highlights: writings that caught my ear
Why is it so important to use consistent terminology when carrying out this kind of research?
“The physical and the psychological realms must be properly differentiated. They need to be clearly differentiated in publications too, which has so far rarely been done. I try to introduce the terms ‘acoustical’ and ‘optical’ for denoting a physical representation and ‘auditory’ and ‘visual’ for denoting a psychological representation. Particularly with the acoustical terminology, I always struggle with the fact that in English both the physical and the psychological representation of a sonic event is called a ‘sound’. It is easier in German – there are two terms, ‘Schall’ and ‘Klang’. Furthermore, unimodal and multimodal perceptual and cognitive aspects should be differentiated. This would enable us to more clearly categorise the direction of effects, for example as ‘cross-modal’.”
Dr. Hans-Joachim Maempel, State Institute for Music Research in Berlin
Perhaps predictably, this line of thinking sets my essentialism siren off. However, through this project with NTNU, I am learning that it’s not an either-or situation. We can have ideas of the ‘objective’ nature of things outside ourexperience ofthem, as long as we remind ourselves (looking at you hard sciences) that they are forever borne from the context of our subjective experience. It’s all onto-epistemology (thank you Karen Barad for that).
So then, there are degrees of subjectivity, which is really where most current thinking is headed – towards breaking binary oppositions, notions of the truth, relevance and sometimes even just utility of the categorical.
Perhaps much of the time it’s not even the scientists themselves that are most culpable of essentialising. Engineers, so consumed with the practical objective, probably ask fewer questions about the nature of phenomena, of why rather than what.
If they spent time asking why, they wouldn’t get half as much done. Maybe getting half as much done is something we should all be aiming for.
“As a separate human realm coalesced around the technologies of fire and stone, another even more powerful technology grew alongside them—the technology of mind we call language. Consisting of symbols that are connected only arbitrarily to the objects, attributes, and processes they name, language is indeed a separate human realm, a human-created map or representation of reality. Language is prior to any technology requiring the accumulation of knowledge and the coordination of human activity. Anything human civilization has ever created, from the pyramids to the space station, rests ultimately upon a foundation of symbols. Without blueprints, instructions, specifications, guidelines, computer programs, money, science texts, laws, contracts, schedules, and databases, could anyone build a microchip, a hydrogen bomb, or a radio telescope? Could anyone operate an airport or a concentration camp?
Referring to technology, I asked in the Introduction, “Can the gift be separated from the curse?” As the above examples make clear, we might ask the same of language. Language is the foundation of the separate human realm, and from the very beginning it has borne a destructive as well as a creative power.
The destructive potential of language is contained within the very nature of representation. Words, particularly nouns, force an infinity of unique objects and processes into a finite number of categories. Words deny the uniqueness of each moment and each experience, reducing it to a “this” or a “that”. They grant us the power to manipulate and control (with logic) the things they refer to, but at the price of immediacy. Something is lost, the essence of a thing. By generalizing particulars into categories, words render invisible the differences among them. By labeling both A and B a tree, and conditioning ourselves to that label, we become blind to the differences between A and B. The label affects our perception of reality and the way we interact with it. Hunter-gatherers, who were closer to a time before generic labels, were animists who believed in the unique sacred spirit of each animal, plant, object, and process. I can imagine a time when a tree was not a tree, but a distinct individual. If it is just a tree, one among a whole forest of trees, it is no great matter to chop it down. Nothing unique is being removed from the world. But if we see it as a unique individual, sacred and irreplaceable, then we would chop it down only with great circumspection. We might, as many indigenous peoples do, meditate and pray before committing an act of such enormity. It would be an occasion for solemn ritual. Only a very worthy purpose would justify it. Now, having converted all of these unique, divine beings into just so many trees, we level entire forests with hardly a second thought. The same goes, of course, for human beings. The distancing effect of language facilitates exploitation, cruelty, murder, and genocide. When the other party to a relationship is a mere member of a generic category, be it “customer”, “terrorist”, or “employee”, exploitation or murder comes much more easily. Racial epithets serve the same purpose: we call it “dehumanizing the victim”. Yet the dehumanization begins with any categorization, even the word “human”. This is not to advocate the abolition of nouns, only to be mindful of their relative unreality. It is when we get lost in the manmade realm of abstractions—statistics, names of countries, figures in accounting ledgers—and believe them to be real that we end up perpetrating violence.
When we knew every face intimately, there was no need to generalize into “people.” Our ancestors experienced a richness of intimacy that we can hardly imagine today, living as we do among strangers. It is not only social richness that is muffled underneath our words, it is the entirety of sensual experience. Margaret Mead once observed, “For those who have grown up to believe that blue and green are different colours it is hard even to think how any one would look at the two colours if they were not differentiated, or how it would be to think of colours only in terms of intensity and not of hue.”i And if we had no words for color at all, might we not see a world painted in the tens of millions of colors that the human eye is capable of discerning? How much richer and more alive such a world would be. Each moment a visual feast. Perhaps it is the increasing abstraction of ourselves from the world, to which language contributes, that explains why “fifteen years ago people could distinguish 300,000 sounds; today many children can’t go beyond 100,000 and the average is 180,000. Twenty years ago the average subject could detect 350 shades of a particular color. Today the number is 130.” By naming the world, abstracting it and reducing it, we impoverish our perception of it. Language is the basis and the model for the standardization, generalization, and abstraction that underly present-day science and industry. In science, it is the assumption of universal laws applying generally to a featureless substrate of fundamental particles. In industry, it is the standardization of parts and processes. And the price we pay is a loss of the original richness of the ground of being. Occasionally one may be fortunate enough to catch a momentary glimpse of perception unmediated by language and other representational systems. The world vibrates with an unspeakable richness of sound and color. As soon as we try to explain, interpret, or exploit that state, we distance ourselves from immediate reality and the experience vanishes. Habitually interpreting the world second-hand through symbolic representations keeps us distanced from the glory of reality all the time.
The realization that language can distance us from reality goes back thousands of years, at least to the time of Lao-tze, who opened the Tao Te Ching with the words, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao; the name that can be named is not the true name.”iiiThe very first line of one of the world’s greatest classics of spiritual scripture is a disclaimer, an admonition about the insufficiency of language to represent truth. In the Heart Sutra as well, one of the most important works in the Buddhist canon, we have a similar warning of the “emptiness of all teachings.” The truth is not to be found in the words of the teachings; it is a mistake to assume that the words themselves contain the truth. On the other hand, the ancients recognized a creative aspect to language alongside its tendency to distance and delude. There is a mythological thread hinting at the existence long ago of an Original Language, a true language that somehow did not symbolize and abstract from reality, but that was itself part of reality. Perhaps this language is what Derrick Jensen calls “a language older than words,” akin to the vocalizations of wild animals. This language is almost wholly lost to us today, except in a few surviving exclamations having primal reverberations in the body and psyche—words like “Tada!” “Yahoo!” “Wow!” “Amen!” “Ahh,” and “Oooh”. Some of these words derive directly from Sanskrit roots. Indeed, there are those who claim for Sanskrit a special status of being closer than any other language to the Original Language of reality. As anyone who has experienced Hindu chanting can attest, Sanskrit words and phrases often have an emotional resonance that may be quite distinct from their semantic denotation. Listeners with no knowledge of Sanskrit may be strongly affected. Words like “Om,” “Ah,” “Ram” and others are considered not to denote or represent the divine, but to actually be aspects of the divine. This point is very difficult for the dualistic mind to grasp.
The same resonance can be found in other antique languages. In Taoism as in Hinduism, certain sounds are invested with a psychospiritual power quite apart from their semantic denotation.iv The correct pronunciation of these words is considered extremely important in certain qigong exercises. It is not enough to know their meanings, if indeed the sounds have meanings at all in the conventional sense. Like “yippee!” and “wow!”, the sound is the meaning. In Judaism as well, the sacred power of certain words is considered to arise from their sound. To merely hear them uncomprehendingly is enough, it is claimed, to induce psychological changes in the listener.
Similar claims have been advanced for the indigenous languages of North America. Joseph Epes Brown observes, “Among all Native American and Inuit languages, there is a blending of rich verbal and non-verbal expressions.”vThat is, the distinction between sound and word is not so clearly conceived as it is in modern languages. Moreover, “Spoken words or names are not understood symbolically or dualistically, as they are in English. . . . Such separation [between sound and meaning] is not possible in Native American languages, in which a mysterious identity between sound and meaning exists.” Because they are not merely labels, names and nouns in such a language are an intrinsic and inseparable aspect of the being named: “To name a being, or any aspect or function of creation, actualizes that reality.”vii Traditional Native Americans will therefore use the real names of things only with great circumspection, for to name the bear, for example, will actually invoke its presence. The creative power of speech is again difficult for the dualistic mind to understand—just talking about something won’t actually change it, right?—but we can see vestigial traces of this understanding in certain “superstitions” that survive to the present day. Chinese culture has strong taboos against speaking aloud dark possibilities, lest it bring them into reality. Even in America, we still knock on wood.
That words are not arbitrary labels affixed to an objective reality, but have creative force, echoes the Hindu association of certain sounds with divine forces and the Biblical equation of the Word with God, as well as the near-universal identity of breath and spirit.viii For what is a word but a special kind of breath? Word is an intentional breath, a meaning-carrying breath, a creative breath because it infuses meaning into a world that otherwise just is. Out of the raw material of nature, we speak a human realm into existence, just as the God of the Book of Genesis spoke into existence the material world. Like God, in whose image we are made, we speak worlds into existence. Why, then, does present-day language seem so impotent, so ineffectual? Why has talk become cheap? What has happened to that original language with its creative power? How has the creative breath devolved into the ubiquitous matrix of lies we find ourselves in today?
In the beginning, there were no words as we know them today, no representational sounds, only the cries of the human animal. What was this Original Language like? In fact, we can still access it today. Because it is not conventional but is part of reality, the Original Language can never be irretrievably lost, but only temporarily forgotten. It is locked deep inside all of us, ready to emerge whenever we shed the inhibitions of civilization. One such occasion is, of course, love-making. The vocalizations of passionate sexual abandon are nothing other than the Original Language remembered. These utterances do not have meaning in the way ordinary words do, but they cannot be considered meaningless either; they are vectors of a communication far more honest and intimate than any semantic exchange. Taoist and Tantric tradition has apparently made a study of these utterances, although I am not aware of anything more than passing references and superficial descriptions in the open literature. However, the contemporary psychologist Jack Johnston has developed a powerful system of sexual healing through higher-level orgasm utilizing a key sound which is difficult to transcribe but goes something like ahhh-ahhh, with a rolling quality in the middle. Significantly, Johnston discovered this sound through an “intuitive search”; he did not invent it but unearthed a
latent capability intrinsic to what it is to be human.ix This is a perfect example of the technology, or anti-technology, of the Age of Reunion, which is not based on control or separation. Any intensely emotional experience may also elicit utterances of the Original Language—spontaneous vocalizations of ecstasy, lamentation, glee, fear, rage, and so forth, as well as the cooing noises we make at infants. They come out when words are simply insufficient to express ourselves, and when our emotions overpower the inhibitions of culture; that is, when we go wild. They are not really words. They are sounds, cries, the calls of the human animal. They do not derive their meaning from a grammar, nor are they subject to convention.
