Friday, February 19, 2010

The Intersection of Language, Culture and Cognition

While causality turns into a rather chicken/egg discussion, I suspect that the reality of it is much the same as the reality of that metaphor. While the actual mechanisms that drove the earliest development of language, abstract cognition and rudimentary culture is lost in eons of time, there is a lot that we can surmise. There are even aspects of this question we can probably describe with a great deal of accuracy. Unquestionably, this is an incredibly fascinating discussion.

Over the past few years I have become increasingly interested in the relationship between language and culture. At the same time, I have become interested in the relationship between language and cognition. I have also been very intrigued with the evolution of all three of these, for many years - and as I have been afforded the opportunity to explore the relationships I mentioned, I have become increasingly fascinated by the evolution of all three, in relation to each other.

In a turn that really blasted me into dizzying realms of abstract correlations, I have also become increasingly intrigued by the cultural relativity of psychopathology. I rather latched onto this concept, because for many years - since I was a child really, I have been beset by the idea that mental illness/neurological disorders/cognitive maladaptations are really misnamed. What exactly is it that qualifies the way one person's brain happens to work as mental illness, versus the way another person's brain works as merely being a little "odd?"*

Is it their brain that is screwed up? Or is it their socialization/culturalization - the society in which they live that is so screwed up?

As I have explored the manifestations of atypical neurology in different cultural contexts, I am increasingly convinced that the latter is considerably more of a problem. Assuming it is indeed society that is screwed up, the question becomes; "given the megalithic nature of society, does this distinction even matter?" or "is there really any reasonable solution to be found for this problem?" To the first question, I cannot but respond that yes, this distinction is remarkably important. The answer to the second question though, is much more complicated and largely depends on how one might define "reasonable."

I think that the largest barrier we face is the very nature of science research in our modern culture. In many disciplines we are increasingly running into a situation where the existing paradigm of each discipline to it's own, is becoming less and less feasible. My perception may be biased by the context of my focus, but I suspect that there is no other area where this is becoming more apparent, than in the social sciences. This is largely because the more science oriented practitioners of psychology, sociology and anthropology - even to some degree, philosophy are developing vast areas of overlap. In some cases, it is simply not possible to follow lines of research without input from each.

Yet the culture of science tends to shy from interdisciplinary cooperation, something that causes problems across the board, but which is most insidious in the social sciences. Anthropology, sociology and even psychology are seeing a major battle between those who wish to do hard science and postmodern extremists who believe that hard science is a bourgeois affectation and fallacious because we can never truly "know" anything. At the same time, most of the most practical and important work being done in all three disciplines, requires input from multiple subdisciplines of the others.

As our world continues to shrink, as historical barriers between cultures fade away, we are flying blindly into a world beset by misunderstandings and exploitations that all too often explode into violent conflicts. And the vast majority of these conflagrations can be traced directly to the intersect of language, cognition and culture. Our language, the use, the content - even the very structure of our languages predispose us to various cultural paradigms. Likewise, language predisposes us to various cognitive paradigms. But complicating all of this, our cognitive paradigms predispose us to certain language and cultural paradigms, while our cultural paradigms predispose us to certain cognitive and linguistic paradigms.

There is absolutely no doubt that untangling this web of influence is a herculean and possibly impossible task. While many correlations are blatantly obvious, causations are complicated by the very nature of nature of those correlations. But ultimately the exploration of this conjunction has less to do with untangling the web and everything to do with peripheral benefit. Exploring this intersect would teach us a great deal about who "we" are, who "they" are**, how we can all interact with less friction and who all of us might become.

Over the course of this semester, I have the opportunity to explore some aspects of this confluence. It is my sincere hope that as I work my way through my education, I will be able to functionally explore many more facets of this intersect. This nexus is relevant to my educational, research and career goals. Ultimately this nexus is the forge that shapes all of the pieces of who/what "we" are, and who/what "they" are.

