Language and the ‘Otherness’ of the Environment

As I was working on yesterday’s post about Becoming Aware, I kept thinking about how our human languages frustrate our attempts to explain things that are perceptual rather than conceptual. The normal solutions to this are (1) use complicated words that almost no one really understands (such as ‘synaesthesia’), (2) use words that are so ambiguous as to be meaningless (such as ‘integral’), or (3) make up new words (such as ‘presencing’).

None of these alternatives does any favours for the reader or listener. As Frederick Barthelme says in his rules for good writing “Obscurity is not subtlety; intentional obscurity is pinheaded and unkind.”

Lakoff’s point that “we can only think what our embodied brains permit” gets to the heart of the problem. Our brains work by analogy. The patterns in our brains are formed substantially by our personal experiences, and those personal experiences are ‘informed’ by our senses. If you can’t explain something to me by analogy to something my senses have actually experienced, it is doubtful that you can make me really understand it. In that case, better you show me, so that I ‘experience’ first-hand what you mean, than waste energy trying to tell me. If I cannot ‘relate’ what you describe to something I already know, then you might as well be talking in a foreign language.

And language is precisely the problem. Our languages are designed very practically to reflect the wiring in our brains (and vice versa — language plays a role in forming the structure of our brains) and to convey concepts that are essential to our survival. Their very syntax is analytical — syntax ‘breaks things down’ in useful ways. Every sentence therefore has a subject, an action, and an object, so that everything is taken apart, ‘objectivized’, made other. Subject literally means ‘throw under’ while object means ‘throw in front’ — our language’s process of analyzing everything is literally violent. Our whole modern culture (and our sciences) are about taking things apart to understand how the pieces work and go together, so that this knowledge can be applied in useful ways. Our languages reflect that culture and are also deconstructive.

The things that could not be analyzed, at least in our early history, were taken on faith. It was left up to the gods’ representatives on Earth, who communicated with the gods in non-Earthly language, to understand and interpret these things in a way that would allow them to instruct the rest of us. We did not develop languages and words to describe ‘integral’ things simply because this was not necessary or useful for our survival. That was (and is) the job of artists and poets, who are unconstrained by the denotative meaning of language and (usually) the need for precision or utility.

Most of us today live experientially narrow lives (limited exposure to nature, to other cultures and languages, to doing things in the real world rather than thinking about things and working with written ideas and abstractions) so our ability to relate and to imagine, especially as we get older, is poor. Even worse, many important modern concepts (such as monetary systems, strategic management, mental illness, global warming, and string theory) are so complex and abstract that we cannot relate to them in concrete terms at all — it is only if and when we really care about them and their consequences that we undertake the enormous work needed to at least partly understand them. So as our lives become more abstract and complex, more and more of the tasks of understanding these complexities are left to experts. The rest of us, impoverished by the narrowness of our life experiences and unmotivated to study the increasingly esoteric abstractions of experts in all areas of human activity, are left with knowledge and understanding that is largely shallow, narrow, numb, and useless.

We might as well be machines, and some would argue that is what we have largely become.

Nowhere is this narrowness more problematic that in our (lack of) understanding of and connectedness to ‘the environment’. The term alone is objective — it is something other and apart from us and our civilization (when we speak of human ‘environments’ we are understood to be speaking in analogy). Most of us have no experience base, recollection from our early childhood, or connection to our instincts that allow us to appreciate intuitively that the whole concept of ‘environment as other’ is a non sequitur — in every sense of the word it ‘makes no sense’.

Somewhere inside us we have a kind of primeval appreciation that we are part of the environment, but neither our personal experience nor our language inform that appreciation and give it meaning. In fact they tell us the opposite: that a consequence of human affluence is an impoverishment of ‘the environment’. But how can ‘we’ be taking away from something of which we are inextricably a part? So the incompatibility of these concepts causes us to file away the idea of ourselves as a part of the environment, so that when politicians and corporatists talk about the need to reduce regulations and funding for ‘the environment’ to be able to satisfy more pressing human needs, no one points out, or even thinks about, the absurdity of such a conception. With the complicity of our narrow modern experience and our take-everything-apart languages, we have ‘forgotten’ everything that made us so successful a species (successful as part of the whole) for our first three million years.

It is a matter of debate whether, at least as individuals, we can unlearn the absurdities of modern life and, at least by broadening and deepening our personal experiences, ‘remember’ what it is to be a part. Words like Gaia, integrity and holism will not help, however. These muddy, ambiguous, made-up, spiritual-sounding terms are more likely to annoy most people than enlighten them. Political parties, demonstrations, laws and speeches about the need for us to reconnect with and become again a part of the rest of life on Earth won’t work as long as our language forces us to speak about the environment as ‘other’, and as long as their experience and our languages make our message unintelligible. What can we do, with such constraints, to help the 6.5 billion people on Earth understand what we mean and its importance to the future of our planet?

