5.06.2009

Four Ideas and some Iron Bars

"A mind enclosed in language is in prison." --Simone Weil

Me & one of my favorite sparring partners are having a conversation about--well, among other things--whether human beings are mediated by language. So, for example, are we, as Walter Ong apparently has suggested, bewitched by grammar and language? That's how Wrangler put it in the comments section... and further, he wrote, "there is no consciousness without language," and then refined that by suggesting that "language" might be taken to mean "analysis." That's an important point: being trapped by language sounds abstract. Being trapped by our "human" need to create narratives, to explain, to understand -- that seems like a very distinct possibility.

So the question is, are we really stuck in such a way? One quick story:

When I was 21 and realizing that I didn't want to major in biology and chemistry, I was listening to a lot of Dave Matthews. At the time, I was convinced that it was because his lyrics were "deep" and that the language he used meant a lot to me. I read the CD jackets like they were poetry, and that probably did jump-start my interest in language enough to "convert" to English as a major.

When I met my wife, I told her that Dave Matthews and Bob Dylan were great poets. She mocked me and said that was ridiculous, and suggested further that my statement revealed how little I understood about poetry. She told me to take any Dylan song I could think of--his most poetic (I took "Blowin' in the Wind")--and print the lyrics out. Then she made me read the lyrics without keeping the tune. I recognized almost immediately that the music was at least as important to the overall effect as the language was.
Before then, I was certain that Dave Matthews' song "Warehouse" was a piercing allegory for human existence. After, I wanted to listen to (not "learn about") more classical music. [NOTE: if I had been driven by the human need to understand, to create narratives, I might have tried to learn about musicology or studied how certain combinations of notes can create certain emotional reactions, and maybe even written a paper on that. I didn't.] The key point here is that I believed that it was language that was moving me when, in fact, it was not (at least not completely) language. Of course, you might be tempted to make the case that music is a language, but I'd advise against it--from just the little I've overheard about music theory.

So: Stop listening to the words and hear the music. Is that a maxim that can be expanded to signify on another level? Can there be consciousness without language? Can I be conscious without language? Here's a couple-three self-portraits (like the one at top) that I made one time when I was trying to find out if it was possible to think without language:


I'm not sure what, if anything, these photoshoppers are evidence of... but if it seems like only a conscious being could make them, I can assure you that language played no part in the process. Do they communiate anything? Do they offer an experience? Do they invite analysis? That's all a mystery to me.

My final point: I don't share Wrangler's belief that human beings cannot be conscious without being conscious-through-language. But if I did, I feel like I would try anything to break out of that prisonhouse. And, as I started planning my escape, I would be very careful to not include writing or talking about my escape.

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