El Loko’s Cos/Asemic Alphabet


Xu Bing began to develop the pictographic resources for his Book from the Ground project in 2004 (see the postscript to the book and webnote z). A decade earlier, driven by a similarly utopian impulse, the Togo-born artist El Loko (1950-2016), started to create an idiosyncratic writing system of his own, blending stylized images of fable-creatures from his native Togo, motifs from the Christian tradition, and other idiomatically abstract designs peculiar to his own work. It also bears comparison with the early-nineteenth century Vai script from Liberia, which came to Momolu Duwalu Bukele in a dream. Unlike the found icons in Book from the Ground, Loko’s script is illegible, though, as he commented, he too dreamed of establishing “one language for the entire world.” Over the course of the next two decades he experimented with his evolving script using various media, including paintings, sculptures, installations and photographs.

The images above and below show the last site-specific articulation of his ‘Cosmic Alphabet’ which forms part of the top-floor terrace and ceiling of the Museum of Contemporary Arts Africa (MOCAA) in Cape Town, South Africa. The building itself, designed by the English architect Thomas Heatherwick, re-purposes a block of concrete silos, creating the gallery and a hotel. The silos, which were constructed in the early 1920s to store grain for export from the Cape Town harbour, had been derelict since the early 2000s. The glass-covered circles, each of which is made up of panels inscribed with Loko’s script, mark the space the individual silos originally occupied. Though everyone can see through them to the gallery space far below, no one can see through the ‘cosmic letters’ to decipher their meaning, creating an experience of ‘reading’ closer to Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky (or Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) than to Book from the Ground. That the script ought, in principle, to be universally accessible but is, in practice, a cryptic example of asemic writing is no doubt part of Loko’s point about the work that still needs to be done to overcome the silo-mentalities of a multiply divided world. The unique features of the site and the materials Loko used are key. While inventively turning the ghostly grain silos into metaphors, he also creates a more literal play on opacity and transparency by etching his unreadable ‘letters’ on glass.

(Other notable artists who engage with writing as a creative medium include Rosaire Appel, Marian Bijlenga, Willem BoshoffAugusto de Campos, Mirtha Dermisache, Cui Fei, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Parastou Forouar, William KentridgeJoseph Kosuth, Barbara Kruger, Maria LaiGlenn Ligon, Brody NeunschwanderEd Ruscha, el Seed, Christopher Skinnerthe Slavs and Tatars collectiveAntoni Tàpies, Jana Traboulsi, Gu Wenda, and Jorge Wellesley.

For more on the art of the asemic, see SCRIPTjr.nl, asemic magazine, Tim Gaze’s Asemic Movement, Michael Jacobson’s the new postliterate, and bright stupid confetti. And for a glimpse into Jim Leftwich’s extraordinary oeuvre on flickr click here.

Peter Schwenger’s Asemic: The Art of Writing (2019) is an essential introduction. For my review of it click here.

See also Jeremy Deller’s collaborations with the typographer Fraser Muggeridge, especially using Thomas More’s invented Utopian alphabet8 Text Artists and the ‘Kirsty Gunn’ post under ‘Other Writers’. And watch Neunschwander’s compelling ‘Brush with silence‘ (2009-), Jakub Wróblewski and Katarzyna Bazarnik’s FIRST • WE • FEEL • THEN • WE • FALL (2016), and explore William Kentridge’s Studio (2021).






Re-reading/Coetzee’s Disgrace


1. If the Chinese writing system is not part of your cultural repertoire, this sentence is quite literally unreadable. You may recognize it as Chinese but is it Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien or Teochew? Recasting it in pinyin may make it more legible in the most basic sense—that is pronounceable—if you are familiar with Latinate writing systems:

Tā juédé, duì zìjǐ zhèyàng niánjì wǔ’shíèr suì, jiéguò hūn yòu líle hūn de nánrén lái shuō, xìng xūqiú de wèntí kě suànshì jiějué dé xiāngdāng bùcuòle.

Yet, even in this form, you are still likely to be left guessing. How exactly do you say ‘xìng’, for instance? Even if English is not your first language, you will probably feel more comfortable with the following translation:

In his opinion, as a 52-year-old man who got married and then divorced, he solves the problem of sex very well.

By this point, if you have read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), you may have recognized this as a version of his own first sentence:

For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. (1)

Like the back translation, these twenty familiar English words pose no real difficulties when it comes to pronunciation and even their sense, individually and grammatically, is clear. And yet this is one of the most opaquely transparent opening sentences ever written, making it, for the English-reading world, the literary equivalent of a koan. Why is this? And what sense are we to make of it?

2. To get a purchase on its koan-like qualities we need to look not only to the tradition of creative doubt which is central to Zen Buddhism, but to the history of the European novel and, more particularly, to Coetzee’s dialogue with Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). Disgrace itself draws attention to this key literary relationship at a number of levels. For one thing, Flaubert’s boldly and, in its day, scandalously innovative novel is explicitly tagged as a part of the central protagonist David Lurie’s cultural repertoire. While dwelling on the pleasures of his ‘assignation’ with the Muslim prostitute Soraya, Lurie identifies himself with Flaubert’s heroine: ‘He thinks of Emma Bovary, coming home sated, glazen-eyed, from an afternoon of reckless fucking’ (5). Later, after his dutiful, adulterous ‘congress’ with Bev Shaw, the ‘dumpy’ vet who runs an animal refuge in which he ends up working as a volunteer, he boastfully imagines Bev singing to herself in front of the mirror—‘I have a lover! I have a lover!’—again like Emma (72, 150). These allusions reflect back on the content of Disgrace itself, inviting readers to think of it as a self-conscious recasting of Flaubert’s disaster story of transgressive desire, now told not from the perspective of a young, provincial bourgeois woman in post-revolutionary France but from Lurie’s point of view as a middle-aged, middle-class, white academic of Jewish heritage in post-apartheid South Africa.

3. Yet it is at the narrative rather than the character level that the idea of Disgrace as a creative re-writing of Madame Bovary becomes most telling. Like the basic content of the story, this is visible on every page, since it concerns Coetzee’s use of style indirect libre, Flaubert’s innovative narrative technique that contributed both to Madame Bovary’s initial notoriety and to its subsequent canonical status in the history of the European novel. The consequences of this, which are not only technical, can be seen most clearly through comparison.

3.1 I’ll take just one example from Madame Bovary: the account of Emma’s erotic fantasies about Rodolphe, her latest lover, in Chapter 12. By this stage, she is already long-settled into her boring marriage and the disappointments of motherhood. After explicitly signalling that ‘she lay awake, dreaming other dreams’, the third-person narrator, who uses the conventionally novelistic past tense throughout, describes the glamorous life she anticipates leading with Rodolphe, shifting into the hypothetical future conditional. Among other things, Emma imagines they would ‘ride in gondolas, they’d laze in swaying hammocks, and their life would be free and flowing like their silken garments, warm and star-studded like the soft night skies they’d gaze at’ (174). In a move characteristic of Flaubert’s technique, the narrator not only enters the time of fantasy—the future conditional—he (?) ventriloquizes Emma, adopting the language she herself borrows from the popular romances she read as a girl. During her convent-school education, as we learn in Chapter 6, she developed a taste for pre-revolutionary aristocratic love stories that describe ‘wounded hearts, vows, sobs, tears, and kisses, gondolas by moonlight, nightingales in woods, and “gentlemen” brave as lions’ (34) — like Lurie, Lord Jim, and Don Quixote, Emma’s desires are fueled by books (including, in Lurie’s case, Madame Bovary). The allusion to the Venetian scenes she read about earlier is understated, but the narrator ensures that when they resurface in Chapter 12 via the device of style indirect libre the deflationary, ironizing effect is clear. ‘Everything hovered in a harmonious, sun-drenched, bluish haze along the boundless horizon’, the sequence ends, ‘but then the child in her crib would cough, or else Bovary would give a louder snore, and Emma would not fall asleep till morning’ (174). At this point, as we move from the erotic fantasies Emma articulates in her own borrowed idiom to the narrator’s external commentary and from the hypothetical future conditional to the dull routines of Emma’s daily life, her dream-world implodes and we are left thinking about the very different love story that is Madame Bovary itself.

