can’t see the forest

Letter to Mrs. C—

Posted in languages, Personal, philosophy by Curtis on 1/9/07

For the introductory, “diagnostic” assignment in the English 101 class in which I am currently enrolled, we students were asked to compose a letter to our instructor in which we were to “tell her about ourselves.” No further requirements or criteria were given.

I decided to share my work here on CSTF, not because I am in any way proud of it but because I used it to discuss a point which is central to my philosophy and I thought posting the letter might be a good way to introduce it to this site.

[Also, even though the assignment is due in nine hours, I am characteristically still revising. Here is the final draft, which differs slightly from the one originally posted.]

Dear Mrs. C—,

The American writer William S. Burroughs once quipped: “Language is a virus from outer space.” I believe that even a zany, disenfranchised junkie such as old Bill Burroughs would not have meant such a thing to be taken strictly at face value. While there is perhaps very little that linguists and anthropologists can agree upon in terms of explaining the origins of language, surely they are in accord that our languages are our own. Burroughs’ statement, born of frustration, is in my mind profoundly and ingeniously indicative of a penetrating inquiry into the nature of what language is and what it does; and if you will permit me the pleasure of giving my interpretation, I hope therein to elucidate a great deal of my own sense of purpose as a human being.

Old SlavonicLanguage is, I think, a thoroughly emergent property of systems of various kinds. A system cannot develop without a protocol for doing so, and that is what a language is, how it expresses the nature of its community. I am no scientist—I am an English major, after all—but the paradigm seems obvious to me. Human language is an emergent property of consciousness, which is an emergent property of life, which emerges from organic chemistry; for what is the genetic code, if not a dialect between proteins? Furthermore, atoms speak a language through which they form and dissolve molecules.

The Universe, then, as far as I can see, is a construction of nested levels of language. Language is indeed viral in a sense because it permeates everything. The words I think and write are human enough, but this form of communication is merely shaped by my consciousness and by those consciousnesses that came before my own. Its existence—its emergence, if you will—it owes to its place in a succession of nested language structures of increasing malleability, a parade of articulations which commenced at some murky intersection in the unfathomable past and which marches forth to … where? Our consciousness imparts to us a sense of responsibility. We are navigators of destiny in a way that atoms are not, and now we stand agape before a frontier with which we have as yet insufficient vocabulary to negotiate. We are the self-witnessing authors of the newest chapter in this great tome. Human language is a human creation, but the logos in this pure and cosmic sense really is a bit like a bug from beyond, beyond our power to concretely qualify and, in its viral dance, beyond our arresting grasp.

Arabic scriptIf human language can be said to exist for any overarching purpose, if it can be put into service as the means whereby any worthy end could ostensibly be attained, then it should be as a way to allow human beings to interact more efficiently, more respectfully, more playfully, and more cooperatively. We as conscious entities owe it to ourselves and to our environment to pursue this goal. The ideals of the Enlightenment paved the way for stupendous accomplishment, but at the expense of the human as a sensitive participant, reducing him to merely a manipulative observer. Physics and psychology are beginning to teach us this—or, rather, we are beginning to hear it. It is not necessarily a novel revelation, for many prehistoric peoples appear to have viewed themselves in this light. The etymology of the word religion suggests the need to bind humans to that from which we have never been separated outside of our own misguided conceptions. We have always been inextricably tied to the Great Unity, and language is the cord.

I am a privileged individual, Mrs. C—. I have stood on the Oregon shoreline at the mouth of the Columbia to marvel solemnly at the Pacific thundering in—only to find myself subsequently giggle at the tickle of its salty fingers at my toes. The seagulls circled far overhead, calling to one another in a language I could not understand. I have curiously examined the Mona Lisa in repose behind her yellow screen chez Louvre; I noted that her slender sfumato smile is not dissimilar from the one my grandmother wore as she exhaled her final protest against years of illness. I have risen with the sun to bale hay in Tennessee, have felt a savory soreness in my working arms as my feet crunched the cool, dewy grass beneath them. By the stars alone I have found a path out of a strange wood and back to the friendly firelight of camp. Now, home again in Alabama, I attend college. A safe home I have, and two eggs each morning with coffee. I am a privileged individual.

DNAFor something like ninety-five percent of the people of Earth, life is at least as bitter as mine has been sweet. We all of us live on a planet of plenty, and yet there are hundreds of millions who go hungry and thirsty each day. War and destruction are not news items, but daily realities for legions of unwitting men, women, and children in places more fortunate people sometimes struggle to pronounce. Scientists tell us that our cultured, enlightened lifestyles are eradicating wildlife, poisoning oceans, and burdening future generations. We twist language to tell ourselves that all is as it should be when clearly it is not. Too often the noblest institutions of men are nothing more than ornate façades wrapped around vapid interiors, furnished with too many windows and two few mirrors.

True passion for communication can change this. Language is a virus—not just the clumsy and poorly wielded verbiage of my awkward prose, but language. I play the piano, and a mean blues guitar. Deep in the Sudan they beat the talking tabla drums, and in Bali, under the flicker of torches, the gamelan rings late into the night. Music is also a human language, the most erudite of all tongues of diplomacy. Art is a language, the closest to the imagery from which we made a music with our words. There are numerous ways in which we can communicate our love for one another, and the world is getting smaller.

I envision a future in which, just as the language of chemistry elevates and aggregates atoms into molecules, the communication of people will bond each cohesively to a great whole we have yet to realize. The waters of adversity are wide, but the potential to bridge them has never been greater. This is the way the Universe goes about building itself, through language, and its full support is constantly offered us if we can be wise enough to work with it and not on it. Ask not what the Universe can do for you, but what you can do for the Universe, to paraphrase a famous address. Can we conquer our conquering disposition? I say that we can and that we must. The virus is mightier.

Thank you for your generosity, Mrs. C—. I am rambling on as if mine is the only letter before you today. Let me close by saying that I am honored to be a part of your class and that I look forward to what may come. My capacious idealism ensures that there is nothing I feel incapable of accomplishing after two eggs and coffee.

Maybe a bit rich for Day 1 of English 101, but … I felt it needed to be said, even though—especially though—it’s not for a grade. My, how I do hate grades.

Periodic Table


8 Responses

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  1. Quran Bible said, on 1/10/07 at 10:49 am

    Interesting Curtis.

  2. peoplesgeography said, on 1/10/07 at 12:09 pm

    We always knew you were a man of letters ;).

    There is much in this excellent exposition and you should be proud of this richly syncretic piece. On both substantive as well as stylistic fronts, your writing is infused with mindfulness, it goes beyond just “thoughtful”, to my mind.

    One measure of a great piece of writing is the questions it arouses in the reader, and reading your sublime article prompted me to think more about the interesting relationship between language and consciousness. Is there consciousness that lies outside language, for instance? If most cognitive processing takes place below the threshold of consciousness, and thus not readily available to the “thinking I”, it refers back to the question you raised about the insufficiency of our current language:

    We are navigators of destiny in a way that atoms are not, and now we stand agape before a frontier with which we have as yet insufficient vocabulary to negotiate. We are the self-witnessing authors of the newest chapter in this great tome. Human language is a human creation, but the logos in this pure and cosmic sense really is a bit like a bug from beyond, beyond our power to concretely qualify and, in its viral dance, beyond our arresting grasp.

    At once framing much of our reality and allowing us to apprehend it, language is also important as the sieve through which the production of knowledge takes place. The corruption of language reflects a degenerating political and social system and amplifies the ever important business of speaking truth to power; a democratizing of discourses often sees a corresponding improvement in material relations.

    I am especially fascinated with the competing notions of, on the one hand, language being an emergent property of systems as you noted so well, and on the other hand we see in the postmodern turn the view of language as actually constitutive of reality, or as a quote I once learnt in my English class when studying a Tom Stoppard play reflects: “words are all we have to go on”.

