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dialectic Posts

The Love of Language

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” –Roland Barthes

One:
Language is an almost magical system of communication. Imagine an early civilization transmitting a message between two individuals hundreds of miles apart. One carves cuneiform symbols with a reed onto a small, thin brick of wet clay and dries it under the sun. A porter on horseback carriers the brick to its destination and hands it to the receiver, who stares at the brink, translating the written symbols to audible symbols, conveying a meaning to those listening.

This would seem a miracle to the uninitiated, illiterate members of the audience. It is like the cartoon where a shipwrecked anthropomorphic animals speaks into a jar, closes it, and throws it into the water to be heard upon opening wherever the jar happens to find its way.

Cultures on multiple continents have viewed their language and even alphabet characters as holy. An alphabet was often viewed as being handed down by God. Written language was divinely inspired.

The spoken language carried a similar weight. Ancient Jews would not speak the name of their God. To utter the collection of sounds that made up that name was taboo.

We speak with purpose to convey a meaning to another. We tell a story, express emotion, attempt to create desire or anger in a recipient, relieve withheld anger, or ask for an answer.

In every situation we use language we communicate multiple meanings – what we might call  layers or levels. It is not that we simply make a statement. We use words to connect what we have understood in our heads to what is understood in the recipient. Words are the force between two magnets, either pulling or pushing sender and receiver towards or away.

Two:
In a meeting I utter the sound “uh” after being asked a question. The sound has an intention. It is a placeholder. The sound is subtle and carries on for two full seconds. Any longer and it would have garnered attention and seemed unique, unusual.

Silence would have allowed for others to take my place in response. I use this sound as a place holder in a social queue. It is a word but not a word: I use it to convey my consideration for the question. If I had stated “please hold while I formulate a response” my language would have seemed forced, robotic. If I had remained silent and simply looked at the asker, I would have again delivered a message.

Three:
I may disconnect my language from my emotion to preserve a relationship or continue on with an objective. I am asked to do something I wish not to do. I reply an enthusiastic “yes” before pausing for a moment and replying “ok” and nod my head twice. It is the follow up that conveys my lack of assurance.

I answer twice.

My emotion is expressed and withheld. It is not a false response as I wish to convey my willingness as well as convey my lack of personal interest. There is an “I” as well as an “I am”. I want but I am also I am wanting ________________.

With language I may express a range and variety of opinions and mix my meanings to convey the complexity of human emotion. It is not the 1 0 of binary language. We are a strange loop.

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Name the Colors, Blind the Eye [, a] Zen Dialectic

One:
The title is, I’m told, an old Zen saying. In looking at the specifics of a situation, in labeling the elements of an experiences, we are limiting our understanding rather than deepening our awareness. In looking for the specifics or meaning we are keeping ourselves from really seeing.

This is a concept clearly applicable to nearly every situation in life. When we define an idea or a person we have already limited our perception of what is really before us.

The antithesis of this argument is the old adage, “if it quacks like a duck.” My iPhone has the ability to quack. Is it in fact a duck? Perhaps in a former life.

Labeling is a very helpful ability in evolutionary terms. If something looks like a snake we assume it is a snake and know to stay away.

I think to be slow to judge is in fact quite a value. To really understand someone we have to listen and focus on the message transmitted rather than our intuitive desire to just assume.  We have to be willing to shrug off biases and see the individual for who they are.

Unhappiness is always an option. It is easy to create associations between the aspects of life and create a narrative in which we in fact are the poor, sad benefactor of life’s cruel misery. This is, however, not the reality of the situation.

We are a part of the whole. What is misery for us might in fact be a tremendous improvement for another. Life is chance and we roll the dice every morning. We play well or we simply hope the next morning will bring a new configuration.

Two:
But is it up to us to decide our fate in a situation? What about the time when things are truly terrible? If someone in a ski mask is holding a gun to our head are we to ignore the objects on display and try not to assume that we are being mugged? When is it beneficial to make judgments and when is it systemic of a deficiency? Should we always assume the best in people in situations?

