Irreducibility Everlasting: Language and Control

Part I: Language and Affect

In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram utilizes Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work to characterize language as an expressive and gestural outlet of bodily experience as opposed to a coded abstract representation. He quotes Merleau-Ponty: “I do not see anger or a threatening attitude as a psychic fact hidden behind the gesture, I read anger in it. The gesture does not make me think of anger, it is anger itself.” Abram adds:

Communicative meaning is always in its depths, affective; it remains rooted in the sensual dimension of experience, born of the body’s native capacity to resonate with other bodies and with the landscape as a whole.[1]

Language, as a combined oral and gestural form of interaction, thus contains this affective quality, and it is affection itself that potentiates sentiments of affinity among social animals. In other words, that we affect each other reveals an aesthetic capacity that encourages localized cooperation. It is exactly this affective quality that becomes manipulable with the introduction of formal socio-economic structures, as individual agency within a social group is co-opted and centralized in the form of institutional power. As such, practices of systematic coercion– both direct, such as slavery, and indirect, such as propaganda– become possible. Therefore, to control language is to control a population affectively, often in addition to, but also at times in replacement of, more physical modes of control.

Pre-alphabetic language, being completely oral and gestural in its expression, maintains a limited potential for control, as opposed to alphabetic language that reduces expression to a set of standardized man-made symbols. Suddenly, what was once formless and diverse could then be written, reproduced, and spread in the interests of power.

 

Part II: The Story

In his 1936 essay The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin focuses on the transition from oral storytelling to the production of written novels. He writes:

The earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times. What distinguishes the novel from the story … is its essential dependence on the book. The dissemination of the novel became possible only with the invention of printing. What can be handed on orally, the wealth of the epic, is of a different kind from what constitutes the stock in trade of the novel. What differentiates the novel from all other forms of prose literature … is that it neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it. This distinguishes it from storytelling in particular. The storyteller takes what he tells from experience—his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale.[2]

Two things happen here: first, the power retained in the act of storytelling is curtailed. To Walter Benjamin, storytelling is a unique skill that facilitates “the ability to exchange experiences” both between individuals and inter-generationally. By extension, storytelling provides what he calls “counsel”, described as “less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story”. If wisdom is, as Benjamin writes, “counsel woven into the fabric of real life,”[3] then storytelling is the practice by which particular social groups remain autonomously in control of their own personal narratives and realities. The novel diverts this process, mediating self-determined storytelling and reflecting a more generalized modern logos. Secondly, the skill of storytelling falls out of practice, and the experiences of diverse peoples and generations are lost, thus breaking the continuity of group-specific narratives.

While the novel crystallizes the malleability of oral storytelling, the rise of the information age goes one step beyond anything resembling a story, claiming “prompt verifiability”, a form of communication where “no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation”. On the other hand, it is the exact lack of explanation that exemplifies the story, where it is “left up to [the individual] to interpret things the way he [or she] understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks”[4].

Part III: Experience and Cultural Narrative

“Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn.” – Walter Benjamin[5]

Eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume reminds us that empiricism, a theory of knowledge characterized by its attempt to eliminate the illusory, is itself based upon the illusion of objectivity. According to Hume, everything we know as a matter of fact seems to be “founded on the relation of Cause and Effect”; this relation “arises entirely from experience” and cannot be found “beyond the evidence of our memory and senses”.[6] When we identify similar causes and effects throughout a series of experiences, we develop what he calls custom. This customary logic allows a people to have a general understanding of the immediate world around them. Custom carries with it an air of objectivity while remaining subjective. When what we know by custom begins to feed the imagination, we can create either “fictions” or “beliefs”. Hume writes:

The difference between fiction and belief lies in some sentiment or feeling, which is annexed to the latter, not to the former, and which depends not on the will, nor can be commanded at pleasure. It must be excited by nature, like all other sentiments; and must arise from the particular situation, in which the mind is placed at any particular juncture.[7]

The difference between fiction and belief, then, lies in the added complexity of the latter (fiction being simply one’s imaginative thoughts of any sort, uncontained by his or her perceived world, while belief constitutes itself around something that binds and directs the thought; what Hume describes as a “feeling”). This articulation of belief is contextual insofar as it cannot be “commanded at pleasure” by the individual. This could be interpreted as a lack of individual agency over what one believes, but that would be too simple. That beliefs “arise from a particular situation” does not eliminate the individual, but rather includes the individual within a context that altogether determines the “feeling” or thing that binds one’s imagination toward a synchronicity. In this way “nature” could be interpreted not only as the natural world, but also as the cultural world, considering the two possibly at once. The synchronicity (aka the belief), found at this juncture of one’s shared natural-cultural context and their experience is the narrative itself. Our common experiences project themselves onto the stories we know and tell of ourselves and to each other in the particular world we live in. This is how we find our way of being in the world.

 

Part IV: Metaphysical Irreducibility

Hume declares that there will always be a metaphysical force unobservable by our senses:

When we look about us towards external objects, and consider the operation of causes, we are never able, in a single instance, to discover any power or necessary connexion; any quality, which binds the effect to the cause, and renders the one an infallible consequence of the other.[8]

In physics, we can see one ball move and hit another ball, and we can see the latter ball begin to move, but we cannot sense at all the force, or what he calls the “secret power”, at play between the two objects. Physics as a field thus creates laws by which one may understand how objects behave by reifying these secret powers into conceptual frameworks. Physics ultimately relies on metaphysics, an article of faith, to explain movement; it must acknowledge an unseen force that it does not actually see, and yet physics depends upon the acknowledgement of this force in order to provide a framework to predict movement. The sources of the laws of physics, or even an understanding of what they actually are, remain unknown, and furthermore, science is not required to know them, it is simply required to create frameworks that create reproducible results. But by ignoring the question of origination, of what these forces are or where they come from, science obfuscates the metaphysical. This sleight-of-hand both acknowledges yet banishes the notion of immateriality. The forces behind physics can exist because they’ve been contained and hidden. They are by common knowledge not thought of as metaphysical, and thus a cognitive dissonance between this metaphysic and that metaphysic is created, effectively divorcing the forces behind the laws of physics from other ideas such as god or spirit, when in reality such a separation is still an illusion.

But physics is just one example; by extension, every conceptualization of the world reaches this secret quality, this irreducibility. Here we locate the encounter between the material and the spiritual, the scientific and the philosophical, and how each bleeds and blends itself into the entire fabric of the other. This core is understood in philosophy as the transcendental. Gottfried Leibniz’s transcendental was God insofar as his entire framework necessitated the force of God’s will.

Leibniz begins The Monadology:

1. The Monad… is nothing but a simple substance that enters into composites; for the composite is nothing more than a collection, or aggregate, of simples.[9]

Every composite substance is divisible into smaller parts until you reach the simple substance[10]. The monad is the most particular substance, yet it reflects everything within itself. It conceptualizes the substance that connects the physical and the metaphysical. The force of existence, the essence of everything, or the “internal principle”, is the transcendental quality; it is what animates and drives the monad. Leibniz’s internal principle is God.[11] The Monadology created a framework by which Leibniz could justify all of history as God’s will. According to Leibniz, everything that has happened is as God intended, and since every event held at its core the driving force of God, everything will continue unto the heavenly City of God.

This or that transcendental will appear equally real to any individual who believes in it, yet the transcendental itself is particular, interchangeable, or plastic, forming and re-forming in accordance to the culture, experience, and behavior of the observer. Most importantly, we can locate our own transcendental beliefs by examining the narratives we live by, but even more specifically, we can peer into language itself.

Part V: Linguistic Transcendentalism

If narratives are the linguistic and guiding expressions of a peoples’ contextual experience, then perhaps the way we speak of our experiences, the structures of our languages themselves, may be revealing. David Abram, describing non-alphabetic human languages, says:

[They] are informed not only by the structures of the human body and the human community, but by the evocative shapes and patterns of the more-than-human terrain. Experientially considered, language is no more the special property of the human organism than it is an expression of the animate earth that enfolds us.[12]

Without a set of manmade symbols to dictate phonetic sounds, non-alphabetic languages reflect the noises, calls, and murmurs of the living environment surrounding the speaker. In this way, the speaker’s entire way of perceiving and interacting in the world is interwoven with an ecology that is as much nonhuman as it is human. With the advent of alphabetic language, “the written character no longer refers us to any sensible phenomenon out in the world, or even to the name of such a phenomenon, but solely to a gesture to be made by the human mouth.”[13] Additionally, “The weblike nature of language ensures,” according to Abram, “that the whole of the system is implicitly present in every sentence, in every phrase.”[14] If every utterance reflects an entire system of language, and that language is an expression of one’s entire world, then the phrase, the speech itself is like a monad of non-alphabetic reality, and the narratives stemming therefrom would reverberate a connection of ecological significance. Inversely, the written alphabetic character acts as the monad that reflects a reality of anthrocentric perception and narrative, perhaps one that not only dichotomizes a “nature” separate from one’s own existence, but silences it as well.

Part VI: Control and Communicability

In Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction, she reveals strategies of social control found in the rise and functioning of the novel, particularly in ways that reinforced gendered power relations. She likens the power found in novels and conduct books to the “power of myth”[15], and if we believe, as Benjamin does, that our stories pass on influential wisdom, then books certainly contain an affective quality that mimics the power of oral mythologies. According to Armstrong, underlying the rhetoric of conduct books and novels lay embedded “a theory of subjectivity that requires the strict regulation of reading for women, for just as they reproduce members of the family, they also reproduce forms of subjectivity.”[16] By controlling information, modern power functions by creating subjects and identities that self-regulate and reinforce power relations themselves. In doing so, the communicability of experience that characterized the world of the storyteller gets cut off and replaced with an incommunicability that the much celebrated social networks of late fail to counteract.

Conclusion

Today, the control of information serves a primary function in the maintenance of global capitalism. As empiricism invisibilizes the transcendental by invoking the illusion of objective reality, as the laws of physics hide the metaphysical force behind its framework, the age of widely proliferated digital information, looking most unlike a story, persists in telling a narrative that modern people internalize and reproduce, all under the guise of “nonbiased” and straight-forward information; the methods by which we ingest our narratives, the structure of the words themselves, and the truths they constantly claim not only reflects how we perceive our world foundationally, but would, by any logic, deeply limit the ways in which we can see and behave within this world.


[1] Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Pantheon, 1996. P. 74.-75.

[2] Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller.” Slought Foundation, 14 Mar. 2007. Web. <http://slought.org/files/downloads/events/SF_1331-Benjamin.pdf&gt;. p. 3.

[3] Ibid., p. 1-3.

[4] Ibid., p. 4.

[5] Ibid., p. 1.

[6] Hume, David. “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding; [with] A Letter From a Gentleman to His Friend in Edinburgh; [and] An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1993.,, p. 16-17.

[7] Ibid., p. 31.

[8] Ibid., p. 41.

[9] Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. “The Principles of Philosophy, Or, the Monadology.” Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays. Trans. Daniel Garber and Roger Ariew. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991. p. 68.

[10] Ibid., p. 68.

[11] Ibid., p. 69.

[12] Abram., p. 90.

[13] Ibid., p. 100.

[14] Ibid., p. 83.

[15] Armstrong, Nancy. “The Rise of the Novel.” Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. p. 101.

[16] Ibid., p. 102-103.

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Anarchism: A Crisis for Art, Science, and Politics

There is something out there beyond the reach of the world system (capitalist or otherwise).  The “system” is powerful but not omnipotent.  Pockets of resistance persist and show us that even in this hard-bitten postmodern age other ways of being are possible.

[What follows are reflections upon reading the essay “Art, Science, or Politics?  The Crisis in Hunter-Gatherer Studies” by Richard B. Lee.]

Richard B. Lee, anthropologist by trade and author of several works on hunter-gatherer cultures, is probably a familiar name to those who consider themselves anarcho-primitivists or deep ecologists and others who level their critiques and attacks at the culture of civilization itself.  In his essay, Lee illuminates several questions that cannot fail to be of concern to such subcultural entities, who often imagine that by study of other kinds of societies some insight may be gained into prescriptions for living.  Anarchists who are not careful run the risk of lapsing into a search for a master blueprint, or of making a fetish of some particular tactic, institution or intellectual creation. Continue reading

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No falcon, monk…

tumblr_mhj5b5PTDD1qz4d4bo1_500No falcon, monkey or fawn would ever consider someone who locked them up and barked orders at them to be their benefactor. Even if you offered them as much food and water as they could consume, a comfortable shelter our of harm’s way, and the chance to indulge in every other pleasure under the sun (from sleep to sex), the first time they catch sight of a hole in the fence, those animals would immediately hightail it out of there.

Enrico Manicardi

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The Metropolis, the Human Psyche, and Discontent

This video is part of a series in the Seattle area that questions the premises of the idea of the “Metropolis” and its very real impacts upon our lives.

Built upon our modern mythos of Progress is the question of dependency and the means of survival in mass society. With each facet of urban survival (electricity, gas, rent, food, etc.), the citizen is required to further embed themselves within the metropolis, to work for it, in order to pay for it. It is only once those demands are met that the majority of citizens are granted the means to survival.

This is a life sentence of sorts- it is the sacrifice of people’s entire lives being led for them, their energies channeled, and their days accounted for. With each move toward this dependency, we lose our capacity to experience any other world. The world that was once wild, the anti-metropolis; a world that is increasingly the non-reality for many of us. Continue reading

“We think we progress wonderfully in the arts

Image“We think we progress wonderfully in the arts and sciences as one century follows another. What does it amount to? It does not teach us the all-why. It does not let us cease to wonder what it is that we are doing, where it is that we are going. It does not teach us why the green comes again to the old, old hills in the spring; why the benign balm-o’-Gilead shines wet and sweet after the rain; why the red never fails to come to breast of the robin, the black to the crow, the gray to the little wren; why the sand and barrenness lies stretched out around us; why the clouds float high above us; why the moon stands in the sky, night after night; why the mountains and valleys live on as the years pass.

The arts and sciences go on and on – still we wonder. We have not yet ceased to weep.

And in the midst of our great wondering, we wonder why some of us are given faith to trust without question, while the rest of us are left to eat out our life’s vitals with asking.”

– Mary MacLane, “I Await the Devil’s Coming”

Mythology and the Human Psyche-Spirit, Part I

The following is the first part of an on-going dialogue concerning myth, the human psyche, spirit, all within the context of revolt in the modern world. All responses and critiques are welcome.

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“Shake a rattle that sounds like falling rain, and rain will presently fall. Celebrate a ritual of sexual intercourse, and the fertility of nature will be furthered. An image in the likeness of an enemy, and given the enemy’s name, can be worked upon, stuck with pins, etc., and the enemy will die. Or a piece of his clothing, lock of hair, fingernail paring, or other element once in contact with his person can be treated with a like result.”

When delving into the deep realms of psychology, we’re discussing a relatively recent articulation of phenomena as a scientific inquiry. Nerves and electric impulses can only explain a mere fraction of this phenomenon, which is as much non-physical as it is physical. Psychology is, in this sense, a clinical term for the human spirit. The spirit, by this definition, responds to rituals and rites in immense ways, as shown by Carl Jung’s archetypes of the psyche, and Joseph Campbell’s exploration of inner psychological development in relation to mythology. What the latter posits is that something important happens in us when directed by stories, and what we learn from them is not from an intellectual study or analysis of them, but from a belief in the stories themselves.  Continue reading

Interpretive Analysis of D.H. Lawrence’s “Apocalypse”

423330767_1197ac5b52_zIn Apocalypse, D.H. Lawrence conveys an analysis that is, through interpretation, ultimately spiritual yet anti-religious, anti-state, and pro-destruction. He remains highly critical of the scientific conception of the world, or in his words, the cosmos. The very naming, or reduction of the sun or moon, for example, to its physical attributes, and nothing else, results in the disenchantment of them, and thus of the natural world as a whole. As this effect accumulates, the human species becomes increasingly distant from its context, until totally metaphysically, or spiritually, disconnected. When our world holds no value in and of itself, or for itself, it can only be seen as a resource – its only value being monetary value, extracted value, death value. Lawrence’s words are poetic at best, and explaining my interpretation of it will result in the retention of some poetic language, while (hopefully) avoiding complete incomprehensibility.  Continue reading

The Case of Band Society

ImageHunter-gatherer bands usually lack or minimize social distinctions that other societies employ – social clubs, classes, and formal kinship groups, such as clans. Apparently their small number permit individual, face-to-face interactions among members and eliminate the need to subdivide and classify the members of the group.

Such groups tend to minimize their formal politics. Group decisions are commonly made by consensus. To the extent that leadership is recognized at all, it is commonly informal, ephemeral, and limited to spheres in which individuals have demonstrated particular prowess. One man may lead a hunt; someone else will lead the dance. Such leadership is reinforced by the prestige and authority conferred by demonstrated skill and wisdom; it is rarely if ever reinforced by coercive power. Leaders retain their special position only so long as their leadership decisions satisfy their fellows. Continue reading

Health and Civilization

Image[Human] activities can create disease or increase the risk of illness just as surely as medical science reduces the risk. Most threats to human health are not universal, and many are not ancient. Most threats to health do not occur randomly, nor are they dictated solely by natural forces: more are correlated with patterns of human activity.

-Mark Nathan Cohen, Health and the Rise of Civilization

 One strong argument made by those who are hesitant to critique civilization is that of healthcare. While not everyone who critiques civilization is interested in such a single-issue, for whatever reason (the dissatisfaction of modern life may be self-evident to some, or someone’s primary interest may have more to do with the destruction of power systems than personal survival), it has been helpful for some to mesh out these more specific questions.

Continue reading

The Dialectic of Experience

ImageIt is often easier to describe tendencies of any kind through dichotomies. This can be useful; isolating something in order to understand it in itself is a tool that can and should be utilized, but only insofar as the walls of that isolation can be dissolved and topics at hand related back to the whole. When discussing experience, it is valuable to distinguish between the objective and the subjective, but it if ultimately a limitation if we do not extend our analysis to the ways in which the objective and subjective are constantly changing, interweaving, and presenting itself in a totality. Continue reading