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Musing out loud

22 May 2015

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MOVE over, Kirsty. Desert islands are for wimps. If you really want to know what your celebrities are made of, lock them up in an anechoic chamber, and switch off all the lights. That is what Sian Williams did with her guests last week in The Thought Chamber (Radio 4, weekdays). It is a room so silent and so dark that your ears and eyes start making things up, and coloured shapes and pulsating clouds fill the emptiness.

For the space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, it was like floating through the Milky Way. Grayson Perry, who suffers from tinnitus, was in the countryside, a chilly dusk teeming with starlings. None of the five victims seemed overcome by the experience, and there was none of the disintegration of persona that we might have been hoping for.

Perhaps the problem was that these were five people quite content with the sound of their own voice. They were hardly discomfited by the fact that there was nobody to converse with. In particular, June Brown, whose EastEnders avatar Dot Cotton is currently enduring a dark night of the soul, seemed entirely at home. Mind you, this is the character who famously took up an entire 30- minute episode with a monologue to her dead husband; so this will have been a breeze.

For us mortals, the anechoic chamber can be a torture; but, although his characters are racked by psychological torture, it would be too crude for the imagination of Franz Kafka - quite the opposite, Karen Leeder said in The Essay: In the shadow of Kafka (Radio 3, Wednesday of last week).

Her contribution spoke of the multiple meanings in Kafka's work. The novels and stories teem with messages, en route from one bureaucrat to another - messages full of ambiguity, and which are rarely delivered. His is "the poetics of non-arrival".

This year marks a Kafka anniversary of sorts: his story The Metamorphosis was published in 1915, and the excuse is enough for a flurry of Kafka-themed programming. Much of it is driven by a search for meaning, just as with the author's characters. But, as Leeder explained, the meaning lies in the unfulfilled nature of the message. For those of us flummoxed and intrigued by Kafka, it is a reassuring point of view.

Of course, meaning operates in different semantic registers: thus language can be lexical or expressive. The call of the gibbon or the song of the nightingale are both meaningful, but in a way rather different from the language of humans. In What the Songbird Said (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), Angela Saini picked through some of the research into animal communication, and discovered that there was more to it than merely training your budgie to tweet compliments at you.

The crucial question is whether birdsong contains structures that can be abstracted and recombined: in other words, a working grammar. This is what makes human communication apparently unique; but, if other species can be shown to have it, then we must rethink the whole question of language evolution. We might even try putting Cotton and a gibbon together in a darkened room, to see how they get on.

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