1.04.2012

Effable

There is a common perception that there are certain things and experiences that words can't touch. These things and experiences, we imagine, are sublime, tearing at categories and sense and hence words.  Any attempt to speak such things, we presume, is not just futile but sacrilege — as if words sully the divine perfection of the experience.

But I think this view does not quite grasp what words are, what words can do, and how they stand towards and with the world.  Words don't name things. Or, rather, they don't only name things.  Words are themselves experiences that at once construct and tear at categories, sense, and perhaps themselves. 

Words are not just the way we order the world. They are the way we re-order the world, over and over again. When we speak and write well, we are at the border of sense and non-sense, the world coming in and out focus, in and out of chaos, in and out of order. 

I want to suggest, then, that while certain things and experiences may be unnameable, they are not ineffable.  Words are events that interact with other events.  When we speak some sublime experience — an experience that cannot know categories or concepts, an experience that is utterly itself, sui generis and infinite — we don't necessarily domesticate its unwieldiness. We don't necessarily categorize it, move into the realm of the known, into the realm of safe knowledge. We do not necessarily profane its sanctity.

Words are not just sounds and marks. Look at these words here. Look at the spaces between the letters, between the words, between the paragraphs: there is space. The same is true when we speak (at least usually; sometimes, I do drone on and on).  Silence and emptiness is an essential aspect of language.  

When we use words well, we put them in flow with the world — with its knowledge and its sublimity, its sounds as well as its silence, with its order, its chaos, its moods and affects, its things and facts. Language can be as delirious as experience.  Isn't this one task of poetry? In this sense, everything is effable, even if many of the best things are unnameable. 

19 comments:

what the Tee Vee taught said...

Ha, I'm reading this again, a few times, and it's so very welcome... come right in, I've had a pork shoulder in the oven for 5 hours (true), beer in the cold box, help yourself!

Very happy, this makes me. Nothing like having a perspective, a vantage on the ways of things, and then having someone scramble it up a bit and make it much more pleasant... much more generous.

I will remember this.

drwatson said...

Okay - I think I might be using the word "ineffable" wrong or differently. I use that to mean "that which can't be named in words," or something like that. So I'm confused about your statement that "it" can be talked about but it's also ineffable.

Well, okay, I just reread. You're saying unnameable. Perhaps that's a difference. We can't describe it - we can't pin it down - but we can gesture towards it?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Yes yes, exactly. Not everything is nameable per se but everything can have a relationship with language. It's not just gesturing towards it because it's not a there per se; it's not a matter of proximity but of performance, of going with.

drwatson said...

Ever read Davidson? I love, love this quotation. I'm not sure it's directly relevant, but it's awesome.

"I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed. There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases. And we should try again to say how convention in any important sense is involved in language; or, as I think, we should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions."

Daniel Coffeen said...

Merleau-Ponty says the same thing, sorta: there's no such thing as language except when language fails, when we look at it as this odd alienated object rather than this set of gestures we live with and amongst.

αλήθεια said...

Once again, thank you for this article. I was kinda debating that issue in my head for the past several days! And I must say that I truly enjoy these comments too.

I have personally started to believe that every single thing surrounding us, even the small molecules, are always in an argument with one other. The moment things phenomenalize (I love using this word!) themselves, they submerge into the deep ocean of a constant becoming, where all beings are engaged in a constant argument with the rest of the beings in the world.

As for language, and it being “as delirious as experience,” I must say that I myself have experienced such an experience while reading Thus Spake Zarathustra. Every, single, word, that that sage uses in his book gives me chills! But again, just like you’ve mentioned it in a beautiful way, language, (here I’m referring to the spoken language) out of the many ways through which things speak, is another way of letting things show up and assure their presence in the world. In this case, silence too can be counted as a way of assuring ones presence in the world of constant becoming.

Now in this article you had also mentioned that when we use words well, we put them in a flow with the world. That’s true for poetry, but I was wondering how this flow disrupts, when language is used in a “one way information delivery system,” a.k.a the News! Doesn’t language then become a way to conceal the world, to hierarchicalize the world, to differentiate between what’s important, what’s not important?
May be that’s another way language can be used! A very inauthentic and boring way indeed!

Daniel Coffeen said...

Yeah — our grammar sure wants to create hierarchy, to forge being against the flow of becoming. And this is what we're taught: kids are taught to use fucking outlines — hierarchies — to structure their papers. When I taught writing, which I did for 10 years, I used maps, not outlines. I forbid outlines. Not sure my method worked but I fucking tried.

Emily said...

You've created a stunning presentation of this idea, and used the sublimity of language to both prove and defy itself.

An avid traveler passionate about using words to express and create, I've often become irritated with myself for writing so verbosely about the mundane but being at such a loss for a way to express the act of the sublime immersion into unfamiliar territory. So I've allowed myself often to come to just that: there are no words. But truly I know, that if not words then what? And I'm just too immersed in the digital and daily world to disconnect for long enough to pursue the challenge of composing the words that will come to introduce even greater meaning and understanding to the places that have changed my life.