Nor has the Original Language entirely disappeared from ordinary speech; it interpenetrates modern language and could be called the voice behind the words. In his technical work, Languages Within Language: An Evolutive Approach, linguist Ivan Fonagy has even taken a step toward describing it. Fonagy’s achievement was to develop a statistical approach demonstrating a correspondence across languages between sounds and meanings. For example, he found that whether in English, French, or Hungarian, front vowels are more prevalent in words for concepts like light, above, cheerful, and pretty, than for their opposites. Soft consonants predominate in the words “love”, “tender”, “soft”, “good”, and “sweet”, while hard consonants predominate in “anger”, “wild”, “hard”, “bad”, and “bitter”. The individual pronunciations are otherwise unrelated, but in these statistical commonalities we can see a glimpse of a mode of vocal communication prior to language. He also catalogs a number of changes in the articulatory organs that are common across numerous languages in the expression of various emotions: the lips are protruded and rounded in displays of tenderness; the tongue is withdrawn in the expression of hatred and anger, which are also characterized by pharyngeal contraction and reduced acoustic intensity relative to the expiratory effort.x
The semantic meanings of our words obscure the intonations that communicate our real state of being, and we have learned to listen to the words and not the voice. Yet part of us, the deep primal part usually beneath consciousness, still tunes into the voice, which communicates far more honestly than words can. The simplest example lies in emotional exclamations. Fonagy comments, “The effect produced by ’emotive phonemes’ might be attributed to their ‘strangeness’ due to the violation of phonemic rules. I would suspect instead that their impact is due to the fact that these sound gestures are not devalued, they escape the general rule of arbitrariness; thus they can be freely enjoyed. Moreover, they are ‘meaningful’, linked by natural (more or less narrow) ties with real (non-verbal) physical or mental phenomena.”xi We delude ourselves when we suppose that the main impact of speech lies in the words (as opposed to the voice), just as we delude ourselves when we cite logical reasons, which are actually rationalizations or justifications, for our decisions. (This link between logic and language is embodied in the Greek root logos, which means logic, law, and language, something imposed from the outside, in contrast to voice, which comes from within and is actually a form of breathing; i.e., spirit.)
Like logic, law, and technology, the control implicit in language is a façade. We carefully label and categorize the whole world, hoping thereby to impose order upon it, to domesticate the wild, but we delude ourselves to think that the wild respects our boundaries any more than a squirrel respects a “no trespassing” sign. To this day, it is the voice that communicates more than the speech.
This Original Language was the subject of a misguided search by the philosophers and linguists of the Age of Reason, who referred to it as the lingua adamica. Unable to see beyond language as a system of symbols, Leibnitz and others sought to reinvent a language that would correspond perfectly to reality, in which truth could be discerned through grammar. Their program failed miserably, of course, because they did not understand that the Original Language was non-representational rather than a system of perfect representation. Nonetheless, Leibniz’ program continues on in the ever-finer labeling of the world through the lingo and jargon of science. It is another version of the Tower of Babel, a man-made edifice that seeks to rival the infinity of the real world. Ivan Fonagy exemplifies the projection of our ontological assumptions onto primitive language when he observes: “The far-reaching parallels in unrelated languages in the expression of emotions at all levels of sound-making clearly show that the basic tendencies which appear in emotive vocal behavior are not language-specific. They seem to be governed by a paralinguistic semiotic system.” [emphasis in the original].
Fonagy adopts the conventional dualistic interpretation of language in assuming that these commonalities across languages are a system of signs in parallel with the usual semantic one. But perhaps what Fonagy calls “natural languages” are not semiotic systems at all. He interprets, for example, the spasmodic tongue movements of anger and hatred to be part of another system of signs, in parallel to the semantic meanings of the words thus articulated, that represent anger. However, these expressions are really not “representations” at all, they do not represent anger, they are anger. They are part of the corporeal state which equally includes hormonal releases, vascular dilation, elevated heart rate and breathing, and so on. Unlike semiotic language, these vocalizations do not distance us from the emotions being expressed. Or as Thoreau put it, “Most cry better than they speak, and you can get more nature out of them by pinching than by addressing them.”xii John Zerzan writes, “As soon as a human spoke, he or she was separated. This rupture is the moment of dissolution of the original unity between humanity and nature.” He implies a catastrophic moment of separation, a blunder, a Fall. But we have always vocalized, as do most mammals, and birds, and even many reptiles and insects; and it would be arrogant indeed to assume these animals sounds are devoid of meaning. There are stories of Native American trackers whose ability to interpret the calls of animals borders on the magical, and legends abound in every culture attributing to the ancients the ability to talk to animals. As the human realm gradually separated from the natural, the original vocabulary of human utterances became insufficient. New objects, new distinctions, and new processes came into being, as well as a new-found objective relationship to nature. Slowly, gradually, language accompanied being into a widening dualism: self and other, human and nature, name and thing.
The ascent of humanity is a descent into a language of conventional symbols, representations of reality instead of the integrated vocal dimension of reality. This gradual distancing, in which and through which language assumed a mediatory function, paralleled, contributed to, and resulted from the generalized separation of man and nature. It is the discrete and separate self that desires to name the things of nature, or that could even conceive of so doing. To name is to dominate, to categorize, to subjugate and, quite literally, to objectify. No wonder in Genesis, Adam’s first act in confirmation of his God-given dominion over the animals is to name them. Before the conception of self that enabled dominion, there was no naming—none of the original vocalizations were nouns.
