Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The failure of language part 1: forgetting

'Babel-On'  an attempt to communicate the failure of communication (how post-modern is that?!)


There is something utterly contrary, I'm sure, about writing a blog post about the failure of language. Add to that the fact that I have a degree in Literature and a life-long love affair with language, and it seems positively mad. I'm an artist and a scribbler, a poet-in-training, a closet writer. I'd like to be able to communicate my ideas, my thoughts, to others and see what they make of them. Heck, that's why I write a blog! But therein lies the rub.

Often I find myself wanting to write, to grab hold of those ideas floating around in my mind, to put them out there so that perhaps others can make sense of them. But I find myself stymied over and over again by the inability to find words that can in any way communicate what I'm feeling. Right now, this moment, my fingers have been hovering ineffectually over the keyboard because I cannot begin to sort out the whirling mass of pictures, impressions, feelings, snippets of heard/read/seen/smelt/touched experiences. That the books I've been reading, the blog posts, the music I've listened to (and created), the smell of rain, and the sound of wind, the art I've seen (and created), my daughter telling me this morning that she couldn’t tell the difference between the birds singing in the garden and the birds on the relaxation CD playing in our family room...all this collides and coalesces into something of meaning. But I can't explain what. I feel it, but I can't put it into words, even for myself. Even when I do find some words that seem to work, I inevitably discover that the simple act of fitting to the words somehow limits and diminishes the thought behind them. Rather like trying to capture a rainbow in a quick sketch with a black ballpoint pen. Something is lost. And if we can't pin it down with words...we have a tendency to dismiss it. A lived experience that cannot be turned into words and 'communicated' somehow, in this society, has no validity. In fact we've almost gone beyond that, to the point where an experience has more validity if you watch it on your mobile phone while recording it and then post it on Facebook, than if you actually just watch it.

I mentioned in my previous post that I've just finished reading David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous. I cannot give you a quick three sentence summary, all I can do is say, read it. But it's got me thinking about language. About how we use language, what we expect it to do (and what we think it does), and how we elevate it (especially the written word) beyond the wordless, felt experience. How we decide what is language, and what is not, how we assign status accordingly. And how, ultimately, it so often fails us.  Abram's book dares to suggest that maybe humans aren't the only ones with language, and it's our definition of language as being the sole realm of humans that has, at least in part, led to the way we view the world as being inanimate, dumb, silent and devoid of meaning, and therefore, easy to exploit and easy to destroy. We even do it to each other. How often have Colonial overlords dismissed the rich and redolent tongues of native peoples as being "babble", and done everything they could to stamp them out?

We use language to explain the world and what cannot be communicated (or communicated to) in words is dismissed.  We trust it to communicate transparently ideas and experiences from one person to another.  And we believe that language is a tool we are in control of. We created it, it serves us. And yet, I think we are wrong.  I think that human language fails on all counts. I won’t try to explain all three in one blog post…so this is part one. 

As David Abram’s suggests, we have taken written human language (particularly the language/s of the Western World) and put it on a pedestal, and in doing so, we have dismissed the languages of the other citizens of the earth, where once we understood and even ‘spoke’ them. It might seem stupidly romantic or daftly ‘new age’ to talk about the language of trees, or rivers, or conversing with magpies or wallabies. But Abram doesn’t mean it in the sense of carrying on a conversation as we know it…’so how’s your day been? Boss getting on your nerves again?’ He means rather, that allowing ourselves the time and space (and the silence) to listen, really listen, to other animals or rivers or oceans or trees, will allow us to understand them, to bring them back into our lives from which they have been missing for too long.  Time spent patiently listening to the songs of a particular bird will inevitably bestow enormous understanding of that bird’s life. Different songs will become discernible, subtle differences depending on season and lifecycle will become clear. Furthermore, how that bird’s life interacts with the other creatures in the area, with you, will also be understood. You may find yourself thinking, ‘the birds are singing their autumn song’ and even though you yourself haven’t felt the coming of the cooler season, you know, because the birds told you. In a documentary I once saw about the pacific islands, a Samoan elder was featured, a man who could navigate vast distances (like his ancestors before him) across the ocean simply by ‘reading’ the waves and the winds. By understanding the language of wind and water and stars and fish, he always knew exactly where he was and how far from land. It would seem mumbo jumbo to modern westerners to say he could understand the language of the waves, but really, that’s what he was doing. It just depends on your definition of language. Indigenous peoples with an intimate understanding of their surroundings, of their place within the greater community of beings, and a relationship with those beings, have sometimes seemed to westerners to have almost ‘mystical’ abilities to track, or find food, or predict weather, or see things and hear things invisible and inaudible. It’s led to rather patronizing notions like the ‘noble savage’, or the idea that native peoples are closer to nature and therefore more like native fauna than people in their own right. And also to the ‘well, if I can’t see/hear it, it must just be superstitious nonsense,’ attitude.

What was so interesting about Abram’s writing, is that he describes how he, a westerner brought up in cities and used to the western way of thinking/experiencing, found that his perceptions shifted after he began living among the wise ones of the cultures he was studying. That he began to experience the world in a very different way, seeing and hearing things he’d never noticed before. As if his eyes began to see properly and his ears became unblocked, and a whole unimagined world opened up. It’s not that he started seeing spirits or ghosts, but he started to notice, to see and hear the whole of what was going on around him, not just the human part. More telling though, is his description of how he tried to hold on to this new and heightened perception when he returned to the US, but eventually found it being muffled and drowned out by the noise, the constant onslaught of human created communication. That eventually he found himself becoming blind and deaf to the voices and experiences of the non-human world. That eventually, he went back to the way he had been before, the way the rest of us are. The way we presume is normal. And he experienced an intense sense of grief for this loss, having known there is so much more.

We like to think we experience ‘reality’ objectively. But even science tells us now that what we think is real is actually a perceived construct. Our brain doesn’t tell us what our eyes see. It tells us what it thinks they see. Our ears send data to the brain, and the brain interprets what we are hearing according to what it already knows. It makes decisions depending on context and past experience. It also prioritises information. Which means, anything it doesn’t think is important, gets pushed aside. So if you don’t hear the bird singing it’s not because it isn’t there. You don’t hear it because your brain has learnt that it doesn’t need to pay any attention to it. So you don’t hear the difference between two bird calls, you don’t hear the subtle change in a river’s babble, you don’t hear the swing of direction in the wind blowing the leaves of the tree. You don’t see the change in ripple patterns on the water’s surface that signals the fish below arcing away. Often now, we don’t even notice where the sun is coming up and going down. So, in Abram’s argument, there is in fact a vast wealth of communication, conversation, information that we are utterly cut off from, and we are much, much poorer for it. We only see and hear a tiny fraction of what is actually out there. And if we can’t see or hear it, we won’t value it, we won’t care for it, we don’t notice the impact we’re having on it. And we won’t notice when it’s gone. Somehow, in a terrible irony, we have used language, the medium through which we communicate, to build a wall between ourselves and all the rest of creation. And having built that wall, we’ve forgotten there’s something beyond it. Something we used to be a part of. Our language has made us deaf. 

(And speaking of the failure of language, I wanted this post to be so much more...beautiful, poetic, than it is.  Unfortunately, sometimes the craftsman cannot blame his tools, it is his own lack of skill that is the problem.  Once again the words just don't match the cloud of thoughts in my head!)

10 comments:

Mo Crow said...

love how you have circled this idea and brought more awareness in the circling, you write so well Christina! On the weekend I tried to record the beautiful magpie song that greets me an hour before dawn every day but the low rumble of the city which I don't actually hear in the early hours was too loud to bother with sharing the recording... so sometimes the things we block out can help us hear the things that are important too... it works both ways...

Gypsea said...

Very interesting post. Yes, I too think there is too much noise going on. Everybody so busy, so noisy. I often work or read with nothing turned on, no noise in the house. When friends and family come over they sometimes comment on how nice it is just to hear what else there is. But strangely they never sit in their own homes in the quiet. I think that I never really appreciated it either until after I retired and just wanted to really, really unwind.

Looking forward to part 2. Take care.

Valerianna said...

Great, Christina.... indeed, why I had to move to the quiet forest because the many levels of 'noise" in the city wore me out on so many levels and denied access to wild rhythms.

