More on Circumcision

Not everybody is satisfied by the methods employed in the study I posted two days ago (click here for my first post (see comment section there for links to more debates)). This here is a short, but well substantiated repudiation of the article:

In conclusion, despite a poorly representative sample and methods prone to exaggerating the sensitivity of the prepuce, NOCIRC’s claims remain unconfirmed. When the authors’ data are analysed properly, no significant differences exist. Thus the claim that circumcision adversely affects penile sensitivity is poorly supported, and this study provides no evidence for the belief that circumcision adversely affects sexual pleasure.

from “Fine-Touch Pressure Thresholds in the adult Penis” (Waskett, J. H. and Morris, B. J. (2007), FINE-TOUCH PRESSURE THRESHOLDS IN THE ADULT PENIS. BJU International, 99: 1551–1552)

On Circumcision

The glans of the circumcised penis is less sensitive to fine touch than the glans of the uncircumcised penis. The transitional region from the external to the internal prepuce is the most sensitive region of the uncircumcised penis and more sensitive than the most sensitive region of the circumcised penis. Circumcision ablates the most sensitive parts of the penis.

from the study “Fine-touch pressure thresholds in the adult penis” (Sorrells ML, Snyder JL, Reiss MD, et al. “Fine-touch pressure thresholds in the adult penis”. BJU Int 2007;99:864-9.)


Michael Fitzpatrick makes a good, but still too careful point in this opinion piece in the New Scientist.

THE epithet “denier” is increasingly used to bash anyone who dares to question orthodoxy. Among other things, deniers are accused of subordinating science to ideology. In his book Denialism: How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet, and threatens our lives, for example, Michael Specter argues that denialists “replace the rigorous and open-minded scepticism of science with the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment”.

How ironic. The concept of denialism is itself inflexible, ideological and intrinsically anti-scientific. It is used to close down legitimate debate by insinuating moral deficiency in those expressing dissident views, or by drawing a parallel between popular pseudoscience movements and the racist extremists who dispute the Nazi genocide of Jews.

The incredible wave of secular Catholicism, of stubborn, closed minds, that not only accept academic consensus as gospel Truth, but that also brand everyone with a different opinion as a fool, without, usually, ever really engaging with these opinions in a fair and open manner. After all, we know that everything sounds better with science, and pseudo-scientific explanations, no matter how hackneyed, are now the go-to response in all areas, and other voices are drowned out in ridicule and tags like “denier”. To quote Fitzpatrick again

As Skidelsky says, “the extension of the ‘denier’ tag to group after group is a development that should alarm all liberal-minded people”. What we need is more debate, not less.

Everything sounds better with Science!

Some recent nonsense (especially the publication of The Male Brain, the newest installment of what one expects again to be the usual dose of bad science by Louann Brizendine), and the generally dismissive attitude towards alleged ‘non-scientific’ knowledge that swamps so much impoverished contemporary intellectual discourse, have reminded me of “The seductive allure of neuroscience explanation“, a 2008 article in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Here is the abstract:

Explanations of psychological phenomena seem to generate more public interest when they contain neuroscientific information. Even irrelevant neuroscience information in an explanation of a psychological phenomenon may interfere with people’s abilities to critically consider the underlying logic of this explanation. We tested this hypothesis by giving naïve adults, students in a neuroscience course, and neuroscience experts brief descriptions of psychological phenomena followed by one of four types of explanation, according to a 2 (good explanation vs. bad explanation) x 2 (without neuroscience vs. with neuroscience) design. Crucially, the neuroscience information was irrelevant to the logic of the explanation, as confirmed by the expert subjects. Subjects in all three groups judged good explanations as more satisfying than bad ones. But subjects in the two non-expert groups additionally judged that explanations with logically irrelevant neuroscience information were more satisfying than explanations without. The neuroscience information had a particularly striking effect on non-experts’ judgments of bad explanations, masking otherwise salient problems in these explanations.

(via the always excellent Language Log)

Human capacities

On his blog, Stanley Fish reviews Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s new book, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion. Smith is a marvelous writer, who is generally admired in this household and her new book sounds intriguing as well.

Her point, stated frequently and in the company of careful readings of those who might reject it, is that while science and religion exhibit different models, offer different resources, display different limitations and enter into different relationships of support and (historically specific) antagonism, they are not, and should not be seen as, battle-to-the-death opponents in a cosmic struggle. Nor are they epistemologically distinct in a way that leaves room for only one of them in the life of an individual or a society: “There is nothing that distinguishes how we produce and respond to Gods from how we produce and respond to a wide variety of other social-cognitive constructs ubiquitous in human culture and central to human experience.” Which is not to say that science and religion are the same, only that that their very different efforts to conceptualize and engage with very different challenges have a common source in human capacities and limitations.

Academics Cannot Surf

I recently remarked on identity politics on this blog. This is another case.

Apparently, it’s fine to headline an article Has A Surfer/Snowboarder Who Lives In A Van Rewritten Physics?, or “SURFER DUDE STUNS PHYSICISTS WITH THEORY OF EVERYTHING” or “COULD THE NEXT EINSTEIN BE A SURFER DUDE?” or surf’s theory of everything, even if you talk about a guy who is “40 years old and possess[es] a Ph.D. in theoretical physics”, who “posted an academic paper called “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything” to, a site for scientists that’s maintained by Cornell University” and who “began presenting his theory at conferences last year, and many well-regarded physicists found it interesting, even plausible”.

But nooo. He’s a surfer dude.

Let me tell you something. If I continue working odd jobs as I do now, never find my way into an academic career, but work on complex theories of literary criticism daily, for 15 years, attend professional conferences and publish my results in an academic paper, and you call me a “surfer dude” (or something like it), I will bloody your nose.

That said, the article linked above is an engrossing read and highly recommended.

(This could be) Life on Mars

At last, scientists have discovered a form of life that could have evolved on Mars. Geologists unearthed a treasure trove of fossilized remains in a salty, acidic lake in remote Australia — the creatures, probably about 250 million years old, were, according to New Scientist, “made up of a mix of inorganic crystals and ‘hairs’ stuck together in a mass” (pictured). The lake where they lived was filled with water whose extreme levels of salinity and acidity are a near-match for Martian water. Find out more, plus see more cool pictures of the blobs, below. […] Scientists are still divided on whether these crystal-hair creatures actually count as “life.” As they run further tests on the fossils, the mere existence of such creatures fuels hope among astrobiologists that life could indeed have evolved on Mars and we might get a chance to meet it — or at least, to find its fossilized remains.

Follow the i09 link to see a batch of pictures

Science and Metaphor

In addition to serving a rhetorical and heuristic role, metaphors play a cognitively significant role in scientific reasoning as well. Theories and theoretical explanation are shot through and through with metaphors. The view that scientific theories must be literal accounts in order to do their job, I argue, rests on a mistaken picture of the nature of reality and the relation of our theories to it.

Quoth Michael Bradie (in an oldish (1998) essay called “Models and Metaphors in Science”).

Mind-blowing stuff.

Found this

The YouTube clip opens with a woman facing away from the camera, rocking back and forth, flapping her hands awkwardly, and emitting an eerie hum. She then performs strange repetitive behaviors: slapping a piece of paper against a window, running a hand lengthwise over a computer keyboard, twisting the knob of a drawer. She bats a necklace with her hand and nuzzles her face against the pages of a book. And you find yourself thinking: Who’s shooting this footage of the handicapped lady, and why do I always get sucked into watching the latest viral video?

But then the words “A Translation” appear on a black screen, and for the next five minutes, 27-year-old Amanda Baggs — who is autistic and doesn’t speak — describes in vivid and articulate terms what’s going on inside her head as she carries out these seemingly bizarre actions. In a synthesized voice generated by a software application, she explains that touching, tasting, and smelling allow her to have a “constant conversation” with her surroundings. These forms of nonverbal stimuli constitute her “native language,” Baggs explains, and are no better or worse than spoken language. Yet her failure to speak is seen as a deficit, she says, while other people’s failure to learn her language is seen as natural and acceptable.

And you find yourself thinking: She might have a point.

So. READ the long and great article first, and now, here is the youtube clip.

And this is how the article, which you HAVE TO read, ends:

Back in Burlington, Baggs is cueing up another YouTube clip. She angles her computer screen so I can see it. Set to the soundtrack of Queen’s “Under Pressure,” it’s a montage of close-up videos showing behaviors like pen clicking, thumb twiddling, and finger tapping. The message: Why are some stress-related behaviors socially permissible, while others — like the rocking bodies and flapping arms commonly associated with autism — are not? Hit count for the video at last check: 80,000 and climbing.

Should autism be treated? Yes, says Baggs, it should be treated with respect. “People aren’t interested in us functioning with the brains we have,” she says, because autism is considered to be outside the range of normal variability. “I don’t fit the stereotype of autism. But who does?” she asks, hammering especially hard on the keyboard. “The definition of autism is so fluid and changing every few years.” What’s exciting, she says, is that Mottron and other scientists have “found universal strengths where others usually look for universal deficits.” Neuro-cognitive science, she says, is finally catching up to what she and many other adults with autism have been saying all along.