Fascinatingly, ancient languages were far less dominated by nouns than modern languages: from the ancient nounless original language, it is claimed, by Neolithic times only half of all words were verbs, declining to less than ten percent of words in modern English.xiii The trend continues to this day, with the growth of passive and intransitive uses of verbs that objectify and abstract reality by saying, in effect, A is B. Language has evolved toward an infinite regression of symbols, words defined in terms of each other, that distances us from the world. Significantly, some indigenous languages apparently lack a word for “is”, as the shaman Martin Prechtel claims for at least two Native American languages.xiv I have also noticed that Taiwanese, an ancient Chinese dialect firmly based in a preindustrial society, has an amazing profusion of descriptive action words that do not exist in or have disappeared from modern Mandarin and English. In English the same tendency manifests as a gradual supplanting of the simple present by the present progressive (“I am walking” instead of “I walk”). A few modern thinkers have sought to reverse or undo this trend. Alfred Korzybski, in his monumental tome,Science and Sanity, spends over a thousand pages reproving us for our wanton use of the “is” of identity, which reduces things to other things, proposing what he believes is a new “non-Aristotelean” mode of thought. He was apparently unaware that numerous mystics (such as Lao Tze) preceded him in this insight by thousands of years. Nonetheless, writing in the 1920s, Korzybski was ahead of his time, and helped to launch the movement known as neurolinguistic programming that seeks to induce mental health (sanity) through new language patterns. More recently, the physicist-sage David Bohm has proposed a new mode of language he calls the rheomode, aimed specifically at recovering the dwindling verb form and thereby fostering an understanding of the universe in terms of process rather than thing. “The Rheomode” is the first chapter of his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, in which Bohm attempts to introduce his interpretation of quantum mechanics. We might understand him to imply that the rheomode is the only way of speaking that is consistent with the true nature of physical reality, which is a fundamentally unified and interconnected whole. In Bohm’s view, the artificial division of the world into subject and object is, at bottom, incoherent. I am not a separate I, I am the universe “Charles-ing”.
We will probably never know when the descent into representational language began. Citing anatomical evidence such as the hyoid bone, enlarged thoracic spinal cord, and enlarged orifice to carry the hypoglossal nerve to the tongue, paleontologists date the origin of language back to the Neanderthals, certainly, and probably back to Homo erectus or even further.xv This contrasts with the views of theorists such as Noam Chomsky, Stephen Pinker, and Julian Jaynes, who fix the date much later in the Upper Paleolithic, 30,000-50,000 years ago. Their view is based on the association of language with the cognitive development implied by concurrent developments in technology, art, and so forth. Both camps, however, see language as a “symbolic coded lexicon and syntax”; that is, a representational system. In this regard we might ask, what was there to talk about in Stone Age society? Some researchers propose that speech was necessary to teach the two-hundred-plus different blows required for the production of middle-Paleolithic blades, but such skills are better learned by observation and imitation, not description. Others claim that hunting, which began only when we developed weapons, requires speech to coordinate hunters’ movements. But here again silence usually benefits the human hunter more than speech; besides, wolves and other pack animals seem to hunt just fine without ilanguage. But let’s not fall into the trap of trying to explain everything based on how it might aid survival. Might there be other reasons for speech in hunter-gatherer times? Could it be that speech did not arise out of necessity at all? An important and ancient function of speech is to play, to joke, to tell stories. Perhaps these were the origins of language. Perhaps its function as an instrument of separation grew gradually, in tandem with other alienating developments in culture and technology.
Until fairly recently, human beings lived in kin bands of usually no more than twenty people, loosely associated into tribes of perhaps a few hundred. Open to nature and each other, they knew each other more intimately than we can imagine today. Speech may have been superfluous, as it often is between lovers, or between mother and baby. When we know someone that well, we know without asking what they are thinking and feeling. All the more in prelinguistic times, when our empathetic faculties were yet unclouded by the mediatory apparatus of language. Spend some time alone with a person or small group in silence, and observe whether, after just a few days or even hours, you feel more intimately connected with them than if you’d been talking. The empathy and intuitive understanding of others that develops in such circumstances is amazing.
We might therefore speculate that language only becomes necessary when other forms of separation begin to deaden our intuitive connections and, at the same time, demand a more complex coordination of human activity. Especially relevant is the division of labor, incipient if not already underway in the late Stone Age, which brought “a standardizing of things and events and the effective power of specialists over others. . . Division of labor necessitates a relatively complex control of group action; in effect it demands that the whole community be organized and directed.”xviii Standardization of things accords naturally with their abstraction and naming. It is part and parcel of the separate human realm that grew up around technology in general; it both arises from that separation and reinforces it. Language cannot be considered in isolation from all the other elements of separation I describe in this chapter, but only as part of a vast, comprehensive pattern.
Spoken language was only the beginning of this division. Voice inevitably lives on in spoken words, though masked more deeply the more controlled and refined the speech. The invention of writing, therefore, was another huge step away from the Original Language and toward the complete
replacement of direct communication by arbitrary, abstract symbols. The divorce between written words and concrete objects and processes was gradual, progressing from the first representational hieroglyphs to increasingly abstract forms, and eventually to the alphabet, which is wholly non-representational. Alphabets changed our way of thinking in subtle but far-reaching ways. “The alphabet codified nature into something abstract, to be cut and controlled impersonally.”xix Unlike a pictogram, an alphabetic word can be figured out through analysis, by breaking it down into parts; pictograms derive their meaning through resemblance to the real world. Alphabets therefore encourage an atomistic conception of meaning and, by extension, of the universe.
In writing the voice is gone, replaced by the apparent objectivity of ink on paper divorced from any tangible speaker. Written words exist as independent entities unto themselves, no longer addressed to a specific listener. Written words foster the illusion that they have objective meanings—definitions—not contingent on the state of speaker and listener. The apparent objectivity of written words explains why people tend to believe what they read more than what they hear. The written word seems more authoritative. Dictionaries, a comparatively recent phenomenon (the first significant Western dictionaries were compiled in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries),xx further substantiate the illusion that words have fixed, objective meanings apart from the interaction of speaker and listener. In the same vein, books concretize the belief that knowledge is to be found outside the individual. Non-literate societies may have been more apt to seek it within. Printing and electronic media take the divorce between meaning and speaker to an even further extreme, for if handwritten words lack voice, they at least have “hand”. Each hand is unique and conveys to the attentive observer the emotional and spiritual state of the writer. Typeface replaces this hand with a mass-produced one, leaving very little room for the Original Language to creep in. Yet still it does, irrepressible, in the sub-semantic idiosyncrasies of style that we persist, following some unconscious wisdom, in calling the “writer’s voice”. We can therefore see the standardization of grammar and usage, the descent into jargon and formulaic locutions, and the general blanding of public speech such as corporate and political press releases to be the final stage in excising voice from language. The goal would seem to be to pretend that the words had no human author at all, existing as purely objective facts. Indeed, use of the first person is considered bad form in academic writing—a convention the author of the present work finds ridiculous!
Words defined in terms of other words in a system of abstract representation maroon us in a factitious, anthropized, domesticated, and finite world, and render us susceptible to the illusion that we can manipulate and control reality in the same way we can manipulate and control its symbolic representation. But because the map is necessarily a partial and distorted version of the mapped, our manipulations based on that map invariably produce a profusion of unforeseen results: the unintended consequences of technology. When we mistake words for reality, or even assume a full one-to-one, linear correspondence between symbol and reality, the symbols assume a reified, objective status that invests them with an unwarranted authority (particularly when they are written and thus divorced from a specific speaker). The proliferation of the passive voice exacerbates this tendency. The speaker disappears; process becomes thing, becoming becomes being, impersonal forces act upon inert objects. The parallel to classical physics is quite striking. The notion that words have objective meanings, independent of speaker and listener, reader and writer, is completely consistent with and accessory to the Newtonian-Cartesian universe of independently-existing “objects” possessing a reality independent of the observer. John Zerzan puts it this way: “Like ideology, language creates false separations and objectifications through its symbolizing power. This falsification is made possible by concealing, and ultimately vitiating, the participation of the subject in the physical world.”xxi The world becomes an object.
