Recursive Knots of the Mind

In listening to the news media, there is often very little news being reported. It’s not for a lack of interesting stories and important issues to be reported upon. There is more than enough material to fill up the 24/7 news cycle without any repetition. On a particular news outlet, there was a panel discussing one of the many topics used to induce viewer outrage and hence advertizing engagement (i.e., profit), but it’s not relevant exactly what they were saying. Over the entire segment, there was mostly opinionating and speculating, as expected. There wasn’t much susbstance. What was interesting is how the media personalities wielded rhetoric.

The closest the viewer got to actual information was a quote that was given no context or additional support. The quoted material, taken in isolation, was immediately submitted to an interpretation that was an accusation of ill-intent and taken as having proven guilt. Then that was repeated, such that the interpretation came to be treated as an established fact that stood in place of the quote. The quote itself, that could’ve been interpreted variously, had been reduced and then expanded upon. The result was a declarative set of claims and conclusions, without any need for further evidence. The quote was discarded for it was never relevant in the first place. With belief-claim established as pseudo-fact, an entire narrative was spun as melodramatic infotainment.

What stood out was how most statements made were broad, sweeping generalizations and absolute assertions without any sourcing, argument, or qualification. Is that news? Not really. Rather, these agents of corporate media were, step by step, walking the viewers through the social construction of an ideological reality tunnel. The indoctrinated viewer could now re-create the ideological worldview as needed and teach others to do the same. It was fascinating to watch, as it was impressive in its own way. Yet it’s not as if there was anything brilliant or unusual about that ‘news’ segment or the hacks doing their job. It was all workmanlike but, nonetheless, highly effective in manipulating and moulding the audience. It served its purpose.

I’m not sure why that particular segment caught my attention. It was some random thing playing on the television in the background as I was passing by. But something about it caused me to stop and perk up my ears. It got me thinking about the power of language. The thing is this act of rhetorical manipulation wouldn’t be possible in all languages, although it’s a common feat in the global written languages that have had centuries to be adapted to literacy and the modern media environment. One common feature of the major languages is recursion. It’s so common that some took it as a universal trait of language, based on the assumption that it was built into a language module, a physical structure located somewhere in the human brain. Basically, the theory has been that we humans have a genetically-determined instinct for linguistic recursion, one of the building blocks of rhetoric that allows for these sometimes complex language games of persuasion.

That is the theory based on the linguistic cultures, primarily the United States, in which linguistic studies developed. “We tend to speak in sentences of multiple clauses,” writes Samantha Harvey, “not in clauses that have been separated out. Noam Chomsky has called these multiple clauses instances of recursion, and he thinks they’re what define human language. They reflect our unique ability to position a thought inside a thought, to move from the immediate to the abstract, to infinite other places and times. A circle in a spiral, a wheel within a wheel; a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own. In theory, an infinitely long, recursive sentence is possible, says Chomsky; there is no limit to the mind’s capacity to embed one thought inside another. Our language is recursive because our minds are recursive. Infinitely windmilling” (The Shapeless Unease, A Year of Not Sleeping).

This is, it turns out, not true for all cultures; or so one side has agued in an ongoing debate. With that possibility in mind, Julie Sedivy suggests that, “the languages that many of us have grown up with are very different from the languages that have been spoken throughout the vast majority of human existence” (The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence). Take the example of the Piraha. Their language lacks any evidence of recursion. That isn’t to say the Piraha are incapable of recursive thought, but that is not the same thing as recursive language and what it makes possible. Before exploring linguistic recursion, let’s establish what is the non-linguistic recursion. “If you go back to the Pirahã language,” writes Daniel Everett, “and you look at the stories that they tell, you do find recursion. You find that ideas are built inside of other ideas, and one part of the story is subordinate to another part of the story” (Recursion and Human Thought). Such basic recursive thought is true of all human societies and might be the case with some non-human species (Manuel Arturo Abreu, Organisms that do not exhibit recursion in communication still have the capacity for recursion).

There is much debate about who has recursion and who lacks it. Leading experts across numerous fields (linguistics, biology, mathematics, etc) have yet to come to a consensus on defining recursion, much less agreeing about its universality. Yet others point to the diverse ways recursion might show up: “[W]hen deer look for food in the forest,” Everett mentions “they often use recursive strategies to map their way across the forest and back, and take little side paths that can be analyzed as recursive paths.” But speaking of early hominids, Everett suggests that, “it would not have been necessary for them to have recursion to have language, at least according to the simple idea of language evolution as a sign progression and supported by some modern languages.” (How Language Began: The Story of Humanity’s Greatest Invention). That is to say, language was an early evolutionary development as was non-lingistic recursion, whereas the combination of the two was a much later cultual development. Linguistic recurson takes a cross-species neurocognitive ability and hijacks it toward advanced cultural ends.

This simple observation that syntactical recursion is culturally-structured, not genetically-determined, has been treated as if radical and heretical. “The dispute over Pirahã is curious in many respects, not least with regard to the fact that Everett is not the first linguist to claim that a language lacks embedded clauses and therewith recursion,” writes Robert D. Van Valin (Recursion and Human Thought). “In a series of important papers published in the late 70’s, the late MIT linguist Kenneth Hale argued that certain Australian Aboriginal languages lack embedding of the type found in Indo-European languages in their complex sentences and furthermore that one of them, Warlpiri, has a completely ‘flat’ syntactic structure. The latter claim was amended somewhat in the published version of the paper, but the point about the complex sentences remained valid. In the mid-1980’s, William Foley, a linguist at the University of Sydney, described Iatmul, a language of Papua New Guinea, as having non-hierarchical clause combining, i.e. no embedded of clauses in complex sentences, hence no recursion in the syntax.”

