Filling Niches

April 29, 2015

“The implications of  Ferdinand de Saussure's technique for dealing with linguistic analysis extend far beyond the boundaries of language in ways that make his seminal book Course In General Linguistics  (1916)  without a doubt, one of the most far-reaching works concerning the study of human cultural activities to have been published at any time since the Renaissance.”  - Prof. Roy Harris, Oxford University

Roland Barthes, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Debord, Baudrillard knew they had a bird nest on the ground with Saussure. Many new intellectual / academic avenues soon evolved from Saussure’s paradigmatic shift toward viewing language as signs without history.

NIche (JB) = spandrel (Gould-Lewontin).  “In evolutionary biology a spandrel is a phenotypic characteristic that is a byproduct of the evolution of some other characteristic rather than a direct product of adaptive selection.” -Gould,Lewontin

A spandrel is leftover space or  structure or organ-component-metabolic process  in a living thing.  A spandrel is secondary occurring at the adjacency-intersection of two always larger or more important primary forms. The dome of the great cathedral Hagia Sophia in Istanbul sits upon a pendentive and by the exigencies of geometry alone,  four spandrels, one at each of four corners are formed by definition.   A niche/spandrel is interstitial by nature and it happens as a fact of the two adjacencies i.e. it’s simply, unavoidably present as a result of larger decisions / adaptations / symbioses,  may as well put it to use. For this essay let’s call the most fundamental units, as a nod to architecture, the BASE and the DOME. It is their adjacency that creates the NICHE; thus we have in each example a BASE, a DOME and a NICHE or niches in the case of the four niches resulting from a dome on a square base. BASE-DOME-NICHE.

The human neocortex has been referred to as spandrel-esque (i.e. a NICHE).  A cranial mutation occurred resulting in a big head (BASE) , cerebral  cells multiplied to fill the cranial void thus creating the neocortex ( 6 layers comprising 100 billion brain cells -  20 billion neurons)

BASE - larger cranium - The result of random mutation 75,000 years ago.

DOME - neocortex - The human  brain expands to fill the void perhaps simultaneous with increased volume.

NICHE- human culture: semiotics (including language), myth-making, the arts, tool use occur as new neurons are utilized.

The outermost, wrinkly layer of the brain-the neocortex is the DOME, using the Hagia Sophia model. The expanded cranium and this new slab of brain cells are the two primary interacting adjacent structures: BASE and DOME, the NICHE is all subsequent human culture:  language, tool use, myth-making, etc. the NICHE is filled with sculptural details.  The NICHE- spandrel is utilized.

Just as sculptors have employed the spandrels of Hagia Sophia and San Marco (Gould-Lewontin example)  for decorative information,  humans have used their relatively recent  brain volume mutation for a little of this and a little of that.  Remember, humans and our antecedents had evolved just fine for the previous 4.4 billion years without this new slab of brain-bacon.  We have used this neuron- spandrel to broad effect while still relying heavily on our primordial brain: the limbic system-brain stem.

Using the Hagia Sophia heuristic:

  1. BASE: key structure, first structure, foundational structure or process
  2. DOME: Second addition for direct interaction with no.1
  3. NICHE: Results automatically from combo of BASE- DOME adjacency and is    often put to good use in organisms.
  4. BASE-DOME-NICHE: BDM henceforth

What niches were created when mitochondria symbiosed with primeval protists? One could say that all multicellular animal  life is a spandrel - niche event. The eukaryotic single cell organism is a BASE , the free-swimming mitochondrion is a DOME, the two major elements become adjacent when the mito penetrates the membrane of the proto seeking safety from proterozoic gobblers and the new, unintended mobility via new energy is the NICHE,  resulting in all subsequent wonders of animal life.  The mitochondria- energized protozoan  is a signal structure just as the neocortex but more fundamental.

There is a hierarchy of Base-Dome-Niche conflations at each punctuation-speciation of animal evolution.  The mito-proto is more fundamental and earlier  than the cranial-cortical. More vital things happen first and are conserved in the genome paving the way for further improvements.

Is all evolution the product of BDN causality?  Gould and Lewontin suggested that NICHE events were not the norm they happened from time to time. Birds evolve feathers for insulation and discover that feathers-wings can be used for flight.

All life is a NICHE event, a secondary set of phenomena to fundamental metabolic exigency.  It is the metabolism of animals and plants in their role as Entropic Gradient Reduction Mechanisms (EGRMs) that is primary. That animals run around fighting, reproducing, talking, singing, making art and war  is exaptive, secondary, spandular to this fundamental  EGRM raison d’etre.

All mutations are DOMES in relation to their context giving rise to Niche developments-advantages in natural selection. If the evolution of the neocortex and its subsequent uses is seen as a spandrel or BDN event then what phenotypic expression would NOT be such a thing?  Walking upright?, opposable thumb?, binocular vision?, wide array of brainstem/CNS ( Central Nervous System) function? Where or how would one draw the line? Something primary exists, something secondary is added, opportunity is revealed, one of 1,000,000  of these new things (mutations)  turns out to be advantageous - species evolve…...slowly.

“Spandrels are necessary to achieving transition.”  - Prof. Ian Kluge

Spandrels ( NICHEs) are built in, unavoidable, part of the geometry, not up for debate. If you inscribe a circle in a square there will be leftover space.

To make the transition from veldt dwelling, bone-swinging man-ape  to civilized man, humans needed a transition vehicle - the neocortex.

Did the neocortex expand at the same geological moment ( simultaneously)  as the expanded cranium i.e. bigger head-smarter human thus gaining immediate survival advantage. Seems like one wouldn’t want small brain flopping around in big skull for long.

The brain as a bacterial / viral steering mechanism that evolved to guide the global microbial population into its most viable ecological niches.  Microbes fight their own evolutionary battles influencing the direction of the host organism. All organs, all proteomes, all metabolic process has evolved to assist and protect the brain and its latest addition, the neocortex ( the part housing our cooler features) as it guides the bacteriome to fitness and survival.  New bacteria try to get on the raft ( organism, mammal, human)  and are destructive rather than constructive so do battle with immune system. If the organism dies still other species of microorganisms pile on to deconstruct the body.


Semiology: “Any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, music, objects and the complex associations of all of these which form the content of ritual, convention, public entertainment systems of signification.”

- Roland Barthes

Ferdinand de Saussure, Swiss linguist 1857 - 1913 invented the field of semiology and revolutionized the field of linguistics making it, among many other things, ahistorical.

“Language is no longer regarded as peripheral to our grasp of the world we live in, but as central to it. Words are not mere vocal labels or communicational adjuncts superimposed upon an already given order of things. They are collective products of social interaction, essential instruments through which human beings constitute and articulate their world. This typically twentieth-century view of language has profoundly influenced developments throughout the whole range of human sciences. It is particularly marked in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology.”

  • Roy Harris ( Saussure translator) on Saussure.

One could argue that our capacity for symbolic language is a key niche use of this neo brain space, this neocortex. The study of our capacity to communicate via symbols-language written and spoken  is called semiology, a field invented by the Galileo-Isaac Newton-Charles Darwin-Einstein of all things language, Paradigm shifter, inventor extraordinaire of entire new fields of intellectual endeavor Swiss theorist Ferdinand de Saussure.

Sussure is under-acknowledged in contemporary linguistic study as much foundational credit is mis-directed to Noam Chomsky hunched like a privileged, presumptive, credit-greedy troll   (gnome?) on Saussure’s  corpus of paradigm-shifting thought. Chomsky claims to have never read this work but alas,  it was the water his professors and the authors of his texts were all swimming in.  This privileging of Chomsky is as blatantly, strangely unfounded as French claims for Braque’s primacy as the inventor of Cubism over the role of Picasso, just plain weird and wrong.  Chomsky is the Juan Gris of linguistic invention.  He was in the room but his contribution as a paradigm shifter has been greatly exaggerated. This being said with no intention to minimize Chomsky’s towering contributions to the field of linguistics but simply t put him in proper relation to his field’s foundational conceptualizer.  In hydro terms, Saussure built a big pool, filled it with water and swam in it to great effect.  Chomsky is the Olympic swimmer forty years down the line, with many gold medals hanging from his neck. How many of today’s bloviators on language have even read a good translation of Saussure’s  “Course On Linguistics”  Probably as many as biologists who have read Darwin’s “On the Origin Of Species” or physicists who have read Newton’s texts.  It’s OK to skip the often obscure, musty, dated, no longer accurate original texts but it’s not OK to forget who wrote them or to be slinging around all this “foundational”  encomia around latecomer Chomsky.

“Causes of historical origin must always be separated from current utility.” - Chomsky or Saussure? I think it’s Chomsky cribbing Saussure.

“Changes in language endure by sheer luck ( un effet du hasard) the instability of language stems from time alone.” - Saussure ( inventor of the word “ethnicity”)

Example:  “All Pinker and the connectionists are doing is turning over the rocks at the base of the intellectual landslide caused by the Chomskyan Revolution.”  This should, of course, read “Saussurian Revolution”  To give Chomsky such credit is like saying the Rolling Stones invented the blues. Chomsky didn’t theorize or initiate a revolution, a  war perhaps, ten thousand battles for sure, countless continuing debates undeniable but “Revolution” - sorry, Saussure is the only revolutionary here.

“The laws which semiology will discover will be laws applicable in linguistics. Linguistics will thus be assigned to a clearly defined place in the field of human knowledge.”                         - Saussure

“A liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.” - Left-Brain Harvard Professor Steven Pinker

This marginalization of magic, correlation and coincidence is why Harvard’s art department has always been second rate,  though taught in the greatest single work of art in North America, Le Corbusier’s masterpiece, The Carpenter Center.

“By considering rites, customs etc. as signs, it will be possible to see them in a new perspective. The need will be felt to explain them as semiological phenomena and to explain them in terms of the laws of semiology.” - Saussure ( see: Roland Barthes’ essays in “Mythologies” as an excellent example.


Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 – 2009) One of Saussure’s five disciples, (Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, Chomsky) A French anthropologist and ethnologist whose work was key in the development of the theory of Structuralism and Structural Anthropology. He held the Chair of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France between 1959 and 1982 and was elected a member of the Académie française in 1973. He received numerous honors from universities and institutions throughout the world and has been called, alongside James George Frazer and Franz Boas, the "Father of Modern Anthropology" - @ Wiki

Anti-historical approach was in the air in 1912 and greatly accelerated as a component of all Modern thought by the horrors of WWI. Screw history - it got us into this mess.  A key component of Saussurean thought and all subsequent structuralist, post-structuralist thought is its anti-historicism.  The goofy nod to historical motifs in “postmodern” architecture notwithstanding ( see: Charles Jencks).  Many things postmodern have their roots in Saussure as they offer explanations based on semiotics as related by the Saussure disciples Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard, Chomsky in the mid-60s.

Saussure gained enormous cred-clout due to the fact that he did not publish his own work.  His key text Course in General Linguistics-1916, was assembled from his notes and published after his death by admiring colleagues and students.  Almost as powerful as Mendel’s modest and explosively fortuitous entry into the canon of 20th century thought. Blowing one’s own horn is usually counterproductive to sustained reputation though good for buzz-factor during one’s lifetime. See: Mailer, Chomsky, Dawkins, Pinker. The quality of one’s idea is always in inverse proportion to the amount energy it takes to keep it in the public eye - see global toxins Coca Cola or Kardashians.

Snarky Aside - apropos of little:  4 Steps to scientific-academic prominence:

  1. Steal a core idea from an obscure, diligent, brilliant precursor or colleague.
  2. Invent your MOHARE’ ( MissOuri HAnd-REading) self-contained, self referential system of signs, symbols, definitions, relational strategies, connections, interpretations, diagrams, orientations with which to reinterpret the world or one’s operative paradigm - always flexible by founder and insider cultists, acolytes, disciples, Kool-Aid drinkers.
  3. Much Squid Wrestling ( see: Johnny Depp as Ed Wood wrestle the giant rubber squid in a battle of “life or death” in “Creature From Below”. One must assemble a group of squid/straw men and wrestle them to the mat using one’s MOHARE’.  Leading authorities, theorists are the first to go down, professional colleagues next in line, then all dissenters burned at the stake.
  4. Jargon Juggling: self explanatory. Always important to invent some of your own jargon as you pretend to shed light on muddy ideas, unproven assertions, baloney.

The very interesting fallout from all of this legerdemain is that it inspires an enormous amount of  genuine thought and research so one must not disparage these purveyors of perplexity as they are important contributors. Even if 90% wrong, they inspire intelligent opposition, they get conversations started.  these people are scientific firestarters if nothing else and for this we give them pre-eminence.   If those foundational ideas were not stolen they would have remained as obscure.

In his iconic book The Savage Mind Levi-Strauss wrestles a squid every few pages to exhibit his willingness to take on all-comers with his bold analytical, ahistorical,  interpretation-application of the grand Saussure’s structuralism. Structuralism  means that people are born with a slate in place that has the rudimentary patterns for grammar, for sign-making,  language acquisition, tendency to totemize, make-myth, socialize, tribalize, create dualities of everything sensed i.e. there is a structure in place at birth - Structuralist believe.

Saussure’s MOHARE’:  “Signified-Signifier-Sign   It opened many a 20th century door to excellent effect.

Levi-Strauss’ great MOHARE’: Man’s innate propensity for myth making

Chomsky’s MOHARE’ -Man’s  innate propensity for language-grammar ( a riff on Saussure)

Darwin MOHARE’ - Organisms evolve via Natural Selection

Levi-Strauss based his theory of culture on the work of Saussure in treating all social organizing systems, myth, totem,talisman, language, and related  symbols as ahistorical components of an overarching system of signs.  All human social organizations have sets of shared belief with operative rules for these sets just as a language has its syntax and grammar.

“Lévi-Strauss argued that the "savage" mind had the same structures as the "civilized" mind and that human characteristics are the same everywhere. These observations culminated in his famous book Tristes Tropiques that established his position as one of the central figures in the structuralist school of thought. As well as sociology, his ideas reached into many fields in the humanities, including philosophy. Structuralism has been defined as "the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity."  -wiki

Levi-Strauss struggles as if an indigenous tribesman as he tries to name these discerned / observed / reported / quantified / emotional / political / interpersonal sensations ( neurons firing under an avalanche of circumstance?) His results are capricious as the native and often illogical, naive, even dopey but will become locked  into the professional jargon of anthropology as foundational wisdom.

In “The Savage Mind” Levi-Strauss names all of the animals in his self-developed menagerie of the Rabbinical-Claude, each with its own sub-realm of indigenous tribes from around the world. In his fever of classification, gives order to his new universe with his Saussurian semiotic heuristic of sign-signified.

Niches form in hierarchical cascades from big ideas to small ideas.  If a system fills up with small ideas there will be no room for big ideas.  Using the big glass jar heuristic.  First fill it to the brim with large ideas - tennis balls when the jar is 100% full of 1st echelon  tennis balls there is still room for 20 ping pong balls as they fill second echelon niches in between the tennis balls. when there is no more room for ping pong balls pour in 500 3d echelon peas that fill the niches left by the ping pong balls, then pour in 10,000 grains of 4th echelon sand, then 10,000,000 5th echelon  molecules of water.  If a particular diameter of object is put in out of turn, the cascading opportunity stops and the jar is filled preventing further insertion.

Two things are apparent

  1. Relative size creates opportunity - the NICHE
  2. Capacity can be thwarted by early entry into the system of non-sequential-size smaller unit.

The following are 1st echelon  “Basketballl” ideas in human culture: BASES

  1. Law of gravity
  2. Laws of thermodynamics
  3. Evolution
  4. Relativity
  5. 3-D space on 2-D surface see: Brunelleschi for rules of perspective / Decon of this: see: Cezanne
  6. Laws of inheritance
  7. Symbiosis
  8. Semiotics: innate language, culture as myth making, etc
  9. God is dead-deaf
  10. Credit cards, ATMs
  11. Automobiles
  12. Personal computer

Using the automobile as an example, its 2d echelon DOMEs are stoplights, motels, auto repair industry, rubber industry, unions, carhops, drive-in theaters, motels, head-on collisions, making out in backseat.

Now, taking the level two DOME the “stoplight” and identifying its third echelon NICHEs: placement protocol at intersections, light color change timing, color of glass ( red=stop), chemistry of glass lenses, metallurgy of steel enclosure, chemistry of paint, electronics for switches, wires, etc.

The level three components are now operational, the stoplights are fully functioning opening the level three NICHEs: people running red lights, kids hanging tennis shoes from wires, switches corroding necessitating late night repairs, lights sway in hurricane, factories employing hundreds of workers to manufacture 1,000,000 traffic lights for intersections across the land.

Color signification at stoplight is now highly conserved.  Hard to imagine the day when a group of lighting engineers of the International Society of Illuminating engineers gathered around a table in Geneva in 1911  and decided that green will henceforth mean go and red will mean stop for automobiles ( this red=stop, green=go had been in effect in railroads since the 1830s). The idea of changing the meaning of traffic light color in 2015 is absurd.  In any set of cascading niches things at the higher levels are in play and then they are not but…..all things were once in play and this was at the time their niche was being filled, once filled, once filed - any further change is most likely to be destructive, non-adaptive and hopefully edited out of the genome by gene police during one’s lifetime.  If you must be sacrificed to stop this unruly change so be it.

There will always be residual space/gaps/voids/niches  between named levels. In the ball example, between classes of  ball diameter. There is a hierarchy of niches coexisting with every hierarchy of balls / objects / animal parts / plant parts / chemical reactions, tribal incursions-invasions.  These hierarchies are smooth gradients that must have a scale attached.  We have attached scales to tones perceptible to the human ear: the 7- tone musical scale,  to levels of heat: degrees fahrenheit, celsius, kelvin, to weight, to mass. See the niche as a graphic designer would see negative space as a phenomena in its own right with its own identity. When is a niche a ball? Is a niche always a ball? Are all balls niches? They sit in the same space - it will depend on what framework your mind is using at a particular moment - see: Necker cube reading or the vase-profile duality.

Perhaps the hierarchy of niches has primacy and the balls are a secondary adjacent cascade. The mind can switch back and forth.  All information has a double reading as Base-Dome or Niche.  What if the spandrels of San Marco were the vital message-bearing component and the stone base and dome were built to showcase these sublime, smaller elements.  Niches have a way of subsuming the Base-Dome into servitude. Who are the wealthy 1% but a very small niche of the population trying to convince the masses of their primacy. The middle class is the great base, Capitalism itself is the dome, The 1% are a self-important niche that could be erased with a few swipes of the chisel - kaput! next !

The humanities are a cascade of thinkers with basketball Saussure filling most of our jar. He is surrounded by Duchamp, Loos,  Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault,Chomsky, Pinker, Eisenman who are in turn surrounded by Mailer, Wolfe, Breslin, Talese and these by Taibbi, Gladwell, Godin,

The biosciences are a cascade comprising perennial indestructible  jar fillers Darwin-Mendel surrounded by Crick-Watson-Franklin then McClintock, Margulis, Lovelock, Gould, Dawkins, 100,000 brilliant researchers.

When is it time to re-synthesize one’s paradigm?  What is the difference between a synthesizer, a big ball, and a sand-grain niche-filler?  If the water goes in first all else floats away.

The big ball, just smaller ball debate implies a Hegelian dialectic of thesis ( big ball) antithesis (adjacent big ball or  just smaller ball) and synthesis (the niche). Is it possible to have a dialectic between a tennis ball and a sand grain? Not effectively, the Rodney Dangerfield conundrum “I don’t get no respect” The sand grain must inflate self-pet idea via four horsemen of the academolypse 1. theft 2. Mohare’ 3. Squid wrestle 4. Jargon juggle  If all of this exercise works,  then one’s peers may allow a dialectic to ensue however, when one is no longer around to keep this beach ball ( dueling with iron ball) inflated, it goes dwindles ( see: Gould-Eldredge Punctuated Equilibrium).

Basketball  thinkers synthesize raw, unfiltered nature mixing it with the most far-reaching  thought of their day to generate a cleaner, more high-power lens to view the world: Copernicus, Darwin, Cezanne, Frank Lloyd Wright, Saussure and Duchamp-all Basketballs.

Tennis Ball thinkers take this new lens as a given and by adding their own imagination, talent and energy deliver the Basketball message to the masses. Popular songwriters in 2015 are still operating to the beat of the bounce of Robert Johnson and Hank Williams respectively for Rock and country music. The Basketball is the paradigm shifter, the Tennis Ball is the acolyte, the explainer,  always a great communicator often for profit. The acolyte thrives on talent and salesmanship - genius would only get in the way. Genius is painful. Genius upsets apple carts. Genius puts people out of work.

Ping Pong Balls are the acolytes - the army of talented folks all swimming in an ocean of ideas whose source is beside the point, they have absorbed its rules through the zeit, it’s simply in the air. Any song enthusiast around a campfire can easily write a three chord, 12-bar song.

Is the Saussure(Basketball)-Derrida/Chomsky( Soccer Balls) opposition a Hegelian dialectic? Can a true dialectic occur between precursor-progenitor-founder and his intellectual descendents?  Of course, it happens all the time.  It is the stuff of academic tenure and reputation. Wrestle a squid in print - get tenure ( see: Stanford physics professor Leonard Susskind wrestling with Stephen Hawking’s basketball  assertion in “The Black Hole War”).  Yale literature professor Harold Bloom outlines six strategies for such battles with hefty precursors in his seminal book The Anxiety of Influence-1973

Does one enter into dialectic with the founding father of one’s field of study or is it more a conversation among unequals? In any hierarchy there is, by definition, by geometric inevitability there will be an adjacent hierarchy of niches-negative space - A and S-holes ( see: Bakanowsky’s discussion of the negative space within letterforms of the alphabet). The initiating entity is primal - the Basketball - the great synthesizer of an Age, a primal responder, key interpreter of Nature. The first person to see the key elements of a new synthesis. This person, on the power of their barely comprehensible idea will inspire a group of disciples - soccer balls, tennis balls, ping pong balls, B-Bs.

Is there a difference between a second echelon disciple and a second echelon rebel? Say Saussure is the basketball in the jar. Two of six  tennis balls,  Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes are acolytes, tennis ball Chomsky is a rebel claiming not to know of the basketball of his own field of study. Like Pesky Boykins claiming not to know of Kobe, Kareem or Wilt.  Whether acolyte or rebel,  both are similar level two echelon players.  Perhaps one is positive space and the other, the rebel is negative space or vice versa. Note that the rebel confirms the basketball grand synthesis in his rebellion as thoroughly and effectively as the acolyte in his adoration. Foucault is a Saussurian acolyte, Derrida is a rebel struggling to individuate a la Bloom-swerve daemonization, kenosis or apophrades.

“The essence of language has nothing to do with the audible nature of the linguistic sign” - Saussure

True, if by “essence”  Saussure is referring to the single conserved human gene for communication and its huge array of 1,000  methylated histones that program is for language instinct i.e. sorting out signifiers, signifieds and signs as this all happens in the brain a few inches away from the hair cells of the cochlear apparatus. This package is in place at birth and becomes fully fledged in 18 months.  Along with this population of methylated, ubiquitinated, phosphorylated lingo- histones is what will become a vast storehouse of third tier niche molecular proteinic events registered as one’s grammar, syntax and vocabulary in the neurons at Broca and Wernicke areas of neocortex ( 75-150 million neurons) . All areas of the neocortex involved in language processing, analysis, vocalization, writing, reading neocortex contain five billion neurons and each neuron lasts your entire life and each one is a participant.

This is an exaggeration even for 1912 as essence implies integration of components into a whole which would mean the core gene (FOX2P)  function, its related controlled genes ( CNTNAP2, CTBP1, SRPX2) and all of their post translational proteins and their effects in preparation to process language in the toddler then including the learning of words and incipient grammar-syntax - the whole shebang - the shebang is the “essence” - the aroma of meaning wafting  from this diabolically complex array of physical and electrochemical activities like the smell of a dirty diaper.  The spoken word is the essence of language.

If , by “essence”, Saussure means the prime mover, the big basketball in the jar of language then he is talking about the silent but far-reaching influence of the FOX2P gene as it “speaks’ among its own kind the molecular language of genetics comprising the following:

letters= nucleotides,

words=amino acids-codons

sentences = genes / proteins

books= chromosomes

Library= genome ( all 46 human chromosomes)

Saussure's bold assertion signals the primacy of a single,  recently ( 5 million years) conserved gene, the FOX2P gene  at chromosome number 7. One of this genes’ many tasks is to instruct four additional genes to in turn encode many hundreds of proteins at neocortical neurons to produce, learn and interpret symbols related to outside world-stuff  and stuff within the mind, symbols unique in every tribe on Earth.

Foundational quote from Saussure:

“Signs are not physical objects. We cannot study them as we can plants or animals or chemicals. Signs are not to be equated with sounds uttered or marks on paper or gestures or visual configurations of various kinds. These are merely the vehicles by which signs are expressed. To confuse the two would make it impossible to establish a science of signs at all, whether in the domain of language or any other.”

Signs are clusters / clumps / patches / swarms / colonies of epigenetically modified proteinic substance in the neocortex. Epigenetic modification via post translation: amination, methylation, phosphorylation, ubiquitination of proteins and histones. No sign making / interpreting at limbic system-brain stem as this is the key higher function of humans and our widely admired ( among humans)  neocortex.


  1. Can a mammal form a memory without using a sign, symbol or set of signs?
  2. Where in the neocortex do signs become language; spoken and written?
  3. Do apes use signs for memory?
  4. Humans develop blank sign panels early in postnatal development but with no information on the surface thus no sign. Experience adds text / meaning onto the sign panel surface. All is in place for communication except the message itself and the key for cracking the code, one’s language grammar, syntax but even a non-vocal ( except crying, goo-goo ing) toddler could register meaning from tone of voice, angry facial expression. A toddler understands the language of sound levels and angry-happy looks.
  5. Do mammals other than humans have language? All mammals must have groups of methylated histones acting epigenetically throughout a lifetime as memory with no signage in play i.e. squirrels, tigers, apes have no written or spoken language i.e. signs. Are not squeals, grunts roars, howls a language of sound?

If, as Saussure asserts, there is no history then the fact of passage of products of signs into history, into future are not in the semiological-sign making equation thus putting all mammals, most animals on the same playing field as all store coded experience as epigenetically modified cellular products; histones, RNA, proteins, etc. and all act on memory and all vocalize to an extent. See: prairie dogs smelling a snake chirruping to warn others.

“No sign exists independent of the other signs united in the same system of structural constraints” - Saussure The “structural constraints” are post-translational modifications to proteinic substance in the neocortex and possible at brain stem, cerebrum. The “structural contrasts” give rise to signs as humans communicate.

“Language makes it possible to identify and describe constituent parts.” - Saussure  The “constituent parts”  begin as patches of methylated neurons

A small, vicious dog yaps ( speaks?) and a 4” diameter patch of excited neurons flashes in the back of my neck at cerebellum-medulla involving say one million brain cells.  4” diameter is a continent of effect in relation to the size of a single cell. Dog speaks, my brain automatically responds - did language happen?  The neocortex was probably not involved in this incident, brainstem only thus no higher language center, ancient brain had its own “language” capability just as every mammal, reptile, amphibian and bird has its system today.  The neocortex allows for finer distinctions like relax its the owner’s dog and though annoying it is only doing its job and if you touch it you’ll be banned from household. It’s someone’s treasured pet - no fight or flight required, that electrified patch in the back of your head will subside in a few seconds.

Language is a cascading coded loop with the following components: base pairs, methylated proteins, neuron clusters, other clusters of conserved grammatical structure potential and learned language and the links with neuron clusters. The slate upon which a particular grammar will be written in early childhood which is blank at birth is inherited as part of the human genome ( see: FOX2P) this has neural connections via dendrites to neural reservoirs of stored language data gathered from birth. the reservoir grows and its links with the now fleshed out grammar slate strengthen into childhood

Brain geography for language:

  1. Zone A: Grammar, syntax cabinet -language specifics fill pre-existing but empty cabinet during childhood
  2. Zone B: Vocabulary memory - word sounds and later letterforms and meaning
  3. Zone C: word sound mixes with word meaning here
  4. Zone D: Letterforms as words mix with word meaning here
  5. Zone E: Spelling, letter shapes i.e. the alphabet
  6. Zone F: Mixing bowl - grammar-syntax matched to vocabulary to form sentences
  7. Zone G: motor cortex - vocalization
  8. Zone H: motor cortex - writing

“Linguistic signs do not exist independent of the complex system of contrasts implicitly recognized in the day-to-day vocal interactions of a given community of speakers. The linguistic sign is intrinsically arbitrary, identified only by contrast with coexisting signs of the same nature, which together constitute a structural system. By taking this position Saussure placed modern linguistics in the vanguard of 20th century structuralism.”  - Prof. Roy Harris

Diachronic: Evolutionary, historical

Synchronic: Non-historical, of the present only

To what extent was the ahistorical approach of the Modern Architecture program influenced by Saussure’s ahistorical synchronic heuristic of 1916? At the Harvard Graduate School of Design 1975-1979 and at The University of Washington School of Architecture 1973-1974 the history of architecture was taught well ( Sekler-Harvard, Hildebrand-UofW) historical reference in one’s work other than to the Wesselhoff Housing project in Weimar Germany was frowned upon. There was a crack in this ahistorical facade with the PoMo swerve introduced by Robert Venturi with his influential book “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture” - 1966 gained traction as catalogued by Charles Jencks. Ahistoricism was in the air, the zeit, I doubt that it was invented by Saussure. He grabbed his piece of it for linguistics as Frank Lloyd Wright grabbed his share for architecture along with Adolf Loos ( “Ornament is a crime”).

Saussure’s influence seeped into architecture during the mid-1970s via the semiotic theory of the Yale lit- critters inspired by the Frog Fab Five: Barthes, Derrida, Debord, Deleuze, Foucault as well as by architect theorist Gladwell-connectors Peter Eisenman, Tony Vidler, Jorge Silvetti, Mario Gandelsonas et al,  ahistoricism was reinforced.

Is color variation on a dog’s jowls and ears a function of the HOX gene,  which codes for the bilateral symmetry of the head and its location at the front of the dog ( rather than the middle),  or is this hair color variation a function of a skin gene?

As human culture evolved in complexity we required the ability to synthesize social cues that were incoming at longer and longer intervals. We had to remember that wannabe big kahuna tossed his potlatch six months ago and with his latest beneficent sharing of the bear meat  he and his buddies brought back to the village, he deserves his presumption of clan leadership. The brainstem perceives and  the neocortex synthesizes.

In order for humans to lock any fact / phenomenon / sensation of nature or tribe it must / will be anchored in each one of the following zones of the brain:

  1. amygdala
  2. hippocampus
  3. globus pallidus
  4. thalamus
  5. caudate nucleus
  6. cerebellum
  7. claustrum
  8. cerebrum
  9. neocortex

The left side of the brain registers phenomena in a logical manner, the right side of the brain in an intuitive manner. The brain cross-references all input just as the eyes cross reference visual cues to determine location in space. The two lobes of the brain triangulate all input for logic and intuition. The very fundamental physical structure of the brain is hardwired for dialectics; left perception-processing is thesis,  right perception processing is antithesis with synthesis at the claustrum.  Our Hegelian brain: thesis - antithesis - synthesis occurring at every waking ( sleeping?) moment. All sensory input at all levels of abstraction or taxonomic level is being cross referenced for logic and intuitive sensibility. Our brain synthesizes from two points of view on everything, all environments, all social phenomena, all imagination, all dreams past present and future.

Why synthesize? Why does the brain perform this relentless synthesis? because synthesis can be stored clearing the deck for new input.

Zone(s) of instant synthesis at brainstem -  the visual field: distance, rate of approach, color, form, texture.  Example: an angry barking dog is approaching rapidly from 320 degrees I’d better stomp my foot, stand my ground and bark back at it to scare it into reconsidering the attack that is underway - nt a split-second to lose here.

Zone(s) of longer term synthesis at neocortex: input in minutes, hours, days, weeks, months apart. example: she was nice to me last week and she smiled at me today thus she might be open to friendly conversation. Remember, the neocortex is only the wrinkly wrapping around our much older ( by 150 million years)  and more fundamental ( to life itself not necessarily to human culture or to higher consciousness)  brainstem.  think of the neocortex as icing on the cake-brainstem.

Dual synthesis at all levels of perception as brain synthesizes to create a fully fleshed image from its two different modes of knowing, the rational and the intuitive at instantaneous scenarios of life-love-death and at long-term social and ecological environments - I got married last summer!  or I buried my nuts under these trees last summer.

The facts of the case: A bear is running toward me growling with exposed canines this is how I feel about it - let’s make friends with one of god’s magnificent creatures or let’s run like hell or die.  This example re: different brain processing zones not necessarily left-right duality.

Every sensible phenomena has its thesis and antithesis requiring synthesis prior to thoughtful action.  no time for synthesis if fight or flight amygdala / hippocampus reaction. If there is no obvious antithesis to a perception the brain will assign ne so that proper processing can ensue.

Sensation doesn't limp into central processing /synthesis solo, unaccompanied by ts antithesis.  This foundational brain structure is projected out onto the world via  organizing totemic systems of classification involving plants, animals, political affiliation and traditional modes of thought-being: romantic vs classical, scientific vs artistic, rational vs intitive. This totemism is conserved across all human culture from New Guinea headhunters to Manhattan headhunters.

The Music analogy re: brain function.  the score is the genome, our DNA. The organs and glands are the instrument sections:

Brass        Musculoskeletal

Woodwinds    Lungs

Strings    Heart

Choir        Brain

Endocrine    Percussion

Epithelial    Piano

We are a classical composition from conception to birth - every move of millions is strictly scripted - it’s all in the score -read the music as it's written then we are jazz forever after - an ensemble requiring careful listening-interaction-improvisation.

Each organ system can be seen as an entire ensemble.  Looking at the brain, the brainstem-limbic system would be the symphonic portion of the program i.e. all processes are highly conserved, programmed. The neocortex is our jazz ensemble, a few key program patterns ( standard songs)  established at birth and during infancy then a life of improv on these few standard tunes. these songs are your  operative myth: language, law, belief, ritual, totems,stories, tool use specifics.

The patterns of intra-brain communication i.e. between neocortex and limbic system-brainstem is the same pattern / hierarchy / opposition / duality / dialectic seen n all language-kinship-totemism and all other systems for classifying anything AND this dialectic is cross-checked at each of two lobes of the brain the right lobe and the left lobe for rational sense as well as intuitive sense.

What part of our brain or what neurochemical imperative makes humans seek perfection / resolution in love, art, science, politics? What does the neocortex or the claustrum think perfection is? Is the golden mean ratio of .618 to 1.00 hardwired as a matrix from which all sense is compared. Cinderella’s slipper is our hardwired golden mean and we ty to stuff all the world of sense into it checking for fitness. When the shoe fits we draw back in fright, the bliss is unbearable.  We must see this perfect fit as unobtainable - it’s the myth we come into the world with - unobtainable love, sublime perfection in art. If it were obtainable it would be, by definition, imperfect for we will have touched it. The Woody Allen conundrum re: club membership.

Where in the brain is the heart?

Two realms of consciousness:

  1. Is it going to affect my physical well-being? -see: brainstem-limbic system aka the paleomammalian brain.
  2. Is it going to affect my social status? - see: neocortex

The neocortex is itself a metonymic for human’s own assumption of primacy in that the neocortex takes up a great deal of cranial real estate but is a latecomer and peripheral to a larger picture of organismal survival. The primary function of the neocortex is to think itself into being.

The Savage MInd - Claude Levi-Strauss - 1962 is drawn from 1,000 instances of tall white man with notebook and portable typewriter is dropped off in a remote village of indigenous people where he asks the most willing fool in the tribe in English about his food, marriage system, lineage rules, warfare, medicine, totems, myths, etc. Levi-Strauss then assembles all of this “scientific” stuff from around the world adding his quasi-Saussurian neologisms, squid wrestling-jargon juggling along with a heavy dose of MOHARE’ and calls it science. Why not ?

Levi-Strauss uses his mythical imperative to recreate arbitrary dogma ( as the ancient Hebrew scribes during composition of Torah) from the notes of many dozens sets of notes from ethnographers as he weaves his own goofy illogic, random connections, teapot assertions and Saussurean misreading to weave his wacky web o’ wisdom, throwing lots of spaghetti against the wall and in an era of little competing overarching spaghetti. In a formless profession a lot of this stuff stuck to the wall, not unlike Freud’s achievement. All of it good conversation starters. Hey! it’s BTN.  Levi-Strauss ends up doing exactly what his hundreds of indigenous subjects did - toss a totemic framework over the “real” world in order to extract meaning. In Levi-Strauss’s case - other academics and intellectuals.  Levi-Strauss like Darwin and Freud each had one big core idea with a lot of resonant truth surrounded by a pile of what has turned out to be wrong or at least inaccurate or just plain retroactively dopey assertions. We forgive them their imperfections.  Big ideas as follows:

Darwin: Things evolve ( all the rest is debatable if not disproven)

Freud: People have accessible, malleable inner lives that can be re-framed to their benefit.

Saussure: Humans have an innate capability for creating systems of symbols.

Levi-Strauss: Human culture is essentially the same around the world and none need be called primitive.

Praxis: German for practice, also a lived synthesis of theory with practice, a learning experience that refines one’s theories as they are lived in the real world, taking conceptual theorizing and making it empirical thus intelligible. Praxis is the process by which a theory, lesson or skill is enacted, embodied, realized. The act of engaging, applying, exercising, realizing or practicing ideas. It is a recurrent idea in philosophy discussed in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, St. augustine, Kant, Kierkegaard, Marx, Heidegger, Arendt, Freire and Mises. It has meaning in political, educational and spiritual realms.

“The development of the study of infrastructures proper is a task which must be left to history.” Levi-Strauss …..because it would mean CL-S getting off his ass in his cushy Paris/NYC office and going out into the steaming, fungoid jungles of Micronesia and Sub- Saharan Africa to find out. No latte, croissant, Pernod, no admiring coeds - alors ! mon dieu !  Levi-Strauss did notoriously little field work for all of his wide-ranging global in scope theorizing about everything under the sun.

What is the difference between a brand and a totem? Is a $150. team jersey worn to a football or hockey game a brand or a totem or a talisman or none of the above? Can a totem / talisman be carried on one’s person? Is a northwest pacific coast native american totem pole a stack of the personal animals of past tribal chiefs or do these stacked animals have a broader pan-tribal significance?

Corporate brands as totems: Nike, Pepsi, Izod, GE, CBS

Automobiles as totems: Mustang, Jaguar, Eagle, Taurus, Barracuda

Totemic clothing / shoes: Loubiton red sole, Hermes silk scarf, Kate Spade handbag

It is not just that people go to great length to separate themselves from one another on every conceivable level but we go to any length, do anything, propose any ilogical foolishness to do so. Religion is only the beginning. The biggest myth of all is “We’re all in this together.” A crock by 100% of evidence. The entire saga of anthropology is how all cultures segregate via totem, tabu, talisman, marriage custom, eating prohibition, ritual, castes, clans, tribes, cults, societies, clubs, gangs, rules prohibitions, regulations, punishment, banishment.

The human brain at birth is as sensitive as photographic film or the light reader on a digital camera but more by a power of 100. Every sensory perception is locked into memory where like is bundled with like, differences are registers, catalogued, sorted and acted upon.  Once a child is six or seven all core beliefs about the physical world ( things get smaller as they recede) and social relations are established ( mom’s nice and dad’s cool or not) fixed as the layers of emulsion on exposed Ektachrome. Deep structures of the neocortex determine political propensity, ethics, type of Gardnerian intelligence. A human is not clay as clay is much slower to mod and, at least before firing, much easier to change, exposed film never changes but to be destroyed by burning, melting, scratching, dissolving in acid - all change leaves scars.

As the mammal brain evolved did it undergo a stage where it comprised colonies of single cell eukaryotes who were trying to centralize and systemize colony decision making? The termite dirt grain pusher, when a member of a colony becomes a cathedral builder. Who or what provides the overall design logic for such a complex structure as a termite mound? Is the structure simply the mandelbrotian accrual of unitary action and the nature of mud molecules and gravity? i.e. these individuals are going to push dirt and they will dig a tunnel in order to do it. Tunnels can only be so close to one another as they descend or they will collapse upon one another - no designer necessary - all is exigency of the behavior of individuals. Is this the same mechanism used by a tree in knowing where and when to branch in order to maintain balance. Is there a signal that flows between compressive strain and tensile strain at opposite sides of a growing trunk or branch? Why don’t all tree branches grow on the sunny south side? How does a termite know where to deposit hs dirt? Is there a construction manager if not a designer? Is there mound logic.

The human (mammalian) brain as as a bacterial nodal point, a stage manager for a global logistics corporation ( all microorganisms) . Coalescing neurons at mammal brains are the nodal points that emerge from any densely-trafficked system, see: “break-of-bulk” concept as generator of intermediate size cities in a nationwide distribution network. New York City is BASE, Los Angeles is DOME and Kansas City is NICHE.

Is there a protist precursor to the neuron i.e. was the neuron with its axon and dendrite tree once a free-swimming microorganism say around 800 MYA  that merged with mitochondria and 9-2 flagellants, formed colonies, grew a tail  and swam into history and the animal brain? Was the vertebrate brainstem once a fish?

If 9-2 microtubules were affixed to separate liver cells could they reproduce and swim around in a pond as they process bile?

The 9-2 microtubule axoneme has at least two key functions: propulsion and sensation.  Was either of these a NICHE event? an exaptation?

The BASE-DOME-NICHE relationship exists throughout  nature, animate and inanimate, something happens first, another thing happens, there is space between them that is filled creating four entities 1. Base 2.Dome 3. Niche 4. that which fills the niche.  An unfilled niche is an opportunity. The silence between musical notes is an unfilled niche full of meaning. The unfilled niches in a work of art may carry as much meaning as the work itself. Knowledgeable patrons of the arts know the meaning of the space between whether music, painting, sculpture or dance.The niche and its Base-Dome are inseparable. Between every Base and Dome there is a niche.

Discovering Niches is like discovering easter eggs. Revolutions create a cornucopia of new niches. When a paradigm shifts a large array of secondary and tertiary ideas are now in play. Revolutions clear the air. Revolutions create vast realms of opportunity.  Niches are continually bubbling to the surface of our individual and our collective awareness. We choose to fill them or leave them empty or to be filled by others. When all niches in a society become filled this fullness invites revolution as all opportunity is gone and stagnation ensues. We now live in stag-nation.  The civil unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore are the result of a lack of Niches for normal, middle of the road African American  high school graduates. No new niches equals pressure on law enforcement, breakdown of respect for the law and for the people served by the law and for those who enforce the law. The system crumbles. A society cannot create new Niche opportunity by expanding the BASE or by arming the DOME to the teeth.  Fill every Niche, poison the population with manufactured food and pharmaceuticals add a drought or earthquake, an oil spill or three and voila ! Revolution and a plethora of new Niche opportunities. Every job sent overseas is a niche removed from our pool of niches. Our population continues to grow and our niches are sent away. Something has got to give.