Category Archives: theory

Ha Ha! Theoretical physics is on my side!

My studies have recently taken me on a very interesting diversion into the world of knowledge. To be more specific: the ontological and epistemological assumptions that we use when we go about placing things in categories, so that we can do useful things such as talk about the world around us and compare stuff. When we are talking about Japanese identity we are also talking about the categories that separate ‘Japanese’ from ‘foreigner’ etc. Of course, these categories need to come from somewhere and in the case of Japan, John Clammer suggests that a lot comes from indigenous cosmologies (read Shinto and Buddhism) that have shaped the ways in which the Japanese think about basics such as inside and outside, purity and impurity etc.

But another, perhaps even more fundamental categorising element is language. I was lucky enough to get Steven Pinker’s excellent “The Stuff of Thought” for Christmas, which is a great book about how language and thought are interlinked. Although I am by no means a theoretical linguist, the idea of language determining how people see the world seems very rich: the immediate question being can learning another language allow one to think outside the confines of one’s own mother tongue? This has implications for my study: are Japanese who can speak foreign languages and foreigners who speak Japanese slowly modifying their respective world views in a way that is challenging hegemonic cultural understandings of each other?

The physics bit comes from this week’s New Scientist. In it there is an article entitled “Trapped in a World View” that reiterates and builds upon an argument made by Niels Bohr that: “it is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out about nature. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” (p. 42, my italics) The article suggests that Western European languages are getting in the way when it comes to understanding the latest in theoretical physics. Why is this? Well, it seems that the concepts that ideas such as string theory deals with are not wholly compatible with the basic mechanics of our language, which is made up of nouns acting on nouns in various ways using verbs. The author suggests, however, that different languages offer a ‘better’ set of categories for understanding the weird world of quantum mechanics, notably the Algonquian family of languages that have lots of verbs but little in the way of specific noun categories. In this world view the world is a set of processes that we are part of and the world is in a continued state of flux – quite close to the physicist’s own observations of particles that showed them to be more process than thing. What is stunning about this revelation is the fundamental importance of language – to the extent that the cutting edge of physics is only now (well, 1992) making insights into the universe that some of us on this planet have had access to from day one thanks to the language they grew up with. But here is the kicker. The author suggests that by studying other languages we may be able to break down categorical walls and address the limitations that they impose upon us. “The study of other types of languages opens us up to other world views, to complementary ways of speaking about the cosmos.” (p. 43) Back in the universe of me, I wonder if the same holds true for the world views that come with national identity.

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Filed under Japan, Language, Philosophy, Physics, politics, Reality, theory, Wierd

Hyper what?


Its been a fair few days since my last post – my dissertation has been sapping all my energy! Thankfully that is coming to an end and I begin to think about different things.

Yesterday, as I was watching an interesting documentary about the creation of the German national myth in the years leading up to WWII, I had some thoughts on the link between reality and events. I have been reading Baudrillard on and off for the past few weeks and his notion of hyper-reality has really stuck with me. But it was a chapter about Hannah Arendt’s view of theory that really got me going. The following is for my own sake as I think through these concepts, but feel free to comment!

Once a theory of something comes into being, that theory in essence begins to create reality for those who adopt it. It is not events themselves that create our sense of reality, it is the discourse and theory that surrounds those events. So it may be the case that the theoretical paradigm events are interpreted though that gives them their historical significance. WWII German ideology is a good example of this, as once the theory of German supremacy was proposed, all events – be they contemporary anthropological discoveries or re-interpreted historical actions – were viewed through that theoretical prism and a fitting reality was constructed.

Events only gain meaning through perception, making only subjective statements about events possible. David Luban sums it up beautifully:

“Historical truth” is simply the name for the kaleidoscope that successively reveals and dissipates these patterns. All of which is to say: there is no fact of the matter in politics, only a plurality of perspectives.

But certain perspectives can be given more legitimacy by those in positions of authority – scientists, academics, leaders – coming out in support of the theory. At a certain critical mass of support the hyper-reality builds its own internal logic and becomes self-perpetuating (in essence ‘real’).  It is only with the benefit of hindsight – after the hyper-reality implodes due to a cataclysmic event – that such a reality seems ridiculous.

I then thought about more recent events. A White House aid once said to a a New York Times reporter that America created its own reality (see here): the theory being that history had ‘ended’ and liberal democracy had emerged as the only ‘true’ way in which to organise societies.  However, in order to reify this idea Bush et al. could not just create events, they also needed to manage the theory through which those events were interpreted in the public sphere: ie by the media,  by intellectuals etc.  After some success to begin with (the media was very receptive in the post 9/11 environment, especially the FOX news network), ‘information management’ has become more difficult, at least not as far as the war in Iraq is concerned (as such I don’t think that Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent paradigm quite fits today’s media). Now Bush says he wants to leave judgement of the Iraq War to history – more evidence of faith in the theory. I suggest that he might not get the vindication he is looking for, as cataclysmic events – Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the sectarian violence in Iraq –  have already taken place.

But another type of hyper-reality is starting to take hold. The race for the Democratic nomination has been peppered with references to the dangers in the Middle East and particularly Iran. As the competitors run with the theory that a confrontational stance on Middle East is what the American people want (or even is inevitable re: Huntingdon), the rhetoric heats up. Of course, leaders in the Middle East hear the threats and start shouting back. It is the classic Realist security dilemma: all actions taken by the other side must be taken at face value and appropriate measures taken. But Realism is a theory – it takes one view of events invests in them a certain significance. The dangers of this hyper-reality are obvious.

I have always been skeptical of Realism in the way it professes to know certain fundamentals of human behaviour, and equally skeptical of any ‘scientific’ theory of human interaction (neo-realism I talking to you). The question is where do you go from here?

(ps. The photo is by Gregory Crewdson, who is a little like the still image equivalent of David Lynch.  With the reality theme it seemed apt)

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