3.2 Contrast this with Coetzee’s opening sentence: ‘For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well’ (1). Again, as in Flaubert, we have a disembodied third-person narrator reporting what is going on in the mind of the central protagonist. The only difference is that this narrator adopts the present tense—in this instance, the present perfect, signifying a completed action—and gives no cues about the provenance of the idiom used. Though the phrase ‘to his mind’ relativizes the second clause, there is no indication at this point that any of the words belong to Lurie himself. A few pages on, after Lurie becomes embroiled in a sexual scandal with a student, which ultimately costs him his job, various subsequent cues indicate otherwise. This is not just because, as the plot reveals, Lurie clearly has not solved the problem of sex at all, but because we begin to see that thinking of sex as a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’ is one of Lurie’s many problems. As this phrasing suggests, Lurie is not only a devotee and teacher of English Romantic poetry, he is also an adherent of the European Enlightenment tradition. Both traditions play a part in the way he thinks about desire. In his various attempts at justifying his sexual adventurism to his lesbian daughter Lucy, for instance, he switches from citing William Blake—‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires’—to making rationalistic appeals to what he calls the ‘rights of desire’ — add to these all the references to Madame Bovary (69, 89).

4. Seen against this background, we can not only identify the phrase ‘solved the problem of sex’ as Lurie’s. We can begin to appreciate its oddly self-cancelling status. It is as if we can, on a second reading, re-write the first sentence as follows: ‘For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.’ The same can be said for many other passages in which the third-person narrator adopts Lurie’s idiom. Take the following account of the forced sexual encounter with the student Melanie that precipitates his fall from grace:

He carries her to the bedroom, brushes off the absurd slippers, kisses her feet, astonished by the feeling she evokes. Something to do with the apparition on the stage: the wig, the wiggling bottom, the crude talk. Strange love! Yet from the quiver of Aphrodite, goddess of the foaming waves, no doubt about that. (25)

This represents a significant re-working of Flaubert’s style indirect libre. Unlike Flaubert, who ironizes Emma’s romantic idiom, playing her future conditional fantasies off against her mundane life as a wife and mother, Coetzee uses and then cancels Lurie’s high-minded phraseology, inviting us to take it, on a first reading, as an unmarked, apparently secure justification in the voice of the narrator, and then, on a second, as a marked, and now suspect self-description or rationalization on Lurie’s part. The fact that all this takes place, for us as readers, in the perpetually unfolding narrative present only compounds the uncertainties.

Disgrace title
The self-cancelling title as represented on the initial cover design for the first UK edition

5. A passage from the postscript to Coetzee’s next foray into literary writing Elizabeth Costello (2003)—Lady Chandos’s letter to Lord Bacon which its itself a reworking of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ein Brief (1902)—sums up the peculiar, koan-like effect of continuous composition and decomposition Disgrace creates when we consider its dialogue with Madame Bovary at the level of form. ‘Like a wayfarer (hold the figure in mind, I pray you),’ Lady Chandos writes, attempting to describe her own growing scepticism about language, ‘like a wayfarer I step into a mill, dark and disused, and feel of a sudden the floorboards, rotten with wetness, give way beneath my feet and plunge me into the racing mill-waters’ (228). (Her metaphor also recalls the final verse of Emily Dickinson’s ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain‘: ‘And then a Plank in Reason, broke, / And I dropped down, and down – / And hit a World, at every plunge,/ And Finished knowing – then -‘). By re-making the technique of style indirect libre, which Flaubert used for ironic purposes, into a device of linguistic self-cancellation, Coetzee turned his own readers into Lady Chandos’s insecure wayfarers, patching together a narrative of rotten floorboards, and, in the process, fashioning a literary critique not just of the English language but of the Humboldtian ‘worldview’ Lurie’s culture-laden idiom encodes (see the ‘Re-Reading Humboldt’ post).

6. This is true not just of the way Lurie thinks about desire but of his worldview more generally. Take his attitudes to animals. Initially he is indifferent to them, an indifference he characteristically rationalizes by citing chapter and verse from the European tradition. ‘The Church Fathers had a long debate about them, and decided they don’t have proper souls,’ he tells Lucy (78). Later, when he is thinking about two sheep bought to slaughter for a party, Descartes, another European exponent of the belief in animals as a sub-order of useful things, now couched in the terms of Enlightenment rationalism, surfaces in a passage of style indirect libre that might be rendered as follows:

Sheep do not own themselves, do not own their lives. They exist to be used, every last ounce of them, their flesh to be eaten, their bones to be crushed and fed to poultry. Nothing escapes, except perhaps the gall bladder, which no one will eat. Descartes should have thought of that. The soul, suspended in the dark, bitter gall, hiding. (123-24)

A few paragraphs later, all this assertion collapses when ‘a bond seems to have come into existence between himself and the two Persians, he does not know how’—all he knows is that ‘suddenly and without reason, their lot has become important to him’ (126).

7. Or take the account of his actions on the final pages. By surrendering the maimed dog he has befriended to be destroyed, Lurie reveals he no longer believes the Christian and Cartesian doctrines about animals he once held. Yet, in keeping with the way the Disgrace re-works Flaubert’s style indirect libre, the narrative continues to show him attempting to conceptualize his actions in various ways. The vet’s ‘operating room’ in which he works alongside Bev, Lurie now sees, having changed his mind about animals—or rather having had it changed for him—is a place ‘where the soul is yanked out of the body’, or, in another, less theological formulation, he thinks of it as a ‘room that is not a room Disgrace dogbut a hole where one leaks out of existence’ (219). Similarly, the concluding paragraphs do not resolve the question of what to call the ‘sessions’ in which he and Bev are engaged (218). Are they, as particularly freighted free indirect foreign word suggests, acts of ‘Lösung’ (218)? ‘German always to hand with an appropriately blank abstraction’, Lurie observes earlier (142). Though the word literally means ‘solution’—hence Lurie’s comments on ‘sublimation, as alcohol is sublimed from water, leaving no residue’—it inevitably carries echoes of ‘Endlösung’, the official Nazi term for the ‘Final Solution’ (142). We might also recall Lurie’s apparently final solution to another seemingly rational ‘problem’ in the first sentence. Or are the ‘sessions’ dignifying, even sacrosanct acts of ‘love’, as Lurie himself comes to learn from Bev (219)? In the penultimate paragraph he enters the surgery ‘bearing’ the maimed dog ‘like a lamb’, and, in answer to Bev’s question, declares: ‘Yes, I am giving him up’—perhaps, recalling Lurie’s Jewishness, we could say like Abraham when he is called by his Old Testament god to sacrifice Isaac (220).

8. Lurie may now understand his actions in this way, but Disgrace remains non-committal, given the use it makes of the device of self-cancellation. Probing the limits of Lurie’s world from within, it questions his language and all it carries in its wake at every turn, treating his English less as a transparent medium of expression than as a shaky assemblage of rotten floorboards badly in need of renovation—one of which is Madame BovaryYet, since Flaubert’s novel is also part of Coetzee’s repertoire as a writer, its status in Disgrace is double-edged: if it is a questionable element of Lurie’s European heritage, it is also an animating precursor that enabled Coetzee to extend his interrogation of the European novel, prompting koan-like creative doubts among his English readers in new ways and, in the ideal case, plunging them into the racing mill-waters in which their own culturally-embedded idioms and forms of knowledge might be seen more clearly for what they are and be transformed. Compare Dickinson’s plunge beyond knowing mentioned at 5. above, or the plunge the contemporary author-figure takes into other waters in the last section of Foe (1986), the first three parts of which are patched together out of Daniel Defoe’s turgidly dense eighteenth-century English (see Chapter 5 of the book and the ‘Getting past empathy’ post).


This is a revised, edited and adapted version of an extract from ‘Coetzee’s Critique of Language’, my chapter contribution to Beyond the Ancient Quarrel: Literature, Philosophy and J. M. Coetzee, eds. Patrick Hayes and Jan Wilm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). I am grateful to Liang Dong for his help translating the Mandarin edition of Disgrace.