A mermaid in the attic said...

Thanks ladies! Mo, I've found the last couple of years I seem to be less and less able to 'block out' all that background human noise, living in busy suburbia and under the flight path of the international airport. I really feel it's having a detrimental effect on my concentration and creativity levels. I hear the birds too, but it's like stolen snippets, and I resent that. Gypsea, exactly, we're all rush rush rush, but where are we going?! And I've never been able to understand people who, for example, put the TV on as soon as they get home, for company! Valerianna, yep! That's why we're planning to move soonish, looking at going down south to a small country town by the sea. Fingers crossed we'll get there!

Mo Crow said...

Oh the south coast of WA! in 1974 I lived near Yallingup in a big old farm house down a dirt track for $5 a week with a bucket of milk given to us every morning by the farmer who owned the old house and work if we wanted... it was paradise... I swore I'd be back... ah one day!
Ah noise tolerance, I discovered it's a state of mind back in the mid 90's! I never thought I could live on a main road but we ended up renting a big old house with a huge studio space at the bottom of a hill on a 4 lane inner city truck route, it was perfect except gfor the noise & the first few weeks I didn't sleep... I really thought we would have to move again until one night it was raining and the sound of the water on the truck tires was like waves with the sets of waves coming in with the changing of the traffic lights and every so often there would be a big wave from a huge semi... like the 7th wave... from then on a slept like a baby, also it was very good for the late night music sessions after the gigs every weekend when everyone who was stil at the pub at closing time would come back to our place to sing & party til dawn and y'know the neighbours never complained, we were blessed and can never ever complain about anyone making noise haha!

Oya's Daughter said...

I was taught in a similar vein to Abram due to learning from indigenous people in the US - and probably the most harrowing (and most true) reason why we lost this gift was put to me by an elder: "White men closed their ears because they couldn't bear the screaming any longer."

Yeah.

Yeah.

We could do this again, we could learn to communicate with everything and everyone. But the din might deafen us. We've gone so far away from such a state that going back might make us go mad. So is "advancement".

Valerianna said...

Oya's Daughter - that's it, truly! When I first got to the forest and began my in-depth training by sitting still and listening and walking, looking in deep silence, I went through an incredibly intense period of mourning. I would scream and yell and not be able to cope with what I saw around me. A tree or stand of trees would be cut down for no reason and I would be wailing... its gotten a little easier these days, but not because I blocked my ears, but from a sort of surrender, I guess.

Mo Crow said...

have just started reading Jay Griffiths "Wild- an elemental journey" another brilliant book that explores the deep need to learn from the wildly wet places of our world & as a horticulurist I particularly enjoyed the thought that the wisest men & women in the Amazon are the vegitalistas - they learn from the plants, the 'doctores' the plant teachers which teach people medicine.

Nanita said...

Extremely interesting read on the failure of language, something which causes me daily frustration. Trying to exteriorate our inner world of experiences, feelings, etc is quite impossible because of the boundaries and limitations of language, and a lot gets lost, twisted, flattened in the process. I believe, like you, that language does not serve us. It is a limited, imperfect tool and we struggle to make things somehow fit. Mind you, I am a translator and am supposed to hold language on the pedestal you talk about, but I clearly cannot :-) Another interesting fact experienced by myself and former fellow language students is how language appears to define your personality. My native (subtle, careful) Dutch does not allow me to express myself as bluntly and appearantly spontaneously as the Russian or Spanish I've studied. We were amazed at the fact that while living in Russia, we made a very different impression of our personality just because of language. I do not know whether my ramblings make sense, after all, I am struggling to write an English translation of my ideas that were already limited by trying to fit them in my native Dutch in the first place... A lot was lost here ;-) Greets from Brussels x

Bill said...

I suppose everyone will feel annoyed with any kind of left brained response, but the failure of language stands on its own. It is by its own nature mostly irrational. We have not become linguistic in order to express our ability to be rational,but to share our hopes and fears and to glorify our response to them and to validate our identification with our role of choice. The meanings we give for experience are sometimes creative and beautiful but most often grounded in this need for expression rather than a need for truth.

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