Authoritarian Grammar, Fundamentalist Arithmetic

Part I

by Ben G. Price

"It's hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head." -- Sally Kempton

Questioning authority has a purpose that is neither selfish nor immature. It requires the ability to identify tyrannical "authority" as a questionable guide to behavior and a source of oppression. It is the act of unmasking a supposed "authority" and discovering the unsuspected authoritarian. The ease of accomplishing this is complicated by authoritarian dishonesty and propaganda-induced loyalty to authoritarian programs, processes, and agendas. The habit of obedience is the most profound obstacle to overthrowing the tyrant. It might be instructive if we consider the characteristics of authority as it applies to and is reified and amplified by human nature, particularly our ability, or inability to reason in the face of commands.

It is understood generally that conscious thought and reasoning occur in a linguistic sense, and that the tools of rational thought are therefore limited to (or expanded by) the currency of symbolic language. A symbol-packet, such as a word, is imbued with meaning. Combinations of words guided by rules of syntax give meaningful information about the relationships between the words and hence about understood relationships between the objects or ideas symbolized by those words. Inflection and other contextual cues flavor syntax and can effect meaning as well, such as in the statement of an irony, where the words, such as "now wasn't that intelligent!" can be understood to mean "now wasn't that stupid?" based on such cues.

A study of grammatical forms teaches us that in English there are three primary types of sentences identified as Declarative, Interrogative, and Imperative. How often we may have heard these terms before we "learned" them to the point of indifferent familiarity is of interest, since before that stage of unconscious acceptance we might have actually been more intelligent in our understanding of the grammar in question.

A statement of fact, a question, a command: these nuances become viscerally understood by the speaker of English long before the formal grammar "explains" them to us. "I want a drink." "Can I have some cake?" "Give me that!" Children know the grammar. Grammarians perhaps bore them into dull acceptance of its formalisms early on in school. But there is a genii corked within the Kleins bottle of the grammar we take so much for granted.

Communication is generally understood to be the successful exchange of information.We might, as well, think of language as an opportunity for human service to be rendered to another. Sentences are the molecular building blocks of communication, and the three major forms of sentences create the linguistic mode and tone for that exchange of information. Hence, a declarative sentence presents intended or understood "facts" as if in service to the listener's knowledge. An interrogative sentence requests such information from another presumed to be in possession of it. So the declarative sentence in a sense gifts the listener and renders a service, while the interrogative sentence makes a request for the service of supplying information possessed by one and lacked by the other.

But it is the imperative sentence which reveals a less egalitarian use of language. It neither requests nor offers information, but instead imposes a demand that what it proclaims, true or not, be acted upon. In the imperative sentence, language is used as a leverage and fulcrum for authoritarian will.

If language is what separates humans from animals, the imperatve sentence, the command, is the most animal form of speech, drawing as it does on the instincts of territoriality, social hierarchy, and herd uniformity. But in the higher realm of human mentation, such base instincts partake of a quasi-mystical power. The suggestibility of the hypnotic subject, or the ancient and rare, though not extinct belief in spell-casting point to a fundamental relationship between certain ritualized forms of language and authoritarian control through language.

Elias Canetti's understanding of the human ritualizing of power relationships in social groups is superior to many political science theories. It escues ideology and embraces the nature of the human beast:

"'An Order Is an Order.' Commands are by their nature final and categorical, and this may be the reason why so little thought has been given to the subject. They seem to us as natural as they are necessary and we accept them as something which has alway existed. From childhood onwards we are accustomed to commands; they make up a good part of what we call education and the whole of our adult life is permeated with them, whether in the sphere of work, of war, or of religion. Thus the question has scarcely ever been raised of what a command actually is: whether it is really as simple as it appears; whether, in spite of the ease and promptness with which it normally achieves its object -- that is obedience -- it does not in fact mark the person who obeys it, even to the point of arousing feelings of hostility in him." -- Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, p 303

