Foundation Writing Course

‘Academic writing.’ He paused.

‘That’s what I suppose I’m here to teach you, but I’m not sure what you have in mind on that subject,’ he said, rather dramatically – and perhaps a little self-consciously? ‘I have some idea, however, of what’s likely to be floating around in there, and I’d like to take the time to clarify things.

‘Now – I’m going to start off sounding cruel, although that is not the intention – when you think “academic writing”, what comes to mind? Possibly that you’re going to be writing about difficult topics, or perhaps about common topics but in difficult language. Perhaps, deep down, you imagine that by the end of this course you’ll be able to write in a way that makes you feel smart.’ At this point, he came across as somewhat ill-at-ease, instead of smug.

‘What I’m trying- well, what I want to say is, a good rule of thumb is to go against these impressions, in the opposite direction. Instead of difficult, academic writing should be just about as easy as you can make it. Instead of smart, simple: in the classes you’ll be pursuing in your various disciplines, I think you’ll find that the academic writing that’s had the broadest influence are going to be those readings that leave you wondering, “That’s easy enough, did they really have to write this?”‘

‘I blame the prefix, maybe: “academic” – a label. And in the university there will be no shortage of people who’ll be trying to convince anyone who’ll hear that the label is prestigious, but in reality – or at least, let’s try to fix on “academic” as a name describing your audience, your community- basically the people you’re writing for, and the people whose writing you’ll also be reading.’

At this point, he paused again, looking around the class. Most of us were paying at least some attention, which was not bad.

‘And if we’re thinking about your readers and yourselves, writers, as a community, I think there’s no disclaiming the question of values. I’m promoting a subjective judgement here, that in writing for each other we want to help our friend understand the thing we’re writing about, as easily as possible. I’m saying why we write is not about feeling intelligent in the moment, but perhaps – just possibly – becoming a little bit more intelligent, but slowly, together, over time.

‘Yes, academic discourse is an exchange of views, and (you may think) one with a natural tendency towards being a contentious business. Actually, I find this is only sometimes the case. In each field and each community, there is often a lot of unity, underlying or overlying, or at least a shared desire to advance the discussion. Where this is built up the best is where the discussion is not just an exchange of broadsides, but where there’s a good deal of serious listening going on (and this is something you also demonstrate in writing, but we’ll get to that).’ Here he looked ruminative.

‘But perhaps worse than the actually rather rare situation of shouting over each other, is the depressingly more common situation of addressing discussions to no-one, beyond the people who have to read it – people who don’t, in fact, have to read your report as seriously as you might imagine when you’re composing it. That’s why I hope you’ll be good writers, but why I hope even more that you’ll be better readers – that perhaps we’ll get to a point where, between all of us, we’ll write more carefully and listen more carefully, about things worth knowing.’

Here he looked exhausted.


News from Mars

I saw the news about Umpqua a few hours ago. I did a quick search for news reports and posted one on Facebook. One of the first few comments I received linked to the 4chan thread on the channel /r9k/ that the shooter had allegedly been posting on just minutes before the shooting. Activity on the thread was high, with some commenters egging the OP on (OP: original poster) to follow through on his plan. The Daily Mail’s report on the thread in question highlights some representative posts, and provides some broader context on 4chan and its community (if you can call it that; anonymity is the norm) of users.

Something that isn’t as easily presented through representative posts, however, is the discursive frame1 that many of the participants in the thread adopt2 (or at least acknowledge). I was trying to get a sense of it while reading through the thread (an unpleasant experience), so I figured I might as well write down what I’ve figured out so far. Also it’s almost completely new to me (something I’m somewhat glad to be able to say).

1. ‘so long, space robots’

The OP signs off his initial post this way. This is a reference to the 4chan channel (/r9k/ stands for ROBOT9001).

Another prominent term in the thread is ‘normie’, which UD defines thus:

‘1. A person who does not have a mental illness such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mood disorders, PTSD, depression or any similar mental disability. “Normie” is a reference to those who are a part of the mainstream culture; the 97% of the population who do not have a mental illness.’

