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.