We are delighted to welcome guest essayist Behira Wanono to The Power of Language.
The best place to start is at the beginning. So let’s start at the beginning – Bereshit 2:19 – “and out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field; and every bird of the air; and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whate’er the man called every living creature, that was its name.”
On the one side we have something truly creative, something that brings forth life in all its diversity. On the other, the namer, the signifier, the technician, the coiner of neologisms, of new nouns – and then the ambiguities – is this literal or metaphoric? Should it be dismissed out of hand because of its authorship?
And the two key points: 1. The animals are brought before (wo)man for naming and 2. The whole concoction could not have existed without language, and language facilitates this discussion about language.
To jump to the point: what did metaphysics ever give us? What did quantum physics ever give us? What about John Cage? Monet? Warhol? All of these abstractions – all languages dependent upon language – jargon differentiated two or three times over from caveman.
What is the power of this language? An impulse translated, refiltered and refigured, is its only achievement; the thing and its other and the endless quest to bring the two together, like global warming and the eco-warriors who cannot beat it.
The fundamental question – if you take a full, i.e. big bang to endtime, view of humanity, were we ever a good thing? Did our power – a power almost entirely dependent upon our mastery of language (no great deal to be the master of the thing you create, or should I say the thing you are genetically disposed to create) actually benefit anyone?
For every benefit we seem to create a deduction to match it – hence these gigantic and unfocused questions – has poetry ever served more purpose than the roar of a lion? What is this language – which one? – there are languages in everything, a code for DNA all the way to celebrity.
There are a few basic principles I can delineate from my own perception:
- We each have an internal existence of thoughts, a polytrack of cellular sound images that cluster and spread and can adopt any of our sensory forms, e.g. audio, visual, kinaesthetic
- We have a hardwired tendency to grammar, to categorise and form a system which if stripped of ‘content’ and reduced to ‘form’ would look like a series of equations
- This grammar is like a series of empty slots which are filled in with our mental vocabulary, whether we use musical notes, words, images, sculptures
- This is then transmitted via music, word, paint all before the whole package is broken down and detranslated – the goal of the transmitter being to convey the soundimage(s); the goal of the recipient being to decipher what is being transmitted and not necessarily to decode the soundimage(s).
Even in this basic analysis the transmission is weakened by flaws, miscommunications, wrong vocabularies &c and confused intentions. I have read – perhaps Joachim of Fiore, perhaps Kabbalah – that heaven or the endtime is an existence of pure spiritual unity; as without bodies there is no clumsiness in existence. Certainly if we could convey the clusters directly to each other without the cumbersome physicality of our bodies, either present or present in absence, it would allow some form of ‘pure level of existence’; but this is the flaw of language – it can really only signify.
It can coin new images – pink elephants, of course – and these new significations can inspire imaginative thought which gives birth to the atom bomb and mass production, along with Joyce and Eliot; but all of the successes of ‘creative thought’ that any language can give rise to – they are really grammatical successes, successes facilitated by our genetic disposition to grammar. This is so even in mathematics, supposedly the most present, least arbitrary language because it cleaves close to function i.e. true form is content. All these so-called successes, all these things by which we make visible the ‘power’ of language, are each rising out of the inherent, persistent and ever-present failure of it.
So we say that God creates and man names, but man is always striving to create through his grammar and the thousand ways of naming it allows. Language is always striving to make the absent present, to replace the signified with the signifier. It seeks to make the metonymic become real, to ‘create’, to bring what is not in existence into existence.
But it cannot – for the very reason that it is created by humans and has to struggle through layers and the clunking jaw and fragile ear – the system it uses to promote intelligibility prevents the true reflection of the thought. We have a shared vocabulary, not our own. We inherit our methods of expression, our phrases and tones, and we have to shoehorn our internal polytrack into these linear, easily transmittable pieces. All of the power of language, all of its restlessness, phatic and bloat and all of its facilitatory function, all is born from its inadequacy at supplementing creation. Each sentence is constantly chasing something; forming a chain to reach zero – which is impossible, as it destroyed zero the minute the first word moved away from it.