I think the above is a rather narrow definition, and that the sense of it probably expands, in the context of /r9k/, to all non-participants in the /r9k/ subculture. It would also serve as a term to exclude, for instance, commenters who do not demonstrate that they subscribe to the ‘right’ set of norms, including communicative norms (e.g. familiarity with certain memes and fluency in employing them).

But overall we see that the identity that the ‘space robots’ are attempting to normalize, is to be the antithesis of the ‘normies’. It’s about experiencing solidarity by being non-normal (a familiar enough pattern in fandom culture), but in this context it seems ramping it up from non-normal to anti-normal is imagined to demonstrate one’s credentials as a member of the in-group more emphatically.

2. ‘beta’, ‘beta uprising’

While the alien-normie dichotomy probably isn’t going to be picked up on in the ensuing media commentary, the beta-alpha one probably is, because of the existing popular interest in MRA stuff (Wiki).

The basic idea is that alpha-males get the lion’s share of society’s rewards (e.g. female attention, most often; but also social rewards more generally like economic rewards), at the expense of beta-males who, by virtue of being less aggressive and less willing to exploit others, get a lesser share, but who nevertheless continue to participate in society and keep it going, by passively accepting those unfair terms.

The solidarity project here is advanced by self-identifying ‘betas’.

So I read a term like ‘beta uprising’ and there are echoes of, say, Marxist rhetoric, but overall it’s a rather twisted reinterpretation of the critique of power more generally (which we see in Marxist ideology, but is also part of feminism, anarchism, etc.).

3.  ‘Chad’, ‘Chads and Stacies’ 

Basically the antagonists. The generic male/female names stand for generic, ‘normie’ people. ‘Chad’ (rather than ‘Chads and Stacies’) is referred to much more often in the thread, because Chads (‘asshole jocks’) are basically the bane of beta experience. I’m inferring, but I would say Chads need not necessarily be alphas; they just happen to behave in ways that self-identifying betas find antogonizing.

4. ‘edgy’, ‘edgelord’

There is a popular sense of ‘edgy’ that means something like ‘challenging to societal norms, in a somewhat dark way’ (paraphrasing the top UD definition). The sense of ‘edgy’ is somewhat more specific in this subculture, however. The UD definitions for ‘edgelord‘ capture this quite well:

1: ‘A poster on an Internet forum, (particularly 4chan) who expresses opinions which are either strongly nihilistic, (“life has no meaning,” or Tyler Durden’s special snowflake speech from the film Fight Club being probably the two main examples) or contain references to Hitler, Nazism, fascism, or other taboo topics which are deliberately intended to shock or offend readers.’
2: ‘Fedora tipping, fat fuck that spends his life on anime cartoon message boards being a worthless pile of shit. Nobody likes this guy but he acts like he doesn’t care. He’s a pathetic, lost kissless virgin that should just kill himself.’

So the higher-voted definition is a lot less inflammatory (quite successfully provides a veneer of academic objectivity on this interpretation of the employment of the term in the discourse), and the second definition is a lot closer to the tone of the thread I was reading – but more importantly I think there’s a layer of irony that the person supplying the second definition is aware of. I read it as a space robot speaking with the voice of a Chad – so basically as much self-hate as hate.


I’m just going to list some quick thoughts.

  1. In this discursive community, we see solidarity can be expressed by performing alienation. This does not mean we should assume all speakers think of themselves as alienated (though some certainly appear to).
  2. The dark side of this interpretation? Like the example of a group of dudes acting rowdy even when there are no chicks around, it’s like practising for the real performance. I see /r9k/ as the virtual space where the playing-out of the character of the space robot happens. For most users a basic premise is that this is a virtual performance (indeed necessarily a virtual performance, otherwise how could one be alienated?) and not a real performance. Yet the edges of these realities do bleed.
  3. In all this, there is irony – but irony with a manic, involuted quality.

1. By ‘discursive frame’, I mean something like ‘cognitive schemas or structures shape the way individuals perceive and represent reality’ (article in the Encyclopedia of Case Study Research).
2. I say ‘adopt’ because there is an extent to which we can think of frames as being selected by a speaker on a particular communicative occasion.