In cleaving to nature and abandoning the latice of magical verbal spells constructed over the ages as a social scaffold to elevate certain ideas above the realities of individual perception, Canetti himself both challenges and is challenged by authoritarian tradition. The role of language in the evolution of authoritarianism is of keen interest. It is our object here. Canetti says of the relationship:

"Commands are older than speech. If this were not so, dogs could not understand them. Animals can be trained because they can be taught to understand what is requied of them without understanding speech. The trainer makes his will known to them in short, clear commands, no different in essence from those addressed to human beings; and they also obey his prohibitions. There is thus every reason to seek very ancient roots for the command. At the very least it is clear that, in one form or another, it exists outside human society." -- Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, p 303

It is perhaps a semantic dispute to say that commands are older than speech, since we must understand that the animals being trained are none-the-less being trained to abandon their own preferred behavior and adopt imposed behaviors through the use of language, whether or not they comprehend every verbal nuance with which the human and his own trainers have imbued his words over the ages. Research on language abilities in animals remains controversial for this very reason: the definition of language is constantly reconstrued and nuanced to be, by definition, always and at least one refinement beyond the highest symbolic abilities of animal subjects. This is so because there is a deep-rooted philosophical tradition which differentiates humans from animals on the basis of language skills.

If what may be loosely defined as commands are seen to be obeyed by other species, and if language is defined to be beyond the abilities of any but the human species, then commands must necessarily be older or more primitive than speech. But it seems a better refinement of our understanding of language will quicken reality in a less amorphous form. An admission that other species are capapble of basic language skills is compelled by the mounting evidence that higher primates, at least, can manipulate symbols linguistically and can communicate information about their surroundings, as well as subjective states, across species lines. It is not language that is confined to one organism, but rather one organism, namely humanity, which has confined its communication to its own kind. The difficulty lies, apparently, in our inability to form analog subjectivities in our own mental experience. That is, we seem unable to empathize well enough to imagine any other form of awareness, any other kind of experience or "truth" than our own. In this belief in the singularity of valid experience (i.e. experience orthogonal to our own) we see the seed of authoritarianism in all of us.

Julian Jaynes concisely describes how language naturally evolved among our social ancestors, and in the following narrative we can gleen an image of how, had their habitats not been ravaged, still other wild apes might have independently developed speech, and as a dubious ancillary blessing, authoritarian tyrants of their own:

"The first stage and the sine qua non of language is the development out of incidental calls of intentional calls, or those which tend to be repeated unless turned off by a change in behavior of the recipient...each new stage of words literally created new perceptions and attentions, and such new perceptions and attentions resulted in important cultural changes which are reflected in the archaeological record.

"The first real elements of speech were the final sounds of intentional calls differentiating on the basis of intensity. For example, a danger call for immediately present danger would be exclaimed with more intensity, changing the ending phoneme. An imminent tiger might result in 'wahee!' while a distant tiger might result in a cry of less intensity and so develop a different ending such as 'wahoo.' It is these endings, then, that become the first modifiers meaning 'near' and 'far.' And the next step was when these endings, 'hee' and 'hoo,' could be separated from the particular call that generated them and attached to some other call with the same indication.

"The crucial thing here is that the differentiation of vocal qualifiers had to precede the invention of the nouns which they modified, rather than the reverse...The next stage might have been an age of commands, when modifiers, separated from the calls they modify, now can modify men's actions themselves." -- Julian Jaynes, The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind, pp 131-133

A remarkably similar observation is made by William Calvin of Washington University:

"They also have other vocalizations to call the group together or to warn of the approach of another group of monkeys. Wild chimpanzees use about three dozen different vocalizations, each of them, like those of the vervets, meaningful in itself. A chimp's loud 'waa-bark' is defiant, angry. A soft 'cough-bark' is, surprisingly, a threat. 'Wraaa' mixes fear with curiosity ('Weird stuff, this!') and the soft 'huu' signifies weirdness without hostility ('What is this stuff?').

If a 'waa-wraaa-huu' is to mean something different than 'huu-wraaa-waa,' the chimp would have to suspend judgment, ignoring the standard meanings of each call until the whole string had been received and analyzed. This doesn't happen. Combinations are not used for special meanings.

Humans also have about three dozen units of vocalization, called phonemes; but they're all meaningless! Even most syllables like 'ba' and 'ga' are meaningless unless combined with other phonemes to make meaningful words, like 'bat' or 'galaxy.' Somewhere along the line, our ancestors stripped most speech sounds of their meaning. Only the combinations of sounds now have meaning: We string together meaningless sounds to make meaningful words. That's not seen anywhere else in the animal kingdom.

Furthermore, there are strings of strings such as the word phrases that make up this sentence; as if the principle were being repeated on yet another level of organization. Monkeys and apes may repeat an utterance to intensify its meaning (as do many human languages, such as Polynesian), but nonhumans in the wild don't (so far) string together different sounds to create entirely new meanings.

No one has yet explained how our ancestors got over the hump of replacing one-sound/one-meaning with a sequential combinatorial system of meaningless phonemes, but it's probably one of the most important transitions that happened during ape-to-human evolution. -- William H. Calvin, How Brains Think, Chapter 5

When symbolic modification of reality through descriptive language came to be applied to the actions of humans, it should not be surprising that humans themselves were just as callously forced to abandon their nature and adopt the changing morphologies of those who imposed by force of will some description of a preferred and demanded action and behavior. If the things of the world and its fellow creatures were objectified by language, then so too were fellow men and women transformed into objects, whose process of being in the world would henceforth be descriptively manipulated (i.e. commanded) by those empowered to speak for all, to dictate reality into a new, obedient and malleable being.

Canetti tells us:

"The first thing that strikes one about a command is that it initiates action. An extended finger, pointing in a certain direction, can have the effect of a command: all that seems to be involved is initiation of some definite action, with movement in one given direction. The determination of direction is especially important; reversal or deflection should be felt as equally inadmissible.

"An action performed as the result of a command is different from all other actions. It is experienced and remembered as something alien, something not really our own. The speed of execution which an order demands may be part of the reason why we remember our action as alien, but it is not the whole reason. An important aspect of commands is that they come from outside; they are one of the constituents of life which are imposed on us, not something which develops out of ourselves. Even those solitaries who appear from time to time and, with a whole arsenal of commands, seek to found new religions and regenerate old ones, still retain the appearance of men on whom an alien burden has been laid. It is never in their own name that they speak; what they demand of others is what they have been told to demand and, whatever other lies they may tell, they are honest in this: they believe that they have been sent."

"The source of a command is thus something alien; but it must also be something recognized as stronger than ourselves. We submit because we see no hope of fighting." -- Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, p 305

Alien is the power that causes action in us that is neither desired nor self-willed. It is a kind of puppetry in which we are the marionettes and the dictator of our pseudo-will is a ventriloquist who throws his voice and creates the convincing illusion that it is really a voice and desire that wells up from within us. Hollowed out icons of humanity, we have had the "stuffings" removed from us, been disemboweled of our souls, and the will of the tyrant inserted up under our cuffs and skirts and sleeves so that in the guise of many people a single tyrany is enacted. We the people have been possessed by the sovereign demon of abdicated personhood. The many-headed chimera of the public beast nods and bobs at the mere flick of the puppeteer's finger, and echoes platitudes learned by rote.

Julian Jaynes reiterates Canetti's observation:

"Consider what it is to listen and understand someone speaking to us. In a certain sense we have to become the other person; or rather, we let him become part of us for a brief second. We suspend our own identities, after which we come back to ourselves and accept or reject what he has said. But that brief second of dawdling identity is the nature of understanding language; and if that language is a command, the identification of understanding becomes the obedience. To hear is actually a kind of obedience. Indeed, both words come from the same root and therefore were probably the same originally. This is true in English, where 'obey' comes from the Latin obedire, which is a composite of ob+audire, to hear facing someone."