Beyond a total lack of recursion, there are plenty of other cultures where it’s severely restricted, of which Julie Sedivy gave some examples, from linguist Marianne Mithun, by way of contrast with English: “In English, 34 percent of clauses in conversational American English are embedded clauses. In Mohawk (spoken in Quebec), only 7 percent are. Gunwinggu (an Australian language) has 6 percent and Kathlamet (formerly spoken in Washington state) has only 2 percent. An English speaker might say: Would you teach me to make bread? But a Mohawk speaker would break this down into several short sentences, saying something like this: It will be possible? You will teach me. I will make bread. In English, you might say: He came near boys who were throwing spears at something. A Kathlamet approximation would go like this: He came near those boys. They were throwing spears at something then.”

So the question arises,” asks Van Valin, “given that such claims go back a good thirty years, and the most important of them was from a former colleague of Chomsky’s, why has Everett’s claim engendered such controversy?” We don’t need to answer that question here, but it’s good to be reminded that this kind of thought about the power of culture, similar to lingistic relativity, is not a new insight. Everett was far from alone in noting the lack of recursion in some culture. Yet he was viciously attacked by Chomsky and his acolytes. They tried to destroy his reputation. The sense of animosity remains in the field, as it was a fight for control and dominance. It wasn’t only about an obscure theoretical issue but an entire paradigm in framing human nature and the social condition.

What, you might wonder, is this recursion that has become the subject of an academic turf war? Why is it so important and what does it do? Through subordinate clauses with embedded phrases and qualifications, syntactic recursion makes possible the hierarchcial ordering of value and meaning. Without it, all that is available for human communication are simple declarative statements, what is called parataxis as opposed to hypotaxis. Hypotactic communication, particularly as develped in written language, allows an immense complexity of linguistic structure and thought-forms, an extension of hypothesis and speculation. Recursion spirals out into entire fanasy worlds of ideological realism that are reified into a perception of supposed objective reality (what Everett calls dark matter of the mind, what Robert Anton Wilson calls a reality tunnel, and what anthropologists call a cosmology), in which we lose the ability to distinguish between the communication and what is communicated. There is the idea that the medium is the message — well, this puts a hurricane-level wind into that sail. This is language as advanced social construction, the foundation upon which are built vast civilizations and empires.

Paratactic speech, on the other hand, hews more closely to direct experience and so keeps the individual grounded in immediate and present reality. This is why Buddhists use paratactic language, in eschewing recursion, as a mindfulness practice to dismantle the imagined boundaries of the ego-mind. They do this by describing experience in the simplest of terms, such as “anger is arising here and now” and not “I’m angry, as happens every Friday, because the boss always finds a way to give me work for the weekend, even though I told him I had family visiting, and any of my coworkers could do this work but the boss always expects me to do it.” The Buddhist rhetorical practice eliminates the interpretation, such as in English, of subject-action-result. Anger is not a thing or an event. It is simply an experience that passes.

This might relate to why, in lacking linguistic recursion, the Piraha appear less likely to get stuck in states of stress and worry, while less likely to suffer from mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, not to mention suicide being entirely unknown. There aren’t even what we might consider fundamental stages of development, in our speaking about the terrible twos and teenage angst. Piraha go from toddlerhood to being weened and then basically they’re a part of the adult world at that point with little fuss or frustration. And as adults, they get along well, such as apparently not holding onto anger with resentment and grudges.

This was exemplified by an incident that Daniel Everett recorded: ““I mean, what are you going to do to him for shooting your dog?” “I will do nothing. I won’t hurt my brother. He acted like a child. He did a bad thing. But he is drunk and his head is not working well. He should not have hurt my dog. It is like my child.” Even when provoked, as Kaaboogí was now, the Pirahãs were able to respond with patience, love, and understanding, in ways rarely matched in any other culture I have encountered” (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes).

The same easygoing attitude was demonstrated in how they deal with a diversity of difficulties and conflicts, such as their informal process of ‘divorce’ where the abandoned partner grieves loudly and publicly for a few days but is perfectly fine when their former spouse returns to the village with a new spouse. Their serial monogomy, by the way, in such small tribes means that the majority of Piraha have had sex with the majority of other Piraha at some point — they are a close community. Maybe their language has much to do with their being able to simply experience emotions and then let them go. The lack of recursion might disallow them from easily getting stuck in constructed narratives and it could be noted that, although familiar with stories told by outsiders that they occasionally repeat, they do lack a native storytelling tradition. This might indicate a close connection between recursion and narrative.

