Thursday, December 30, 2004

Kitchen screen drama

I am watching a gecko catching a moth1 The moth's wings beat incredibly fast but it2 is making all its effort, it seems, just to stand in place. I have seen moths fly very quickly (although generally in circles), so I know that it is purposely not moving away from the gecko.3 I am thinking it is mesmerised by the kitchen light. It stands in the air. There is a moment of stillness and the gecko moves, much more slowly than I would expect, forward. It simply walks up to the moth and closes its mouth around it. The moth barely struggles. I suppose it cannot; the gecko has it fast. The gecko does not hurry to eat the moth.

I am thinking, how is that geckos are nocturnal? They must be coldblooded. I had always thought that lizards warmed themselves up in the sun, then had short periods of activity and then returned to basking4. I must have that wrong, at least for geckos.

Of course, when I start thinking about it, I realise that most animals and all plants are "coldblooded". They must all have means of absorbing the heat they need to function or means of functioning with whatever heat is available. A bit of googling and I learn that lizards can shift through ranges of being heated or not that are hard for us to understand, because our bodies work so hard at staying the same temperature or close to it day and night.

1 Note the unpossessed gerund. What I was watching was the act of catching a moth. It was a gecko's act. Is it not a participle? No. Here's the difference. In this example, it's the act that I say I'm watching. If I write "I am watching a gecko, catching a moth", I am saying that I am watching a gecko, and this is what he is doing. This sentence is, of course, strictly ambiguous, although it is a convention of English that grammar books and pedants sometimes ignore but those who speak and write it actually rely on that participles belong to the closest referent, so that this is only read to mean that the gecko is catching the moth, not me. Is it not a parallel structure (watching... catching)? No. It's possible but English caters for creating the parallel in another way and is fairly strict about doing it correctly. You must say "I am watching a gecko and catching a moth" if you want to say unambiguously that you are doing both.Return

2 I don't know why but I couldn't help thinking of the moth as a "he". My first thought is that it is because they strike me as ugly but I also think of butterflies as "he", and some of our butterflies are strikingly attractive. Perhaps it is the subtle influence of the patriarchy. I think of dogs as male, too, unless I know otherwise. Their aggression and dumbness seem quintessentially male. These are things I think without thinking. When I come to write it down, I correct myself, of course.Return

3 Actually, I say "purposely" but it gives the wrong impression. The moth is purposely not moving away from the gecko but I believe this is because he, it, is not aware of the gecko's approach. Intentionality is one of the more interesting areas of philosophy, particularly in ethics and theories of behaviour, where we might distinguish between acts that are outcomes that we aim for and acts that are outcomes that are subsidiary to our aims but arguably both can be our "intention". A simple, and simplified, example would be this: I drive to my friend's house. My intention is to visit my friend. But the car releases, say, half a kilogram of pollutants. Now, I released the pollutants intentionally (I didn't accidentally start the car). Can it be said that my intention was to release pollutants?Return

4 Basking is of course another gerund. A small item of interest for me, when considering how speakers create English utterances, is whether it would have an understood possessor. Are actions always somebody's? So do I mean to say that lizards return to their basking or to a more generalised basking -- the ur-basking if you like, the Platonic basking. (I remember in studying linguistics being particularly impressed with Eleanor Rosch's prototype theory, in which she posited that we understand concepts through internal prototypes -- so that we have a mental structure that represents protobird, which has certain features, that our word "bird" represents. Students of postmodernism will immediately recognise that this very much conflicts with any theory that insists in meaning as differance. Rosch's bird is not a bird because it is not a dog. It is a bird because it is a bird. Why is Rosch appealing? Lots of reasons and particularly because we know that words can have wider and narrower fields of meaning, depending on whatever words we know (in other words, our prototypes can have more or fewer features). Small children who have learned "door" will, for a short time, use it for any structure that opens and closes. They will describe purses (pocketbooks, I think Americans call them) as "door" (I've observed this myself, in English and Spanish). Well, of course, it's easier to conceptualise nouns-as-prototypes than verbs-as-prototypes, but there's no reason to assume that we do not have an idea of running that we are, ultimately, referring to when we say something "runs" -- and also when we talk about "running" because while gerunds are abstractions of action, describing not the action but the idea of the action, it is clear that any prototype of running is also an abstraction!)Return