Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Malcolm and Fabian at Cendana

Today I, along with another YNC professor, Fabian Geier, presented a philosophy café to our students here at Yale-NUS College at the Cendana Residental College. It was Star Trek-themed, beginning with an introduction to the Original Series and its cultural context, shifting to the Next Generation and concluding with a clip from Deep Space Nine.

Given my interests, it will not come as a surprise that I chose parts of the episode "Darmok" to screen and discuss. If you're not familiar with the episode, the core of it is introduced in the first two panels of the Chainsawsuit comic above. There is an alien race, with requisite face-bumps and strange clothing, that speaks in a way the Universal Translator can't quite parse. They say things like "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" and "Shaka, when the walls fell" but seem to think they're communicating something more--and they are frustrated when the Enterprise crew doesn't understand.

And then Captain Picard and their captain (Dathon) are beamed down to a planet's surface to fight a monster and talk about being human and using language. Quickly the crew of the Enterprise orbiting above figures out that "Darmok" and "Jalad" are names, and Tanagra is a place. But they don't know what that expression is supposed to mean, and they engage the Tamarians in a fight while Picard and Dathon are becoming friends on the planet surface below. Of course, it all ends well, and Picard recounts the Epic of Gilgamesh along the way after figuring out that Darmok and Jalad met independently on some island, battled a common foe, and left as friends.

There's a lot of attempts to explain what's going on in the episode. Counselor Troi says that "images" are important to the Tamarians (the bumpy-faced aliens), and Picard says that "Darmok on the ocean" is a metaphor for being alone, and later seems to think of "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" as an analogy or allegory in some sense. At one point, it's suggested that they don't use pronouns like "I" and "you." In the real world, an article at the Atlantic argued that

...the Children of Tama [Tamarians] possess no method of denotative communication whatsoever. Their language simply prevents them from distinguishing between an object or event and what we would call its figurative representation.
But that seems implausible, since at some point there was some person named "Darmok", to whom the name referred in a non-figurative manner. Without this, the further uses of the word could not even get off the ground. Further, Picard, in his attempts to communicate, picks up a rock at one point, points to it, and says "Darmok"--which the Tamarian seems to understand. Their cognitive machinery is not so different that they cannot understand direct reference. However, they clearly do use "Darmok" most often in ways which are not primarily directed at the historical figure.

At the café, in discussion, I asked how it was possible that "Darmok" could function in this way. Some of my students who have been taking Indian philosophy of language were there and their immediate response was "indication!"

This idea, of communicating beyond the primary denotation to something beyond, while still maintaining a semantic relationship of some kind with the primary, is found in Indian philosophy in various ways. Our class has been reading the Fundamentals of the Communicative Function (Abhidhāvṛttamātṛkā) of Mukula Bhaṭṭa, and at one point he gives an example (also used by Ānandavardhana, with some different effect) where Rāma says, "I am Rāma", but in order to communicate that he is someone who has had sorrow-inducing things happen to him. This is (on Mukula's view, at least) indication, and it doesn't require giving up the primary meaning--in fact it necessitates some relationship with it. Of course, whether he is right that this is indication (lakṣaṇā) and not suggestion (dhvani) is a further question. And in either case, explaining precisely what the relationship is with primary meaning is the difficult part.

Note the Elvish!
And, as the comic above hints at, it is possible to invest a lot of phrases with meaning in a way that would puzzle outsiders. And while we are able to do this in a lot of contexts, we don't do it everywhere. This is the part that makes the alien language seem so alien. While we can frequently understand what people are trying when they use meme language or draw on inside jokes ("Yesterday at the restaurant!"), we wouldn't try to employ that language when piloting a starship or conducting intergalactic business.

We would do our best to make our communication less dependent on background knowledge about cultural history. Why? Because unless we are certain that our interlocutor has the right kind of knowledge and will draw the appropriate inferences from our utterance, there is a high risk of misinterpretation.

 The thesis, again, at the Atlantic article I linked to is that
So dense and rich is Tamarian speech, that these five words are sufficient to direct a whole crew to carry out an entire stratagem over two days’ time, and not by following a script, but by embracing it as a guiding abstraction.
In other words, the author seems to think that the Tamarians can pack into the words so much meaning that when their captain says "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra," the crew understands the entire plan--because the expression itself means something like "Just like Darmok and Jalad battled a foe together at Tanagra and left as friends, I and Picard will go to the planet's surface, battle the shiny translucent monster together, and this will help us forge a relationship between our cultures."

But there is a question about whether this is part of what the expression itself comes to mean in context--like how "I" comes to refer to me in some context, and in others to you--or whether this is just an inference that the hearers on the ship will draw. This is familiar territory in philosophy of language, in terms of what constitutes semantic content belonging to the sentence, and what constitutes something indicated (Indian philosophy) or implicated (Gricean analytic terms). So there's a lot to unpack in the episode and, at the end of the day, the writers weren't linguists or philosophers (unfortunately) so there is a limit to what we can infer from the limited corpus of Tamarian.

Still, whatever quibbles I have with the interpretation of the episode and the attempts to characterize the language by the characters in the story, it is a rich motivation for a whole host of questions about not just how language works, but how language users should interact with one another. And it's fun to see that "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" now has a life of its own, beyond El-Adrel...