I once transcribed an interview with Noam Chomsky for Jason’s magazine. As I played-paused-played the interview, I was awed at how accessible Chomsky made his explanations of his academic field:
ASM – Your work is famously associated with the idea that there’s a universal deep grammar behind language. Would you explain the concept briefly?
Chomsky – First of all, the term ‘universal grammar’ has a traditional meaning. But in the Modern period, roughly the last half century, it’s been used in a technical sense which is similar to but different from the traditional meaning.
Universal grammar traditionally meant properties that are common to all languages. But universal grammar in the Modern sense means the genetic component of the language capacity. That is whatever it is about humans that enables an infant to quickly and reflexively identify the parts of the environment that are language-related and then to proceed in a very systematic and regular way to attain very quickly, in fact, the capacity we’re now using.
We have pretty good evidence that it developed recently in the human species, roughly within the last 100,000 years, long after the separation from any other species. So there are really no analogues in other species. And we have very good evidence that the capacity has not changed for at least 50,000 to 75,000 years. There’s very strong evidence that human origins are in Africa 50, maybe a little more, thousand years ago. And there’s very strong evidence that humans everywhere have virtually or maybe identically the same language capacity. It’s kind of like an organ to humans and it’s essential. And you try to find out its properties. Any such system is determined somehow by our genetic endowment. And universal grammar in the Modern sense is just the name for that genetic basis whatever it is.
At the time, Jason reminded me that Chomsky is a life-long educator, and that made me feel good about my goal of continuing to work in education even as I maintain my art practice. Few things irritate me more than art that doesn’t in some way seek to step the viewer through the experience of the work, and teaching is a good way to ensure that I exercise the muscles that facilitate for others the experience of my work.
When Steve and I were talking about making art accessible without compromising its complexity, he mentioned Michel Gondry’s new Chomsky film, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? That reminded me of my previous experience with Chomsky’s clarity, and I’m very curious to see the film especially after seeing this: