Turtles All the Way Down

The other day, my son — now 8 — went on one of those exquisitely deranged monologues that young boys perform. At one point in this verbal spew, he found himself thinking out loud about the first word: "Someone sat there and said, 'Oogy woggy bloggy,' and that was the first word." The boy's brow was appropriately furrowed.

As a child, I imagined the same thing. There were these primitive peoples grunting and huffing and then one of them, like something out of 2001, said a word and, voila, there was language. That moment was so unthinkable, so absolute, so astounding to my young self: from mute to verbose, from inchoate to clarity, an insurmountable rift overcome in one fell swoop of impossible genius. Who was that guy who first grunted oogy woggy bloggy? What a grand feat!

But, of course, that's nonsense. There is no such thing as the world without language. Words did not come after...whatever (Big Bang? The miracle of human being? What?). Words are not an invention or a discovery any more than seeing or breathing or eating are.

The world is communication and we are signs just as everything is. Gravity, orbits, collision, explosion, ricochet: these are language, the exchange of information.  Just as tapping you on the shoulder means, "hey," an asteroid pummeling a planet — and vice versa — is a kind of "hey," even if overwrought.

We see and we are and from this seeing and being we gather information. We read the world — and are always reading the world, always seeing and being seen, always communicating. That is what it is to be alive. Everything is signs, marks, gestures, shoves, pushes, caresses — whether it's a tongue in your ear, a hand on your thigh, or a whispered declaration of love. We are signs who read signs. If we weren't or didn't, we wouldn't be — because even rocks are signs that read signs (in a rock way, of course, which is quite different than a mosquito way or canine way or Louis C.K. way).

We have this instinct to think, to imagine, a first: an origin. There! That's where it all began! This pervades our thinking: Who invented electricity? Who invented the computer? Who was the first to use the wah wah pedal? Or feedback? We have monuments and text books and holidays celebrating these firsts. This instinct even pervades how we imagine our personal narratives: when did I first walk, speak, consider death? We imagine a singular point — crawling and then, holy shit! walking!

But that's just not how things work. In an essay about history, Foucault writes, "What is found at the historical beginning of things is not the inviolable identity of their origin; it is the dissension of other things." (I read this in college; in fact, the title of my honors thesis — on Foucault's historiography — was, "The Dissension of Other Things." I believe I used a wacky font for the title page.) Which is to say, when we actually look at what we imagine is an origin, we find a network of forces at work: a dissension of other things.

Take a child talking. The fact is, kids are always using language. They come out wailing with all get out and that doesn't stop — forever. What do you think crying is? Some pure expression of an innermost emotion? Perhaps. But it's also language. I'm feeling shitty, mo fo, do something about it.

I never wanted to be called "Dad." I never had such a thing hence never used the word and it seemed so, well, bourgeois. So I wanted my kid to call me "Pop." Pop, I'd say, over and over again amidst his relentless gurgling, burping, cooing, and crying. Pop, pop, pop. But of course those wads of fleshy dough can't do "p" — too complex. I'd find him sitting in his infant chair mouthing "p" over and over but, alas, no sound came out.

Was this language?

Eventually, he began saying "da." And then "da da." I caved. That's me!  I'd put my big smiling nose in his face every time he said "da" and, sho 'nuff, eventually he began saying "Dada" to get my attention.

Is that his first word? What is first, in this case? And what is the word? He'd been doing all kinds of things that I understood just as I'd done all kinds of things that he'd understood — long before there was Dada.  The origin of his language is an intersection of forces and events.  In fact, there are so many forces, the intersection so embroiled in time and circumstance that I think we can safely say there is no origin.

This is not to say there are no inflection points.  Water does turn into steam — and it's amazing, a miracle, an astounding, unimaginable event. But, like all events, it has no single origin. Inflections points, while singular, are nodes or junctures within a complex confluence of events and forces. 