But recursion, for all the attention it gets, is only one aspect of this far different cultural mindset. In making this point, Arika Okrent writes: “Ironically, in the 2005 article that began the whole Chomsky/Everett debate, Everett barely touched on the notion that the Pirahã’s lack of recursion might challenge the theory of universal grammar. Instead, his aim was to show that the Pirahã cultural commitment to immediate, concrete experience permeated the very structure of their language: not embedding one phrase inside another was just one of the many ways that the Pirahã prioritised the here and now. Other evidence he adduced for this priority included the simplicity of the kinship system, the lack of numbers, and the absence of fiction or creation myths” (Is linguistics a science?). It’s an entire cultural worldview.

Another linguistic factor is that it’s required one speaks very specifically in describing truth claims and attributing their source. The Piraha don’t and, according to the limits built into their language, can’t speak in broad generalizations and abstractions. Their knowledge, although encyclopedic in relation to the world around them, is limited to what they have directly experienced, what they can deduce from what they have drectly experienced, or what someone they personally know has directly experienced. They don’t even have any equivalent to ancestral or mythological knowledge about a perceived distant past. Everything is referred to in relation to its proximity to the broad here and now of living memory. This greater concrete specificity is observed among some other hunter-gatherer languages, such as the Peruvian Matses studied by David William Fleck (A grammar of Matses).

Such highly qualified but non-recursive language can also affect how one orients within time and space. We Westerners are used to the egoic perspective because it is built into our language, including referencing direction according to our individual view of the world. In giving directions, we’ll speak of turning left or right and going straight. But some tribal cultures like the Australian Guugu Ymithirr, as described by Guy Deustcher, express their sense of place according to the cardinal points in relation to the sun’s path in the sky. For another Australian Aboriginal group, the Pormpuraaw, cardinal directions also determined the perception of how time flowed or else how events are spatially related (see Lera Boroditsky and Alice Gaby’s work, Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community). Yet time and space to the Piraha can seem even more radically alien to Western understanding, as space-time collapses into an all-purpose sense of transience with phenomenal experience flickering in and out of perceived reality — as explained by Samantha Harvey:

“There is a Pirahã word that Everett heard often and couldn’t deduce the meaning of: xibipiio. Sometimes it would be a noun, sometimes a verb, sometimes an adjective or adverb. So and so would xibipiio go upriver, and xibipiio come back. The fire flame would be xibipiio-ing. Over time Everett realised that it designated a concept, something like going in and out of experience – ‘crossing the border between experience and non-experience’. Anything not in the here and now disappears from experience, it xibipiios, and arrives back in experience as once again the here and now. There isn’t a ‘there’ or a ‘then’, there are just the things xibipiio-ing in and out of the here and now.

“There is no past or future tense as such in Pirahã; the language has two tense-like morphemes – remote things (not here and now) are appended by -a and proximate things (here and now) by – i . These morphemes don’t so much describe time as whether the thing spoken about is in the speaker’s direct experience or not. The Pirahã language doesn’t lay experiences out on a past–present–future continuum as almost every other language does. In English we can place events quite precisely on this continuum: it had rained, it rained, it has rained, it rains, it is raining, it will rain, it will have rained. The Pirahã can only say whether the rain is proximate (here) or not” (The Shapeless Unease, A Year of Not Sleeping).

Anything more convoluted than that is, to the Piraha mind, unnecessary or maybe just unimaginable — not even requiring color terms, numbers, and quantifying words like ‘many’, ‘most’, ‘every’ or ‘each’. Their kinship terminology is limited as well, such as a single word for mother and father. And they have the simplest pronoun inventory ever recorded. Unsurprisingly, their lexicon for describing time is sparse.

“Time leaks everywhere into English,” Harvey writes, “some ten per cent of the most commonly used words are expressions of time. The Pirahã language has almost no words that depict time. This is all of them: another day; now; already; day; night; low water; high water; full moon; during the day; noon; sunset/sunrise; early morning, before sunrise. Their words for these are literally descriptive – the expression for day is ‘in sun’, for noon ‘in sun big be’ and for night ‘be at fire’.” Time, like color and much else, is described by the Piraha in practical terms by association or comparison to something in their everyday lives. There is no abstract notion of 3:30 pm or blue — such concrete thought creates a different mentality (see the work of Luria and Lev Vygotsky, as related to the Flynn effect).

The only temporal sense that can be expressed by the Piraha is in speaking of the immediately observable natural environment and it can’t be extended very far. Maybe this is because nothing they do requires much time and so time is as bountiful as the jungle around them. They don’t travel much and rarely over long distances. The food and materials they need are easily obtained near where they live. The practical application of time is barely relevant and they probably don’t perceive time in the way we do, as a finite resource and linear construct. Even the cyclical time of the mytholgical worldview would likely be unfamiliar to them.

Time is more similar to the flickering candle, such that it nether goes anywhere else as a trajectory nor repeats, simply shifts in the expansive and inclusive present moment. Experience comes and goes without any need to speculate and posit lines of causation or greater patterns and cycles. Time doesn’t need to be controlled or measured. The Piraha even lack the obsession some premodern people have had with astrology and calendars, as they would serve little purpose for them. Even seasonal changes are limited and don’t have much practical implication. There is no time of the year that changes from cold to hot or from wet to dry. So, the main foods they eat are available year round.

Their lifestyle remains constant, as does the surrounding nature within their traditional territory. These optimal conditions might approximate the stable environment for much of hominid and human evolution in Africa. Look at another unique example, the Pygmy tribes, some of which are the only surviving human populations with 100% homo sapiens genetics. The Pygmy live where human evolution began and one can see similarities to the Piraha. Both tribes, living in equatoral rainforests, have a simple culture that has been resistant to outside influence, even though each tribe has been in contact with foreigners for centuries.

