Is the Man Who is Tall Happy is pretty to look at. It is an animated documentary laying out a meandering conversation between two men (as of now, also free to stream on Youtube). We would call it an adda. The first is the interviewer himself, Michael Gondry, a French director famous for the modern-classic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The second is Noam Chomsky, linguist, philosopher, public intellectual par excellence; the most cited living academic author and voted the “most important living intellectual” by a global poll in 2005.
Like Gondry, I was introduced to Chomsky through his public intellectual writings. From his Manufacturing Consent to American Mandarins, there are few other writers whose work measures up to the ethical and critical power of Chomsky’s oeuvre as public intellectual. He makes the complexities of US imperialism simple and commonsensical. Unlike most other leftist, academic critics of empire, however, his public intellectual writings is also marked for its plain, lucid style, clearly communicating the crimes of imperialism in prose anyone with a secondary education and general English competence would understand.
I came around to the other Chomsky, the linguist and analytic philosopher, while completing my doctoral work. I decided to read his academic monographs and lectures on language and try to understand what the “Chomskyan revolution” in the human sciences meant. These works were difficult — some were incomprehensible to me — but reading them was eye-opening to the nature of genius. It took me a while to grasp his concept of “generative grammar”— simply put, people’s innate ability to creatively use language and create order out of language — and how it broke the behaviorist approach to studying language — which said people take in language and reproduce it. It might seem commonsensical, but it was revolutionary in all domains of human sciences; it was what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift (there is a great amount of debate on the politics of the Chompskyan Revolution, some of which can be accessed on a nat-times dramatic series on Opendemocracy.net.)
The beauty of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy is that Gondry is able to flesh out this Chomsky; though it must also be said that their conversations do talk about his biography and social beliefs. Yet the focus of the film is their conversation about language and how human beings might think, which Gondry illustrates in beautiful, little animation. Though not a linguist, academic, or philosopher, or because he is none of those things, Gondry is able to present a picture of Chomskyan linguistics and philosophy that is clear and subtlety thoughtful.
Take what Chomsky calls “psychic continuity” and how it represents an example of “cognitive endowment.” Both terms, in their technical usage, need explanation and elaboration. Psychic continuity is the phenomenon wherein things are inscribed with discrete and unique characteristics by us. There are several examples provided in the film, one being Chomsky’s story about a book his two-years old grandchildren like (two-year olds have developed their sense of object permanence.) In the book a baby donkey called Sylvestor is turned into stone. He goes to his mama and papa donkey who do not recognize him anymore because he is a stone. His grandchildren, Chomsky tells us, always try to tell the mama and papa donkeys their mistake, that the stone donkey is Sylvester.
Chomsky points out that it is odd that his two-years old grandchildren can recognize that stone in the book as Sylvester. The stone is not a donkey but they are able to see it as such. This merits questioning what exactly makes Sylvester the donkey, Sylvester the donkey? How are children so young that they cannot even string together words coherently able to recognize the stone as Sylvester? The answer to this does not rely on the appearance of things on the page. It also certainly is not inherent to the form of the stories themselves because his grandchildren are still not mentally developed enough to comprehend discourse functions such as narrative cohesion.
There is a philosophical thought-experiment called “The Ship of Theseus” dating back to Ancient Greece. It goes that suppose a ship sailed by the hero Theseus (the mythic founder of Athens) in a great battle has been kept in a harbor as a museum piece. As the years go by some of the wooden parts begin to rot and are replaced by new ones. After a century or so, all of the parts have been replaced. Is the “restored” ship still the same as the original? Second, suppose that each of the removed pieces were stored in a warehouse, and after some time, technology develop that cures their rot and these pieces are put back together to make a ship. Is this “reconstructed” ship the original ship? And if so, is the restored ship in the harbor still the original ship as well?
Some people will say that the material of the ship is what makes the ship; they will also agree that it cannot be so because the first is also the ship of Theseus. This the problem of psychic continuity. That things we refer to in basic conceptualizations of the world are inscribed with an essence by us that does not correspond to their actual material characteristics. The language we use, it goes to follow, does not refer to anything in the outside world; in technical nomenclature “language is not propositional.”
More significant still, Chomsky says as he lays his cards on the table, this psychic continuity is a part of our overall cognitive endowment, a way we cannot but perceive of the world because it is part of our biological wiring. He then goes onto prognosticate that human beings are limited in the ways we can think within a range. Our brains cannot go beyond that way of perceiving the world and therefore we cannot experience – and therefore comprehend it otherwise.
This view has had significant implications in our ways of thinking about language and language learning. The title of the film comes from a sentence used to illustrate this. The sentence is this: The man who is tall is happy. Chomsky rationalizes why the interrogative form of the question is “Is the man who is tall happy?” as opposed to “Is the man who tall happy?” The conclusion he provides is that we have think of the phrase “the man who is tall” as one unit, a phrasal noun. Specifically, it is the N of the sentence formulae as it applies to English, Sentence= Subject (Noun) + Predicate (Verb + Objects). So, to make the sentence into an interrogative form we have to shift the verb to the front: Is the man who is tall happy?
Our cognitive endowment, or way of interpreting language, means we take ignore individual words and take in phrases as units of meaning. In our minds the structural integrity in a sentence is made up of bits of phrases rather than words, and consequently grammar is about putting phrases together rather than words together. This also makes a focus on pedantic, prescriptive grammar pointless. There are too many permutations of phrases in any students’ utterances for us to come up with rules for and teach. What we have to focus on, it follows, is how we think, and how we can think better.
These are implications of what is said rather than explicitly being spelled out. What is stated, though, would seem esoteric if Gondry were less of a filmmaker. The movie works because itis able to navigate through the conversations with Gondry’s charming drawings, and personal explanations of what he understood as being said by his illustrious interlocutor. The movie is, in sum, a great adda about ideas with a humane genius. It is told with genuine warmth and one cannot but smile when one hears Chomsky snickering like a schoolboy in the recordings as he watches the animations Gondry makes of their conversations. It touches on multiple topics of profound philosophical and scientific consequence in an arresting manner. Viewers will finish with a sense that they understood what was said even though it might seem too abstract. But they will also leave with a nagging feeling that they had only gotten the tip of the iceberg that is the meaning of what was said.
Shakil Rabbi is an Assistant Professor, Department of Language, Literature, and Cultural Studies, Bowie State University, Maryland, USA.