Answering for lost similitude

March 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

Of necessary evils, words hold the highest position for language is the hotbed of dissatisfaction. To say as much, we cannot avoid using words. They are the only means of organizing thoughts, presumably to enable their development so that one idea can grow from the next, if in the uncomplimentary fashion of “ordering” — which feigns a deterministic relationship between words & things while shaping one’s manner of thinking.

Order is, at one & the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront one another, & also that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language. (xx)

This is Michel Foucault’s definition in The Order of Things (in French, Les Mots et les choses, or “Words & things”). While arbitrary, he shows, one variety — a version of absurdity — has always had to exist as a medium. [Many varieties coexist, in fact, in each dialect of each tongue & also for more insular groups still.] Communication being the ideal, ordered words are their particularized forms.

The absurd link between a word & the object it signifies has long been documented: well before Saussure it appears in a more obscure form in ancient Socratic philosophies. This has resulted in a willingness to uncover a universalism — Christianity imagines this by way of a common tongue, taken away in the tragedy of Babel. The biblical configuration — which, curiously or regrettably, dominated thinking until the last century & calls for attention — considers language “against the background of this lost similitude” (36). The story of Babel achieves two things: it answers the question of why, if God is infinitely good, must communication be flawed & it brings about the longing for language as Adam spoke it initially, when there was a perfect alliance between a name & the named object. The latter of these, the idea of returning to a perfect language, would become a trend of pursuing linguistic universalism.

Foucault identifies a shift in the seventeenth &, especially, the eighteenth centuries — of which, Kant’s Copernican revolution is a byproduct — where the act of observation was newly privileged. The desire to observe would enable the birth of new sciences (in much the way we have them today) as well as the extension of optical technologies (tele- & microscopes). At this point, we come by “a major conflict between a theology that sees the providence of God & the simplicity, mystery, & foresight of his ways residing beneath each form & in all its movements, & a science that is already attempting to define the autonomy of nature” (126).

Without god, too, humanity feels the urgency of answering for the evil in the world.

Linguistics being one of the oldest sciences, the question of language predates any bible stories. Yet the point of departure for the analytic & religious mind is the same: “There must exist within it at least the possibility of a language that will gather into itself, between its words, the totality of the world, &, inversely, the world, as the totality of what is representable, must be able to become, in its totality, an Encyclopaedia” (85). In attempts at unearthing the ultimate “possibility” of language, philology was born. The practice even resembled the exhumation of a lost, unified tongue (such as Babel); etymologists became obsessed with describing human migration by chasing word roots across continents. Sir William Jones’s comparison of Sanskrit to Ancient Greek & Latin to form a Proto-Indo-European language family is certainly the most famous example.

The strategy of looking for common roots will prove to be critical once more for the next attempt at universal communication, although it will extend beyond the linguistic signifier & only begin to appear well over a century later. [Foucault’s history of order finishes with the eighteenth century, so this third type is only anticipated in his book (104, 299).] It will not be based on the rationalism or spirituality of previous attempts, but on the unconscious. The body, through gesture & expression, becomes the ground for communication. The tongue’s saving grace is its capacity to scream; with the scream, which disassembles the necessary syntactical ordering of language, essential being can be arrived at. On account of the corporeality of such universalism, it has largely been eventuated on the stage. The psychological link between mind & body — when one suffers, so does the other — has been used to eventuate primal scream therapy: “descriptions are not answers” (The Primal Scream 390), Arthur Janov argues in his thesis of speaking as a training in suppression. According to him, neuroses are caused by the restraining of the primal self. He asks patients to trust in their instinct against language to express their traumas.

In chasing linguist universalism, we have made quite the hurried mess of practices & notions. Let us review. Out of dissatisfaction — although it is not the only way to respond — universalism is frequently employed, as an ideal against which to measure & towards which to aim. [NB: Universalism has also been identified in music or mathematics, but these are superimposed interpretations & do not represent the function of their practice. They would need independent consideration.]

There are three prominent situations of universalism in language, each corresponding to a different dominant system of thought. The first is religious, where the particularized nature of language is punishment which makes human connection impossible, affirming that true understanding can only come through spirituality. The word of god is not treated as sacred; interpretation is encouraged in Christianity. The second form of universalism is a rationalistic response to the first, but it follows from the interpretative practices. It studies the order of language, compromising the natural mutations by cementing conventions. Finally, the third reduces universality to the body. Even if the meanings of gestures vary slightly between nations, capacities for pain & pleasure allow for a confidence in communicating distaste or affection. Of course, reducing communication to such a degree also debases the human to animality.

While it is human to long for an ideal, for the perfectly universal or necessary, the one or two things that can properly be communicated universally detract the initial condition of human longing as if we were destined for dissatisfaction.


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