12.08.2011

Words

I never cease to be amazed by the magic of words — these contrived scrawls, these guttural mutterings that somehow conjure, entice, explain, seduce, confound, convey, reveal. Well, I suppose sometimes I do cease to be amazed but that's only because I'm not paying any attention, am distracted by the obnoxious din of my own blabbering brain.

One of my favorite philosophers of language is Maurice Merleau-Ponty (a melodious name I do enjoy saying — it's somehow perverse and exquisitely so): "...language never says anything; it invents a series of gestures which between them present differences clear enough for the conduct of language to the degree that it repeats itself, recovers and affirms itself, and purveys to us the palpable flows and contours of a universe of meaning." 

I love that: "language never says anything."  To think than language is a vehicle that carries our ideas, our facts, our messages is not just to reduce language but to miss it all together.  A word does not stand in for something, for a real thing that exists elsewhere. A word is real, too.  

Take any word, say, dog. The word dog does not stand in for the idea of dog or even for the asshole dogs who bark incessantly in my backyard. The word dog, the idea of dog, every dog I've ever known, the smell of dog, my faint dog allergy, my cynophobia, the movie Cujo, chien, mut, wolf: all these terms, and more, form a network.  They exist in various and complex relations with each other (these relationships can be considered tropes — but that's another topic).  

A word is a body — and a strange body at that.  It's visible, in some sense, but its visible components do not convey very much.  It is invisible, as well, drenched in affect, memory, and meaning. But its invisible components would be nothing without its visible ones, its marks and sounds. 

A word, then, is this incredible assemblage point that is also a condensation point.  After all, words are so pithy. Melodious. Cloying. Flabbergast. This. Hi. Foment. Singe. Fecund. So much in so little, each an entire world (pace Lohren Green). 

And I love the different shapes they make — they can flow so softly, so gently, then turn on a dime and fuck your face, hard and angular before becoming knotted clumsy stumble. Think of Nabokov, then Bukowski, then Garcia Marquez, then Celine, then Ashbery....all these constellations, all these possible configurations, all these ways of distributing emotion, mood, affect, meaning.

We reach for a word, says Merleau-Ponty, as we reach for an itch. Language is not a tool we use. It's an element we prehend just as we prehend air and food.  A word has a body, a density, a weight, an inclination.  A word is a strange fluttering (or not) creature that houses an entire cosmos, suspended (or not) in the ether. When we declare or proclaim or inscribe, we enter its world.  And then, it some sense, it speaks us.

But language, while insidiously coercive, is rarely so dictatorial.  Words move with us, go with us. In fact, William Burroughs says they're a virus and humans, their host. There is a creepy aspect to this but there is also something beautiful, a symbiosis, a giving and taking — even if it's a relation rife with tension. We all know this tension — so-called writers all the more: we wrestle words and they wrestle back.

And then, sometimes, you find a beautiful rhythm with them — you reach, they reach back, they offer themselves to you and you offer yourself back, receptive to their fluttering, a mutual generosity, an intertwining of bodies human and linguistic. Oh, these are glorious moments, profoundly erotic, a making love — yes, love — with words, surfing the undulations of this strange body we call language.  

7 comments:

drwatson said...

The idea of words "standing in" is weird. Because at one level, it seems that they absolutely do. It's helpful to use a word, say 'dog', so I don't have to constantly carry around a dog and point to him when I want to mention him.

But of course if that was the nature of words, what stands in for "that" or "is" (and that's the big one for me, obviously, given my enjoyment of both Heidegger and MP.)

I do love that when you push the idea it's obvious that much more is going on - that words are not tools. I was recently on a panel to be an "expert" in technological matters because I teach a Technology and Society class. Of course, any knowledge I have is purely philosophical. I mean I can't fix technology and rarely do I understand anything's guts.

And so in the talk several people kept wanting to say the same banal crap: technology is a tool and it's up to us how we use it.

Okay, yeah, I mean sort of right? You can certainly choose to use youtube for something worthwhile - this Charles Mingus documentary I'm watching - or nonsense - take your pick. But you can't put technology down. It's not a tool. It's an ontology. And in that sense, language too is a way of world-revealing. So I like the idea that it's a virus - that expresses the element that is out of my control. And let's be honest - I didn't make this language up - a whole hell of a lot is out of my control, even down to the way my tongue moves while I talk.

Please as usual reading.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Wasn't it you who commented something about the surprising tenacity with which people cling to an ego in control? The way people use the word technology drives me bat shit, as if technology needs to have blips and beeps, as if concepts and grammar and ideology were not technology.

drwatson said...

Yes, I think that was me. And yes it's fucking ridiculous the way technology is thought about. I mean the word techne meant something like "art or craft knowledge." I mean technology at first seems like an epistemology, but it's an ontology - or better, I want to say it's an ecology.

I know you aren't a big Heidegger guy - but Richard Rojcewick wrote a book on the Gods and Technology in Heidegger and his book is better than Heidegger's essay. He starts with Aristotle and moves forward. It's that wonderful philosophy book that's also a page turner.

But people that say technology is a tool remind me of people that say "guns don't kill people..." I mean yes they are sort of, I mean kind of correct, and the dumbest level. But at any level that's remotely interesting, they are hard to even talk to.

It reminds me of a recent Beavis and Butthead episode - yep, going there - where there is a protest about not learning evolution because of Intelligent Design and Butthead says "Let me get this straight. If something is too difficult, we don't have to learn it."

That's what it feels like to me. There is a desire and a certain kind of technology is fueling it - to suggest that simple is better. Students often say things like "get to the point."

I mean technology is not neutral - not if we've learned anything from McLuhan - and it seems to me that the world is asking me to be a multi-tasker And that's the way technology is an ontology. And like I said - I think ecology is a better way to think of it.

I mean if you take earthworms out of an environment - you change the whole thing. So, if you put an IPhone or Facebook (which I totally use and enjoy at least half the time) you should be changing the ways people go. And if you change the ways people go, then pretty soon you will change what it means to be a person - and so forth.

drwatson said...

Sorry those tangents were taken up so quickly - just reread that and I need to fill some gaps. But I think you'll get the spirit of what I'm saying.

By the way - I blame my tangential thinking on my love for jazz and I was just watching a Charles Mingus documentary. So I'll throw the blame on that.

Daniel Coffeen said...

It's funny: as I read your post, I thought to myself: this is an incredibly lucid, approachable explanation of why technology is ontological. That last paragraph about earthworms and iPhones is perfect.

drwatson said...

That is funny. I'm sort of known for tangents when I teach - I make fun of myself a lot. I realized how bad it was getting when during the last Expository Writing class this semester this girl goes "Hey could you just talk one more time about "dumpster kitties." I had for reasons I can't explain elaborated on the difference between cats and dogs and why I love cats - basically if you put a cat and dog next to a dumpster one of them survives. Anyhow, that's about random as hell - but yeah I do like the earthworm analogy - it cuts through a lot of the complications of the subject quickly - at least I hope it does.

Daniel Coffeen said...

The tangent is the whole pleasure of teaching — and learning. It's called thinking. I always followed tangents because I wanted to perform thinking on the fly — its pleasures and mechanics.