Baggs is working on some new videos. One project is tentatively titled “Am I a Person Yet?” She’ll explore communication, empathy, self-reflection — core elements of the human experience that have at times been used to define personhood itself. And at various points during the clip, she’ll ask: “Am I a person yet?” It’s a provocative idea, and you might find yourself thinking: She has a point.

Science: engineering stereotypes and killing people

Very readable post by Annalee Newitz on her AlterNet blog

In South Africa, a widely used antiaircraft cannon called the Oerlikon GDF-005 suffered from what many observers believe was a computer malfunction, which killed nine soldiers and maimed 15 in a training exercise. Its computer-controlled sighting mechanism went haywire, and the gun automatically turned its barrel to face the trainees next to it, spraying bullets from magazines that it automatically reloaded until it was out of ammunition. […]

In the United States, James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for helping to discover the double-helix shape of DNA, was suspended from his administrative duties at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory over comments he made to the London Times about how blacks are genetically hardwired with lower intelligence than that of other races. Watson has made comments like this about blacks (and women) throughout his career, but apparently this was the last straw. Reporter Charlotte Hunt-Grabbe, who says she has Watson’s comments on tape, quoted him saying he’s “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.” He told Hunt-Grabbe his “hope is that everyone is equal” but that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”


These two very different incidents demonstrate the fallibility of science and, more importantly, how the arrogance of scientists can be horrifically destructive. The tragedy in South Africa could have been avoided if the engineers who designed that cannon had simply refused to computerize its sight. With a big gun, computer error can be far worse than human error. Any decent engineer would have known that failure in computer systems is inevitable and come to the conclusion that weapons should not be programmed to function autonomously.

Watson’s remarks are another form of scientific arrogance that leads to gross and fatal mistakes. After all, Watson is hardly the first person to use genetics as a way to create false hierarchies of human beings based on “evidence” that some races and sexes are “naturally” superior to others. The history of biology as a discipline is riddled with racism and sexism. […]

Today leaders in the field of evolutionary biology like Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson routinely say that people are hardwired to behave in certain ways based on their genetic heritage, which is often linked to their racial background or sex. “Scientific” studies on the genetic inferiority of female intelligence are what motivated former Harvard president Lawrence Summers to claim that there are so few women in science because they just aren’t smart enough.

So should a computerized gun run amok and a racist geneticist undermine our faith in science? Yes. People who build autonomous weapons systems know their work might kill people, but they do it anyway. And people like Watson derail brilliant research by bringing sex and race bias into the lab. Science is nothing more than the sum of what scientists do. Without ethics, science is no better than Christianity during the Crusades, a dogma that kills out of arrogance and prejudice.

How often I think about Sex

I have a list of articles on Language Log that I wanted to talk about concerning the stupidity of most pop science treatments on the so-called difference between man and woman. I may have voiced some disparaging comments of my own here and there and in other articles as well. The following excerpts are taken from an older Language Log article (please read the whole thing. It’s short and very readable).

On page 91 of The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine writes (emphasis added):

Males have double the brain space and processing power devoted to sex as females. Just as women have an eight-lane superhighway for processing emotion while men have a small country road, men have O’Hare Airport as a hub of processing thoughts about sex whereas women have the airfield nearby that lands small and private planes. That probably explains why 85 percent of twenty- to thirty-year-old males think about sex every fifty-two seconds and women think about it once a day — or up to three or four times on their most fertile days.

This striking different in rates of sexual thoughts is also one of the bullet points on the book’s jacket blurb — but there, female sex-thought frequency is downgraded from “once a day” to “once every couple of days”:

* Thoughts about sex enter a woman’s brain once every couple of days but enter a man’s brain about once every minute

Whatever the exact numbers, it’s an impressive-sounding difference — scientific validation for a widespread opinion about what men and women are like. And this is interesting stuff, right at the center of social and personal life, so you’re probably wondering about the details of the studies that produced these estimates.

in the following part of the article Liberman reviews her cited sources and, having done that, comes to these conclusions:

Adding up this study’s tally of undergraduate male sexual thoughts, we get 4.5 male urges + 2.5 male fantasies per day on average, for a total of 7 sexual thoughts, or one every (24*60*60/7 =) 12,342 seconds. Compare Dr. Brizendine’s figures: “85 percent of twenty- to thirty-year-old males think about sex every fifty-two seconds”. That’s more than 237 times hornier — even if the other 15 percent never thought about sex at all, the average frequency would still be at least two orders of magnitude greater than Jones & Barlow report. (And they sampled male undergraduate psychology students, who must surely be near their life maximum of sexual consciousness.)

How about the female numbers? Jones and Barlow’s student diaries yielded 2 female urges + 2.5 female fantasies per day on average, for a total of 4.5 sexual thoughts per day. That’s 450% greater than the “once a day” that Brizendine cites in the book’s text, and 900% greater than the “once every couple of days” rate in the jacket blurb. Not that the average self-reports from the “47 female undergraduates” in Jones and Barlow’s 1990 American sample should be taken to stand for the nature of all women in all times and places — but this is still 47 more women than we’ve been able to connect with Brizendine’s estimates, at least so far.

Note also that the Jones and Barlow numbers for women amount to one sexual thought every (24*60*60/4.5 =) 19,200 seconds. But you’re not going to sell any books by writing that “Men think about sex every 12,300 seconds, while women only have a sexual thought every 19,200 seconds”.

It’s always somewhat irritating how easily people (i.e. readers) swallow the “hey I’m right, cuz see, it’s scientific” ‘argument’. Science. mainly because it’s such a heavily specialized field right now (not that this kind of misuse wasn’t common in earlier days as well, remember Edward Long?) , is easily misused and I as a reader have a strong mistrust against people who base outrageous claims on ‘science’. I am sometimes suprised that other people aren’t and that all these bad science books sell so well. And the funniest thing about it is that many natural scientists, who should know better, who can see their sciences being misused and trivialized on a daily basis, often do not behave in a better way whenever they write about, or make use of, fields like literature, philosophy or theology. Oh, well.
And how often do I think about sex? As they say: that’s for me to know and for you to find out. 😉


Der tolle Herr Kulla, oft verklinkt auf diesen wenig gelesenen Seiten, hat ‘zwischen den Jahren’, um einen besonders abscheulichen Ausdruck zu verwenden, seinen Weltraumkommunismusvortrag, den er gemeinsam mit der tollen Frau Leganovic hält, auf Englisch gehalten. Wobei mir auffiel, daß meine geneigten deutschen Leser in der Mehrzahl noch nicht von mir auf den deutschen Vortrag aufmerksam gemacht wurden. Und es doch schade, verpaßten sie ihn. Hier, bitteschön, ist der link zum deutschen Vortrag, der ein ein bißchen langes intro hat, aber das Warten lohnt sich. Die dem Vortrag vor- und dem Intro nachgeschalteten Bildtafeln bitte lesen, um die kulturellen Parameter zu checken. 😉 Hier ein wundervolles Zitat vom Ende:

Tichy: Sind nicht nur Menschen Trottel. Können nicht nur Menschen aus Erfahrung nichts lernen. Die Bewohner Dychthoniens, die besuchte ich auf meiner 21. Reise, trotz Raumfahrt ertrinken in ihre bekloppte Vernunft. Hilft nur Erkenntnis zur Selbsthilfe. Fremdes Beeinflussung ist Problem. Leary sagt, du musst Plan haben, denn wenn du hast keinen Plan, wirst du Teil von Plan von jemand anderem. Und kann auch kommen ganz anders. Solange Menschen blöd, nix Raumfahrt, wenn Menschen endlich schlau, dann Erde schön und vielleicht auch nix Raumfahrt, denn ist keine Notwendigkeit mehr.
So und so, Menschen müssen machen Kommunismus, denn ohne Kommunismus alle lachen uns aus. Müssen Angelegenheiten von Mensch regeln nach Mensch, nicht nach Wert und auch nicht nach technisch optimiertes Mensch. Kommunismus heißt auch: Menschen weniger schreiend blöd.

Janeway: Lassen Sie mich hinzufügen: Vollendung und Ausweitung der Emanzipation. Bessere Menschen werden nicht nach göttlichem Gebot. Konflikte so friedlich wie möglich lösen. (Was durch das Mitführen von Photonentorpedos erleichtert werden kann.) Menschen die Möglichkeit geben, sich einem unendlichen Raum angemessen zu entfalten.

via classless kulla

Space Communism

The incomparable Mr. Kulla (why does that sound like a cartoon character’s name?) has held his celebrated Space Communism speech with Ms. Leganovic (the speech can be accessed here in German) in English at the Chaos Communication Congress of Germany’s Chaos Computer Club.

Click here and be delighted. It’s shortened, the full version has apparently been lost. Still interesting. Recommended. It does resonate with some problems I have been mulling over, as you may have noticed.

via classless kulla

Homosexual no more!

Ah, I can just hear the disgusting advertising slogan. Homosexual no more! A scenario like this anticipated by an episode of ReGenesis, and a prettier one, anticipated by such writers as Samuel R. Delany in one of his last SF novels, Triton, is peeking over the horizon, as Tierneylab writes

To their surprise, neurobiologists have discovered that homosexuality can be turned on or off in fruit flies. They’d known that sexual orientation can be genetically programmed, but they didn’t realize it could also be altered by giving a drug that changes the way the flies’ sensory circuits react to pheromones.

For John Tierney, and not just for him, this raises pressing questions

Would some people, gay or straight, who weren’t having luck attracting one gender decide to switch to the other? Would some people casually switch back and forth?
Would some social conservatives […], who normally object to biologists “playing god” and pharmacologists altering “human nature,” change their minds and urge the use of biotechnology to promote heterosexuality?

Hmmm. I wonder what is the most troubling aspect of this…maybe the aspect which is downplayed by Tierney by presenting it as one aspect of many, but whose importance he demonstrates nevertheless by starting his brief introductory passage with

I don’t think of homosexuality or heterosexuality as an “illness” to be “cured,” but

You know, for me this sounds awfully like the sentence that I’ve heard way too often: “I don’t have anything against foreigners, but…” Ok, to be fair, his ‘but’ has a different function. Still. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it.

Saving Terri Schiavo

[One of only two CDA papers I ever wrote. This is the first one, it’s about 3 years old. I cut all the graphs and most of the technical stuff from it and reworked some parts. I hope it’s readable. I kept the “(graph x)” as a reference, but there is IMO no need to include the graphs themselves as their content is revealed in the text, I think. I will post two of the appendices as well as the bibliography as “comments” to this post, so they will not clog up blog space. You don’t need to read them. But by all means, read the essay. It’s kinda interesting, I think, as far as Linguistic essays go.]

In the second half of the 20th century, Halliday (1978) and Fowler et al. (1979) uncovered the ideologies hidden in newspapers that supposedly strove for objectivity. Correcting the misapprehension of journalistic objectivity has been the subject of Critical Discourse Analysis (henceforth CDA) research, which showed that news is a social construct and that different representations of the same issue through distinctive expressions carry different ideologies (cf. Fowler 1991: 10).

Lately, new focus has been placed on the process of framing, whereby “journalists get to pick and choose from the frames offered by the political elites” (Callaghan/Schnell 2005: 11), meaning that the selection of facts by the jounalists is restricted by politicians and their staff. Reading about highly controversial news items, one has to wonder, though, whether the newspapers are really that powerless and whether they do not “generate their own frames” (11), a question that becomes all the more urgent considering the possibility “that most Americans, on most issues, do not really possess opinions” (Kinder/Nelson 2005: 117).

This would give newspapers enormous power: shaping the public’s opinion to their liking. This invites questions: how do newspapers treat controversial news? Do they have their own agenda? What hand do they play? Do they try to apply their influence? Do newspapers differ in the frames and ideologies that they spread? In review the reasearchers found that the particular subject of different yet similar frames was never properly treated in CDA research and consequently went for an analysis in that specific area of research.

The particular news topic that is used as a vehicle for this paper’s analysis is the case of the late Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman from Florida (cf. Appendix 1). On March 18, 2005, her husband had her hospice withdraw her feeding tube, which right to do so he won after years of legal disputes with her parents. On March 31, she died from dehydration. In the two weeks between the withdrawal of the feeding tube and her death, a conflict was waged in American politics and American courts, as her parents, religious leaders, most of the Republican Party, Florida governor Jeb Bush, but also a select few Democrats, tried to have the tube reinserted but ultimately failed because of the insistence of both state and federal courts (cf. Appendix 2).

In the struggle for opinion leadership all analysed newspapers, as this paper will demonstrate, pursued their own agendas. In order to show this the researchers opted for a comparison of four of the largest daily American newspapers, the Washington Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Boston Globe. This analysis is centered around actor analysis as explicated by Van Leeuwen (1996) and analysis of lexical items as undertaken by van Dijk (1988a) and Fowler and Kress (1979). Also, in the discussion of the results we will be drawing heavily from the discussion about media bias in American Jounalism as expounded in the works of Kuypers, Alterman and Brock.

The basis for this analysis is obtained in van Dijk’s notion about the relation of discourse structures, such as lexical items and grammatical structures, to societal structures, which, van Dijk argues, is to be found in social actors and their minds (cf. Garrett and Bell 1998: 6ff.). News, van Dijk says, is “a particular form of social […] practice” (Van Dijk 1988a: 176).

The researchers have decided on treating ‘news’ not as a homogenous force, not as one social actor, but as a set of actors who compete with each other for opinion leadership. Instead, it was agreed on treating the readers as a homogenous mass, which might be influenced either way, especially since even the most clearly opinionated paper in our selection, The Washington Times, has repeatedly been classed a “relevant read” (Freedman 1995), read by both sides of the political spectrum.

Three of the newspapers in this paper’s selection, however, have been severely criticized for being biased and suppressing conservative opinions, a criticism that has been so pervasive in American discussions, that “[t]oday people pronounce ‘media bias’ as if it were a single word” (Nunberg 2003). Especially conservative media reviewers such as L. Brent Bozell claim that the American press “sets itself up as an independend advocate for particular political ends” (Kuypers 2002: 12), “presents a consistent left-wing point of view among news stories [and] shuts out information that contradicts its point of view, thus acting to limit information” (235f.) This alleged bias is commonly called ‘liberal bias’.

Others, most prominently Eric Alterman, say that these claims present a “myth [that] empowers conservatives to control debate in the United States” (Alterman 2003: 3). It is further asserted that “the most important sectors of the political media […] are powerful propaganda organs of the Republican Party.” (Brock 2004: 2)

Proof, either way, has been scarce. Media bias research (where it is not just anecdotal, as, for instance the work of Alterman (2003) and Conason (2003) is) as undertaken for example by Groseclose and Milyo (2003) has mainly been trying to use mathematical formulas to prove assertions of bias and has thoroughly been criticized for both method and execution (cf. Nunberg 2004). Linguistic studies are conspicuously absent.

In assembling the corpus for this analysis the researchers decided on four important daily nationwide American newspapers: the Washington Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Boston Globe. It was taken care to use newspapers that were all located on the east coast, close to each other, so that they could be said to compete for opinion leadership locally as well as nationwide. Thus, of the major nationwide daily newspapers, only the Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times are missing.

In each newspaper the one article was taken wherein track is kept of new developments in the Schiavo case, most of which articles wherelocated on the first two pages. All newspapers also carried stories about certain actors such as the Schiavo family or about certain topics such as euthanasia but those were ignored, to keep the corpus focused upon the news.

Finally, the frame of time the articles were picked from begins with March 18, the day that Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was withdrawn and ends with March 31, the day that she died. These dates were selected because that was the time when the struggle for Terri Schiavo’s life was the most heated. On the first day, her death seemed imminent and on the last day, she died.

It was tried to adjust the amount of articles so that the total amount of words per newspaper was comparable. This explains certain gaps between the dates, which was inevitable, as the quantity of coverage of the events was unevenly spread. This of course presents a weakness of this paper’s analysis, but the researchers are confident that the analysis was performed systematically enough to make up and still be convincing.

As most of the studies pertaining to this paper’s topic examine a very small corpus, such as one (Kitis and Milapides 1997) or two (Choi 2002) articles or just the headlines (Schrabback 2000) of the articles, the researchers could not do an analysis as thorough as theirs on each article.

Instead it was deemed preferable to focus on a few choice aspects, such as the treatment of the person of Terri Schiavo with the linguistic strategies of nomination/categorization, collocation and transitivity, the removal of the feeding tube with strategies of nominalization, transitivity and lexical choice and, as a final aspect, the rhetoric structure of each newspaper.

Each newspaper reflected the debate rhetorically by quoting and citing experts, politicians and various parts of the involves families, the Schindlers and the Schiavos. In doing so, an argumentative pattern noticeably evolved in each newspaper, marked by the words ‘but’ and ‘yet’, which had the advantage of being countable. The occurences of ‘but’ and ‘yet’ were split in three groups. The first presented arguments and circumstances for Michael Schiavo’s and/or the position of the Democratic Party, such as
(1) House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said in a statement: “It’s unconscionable that Senate Democrats . . . would not allow a vote to move forward on critical legislation the House passed last night to save and protect Terri Schiavo’s life.” But key GOP senators […] defended their democratic collegues […] (Wash. Post, 18-03-05)

the second presented arguments and circumstances for the Schindler’s and/or the position of the Republican Party, such as
(2) Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, said the caption for the House floor debate should be “We’re not doctors. We just play them on C-SPAN.” He said that “ideology is driving this” legislation. But Mr. Bush came back to Washington last night from his ranch in Texas expressly to sign the measure into law immediately upon the House giving its approval. (Wash. Times, 21-03-05)

the third presented neutral occurrences, such as
(3) But House members adjourned before the bills could be reconciled. (Wash. Post, 18-03-05)


Categorization means the representation of social actors “in terms of identities or functions they share with others” (Van Leeuwen 1996: 52), whereas nomination simply refers to the naming of social actors. Terri Schiavo is not always referred to by both her names, first and last. She is referred to as ‘Terri’, ‘Terri Schiavo’, ‘Ms. Schiavo’ and ‘Mrs. Schiavo’. It should be noted that each newspaper uses either ‘Ms. Schiavo’ or ‘Mrs. Schiavo’. There is no overlapping. Also, it should be said that all seven mentions of ‘Mrs. Schiavo’ in the Boston Globe occur within quotations. In all of the analysed newspapers, Ms. Terri Schiavo, apart from being referred to by her first and/or last name, is talked about also as ‘wife’ (of Michael Schiavo ) or as ‘daughter’ (of Robert and Mary Schindler). It is worth mentioning that nomination and categorisation may occur together, the two categories of referring to Terri Schiavo are not mutually exclusive, but the combination of the two categories provided no useful patterns whatsoever. Also, not all references to Terri Schiavo were collected thus, as she is being talked about in still more ways, which, however, were found to be of little interest.