J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace (London: Secker & Warburg, 1999).

———., 耻 (Chǐ, Disgrace or Shame), trans. 张冲 (Zhāng Chōng) and 郭整风 (Guō Zhěngfēng) (Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2010). This is the Mandarin edition.

———., Elizabeth Costello (London: Secker & Warburg, 2003).

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. Margaret Mauldon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

For another take on the questions of re-reading and Coetzee’s Disgrace, which also dwells on its opening sentence, see Panashe Chigumadzi’sHistory through the body, or Rights of Desire, Rights of Conquest‘, Johannesburg Review of Books, 4 September 2017.

Scott’s paradox: between hill and valley

Most of the terms that we would translate as crude, unrefined, barbaric and, in the Chinese case, raw refer directly to those who live in the hills and forests.

1. James C. Scott makes this observation in the introduction to The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009). As I have noted elsewhere on this site (see First Proposition, 1.4.1), this particular set of lexical associations links the concept of culture, understood as a catch-all for the processed, refined, civilized or cooked, to relatively settled agrarian polities and so to the history of state-making whether in its ancient, national-colonial or contemporary guises. This makes the concept itself a vital constituent of valley thinking in Scott’s terms, that is, of the wet-rice cultivating polities that emerged in the river valleys of Southeast Asia, or Zomia, defining themselves against the peripheral, mobile and state-evading peoples of the hills. The ‘barbarians’ (βαρβάρους), as the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy recognized at the turn of the last century, have always been ‘a kind of solution’ (μια κάποια λύσις) for state-makers in this respect, helping to clarify and shore-up their own self-understanding as the exclusive custodians of culture.

2. Yet, as Scott continues, and as I argue across this site and in the associated book, these emphatic assertions of difference take place against a background of a ‘centuries-old, brisk traffic in people, goods and culture [in the sense of artefacts and practices] across the very permeable membrane between the hills and the valleys’ (28). Hence Scott’s ‘paradox’: despite the abundant evidence of intercultural movement and exchange the ‘divide’ between these communities remains a ‘stark and durable’ part not just of their respective self-understandings but of their ‘lived experience’ (28).

2.1 How are we to make sense of this? To begin with, Scott suggests, we have to abandon the ‘just-so’ story favoured in the colonial era but which still forms part of ‘popular folklore today’: namely, that the hill “tribes”—the term itself belongs to the lexicon of the state—are ‘the historical remnants of an earlier stage of human history: what we [i.e. the valley people] were like before we discovered wet-rice agriculture, learned to write, developed the arts of civilization, and adopted Buddhism’ (28). Instead, ‘we’ [again the valley people but also scholars who share their assumptions] should recognize that ‘valley states and hill peoples’ are ‘constituted in each other’s shadow, both reciprocal and contemporaneous’—that is, part of a composite, always evolving modernity, not a sequential narrative of progress, where the statist valley communities define themselves against and depend on the anti-statist hill peoples, and vice versa (28). Joyce coined the term ‘mutuomorphomutation’ to describe this process (see Fifth Proposition, 5.4). As Scott notes, this applies not only to regions of Southeast Asia on which he focuses but, among others, to ‘Amerindian societies of South America’ and the ‘structural opposition between Arabs and Berbers’ in the Maghreb—for the former he references Pierre Clastres’s La Société contre l’état (1974) and for the latter Ernest Gellner’s Saints of the Atlas (1969). ‘Far from being successive stages in social evolution,’ Scott concludes, ‘such states and nomadic peoples are twins, born more or less at the same time and joined in a sometimes rancorous but unavoidable embrace’ (29). Following Pierre Bourdieu’s La Distinction (1979), this logic could be extended to the structural conflicts between literate elites and those deemed to be the non-, il- or semi-literate masses (within the same state) or those identified as belonging to an exclusively oral world (outside the state)—but think also of UNESCO’s founding commitment to the global extension of literacy in the late 1940s and beyond (see the Prologue to Part II of the book).

3. In fact, for Scott, the most debatable element of his own alternative ‘non-state-centric history’ arises in relation to the question of orality and literacy (38). While he is reasonably confident about seeing the ‘economic, political, and cultural organization’ of the hill people as ‘a strategic adaptation to avoid incorporation in state structures’ (39), he acknowledges that the evidence for making the same claim about the ‘maintenance (if not creation) of nonliteracy’ (note: not illiteracy) is ‘almost entirely circumstantial’ (220). He none the less proffers this as a plausible reading of the ‘oral legends’ many peoples around the world, not just the hill communities of Southeast Asia, tell to explain how they came to be without writing, many of which centre on one key theme: ‘the people in question once did have writing but lost it through their own improvidence, or would have had it had they not been cheated of it by treachery’ (221). On this account, orality too has a strategic dimension: ‘if swiddening and dispersal are subsistence strategies that impede appropriation; if social fragmentation and acephaly hinder state incorporation; then, by the same token, the absence of writing and texts provides freedom of maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines’ (220).

Baul singers in Santiniketan (Credit: ptwo)

3.1 The Bāul singers of Bengal, who, as I note in Chapter 4 of the book, had a definitive influence on Rabindranath Tagore, clearly recognize the advantages Scott outlines, though in their case the enemy is not the state as such but the sometimes state-aligned authority of institutionalized religion embodied in the Hindu temple, the Muslim mosque and the associated written traditions (look and listen here; see also the Baul Archive). Much the same can be said of the ways in which the Zen tradition downplayed the importance of the Buddhist sutras, a challenge the contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing has extended to include the canonical forms of Chinese literate culture as well: the newspaper and the printed book (see天书/Tiānshū (1988), webnote x, and Postscript).

3.1.1 Yet, as Xu Bing’s own works show, and as the writings of Tagore, Joyce and many of the contemporary authors I discuss in the book and on this site confirm, it is equally clear that certain forms of literary writing and artistic practice can also be said to create ‘freedom of maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines’, opening up other ways of thinking about writing and culture itself. So, ‘writing’ may generally be ‘on the side of the law’ as Clastres put it in a statement from La Société contre l’état Scott cites as an epigraph; but, taking Finnegans Wake as a paradigm case, there are also notable exceptions to this rule (220). It is just that valley thinkers don’t much like them because they threaten their self-understandings as literate elites and guardians of the state’s idea of culture.


James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale, 2009).

ptwo http://www.flickr.com/people/ptwo/ 


天书/Tiānshū (1988) by permission of the Xu Bing Studio

Anarchist Geography

Metchnikoff coverThe following maps and images come from the largely forgotten works of two anarchist geographers of the late-nineteenth century: Léon Metchnikoff and Élisée Reclus. Like many leading anarchists of the period, they rejected political versions of geography based on the Westphalian model of state sovereignty that privileged land and territory and fetishized human difference in the nationalist and colonialist terms that became increasingly dominant over the course of the nineteenth century. Instead, in a move that was at once historical and geographical, they looked back to the longer, transcontinental history of civilizations (not nation-states), focusing on their interdependency (in trade, culture, language, etc.) and on the role rivers and oceans played in their formation and evolution. Without denying the violent realities of state-making whether ancient or modern—or what Metchnikoff called ‘the madness, hypocrisy and criminality’ of human history (1)—the new, anti-statist form of human geography they developed underpinned an alternative political vision based on the principles of freedom, co-operation and voluntary, non-hierarchical networks of association—for a detailed account of this political and scholarly conjunction, see Philippe Pelletier, Geographie & Anarchie (Éditions du Monde libertaire, 2013), and for a reaffirmation of the tradition, see Simon Springer, ‘Anarchism! What Geography still ought to be‘, Antipode, 44.5 (2012) and James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale, 2009), especially Chapter 2 which considers the part rivers played in the formation of ancient states.

The first series of maps comes from Metchnikoff’s major work La civilisation et les grands fleuves historiques (Paris, 1889) from which Joyce borrowed in process of writing Finnegans Wake (see Chapter 3 of the book).

Metchnikoff fig 1
Metchnikoff: Main sea routes connecting civilizations

Metchnkoff fig 2
Metchnikoff: Origins and expansion of ancient river-based civilizations

Metchnikoff fig 4
Metchnikoff: Civilizations of the Ganges

Metchnikoff fig 3
Metchnikoff: Civilizations of the Nile

Reclus cover
Cover image for Reclus’s L’Homme et la Terre (1905-1908), showing the twin figures of geography and history and the global reach of his vision.

Earth image
Iconic photograph of Earth from Apollo 17, December 1972 (Credit: Nasa)



The Earth at night (Credit: Nasa)

Relative density of internet connections globally (Credit: Chris Harrison)

Beyond the magic circle: Re-reading Humboldt

jede zieht um das Volk, welchem sie angehört, einen Kreis

1. A series of citations, appropriations and translations gave the following two sentences from section §9 of Wilhelm von Humboldt’s posthumously published Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues (On the Diversity of Human Language Construction, 1836) a canonical status in the English-reading world:

Man lives with his objects chiefly—in fact, since his feeling and acting depends on his perceptions, one may say exclusively—as language presents them to him. By the same process whereby he spins language out of his own being, he ensnares himself in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another. (9, italics added)

The quotation comes from Language and Myth, Susanne K. Langer’s 1946 translation of Ernst Cassirer’s Sprache und Mythos (1925). Her rendering of Cassirer’s citation of Humboldt’s original German (see below) appears to mark the moment these sentences crossed over to English for the first time. (In the introduction to the book I discuss the way Marshall McLuhan used this particular quotation in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962).)

Uber title page1.1 Many aspects of Langer’s translation remain debatable, beginning with her insertion of the adjective ‘magic’. As Cassirer correctly had it, Humboldt referred only to einen Kreis (a circle), avoiding any hint of conjuring. Her choice of ‘ensnares’ was equally loaded. In the 1988 Cambridge edition of On Language, now the standard English version of Über die Verschiedenheit, Peter Heath used ‘spins’ (for spinnt), following Humboldt’s underlying analogy which figures language as an intricately-patterned fabric (Gewebe). In his own version from 1982, J. M. Coetzee also chose ‘spins’ (‘weaves’ is also possible). When it came to ‘the people’, however, the phrase Langer and Heath both used for Humboldt’s das Volk, Coetzee opted for ‘the national linguistic community [Volk]’, giving the key term a different political inflection while at the same time allowing for its untranslatability (181). The single word ‘nation’ has sufficed for other translators. Conscious of the racialized ethnolinguistic assumptions underpinning apartheid, Coetzee was no doubt thinking of the Germanic word’s specific resonances in Afrikaans. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first recorded use of the Old English (Old Frisian/Saxon) ‘folc’, meaning ‘a people, nation, race’, to a sixteenth-century edition of Beowulf but it traces many of the compounds, where the word means ‘popular’ (e.g. ‘folklore’, ‘folktale’), to the 19th century. It also notes that the meaning of the Anglo-Norman (Latinate) word ‘people’ changed from the 14th to the 17th century, shifting from ‘the mass of the community as distinguished from the nobility or the ruling classes’ to ‘the whole body of citizens of a country, regarded as the source of political power or as the basis of society’.

1.2 Langer had a particular attachment to the phrase ‘magic circle’ because she thought it went to the heart of Cassirer’s larger project in Sprache und Mythos. Following in the tradition of Humboldtian philosophical idealism,  Cassirer set out to challenge the prevailing positivistic theories of knowledge in early twentieth-century Euro-American philosophy.  Concerned as they were ‘with “facts” and the development of orderly thought about facts’, she commented in her preface, the mainstream Euro-American positivists of the time invariably dismissed older mythic and poetic forms of thinking as mistakes or ‘vulgar superstition’ (viii). Rejecting this, Cassirer insisted that ‘language, man’s prime instrument of reason, reflects his mythmaking tendency more than his rationalizing tendency’ (viii). He also argued that ‘the mind’ expresses itself ‘in different forms, one of which is discursive logic, the other creative imagination’. His point, however, was not to affirm the latter at the expense of the former. He acknowledged, as Langer put it, that ‘myth never breaks out of the magic circle of its figurative ideas’, while ‘language, born of the same magic circle, has the power to break its bounds’, thereby taking ‘us from the mythmaking phase of human mentality to the phase of logical thought and conception of facts’ (ix-x). As this suggests, Cassirer shared the positivists’ progressivist conception of intellectual history. The difference was that while they discarded the prelogical poetic phase, he wanted to keep it in play. This influenced his own reading of the passage from Humboldt which, he wrote, ‘holds, perhaps, even more for the basic mythical conceptions of mankind than for language’ (9). Langer reinforced this in her translation, effectively recasting Humboldt’s neutral Sprache (language) as poetic ‘mythmaking’ in Cassirer’s sense—hence her choice of ‘ensnares’ and her eagerness to add ‘magic’.

2. Cut adrift from their initial moorings, re-framed by Cassirer’s reading, and re-worded in Langer’s English, these two sentences became something of a snare for Humboldt himself, sealing his fate as a caricature linguistic relativist for whom language, understood as the exclusive property of a Volk, determines thought, and casting him as a founding figure in a longer story about the historical origins of what came to be called the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ (see Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue, 2012, 6-10). Re-reading these sentences in their original context reveals a figure at once more complex and enduringly significant: a Humboldt for our own times who has surprising things to say about relativism in all its contemporary guises—cultural and cognitive as well as linguistic—and about the public value of literature (or poetic thinking in Cassirer’s sense) in today’s intercultural and increasingly interconnected world.

3. One of Humboldt’s main purposes in section §9 of Über die Verschiedenheit was to challenge an overly rationalistic ‘picture of language’ as a tool for naming things ‘already perceived in themselves’ (i.e. independently of language) and for serving ‘the need for mutual assistance’ or ‘sociality’ (i.e. communication, 60). ‘Man, as a species, is a singing creature’, he insisted, anticipating Cassirer, since language has always exhibited ‘a wealth and multiplicity of expressions that everywhere exceeds what is required’ merely for the sake of communication or labelling (60). Put in the terms of his other key analogyTweed fabric—language as a fabric—we could say that humankind is a spinning creature, only the artefact being spun in this case is not a piece of finely-woven cloth but a language with ‘a characteristic world-view’ (Weltansicht, 60). Crucially, as Underhill notes, Humboldt used the latter term to refer only to the lexical and grammatical ‘patterning within which we think’ not to any content-laden beliefs whether religious (e.g. Catholic), say, or political (e.g. Nationalist)—he used Weltanschauung (‘world-conception’) for the latter (106). So, while serving various practical needs or instrumental purposes, each language also does something more: it creates what Humboldt called a ‘conceptual fabric and mode of presentation,’ making certain ways of thinking possible (60).

3.1. In so doing, it also draws ‘a circle’ around das Volk to which it ‘belongs’ (angehört). Humboldt’s purpose in adding this further geometrical analogy was not to define a clear cognitive boundary, let alone imagine languages as snares or prison-houses. He wanted only to affirm the benefits of multilingualism in a diverse world, while acknowledging the finite, visceral way we inevitably experience language. ‘To learn a foreign language should therefore be to acquire a new standpoint’, he remarked in the next sentence, ‘but because we always carry over, more or less, our own world-view, and even our own language-view, this outcome is not purely or completely experienced’ (60). Here the qualifications (‘more or less’, ‘not purely or completely’) are as telling as the distinction between ‘world-view’ and ‘language-view’. In the preceding paragraph, he noted that ‘the native tongue possesses a strength and intimacy so much greater than any foreign one’ not so much because of ‘its mental content’ (the world-view) but because of ‘the very thing that is least explicable and most individual, its sound’ (the language-view or specifically phonology). This reflects the fact that our relationship to language is first and foremost bodily, specifically aural, rather than conceptual or cognitive—hence Humboldt’s emphasis on song. A native speaker cut off from her language for an extended period is likely to experience her re-immersion as a ‘sudden magic’, he wrote, because of the way ‘it greets the ear’ (59). Conversely, when she learns another language, the challenge is not so much to pick up its linguistic-cognitive patterns (the ‘conceptual fabric’) but to adopt its sounds and rhythms, something he believed she could never achieve completely. At some moments, no doubt when its speech patterns were most alien, her already well-trained tongue/brain would betray her visceral embeddedness as the speaker of different first language—hence the Old Testament story of the word ‘shibboleth’ (Judges 12:5-6). Stressing the ineluctable finitude of bodily experience was another feature of Humboldt’s anti-rationalism.

4. His other main purpose in section §9 was to show how the circle purportedly demarcating the circumference of each language can never be rigidly defined. This is in part because each belongs not just to das Volk but to ‘the whole human species’, a fact that makes it all but impossible to conceptualize as a bounded sphere, countable thing or object of positive knowledge (62). What each community might think of as its own language ‘flows out from an unknown wealth that is still to a certain extent discernible’, he observed, but, since it also shares an ‘infinitude, without beginning or end, with the whole existence of mankind’, it ‘then closes off, leaving only a sense of unfathomability’, a ‘dark unrevealed depth’—hence its ‘peculiar existence’ as something that both does and does not express ‘the soul’ (der Seele) of each Volk (62). As this wording suggests, Humboldt’s philosophical idealism was complicated by his anti-rationalism: if each language expresses the ‘soul’ of das Volk, on his account, it never defines its identity once and for all ‘for nowhere, not even in writing, does it have a permanent abode’ (62).

4.1 This peculiarity is also evident at the individual level. ‘When we think how the current generation of a people (einem Volke) is governed by all that their language has undergone, through all the preceding centuries’, he wrote, ‘it then becomes evident how small, in fact, is the power of the individual compared to the might of language’ (63). This sounds like straightforward articulation of linguistic determinism. Yet Humboldt immediately continues: ‘the manner in which language is modified in every individual discloses, in contrast to its previously expounded power, a dominion of man over it’ (63).

4.2 The idea that there is a constant interplay between individual and community, freedom and constraint, change and regularity was central to Humboldt’s philosophy of language. ‘In the influence exerted on [the individual] lies the regularity of language and its forms’, he continued, ‘in his own reaction, a principle of freedom’ (64). This anti-deterministic affirmation of creative potentiality once again put the boundedness of languages in question. By coining new words, importing others, or violating phonetic, orthographic and grammatical rules, any and every member of das Volk (in its populist sense) could, he argued, add to the ‘inexhaustible storehouse’ of the language (61). This aspect of his thinking had a direct influence on the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen in the 1920s (see Chapter 3 of the book) and on Noam Chomsky in the 1960s. Yet, as a figure who owed much to the German Romantic tradition of the late-eighteenth century, Humboldt also believed that ‘a genuinely new and great talent’—above all a great writer—could do something more than the ordinary speaker (61). By opening ‘a vista’ beyond ‘the field of past achievements’ and by making it possible to think and feel in ways ‘for which no understanding can discover the reason in previous circumstances’, the emergence of a genuinely inventive writer, always an indeterminable event, could both transform a language and advance the ‘intellectual struggle’ of humanity as a whole (61, 64). ‘We should misconceive the nature of language, and violate, indeed, the historical truth of its emergence and change, if we sought to exclude from it the possibility of such inexplicable phenomena’ (64).

4.3 Humboldt returns to the generative capacity of language in section §20 where he describes how ‘the mind, seeing language to be actually engaged in endless creation, no longer regards it as closed, but strives unceasingly to import new matter, so as to have this, once patched into the language, react upon itself’ (157). This was because ‘the nature of man has intimations of a region that transcends language, and is actually constricted by language; but that language in turn is the only means of exploring and fertilizing this region’ (157). In effect, simultaneously rejecting the basic tenets of linguistic relativism and determinism, he insisted that it is only by means of language that the ‘conceptual fabric’ of das Volk can be creatively stitched, unstitched and re-stitched, making it possible for new ways of thinking to emerge and its Weltansicht, that is its embedded conceptualizations, to be transformed. Again, he believed inventive writers were central to this, since it is through its literature that the language raises ‘itself to the pure evolution of thought, and to free expression’, and thereby ‘develops its character’ (151).

5. Langer’s translation of the two sentences from Über die Verschiedenheit itself highlights the generative possibilities and the potential perils of ‘stepping out’ of the ‘circle’ of one language into another, even for those as closely linked as German and English. This is especially clear in the case of a word like Volk which, despite having a life in both languages, simultaneously invites various translations, each with a different political inflection (‘people’ vs. ‘nation’), and tests the limits of translatability itself. Much the same can be said for Weltanschauung which the OED treats both as a loanword (itself a questionable metaphor given what it presumes about ownership) meaning ‘a particular philosophy or view of life; a concept of the world held by an individual or a group’ and as a calque (‘world-view’) meaning ‘a set of fundamental beliefs, values, etc., determining or constituting a comprehensive outlook on the world; a perspective on life’. It claims the calque, which it dates to 1848, entered the language twenty years before the direct loan. It also has an entry for Weltansicht, though it identifies it as a rare loanword meaning ‘world-view’ dating from 1892. Each interlingual transfer—loan or calque—added a new thread to the ‘conceptual fabric’ of English, extending its expressive capacity, though, as the definitions suggest, the particular use Humboldt made of the two terms did not make the crossover. In fact, the technical distinction he drew between Weltansicht (which is an exclusively linguistic phenomenon) and Weltanschauung (which encompasses extra-linguistic values and beliefs) remains peculiar to his philosophical lexicon even for speakers of contemporary German. Langer’s translation of den Gegenständen (‘his objects’) and seinen Vorstellungen (‘his perceptions’) raises other questions. While the first can be rendered literally as ‘the objects’, which makes no specific claims about ownership (simply the totality of things in the world, rather than those with which humanity is especially preoccupied), the second can more plausibly be translated as ‘ideas’ or ‘conceptions’ since Vorstellungen have less to do with what is seen with the eyes (the visible surface) than with what is imagined (the conceptual structure), framing rather than looking. Inevitably, with the Latinate English words we also lose some of the ‘conceptual fabric’, specifically the spatial or prepositional underpinnings, of the German originals: ‘objects’ are literally things that stand opposite you (Gegen-stand as ‘towards/against-stand’), whereas the more active ‘conceptions’ put things in front of you (vor-stellen as ‘before-set’).

6. In Humboldt’s original German, the two sentences appear as follows:

Der Mensch lebt mit den Gegenständen hauptsächlich, ja, da Empfinden und Handeln in ihm von seinen Vorstellungen abhängen, sogar ausschließlich so, wie die Sprache sie ihm zuführt. Durch denselben Akt, vermöge dessen er die Sprache aus sich herausspinnt, spinnt er sich in dieselbe ein, und jede zieht um das Volk, welchem sie angehört, einen Kreis, aus dem es nur insofern hinauszugehen möglich ist, als man zugleich in den Kreis einer anderen hinübertritt. (Über die Verschiedenheit, 58-59)

I am grateful to Tobias Heinrich and Tom Kuhn for their advice on various aspects German usage.


Ernst Cassirer, Sprache und Mythos (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1925).

Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans. Susanne K. Langer (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946).

J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point, ed. D. Attwell (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992). The essay ‘Isaac Newton and the Ideal of a Transparent Scientific Language’ first appeared in the Journal of Literary Semantics, 11.1 (January 1982), 3-13.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluss auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts (Berlin: Koniglichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1836).

Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language, trans. P. Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

W. Underhill, Humboldt, Worldview and Language (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009).

OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. 

For further reading on Humboldt and relativity, see Aneta Pavlenko, The Bilingual Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Gunter Senft, et. al., eds, Culture and Language Use (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2009); Charles Taylor, The Language Animal (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016); and Yasemin Yildiz, Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

For an engaging contemporary take on the centrality of phonology, which bears comparison to the emphasis Humboldt placed on sound and song, see Ray Jackendoff, A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), especially pp. 43-44 and 103-107.

See also Lera Boroditzki’s blog Notes on Intercultural Communication.

And for a creative engagement with these questions, see Zineb Sedira’s three-part video installationMother Tongue‘ (2002). 

Strip Teasy: Wittgenstein and Joyce

Wittgenstein and Joyce

Die Sprache verkleidet den Gedanken.