As I produce various projects, I will be posting them here - hopefully in a relatively coherent fashion. This will probably mean shuffling things around, sometimes adjusting previously posted writings and sometimes I will be throwing up short posts like this one, just to get my thoughts together in a relatively coherent fashion.

I should admit now, that I will probably rarely be posting anything that is not related to this relatively broad topic. I will occasionally post personal stuff and will probably throw up stuff that really jumps out at me, but for the most part, I am going to be sticking in this particular direction. While I would really like to post about human sexuality and a host of other topics that interest me, I just don't see myself really having the time and energy. We will just have to see how things go...

*There are actually relatively objective methods for determining this, that was intended as a rhetorical question to make you think...

**I quite purposely left that very vague, because by "we" and "they" I mean several different things. I mean "we" as in individuals, a subcultural collective and a macrocultural collective. I mean "they" as in other individuals, other subcultural collectives and other macrocultural collectives.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Three Hundred, Fifty Miles in a Blizzard

It was all supposed to be so simple. I was going to see the boys Saturday and Sunday, then drive back from TN at 3:00am, so I could make my psych test at 2:00 back here in MI. Then, about 35 miles or so from the Kentucky border, I hit snow. I had been on the road less than an hour and I hit snow...

A lot of snow.

Then I got run off the road by some fucking moron who thought he should be going considerably faster than everyone else. He was trying to change lanes and was fishtailing - unable to complete the lane change and unable to stop. So I swerved and hit the wall of the overpass - not bad, just cosmetic damage to the car, none to me. I was only going 25mph at that point, because I was going over an overpass and was none to keen on changing lanes to pass people.

Being from MI, learning to drive here I have more than a passing familiarity with driving in that shit - that was not a time to be flying down the road.

I got going - asshat didn't hit the guy in front of me, because he saw me wipe and pulled over. Unfortunately, neither of us managed to get fucking moron's plate, because I was a little busy and he was more concerned about making sure I was all right. I got going again and spent the following 11.5 hours driving 350 fucking miles through a fucking blizzard.

Driving through a blizzard mind, in a state that generally doesn't get that many of them. On the one hand, there were people going about 5-10mph - on the other, the truly fucking stupid people who don't seem to understand that four wheels turning can slide just as easily as two wheels turning - and as they have four wheel drive, they think they can whip past everyone at seventy something. They also seem to think it is ok to tailgate us lesser humans who are stuck with half the drive train they have.

Never mind that at least half the vehicles in ditches are four wheel drive.

So I spent about 11.5 hours with my teeth clenched, my asscheeks clenched, trying to be on one of the outside lanes - preferably the left. That way if one of either factions of morons encroached upon my lane to the extent that I could no longer hold it, I would be able to ditch it. Or at least have shoulder to scoot into...Cause nothing says fun like fresh, thick slush...

I would say that I should have just kept the boys another night and headed back this morning, but the weather was supposed to be reasonable and I probably wouldn't be getting back until right about now, as apposed to a few hours ago. At least the last 200 miles was clear sailing, I don't think I could have taken much more of that shit.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dialectics, History and Cross Cultural Communications

Posted to my Com class message board. A dialectic perspective of history and it's impact on communications across cultures was the topic and we needed to include an example of something we learned that turned out to be wrong. Here is a concise explanation of the dialectic perspective of communications for context. Thanks to the University of Maryland for what is turning out to be a very handy reference for this class.

It is often important to understand other cultures, from the perspective of their history because it forces us to take a more objective view of their present. An excellent example given in the book is the role that history has played in black/white race relations in the U.S.

It is very easy to forget that our present and the present of others are ultimately the current culmination of what our ancestors passed down from generation to generation. This is both a progression of traditions and heritage, as well as the transmission of changes each generation made in the face of the perceived cultural failings.

Without the considering that this progression happens in every culture, it is all too easy to judge the cultural practices that we find distasteful in others from our own progression. While there is no question that regardless of the cultural context some cultural practices are absolutely repugnant, any attempt to foster change in those cultures must take into account the history that brought about those practices. When one can communicate from the context of this other culture and it's history, it creates a communication paradigm that this other culture will be far more receptive to.