We cannot say for sure how a situation will turn out in the end. We pay attention to the colors so we can survive what life throws at us. We are born to survive and reproduce. We are happy when our needs (both natural and assumed) are met. We are not happy when we lack or experience loss.

Three:
The meaning is what is found by looking at the meaning. We create meaning from our judgments. It is in looking at this statement and considering its “truthiness” that gives me the ability to create meaning from its parts. I might say, “Yes, I understand this statement to mean … as being a figurative analogy regarding the way I should live my life.” But in this I am giving weight or purpose to the color of nuance.

I have to realize that the logical must give way in moments to the understandings that are not definable or describable. If I assume a logical understanding of not the statement but rather the intuitive awareness that is created through its reading, I am missing the true intuition that is available as its purpose. I must cease to define the object, even the meaning as an object, to create space for the purpose of the statement.

I picture a simple example: a man, dressed like a thug serving food to the homeless and crying while watching chick flicks. The image conveys meaning. But in this I have created meaning around the simplicity of the meaning. The man might in fact steal food from the soup kitchen out of spite. But I cannot know this. I have to experience the moment and gauge that the situation might not in fact be what it seems – in both the good and the bad. In this sense it is through the reduction of meaning that the meaning becomes clear: it is the moment that matters, not our interpretation.

Only in defining the experience can I know my relationship to the meaning. I am the one who defines the colors and the color of the statement. I am the one who finds meaning in the statement. I define the statement and loose the meaning in phrasing a sentence about its purpose and understanding. It is the individual who is creating, not the creation itself.

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Reflections on the Meaning of Food

One:

Cooking is a relationship between ingredients, a symphonic harmony or angry discussion in the form of the penultimate state of a consumable good. A meal is a philter, a magic potion, not a combination of parts. Food is a relatively acceptable opulence or intoxicant, acceptable whether in ornamentation or quantity. Cooking is a chemistry experiment, the mystical union between unique particulates and compounds artfully arranged to satisfy palate and soul.

A meal is the interaction between eater and consumable: the same ingredients interact with the eater to signify romance or disgust. A disgust for one is the comfort food of another’s youth: food highlights human flexibility and cultural diversity. A meal can be mass produced by machines, crammed into freezer cabinets in shapes and forms only reflective of the original parts. A meal can be produced by hand, slowly and methodically, a thousand or more times before being perfected: bread dough, a pie crust, a plate of noodles.

Two:

I say I am hungry. First a discomfort in my biology, a desire for fulfillment, the end of an ailment. Second the mental disquieting. I am controlled by my biological necessity. My mind tells me I must eat and I consciously listen as though receiving a message from a disparate source. I am doing the listening and taking action upon my desire. I am not in charge of my wants. The I of me is the one who responds to the I of my desire. A prepared food, the image of satisfaction, in this condition is a sensual pleasure. To resist one’s desire for satisfaction, to prolong the want, is to increase the satisfaction – like a communion between tantric lovers.

I sample a portion of what is prepared before me. I may witness and take part in the operation, the creation. I choose what I wish to consume and as though selecting a movie or individual with whom I will interact. Each component has a name and purpose. One object offers my body a happiness, the sensory stimulation of a drug. One object is for health. I recognize that a sacrifice in what I purely crave will result in an invisible, detached reward. One part offers a unique flavor, a component of interest. The flavor must merge with the required ingredients. The flavor/s must tell me something, must speak through my cultural and experiential lens.

The portion offers texture and feel. The portion moves through my mouth like bare feet on a gradated surface, feeling through the ingredients and reminding myself of each object, first as a whole and then separately: this texture is a meat, this a vegetable; this feel is a pasta, a rice, a pudding. I feel as much as I taste. When I chew through the texture I move with the food. I know where to place each bite.