Take Big Bang. It's an absurd theory, really, as it is itself a question: What was there before this big bang?  This is what I say, what I believe: there was no big bang. The world is always already big banging — always already colliding, moving, expanding, folding, pleating, collapsing, extending. That is what the cosmos is.  It is not a movement from stillness to motion or from death to life. It's always been moving and that is life.

Take creation. We imagine some primordial soup of crap, some big ol' lightning strikes and voila: life. But that's absurd. It was already life. So here's a different reading that I didn't make up but wish I did. There's all this stuff colliding, conjoining, etc. And amidst this slop are various kinds of crytallines.  Crystals are interesting because they replicate themselves, including their mutations. So now these crystallines are doing what they do and those that make it through the tumbles and tides of that smoldering planet were pluckier, had some kind of protective skin or some such thing. And, over time, these crystals became more complex — they became amoebae and such.

There was no voila. There were confluences. There was dissension and harmony and synergy. And, above all, there was multiplicity.

Take a song. Is there an original version? Which one would that be? There's the one that made it to the record but is that the original? What about George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord"? Is the original the Shirelle's "He's So Fine"? Every song comes from multiple places and, once here, enjoys infinite variations — just like a crystalline or human being: it repeats with mutation.

No, there is no first, no origin. This life has always already been happening, turtles all the way down. 

1 comment:

dustygravel said...

Man, synchronicity ubiquitis. Last week a co-worker of mine was ruminating on his atheism, I was like oh well that’s cool I'm reading the selfish gene right now (by Richard Dawkins), my co-worker then recommended the God delusion and I told him that I was mostly interested in Dawkins theory of meaning. The meme: an atomic trait of cultural information that evolves like genes through gradual mutation and adaptation. The idea strikes me as being considerably less ideological than most social theory of meaning because of its inherent depersonalization of the struggle. There’s no power truth right, no master slave, no Logocentrism, and no bad faith, in the meme. I mean there’s not even really a power structure, it’s just mutating copies trough and though. Which is strange considering how committed Dawkins is to the culture war? (this might be an idiotic reading on my part, I confess I haven’t finished the book).

The pope is just a squid, no biggy.

In the process of our conversation I told him that I thought the best argument for evolution was that micro changes on the scale of a virus amounts to a macro effect, thus deconstructing the micro/macro evolution distinction, made by some creationist. This caused a little confutation on my use of the word deconstruction because my friend thought I was only referring to reductive analyses, so I told him I meant something more along the lines of Derrida's use of the word. Then I showed him this quote by the guy:

“must not structure have a genesis, and must not the origin, the point of genesis, be already structured, in order to be the genesis of something?”

I really love.
My co-worker enthusiastically proclaimed that he agreed with the quote, but thought that in fact there really has to be a beginning. (man, I am so bad for writing that).

Now thinking about synchronicity reminded me of a Carl Jung conference I went to a couple of years ago, the speaker spoke on 'un lived life' but after the conference I asked him 2 questions; the first, if he knew of any Jungian readings of American folk lore. He recommended Edward F. Edinger’s Melville’s Moby Dick: A Jungian Commentary; and 2ed, how did he imagined the archetypes standing in relation to evolution, he recommended a particular ethnographic study of the australian aboriginals, who’s title I instantly forgot but oh well. More recently I've found that Jung thought that the archetypes came from the differentiating process whereby human beings begin to see themselves as separate from nature, the joker is the persistence of the primitive mind in the subconscious of modern man and exc. (I imagine that in this way there could be rocks and oceans in us as well, which is like Deleuze's becoming’s seen backwards).
Anyway I really like this Idea of there always being language and especially the way it throes the first sophists way out before the 4th century B.C. into the prim-evil past, also I really wonder what Ray Brassier would think of this, what with his disavowal of all phenomenological ontology as mere faith based correlationism. Seriously! I would pay good money to see you two discuss just about any topic, and I really wonder if he has ever considered language as existing apart from human consciousness, I mean he’s got to be familiar with Thure von Uexküll & Louis Hjelmslev through his readings of Deleuze, right? Anyway if you’re not familiar with Brassier I’d be really interested in what you would make of him, here is a link to an article about his work: