W.R. Marshall: In the Beginning, or, Why We More or Less Believe All This S—
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was…” you know the rest. It’s from the Book. “The Book”, “The Good (not make a moral judgment here) Book” which for a very long time for very many people, was, and still is, the only book. And therein lies the tale…at least the start.
Here’s where it seems to end, putting us in this particular pickle.
It’s with a commercial my gal-pal (a not much used word that deserves revival) V pointed out the other day, wherein a young woman, who is to guile what her date is to French models, states, “They can’t put anything on the internet that isn’t true,” after which she guilessly walks off with her date, the ‘French model,’ and his fanny pack…worn in front…ah, les francias, quel style.
Let me try and fill in the middle.
When we talk about us, about the way we think, the way we behave, the line can get fuzzy between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the ‘thems’ being animals. (Darwin, Freud, Morris, all speak of humans on a biological continuum with animals, or, as indie rockers—and crypto-evolutionary biologists—The Bloodhound Gang sang, “You and me baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals…”).
Yet there is a single, undeniable thing that separates us from every other creature on Earth: language.
I’m not talking about chirps and barks and grunts and squawks. Not sounds signaling danger, or figs in a tree, or a potential mate in the area (although I do have a teenage son so I’m not saying it doesn’t happen). What I’m talking about here is what John Searle* calls the “precise representation we get in human languages.” A language that is full of poetry and promises and declarations and obscenities and compliments and all the things that make us human, all of which happens through the words we use, whether we use them or not. Even when we don’t speak it, we think, and we think in words. And even when we’re not thinking it, when it’s unconscious, it bubbles up in words, in language. That’s what led Jacques Lacan* to surmise “the unconscious is structured like a language.”
So language, it seems, is the human singularity, it is the indispensable medium of civilization.
We privilege language over everything else. Great art isn’t great art unless you can talk about it. A sunset isn’t breathtaking unless you can say the word ‘breathtaking’. What’s true or false is only so because we can say it is; cats don’t care whether the American Revolution was in 1776 or 1886. Even the creation of the universe doesn’t get any play unless we can put it into words: “In the beginning” doesn’t mean anything unless you can say – and understand – “In the beginning.
Before there were any words to read, there was a guy (it was always a guy) in small hunter/gatherer groups who ‘read’ signs.
It could have been bones, or innards, or stars in the sky – but he read them, then told (or foretold) what he read…and his words had weight.
Before the ephemeral alphabet of the internet, words actually did weigh something. Books have weight. The words Moses brought down from the mountain were etched in stone, and putatively written by a Guy who could take a word and make the word into the thing the word described – now that’s the power of language.
A power we all believe in, regardless of the myths attached.
No matter the moment in human history, no matter how wide spread literacy may have become (one might think passing so many words to so many people would somehow dilute their impact, and yet…), we still treat words as sacred, as ‘the word’…or should I say ‘the words.’
What the bloated TV lineup and the ubiquitous internet has done is given each of us our own personal shaman who reads our own personal goat innards. So rather than having that one chosen dude/dudette who comes down from the mountain carrying a couple of tablets from an unimpeachable source, we get ‘the word’ we want, when we want it, from whom we want it – delivered into the comfort of our homes. And because we’re suffering from a genetic hangover that whispers to us “It’s the word, it’s The Word” we may give undue credulity to that which simply doesn’t deserve it – which is why we sometimes find ourselves waiting on the sidewalk for the French model we met online.
Of course this doesn’t happen to us, because we’re smart and we know better…don’t we…
*John Searle has been teaching Philosophy at Berkeley for 50 years and is without question one of the great 20th/21st Century American minds. His writing is clear, accessible, and brilliant.
*Jacques Lacan has been dead since 1981, was a psychoanalyst adopted by philosophers, and was without question one of the great 20th Century French minds. His writing is labyrinthine, difficult, and brilliant.