O, Ingratitude, Where Is Thy Sting?

‘Opposition ingrates’ is a phrase I’ve seen floating around recently on social media. I found it fascinating, because while clearly meant as a stinging epithet within the very current context of GE2015, I found myself thinking: Couldn’t they have thought of something less anachronistic than ‘ingrate’?

As I understand it, the logic behind ‘opposition ingrate’ is that for a right-thinking Singaporean, your vote is owed to the political leaders that built a successful Singapore.1 This is not at all a difficult position to decipher, but I think it is a position worth examining in terms of the discourses and ideologies it implicates.

To return to the moment I first registered the term, to my ear, the use of ‘ingrate’ as a political epithet seemed out of sync with what I thought was the mainstream attitude towards politics and society. Wherefore gratefulness, in a meritocratic society where no-one is owed a living? Likewise, a persistent message of elections rhetoric is that you, the voter, have not been as well served as you have the right to expect, and the relationship between the state and you is that of service-provider and client, with the elections candidates being competing contractors.

In neither of the above schemas does gratefulness seem like the most relevant candidate for a social or moral value. It was in this sense that I saw what I called ‘mainstream attitudes’ being at odds with the notion implicit in ‘ingrate’, that it is your obligation to render your political support to the benevolent authority that maintains the social order.

This notion of a social order maintained by authority itself was something I would’ve thought was outmoded, or at least at a greater degree of remove from a current and popular political event. I’ve tended to encounter the idea in more hermetic contexts, e.g. in discussions about the history of political thought. In contrast, I saw current political news and its attendant media commentary (including satirical commentary) as tending to either start off from a different presumption about its audience’s political and social consciousness2, or identify anti-authoritarian/anti-establishment views with the popular consciousness. Basically, the idea of a social order wherein gratefulness to authority had significant moral weight seemed quaintly traditional, in a vaguely retrograde way.

Against this context, the question of whom exactly the people who use the epithet ‘opposition ingrate’ saw as their audience, was something of a puzzle. It would work, somewhat, as a message of solidarity, among some imagined majority of traditional, conservative folk with old-fashioned values; however, the audience against whom the force of the epithet is directed is, presumably, exactly the kind of anti-establishment advocate for whom ‘ingrate’ could hardly be expected to make sense as a moral criticism.

I wish I could call the situation I’ve described a novel one, but really it seems more and more like the template for political disagreement nowadays: call it the culture wars model, if you will. I might have called it ideological disagreement, but that would suggest more self-consciousness than appears to be in evidence, and I think the essential feature of this situation is the preclusion of the possibility of coming to terms.


The title of this post was also informed by my other, more superficial investigation of the instinct I had about the word ‘ingrate’ being somewhat anachronistic.

I went with Google Ngrams first, and we see clearly that you’re much more likely to be called ‘ungrateful’ (and even ‘faithless’) more than ‘ingrate’. ‘Ingrate’ is about as commonly used in the English corpus as the term ‘carpetbagger‘ (an epithet with a rather culturally specific context that, when used in a general sense, means ‘any opportunistic or exploitive outsider’, and when used in a current political context, might be fairly applied to a certain Son of Punggol).


Next I went on BYU’s GloWbE corpus.


Nigeria registered an unusually high rate of the token, and though there were a few repeat instances, it appears that ‘ingrate’ has found a place in the idiom of Nigerian film dialogue (choice example: ‘As for Awolowo, he is an INGRATE & a BETRAYER!’). There appear to be several examples from real-world political commentary as well (specifically, politicians’ comments on each other).

In Pakistan, the examples were almost exclusively from religious texts (‘Verily! Man is an ingrate […]’). This is a fairly common use-context for other countries as well.

The other fairly common use-context is football, which is where this gem of a user comment on an article about a returning sports star:

‘you are ingrate. Show appreciation small to nation builders for their contributions. You are a reicarnate of somebody in the biblical times who would shout crucify him, crucify him (Jesus) after getting drunk from the water he turned into wine.’


This comment was directed at another user, who favored another player as first-choice keeper.

But taking all of these observations together, my suspicion is just that ‘ingrate’ is used where they study more Shakespeare (and used less where they used to study more Shakespeare).

1. Relevant context here is the fact that the message, ‘The PAP led the building of Singapore,’ was clearly the message most thoroughly developed in public discourse, in a year that afforded several occasions to invite Singaporeans to collectively reflect on the nation’s history.
2. E.g. Singaporeans are politically apathetic and individualistic, Singaporean youth are influenced by Western liberal ideas and aren’t conscious of local history, etc.


Finding Singa: Principles of Singaporean ‘exceptionalism’

In recent years the idea of a Singaporean exceptionalism has been raised by those who make the argument that for Singapore to continue being what it has been, being  ‘exceptional’ is a necessity and not an option. The meaning ‘exceptional’ takes on in those contexts tends to be in terms of the achievement of distinct national economic capabilities.

Between the first and second steps, there’s something of a gap. The first step, that Singapore needs to continue being Singapore to remain Singapore, is a truism. What the second step does is to specify conditions and interpose criteria. I don’t wish to go too far into discussing the technical economic/social/geographical/historical details, but the two main discourses this second step draws from include the discourse of national vulnerability, as well as the discourse of the primacy of economic concerns.

Yesterday I was in a discussion where two participants took issue with what they saw as whiney or ‘escapist’ Singaporeans, whom they criticized as responding to a perceived economic pressure in non-constructive ways (futile complaining & leaving the country, respectively). Their suggestion was for ‘escapists’ to be more realistic about economic pressures and dig in their heels, and for complainers to reduce their expectations about their income level if they wanted to enjoy more free time

While neither were irrational suggestions, I had serious points of disagreement with each. Regarding the first, I said that rather than regard Singaporeans as being escapist if they truly believe that the economic pressures are too great and decide to leave, wouldn’t it be more rational to conclude that they made a good choice? As for the second, it contained that argument that economic pressure is more perceived than real, and can be opted out from; while this is true at the level of the individual, I think it is fair to say that Singaporean society as a whole would not (perhaps cannot) endorse this choice.

In my assessment economic pressure is an inherent feature of Singaporean society as it currently exists. As long as Singaporeans continue to seek what they currently seek (a certain ‘quality of life’), pressure will be the status quo.

I happen to prefer not to deny that what I see Singaporeans seeking is worth seeking, but this is something anyone with an opinion is free to disagree with. What I think is an undeniable feature of the situation is the exceptional consensus (or perhaps habitus) that has developed, and that has persisted. I think this is something we could fairly term a Singaporean exceptionalism.

How I opted to describe this attitude of Singaporean exceptionalism was as a decision matrix, one with a unique mix of factors. The curious thing about this decision matrix is that, when applied to the question of whether to ‘do Singapore’ or not, it will always generate the same solution. (Or at least it must do so for enough people to sustain a viable population.) The kind of economic aspiration that is the norm now, can be thought of as some subset of relevant factors.

According to this logic I think it becomes easier to understand how some individuals will come to the point of decision that their priorities are incompatible with what is on offer, and that this decision need not be something to lament or regret over much. At the same time we can see how some individuals will decide that their priorities may not be an entirely comfortable match but that there remain compelling reasons to continue with the status quo.

One of the other things I like about this description of Singaporean exceptionalism is that it contains the possibility of out-Singapore-ing Singapore. We could theoretically apply this matrix to search for something somewhere that is worth ‘doing’. The thing we find might be something we can emulate and perhaps eventually integrate. Perhaps it might be something that shows us where we have fallen short of our own standards.

As for the sustainability of this way-of-being, it rests squarely on the extent to which the matrix can be improved and adapted while having it continue to serve its users. It calls for the kind of resilience built on flexibility and creative destruction. It calls for knowing ourselves and being true to it, while trying to outdo ourselves and recognizing where we may be outdone.


What is a word?

The way I intend to develop this question is contextualized by another question-and-potential-answer, namely, Q: ‘What is language?’ and, A: ‘Language is words.’

Broadly speaking, ‘language is words’ it not a totally terrible thesis. Many frames we have for thinking about language conceive of ‘language’ as words put together, in bits or en masse, perhaps in some ordered way. At the same time, it is possible to think of things which are very like language which might not strictly involve ‘words’, but in these cases I would wager that we would tend to say that they work like language, though their objects are different, i.e. their objects are not strictly words.

In these cases as well, asking the question of what makes something word-like usually works as a re-framing device, which brings us back to the question of, ‘What is a word?’

Thinking mainly in terms of information and dependencies (what I might think of as underlying the ‘structural’ tradition), I would propose the following:

  • Form is perhaps the most basic level at which we might register something as being a word. A word is sounded or printed, is either speech or script. Any other information that we might conceivably think of as having to do with a particular word is necessarily the subject of this form.
  • An assumption that I have admitted is that word-forms signify, or otherwise contain retrievable information.

At the same time, the considered combination of words appears to give rise to meaning on a higher level of complexity than random word-sequences. It could be a strong illusion, but if not then it appears that some kinds of dependencies between words must exist. About these dependencies, there appear to be at least two broad kinds.

  • The first kind involves thinking of words as forming broad categories, e.g. nouns, articles, counting words, etc. It seems valid to think about words as forming categories due to certain patterns in how they may be meaningfully combined, e.g. in English articles modify nouns. These patterns appear to be repeated at scale, or within a degree or two of fractal complexity. The test for membership of a category is usually substitution, i.e. that a word that is alleged to be an English mass noun (e.g. ‘shade’) can be substituted by another word which is known to be a mass noun.
  • The second kind involves words selecting other words according to a test other than categorial substitution. For example, it seems much less natural to think of ‘the red herring’ than ‘a red herring’. We may describe such dependencies as ‘associative’, or ‘collocative’, etc. These terms bespeak the suspicion that the underlying heuristic is frequency of association of words, within some sort of psychological reality, or other dynamic reality (e.g. social reality).

The paragraph immediately preceding happens to refer to what I think is the other way to think about what words are (i.e. not as structured information), namely that words are the artefacts of some sort of dynamic process, e.g. a cognitive process (possibly an evolved one, though my position is agnostic), a signification (semiotic) process, a social process, a discursive process, a market process (e.g. words as currency), etc. This way-of-thinking is impossible to avoid, insofar as I think that no matter how you slice it, words in use represent some sort of situationally dependent correlation between a form, an image or idea, and real objects or situations. However, it would probably be best to leave developing this idea to another post on another day.

Returning our focus to the two broad kinds of dependencies I mentioned, the point I wanted to get to was that it seems the difficulty is in deciding what the next most important level-of-distinction between kinds of dependencies is. Within either paradigm there is no difficulty in recognizing exceptions and marginal cases, and any of these can be taken (though not very usefully) as recommending the other paradigm. It is also easy to see how one paradigm is better equipped to handle certain kinds of problems than the other.

However it is more difficult to say, for example, what qualifies as a ‘compound word’, or define what ‘compounding’ might involve as compared to simple co-occurrence. It is easy to imagine how the attempt to develop this could be made within the second paradigm, but it is also important to questions of what the starting points are in developing some sort of categorial grammar.

Within the first paradigm, how substitutability gives rise to derivations seems to apply fractally to not just words, phrases, and ‘upwards’, but also to parts of words. This might be taken as indication of the importance of developing and refining a theory of derivations, with global principles applying to elementary and then more complex particles.

This place, from which I tried to ‘read’ the trends in how ideas about language are developing, is about where I wanted to go, and so it shall be where I stop.


Predication in an Alien Language

I’m doing ‘Field Methods in Linguistics’ this term, in which we’re working on understanding an unfamiliar language, through direct interviews with our consultant (a native speaker of the language). For our first short paper, we had to propose a basic analysis of the sentence structure. I ended up coming up with an initial theory that I’m quite happy with, and I thought I’d write about how I came to it.

