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:
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.
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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My Bio, Contact Info, Signature PostsAbout the Author (2016)
--- My Best 100 Posts --
Preparing for Civilization's End:
What Would Net-Zero Emissions Look Like?
Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
What Will It Take?
A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
The New Political Map (Poster)
Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
What a Desolated Earth Looks Like
Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
The Boiling Frog
What to Believe Now?
Conversation & Silence
The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
Several Short Sentences About Learning
Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
A Culture of Dependence
So What's Next
Ten Things to Do When You're Feeling Hopeless
No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
Figments of Reality
Too Far Ahead
The Rogue Animal
How the World Really Works:
If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
Collective Intelligence & Complexity
Ten Things I Wish I'd Learned Earlier
The Problem With Systems
Against Hope (Video)
The Admission of Necessary Ignorance
Several Short Sentences About Jellyfish
A Synopsis of 'Finding the Sweet Spot'
Learning from Indigenous Cultures
The Gift Economy
The Job of the Media
The Wal-Mart Dilemma
The Illusion of the Separate Self:
Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
A Theory of No Mind
The Ever-Stranger (Poem)
The Fortune Teller (Short Story)
Non-Duality Dude (Play)
Your Self: An Owner's Manual (Satire)
All the Things I Thought I Knew (Short Story)
On the Shoulders of Giants (Short Story)
Calling the Cage Freedom (Short Story)
Only This (Poem)
The Other Extinction (Short Story)
Disruption (Short Story)
A Thought-Less Experiment (Poem)
Speaking Grosbeak (Short Story)
The Only Way There (Short Story)
The Wild Man (Short Story)
Flywheel (Short Story)
The Opposite of Presence (Satire)
How to Make Love Last (Poem)
The Horses' Bodies (Poem)
Distracted (Short Story)
Worse, Still (Poem)
A Conversation (Short Story)
Farewell to Albion (Poem)
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