On surveying (table 1) there are two distinctive numbers that are fascinating: the number of times the NY Times and the Washington Times referred to Terri Schiavo by ‘Ms. Schiavo’ and ‘Mrs. Schiavo’ respectively. The exclusiveness of use of one or the other form may be attributable to house style, which means that might be customary in the NY Times to use ‘Ms.’ instead of ‘Mrs.’ at all times, a form that, interestingly, “can be used when you do not want to state whether she is married or not” (Wehmeier 2000).

The Washington Times, on the other hand, seems to be particularly appealed by the married status of Terri Schiavo, using such a unique form in such disproportionate amounts. Where the NY Time’s interest lies, is hard to ascertain from just that one form. Certainly, the way it uses Terri’s first name far less than all the other newspapers and the formal adress far mor often , seems to indicate a kind of distancing.

Not distancing at all seems to be the Globe’s attitude, as he uses Terri’s first name by far the most times, just as he heads the list in (table 2) when it comes to referring to her as the Schinder’s daughter, a category which the Washington Times mentioned the fewest times.

This is another attention-grabbing table as far as the Washington Times is concerned, for whereas the Times holds back with the category of ‘daughter’, it can boast the most occurrances by far of the category of ‘wife’. This is consistent with (table 1), which already suggested an effort by the Washington Times to link Terri Schiavo to her marriage. How striking this attitude is becomes clearer once it is noted in how balanced an quantity the two categories are mentioned in the other three papers, which divide Terri Schiavo evenly between those two roles.


Collocation may be defined as “the habitual co-occurrence of individual lexical items” (Abdel-Hafiz 110) such as, in this case: “the brain-damaged woman”. Careful study of the selected newspapers revealed that certain collocations were occurring persistently in the vicinity of references to Terri Schiavo, the most remarkable ones being the words ‘brain-damaged’, ‘helpless’ and ‘incapacitated’, as in the following sentences:

(4) Terri Schiavo, who has been incapacitated since suffering a temporary heart
stoppage in 1990, has had her feeding tube removed twice previously, including
for a six-day stretch in 2003. (Boston Globe, 22-03-05)

(5) ”This decision is at odds with both the clear intent of Congress and the
constitutional rights of a helpless young woman,” DeLay said. (Boston Globe,

(6) The Supreme Court rejected an appeal, and a Florida judge ruled that the
governor lacks the authority to order the state to take custody of the severely
brain-damaged woman. (Boston Globe, 25-03-05)

Having said that Terri Schiavo in the analyzed newspapers is divided evenly between being ‘daughter’ and being ‘wife’, the data in (table 3) insinuates that through collocation, i.e. linking of Terri Schiavo with words emphasizing her passivity, she is to be given a subordinate position, she is to remain in that pattern, being somebody’s wife, somebody’s daughter. The most appealing fact about this data is the consistency, as this time the rifts between the newspapers disappear or become negligeable, it seems that the newspapers are all of one mind in this respect.


Transitivity is one of “the deeper semantic features of a text” (Fowler and Kress 198), highlighting actions (predicates) and both those who act (agents) and those who are being acted upon (patients). Analysis of transitivity enables the analyst to take into account syntactical transformations such as passivation and nominalization, the latter of which refers to the conversion of verbs to nouns.

As is to be expected of a woman in a persistent vegetative state, in most constructions where Terri Schiavo is involved, she occupies the role of patient. Still, there are a few sentences, wherein she is activated. Appendix 4 contains a list which includes all essential variations; it does not, however, include multiple mentions of the same or a similar construction, even if they happen to be in different newspapers; these multiple mentions are not included because it is of no importance which phrase appeared in which newspaper how often, as no pattern emerged.

This is not the only aspect where the newspapers seem to have a similar agenda. The sentences, of which examples are collected in Appendix 4, are equally distributed over all four newspapers. They share one characteristic: except for sentence (8), the activation is unidirectionally taking place in phrases that detail Terri Schiavo’s will to live. Examples of sentence (8) occur once in each newspaper, which obviously puts the sentences detailing Terri’s possible will to die in the minority, not even proponents of euthanasia were cited anywhere, thus neatly fitting the pattern established by (table 2) and (table 3), a pattern which could be called “selektive Diskursrepräsentation” (Pollak 2001: 151).


This next part of the analysis ressembles the last part closely in that both are centered around Terri Schiavo’s death, although, this time around, Terri Schiavo is no direct participant as all the sentences and phrases analysed for this part focus on the circumstances of the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. The sentences that are analyzed are all concerned with the removal of the feeding tube. Agents are Michael Schiavo, on whose behalf it was removed, the judiciary, who granted the removal and refused the appeals and finally the doctors, who manually removed the tube. All mentions of the judiciary in the agent position, such as ‘Judge Greer’, ‘Judge Whittemore’, ‘the court’ etc., were merged into one item for clarifying purposes. Nonetheless it is not without significance, how exactly the judiciary was referred to.

At first glance, (table 4) does not appear to be fraught with interesting data, as most of the differences seem slight enough to be attributable to either the choice of articles or the variations in the quantity of analyzed material. The only three assertions that can safely be made from this data are, for one thing, the complete omission of the doctors both in the NY Times and in the Washington Times.

For another thing, the Washington Times mentions more often agents than the other newspapers, a difference that is of course partly originates in the higher number of sentences or phrases concerned with the removal of the tube. Another reason for this difference will be explained in the next section.

The third point to be made about the data in (table 4) is that both the Boston Globe and the Washington Post seem to be trying to balance the agents responsible for removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube fairly, a point which will be elaborated, too, in later paragraphs.

Meanwhile, the higher amount of agents in the Washington Times and, thus, of blame that can be apportioned, is striking, all the more so when (graph 1) is taken into account. Whereas the other newspapers do not prefer one judge over the other, the Washington Times’ preferences are clear. If blame is to be apportioned, (graph 1) shows, to whom it is due, at least to which judge.


After having done a transitivity analysis on the sentences in question, it was noticed that the strategy of nominalization recurred frequently, with the verb ‘(to) remove’ as object of the transformation.

Not the apportioning of blame but instead the averting of said blame is a possible effect of nominalization, according to Fowler and Kress, a result of “the rendering of a process as an object” (1979: 208). In the case of ‘removal’, the data is conclusive, as the differences between the occurrences are considerable.

It is hardly surprising that the Washington Times, who has been made out as wanting to lay blame on Michael Schiavo and the Judiciary’s doorstep, does not employ nominalization, as this would obviously be contradictory. Neither is it unexpected that the NY Times, who has a tendency to be formal, as (table 1) showed as well as a tendency to be balanced, as both (table 2) and (table 4) indicated, would sidestep the temptation to blame someone straightaway when the possiblity to be more formal and balanced via nominalization exists.

It is worthwhile, however, to discuss the data concerning the Globe. There is a consistency, too, even if it is not that apparent. It should not be startling that the newspaper who called Terri Schiavo most often by her first name, something that suggests a more intimate relationship, would not shy away from treating the process that would lead to her death, like a regular process, with agents and a patient, all the while staying balanced as far as the agents are concerned; this (table 4) and (Graph 1) demonstrated convincingly.

The depiction of the removal of the feeding tube did not only yield insights into stategies such as nominalization and agent analysis, it also demonstrated significant differences in the choice of lexical items to describe the process and its consequences. Of special interest proved to be the verb ‘(to) starve’ and the noun ‘starvation’.

With most of the newspapers settled into their characteristic profiles, the data collected in (table 6) does not shake things up, but instead fits into the data that has already been collected. Especially the Washington Times’ profile keeps sharpening. Not only is the use of the verb ‘(to) starve’ in collocations such as “starve her to death” in sentences (18), (19), (20) and (23), severely misleading, as Terri Schiavo, as physicians kept saying all along, died not of starvation but of dehydration. Also, sentences as (18) not only blame Michael Schiavo, but it could almost be said that these sentences attack him or his integrity. Writing that a judge enabled someone to starve his wife to death is an argument in itself against both the judge and the person doing the starving without even taking the pain to actually argue rhetorically, a technique, to which the words “enhanced persuasion” (Van Dijk 1988b: 16) fit perfectly.


Without a doubt, arguments do not need to be formally argument-like, as the Washington Time’s use of ‘(to) starve’ formidably demonstrated. Nonetheless, argumentation is part of any news text and it works on many levels. On the most basic level, through the use of markers such as ‘but’ and ‘yet’. Having counted and divided them into three groups as described in section 3.2, the findings, collected in (table 7), were astonishing.