It is Julian Jaynes' theory of the evolution of subjective consciousness from an earlier authoritarian form of mentation that gives us one of the compelling arguments for identifying individuality and subjective sovereignty as developmentally more advanced and mature than the mental passivity and behavioral complacency that is so asiduously advanced and promoted by those entrenched as nodes of power in any society. Jaynes' theory is, briefly, that the early development of language in our ancestors went through a stage in which audio hallucinations much like those experienced pathologically by schizophrenics was the rule rather than the exception among humans. As human populations migrated under the pressure of climate changes, their nascent language skills underwent an episodic revolution. Whereas warnings and commands had come to be modified and from them the names of discrete objects evolved, under pressure of stress or anxiety, auditory hallucinations would "replay" the sound of the chief's command, for instance, to flee from danger. And subjectively this hallucination would be experienced as the actual hearing of a voice and a command. And over time such commands were interpreted as the admonitions of invisible gods or god-kings speaking directly to the individual.

The theory is supported by arguments regarding the two-hemispheres of the brain. The language center, based in the left hemisphere, communicated across the corpus collosum to the right hemisphere, and this interior exchange of linguistically coded information was subjectively experienced in ways that gave rise to the long lineage of literary and religious cultural traditions that includes Muses, Guardian Angels, prophetic visitations by Greek and Hebrew and Christian gods and saints. The rare Joan of Arcs and Saint Pauls of the current two millenial era were preceded in the prior two or three millenia by whole societies steeped in the oracular mode of consciousness, as opposed to the more common ego consciousness of modern times, according to Jaynes. And in that era, the authoritarian command and the rule of social hierarchy were the apex of human social and moral and psychological development. Today, through the discouragement of our "betters" toward more conscious pursuits, we are in the habit of harking back to those days and that era as if nostalgically longing for a better time, an Edenic existence in which certainty about important things still existed.

"To converse with someone at less than the usual distance means at least an attempted mutuality of obedience and control, as, for example, in a love relationship, or in the face-to- face threatening of two men about to fight...The problem is the control of such obedience. This is done in two ways. The first but less important is simply by spatial distance... The second and more important way that we control other people's voice authority over us is by our opinions of them....We constantly rate others and pigeonhole them in often ridiculous status hierarchies simply to regulate their control over us and our thoughts... And if one belonged to a bicameral culture, where the voices were recognized as at the utmost top of the hierarchy, taught you as gods, kings, majesties that owned you, head, heart, and foot, the omniscient, omnipotent voices that could not be categorized as beneath you, how obedient to them the bicameral man!" -- Julian Jaynes, The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind, pp97-98

In the modern era, the gods still have their spokesmen, and they continue to everywhere define taboos in order to limit the arena of voluntary, ego-directed volition. From there, it is a mere case of fine-tuning compliant behavior. Almost any tyrant, elected or self-annointed, can succeed in commanding the public crowd mind. The so-called "morality" dictated by the clergy and religious huxters is black and white, absolute, and formulaic so as to be unambiguous (no matter how arcane are the niceties of their dogmas) in defining proscribed behavior and forbidden thoughts. If the orthodoxy of the totalist tyrany that is the human social hierarchy can be described as a formula that adds up to the culture of authoritarianism we see all around us, then it is a simple mathematics of additive, cumulative centralization of power and subtraction, systematic reduction of individual autonomy. It is a social arithmetic attempting to solve for reality with woefully inadequate skills. Or it is simply a primitive and barbaric tradition that is continually decorated and camoflauged against exposure by our miseducation into pretty but false cosmologies, coupled with our pathetically human propensity to do what we are told.

Nietzche may have been premature to claim that the gods are dead. They continue to yammer in the schizophrenic mindspace we reserve for TV salesmen, and in the voice of all others who command our attention and our product loyalty, whether that product is a commodity or an ideology. And yet, to some few of us it seems clear that so much of the talk about "morality" in politics and every-day life is really the sound of empty cans clattering down a deserted road, blown by winds of uncertain origin. The compulsion to judge and command is undeniably stronger among authorities than the will to act as models of prescribed behavior. And so it is also clear that those who claim to speak for him can not be counted among the many who believe in god. It is more true to say that they have the greatest need to believe, because the fruit of others' belief is their own worldly success. And so they believe in this alone: the unique justice of their autocracy. "Authority" itself becomes their god, and all who question it are patently godless and amoral.

