A Quick Thought on The Sufficiency of Language

Artists, musicians, dancers, mystics have an inclination to return to the insufficiency of language. Words, we are to understand, fall short — they can't possibly express the infinite complexity of the world, of truth, of experience.

But that is to assume that language is a vehicle of designation and not a body of performance.

Language — like music, like the human body, like paint — is something to be reckoned, something to move with. The writer must learn the possibilities, must develop the skills to put words — and language — to work, to have them entice and twinkle, provoke and titillate, to have words be an active force resonating in and through and amongst bodies and ideas and emotions and things and moods.

Words are gestures, just as moon walking is a gesture. They operate in, on, and with the world.

What's tricky about words — as distinct from paint and dance and sound — is that words have a more intimate relationship with concepts. But rather than this making words insufficient, it is precisely what makes words sufficient. Words at once name and do, think and act, designate and perform.

The operator of words must have mad skillz to operate this complex engine. Don't blame the words for their insufficiency. Blame the writer.


Adam said...

I like where you're coming from, trying to get away from the idea that words "fall short" and the negative implication this seems to have. But I question whether this is necessarily a bad thing. Why can't language be at the same time insufficient and sufficient? In other words, make insufficiency itself the trope through which words perform?

I'd argue that's what we refer to when we invoke the insufficiency of language -- not to say language can't express, but that to express some things, art, music, dance, etc, requires an acknowledgment of language's insufficiency.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Always, and of course, the right thing at the right time. Is language always called for? Is it always the right thing? Of course not. Sometimes, it's important to shut the fuck up. I've learned this — or not learned this — many times over.

Sometimes, a touch, a song, a jiggy works better.

But my main point, if I have a main point, is this: the very model of proximity is flawed. Words are events, like anything else. And, as such, cannot be insufficient — they go as they go. The question is not: what gets closer to the truth? The question is: what is more effective and affective here and now? What is demanded, called for, called forth by the event?

drwatson said...

Would you say you're coming at this from the perspective of American Pragmatism - people particularly like Rorty and Davidson? I know somewhere Davidson says, if by language you mean a referential system that one has to master, then I don't believe in language.

I like those guys a lot - but I also think that sometimes in the hope of demystifying language, they lose some of the beauty that writers like Merleau Ponty and Heidegger retain. With the latter set, language is an event but the event sort of pierces the opacity of the world, it doesn't eliminate it.

Hope that makes some kind of sense.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I am coming from Merleau-Ponty. We have language, he says, just as we have a body — it is physiologic, it is enmeshed in our very constitution.

We reach for a word, he says, just as we reach for an itch. I love that.

Language is of the world. Reflection is of the world. These are not vehicles that are meta.

The world, I'm suggesting, is the infinite sum of all its events and bodies — which may be redundant depending on who you ask. And language — if there is such a thing — is body and event, just like my intestines are.

If that makes sense.

drwatson said...

Yeah that makes total sense and sounds like the same direction I'm wanting to come from.

I'm doing the PhD thing in rhetoric and have been writing a lot about MP and the body. I've found very few people who read or teach him, which I find to be quite sad.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I actually wrote on MMP for my diss — it was my key chapter. It was on the role of the trope as event and rhetoric as a supersession of "language." If that's of any use to you.....

drwatson said...

I'd be really interested in reading that if you wouldn't mind sending it to me.


pierre daud said...

Concepts are more materials than other words, their substance is at the end more obvious. At certain point you can reduce them into diagrams, for instance. They are inert things that inspire or move people. Just think to the concept of God. Or even a national flag.

But having their own logic, not so easy to manipulate than every days words, they create a longer distance (between themselves and men) than usual words, song or paint. There is something like a BROKEN PROMISE. I think again to the idea of god or to the idea of communism. (I hope those two ideas are rigurously concepts). (and i am afraid my idea is as old as platon's cave)

Those two ideas (god and socialism) are may be very particular, they are both idealist. All are not, but it remains interesting because they are two widely shared concepts. Catholic monotheism is the more funny when you think that it's a mix of eschatology and of shared love.

All that to say that it's not sure that 'ineffable' finds its place with concept; subjectivity and detachment, may be more, after all?

The main point is to know how much men are able to hurt themself. It is a very common place in marxist/socialist theories to say that culture and ability to manipulate culture is only a way to dominate. Is it possible to imagine a more tragic and deep idea?

But on an other hand, it is so evident that concept helps men to trust in themselves, even if it is all the more true when they are not conscious of it.