This social solidarity and cultural resilience is impressive. Writing about the Piraha, Danel Everett said that, “My evangelism professor at Biola University, Dr. Curtis Mitchell, used to say, “You’ve gotta get ’em lost before you can get ’em saved”” (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes). The problem for a missionary is that tribes like the Piraha and Pygmies aren’t prone to feeling lost and maybe, at least in the case of the former, it’s partly their language that offers protection against evangelical rhetoric. Prosyletyzing becomes impossible when there is no recursive and abstract language in which to communicate theology, mythology, and history — all that is required to translate a written holy text like the Bible.

Unfortunately, the study of traditional Pygmy languages appears to be limited, but there is plenty of interesting anthropological evidence. C. M. Tumbull, in 1961, observed a BaMbuti Pygmy who became disoriented in seeing open grasslands for the first time and thought distant buffalo were insects (Some observations regarding the experiences and behavior of the BaMbuti Pygmies). Distance perception and size constancy aren’t major factors if one has never stepped outside of the visual enclosure of thick jungle.

So, environment would likely be an influence on the immediacy principle since, in a dense forest, one cannot see very far. And that would surely become built into the native language. Another telling detail, similar to the Piraha, is that these BaMbuti lacked their own concepts about witchcraft and what Tumbull described as the ‘supernormal’, something they associated with outsiders such as the neighboring Bantu. As there is no distant visual space to a forest dweller, neither are there distant spiritual realities. With trees mostly blocking out the sky, maybe people have less tendency to ponder heavenly bodies and speculate about heavenly worlds.

There is some information about particular Pygmy tribes that maintained their traditional languages. If not entirely innumerate as the Piraha, the BaMbuti can only count up to four. As for what both BaMbuti and Piraha entirely lack, they have no terms for colors and so are forced to describe them by comparison. Also, beyond the simplest of decorations, these tribes don’t make visual art nor make much use of color as dyes. Rather than a focus on the visual, Tumbull states that, “the Pygmy has the most complex music in the whole of Africa.” In an environment that constrains vision, the auditory is so important that these Pygmy will even aim their hunting arrows by sound. This auditory orientation would strengthen the affect of oral culture and it’s accompanying mindset. Being so reliant on info from sound would emphasize the animistic sense of a world alive with voices. Indeed, rainforests are dense with noisy life.

This is hard for the modern Westerner to grasp, as we are immersed in a hyper-visual culture where non-human sounds of nature have been almost entirely eradicated. Also, as an agricultural civilizaton, the experience of open spaces and distant vision is common, even for urbanites. We value our large grassy lawns and parks, and we enjoy vacations to vast landscapes of oceans and lakes, mountains and canyons. This is particularly true of the United States where most of the population lived in farm communities until a few generations ago. Open fields and open sky have been common. Even with the increase of audio in new media, the visual still dominates. And the sounds that new media brings are detached from the sensory percepton of the environment we inhabit.

For the Piraha, it’s not that the visual is unimportant. Rather, it’s significance is transformed. They are obsessed with certain kinds of visual experiences but of a far different quality. The visual environment of agriculture and urbanization is largely static and inanimate, surrounded as we are with manmade objects and architecture with only an occasional intrusion by wildlife or stray animal. The Piraha, on the other hand, have to be constantly hyper-aware of other living beings as food sources but mostly as potential threats. Predators and poisonous creatures abound in the jungle.

Vision is central, even as it is constrained by the density of foliage. This surely shapes their amorphous sense of time, as shown in their language. They have a fascination and obsession with a certain kind of visuo-temporal phenomenon described by the aforementioned term ‘xibipiio’ that has no equivalent in English. The concept behind it is demonstrated by their habit of staring at flickerng flames, as they also enjoy watching people appear and disappear wiithn their visual field, such as around the bend of a river. This liminal quality is key to understanding their worldview and mindset. There is no time continuity of perception, no objective constancy of beingness.

This is felt in quite personal ways, as Piraha identity can flicker like a flame. There is something akin to spiritual possession in Piraha culture, although to their perspectve it isn’t possession. When the spirit is present, the former person is simply absent. When asked where the person is, the simple answer will be given that they are not there. This identity shift sometmes can be permanent. In the forest, a visitation by a spirit might lead to a complete change of identity along with a new name. The previous identity is no longer existing and will not return. This is an attribute of the bundled mind, a fundamental tenet of Buddhist thought as well. Buddhists seek to regain some essence of what for the Piraha is the social norm of lived reality.

This goes back to the non-recursve and paratactic quality of Piraha language. The shifting fluidity of perception and identity can’t be generalized nor extended beyond the known and experienced specifics. And this has social consequences. Maybe we have much to learn from them. Their apparent invulnerability to the highly developed rhetoric of prosyletyzing missionaries is admirable. That is a nifty linguistic trick that we could adopt as a tool in the development of our intellectual and psychological defenses. We don’t have to become like the Piraha, but it could be useful to develop this skill as a discipline of the mind.

