language 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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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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