I think a very good example of this, is the history of interactions between native Americans and the European settlers. Many of those of us who were educated in public schools were taught that the Europeans did really horrible things to the natives of this land. But what we were taught actually paints my ancestors in a much better light than they deserve. It is a lot like saying that Nazi Germany mistreated the Jews.

What actually happened was nothing less than a systematic attempt to entirely destroy the cultural heritage of all native Americans. From outright genocide, to removing children from their parents for re-education, often beating children who spoke their native languages or attempted to follow their spiritual heritage. Just 120 years ago, we still thought little of gunning down 200 natives. Just 37 years ago, intolerable conditions on a primarily Lakota reservation, led residents of that reservation to take over and occupy a small town, leading to a major standoff with federal officers.

And just 18 years ago, two native Americans lost their jobs and were denied unemployment benefits for having participated in a religious ceremony involving the ingestion of peyote. While many of us assume that the exploitation of native lands ended a long time ago, even today we refuse to allow the reservations the autonomy they were promised by treaties made and broken over the past two hundred and some odd years. Attempts to assuage our guilt by allowing native Americans to open casinos on their lands is ludicrously inadequate.

I learned the Disney version of the history of interactions between European immigrants and native Americans more than twenty years ago. I have learned the considerably more horrifying truth of it mostly over the past ten years. Yet this understanding is essential to understanding just why many native Americans are extremely angry. For nearly three hundred years they have been subjected to the whims of mostly European settlers and their antecedents. Entire native cultures have been irretrievably destroyed, all others threatened nigh to extinction.

As the conquerors who wrote the history, we learn something less shameful than the reality. Our ancestors (those who have roots extending back) committed horrible atrocities, atrocities that many wanted to forget. What was passed through our generational progression was slowly changed to something far less egregious that it was. Making it easier to ignore much of the suffering this nation was founded upon and to ignore our continued subjugation of native Americans.

Native Americans have a generational progression as well. One that carries the scars of cuts hundreds of years old, given stark clarity by the wounds suffered by each generation since. Without understanding both our own history and the history if native Americans - a history that stretches for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, it is very difficult to understand the anger, the sensitivities of natives taking offense to things that most of us would otherwise consider trivial.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Joys and Pains of Getting a Little Old

So I ended up going to Urgent Care last night, after some pain under my ribs - mostly on the left side began to spread and get a lot worse. I have been feeling sore for a few days, but when I woke up yesterday is was notably worse and got considerably worse through the day. To whit, when I have to breath deeply - or worse, yawn - it is about as painful as most anything I have experienced - though admittedly, not even close to passing a kidney stone.

I knew I didn't have a fractured rib, because I have had those and know what to feel for. I knew it wasn't a heart issue, because I pay pretty decent attention to my heart rate and know what to look for. I was mostly concerned that it might be pneumonia or something related. But while I do seem to have pretty heavy bronchial inflammation and swollen, sensitive glands, the doctor is pretty sure it is not pneumonia - though as he was giving me an antibiotic for the bronchial infection, he prescribed one that would deal with that as well.

The problem, it seems, is something called Costochondritis, possibly Tietze, because there does seem to be some swelling. Basically, there is a major inflammation of the cartilage connecting the ribs to the breastbone. Pretty much harmless, but hurts - a lot. The cause can be nothing, some trauma or simply light exercise. The doctor also mentioned that this is more common with middle age men and older.

The icing on the cake was that while he was poking and prodding and getting me to tighten various muscles - the whole experience was exceedingly painful - he noted that I seem to have the beginning of a possible hernia on my belly. He gave me some ideas about how to deal with it, but was clear that I really, really don't want to have it turn into a full fledged hernia. Indeed he said that while that still would not quite hit the pain level of passing a stone, it would probably come a good bit closer.

Monday, February 1, 2010