a sheep in wolfe's clothing22 May 2006
Abramson links to a Tom Wolfe lecture, which he references with a beatific reverence. It’s my duty, therefore, to make fun of it.
Well, not really, but halfway through reading it, I was troubled by it, so let the random fisking begin:
Here’s the first problem – albeit a minor quibble:
No evolutionist has come up with even an interesting guess as to when speech began, but it was at least 11,000 years ago, which is to say, 9000 B.C. It seems to be the consensus . . . in the notoriously capricious field of evolutionary chronology . . . that 9000 B.C. was about when the human beast began farming, and the beast couldn’t have farmed without speech, without being able to say to his son, “Son, this here’s seeds. You best be putting ‘em in the ground in rows ov’ere like I tell you if you wanna git any ears a corn this summer.”
The beast couldn’t have farmed without speech? Sorry, not buying it. Granted, I am not a linguist, nor even an anthropologist, but I fail to see the connection between speech and the ability to communicate knowledge. This reminded me instantly of Chomsky, who maintains similarly flawed (in my opinion) stances on the importance of human speech, which rev summed up as such:
He’s fiercely committed to the premise that human language use is completely unique and distinctive, which forces him to assume that it exploded into being full-blown one day. I.e. there are no language-like behaviors in animals. He dismissed all the ape sign-language stuff without particularly waiting to see how it came out, because he knew the truth, and the truth was that only humans can use language.
From here, Wolfe takes somewhat of a non-sequitur detour into talking about class, eventually meandering, aimlessly, into this description of hip-hop culture:
The hippies’ clothes of yore look like no more than clown costumes next to the voluminous Hip Hop jeans with the crotch at knee level and the pants legs cascading into great puddles of fabric at the ankles, the T-shirts hanging outside the pants and just short of knee level and as much as a foot below their leather jackets or windbreakers, and the black bandannas known as do-rags around their heads. What were the hippies’ LSD routs known as acid tests . . . compared to the Hip Hop stars’ status tests that require shooting and assassinating one another periodically? How cool is that?
How cool is reducing hip-hop culture to do-rags and shootings? Old fogey attempting to be culturally relevant: 10 yard penalty, repeat first down.
More recently, I returned to Washington and Lee for a conference on the subject of Latin American writing in the United States. The conference soon became a general and much hotter discussion of the current immigration dispute. I had arrived believing that, for example, Mexicans who had gone to the trouble of coming to the United States legally, going through all the prescribed steps, would resent the fact that millions of Mexicans were now coming into the United States illegally across the desert border. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. I discovered that everyone who thought of himself as Latin, even people who had been in this country for two and three generations, were wholeheartedly in favor of immediate amnesty and immediate citizenship for all Mexicans who happened now to be in the United States. And this feeling had nothing to do with immigration policy itself, nothing to do with law, nothing to do with politics, for that matter. To them, this was not a debate about immigration. The very existence of the debate itself was to them a besmirching of their fiction-absolute, of their conception of themselves as Latins. Somehow the debate, simply as a debate, cast an aspersion upon all Latins, implying doubt about their fitness to be within the border of such a superior nation.
Note here that for some reason, these immigrants’ opinions are as a result of a “besmirching of their fiction-absolute” – not, as you might expect, as simply their conclusions as rational, thinking people. Wolfe provides no evidence here, even anecdotally, for what he decides is a “besmirching”.
Anyways, I’ll be honest: I got bored around this point and had to stop reading. Reading this wasn’t so much like watching a train wreck so much as it was like watching a drunk stumble, pinball-like, from digression to digression. Maybe some day I’ll come to appreciate Wolfe’s literary contributes, but this lecture has not impressed me.
Roger is right, though. He would make an interesting dinner companion.