1.This statement from section §4.002 of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921/2), which Pears and McGuiness translate as ‘language disguises thought’, sets the terms of the early Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. Drawing on the immediate context, we could parse it as follows: ‘everyday/ordinary language (Umgangssprache) hides the true identity of the proposition (der Satz)’. ‘So much so’, the next sentence continues, ‘that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the clothed thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.’ This is a perfectly good translation. Yet by deleting the word ‘clothed’ (bekleideten) from the first clause—because it seems redundant?—Pears and McGuiness downplay the poetic logic of the original which follows a thread of phonetic-orthographic associations peculiar to German: ‘verkleidet’ (disguises) links to ‘Kleides’ (clothing or dress) and to ‘bekleideten’ (clothed but also dressed up), reinforcing the idea of ordinary language as a cover or mask that needs to be stripped away.

1.1 It is as if, for the early Wittgenstein, the following three sentences disguise the essential thought or propositional content, namely, that the speaker’s female biological parent died on, say, 12 December 1992:

Mum passed away today.
Mother kicked the bucket today.
Maman died today.

In fact, Wittgenstein had no interest in recasting such sentences in an apparently more transparent or neutral everyday idiom. He wanted to re-write them in an alternative quasi-algebraic notation or propositional calculus that would make the logical form of the thought explicit (e.g. ‘aRb’).

1.1.2 This was also the dream of the early twentieth-century positivists who attempted to turn philosophy into a rigorous science by developing what Bertrand Russell in 1918 called a ‘logically perfect language’ that could serve as a ground for all empirically verifiable truth-claims (25)—this dream morphed into the quest for a perfect computer language in the 1960s. Though Russell claimed Wittgenstein as an ally in this venture in his introduction to the English edition of the Tractatus (1922), he was at best an awkward fellow-traveller—the anecdote about Wittgenstein reading Rabindranath Tagore to the members of the Vienna Circle in the late 1920s reflects the testiness of his relationship to the more mainstream positivists. Whereas they tended, for instance, to see their perfected calculus as an alternative to the inherent illogicality of ordinary language, he insisted that ‘all the propositions of our everyday language, just as they stand, are in perfect logical order’ (§5.5563). The trouble was that this apparent or simply opaque logic (the clothing) was designed for purposes other than revealing the real logic of the thought (the unadorned body)—hence the need for a more transparent notation that would make the underlying logical form visible.

2. Section §4 of the Tractatus begins with a statement that goes some way towards explaining why Wittgenstein felt this was necessary:

§4.  A thought is a proposition with a sense.

A ‘proposition with a sense’, we soon learn, is one that in some way corresponds to ‘reality/truth’ (Wirklichkeit), though here too his thinking took took an unorthodox turn:

§4.01 A proposition is a picture of reality.
  A proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it.

Few card-carrying early positivists would have felt comfortable with the second claim. For Wittgenstein, however, pairing these two statements held open the possibility that meaningful propositions can be true or false. We can picture the formal relations each describes (e.g. ‘The cat is on the mat’) without having to check each one against reality. So, on his account, ordinary language needs to be stripped away not because it is inherently illogical but because it hides the logical form of sense-making propositions, which may be true or false, and therefore interferes with our capacity to represent reality/truth either as it is or as we imagine it to be.

2.1 Wittgenstein may have been more tolerant of uncertainty than most positivists, but he set himself as firmly against radical scepticism as they did. Defining his own conception of philosophy in a brief aside, he invoked (only to reject) the most extreme linguistic sceptic of the early twentieth century, the Austro-Hungarian writer-philosopher Fritz Mauthner:

§4.0031 All philosophy is a ‘critique of language’ (though not in Mauthner’s sense).

In the opening of his monumental Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache (Contributions to a Critique of Language, 1901-02), Mauthner declared in Weiler’s translation:

‘In the beginning was the word’. With the word men stand at the threshold of the knowledge of the world and they remain standing there if they stay attached to the word. (272)

At best, for Mauthner, language articulates a linguistic community’s ‘fable convenue’ (literally ‘agreed fable’) of the world (Kritik, I, 25). Rejecting the idea that it could be re-designed to offer a secure ground for knowledge, he insisted it could only be destroyed—hence the motto on his book plate: ex-libris‘Whoever does not recognise and break the tyranny of language, is not free.’ By contrast, for the early Wittgenstein, language stripped of its everyday opacities can meaningfully ‘picture’ or ‘model’ reality/truth either as it is or as we imagine it to be. For the purposes of this post, I’ll leave aside the question of what exactly the difference between Wittgenstein’s ‘imagined reality/truth’ and Mauthner’s ‘agreed fable/fiction’ might be.

3. Wittgenstein mostly relied on visual metaphors like Bild (generally translated as ‘picture’) to describe how propositions, construed in his formal terms, correspond to reality/truth, but he also proposed a series of other analogies. At one point he turned to the technologies of sound reproduction:


§4.014 A gramophone record, the musical idea, the written notes, and the sound-waves, all stand to one another in the same internal relation of depicting that holds between language and the world.

At another he invoked the history of writing systems:

§4.016 In order to understand the essential nature of a proposition, we should consider hieroglyphic script, which depicts the facts that it describes.

       And alphabetic script developed out of it without losing what was essential to depiction.

Anticipating and partly explaining these analogies, he noted:

§4.011 At first sight a proposition—one set out on a printed page, for example—does not seem to be a picture of the reality with which it is concerned. But no more does musical notation at first sight seem to be a picture of music, nor our phonetic notation (the alphabet) to be a picture of our speech.

       And yet these sign-languages prove to be pictures, even in the ordinary sense, of what they represent.

In German, the shift from ‘phonetic notation’ to ‘alphabet’ to ‘speech’ is more suggestive as we move from Lautzeichen-Schrift (literally ‘sounded-signs-script’, e.g. IPA) to Buchstaben-Schrift (‘letters-script’ or more literally ‘book-staves-script’) to Lautsprache (‘sounded-speech’). By setting out the first two as ‘Lautzeichen- (Buchstaben-) Schrift’, Wittgenstein implied that both forms of writing can be understood as direct transcriptions of speech.

4. The main purpose of all this analogizing is clear enough. Re-working Russell’s logical atomism, Wittgenstein wanted to show how c-sharpdiscrete propositions map discrete facts (not things), the ‘totality’ of which constitute ‘the world’ as the opening of the Tractatus has it (§1.1): ‘The world is everything that is the case’ (§1). Stripped of its everyday disguises and re-analysed as a transparent propositional calculus, or logical form, he believed ‘language’ could represent ‘the world’ in this sense with the same exactitude as the symbol for C♯, or the groove in a gramophone record, represents the sound produced by, say, a specific key on the piano: different systems or notations, in other words, but the same one-to-one formal relationship. On his account writing corresponds to speech in the same way.

4.1 This last turn in his analogizing did not bode well. For one thing, hieroglyphs, like early Chinese pictograms, very quickly lost their pictorial character as scribes adopted many stylized conventions to deal with the problem of expressing complex facts or abstractions. For another, the frequency of, say, middle C♯ is precisely measurable (it ‘stands for’ 277.18 Hz); whereas the sound the letter C ‘represents’ is notoriously slippery (think only of the three English words ‘cat’, ‘circle’ and ‘chase’).  True, English is one of the most opaque ‘alphabetic’ systems. The sounds ‘r – eye – t’ rendered as /rʌɪt/ in IPA, for instance, can be written as ‘write’, ‘right,’ ‘wright’ or ‘rite,’ none of which can be thought of as ‘a picture of our speech’ in any straightforward or exact sense. But even more transparent languages, like German and Italiando not represent sounds in a simple one-to-one fashion (consider the German phrase ‘sechs schulen’ – ‘six schools’, pronounced ‘zex shoolin’).

