TOO MARVELOUS FOR WORDS
(Language Briefly Revisited)
by John Zerzan
A few years ago the now-deceased philosopher of science and anarchist Paul Feyerabend was invited to sign a petition being circulated by well-known European thinkers. Its thrust was that society is in need of input from philosophers, who draw upon the "intellectual treasures" of the past. In these dark times, the petition concluded, "We need philosophy."
Derrida, Ricoeur and the other liberal concocters of the document were no doubt shocked by Feyerabend's negative reaction. He pointed out that philosophy's "treasures" were not meant as additions to ways of living, but were intended to express their replacement. "Philosophers," he explained, "have destroyed what they have found, much in the way that the [other] standard-bearers of Western civilization have destroyed indigenous cultures…" 1 Feyerabend wondered how civilized rationalitywhich has reduced a natural abundance of life and freedom and thereby devalued human existencebecame so dominant. Perhaps its chief weapon is symbolic thought, with its ascendancy in the form of language. Maybe the wrong turn we took as a species can be located at that milestone in our evolution.
"Writing…can be seen to cause a new reality to come into being," according to Terence Hawkes, who adds that language "allows no single, unitary appeals to a 'reality' beyond itself. In the end, it constitutes its own reality." 2 An infinitely diverse reality is captured by finite language; it subordinates all of nature to its formal system. As Michael Baxandall put it, "Any language…is a conspiracy against experience in the sense of being a collective attempt to simplify and arrange experience into manageable parcels." 3
At the beginning of domination and repression, the start of the long process of depleting the riches of the living world, is a very ill-advised separation from the flow of life. What was once freely given is now controlled, rationed, distributed. Feyerabend refers to the effort, especially by specialists, to "reduce the abundance that surrounds and confuses them." 4
The essence of language is the symbol. Always a substitution. Always a paler re-presentation of what is at hand, what presents itself directly to us. Susanne Langer pondered the mysterious nature of symbols: "If the word 'plenty' were replaced by a succulent, real, ripe peach, few people could attend to the mere content of the word. The more barren and indifferent the symbol, the greater its semantic power. Peaches are too good to act as words; we're too much interested in peaches themselves." 5
For the Murngin people of northern Australia, name giving and all other such linguistic externalizations are treated as a kind of death, the loss of an original wholeness. This is very much to the point of what language itself accomplishes. In slightly more general terms, Ernest Jones proposed that "only what is repressed is symbolized; only what is repressed needs to be symbolized." 6
Any symbolic mode is only one way of seeing and connecting. By reversing our steps, in light of what has been progressively de-realized or lost, it appears likely that before the symbolic dimension took over, relations between people were more subtle, unmediated, and sensual. But this is a forbidden notion. Commonplace statements like: "Verbal language was perhaps the greatest technical invention [!] of human life" and "Language enables human beings to communicate and share with each other" deny, incredibly, that communication, sharing, society didn't exist before the symbolic, which was such a relative late-comer on the evolutionary scale. (It appeared an estimated 35,000 years ago, following nearly two million years of successful human adaptations to life on earth.) Such formulations express perfectly the hubris, imperialism and ignorance of symbolic thought.
We don't know when speech originated; but soon after domestication gained the upper hand over foraging or gatherer-hunter life, writing appeared. By about 8500 B.C. engraved clay tokens, records of agricultural transactions and inventories, became widespread in the Middle East. Five thousand years later, the Greek invention of the alphabet completed the transition to modern writing systems.
The singular excellence of modern humans has of course become a basic tenet of civilization's ideology. It extends, for example, to Sapir's definition of personality as a systematic psychological organization depending on constellations of symbols. 7 The symbolic medium of language is now widely felt as an all-defining imprisonment, rather than a liberatory triumph. A great deal of philosophical analysis in the past century revolves around this realization, though we can hardly imagine breaking free of it or even clearly recognizing its pervasive presence and influence. This is a measure of the depth of the impoverishing logic that Feyerabend sought to understand.Certainly it is no small endeavor to try to imagine what human cognition may have been like, before language and symbolic thought took possession of so much of our consciousness.
It is grammar that establishes language as a system, reminding us that the symbolic must become systemic in order to seize and hold power. This is how the perceived world becomes structured, its abundance processed and reduced. The grammar of every language is a theory of experience, and more than that, it's an ideology. It sets rules and limits, and grinds the one-prescription-fits-all lenses through which we see everything. A language is defined by grammatical rules (not of the speaker's choosing); the human mind is now commonly seen as a grammar- or syntax-driven machine. As early as the 1700s, human nature was described as "a tissue of language," 8 a further measure of the hegemony of language as the determining ground of consciousness.
Language, and symbolism in general, are always substitutive, implying meanings that cannot be derived directly from experiential contexts. Here is the long-ago source of today's generalized crisis of meaning. Language initiates and reproduces a distinction or separation that leads to ever-increasing place-lessness. Resistance to this impoverishing movement must lead to the problematization of language. Foucault noted that speech is not merely "a verbalization of conflicts and systems of domination, but…the very object of man's conflicts." 9 He didn't develop this point, which is valid and deserves our attention and study. The roots of today's globalizing spiritual crisis lie in a movement away from immediacy; this is the hallmark of the symbolic.
Civilization has made repeated, futile efforts to overcome the instability and erosion of substance caused by the rule of the symbolic. Among the most well-known was Descartes' attempt to give "grounding" to science and modernity in the 17th century. His famous mind-body duality provides a philosophical method (based on suppression of the body, of course) that we have suffered from ever since. He claimed certainty for the system by means of the language of number, as expressed in his analytic geometry. But the dream of certainty has been consistently revealed as a further repressive substitute: an illusory foundation on which domination has extended itself in every direction.
Language is conformist in the profoundest sense; even objective reality yields to its pressure. The so-called factual is brought to dissolution, because it is shaped and constrained by the limits of language. Under its reductive force, we forget that we don't need symbols to be present to meaning. The reality of pre-linguistic social practices is screened from us by more than the practical, empirical limitations of access to time past. Primal existence has been ruled irrelevant, and indigenous life-ways are everywhere under siege, because of civilization's pervasive over-valuation of the symbolic.
Yet an exploration of social life in the early symbolic epoch need not be overly speculative, and may reveal important connections. We know from archaeological and ethnographic evidence that early on in divided society, inequality was often based on ritual knowledge: who possessed it, who did not. The symbolic must have already been very much present and determinant; or why wouldn't inequality be based on, say, knowledge of plants?
It could well be that language emerged from ritual, which among other attributes, is a substitutive form of emotion. The dissociated, symbolic process of ritual activity parallels that of language and may have first generated it: emotionally displaced expression, abstracted cries; language as ritualized expression.
From early on, ritual has mystified power relationships. Deacon has argued that language became necessary to enable the contracts on which society depends. 10 However, it is more than likely that social life long predated language. Contracts based on language may have appeared to meet some challenge in society, such as the beginnings of disequilibrium or inequality.
At a later stage, religion was a further (and even less successful) response to problems and tensions in human communities. Language was central there, too. Word magic runs through the history of religions; veneration of names and naming is common (the history of religious life in Ancient Egypt is a well-documented example). 11
Problems introduced by complexity or hierarchy have never been resolved by symbolic means. What is overcome symbolically remains intact on the non-symbolic (real) plane. Symbolic means sidestep reality; they are part of what is going wrong. Division of labor, for instance, eroded face-to-face interaction and eroded people's direct, intimate relationship with the natural world. The symbolic is complicit; it generates more and more mediations to accompany those created by social practices. Life becomes fragmented; connections to nature are obscured and dissolved. Instead of repairing the rupture, symbolic thought turns people in the wrong direction: toward abstraction. The "thirst for transcendence" is initiated, ignoring the shifting reality that created that desire in the first place. Language plays a key role here, re-ordering and subordinating natural systems that humankind was once attuned to. Symbolic culture demands that we reject our "animal nature" in favor of a symbolically defined "human nature".
Now we live our everyday lives in a world system that is ever more symbolic and disembodied. Even economies are decisively symbolic; and we are told that the social bond (what's left of it) is essentially linguistic. Language was an intrusion that brought on a series of transformations resulting in our loss of the world. Once, as Freud put it, "the whole world was animate," 12 known by all in a full, engaged way. Later the totem animal was replaced by a god, a signpost of the advancing symbolic. (I am reminded that indigenous elders who are asked to make audio or video recordings often decline, insisting that what they say must be communicated in person, face to face.)