When finding ourselves pulled into some linguistic manipulation or trapped in a rhetorical framing, we can stop and turn our attention to language itself. How are we speaking and how are others speaking to us? Then we can bring our language back down to grounded reality by speaking simple statements, as the Buddhists do with their mindfulness practice. Slowly, we can learn how to untangle the recursive knots of the mind. It might have the added benefit, as seen with the Piraha, of developing some immunity toward the alluring mind virus of authoritarian thought control. The social hierarchy of power is dependent on the conceptual hierarchy of recursive rhetoric. This might explain the memetic pull of the reactionary mind and might demonstrate how we can use linguistic jujitsu to rediirect these psychic energies.

What if authoritarianism doesn’t begin in the external world through distant institutions of power but instead begins in our minds, in the way we relate and communicate, as it shapes how we think and forms our identities at an unconscious level? Recursion is not only about the structure of language and the structure of thought. As a tool of rhetorc, recursion is how hierarchies are built. From kulturCrtic, here is a great explanation of the relevance by way of the distinction between hypotaxis and parataxis:

“In short, recursion enables the construction of complex hypotactic language units rather than just simple paratactic ones. Parataxis, as I am sure you are all aware, is when each of your sentences in a larger grammatical unit carries equal weighting. Paratactic units usually have few, if any clauses, and more importantly, none of the clauses are subordinated one to another in a hierarchical scheme. Hypotaxis, on the other hand, occurs when clauses in sentences, or in larger grammatical wholes, are subordinated to one another, focusing attention on what is considered of greater importance or value within the semantic, syntactic, or larger logistic unit. In other words, recursion, by means of subordination, allows for the rudimentary and foundational element of hierarchization. Hierarchy, socio-economic and political, we might here add, is also one of the hallmarks of post-traditional societies […]

“As cultural historian Marvin Bram contends in The Recovery Of The West, “Parataxis suggests coordination more than subordination, and any number of sequences rather than a single correct sequence. Parataxis de-hierarchizes the world,” where the flat, coordinate, and non-orderliness of a paratactic world seems rather primitive or prosaic to the ever more civilized and tightly structured hypotactic logistic” (The Politics of Recursion: Hypotaxis, Hierarchy, and Healing).

Parataxis versus hypotaxis is egalitarianism versus hierarchy, coordination versus subordination, participatory versus disconnecting. In our modern sophistication, we take the latter way of being as normal, even inevitable. How could humans be otherwise? Our assumption is supported by our WEIRD bias, as nearly all alternative possibilities in the Western world have been eliminated, as have most other cultures that could challenge this false and illusory belief. The Piraha are one of the few remnants of a different way of being. They are part of an animistic world that is alive with psychic presence that is intimately a part of their shifting and extended identities.

There is an odd element about this other way of being that could be easy to overlook as incidental. The paratactic is repetitive, rhythmic, and resonant. Without recursion to create hierarchical orders of value, of meaning and significance, there are other ways to emphasize what is being said and so direct focus. There can be a musical or poetic quality to languages that make use of this style of speaking, such as meter being much more important to ancient storytelling. To return to the Piraha, they don’t only speak their language as they also can whistle and hum it, depending on context, but it cannot be written. A sing-song quality to spoken language might have been much more common prior to widespread literacy, particularly as it is a useful tool for oral traditions of mnemonics.

The closest the modern mind gets to this is through psychedelic use. “Hashish, then, is an assassin of referentiality, inducing a butterfly effect in thought. In [Walter] Benjamin, cannabis induces a parataxis wherein sentences less connect to each other through an explicit semantics than resonate together and summon coherence in the bardos between one statement and another. It is the silent murmur between sentences that is consistent while the sentences continually differentiate until, through repetition, an order appears” (Richard M. Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, p. 107; see full passage as quoted in Psychedelics and Language).

This might not be a coincidence. The past three millennia of post-bicamreal civilization has been a gradual replacement of non-addictive psychedelics by addictive substances, in particular stimulants (Agricultural Mind & Diets and Systems). These various plant-based drugs may have fundamentally altered the human mind at multiple points in human evolution. There are those like Terence McKenna that go so far as to suggest that psychedelics were at the origin of consciousness and language, but we don’t need to speculate about that here. Indeed, diverse research has shown a number of psychedelics increase the personality and cognitive traits of openness, fantasy-proneness, and creativity (Scott Alexander, Why Were Early Psychedelicists So Weird?).

It should be noted that, though there isn’t a lot of focus on it, the Piraha are known to use a particular psychedelic, from the Parica tree (maybe containing N,N·dimethyltryptamine or DMT), that induces auditory hallucinations and verbosity (Siri von Reis Altschul, The Genus Anadenanthera In Amerindian Cultures). The human brain seems to have co-evolved with plant substances like the widespread psychedelic DMT. There is evidence that our bodies produce DMT, maybe in the pineal gland, and so even the Piraha have DMT coarsing through their brains (Eric W. Dolan, Study provides evidence that DMT is produced naturally from neurons in the mammalian brain). Importantly, there might be various ways other substances, diet, cultural practices, etc affect DMT levels. The Piraha do have experiences such as contact with intelligent beings (i.e., spirits) that is common for those who imbibe DMT.

