Ktismatics

19 September 2007

Your Place or Mine

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:45 am

Since time immemorial, people have expressed nostalgia for a time before the development of language, for a supposed time when homo sapiens lived like animals, with no language and thus nothing that could taint or complicate man’s needs and wants… In such nostalgic views, language is deemed the source of a great many evils. People are considered to be naturally good, loving and generous, it being language that allows for perfidy, falsehood, lying, treachery, and virtually every other fault with which human beings and hypothetical extraterrestrials have been taxed. From such standpoints, language is clearly viewed as a foreign element inopportunely foisted upon or grafted onto an otherwise wholesome human nature. Writers like Rousseau have beautifully expressed what Lacan calls man’s alienation in language. According to Lacanian theory, every human being who learns to speak is thereby alienated from him or herself.

– Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject, chapter 1

While nonlinguistic animals might be wild, unconstrained by culture, they aren’t free. Their hungers and their drives are almost entirely hard-wired, instinctual, pre-programmed. The free-range beast is a slave to its programming, seeking food when it’s hungry, mating when the opportunity presents itself, settling into its natural place in the hierarchy of the pack or herd. It could legitimately be said the individual animal is “spoken” by the “language” of DNA, except that in a world without symbolic communicators this linguistic interpretation of genetics would never come to mind. It’s like talking about the earth pulling us by gravity, as if the earth were an intentional agent holding us on the ground. Referring to the genetic language of DNA is to use a linguistic metaphor as a tool for understanding a natural phenomenon, much as a chemist might regard a formula as a language for constructing complex compounds out of simpler elements.

The only way these invocations of language aren’t metaphorical is if we assert that languages can speak themselves without intentional agents using language as a communication tool. We could assert the existence of suprapersonal language-using agents whose intentions transcend the plane of individual human understanding. We might speak of a Creator who purposely designs or assembles the world out of tools like chemical valences and genetic sequences as an expression of a cosmic intent which we cannot grasp. Or we might regard the “invisible hand” of the marketplace as a metaphor not for unintelligent self-organizing structure but for a collective societal super-intelligence that moves buyers and sellers around in conformance with some higher-order intent that cannot be grasped by individual consciousness.

Anyhow, Lacan contends that language constrains desire by assigning it a name that directs its expression and fulfillment into socially-acceptable channels. Surely this is true. But for prelinguistic animals there is no escape from the predetermined channels: whether alone or in the pack, the individual’s “self-motivated” behavior is dictated by its environment and its genes. Language carves channels of tamed desire through the culture, but it also opens channels that would never have existed had they not been named. Monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, casual dating; homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual; your place or mine; scrambled, poached, over easy; jazz, rock, classical. If we can’t name them they aren’t real because they don’t occur to us as possibilities. If we can name things in between the categories then they too become real.

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12 Comments »

  1. Language as the locus of all evil (and good?) and the attractive idea of the noble, dumb, savage. It also reminds me of the Tower of Babel story, I wonder why for that seems to see the multiplicity of languages as a limiting factor to mankind’s evil ways?

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    Comment by samlcarr — 19 September 2007 @ 11:29 am

  2. The Tower of Babel story provides mythic support for the ur-language theory, the “mother tongue” as it were: that language was invented once, before humanity began moving around the world. I think Tomasello subscribes to this view, which suggests that there is at least some degree of universality to language, though Tomasello attributes it to a shared original culture rather than a particular brain structure (which is, of course, also universal).

    We note that in the Edenic paradise there was a lot of language use going on. Our friend JKA Smith also observes this in one of his earlier books, arguing that the individuation of humanity is intrinsic, that it is part of the plan for us to communicate our desires linguistically rather than having unspoken communion with God and one another.

    So do the universal convergence on English, as well as the verticality of American architecture, suggest that the Babel story was prophetic?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 19 September 2007 @ 12:14 pm

  3. Certainly if one equates the power to challenge God with the ultimate in evil, the only nation that has that power is the U.S.A.

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    Comment by samlcarr — 19 September 2007 @ 12:22 pm

  4. And yet, nominally and probably in practice as well, America may be the most Christian country on earth. In a Lacanian vein, one has to wonder whether the growing hegemony of the English language forecloses the alternate realities that are embedded structurally and symbolically in other languages. In the preceding post I suggested that American language use might be more intrinsically pragmatic and less self-reflective than French. On the other hand, I bet English has more words than French: since English is such a mongrel it incorporates synonyms from all sorts of other linguistic sources. On the other hand, the working vocabulary of the average American is probably smaller than that of the average French person. I remember giving a handful of exact change to a bus driver in Nice. He counted it up, said “impeccable,” and handed me my ticket. Now English also has the word “impeccable” in its dictionary, but how many Americans ever actually use it in conversation?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 19 September 2007 @ 12:32 pm

  5. Are the two phenomena related do you think (less vocab, perhaps less grammar, and the illusion of freedom but practically more controllable, less variable, lives)? Does being the ‘most Christian nation’ also means that as a nation the possibility of totalitarianism is not too far away? I noticed the habeas corpus itself seems to be under attack…

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    Comment by samlcarr — 19 September 2007 @ 2:41 pm

  6. “Are the two phenomena related do you think (less vocab, perhaps less grammar, and the illusion of freedom but practically more controllable, less variable, lives)?”

    Interesting observation, Sam. Yes, I suspect they are related, and I think Lacan would say so as well.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 19 September 2007 @ 8:11 pm

  7. So, in some sense ‘more’ language actually increases a person’s freedom by giving them more options but it also opens channels that would never have existed had they not been named? It would be fascinating to know if that has been tested as a theory?

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    Comment by samlcarr — 20 September 2007 @ 6:26 am

  8. It seems clear that, for humanity as a species over the last hundred thousand years, changes in culture have been much more rapid and have had a far dramatic impact than have genetic changes. Each of us individually is a carrier of the culture, benefitting from the discoveries and inventions of the generations who preceded us. Surely culture has opened opportunities and environmental niches to humanity that had previously been closed. That each of us can learn in a few short years what it took millennia for the species to learn bespeaks a remarkable flexibility in human adaptability. Most of the expansion of vocabulary these days consist of scientific and technical terms, which give names to things that didn’t used to exist. This I think is how language has evolved and grown along with the species: incrementally, in conjunction with cognitive and technological expansion and intensification. Do the names give rise to the inventions? E.g., does the name “supersonic flight” come into being before the technology; does the signifier precede and create the signified? I think often enough that’s true. I don’t have data, however, nor have I seen this proposition explored.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 20 September 2007 @ 12:28 pm

  9. E.g., does the name “supersonic flight” come into being before the technology; does the signifier precede and create the signified? I think often enough that’s true. I don’t have data, however, nor have I seen this proposition explored.

    Einstein’s theory of relativity…

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 20 September 2007 @ 1:49 pm

  10. Jason, I presume you’re saying that idea and thing, signifier and signified, exist relative to each other. But I suspect also that Einstein had spoken the phrase “theory of relativity” before he actually figured out the equations. He knew he needed such a theory, and by saying its name as a signifier he set about to create/discover that which it signified.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 20 September 2007 @ 2:38 pm

  11. Yeah pretty much. But at the same time I was referring to the fact that the idea of the theory of relativity existed before there was empirical evidence. So its not an exact parallel to the technology thread that you and sam had going, but…

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    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 20 September 2007 @ 4:17 pm

  12. Yes, that’s true too. Theory lets the scientist know what to look for. Without the theory the patterns in the data wouldn’t make sense. Theory too is a set of signifiers linked together mathematically; the experimental work is to match up the data with the theory, the signifieds with the signifiers. This is a reason I’m not persuaded by structuralism: the signifiers don’t float free of the signifieds, because they do point to real phenomena. If the pointing fails and the theory isn’t supported by the evidence, then the signifier either has to point a little to the left or right or it has to be abandoned.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 20 September 2007 @ 4:52 pm


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