5. Finnegans Wake puts Wittgenstein’s analogizing under more pressure. This is not just because Joyce devised a maze of improbable graphemes that rarely map onto a single meaning, or even language, let alone a specific phoneme. Whatever it is Wakese is not ‘a picture of our speech’ (see Fourth Proposition). Nor is it only because Joyce had some sympathy for Mauthner’s linguistic scepticism (see Chapter 3 of the book). It is because he challenged the early Wittgenstein’s conception of ordinary language by comically embellishing his clothing analogy, restaging it as a dubiously sexualized encounter between a ‘lady’ and an ‘ornery josser, flat-chested fortyish, faintly flatulent and given to Lady's Picratiocination by syncopation in the elucidation of complications’ (Wake, 109). On being introduced to the ‘lady’, the ‘josser’, who is one of the Wake’s many bad male readers, immediately imagines stripping off her ‘definite articles of evolutionary clothing’ so he can ‘vision her plump and plain in her natural altogether’ (109). Indifferent to her ‘local colour and personal perfume’—that is to the singular history and intricacies of each language, writing system or idiom—he also fails to see ‘that the facts of feminine clothiering are there all the time or that the feminine fiction, stranger than the facts, is there also at the same time, only a little to the rere’ (109). By implication, for Joyce, the empress only has clothes, that is, ordinary language can never be completely stripped away, exposing the logical form in its pure unadorned state. Equally, there is no simple way of disentangling facts from fiction, or, in Wittgenstein’s terms, ‘reality/truth’ as it is and as we imagine it. When it comes to knowledge, and much else besides, all we have is ordinary language ‘in all its featureful perfection of imperfection’ (109).

5.1 Reading the Tractatus alongside the Wake makes the notorious split in Wittgenstein’s early philosophy less puzzling than it might at first seem. Seen in Joyce’s terms, the apparently abrupt turn towards ethics and mysticism in the final pages is all of a piece with Wittgenstein’s worries about the opaque logic of ordinary language and his effort to devise more transparent alternative. The mystical (or Kantian?) Wittgenstein who insists that the ‘solution to the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time’ (§6.4312) and that ‘ethics is transcendental’ (§6.421) repeats the gestures of the semi-positivistic Wittgenstein who claims that ordinary language ‘disguises thought’ (§4.002) and that ‘logic is transcendental’ (§6.13). Rehearsing an impulse deeply embedded in the European philosophical tradition, he turns his back on what Joyce calls the imperfect ‘citye of Is’ (601), positing an idealized City of Ought as the locus of all value in much the same way as he a posits an abstract propositional calculus as the locus of all truth/falsity. For a literary echo of this from the same period we have to look to T. S. Eliot not to Joyce (see Fifth Proposition) nor, for that matter, to Tagore. Whatever Wittgenstein hoped to achieve by reading the latter to members of the Vienna Circle in the late 1920s, Tagore was never quite the other-worldly Eastern mystic many European devotees of the time wanted him to be (see Chapter 4 of the book).

6. Famously, Wittgenstein changed his mind in the Philosophical Investigations (1953). Rejecting his youthful josserish inclinations, he now insisted that ‘nothing is hidden,’  including the logical form of a proposition (versteckt could also be translated as ‘disguised’, §435, see also §88-92 where he questions his earlier appeal to the sublime ideality of logic). Marking a clear line between himself and the Russell of the introduction to the Tractatus, he also rejected his earlier idea of ordinary language as so much discardable clothing, re-imagining it as ‘an ancient city’ with a Wake-like ‘maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses’, all of which call out for exploration in their own right (§18). At the same time he re-considered his analogy with writing systems, taking issue with his earlier ‘over-simple conception of the script’:

§4. Imagine a script in which the letters were used to stand for sounds, and also as signs of emphasis and punctuation. (A script may be conceived as a language for describing sound-patterns [or ‘pictures’, Lautbildern].) Now imagine someone interpreting that script as if there were simply a correspondence of letters to sounds and as if the letters had not also a completely different function.

In another turn in his analogizing, he described ordinary language as a ‘multiplicity of language-games’ (Sprachspiele), underscoring the fact that it supports and even makes possible many activities beyond simply picturing the world — though he never abandoned the idea that this is one of the games language plays (§7, §23). The others range from ‘giving orders’ to ‘guessing riddles’ and from ‘requesting, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying’ to ‘making up a story (Geschichte)’ (§23). Like games, these are all activities, that is, ways of doing things with words, they are rule-guided (though not necessarily governed), and they make sense within what Wittgenstein called a particular ‘life-form’ (Lebensform, §23). On this account language is not simply an instrument for describing the world. It is a changing repertoire of practices that shapes and is shaped by culture construed as a complex, evolving way of life.

6.1 This was the Wittgenstein who remarked, in a series of marginal notes to Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890), that ‘a whole mythology is deposited in our language’ (48). Reflecting testily on the English anthropologist’s overly scientistic rationalism, he added: ‘What narrowness of spiritual life we find in Frazer! Hence the impossiblity of grasping a life different from the English one of his time!’ (38).

7. Joyce would no doubt have welcomed Wittgenstein’s new openness to ordinary language in all its featureful diversity, though he may have questioned the usefulness of his games analogy when applied to some kinds of literary writing. While the many forms and genres of writing conventionally called literary, ranging from the sonnet to the novel, can be thought of as rule-guided games in the later Wittgenstein’s sense, some defy the implied sociability of the analogy by changing and re-making the rules all the time (like the figure of the errant pupil who recurs throughout the Investigations). Put in Wittgenstein’s terms, we could say they risk creating an impossible, or seemingly incomprehensible, private language, or, at the very least, a game with very vague rules (a possibility Wittgenstein in fact recognized, even embraced — see §99-103 of the Investigations). As Joyce acknowledged from the outset, Finnegans Wake is a case in point. On 16 October 1926, four years into the protracted seventeen-year history of its composition and already sensitive to the incredulity it was provoking, he wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver: ‘I know it is no more than a game but it is a game I have learned to play in my own way. Children may just as well play as not. The ogre will come in any case’ (144). This was a bit of artful self-deprecation designed to keep an increasingly wary patron on board. When it came to the various forms of early twentieth-century positivism—and many other kinds of thinking as well—it is clear that his idiosyncratically jocoserious, rule-defying writing-game (Schriftspiel) was neither trivial nor inconsequential (see also Chapter 3 of the book and Fourth Proposition).


Richard Ellmann, ed., Letters of James Joyce, III (London: Faber and Faber, 1966).

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1975).

Fritz Mauthner, Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, 3 vols. (1901-02; Berlin: J. G. Cotta’sche, 1912).

Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (London: Routledge, 2010).

Gershon Weiler, Mauthner’s Critique of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001).

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Mythology in our Language (Chicago: Hau Books, 2018).

For more on the Tractatus and translation, see tractatusblog.blogspot.co.uk.

Getting past empathy

We are all neighbours now. There are more phones than there are human beings and close to half of humankind has access to the internet. In our cities, we rub shoulders with strangers from every country, culture and faith.

1. So begins Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016), Timothy Garton Ash’s ambitious bid to fashion a new global consensus or at least an updated set of guiding norms about the freedom of expression for the digital age (see also freespeechdebate.com). ‘The world is not a global village but a global city, a virtual cosmopolis’, he continues, establishing one of his central metaphors and correcting Marshall McLuhan’s celebrated description of the new electronic era in the early 1960s. In his conclusion, he returns to the urgent questions life in this new cityscape raises:

The quest for a more universal universalism is one of the great challenges of our time. Over the last half century, human enterprise and innovation, from the jet plane to the smartphone, have created a world in which we are all becoming neighbours, but nowhere is it written, least of all in the book of history, that we will be good neighbours. That requires a transcultural effort of reason and imagination. Central to this endeavour is free speech. Only with freedom of expression can I understand what it is to be you. Only with freedom of information can we control both public and private powers. Only by articulating our differences can we see clearly what they are, and why they are what they are. (380)

In these appeals to ‘our differences’ and to the need for ‘a transcultural effort of reason and imagination’, David Bromwich detects the influence of Isaiah Berlin who, he notes, did much ‘to shape Garton Ash’s understanding of freedom’ (6). Writing in the London Review of Books, Bromwich explains: ‘Berlin sought to apply an idea of political tolerance not only to persons but to whole cultures; the reason was that cultures themselves were expressive achievements akin to works of art’ (7). On this issue Berlin took his cue from the Prussian idealist philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. ‘To understand a thing was’, Berlin wrote of Herder in 1976, ‘to see how it could be viewed as it was viewed, assessed as it was assessed, valued as it was valued, in a given context, by a particular culture or tradition’ (154). This version of relativism, which blurs the cultural and the cognitive without denying the possibility of mutual understanding, formed the basis of Berlin’s own tolerant pluralism. ‘For to explain human experiences or attitudes’, he continued in the same essay, ‘is to be able to transpose oneself by sympathetic imagination into the situation of the human beings who are to be “explained”; and this amounts to understanding and communicating the coherence of a particular way of life, feeling, action: and thereby the validity of the given act or action, the part it plays in the life and outlook which is “natural” in the situation’ (154). As this suggests, cultures are, for Berlin, akin to works of art in a specifically Romantic sense: they are self-contained, unitary and expressive. 

