doesn’t go well! Nefarious activities are indirectly endorsed, but the boy scout finds out that nefarious shit is happening and saves the day. OK, there was heart thumping. Suspense. And an incredible narrative discipline and consistency of viewpoint. I learned a lot reading this thing. I might even read another, in a year or two. What distinguishes good novels from bad novels is how they are done. Clancy makes no great claims. He is not a psychologist. The only female character is a 40 year old executive assistant who is seduced by a Latin Lothario. It’s easy to make fun of this stuff, but I ask, could you do it? Writer who laughs, could you write a compelling 656 page thriller? There are a lot of things I can’t do and a few that I can. Writing thrillers is something I think I can do, but this serves as a reminder that making fun of a genre is a lot easier than achieving something in it, much less becoming a master. One way out of this is to invent your own genre, so you can be master of it, sort of like Pound’s observation of the ants, when he was in in his Pisan cage: “The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world”.