When I was young I wrote endlessly, and told my teachers that text book writing structures and grammar inhibited my creative license :). My "A" stories were drenched in red ink, and I blatantly ignored it. When that stopped working, I stopped taking or caring about writing classes, assuming that visual mediums were the only place I could have true creative freedom. Halfway through college, I rediscovered writing to cope with tragedy -- unabashed, passionate, secret, limitless words that helped me redefine myself as human in years of immense challenge and loss. Now, "out of the dark" as a writer (I hate the term, what does it imply?), I've managed to Google search my way into enough conformity to write professionally, and to share, but I'd still be nothing without an editor.

What I'm getting at, is that I wish someone would have taught me to use a map instead of an outline. Your attempt at a better method matters to those of us who understand what it is like to write yourself into a sublime state. To let words tumble over each other until you don't even know where they are coming from anymore, to create something you could have never made an intention to create because you didn't know it existed yet. Sometimes we must write to discover.

Structure is for editing. That's what I believe.

And to the point of your post, perhaps we must reach an equally sublime state in the composition of language as we did when we experienced the sublime we wish to communicate in order to do so. That would make sense, to me at least.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Emily: Thanks for your exquisite comments. Writing without discovery never quite feels like writing to me — it's a job, a task.

And, yes, I believe sometimes to write with the sublime one must participate with the sublime.

But I also think there is something to be said for a kind of reflection, for those moments of digesting the sublime state, the way the remnants of the event find words. I kind of love that experience, a lurking in the shadows and scents of the sublimity, letting them wind through my body and find resonances — with words and feelings and sense and memories.

dustygravel said...

What is the affectivity of "ineffability"?

dustygravel said...
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dustygravel said...

I mean if every thing can be spoken then what is happining when we claim the ineffable. What is reified in the Annunciation of ineffability? Is it impotence, wonder, resolution, peace, tung tie? Maybe its a giant stone Buddha or a Buddha liberation torch body. Then how does this reified ineffability refolded into the speakable?

Daniel Coffeen said...

I think there are different ways of thinking ineffability. There is the one way that believes language is dirty or after the fact; to that view, the world itself is ineffable. Language is always after the fact. Think of Socratic irony: he never means what he says because language always fails, necessarily. Words are finite; life is infinite. There is a necessary incommensurability.

But in this other view, ineffability is a certain silence within language. Words are events that are both silent and resonant. They move with the world, always and already. There are occasions that call for silence — but not because words are dirty or can't perform but because they are simply not appropriate in that time and place.

I'm thinking this as I write it.

I love the idea of the language of ineffability.

drwatson said...

This isn't related to this thread - sorry in advance - but I have had a really good student and a couple great friends get me to let them read older fiction I've written. This is all post-modern something-or-other. I'm not a fiction writer exactly. But I thought I'd share nonetheless.

http://philosophicalmatters.blogspot.com/2012/01/old-fiction-riffing-on-beckett.html

drwatson said...

Actually they didn't "get me to let them read" I offered. Just for the sake of honesty.

Ruby said...

Very interesting post. Although, I think a key point is that most of us are not adept at expressing ourselves. We stutter along befuddled by words and get by because others ‘know what we mean’. (My mother has recently taken to replacing nouns with ‘thing’ - ‘where’s the thing for turning on the other thing?’)

(Good) writers on the other hand have a certain confidence and ability which allows them to give us words for feelings and impressions we thought ineffable. Sometimes, we didn’t even know we had the impression before reading the phrase. Thomas Hardy describes Tess entering a pub whereby the occupants are sufficiently merry for “their souls to expand beyond their skins, and spread their personalities warmly through the room.” When I read that it instantly remained me of a certain sensation of being in a pub but any words I had for the sensation failed to capture this extra quality.

dustygravel said...

Yes indeed the " language of ineffability" is awasome. The other thing that occured to me while reading "effable" was the questian how does the event and its spoken counterpart hang together. I mean in addition to repeating the initial event doesn't the spoken event also contain other things; a speaker, a new setting, the passing of time, creative embellishments that defer to new talking points.
Is it that the initial event some how contains all the possible things that could be spoken of it? It seems like i remember you saying something like that in a previous post . I could imagine it containing every thing spoken of it but would it also countain every speaker as well? Yes! It would! In the sense that the speaker is what he speaks the initial event would be the speaker as well.

So I gess I'm starting to see it in two ways in one sense the spoken event contains infennetly more then the initial event on the other hand maybe the initial event contained all that different ways is is spoken. I don't know! Am I way off the deep end?

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Ruby: Good to see you here. And great point. But I think this has less to do with writers vs. non-writers than with how we're taught about language.

Imagine, for instance, if there was more free writing in classes — opportunity for students to write whatever comes to mind. More reading aloud dramatically to get the rhythm of words. More imitation of writers so we learned possibilities of language. More maps of essays and less outline/hierarchies.

That is, if we taught language less as a tool to express ideas and more as a force to participate in the world, then maybe we'd all move better with words.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Dusty: Love this, love your train of thought. I wrestle precisely these questions. I like to think of an event as happening however it happens — in memory, in body, in words. That is to say, memory, body, and words are not necessarily mnemonics or traces of the event but are the event still happening. So some seemingly ineffable event happens. Years later, I write a poem. That is the event still happening. As you suggest, it's as if the event has this way of gathering bodies into its wave, into its wake.

Are these bodies latent from the get go? I see it more as the declension of the event, its trajectory, as if carrying out a differential equation to the next decimal place.