Skip to main content

Avoiding work

Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics | December 10, 2009

I try very hard to avoid work-related topics whenever I can, but since my work involves language and the ways people use and abuse it, somehow work keeps sneaking into non-work.

Two books I’m currently reading, one fiction and one nonfiction, are examples. I think even people not trying to get away from language would find them of interest.

The nonfiction book is Ken Alder’s The Lie Detectors: The history of an American obsession. While I am professionally less interested in finding out who is lying, or whether someone is, than in how to lie and what kinds of utterances can work as lies, the hope that you might be able to detect lying by physiological means is worth contemplating. As you might expect, and as Alder’s subtitle suggests, mechanical lie detection is a quintessentially American fantasy: none of this abstract philosophical mind-stuff: cut to the chase with blood pressure, galvanic skin response, and heartbeat rate!

But perhaps more surprising is where in America the polygraph was born. No, think again: Berkeley, California, in the early decades of the last century. At that time Berkeley was renowned for its progressive and innovative police department, led by its chief, August Vollmer. It was Vollmer who came up with the ideas that eventually turned into the modern polygraph, aided by a sixteen year old kid with time on his hands as he recovered from an appendectomy.

The kid was Leonarde Keeler, the son of Vollmer’s friends Louise and Charles Keeler, a couple very important in Berkeley’s early history. The Keelers were part of a group of proto-hippies given to dancing naked outdoors at night, odd medical theories, and more or less weird philosophies about almost everything. Louise was an artist who illustrated Charles’ writings. Charles worked at the university as an ornithologist; he was a founder of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce; he was also a (really bad) poet and an architectural theorist. In the latter identity, he developed a theory of “The Simple Home,” in collaboration with his friend Bernard Maybeck. Maybeck built a house for the Keelers that illustrates the theory, like many of Maybeck’s designs.

Full disclosure: I live in that house, Maybeck’s first residential commission, built for the Keelers in 1895. (It is wonderful!) So this story is of particular personal interest to me, but I think it would be fun reading for anyone interested in early Berkeley history, strange local characters, or lying.

The fiction work is by a favorite writer of mine, David Lodge, Deaf Sentence. As Lodge’s readers know, most of his protagonists are academics; the most familiar may be the pair Seymour Zapp (aka Stanley Fish) and Philip Swallow (Lodge’s alter ego), who in his first novel, Changing Places, switch teaching positions for a year: Swallow finds himself in the English Department in Dealer Hall (the book is set in the late 1960s), at the University of the State of Euphoria at Plotinus; Zapp finds himself at Rummidge, an English redbrick university. Again, a Berkeley angle. Zapp and Swallow reappear in several of Lodge’s later novels, though often only in cameo roles.

One thing I like about Lodge’s academic fiction is that he gets it right. He knows how research universities really work. Too often, academic novels are set at ghastly little places miles from anywhere, where faculty members have nothing to do but hate one another (which never happens at serious places like this). Or they are mystery novels that work on the premise that professors will kill one another to get to be department chair (as we all know, murder is more likely to be done to avoid getting to be department chair).

In Deaf Sentence, Lodge’s protagonist is Desmond Bates, a professor at a northern English university who has retired in part because of increasing deafness (the title is just the first of many wonderful puns on that subject). Bates was, moreover, just what I am: a discourse analyst. And although Lodge is a literary theorist, he gets discourse analysis right and talks about it most intelligently.

You might say that Bates’s deafness is just a more severe form of what happens to all of us as language users: we think we are hearing correctly, we think we understand what the speaker is saying, but more often than we are ready to acknowledge we don’t quite get it right – and because we are unwilling or unable to admit that we’ve missed the point, communication slips out of our control. We are all deaf, in a sense; and yet, like Bates, despite comical and terrible misunderstandings, we manage OK.

So if you like academic novels, or if you wonder whether anybody understands anybody, and whether it matters if they don’t, you’ll like Deaf Sentence.