I have no answers to this, and I’m not sure there are any. But I offer three areas to explore that might surface some answers:

  1. Save our breath, stop trying to tell and convince people, and instead show them — by creating working models of communities in which people are a harmonious part of all life in those communities, living in balance with a light footprint. The woman rap poet in Toronto who says she’s tired of ‘environmentalists’ coming into her urban neighbourhood talking about the importance of planting trees, when that neighbourhood is full of angry young people with no job prospects drawn to the promise of wealth and glamour in local drug gangs, is absolutely right not to care about the-environment-as-other.
  1. Use the arts (including film and photography) to convey the message, since they are not constrained by the limits of language. As an example, there’s a song by James Taylor called Gaia which includes the passage below. Unless you know the song, these lyrics probably won’t have any impact on you, but few people who have listened to the song are unmoved by its soaring melody and brooding harmonies, which ‘say’ much more than the words and open people up to its message: 
Turn away from your animal kind,
Try to leave your body just to live in your mind,
Leave cold cruel Mother Earth behind — Gaia,
As if you were your own creation,
As if you were the chosen nation,
And the world around you just a rude and dangerous invasion.
  1. Explore some inventive linguistic ways of expressing new (and ancient) ideas with everyday words. In yesterday’s post, for example, I was playing with hyphenated words as a means of trying to convey concepts that defy clear one-word expression: I used ‘engaged-as-part’ as an adjective to describe awareness (instead of ‘integral’) and ‘being-a-part-of’ as an adjective (instead of ‘holistic’) to describe human activitythat is not automatic, disconnected information processing activity.

The third approach intrigues me as someone who works with words. It doesn’t cost anything, and our language is in serious need of broadening and freeing from its current frustrating constraints. The Swan and Shadow poem by John Hollander I posted last Saturday showed what we might do with our linear, constraining language with a little innovation. I know a lot of the readers of this blog are also writers — what other ways could we explore to liberate our language from its cultural biases and limitations of expression, without making up words nobody understands?

artwork above is my own creation

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6 Responses to Language and the ‘Otherness’ of the Environment

  1. andrew says:

    I enjoyed reading this entry, today on your Blog. I have myself tried playing around with language, to winkle out a bit more meaning ;-) over the years of writing at the Karash Learning-org.(now defunct btw) To be fair to Otto’s use of the word ”Presencing” you’ll see that he has taken roots of that term and put them together from his conversation with Varela. Bohm wrote some interesting things about words and visual art, their capacities and limits for increasing understanding. I i(n)magine ;-) you are aware of that work? Anyway, i would be interested to see what outcomes happen from your own experie(n)ments in art and word assemblage (collages?) and that or those of others who read here. And if you publish them i would be interested to create some imagery from them myself, if that is possible.When i do workshops with people not familiar with, say, painting in a free form (abstract) style i find they spontaneously write poems of poetic phrases on the reverse, or ion some cases incorporate the very flow of the cursive hand writing of the painting into a word or phrase, so literally fusing writing and image…warmest wishes, Andrew

  2. Hi Dave,The art work is beautiful!! It is very mysterious and interesting.I love reading your blogs everyday!! Warm Regards,Srinath

  3. “what other ways could we explore to liberate our language from its cultural biases and limitations of expression…”I think it can be helpful, and it’s always fascinating, to study other languages, to learn even a few words that stand for ideas that we never even imagined, but that are intrinsic parts of another view of the world.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    I too have found that hyphenating several words together helps me to pronounce them in my mind as the idea or thought I am trying to express … the hyphens add some kind of meaning-oriented punctuation that i am not yet able to describe well.

  5. kerry says:

    Beautiful piece of artwork Dave – and the perfect antidote to our rectangular world. A friend reminded me today that we tend to view the world through the rectangle – our computer screens, tv screens, newspapers, even books. Nature, however, has few rectangles!

  6. Cristosova says:

    What came to my mind after reading your essay (I know, I am posting this late) was a scene from the Chinese movie “Hero”, where, in order to understand the mindset of his rival in swordmanship, the Hero asks him to draw the word “sword”. There are 7 ways to write “sword”, but the Hero requests an 8th. Since both, calligraphy and swordplay, rely on one’s strength and spirit, the rival´s style would reveal the essence of his swordsmanship. And it is only after studying the calligraphy that the Hero is able to defeat his rival. The link between pictoral letter signs and philosophies like Tao and Zen in Asian cultures has kept me intrigued since. How do you ingrain a word if it is not only a letter? Graffiti, for example, by elaborate writers, is called urban calligraphy. Writing their name tags again and again, some of the writers state it is an expression of and a search for identity. Does that do anything to their mental growth? Should we all meditate over a single word more often?My fear had been, too, that language is limited and I wondered what to do to be more precise and inventive with it. But then maybe it is not the language that is limited but the circustances in which we speak to each other. I feel that language has become less a tool for transporting a message, but a message that wants to transport the messenger. The content is so closely tied to the individual that whatever you say is not what is being examined, but how it portraits your image. Hence its often not the message that is acknowledged or deconstructed, it is the person. Words as weapons. (Com) muni (ca) tion. What comes close to what you said about survival. We do not need to understand, hear or learn something to grow wise, we need that to outsmart others. That´s where the limitation starts. I found this a very interesting read and just wanted to add my few thoughts, that are, quite frankly, not very developed yet. (Not that you didn´t notice yourself ;))Nice artwork!

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