DMT is structurally similar to serotonin and melatonin, all of which is derived from tryptamine. Like serotonin and dopamine, DMT is a monoamine compound and DMT shares receptors with both. DMT causes the body to produce more serotonin and increases the release of dopamine. We all carry DMT in our brains. It may play important roles, such as how DMT allows the body to operate at lower oxygen levels. Other psychedelics that we imbibe also use the serotonin receptor.

* * *

Below is part of the post that is a work in progress:

hierarchicy, egaltarianism, partcipatory reality and social order, organic, anarchy, democracy,

rhetorical strategies, social construction, ideological realism, symblic ideology, symbolic conflation, metaphor, metonymy, locking mechanism, visceral/embodied,

narrative loops, counter-narratives, polarization, outrage

Joe, obsessing over the perfect pick-up line, had not asked out the cute girl at work.
Joe, having not asked out the cute girl at work, obsessed over the perfect pick-up line.
Joe, having been disfigured in accident, had not asked out the cute girl work.
Joe, having not asked out the cute girl at work because of his fear of rejection like happened last time he had a crush, became nervously obsessed with the perfect pick-up line as a distraction, the kind of obsession he had since he was disfigured in the accident, but he didn’t want anyone’s pity, especially not her pity, the one thing he dreaded more than rejection.

Take the example used by Everett: John’s brother’s house. This is a simple form of recursion and can be extended infinitely: John’s brother’s sister’s mother’s friend’s house. But the Piraha must state each noun phrase separately: ‘John has a brother. This brother has a house.’ Each additional noun phrase would be another sentence and so complicated thoughts could quickly become linguistically unwieldy. So, thinking complicated thoughts is, if not entirely precluded, strongly disincentivized by the structure of the language. The Piraha languge is a finite language, in the way chess is a finite game, but that still leaves much capacity for communication. In fact, the strict limitations allows for kinds of thoughts that aren’t possible in highly recursive languages, and this could shape kinds of behaviors, perceptions, and identities that would be alien to the literary mind.

Cultural tools such as linguistic recursion are like scaffolding that can be used to build structures according to various designs and for various purposes: cathedrals, apartment buildings, monuments, etc. But once construction is finished, the scaffolding can be removed and the structure will hold itself in place without further use of scaffolding, other than occasional need for maintenance, repairs, and renovations. With a lifetime of mental habits developed from reading and writing, speaking and hearing recursive language, it is built into our neurocognitive-cultural substructure and built into the institutions and systems we are enmeshed in — as part of what Everett calls “dark matter of the mind”. Recursive language, for the average person, is only used selectively and subtly such that it is rarely noticed, if noticed at all. But we are all intimately familiar with it in our experience. It slips past our guard.

One might qualify the role of syntactic recursion by acknowledging that other cultural tools might be able to achieve the same or similar ends. “Some oral languages do regularly embed clauses,” points out Julie Sedivy, “suggesting that writing is not necessary for complex syntax. But, as can be seen in a number of indigenous languages, longer and more complicated sentences often emerge as a result of contact with a written language.” The point remains that the most convoluted sentence structures all come out of literate and literary societies. Recursion remains the ultimate cultural tool for this purpose, but obviously no cultural tool is used in isolation. These highly developed cultural tools are primarily used in writing, not speech: “In current English, writing uses more varied vocabulary than conversational speech, and it uses rarer and longer words much more often. Certain structures (such as passive sentences, prepositional phrases, and relative clauses) appear more often in written than spoken language. Writers generally elaborate their ideas more explicitly through syntax whereas speakers leave more material implicit.”

Language is never static, though. These cultural tools are adapted to changes in media. “In fact, heavily recursive sentences like those found in the Declaration of Independence have already been dwindling in written English (as well as in German) for some time. According to texts analyzed by Brock Haussamen, the average sentence length in written English has shrunk since the 17th century from between 40-70 words to a more modest 20, with a significant paring down of the number of subordinate and relative clauses, passive sentences, explicit connectors between clauses, and off-the-beaten-path sentence structures.”

third man, ghost voice/note, repetition-compulsion, addiction, egoic consciousness, rigid boundaries

paratactic animal speech

writing as transformational: Julian Jaynes, Marshall McLuhan, WEIRD

* * *

The Politics of Recursion: Hypotaxis, Hierarchy, and Healing
by kulturCritic

In short, recursion enables the construction of complex hypotactic language units rather than just simple paratactic ones. Parataxis, as I am sure you are all aware, is when each of your sentences in a larger grammatical unit carries equal weighting. Paratactic units usually have few, if any clauses, and more importantly, none of the clauses are subordinated one to another in a hierarchical scheme. Hypotaxis, on the other hand, occurs when clauses in sentences, or in larger grammatical wholes, are subordinated to one another, focusing attention on what is considered of greater importance or value within the semantic, syntactic, or larger logistic unit. In other words, recursion, by means of subordination, allows for the rudimentary and foundational element of hierarchization. Hierarchy, socio-economic and political, we might here add, is also one of the hallmarks of post-traditional societies […]

As cultural historian Marvin Bram contends in The Recovery Of The West, “Parataxis suggests coordination more than subordination, and any number of sequences rather than a single correct sequence. Parataxis de-hierarchizes the world,” where the flat, coordinate, and non-orderliness of a paratactic world seems rather primitive or prosaic to the ever more civilized and tightly structured hypotactic logistic.  Bram continues:

Parataxis is concerned with the concrete thing itself, the local and contained, and the moment, rather than with relationships among abstract things and over-arching spatial and temporal schemes… Paratactic space and time make dramatic antitheses to their hypotactic counterparts.10

For example, a person walking down a forest path seeing paratactically will see much more than a person looking hypotactically along the same path but only seeing what is of interest to him.  The paratactic visual space will be fuller. As Bram concludes,

This phenomenon of paratactic persons taking in more of the world, living in a fuller world than hypotactic persons, has been reported time and time again by (hypotactic) travelers among (paratactic) traditional peoples. 11 […]

Yet, there was also born regret for the past poorly lived and anxiety over a future still uncertain, in short, the terror of an historical consciousness, and the realization that ‘one-day I too will die.’ As Bram reminds us,

In paratactic time there is little past because there are no complete logistic structures to be sought there, and there is little future because there is no need for a place in which to complete incomplete logistic structures.  There is certainly a present, gathering to itself much of the energy that hypotactic persons give to the past and future, and inhabited by full persons and full objects: a full present.  The present of hypotactic time often enough takes third place behind the past and the future, depleted of energy: an empty present. 12

But, what was lost in this transformation to the hypotactic word, in the subordination of thought and speech within the apparently universal grammar of literacy, univocity, and its newly appropriated voice – the sterile logic of syllogism and, finally, of mathematics?

The Shapeless Unease, A Year of Not Sleeping
by Samantha Harvey
pp. 42-51

Think of a sentence:

One day I’d like to write a story about a man who, while robbing a cash machine, loses his wedding ring and has to go back for it because his wife, a terrifying individual whose material needs have driven him to crime, will no doubt kill him if the ring is lost.

A sentence with multiple clauses, one clause buried within another like Russian dolls. If we take each doll out and line them up we get:

One day I’d like to write a story.
The story is about a man.
A man robs a cash machine.
A man loses his wedding ring.
A man goes back to the cash machine for his wedding ring.
A man has a wife.
The wife is terrifying.
The wife has many material needs.
The man is driven to crime by his wife.
The ring must not get lost.
The wife could kill the man.

We tend to speak in sentences of multiple clauses, not in clauses that have been separated out. Noam Chomsky has called these multiple clauses instances of recursion, and he thinks they’re what define human language. They reflect our unique ability to position a thought inside a thought, to move from the immediate to the abstract, to infinite other places and times. A circle in a spiral, a wheel within a wheel; a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own. In theory, an infinitely long, recursive sentence is possible, says Chomsky; there is no limit to the mind’s capacity to embed one thought inside another. Our language is recursive because our minds are recursive. Infinitely windmilling.

But then came studies on the Pirahã people of the Brazilian Amazon, who do not make recursive sentences. Their language doesn’t permit them to make the sentence I made above, or even something like When it rains I’ll take shelter. For the Pirahã it would have to be It rains. I take shelter. They don’t embed a thought inside a thought, nor travel from one time or place to another within a single sentence.

When it rains, unless I take shelter, I get wet.
Unless I want to get wet, I take shelter when it rains.
So that I stay dry when it rains, I take shelter.

For the Pirahã tribe there are no sentences like these – there is none of this restless ranging from one hypothesis to another. Instead, It rains. I take shelter. Or, I take shelter. I don’t get wet. Or, I take shelter. I stay dry.

The Pirahã seem incapable of abstraction. They seem literal in the extreme – their ability to learn new grammar rules through a computerised game, by predicting which way an icon of a monkey would go when a type of sentence was generated, was thwarted in almost every case by their inability to see the monkey as real, and therefore to care what it would do next. They became fascinated and distracted by the icon, or by the colours on the screen. One of them fell asleep in the middle of the test. ‘They don’t do new things’ was the repeated assertion of Daniel Everett, the only westerner who has ever got anywhere near knowing and understanding the Pirahã language and culture. They don’t tell stories. They don’t make art. They have no supernatural or transcendental beliefs. They don’t have individual or collective memories that go back more than one or two generations. They don’t have fixed words for colours. They don’t have numbers.

Yet they are a bright, alert, capable, witty people who are one of the only tribes in the world to have survived – largely in the jungle – without any concession to the modern world. A meal might involve sucking the brains from a just-killed rat. A house is fronds of palm or a piece of leather strung over four sticks in the ground. They have no possessions. Their language might involve speaking, but it might also occur through whistling, singing or humming. And their experience of the present moment is seemingly absolute. ‘The Pirahã’s excitement at seeing a canoe go around a river bend is hard to describe,’ Everett writes. ‘They see this almost as travelling into another dimension.’ 6

[6 This and every of Everett’s quotations here is from his paper ‘Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã’.]

There is a Pirahã word that Everett heard often and couldn’t deduce the meaning of: xibipiio. Sometimes it would be a noun, sometimes a verb, sometimes an adjective or adverb. So and so would xibipiio go upriver, and xibipiio come back. The fire flame would be xibipiio-ing. Over time Everett realised that it designated a concept, something like going in and out of experience – ‘crossing the border between experience and non-experience’. Anything not in the here and now disappears from experience, it xibipiios, and arrives back in experience as once again the here and now. There isn’t a ‘there’ or a ‘then’, there are just the things xibipiio-ing in and out of the here and now.