2. For Bromwich, Garton Ash’s Berlinesque idiom not only leaves him vulnerable to the charge of relativism. It makes him complicit with the efforts on the part of contemporary speech police to ‘discourage criticism of identity politics‘ (7). 

If cultures resemble works of art, if they are supposed to speak in different languages that resist translation, how can my norms be governed by yours? And more: given the investment each person must have in a cultural identity, how can disapproval ever be enough to meet the offence of seeing one’s identity harmed by insults?

Bromwich overplays these concerns. For one thing, though clearly an admirer of Berlin, Garton Ash is well aware of the pitfalls of his thinking. ‘A world composed entirely of Berlins would tend to relativism and excessive tolerance for the sworn enemies of tolerance’, he comments (376). For another thing, he rejects what he calls ‘the “I’m offended” form of the heckler’s veto’ (218) and insists throughout his book, particularly when discussing the principles covering diversity and religion, on the need to create space for the kinds of criticism Bromwich wants to defend:

Principle 5: We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.

Principle 6: We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief. 

What troubles Garton Ash’s analysis is not so much the ghost of Berlin’s Herderian relativism or pluralism as the legacy of his equally Romantic conception of the ‘sympathetic imagination’. This limits him to thinking only in terms of the transcultural, distorts his understanding of identity and difference, and deforms his conception of the role literature might play in his quest to defend the freedom of expression and find a normative language of good neighbourliness attuned to the hazards of life in today’s ‘global city’.

3. As part of his broader justification of free speech as an indispensable ideal, he cites Nina Simone’s rendition of Billy Taylor’s gospel/jazz and American civil rights classic ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free‘ (1963). After quoting the following lines from the first verse – ‘I wish I could say / All the things that I should say / Say ’em loud say ’em clear / For the whole world round to hear’ – he singles out two lines from the second – ‘I wish you could know / What it means to be me’ – as ‘the most elemental argument for free speech’ (74). ‘Only with freedom of expression can I understand what it is to be you’, he reminds us in his conclusion as I have already noted, before adding: ‘Only by articulating our differences can we see clearly what they are, and why they are what they are’ (380, italics added). He returns to the theme of art’s knowledge in the chapter on diversity (Principle 5):

Literature, theatre, film, painting, sculpture and many other arts enable us to understand the experience of others in countless ways, with what Martha Nussbaum has called the ‘inner eye’ of imaginative sympathy. They allow us to get inside the skin of other human beings who live in utterly different circumstances from our own, and to discover common humanity beneath the alien garb. (244)

Once again Isaiah Berlin’s influence is clear though, as this passage indicates, Garton Ash is equally indebted to Nussbaum’s understanding of the affective, educative and civic function of the arts – literature above all – as a more or less transparent means of fostering good neighbourliness whether locally, nationally or globally. He references Nussbaum’s The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age (2012), but could equally have recalled her earlier books Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990), Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1998) or Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2003).

4. The idea that literature furnishes a kind of cultural and ethical knowledge attuned not only to ‘our differences’ but to the intricate particularities of what Henry James called ‘felt life‘ has a distinguished pedigree in Euro-American thinking. It can be traced back to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and to nineteenth-century novelists like James and George Eliot, to keep just to the English-language tradition; and, following Berlin, to the German-language Weimar classicists of the late-eighteenth century. If the personal statements written by students applying to study literature at universities in the UK and the US are anything to go by, a version of this idea remains at the heart of the contemporary school curriculum. ‘Literature affords us a glimpse into other lives and cultures’ is a common opening gambit. The British academic-administrator Rick Rylance echoes these sentiments in Literature and the Public Good (2016), making them central to his defence of literary study in today’s world. For a contemporary critique of this orthodoxy, see Namwali Serpell’s essay ‘The Banality of Empathy‘ (March 2019), and for some related reflections, see Antjie Krog’s, ‘To Write Liberty‘ (2018), Teju Cole’sCarrying a Single Life: On Literature and Translation‘ (July 2019), and Velda Elliott, ‘Everything that’s wrong with sentencing a white supremacist to read Jane Austen and Charles Dickens‘ (September 2021).

5. Thinking interculturally via literature in the terms set out on this site and argued for in the associated book starts from a different set of premises. It also presupposes an alternative understanding of the knowledge literature affords and, consequently, of the civic role it might play in what Finnegans Wake calls the ‘citye of Is’ – Garton Ash’s ‘virtual cosmopolis’ which is, as he points out in his one citation from the Wake, at once ‘urban and orbal’ (19, see Wake 601). By implicitly repudiating the various Cities of Ought in the Euro-American tradition – St Augustine’s ‘City of God‘, for instance, and the ideal city of Plato’s Republic – Joyce recognized that the ‘everintermutuomergent’ and always imperfect global ‘citye of Is’ would demand a new kind of thinking about norms, empathy and much else besides (Wake, 55).

6. In the first place, thinking interculturally along these lines assumes that before any ‘transcultural effort of reason and imagination’ can properly begin we need to acknowledge that what we take to be our own culture is itself profoundly, if often ‘unconsciously’, indebted to other cultures – for Joyce the porous and always evolving character of the English language and its writing system is the clearest evidence of this (see Chapter 3 of the book). Second, following Coetzee (Chapter 5 and the Disgrace post), it assumes that cultural forms (e.g. the European novel) cannot be relied on as neutral means of ‘articulating our differences’, or of sympathetically transposing ourselves into other cultures, because they are too embedded in particular forms of life and ways of knowing. Third – and conversely – following Mphahlele (Chapter 4), Mehrotra (Chapter 7) and Chaudhuri/Rushdie (Chapter 8), it assumes that cultural forms and inheritances, no less than languages and writing systems, are mobile, adaptable and recyclable, and so never the exclusive property of any one era, tradition or community. Fourth, following Joyce, Tagore and Krog (Chapter 6), it assumes that cultural encounters can effect radical and potentially vitalizing change (of norms, inheritances, forms and languages) on either side, or on both, when it is not simply a matter of translating from A to B, or vice versa, but of A.1 becoming A.2 via B.1, or B.1 becoming B.2 via A.1 (see also the ‘Other Writers’ section).

7. If literature remains a source of contention in the ongoing struggle for the freedom of expression in our evermore connected ‘global city’, it is also one of the primary sites in which the questions of knowledge – its norms, forms and media – so central to that struggle and to the related effort to develop new modes of good neighbourliness arise. This is because what literature affords most immediately is not knowledge of ourselves or others but an experience of the languages and forms of writing in which particular ways of knowing – and forms of life – are staged, mediated, and sometimes tested and transformed. Engaging with this does not require any special powers, let alone a mysterious ‘inner eye’. In the first but not necessarily the last instance all you need are two ordinary, healthy eyes, some training in how to use them and a willingness to keep learning how to read and think differently (see Fourth Proposition).


Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder (London: Chatto and Windus, 1976).

David Bromwich, ‘What are we allowed to say?’, London Review of Books, 22 September 2016, 3-10.

Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (London: Atlantic Books, 2016).

Namwali Serpell, ‘The Banality of Empathy‘, NYR Daily, 2 March 2019. For a similar critique, which also has much to say about Hannah Arendt, see Lyndsey Stonebridge, Placeless People: Writings, Rights, Refugees (Oxford: OUP, 2018).


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