The rest, who have their faith in "a personal god" recapitulate the ontology of what Julian Jaynes calls "Bicameral Man." Many become psychologically addicted to this stage of mental development, and fail to mature beyond it into individuated consciousness. More to the point, they enter the threshold of individuated consciousness with a longing and dependent need for authorization and assurances of support from once vocal "gods," and substitute that authorization through obedience to external authorities and commands.

The evolution of syntax is the evolution of mind, and of consciousness, as William H. Calvin assures us in his How Brains Think. Evolutionary taxonomy asserts that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," which means that the physical development of the individual unfolds through stages that retrace the evolutionary physical development of the individual's species. This recapitulation of development is seen in embyonic development, when complex organisms rapidly "evolve" from single celled fertilized ovum, temporarily exhibit the charatcersitics of evolutionary progenitors, until they reach the stage of imago, the mature form of the genetically programmed species. Human embryos are seen to develop in this way, and at one point actual gills are present, as in the aquatic ancestors from which we developed.

In the same way that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, ontology recapitulates philology. That is, the type and form of mentation, of consciousness, does not spring fully developed to the mind of the animal or person. It must proceed through a microcosmic evolution of its own, touching each of the evolutionary stages of awareness on the way toward mature mentality. In humans, syntax and language skills play a crucial role in this development. Language forms the basis for feats of logic and improvisation in intellectual pursuits.

Stones and bones are, unfortunately, about all that remain of our ancestors in the last four million years, not their higher intellectual abilities.Other species branched off along the way, but they are no longer around to test. We have to go back six million years before there are living species with whom we shared a common ancestor: the nonhominid branch itself split about three million years ago into the chimpanzee and the much rarer bonobo (the chimpanzee of the Pygmies). If we want a glimpse at ancestral behaviors, they are our best chance. Bonobos share more behavioral similarities with humans and they are also much better subjects for studying language than the chimps that starred in the 60s and 70s. Linguists have a bad habit of claiming that anything lacking syntax isn't language. That, ahem, is like saying that a Gregorian chant isn't music, merely because it lacks Bach's use of the contrapuntal techniques of stretto, parallel voice leading, and mirror inversions of themes. Since linguistics confines itself to "Bach and beyond," it has primarily fallen to the anthropologists, the ethologists, and the comparative psychologists to be the musicologists, to grapple with the problem of what came before syntax. The linguist's traditional put-down of all such research ("It isn't really language, you know") is a curious category error, since the object of the research is to understand the antecedents of the powerful structuring that syntax provides.

One occasionally gets some help from the ontogeny-recapitulates-phylogeny crib, but human language is acquired so rapidly in early childhood that I suspect a streamlining, one that thoroughly obscures any original staging, rather as freeways tend to obliterate post roads.The fast track starts in infants with the development of phoneme boundaries: prototypes become 'magnets' that capture variants. Then there's a pronounced acquisitiveness for new words in the second year, for inferring patterns of words in the third (kids suddenly start to use past tense (-ed) and plural (-s) with consistency, a generalization that occurs without a lot of trial-and-error), and for narratives and fantasy by the fifth. It is fortunate for us that chimps and bonobos lack such fasttracking, because it gives us a chance to see, in their development, the intermediate stages that were antecedent to our powerful syntax.

As Canetti has observed, just when and how the imperative, the command came into being has been little studied. Julian Jaynes' theory of the evolution of consciousness convincingly suggests that the imperative is a linguistic relic from an earlier phase of human mental evolution. The recognition by some that it is just such a relic, and not the epitome of human civilization to remain obedient to authority, seems to offer a glimmer of hope that human intelligence will actually evolve beyond its Neanderthal infancy and embrace a new responsibility for its own perceptions and conceptions, unfettered by the coercive imposition of beliefs and behaviors.

Part II will appear in next month's issue.