Not only the fact that the proportions appear to be nearly identical, but also the clarity of the data astonished the researchers. Having worked hard to piece together the four newspaper’s agendas, the final bit came quite easily.
Yet this data, that indicates a strong tendency of the Washington Times to the cause of the Schindlers and the Republican Party and a strong tendency of the remaining newspapers to side with Michael Schiavo and those Democrats who supported his cause, does not preclude the present analysis.



It should be admitted that dividing the whole struggle in two opposed parties, as the researchers did, could be called pushing the envelope slightly. None of the Democrats who because of this division were said to ‘side’ with Michael Schiavo, did actually issue a statement to that effect in the news material that was analyzed. The struggle between Democrats and Republicans was a dispute over the merits of the seperation of powers.

It was shown, that each newspaper has a characteristic profile, and as far as the Washington Times and the Boston Globe go, they also have a characteristic agenda. Both have generated a frame of their own: the Globe’s agenda could be said to be centered around defending Michael Schiavo and the Judiciary not by neutralizing the anguish caused by Terri Schiavo’s situation (as the NY Times attempted to do) but by being intimate and balanced at the same time, an agenda of conservation, whereas the Washington Times’s agenda promotes change, as the statement by Robert Schindler, Terri’s father, suggests: “We can change laws, but we cannot change them today” (Washington Times, 03-29-05)

It has been attempted in the present paper to show how newspaper coverage of a controversial event such as the Terri Schiavo case not only exhibits certain patterns, but that newspapers take equal part in that struggle and develop an agenda of their own. Even newspapers as similar to each other as the New York Times and the Boston Globe, who is even owned by the New York Times, have distinct agendas and promote different frames, even if, globally speaking, they are similar.

So why go do all that work if the results, globally, are not different from the results of other studies, that did not split ‘news’ into more than two newspapers? If the researchers’ claim in section 5.4. that the newspaper’s struggle closely mirrors the political struggle which takes place simultaneously can be accepted, the consequences are obvious.

Early on in the discussion a certain unidirectionality was noted, that did not seriously take into account that Terri Schiavo would maybe actively have wanted to die. A whole branch of possible debate was not included at all, i.e. proponents of euthanasia.
As newspaper agendas mirror political, this analysis allows for a critique of the political habits, of the exclusion that is perpetrated by political frames.

The limitations of the present study are obvious, the most weighty being the big scope of what it attempts to show and the small-scale demonstrations that it succeeded in mounting. Also, as nearly everything was chosen out of a pool with many alternatives: the newspapers, the articles, the linguistic instruments, the passages with which to use these instruments, it cannot be denied, that possibly personal bias distorted this study.

A comprehensive study of different newspapers reporting on controversial events remains to be done, it might possibly be hoped that this paper proved the need for such a study.

First new artificial life form on earth

saturday in the guardian (not a regular reader of anything in the guardian besides the book section, stumbled across it just now)

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.

sounds…strange. wonder how hard that was to do, mr. venter not being the best-loved man in the science community, I gather,and rather prone to lies and/or exaggerations.
If anyone conversant in this stuff can tell me more about it or link me up (books are allowed) to something helpful, I’d be very thankful.

this here’s bullshit of course:

Mr Venter told the Guardian he thought this landmark would be “a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before”.

Understanding Language in Babel-17

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Kingsley Amis wrote in his treatise on Science Fiction that the motto „‘Idea as Hero‘ is the basis“ (137) for SF. In Babel-17, Samuel R. Delany’s sixth novel, the importance of language and linguistics is emphasized. It does both to an extent that is very unusual in a SF novel (cf. Aldiss and Wingrove 292) and its interest in language runs deeper than in the ordinary SF novel, where strange words abound or some new language or dialect is invented, as in Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange. Evidently, language is this novel’s hero.

Babel-17’s interest in language and how it portrays the mechanisms behind language is the subject of this paper. It has the goal of mapping out the political and the epistemological consequences of the text’s treatment of language, which, as will be made clear, works in several ways. Some of the examiniation is done out in the open by Rydra Wong, a famous poet who is commissioned to decipher Babel-17, a code allegedly used by terrorists to coordinate their acts of sabotage, which soon turns out to be a language. In other parts, the examinition is provided by the character’s actions and emotions and by the events. Finally it will be pointed out, that the interest in language even informs the structure of the novel down to the generic markers it employs. It will be seen that SF is a kind of language itself which has to be understood by the reader of SF, because „knowing a genre is also knowing how to take it up“ (Broderick 39).

This is also the way most criticism has been reading the novel, but none of that criticism has noted, that it’s not just ‘about’ language, it is about understanding language as one of the basic givens of humanity. Its influence reaches deeply, into communication and thought. That is what the first two parts are trying to show. The last part amply demonstrates, that even when something in not language, is may be language-like, such as the genre SF.

SF is „What If Literature“ (Landon 6) and, as remains to be shown, Babel-17 poses some of the more powerful what if questions, trying to help people to recognize science’s „potentialities for social change“ (Asimov 162). This paper’s thesis is, that at the end of the trail that this reading of Babel-17 provides, one can see some possibilities of a brighter, more humane future, or a darker future. Babel-17 indicates the potentialities of communication and language that humanity has squandered for thousands of years and it poses some potent questions about free will and about the truth we take for granted. What questions these are, this paper will attempt to demonstrate.

Babel-17 is written in English and the characters that shape events, or are shaped by them, are speakers of English. One might be tempted to think that this impression only derives from the fact that the novel is written in English, just as an English novel about France would feature no, or not very much, French dialogue, even if all the characters were French. It becomes clear, though, that the first impression is correct once we note that comparisons to other languages always are comparisons of English to other languages (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 111). Also, the English-speaking characters never have to translate anything, everybody who takes part in this novel’s events speaks English and should be able to communicate perfectly with anybody else.

Although English is the predominant language, it is not the only one. The political background to the story is a war between the Alliance, part of which forms the earth , and the Invaders. Both probably consist of several nations, having several languages each (cf. 24). Of the Invader’s languages we encounter none. Eight earth languages are mentioned, other than English: Finnish, Sioux (as an example for North American Indian languages in general), French, Hungarian, Spanish (all five: cf. 111), Basque (cf. 77), Old Moorish (cf. 115) and an unnamed african language that is spoken in the „N’gonda province in Pan Africa“ (54, cf. 51f.). Sample words are not provided from Basque, Finnish, Hungarian or Sioux, only one word from Spanish and Old Moorish each, about five French words and generous eight sentences of the African language. These languages are not important to the story, they only demonstrate certain linguistic points, such as the grammatical differences between Sioux and and Finnish noun cases.

Thus, the main focus, of course, is on the mysterious language, Babel-17. Babel-17 is described as „the most analytically exact language imaginable“ (210). It does not know the words ‚you‘, ‚I‘ nor the words derived from them, such as ‚your‘ and ‚mine‘ (cf. 139) so speakers of it cannot even conceive of the principle of the subject. Also, Babel-17 „contains a preset program […] to become a criminal and saboteur“ (215). This means it curtails the range of options the speaker of Babel-17 has so severely, it even imposes a „schizoid personality into the mind of whoever learns it“ (215), which means that a second personality is programmed into the person that can even grab hold of all the willpower of this person. The speaker of Babel-17, who thinks only analytically and cannot talk or think in categories of subjectivity, is massively hindered in the choices his mind allows him to make, for example „thinking in Babel-17 [you might] try and destroy your own ship and then blot out the fact with self-hypnosis“ (215).

In trying to crack the structure, the grammar and vocabulary of Babel-17, Rydra Wong, the poet that turned linguist by virtue of her „total verbal recall“ (9), finds that it „scares“ (22) her. For a language that one does not understand, this, introduced at an early point in the narrative, is a novel idea. Everybody would agree that it is possible to be afraid from something said and understood or even by a menacing way of delivery that a language can have, but being afraid of the language itself must seem strange to the reader.

As we have seen, there are passages in Babel-17 that compare different languages to each other. This process, however, is never focused on. The comparisons are drawn to make points about the nature and the properties of language itself. The vocabulary that is often used to make these points is scientific vocabulary, stemming from linguistics, but the person doing the scientific work is not a scientist. Rydra Wong, as mentioned above, is an artist, a poet, whose linguistic explorations are more of a hobby or a vocation. There are many weighty passages treating issues of linguistics but they are counterbalanced by the epigraphs introducing the five chapters, taken from Marilyn Hacker‘s poetry.

The differences sketched here between science and art run deeper. The first thing that is learned about language is that it is not a code and that the two should not be confused. A code can simply be deciphered, but a language has to be understood in a more organic way (cf. 6ff.). Suddenly voices, circumstances, contexts become important. An artist‘s intuition becomes useful, her „knack“ (10). This intuitive approach is contrasted with the government scientists, who, „although they know a hell of a lot about codes, […] know nothing of the nature of language“ (8). This kind of disparagement has lead some to claim that, in this novel, language is part of the arts and not of science (cf. Weedman 136). This approach mistakens the pervasiveness of science. If in this text art is valued more highly, it is only because „today a person who learns the rules of art well is a little rarer than the person who learns the rules of science“ (48).

