A while back in trying to find a family movie, I decided on the sci-fi flick Arrival about a linguist saving the world. (Not bad, for those who don’t know it). In trying to figure out how to sell it to my kid I ended up sending him youtube promotional videos, about the only document I know of which has currency in his media landscape. Most were the usual PR hype, though there was one which, in addition to interviewing the stars, most notably Amy Adams, also has an interview with the linguist she played, an MIT PhD, now at McGill named Jessica Coon.
Now everyone knows that everyone aspires to hang out with movie stars. In fact, even my late father Morris did, and here’s a digression on that point. Some might be surprised to know that Morris was friends with Lacan. I was too when he came up in conversation. though I forgot how (maybe precipitated by Sokal and Bricmont’s book).
The story goes that when Morris visited Paris in the mid fifties, his professor Roman Jakobson provided him with an introduction to Levi Strauss, who considered Roman an intellectual mentor having sat in on his classes at the École libre des hautes études in New York during the war.
While Levi-Strauss was somewhat unfriendly, as Morris recalls, he did spend some time with Morris, enough so that, as Morris put it, having got to know one Paris intellectual, “you got to know them all” and that included Lacan who Morris described as being “lots of fun” and, to top it off, “his wife was a movie star.”
That brings me back to the clip with the linguist and the movie star. Amy Adams, the star, comes across as earnest, uninteresting, blandly attractive, perfectly pleasant albeit somewhat cold. Jessica Coon, on the other hand, is bursting with ideas, funny, clever, radiating warmth and passion for her field and its connections with the real world.
If it were a choice between having coffee or sharing a train compartment or cross country flight with the two, an unknown professor or a Hollywood celebrity, it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing the latter in this case.
But that’s not unique to Coon. In this respect, she is typical of any number of MIT graduate students, administrators and faculty I grew up with and around; Barbara (Hall) Partee, Jay Keyser, Noam Chomsky, Mark Aronoff, Donca Steriade, Ken Hale, Dominique Sportiche, Bonnie Stephens, Dick Carter, Francis Kelly, Sylvain Bromberger, Mary Louise Kean, Ray Jackendoff, Jean Roget Vergnaud, Paul Kiparsky, and Haj Ross. These were different personalities in many ways, but, in addition to being (obviously) smart, the one thing I could reliably count on was that they would be fun: I would come away from any conversation learning something new and surprising that I didn’t know before and thinking about the world in a different way, one which always seemed to make so much more sense than the picture of the world which was conveyed to me everywhere else.
I should say I don’t know Jessica Coon at all. But her five minutes on the screen provided the familiar expectation of insight and humor combined with intellectual honesty, and with that the uncanny feeling that I had known her all my life.
Movie stars are often described as Americas royalty, and it would be absurd to claim that the MIT linguistics department should be considered the locus of America’s ruling class. Most linguists could care less about ruling anything. That much, at least, they learned from Noam. And, in any case, Goldman Sachs is the institution where, for better or, more likely, worse, the deals are made and the checks are cut which will determine at least the rough outlines of our future.
But while it will seem grandiose to claim it, it’s pretty clear to me that if we had to choose a single spot which made the strongest case for why our culture should continue surviving into the next century, it would building 20 room C 132, and the others in the near vicinity.
That I grew up in and around it is something which I’ve only recently begun to wrap my head around.