In a nutshell, my theory is that every sentence in the language has an obligatory predicate-marker before the predicate proper. As such, the form of a simple sentence would be something like:

(Subject) – pred – Predicate

By my hypothesis, the predicate marker cannot be omitted, and is always present in some form. The predicate itself may either be a verb, or an adjective (in the sense of ‘is red’). While the predicate marker might be thought of as functioning like ‘be’ in some ways, it doesn’t carry tense; in the language we’re studying it is the verb which realizes the tense/aspect, although the predicate marker is involved in various kinds of agreement. Another interesting feature is that by my hypothesis, it is never absent, so it is akin to having an ‘affirmative’ declaration with every predicate, except, of course, when the sentence expresses something other than ‘affirmative’ (e.g. negative, question, etc.).

But my main motivation for writing this post was to recount some of the ideas and theories that guided my thought-process. What I hypothesized to be a predicate-marker is the so-called [w-]-morpheme that we’ve been discussing in class.

  1. In one of the first few classes, a classmate mentioned a language where both affirmative and negative conditions are marked. (In contrast, in English, we only distinguish ‘waste’ and ‘ do not waste’, without having to say ‘do waste’.)
  2. My lab partner had observed that negation in a sentence patterned with the appearance of the [m-] morpheme and the omission of the [w-] morpheme, in a way that was reminiscent of ‘do’-support in English (e.g. ‘He says.’ vs. ‘He does not say.’).
  3. Some data about how to form questions was also discussed in class, and it was noticed that the [w-] morpheme was also absent.
  4. In a later class, a classmate raised the example of the sentences for ‘I melted the butter.’  and ‘The butter was melted by me.’ I noticed that it was possible to omit both the subject and the object (‘I’/’me’ and ‘butter’), which left only the predicate for ‘melt’ (in its presumably conjugated form) with a preceding morpheme.

I had also observed a few things from the data.

  1. There is a long form of the [w-] morpheme and a shorter form. I noticed that the longer form did not appear with adjectives and verbs with no direct object.
  2. I also noticed that the subject could be dropped if it was either a pronoun, or if the predicate was an adjective. With the butter example, it appeared to me that the subject was omitted in the spoken sentence, but that it was semantically present, in that it seems clearly discernible from the spoken context.
  3. I noticed that the negative marker and the question marker patterned together.

Fragments from these observations and discussions about some points of syntax conspired to bring the notion of predication to mind, and brought me back to my formal logic and computer logic lessons from last term. I was also fortunate to have been looking at adjectives in lab sessions, in that the predication of properties (‘is red’, etc.) was on my mind. After observing how subjects could be dropped, and how question-marker and negation patterned together vis-a-vis the [w-]-marker, I was led to the hypothesis described above.

All in all, this was good fun. On the one hand, the computational and logical paradigm made the patterning comprehensible, but on the other hand more organic questions about register (formality and informality) and semantics (negation is so tricky) also played a part.


On the ‘Curly Fry Conundrum’

In response to this video from TEDxMidAtlantic.

Know-how as a form of power is, when massively coordinated and aggregated, difficult to resist. To go with small-ness in the form of local or otherwise micro-communities is a form of resistance to the market powers you sense would gladly exploit you with the minimum effort possible. But such resistance is only possible if you yourself sense it. Depending on the strength of that understanding, the counter-pushes may end up winning you back in the end.

Yet another form of resistance is to constantly morph so as to evade easy classification, or at least to allow it only on some terms. Where this used to be necessary mainly for the famous, now we’re all watched, and so it becomes a necessary skill. But the bar for understanding here is even higher.

These resistances take place in tiny ways that we may not even imagine as resistance. There’s no big enemy to resist, really, but, in someone else‘s words, ‘it is the wraparound presence of the machine that oppresses us’, the ‘machine’ here being only the thing that wraps around. And if we don’t even know we’re resisting, I imagine it is much harder to know when we’re succumbing, inasmuch as that’s at least more comfortable. I think it’s wrong to take for granted that people know how.