Manuel Arturo Abreu

Organisms that do not exhibit recursion in communication still have the capacity for recursion

Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch 2002 (HC&F hereafter) incited a flurry of discussion in response to its distinction between the faculty of language in the broad sense (FLB) and the faculty of language in the narrow sense (FLN): “FLB includes a sensory-motor system, a conceptual-intentional system, and the computational mechanisms for recursion, providing the capacity to generate an infinite range of expressions from a finite set of elements. We hypothesize that FLN only includes recursion and is the only uniquely human component of the faculty of language.” (HC&F, 1569). The implication is that the observable structural differences between human language and other forms of animal communication can be explained by the exclusivity of recursion to human language. This statement also operates on the assumption that recursion is a universal trait of human language.

Image courtesy of this site.

Daniel Everett’s work with the Pirahã tribe in the Amazon presents evidence contrary to HC&F’s claims. Everett found that the Pirahã language lacked embedding, at least representational recursion1: “Pirahã does not make use of CP-embedding or recursive possessors.” (Kinsella 2010: 188)2 Nonetheless, they can, through other linguistic and pragmatic means, express concepts which in other languages would be expressed recursively (ibid.). Everett says “..Pirahã most certainly has the communicative resources to expresses clauses that in other languages are embedded…” (Everett 2005: 631) Therefore, though Pirahã does not seem to have recursion, it is by no means restricted in its expressive capacity, countering the claims of Hauser, Chomsky and Finch 2002 regarding “the rich expressive and open-ended power of human language (based on humans’ capacity for recursion),” which capacity they claim animal communication lacks because it does not exhibit recursion (HC&F, 1570). If Pirahã’s expressive capacity is not hindered by its seeming lack of recursion, then perhaps recursion is not in fact a distinguishing feature of human language (Kinsella 188), or at least not the only one: perhaps it can be found in non-linguistic and non-human domains.

Image courtesy of HC&F 2002.

This may in fact the case. HC&F 2002 themselves speculate that recursion may be evident in animal navigation and kinship cognition, and songbirds have exhibited the capacity to comprehend recursive hierarchical syntactic structure (Abe & Watanabe 2011; Gentner et al 2006). Bengalese finches exposed to an artificially-constructed, center-embedded birdsong grammar “revealed a striking sensitivity to the recursive structure of the grammatical strings [they] were exposed to.” (Bloomfield et al 2011) The finches responded equally to familiar and novel grammatical strings, but decreased in response when presented with ungrammatical birdsong strings (ibid.). This indicates that recursion is not necessarily specific to humans, and that it is only sufficient, not necessary for human language, as Everett’s work with the Pirahã indicates. Therefore, since recursion as a unique feature of language is questionable, it would be fruitful to comparatively investigate the other possibly-distinguishing properties of language— the syntax-semantics interface particularly, as well as the lexicon and the nature of phrasal categories (Kinsella 2010).


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March 3rd, 2014 / 11:00 am


Where to Go in Europe

81diIguhtTL._SL1500_Where to Go in Europe
Eds. Wendy Bracewell & Alex Drace-Francis
UCL Publishing Horizons, 2013
120 pages / $4.99  Buy Kindle on Amazon








Life seems to be an enterprise of attaching meaning to arbitrary artifacts and rituals, which seem themselves to embody something called ‘culture.’ I don’t think there’s anything immaterial to culture—it’s just how humans have lived and live now. We all have bodies which are (and have been) largely the same, but different cultures craft different rituals and habits, for whatever reasons. This doesn’t seem to mean anything, inherently: it simply is.

This book, then, is a short and delightful anthology of writing about experiences with foreign toilet technology, for lack of better phrasing. Aside from how interesting the book is as an exploration of people trying to “make sense” of intercultural experiences, it’s a delight to read because of the plethora of voices it contains: there’s an almost-voyeuristic pleasure to reading, say, Andrei Pleşu‘s account of an encounter with a highly-advanced Japanese toilet, or Savkovič’s description of going to a Bulgarian festival with a Belgrade model. The slim volume deftly creates a patchwork of different experiences, ranging from puerile to poignant, not imposing any critical framework on the reader but simply asking her to marvel at and revel in the complicated range of human emotion and expression that is available for topics like toilets, urine, and feces.

Not having such a framework is a modest decision, which makes this book very likeable. Like culture, it simply is: its economy is immediately appealing, and the irony of reading it while in the bathroom is, against all odds, delicious. Most importantly, built on the premise that we all need to evacuate our bowels and bladder, yet in so many different ways, Where to go in Europe presents a more important commonality: everyone judges everyone else for how they use the bathroom, in different ways. Everyone has not individual bathroom rituals and ideas of what a bathroom should be, and the bathroom is a crucial site for exploring our own cultural biases. To me, it’s somewhat interesting that this topic is so often explored in the context of humor— Žižek’s “toilet ideology” bit, David Foster Wallace’s “The Suffering Channel,” and ‘oodles’ of other somewhat-scatological postmodern stuff —as if, in trying to analyze the abjection of the encounter with bodily waste, ‘western’ analysis itself succumbs to revulsion, and must ‘laugh to keep from crying,’ as it were. Can we ever escape ideology? Is trying to imagine life outside ideology absurd?

Hard to say, but another pleasure of this text is that, while provoking such questions, it points to this class of questioning as absurd: instead of imagining hypothetical utopias, we should ‘air the dirty laundry’ of ideology, so to speak, and look frankly at how it is always operating through us and around us. Becoming more aware of ideology isn’t necessarily freedom from it, but it might afford some level of critical distance, in the same way that meditation asks us to simply, nonjudgmentally stay in the present, observing thoughts passing like clouds in the sky of the mind. The editors include an excerpt written by Giuseppe Baretti in 1770 where— in reaction to travelers like Sharp who generalized about all Italians based on the filth of Naples, in which, at the time, people urinated and defecated, it seems, at liberty —he writes about the stench of Madrid, and how it drove him to end what would have been a month-long trip and “be gone, and never think to see this town again,” but that he “will not blame the Spaniards for having suffered this evil to increase upon them age after age in such a manner, as to be now almost past remedy…”


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December 20th, 2013 / 12:00 pm


Hearing Hearing: A Review of Jacob Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis (2008)

“We do not yet know what a sonic body can do.” -Steve Goodman

In a collection of notes entitled The 1914 Box, Marcel Duchamp said that “one can look at seeing; one can’t hear hearing.” (Bloch 1974) Working within a lineage that includes Cage, Schaeffer Lucier, and other artists, Jacob Kirkegaard’s 2008 sound installation Labyrinthitis articulates a response to Duchamp’s claim, demonstrating through the phenomenon of distortion product otoacoustic emissions (DPOAE) that one can in fact ‘hear hearing.’ Further, in articulating the space of human hearing, and ‘playing’ the human ear “just like an acoustic instrument,” (Kirkegaard 2008) Labyrinthitis questions the canonical notion of hearing as a passive process, a “one-way route of transduction,” (Kahn 2008) and grounds the semioticity of listening as distinguished from hearing in a materialist approach which eschews representation, using sound not as symbol but as intervention (Lindblom 2010). In this sense the work is firmly grounded in the tradition of site-specific sound art, creating a discourse space in which technology and the body, artist and audience, exist not on opposite sides of dichotomies but on a continuum.

The contents of Duchamp’s 1914 box (photo courtesy of:

`What did Duchamp mean by “looking at seeing?” He meant to describe “the particular interpretative effect which accompanies optical illusions.” (Betancourt 2003) For example, in the Rotoreliefs, the contrast between a static disc and a moving disc creates a visual oscillation, allowing us to ‘look’ at the mechanism of seeing and understand a number of constraints: that the illusion is only possible for us when the relief is in motion; and that when the relief is in motion, we cannot distinguish the two discs— we can only see them as one (ibid.).With the knowledge that there are in fact two discs but that, when the oscillation occurs, we apprehend them as one, we can infer that the configurational relationship between the two activated discs causes the limits of our perception to ‘synthesize’ a new image entirely from our perceptual processes: in this way we can ‘look at seeing.’ (Ehrenzweig, 24)

Then we can begin to interpret the phenomenon, as Betancourt states. This also allows for a new, non-teleological artistic-perceptual structure (ibid.), and the discourse domain which this kind of art articulates is not predicated on phenomena as representations but on an exploration of the material aspects of the phenomena themselves, the ability to observe the sensory mediation of experience, and its limits. Though the groundwork had been laid by Schaeffer, Cage, and Lucier, as well as through Dianne Deutsch‘s discovery of the octave illusion in 1973, and Maryanne Amacher‘s work with otoacoustic emissions in 1999, until Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis, there had arguably been no sound-oriented process explicitly analogous to optical illusions which would cause one to perceive a mismatch between stimulus and receptor activity in the human ear, and there had been not been as cogent a response to the passive connotation of hearing which is so pervasive in the historical musical narrative.

In 1978, physicist David Kemp demonstrated for the first time in a scientific context the phenomenon of otoacoustic emissions (OAEs) (Kemp 1978). These are audible sounds which the inner ear itself generates, and which can either be spontaneous (SOAE) or evoked by pure tones (EOAE). Commissioned by the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, Kirkegaard’s Labyrinthitis is composed on the basis of the latter, particularly distortion product emissions (DPOAEs). In fact, similar findings were reported in the 18th century by Guiseppe Tartini, who while investigating violin double stops discovered that two simultaneously-played tones may cause a listener to perceive a third tone (Tartini 1754). Indeed, it should be noted that OAE’s are anomalous only insofar as they are audible: the the very process of hearing involves the vibration of the cochlea’s hairs when two tones enter the ear, which causes electro-chemical responses to the vibrations; in certain cases this vibration causes “movement of the connected basilar membranes,” which in turn causes the ear to emit sounds as a byproduct of hearing (Fischer 2008). Thus OAE’s could be considered ‘amplified’ instances of a generalized property of the human ear.

(Photo courtesy of:

Looking to use this phenomenon as a compositional impetus, Kirkegaard inserted tiny speakers and a microphone into his left ear. The input is a pair of primary frequencies in “a ratio of 1 – 1.2,” (Kirkegaard 2007) the interaction of which causes a DPOAE in Kirkegaard’s inner ear. The microphone picks up this and other resultant DPOAEs and amplifies them enormously, outputting them to the audience as they arise. The audience will have its own DPOAE’s when confronted with Kirkegaard’s, so much so that, at a loud volume, the piece seems to turn one’s ears into a bright resonant magnet, sound buzzing ticklishly out of it, at least in my listening experience. The receivers of sound in fact become producers of sound in the act of receiving, and this creates a potentially-endless feedback loop (which actually renders compositional decisions largely arbitrary). Therefore, the piece is a musical analog to the concept of Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, since it builds its discourse not from sound as representation but from the actual sound phenomena, and since the configuration of the pure tones, like the static and moving disc, causes a mismatch between input and receptor activity, creating a space in which the resultant phenomenon, DPOAE’s, can be explored and encoded with meaning. It is a rebuttal to Duchamp’s claim that one can’t hear hearing.


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October 11th, 2013 / 11:05 am