The fallacy of objective meaning is widely recognized, from Lao Tze to the post-modern deconstructionists; Thoreau said, “It takes two to speak the truth: one to speak, and another to hear.” Only recently, however, has this fallacy begun to enter the general consciousness, resulting in a generalized breakdown in linguistic meaning. Increasingly, words don’t mean anything anymore. In politics, campaigning candidates can increasingly get away with saying words that flatly contradict their actions and policies, and no one seems to object or even care. It is not the routine dissembling of political figures that is striking, but rather our nearly complete indifference to it. We are as well almost completely inured to the vacuity of advertising copy, the words of which increasingly mean nothing at all to the reader. Does anyone really believe that GE “brings good things to life?” That a housing development I passed today, “Walnut Crossing”, actually has any walnut trees or crossings? From brand names to PR slogans to political codewords, the language of the media that inundates modern life consists almost wholly of subtle lies, misdirection, and manipulation. No wonder we thirst so much for “authenticity”. People everywhere are talking about a search for meaning, recognizing that it is not to be found in words. Perhaps herein lies the reason for the astounding decline in U.S. literacy over the last half-century. What is typically seen as a failure of education and a symptom of social breakdown, might be, at least in part, a form of rebellion. Frustration with language could also be the reason for the much-maligned proliferation of “like” and “you know” in the speech of young people. A more charitable view is that by using “like”, we deny the false identity inherent in “A is B”. As for “you know”, could that be a groping toward a more intuitive mode of communication? Even though the listener may not understand the meaning of the words, if she listens to the voice behind them, she does indeed already know. Another symptom of the breakdown of semantic meaning is the routine use of words like “awesome,” “amazing,” and “incredible” to describe what is actually trivial, boring, and mundane. We are running out of words, or words are running out of meaning, forcing us into increasingly exaggerated elocutions to communicate at all.
Like all our other technologies, language is not working so well any more. It has failed to live up to the promise, echoed in the Technological Program to control nature, of providing a fully rational, objective, logical system of representation, the rigorous use of which will bring us to accurate knowledge of reality. Just as any technological fix always neglects some variable that generates unexpected outcomes and new problems, so also is any language, any system of signs, a distortion of reality riddled with blind spots that unavoidably generates error and misunderstanding. The attempt to control the world is futile. For too long now, we have sought to remedy the consequences of failed control by imposing even more control, more technological solutions; in language this equates to more rigor, more definitions, more names, an ever-finer categorization of reality. In our era, we are finally witnessing the collapse of the technological program of language. The increasing obviousness of the corruption of the language is a blessing in disguise, for it makes all the clearer the authenticity of non-verbal modes of communication based on immediate experience rather than representation. These modes of communication, in contrast to the distancing implicit in the abstraction, naming, and symbolizing of the universe, demand a letting go of the barriers between self and world. When we gaze into a lover’s eyes, the most authentic communication happens when both people drop their masks and pretenses, stop contriving to send a message, and simply open themselves up to the other. When we finally let go of the enormous effort to hold ourselves separate and apart from other people and the world, words will become less necessary. Less necessary, but not obsolete. The development of language was not a mistake, an original blunder, but like technology developed in a gradual and inevitable evolution from animal origins. The descent into representation was foreordained. If so, let us consider whether it might harbor a purpose outside its function as an instrument of separation. What will be the purpose of language in a healed world? It will be what it always has been—to tell stories. This is no trivial function. Our entire civilization is built on a story, a story of self. The separate human realm is not in fact separate—just look at how it has altered the planet. In the future we will wield the world-creating power of word consciously, to tell a new story, and thus usher in a consciously creative phase of human development.”
Charles Eisenstein “The Ascent of Humanity” (2007: 28 – 33)
Where do I begin? I realise this is an epic except (so not really an except at all). But Eisenstien writes so compellingly on these interwoven matters.
Initially he essentially paraphrases Heidegger, the original articulator of the dangers and concomitant saving powers of technology (see ‘The Question of Technology’).
“But where danger is, grows
The saving power also.”