Language was a powerful instrument for technological and social disenchantment. Like every symbolic device, it was itself an invention. But it does not establish or generate meaning, which antedates language. Rather, it confines and distorts meaning, via the rules of symbolic representation—the architecture of the logic of control. Domestication also partakes of this underlying orientation, which has served domination in key ways. Language has a standardizing quality; this develops in tandem with the technological development it facilitates. The printing press, for example, suppressed dialects and other language variants, creating unified standards for exchange and communication. Literacy has always served economic development, and aimed to bolster the cohesion so necessary for the nation-state and nationalism.
Language is a productive force; like technology, it is not amenable to social control. In the postmodern era, both language and technology rule, but each shows signs of exhaustion. Today's symbolic reflects nothing much more than the habit of power behind it. Human connectedness and corporeal immediacy have been traded away for a fading sense of reality. The poverty and manipulation of mass communication is the postmodern version of culture. Here is the voice of industrial modernity as it goes cyber/digital/virtual, mirroring its domesticated core, a facet of mass production. Language does not bestow presence; rather, it banishes presence and its transparency. Dan Sperber wrote of an "epidemiology of representations"; his pathology metaphor is apt. He questioned why the symbolic spreads like an epidemic, why we are susceptible to it, 13 but left these questions unanswered. 14
In the Age of Communication our homogenized symbolic "materials" prove so inadequate. Our isolation grows; what we have to communicate shrinks. How is it that the world and consciousness have come to be seen as mainly comprised of, and enclosed by, language? Does time structure language or does language structure time? So many questions, including the key one; how do we transcend, escape, get rid of the symbolic?
We may not yet know much about the how, but at least we know something of the why. In language, number, art, and the rest, a substitution essence has been the symbolic's bad bargain. This compensation fails to compensate for what is surrendered. Symbolic transactions deliver an arid, anti-spiritual dimension, emptier and colder with each re-enactment. This is nothing new; it's just more sadly oppressive and obvious, more corrosive of actual connectedness, particularity, non-programmed life. This strangling, unhappy state saps our vitality and will destroy us if we don't end it.
Representation is unfaithful even to itself. Geert Lovink concluded that "there is no 'natural' image anymore. All information has gone through the process of digitization. We just have to deal with the fact that we can no longer believe our eyes, our ears. Everyone who has worked with a computer will know this." 15 Discounted, atrophying senses to go along with the distancing and decontextualization.
George Steiner has announced a "core tiredness" as the climate of spirit today. The weight of language and the symbolic has brought this fatigue; the "shadows lengthen" and there is "valediction in the air." 16 A farewell is indeed appropriate. Growing illiteracy, cheapened channels of the symbolic (e.g. email)…a tattered dimension. The Tower of Babel, now built into cyberspace, has never been taller-but quite possibly never so weakly supported. Easier to bring down?
1 Paul Feyerabend, Conquest of Abundance: A Tale of Abstraction versus the Richness of Being
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 270.
2 Terence H. Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (London: Methuen, 1977), pp. 149, 26.
3 Michael Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 44.
4 Paul Feyerabend, Killing Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 179.
5 Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942), p. 75.
6 Ernest Jones, cited in Dan Sperber, Rethinking Symbolism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 43.
7 Edward Sapir, "The Emergence of the Concept of Personality in a Study of Cultures," Journal of Social Psychology 5 (1934), pp 408-415.
8 For example, Johann Gottfried Herder, Treatise on the Origin of Language.
9 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, translated by A.M.Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972), p. 216.
10 Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), passim.
11 Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth (New York: Dover, 1953), pp 45-49.
12 Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works (London: The Hogarth Press, 1964), p. 114.
13 Dan Sperber, "Anthropology and Psychology: Towards an Epidemiology of Representations," Man 20 (1985), pp 73-89.
14 The major rise in the incidence of autism is not metaphorical. Autism as a retreat from symbolic interaction seems to be a terrible commentary on its unfulfilling nature. It may not be coincidental that autism first appears in the medical literature in 1799, as the Industrial Revolution was taking off.
15 Geert Lovink, Uncanny Networks (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002), p. 260.
16 George Steiner, Grammars of Creation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 3.