Three:

Food is a fully consumable art. Not constrained by being viewed from a distance, it becomes a part of the eater and integrated into the person, both as tangible items and as spiritual or emotional nourishment. Food crosses the boundary of speculative and enters into an experience. Food unifies the boundaries of history and biology: an engagement with all available senses,  a map of available resources, a history of conquest. Food is a drug, the cause of an illness, a cure.

Four:

We eat to live, but some live to eat. We live in a unique era with an exceptional selection of options and ingredients now available in even small, rural communities. We may now efficiently travel great distances for a few minutes of esoteric gastronomical bliss at a temple of haute cuisine or to sample the obscure culinary dialect of a culture few have heard of before.

Our food offers us peace, comfort, excitement, happiness, and joy. We look to it in times of unhappiness and relish in it when at our very best. We share the experience with others or enjoy on our own, finding meaning in the occurrence of each. And this is perhaps our greatest attribute as a species: the simplest act of consumption necessary for human existence, an act equated with pouring gasoline into a car, is an opportunity to find meaning in who we are as a community, as an individual, and as a mechanical object. We are the who that is eating and the who that must eat: one the necessity and the other our relationship to the object and its full meaning to ourselves and our community. We are what we eat.

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Reflections on the Meaning of Home

The end of our journey is to arrive back where we started and see it like for the first time. – T.S. Eliot

Y’all not from ’round here, are ya? – Ray, The Princess and the Frog

Home: Version 1

I left Hickory, NC for good the summer of 1998 and ceremoniously shook the dust off of my shoes as my parents’ car made its way north for 213 miles to the school where I would spend the next three years. I like to think that I never connected with North Carolina. Up to just a few years ago I still considered myself a New Yorker – despite the fact that I hadn’t lived there since just after my 9th birthday.

I left and only visited after.

Home: Version 2

I realize that I run from sociocultural identification. Somewhere buried under layers of associations and generalization a slender core of belief has been building in me regarding the feeling of and desire for home. It is the sense of loss and acceptance. It is a hope and goal. It is a belonging. It is the place that I have known all along but fought to replace with a location more appealing to my modern sentiments and way in which I wish to be defined and seen. It is an acceptance of the past.

The color and features are burned in my memory. I see faces and hear sounds. I see familiar shades of green and feel humidity in my pores. It is a part of who I am.

Home: Version 3

Home is a relationship with the invisible – a cosmic background radiation – a neurochemical reaction to a stimulus. It is an altercation, an invocation, a pronouncement. I feel the word slip through my teeth and settle with a soft finish; it is only a hesitation from the gentle “ohm” of Hindu meditation. I can feel the word as an exhalation.

But I do not visit home or feel it. Home is a series of Proustian encounters. It is an engagement with thoughts which form the foundation of all ideas that follow and find you when you are alone. Home is what you wish to give to those most clearly able to define it: the child on the back of a milk carton, a soldier in a foreign war, a drunk asleep on a bench. Home is the eradication of suffering in the bed  monsters once clawed out from under.

A home is the settling in of home. A home is a tension between building and tenant. A home absorbs the very best and worst of a dweller. A dweller absorbs the best and worst of home.

I run from and to home. I dip in my toes and then shake off my feet immediately; home is seen as the beginning of something that was with you all along. I am not a feeling and neither is home. We are a geography laden with signifiers.

Mine is grown over with kudzu and soundtracks: a stolen stop sign, a first love, a bass line, a family waiting at the door. Mine is a country with a swollen river, a broken chair, a suffocating heat. There is something here for me but I will never again possess it.

I pick up home like a ball and play with it for moments at a time, as though I am building up muscles that have long ago atrophied. I interact: I am the one who interacts and brings my self to a place of home. It is home who is patient and ever present while I leave and return.

Am I home? The action of my being home is a token conveying the meaning of the home as a signifier. I am the home which is present in the home. Without me there is no home for me to be present within. Home is the objet petit a: I desire to be a part of it such as it is part of me.

There is only one way for me to escape the allure of home: to accept it. To accept you must cover your feet with the dust you once shook off.

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