So, even if Rydra’s advantage might be her intuition, her art still has to confer to rules. More often than not, she uses linguistic terms to talk about these rules, in a word, she uses science. As Walter E. Meyers points out though, she misuses these terms often enough: „The uninformed reader of Babel-17 receives misinformation“, and the novel „is inaccurate at almost every turn“ (both: Aliens and Linguists 180). It seems as if all the linguistic terms that are heaped up (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 111) are nothing but words, or names. Outside the text the rules spread out in the pages with linguistic rambling might be scientific nonsense or inaccurate, but in this text, her rules lead Rydra Wong to an understanding of Babel-17.

The critic who tries to establish a rift between science and art in Babel-17‘s treatment of languages is mistaken because he does not understand that the novel’s discourse is concerned with language itself. Language is its own „ordering principle“ (Fox 97), not art or science. The two ways to approach the nature of language, art and science, do not preclude one another. It is important to note, that each takes part in solving the mystery of Babel-17. So cannot be about linguistics or poetry, it is about their object, language.

The most important fact is the all-pervasiveness of language. Early in the novel, a customs officer has some kind of sexual encounter and, trying to cope with the ensuing depression, he turns to the means of language. He tries to describe his loneliness in a way that perfectly describes one of the limits language imposes on its speakers, the emptiness of language (cf. 47). In the dense phrasing of structuralism: you „cannot ‚mean‘ and ‚be‘ simultaneously.“ (Eagleton 170), the thing you talk about is absent in the language, language is empty. Later Rydra, awakening from sleep, is caught between English and Babel-17 and thereby experiencing a kind of double consciousness (cf. Littlefield 223). She is not able to gather her thoughts, reflecting on the nature of language: „If there’s no word for it, how do you think about it?“ (Delany, Babel-17, 111). The nature of language, one learns from Babel-17, evidently is defined by the limits it imposes on us.

During a voyage through space we learn of ghost-like beings, called ‚Eye‘, ‚Ear‘ and ‚Nose‘, who are part of a space ship‘s crew, and who are responsible for sensual reconnaissance. They report how an approaching space port looks like to the captain of the ship who has no windows or anything to „see“ for herself (72f.). Through a helmet she can partake of the three sensory impartations, each of which can explain the whole situation as is witnessed by the simultaneous answers to the captain’s question of where to dock in the space port and for the verbal description of each the words seem deficient.

„In the sound of the E-minor triad.“
„In the hot oil you can smell bubbling to your left.“
„Home in on that white circle.“ (73)

This passage amply illustrates the point, that language is not enough, but everything recurs to language, in the end, you have to listen and make the best of it. Aristotle said man is a social being and society consequently depends on communication, or, to phrase it differently, on language.

Limited as we might be because of language, we might think, that we might possibly cope completely without language. The one area, though, where everybody might agree that language is essential, is communication. And it is communication that turns out to be one of the three most important aspects of language in Babel-17, the other two being the diversity of languages and language itself.

This novel is shock full of characters who try to communicate with others and fail or who don’t even try. The latter case is evident in the interplanetary war between the Invaders and the Alliance. In the whole novel there is not a single instance where the two parties communicate in any way. Until the last chapter, the Invaders are only twice encountered in person and then from a considerable distance, only as a red light on a radar screen (cf.124ff.). The unspoken question lingers in the text whether the war could have been evaded or, once under way, stopped by both parties communicating their differences. There are indications of both possibilities in the text. For one thing, both parties refer to the other party as the „one-who-has-invaded“ (215), which implies a misunderstanding . For another, as Rydra Wong sets out to put an stop to the war at the end, one of the first measures she takes, is to talk to the Invader’s Commander (cf. 218).

More interesting than the political misapprehensions are the numerous implications that aberrations in communication might be part of the conditio humana. The thought of the General: “Sequestered, how could this city exist?” (3) might well be applied to humans in general, as this same General, becoming infatuated with Rydra, mentally despairs of not being able to tell her his feelings, thinking: “My god […] all that inside of me and she doesn’t know! I didn’t communicate a thing!” (14), even though Rydra understands him perfectly through his non-verbal language, the “[b]reathing pattern, curls of hands in lap, carriage of shoulders” (197), also called “[m]eaningful motion [or] kinesics” (Meyers, Aliens and Linguistics, 59) in linguistics. This communication comes so naturally to humans that its total absence can cause “horrifying” (Delany, Babel-17, 197) shocks. The Butcher, as a speaker of Babel-17 loses the concept of ‚I‘, he is badly handicapped when it comes to communicating with others, but as he does not have the verbal means to efficiently communicate subjectivity the Butcher subconsciously resorts to non-verbal language (cf. 151), such as thumping his breast to express something that would be filled by speakers of English with the word ‚I‘ or ‚me‘ . Obviously, even if we do not talk we always use language or language-supplements such as a gesture to communicate.

Sometimes in Babel-17, communication takes place neither through speech nor through non-verbal language. Sometimes it takes place through telepathy, which is interesting, considering the interpretation of the General’s statement stated above: sequestered from other people, how can man exist? Telepathy is often seen as a way out of the solitariness of modern man (cf. Milner 298) and a way to cut the distance to others and to short-circuit communication if problems arise (cf. Bogdanoff 247). It is consequently of high importance that the person who solves the communication problems surrounding Babel-17, Rydra Wong , is telepathic (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 198).
Reading the thoughts of animals she comes up with pictures (cf. 205), but with humans the mind-reading always results in grammatically correct sentences. The difference between man and animal must clearly be language . Humans being „creatures whose choices are limited to killing or talking“ (Meyers, The Language and Languages of Science Fiction, 211), the emphasis on good communication in Babel-17 indicates a strong inclination to the latter, moreover it demonstrates a way to circumvent the former, if we bear in mind the political misapprehensions we talked about.

As we have seen, language has many uses in Babel-17, reaching from a comparison of different languages to an examination of the nature of language and, further still, to the necessity of communication. Communication has been the bottom line of all these implications of language. There is one other use of language, though, which concerns the practice of ‚naming‘ things.

The first kind of naming, using names as intertextual devices in a way that Bakhtin labeled „discourse“ (Eagleton 146), enables communication, not between the characters but between the reader and the text, as well as between this text and others. It is obvious at first glance that names are eminent for the construction of the text, as the five parts of Babel-17 are each named for one character, thereby signifying his or her importance for that particular part. Names, apparently, carry meaning in this text.

Most names in the text are invented, they seem like anagrams but there is no way to determine from the text itself where they point to, they might as well be part of the strange names of SF . The first of the three which are indeed decipherable is the name of the battleship on which Rydra encounters the Butcher, the only person really speaking Babel-17, though not uttering a single word of it in the text, and learns that language: Jebel Tarik. We are informed, that this means ‚Tarik’s mountain‘ in Old Moorish (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 115). It also is the Old Moorish name for the small peninsula called Gibraltar, one of the pillars of Herakles. What exactly this reference means we can only speculate upon. One way this can be construed is that it is indeed Herakles, the hero of greek myth, who is meant. This is indicated by the only openly mythical reference in the text (cf. 126), which also refers to greek myth and Herakles‘ quest , two parts of which took place on Gibraltar. As Babel-17‘s events ressemble a series of quests (cf. Barbour 26), calling the battle ship ‚Jebel Tarik‘ might be a move of the text placing the novel’s events square in ancient quest traditions.

The second name is the name of the novel as well as of the mysterious language: Babel-17, which is obviously a biblical reference to Babel, also known as Babylon. There are two significant biblical passages pertaining to Babel-17. The first is situated in and is concerned with God punishing Babylon for its arrogance. The punishment consists of „confound[ing] their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.“ (Pinker 231) This passage may well be read as a mythical explanation for the diversity of languages, the origin of many misunderstandings that arise in human communication. The second one is found in , where the downfall of the Great Whore Babylon is described in detail. At first glance, this passage might seem a little weird, having nothing to do with language or communication at all. Maybe, on second glance, it describes the consequences of mis-using language, of failed communication, of using words for war-mongering. In this reading of Babel-17, could the accusation that „die auf Erden wohnen, sind betrunken geworden von dem Wein ihrer Hurerei“ () not be talking about humanity whose mind was clogged by misleading words? In short, clogged by the limitations of language, just as, in a more obvious way, the Butcher’s mind is clogged by Babel-17.

The last name is less complicated than the first two. It is the protagonist’s name: Rydra Wong, which, spoken aloud, sounds like „right or wrong“ and may be a play both on critical processes within a language and on sublime messages in otherwise inconspicuous speech. The first reference might have something to do with the fact that within Babel-17‘s structure everything that can be said seems logically correct and intrinsically right, including the criminal actions programmed into it. It takes Rydra Wong to detect the manipulation inherent in the language. SF-editor Hartwell claims that „the dream of SF is to control reality by creating it“ (95) and Babel-17 tries to do just that. It creates a world where all possible propositions are true, it pretends that that each and every possibility is exhausted. As Wittgenstein said: „Man kann [einen Satz] verstehen, ohne zu wissen, ob er wahr ist.“ (33). Babel-17 pretends that every proposition that can be understood is true. This pretension is questioned by Rydra, introducing external criterias for evaluating truth into the language.

Names are of a great value to the structure of Babel-17. This holds true, as we have seen, for some particular names. Also, as we have seen, the process of naming things, for instance naming chapters or naming the novel, is an important part of the process of developing Babel-17‘s themes. We get an idea of exactly how important the process of naming actually is if we read that „[w]ords are names for things.[…] But were words names for things, or was that just a bit of semantic confusion? Words were symbols for whole categories of things“ (Delany, Babel-17, 112; italics his).

What I mean by „process of naming“ is the process whereby someone or something gets assigned a name and, through the name, the person or thing suddenly can be categorized, be used as a thing one can finally be sure of. Naming is trying to rid yourself of issues of undecidabilities, trying to rid yourself from ambiguities inherent in the person, thing or idea. Naming is a continuous series of „attempts at ‚image control‘“ (Tucker 13). That process is nicely illustrated early in the text, when a customs officer sees something he has never seen before, he is intimidated accordingly, so he tries to name the thing. He starts by calling it „the Silver Dragon“ (35), a name, that is more like a title than a name. Its gender or sex is not specified yet, that happens in the next sentence, starting off with „[s]he“ (35). The naming is complete, relieved that he could assess the creature, the customs officer can now allow himself to be astounded and exclaims: „It‘s a woman!“ (35). The same reasoning leads him shortly afterwards to tag someone a „Pervert[]!“ (43). This quick tagging seems to be the easy way of handling complicated situations.

There are two more ways that naming is employed in the text. One is the use of euphemisms and codes. A euphemism occurs, for example, when the General talks about the terroristic sabotage as „accidents“ (12). Codes are used far more often and in these codes names are used as simple placeholders for the encoded words, for example in radio contact in a space fight (cf. 129) or, more simply in assigning a code name to the language which the terrorists use to communicate with each other, Babel-17.

The last crucial act of naming concerns the naming of one’s self. According to Jacques Lacan, we are least ourselves while we talk about ourselves (cf. Eagleton 170), yet the attempts to define one‘s self by talking or thinking about it crowd the text. Be it the elusive desire that one wants to seize by naming it (cf. Delany, Babel-17, 14) or one’s vague feelings that seem less vague once they are named: „I am amazed, surprised, bewildered.“ (5). This process is reflected in the text itself in a most interesting way: when Rydra is trying to teach the Butcher the concept of ‚I‘ and ‚you‘, he turns that same concept nearly on its head by turning ‚I‘ and ‚you‘ respectively into proper names.

The main concern of naming is finding the „real name“ (69) of things, and thereby their irrefutable meaning. Later Rydra asks herself „[i]f there‘s no word for it, how do you think about it?“ (111), how do you assess it? This question echoes the questions that arise from the posthumously published works of American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, his central claim being the following:

We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds, that all observers are not
lead by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic
backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated. (Whorf 214)

The so-called principle of linguistic relativity states that fundamental differences in grammatical categories or in categories of words correspond to fundamental differences in thought. We cannot think independently of the language system we are part of, because „we cannot but ‚see and hear and otherwise experience‘ in terms of the categories and distinctions encoded in language“ (Lyons 304). This is the strong formulation of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which is highly controversial.

The weak formulation ‚merely‘ states that „the structure of one’s language influences perception and recall“ (307), meaning that memory is selective and depending on the language systems it will recall different things in different language systems. Some hold, that, although Whorf might have been wrong in his strong hypothesis, the weak version ist too weak and they formulated their theory between these two versions, taking into account the culture as a whole of the society in question (cf. Gipper 225).

In respect to two different language systems, the last issue to be discussed is the difference between translation and understanding. Even if it were true that translation is impossible, because metaphors and connotations are seldom translatable and never without losing some of the connotation, this would not mean that understanding is impossible (cf. Lakoff 311). It is crucial to differentiate between two languages having a different „conceptual system“ (311), which is what makes translation difficult (cf. 311f.), and the „conceptualizing capacity“ (310), of which Lakoff assumes that it is shared in general by people. This capacity allows for understanding even in cases when the conceptual systems are radically different (cf. 311f.).

One need not go very far in looking for an example of the difficulties implied by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Babel-17. The two most significant languages in the text, English and Babel-17, are not very similar to each other, their conceptual systems are fundamentally different. Babel-17 is “an exact analytical language” (Delany, Babel-17, 215), while English is claimed to be “analytically clumsy” (210). Speakers of Babel-17 seem to have an “angular brutality” as well as an “animal grace” (both: 131). The English language, by contrast, lends itself well to poetry, it is beautiful when it is polished, it is a very subjective language, expressing peoples thought and opinions (cf. 17f.), whereas in Babel-17’s conceptual system the grammatical category of subjectivity and self-reflexiveness is missing (cf. 139).

These conceptual differences make translation difficult, certainly. That is why the Butcher, the original speaker of Babel-17, who does not speak a single word of it within the text, has trouble communicating properly in English, he sounds harsh and brutal (cf. 146ff.). These difficulties do not, however, prevent him from learning in English the concepts of ‘I’ and ‘you’ that are missing in the conceptual system he operates with. His being able to understand Rydra’s teaching is the proof that the text offers for the validity of Lakoff’s distinction between understanding and translation.

The closest the text gets to simply restating Whorfian theory is when Rydra claims that “language is thought” (23, italics his) and the closest it gets to refuting the same theory is by saying that although “the original words were lost, the translation remained” (77). What may seem simply like a contradictory statement turns out to be, another one of the textual tactics of Babel-17, namely intrducing a contardiction to shake the readers grip on the meaning of the text and to leave him with questions. Similarly, the explanation of Babel-17’s function as programming its speaker “to become a criminal and a saboteur” (215) is so blatantly unscientific and implausible that it should quickly be realized that the text is not concerned with simple endeavors such as fictionally exploring Whorfian theory. On the contrary, it uses Whorf’s theory to make its own points.

Sometimes the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is also called Sapir-Whorf-Korzybski Hypothesis, named after the founder of General Semantics, whose Motto is ‘The Map is not the Territory’ (cf. Eco 124f.), something we already encountered in Lacan’s thesis. Interestingly, this corresponds nicely with Broderick’s assertion that SF “maps utopia” (107). This connection should encourage us not to look for literalizations of utopias in works of SF, but to look instead for hints, absences, the “naturwissenschaftliche Wunderbare” (Todorov 54). Also, we should remember Moylan, who claimed, that we should not expect utopias in modern literature but only expressions of utopia (cf. Moylan 36). A cursory glance at Babel-17 reveals that there is no utopia in the narrow sense of the word. Still, there is a map of a certain, utopian change, as closer scrutiny will show. Babel-17 traces the contours of that change in the murky waters of language.

Naming things and using manipulated speech have been part of everyday language for several years now. The text shows just how manipulative everyday language can be by using the extreme example of the schizophrenia-inducing Babel-17 in several subtle ways. For instance it is pointed out that Babel-17 manipulates its speakers by using manipulative vocabulary: “the word for Alliance in Babel-17 translates literally into English as: one who has invaded.[…] It has all sorts of little diabolisms programmed into it.” (Delany, Babel-17, 215). This particular diabolism it shares with English, as we never get to know the word for the Invader’s home planets, they are just that: Invaders, meaning, those-who-have-invaded.

It is not easy to blame Babel-17 on the Invaders, as they used Babel-17 as a tool which only worked because it turned a weapon which was the Alliance’s all along, against the Alliance (see footnote 6). Babel-17 encourages us to look at language as an object, not as a given. “[T]he tool is not the weapon; rather the knowledge of how to use it” (213). This is where linguistic relativism comes into play. Some, among them Robert Anton Wilson, have claimed, that English is a highly manipulative language, with lots of possibilities to shroud the speaker’s intentions. That’s why they invented E-Prime, which appears to be sort of a new and improved English, wherin one is not allowed to use the verb ‘(to) be’ or any of its compound varieties (cf. Wilson 97-107). Changing the conceptual system changes minds, they claim. Exactly the same claim is made by Rydra Wong. After having uncovered every secret of Babel-17 and having stopped the sabotage she corrected Babel-17 “to build it towards truth” (Delany, Babel-17, 218).

Turning around what I said in the previous paragraph, I may also claim that its easy to blame Babel-17 on the Invaders, because the names suggest that. It is an „alien language“ (7) and the nameless Invaders wrought havoc with it (cf. 214f.). Sure, the Butcher was the Alliance’s tool, but it took the Invader’s cunning , the „knowledge how to use it“ (213) to make him a weapon. If it is that easy to change truths, how can Rydra believe herself to be able to make Babel-17 truthful?