There is no past or future tense as such in Pirahã; the language has two tense-like morphemes – remote things (not here and now) are appended by -a and proximate things (here and now) by – i . These morphemes don’t so much describe time as whether the thing spoken about is in the speaker’s direct experience or not. The Pirahã language doesn’t lay experiences out on a past–present–future continuum as almost every other language does. In English we can place events quite precisely on this continuum: it had rained, it rained, it has rained, it rains, it is raining, it will rain, it will have rained. The Pirahã can only say whether the rain is proximate (here) or not.

They can then modify a verb to qualify the claims they make about it. If they say ‘It rained in the night’, the verb ‘rain’ will be modified by one of three morphemes to convey how they know it rained, i.e. whether they heard about it (someone told them), deduced it (saw the ground was wet in the morning), or saw/heard it for themselves. The Pirahã language and culture is not only literal but evidence-based. How do you know something happened? If the line of hearsay becomes too long, involving too many steps away from experience, the thing is no longer deemed to be of any importance to speak or think about. This is why they don’t have transcendental beliefs or collective memories and stories and myths that go back generations.

What a thing this is, to be so firmly entrenched in the here and now. What a thing. We are, I am, spread chaotically in time. Flung about. I can leap thirty-seven years in a moment; I can be six again, listening to my mum singing while she cleans the silver candelabra she treasures, that reminds her of a life she doesn’t have. I can sidestep into another possible version of myself now, one who made different, better decisions. I can rest my entire life on the cranky hinge of the word ‘if’. My life is when and until and yesterday and tomorrow and a minute ago and next year and then and again and forever and never.

Time leaks everywhere into English, some ten per cent of the most commonly used words are expressions of time. The Pirahã language has almost no words that depict time. This is all of them: another day; now; already; day; night; low water; high water; full moon; during the day; noon; sunset/sunrise; early morning, before sunrise. Their words for these are literally descriptive – the expression for day is ‘in sun’, for noon ‘in sun big be’ and for night ‘be at fire’.

Are there whole slices and movements of time that the Pirahã people don’t experience, then? If they can only speak in terms of ‘another day’, do they not experience ‘yesterday’ and ‘a year ago’ as different things? If something doesn’t exist in a language, does it also not exist in the minds of those who speak the language?

I wondered that when I tried to teach the perfect tense to Japanese students; there isn’t a perfect tense in Japanese. When I taught the sentence I have eaten I got blank looks, incomprehension. Why not just say I ate? Why say I have been to Europe when you could just say I went to Europe? I tried to illustrate: I ate (before, at some time you need to specify – this morning, all day yesterday); I have eaten (just now, I’m still full). Blank looks, incomprehension. In the perfect tense a period of time opens out, the past, not as separate from the present, but running up to and meeting the present. I have eaten; we’ve danced all night; it’s been a year. Do the Japanese not experience that segment of time? Or is it that they deal with it in other linguistic ways, or by inference and context?

Everett described the Pirahã’s mode of being as ‘live here and now’. If you live here and now, you don’t need recursion in language because there’s no conceptual need to join together ideas or states according to their order in time, or in terms of which causes which, or in terms of hypothetical outcomes. You don’t need a past or future tense if you’re living only now. You don’t need a large stock of words that try to nail down instances of time along a horizontal continuum from the distant past to the distant future, a continuum that also has an enormous elastic stretch into the vertical planes of virtual time, time as it intersects with space, time as happening elsewhere, real or imagined.

What would it be like to be a person of the Pirahã tribe? How would it be to not experience that continuum? For one’s mind to not be an infinitely recursive wheel within a wheel? It feels in some ways a relief, even to imagine such a mode of living, but it feels almost non-human too. And yet there the Pirahã are, as human as human can be. I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine being anything but submersed in time, it ticking in every cell. […]

As for the continual vanishing of the now, well, here is also the continual birth of the now. A live birth, from a living now; there are no deaths, there’s no hiatus. It seems to me that now is the largest, most predictable and most durable of all things, and that the question isn’t so much: what is time but a set of nothings? But more: what is time but an indomitable something? An unscalable wall of now. When I think of the Pirahã I don’t imagine them cresting the brink of a collapsing moment, each step bringing an existential vertigo. I imagine them fishing, skinning animals, drinking, painting their faces, building shelter. It rains. We stay dry. Their here and now seems as solid to me as one brick – it rains – laid on another – we stay dry.

What would it be like to live and think like the Pirahã? For the world to be continually xibipiio-ing? No mad spooling out of events through time, all chain-linked and dragged each by the next, one event causing another, one event blamed for another, one past pain locked into a present pain to cause future pain; no. No things crossing the boundary from experience to non-experience. Just things disappearing and reappearing around the bend of the river. […]

[The author watched a digital clock while in an altered state from sickness. The numbers…] bore no relationship to me. They weren’t tugging in a forwards direction, they were just things gently changing, rearranging, in the same way that the clouds rearrange, and they were rearranging in a vast stillness. They were xibipiio-ing. Only: here I am. Then: here I am. Then: here I am. Is that akin to the Pirahã’s experience of time?

Is that where the dance is, the dance T. S. Eliot told us about when we read Four Quartets as uncomprehending teenagers? At the still point, there the dance is.

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