Wittgenstein famously wrote: „Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen“ (Wittgenstein 111). Not to talk about something equals in this case not being able to say anything about that something that can have any claim to truth. Babel-17‘s status as a work of fiction and the loads of contradictions of which we have encountered several already, almost represent that Wittgensteinian silence. At the end of the day, what, really, has been said? What has been named? If „[a]ny given fiction reveals what it excludes“ (Broderick 133) the possibilities of what is revealed in Babel-17 are great, as it nearly never mentions the government, society, anything that borders on the issues of language is excluded from the text but not from the text’s discourse. Some kind of utopia is discernible in the text, but it’s precise shape is never named, which makes it all the more pervasive.

In Babel-17, we have earned, language is present in many ways, as language, linguistics, poetry and in the process of naming. There is one last aspect left, the one about the language-like qualities of SF. Samuel R. Delany encourages the reader of SF to think of it „as a language that must be learned or as a mode of writing as distinctive as poetry.“ (Landon 7). Each SF text is embedded in a „generic [SF] megatext“ (Broderick 59), which consists of all the other SF works that have been written and all the works that will be written. This means that every SF text has numerous references to numerous other SF texts which must be „not so much understood as simply recognized as proper names.“ (Broderick 57). Most importantly among those references figure certain stock terms that keep cropping up and the individual SF text is characterised by the way he takes up these stock terms and uses them in his own narrative.

This, of course, is nothing else but the notion of intertextuality that we already discussed. It is only now, however, that all the necessary elements for a sensible discussion of the dialogical functions of the SF megatext have been gathered. Babel-17 „showcas[es] the possibilities of SF’s invented languages“ (Malmgren 9) and a comparison with the SF megatext shows that Sfspeak is just another language in the bulk of the many already presented, but it is the process of naming that will become most important for the discussion of SF vocabulary.

Many SF texts play on the so-called „quest formula“ (Aldiss and Wingrove 393). These texts constitute a whole subgenre of SF: the space opera, which first appeared in the 1920s in pulp magazines such as Amazing and Astounding. (cf. Landon 72 ff.). Kingsley Amis remarks that what space operas resemble most are „horse operas“ (44) and Susan Sontag noticed, apropos of SF films, that their predictability remind her of Westerns (cf. 209). Space opera’s plots involve all the magic ingredients, space ships, black holes, hideous aliens, big guns and in a focal position: the heroic men who conquer the unknown universe (cf. Bogdanoff 82 f.). Space operas not only reinforce certain stereotypes, they also have social relevance in their advocacy of capitalism and colonialism (cf. Bogdanoff 85f.) They are propelled by a „missionary fervor and a sense of purpose“ (Landon 81). This crusade leads to frequent encounters with aliens. These encounters can be subsumed under the so-called first contact theme.

First Contacts are not restrained in their appearance nor are they more likely to appear in a space opera than in any other SF subgenre. They are first contacts with that which is alien, that which is the other. This theme is so pervasive that it has lead Broderick to say that SF both „writes the narrative of the other“ and „the narrative of the same, as other“ (51, italics his), which is a major insight, as C.G. Jung points out: „the alien is that which exists within humanity but which civilized humanity believes to have conquered“ (Golden 73). Also, according to C.G. Jung, the quest of the hero is a new myth (cf. 31) and corresponds with „the perennial human quest for meaning and wholeness“ (29). Fighting a war against an alien perceived as hideous would mean what the hero really fights is that within himself which he perceives as hideous. He finds himself a substitute enemy.
Turning to SF it soon is noticeable that the main problem in first contact scenarios is a failing of all kinds of communication, verbal as well as non-verbal (cf. Bogdanoff 244). In SF films the appearance of the alien usually is accompanied by silence (cf. Seeßlen 435), which in written SF texts is impossible to realize. As in the movies, however, the appearance of the alien has its importance. According to Bogdanoff communication works better the more human the alien appears. (cf. 230). This raises the question of what is really human: the humans, their shadow counterparts or both? What makes someone human ? It might well be language.

When talking about mythical references in the novel we already noticed the quest motive in Babel-17. Indeed, the novel has been derisively called a space opera often both by members of the academia (cf. Schulz 151) as well as by members of the SF ‚scene‘ (cf. Keim 503). It has been claimed that space opera’s underlying world view prevents any criticism of society or language (cf. Keim 514). In contrast, I would claim that the text „shows the need to understand codes and conventions“ (Samuelson 168) in order to work with them.

The stereotypes of space opera are conspicuously absent. The hero is a woman, who has weak moments (Delany, Babel-17, 15f.). She is a poet, not a warrior and although fights take place they have nothing to do with what turns out to be the hero’s victory. There’s none of the stereotypical male cocksureness in the events. It is poetry, science and Rydra and the Butcher‘s love that wins the day, not the big guns. The crew on Rydra‘s ship which is all the society the text permits us to see works in ways together that seem more like kibbutzim, working together as equals, work and love closely related. There is no trace of capitalism; colonialism, however, is hinted at, the headquarters of the Invaders are in a city called „Nueva-nueva York“ (218), a clear reference to New York and American colonial history. The missionary fervor, too, has its place in Babel-17, but it is a different fervor, a different purpose. In the end, Babel-17 is accorded no cultural value that could result in a cultural colonisation, it is assigned to other tools, it works as a go-between.

Speaking ‘SF’ means understanding the stereotypes and using them. Moylan wrote that he believed the productive powers of phantasy were situated in art (cf. Moylan 33). Using one’s phantasy to speak to the reader with the intent of swaying him to the cause, that aspect of Moylan’s belief are well taken care of by SF.

The key to the space opera motive in Babel-17 is found in Jung‘s observation as stated above: „the alien is that which exists within humanity but which civilized humanity believes to have conquered“ (Golden 73), a dark force within humanity. And language is exactly that, a manipulative force that we believe to have conquered through writings, through codes, through the disambiguation that we believe to occur in the process of naming. By transposing the palpable figure of the alien with something as vague as language, Babel-17 demonstrates what we should be afraid of: ourselves. „Who is this animal man“ is asked early on (Delany, Babel-17, 3). If we as human beings dump our fears of our shadowy side on the character of the Alien, this process assures that in the figure of that Alien can we ourselves be traced (cf. Golden 161). In language we can also be traced with all our arrogance in full display, all our weaknesses.

Language in space operas, we have found, mirrors the capitalist society from when they originated. Language mirrors our selves, but, as we learned, those same selves are absent in the language. Compared to other utopias, the traces of utopia visible in Babel-17 are not to do with enshrining a particular language or culture, as utopias generally have the tendency to do (Gordon 205). Languages, we learn, are deficient. English as well as the mysterious Babel-17. Communication also is deficient, personal as well as global, we have learned that, too. Maybe society, and we, too, who are mirrored in it are also deficient.

Language is mended as the events turn to a close (218f.). Another thing that is on the way to being mended is the political situation, meaning the interplanetary war, as Rydra and the Butcher are resolved to stop it. About earth society we receive nearly no information, we only encounter two earth people from the government, the General and a customs officer. Both are unhappy. The General, because he thinks that he cannot communicate with others. The customs officer seems to be unhappy with his whole life situation. He changes because he communicates with others, he changes his language system in parts: the process of naming is recognized as bad. This, actually is not portrayed in the novel, but when Rydra returns to earth the customs officer’s lifestyle resembles a lifestyle he claimed was perverted (cf. 191f.). Rydra’s quest, one might assume, mirrors the officer’s journey through his language in an allegorical way.

In his foreword to Delany’s seventh novel The Einstein Intersection, Neil Gaiman reviews some of the ways that particular novel has been read by all kinds of readers and interpreters. He closes that section of the foreword without passing judgement on the validity of these readings but instead he comments: „if that were all the book was, it would be a poor type of tale, with little resonance for now. Instead, it continues to resonate.“ (Gaiman ix). That holds equally true for Babel-17, which has been read as a black novel (cf. Weedman), as a gay novel and as an arrogant and trashy novel (cf. Keim)

SF, Delany says, is „a tool to help you think about the present […] in a way that allows you to question them as you read along in an interesting, moving and exciting story“ (Landon 35). This statement perfectly captures the effect of Babel-17, an exiting story about language and its mechanisms, questioning our sense of ourselves. Notions of free will and truth are under fire in this novel. That its narrative is open-ended is fitting. It leaves us with questions, not with answers. Questions that are about language, not about codes.

Languages have to be understood. When Rydra sits down with her tapes and transcriptions and works out all the grammar and vocabulary before passing judgment on Babel-17, maybe that is the text’s way of telling us to sit down likewise and consider the implications.Rydra’s understanding of herself and her understanding of the language happen at the same time. Babel-17 suggests, that it is always that way as understanding ourselves means understanding language first.

SF „shows human kind groaning in chains of its own construction, but nearly always with the qualification that those chains can be broken if people try hard enough“ (Amis 77) In Babel-17 these chains are language. Changing your life means changing your language. This is where mainstream criticism errs, which assumes that Babel-17 is about language and problems of language. They cannot see that it is about change. Trying hard enough not to succumb to the manipulations of language or to reflect the manipulation. These consequences are political as well as epistemological. Changing society also means changing yourself and your language, which is the lesson Wilson implemented when he started to advocate E-Prime.
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6. Bibliography

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the right. I really need it 🙂 . My other posts may not be *as* thorough as this one, but maybe still worth supporting? If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)