    Here are some of my favorite lines in your post: the genetic code as a “dialect between proteins”, and the posing of the question: “can we conquer our conquering disposition?”

    Two quick observations about post-Enlightenment linguistic shifts:

    The first is about language and agency. The task of much critical social science has been to endeavour to keep what is best in the Enlightenment tradition, and cast off its often oppressive univocality. John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing wrote: ”Never again will a single story be told as though it is the only one.” This project is hopefully already facilitating a greater ‘pluriverse’ of inclusive, participatory possibilities, and enacting a Self that is less of the manipulative detached observer and that is more in line with being a consciously participating, purposive, reality-producing actor.

    The second observation harks back to the insufficiency of language to grasp the infinite and boundlessness of our larger reality. Here, the radical indeterminacy of quantum mechanics is curiously reflective of ancient wisdom: as you are aware, Bohm and Buddha may have much in common. Chang Tzu said, “If you try to know it, you have already departed from it”. How’s that for a mind-bender, with the corollary of “knowing it” perhaps being “speaking it”.

    A pleasure to read.

  3. Curtis said, on 1/10/07 at 1:13 pm

    Thanks for your compliment, Q-B. If it’s interesting and provokes thought, that’s about all I can ask! :-)

    And thank you, PG, for some good observations. The major point that I wanted to get across, if I can sort of simplistically sum it up, is that the communication of people through human language is recursively similar to the communication of what some would call inanimate physical entities, with an exception—that our unique sense of consciousness enables us to change the rules in a way that, say, quarks might not be able to do. As individuals and as a collective, I think that we often take this ability for granted (when we’re not perverting it, which, lamentably, I do at least once every day.)

    As little as I understand about it, QM is very interesting to me because I do not think it shows the limits of cognition so much as it describes the boundary of our language, although there is undoubtedly some sort of correlation betwixt the two. Whatever else it is, it seems to me to be a sort of road sign which says “Next stop 5,000 km.”

    I feel that there is a connection between the problem of the observer in quantum physics and the problem of free will in philosophy, which is that both of them describe the boundaries of the system of language which follows the syntax “If A, then B.” It seems that trying to diffuse these sorts of problems, while not necessarily counterproductive, are something like a computer program in BASIC trying to understand the machine language behind the compiler with which the program is executed. We are trying to comprehend a language that is deeper than understanding, which brings us to your very appropriate quote from Chang-Tzu. This defines boundaries to our understanding, limits which I think are sorely needed and which can better direct our sense of purpose as human beings. I shouldn’t speak for everyone; at least, that’s the way I feel about it. Language, then, as we practice it, is far more creative than descriptive. It is more cohesive than differentiating, particularly as the global community takes shapes from a plurality of communities which have existed in relative isolation.

  4. ecko4inc said, on 1/11/07 at 6:38 am

    Language is loud. It seethes and groans beneath the weight of meaning. It possesses volume – “this one goes to eleven” – and gravity – “Come! Let us kill the spirit of Gravity with laughter!” Thus wrote Nietzsche… It eckoes in the abyss between the unsayable and the invisible. In the immortal words of Niels Bohr, Science doesn’t tell us how Nature IS; only what we can say about nature. No business with this is-ness of Science Royale. “Never again psychology!” Mr. Kafka Sit venia verbo.

  5. zilla said, on 1/11/07 at 9:38 pm



    English 101?

    Was there no opportunity to “test out?”

    Because in 1980 I tested out of all English requirements at the frappin’ University of gosh darned Michigan along with 4% of my peers, and YOU can write circles around me!

    What the hell gives, buddy? You should be TEACHING this class!

  6. peoplesgeography said, on 1/11/07 at 9:59 pm

    I’m with Zilla. Your Mrs C., is she’s worth her salt, will write a letter to help confer upon you advanced standing credits right away, or whatever you call them at your school.

  7. Curtis said, on 1/13/07 at 11:22 am

    Thanks for your kind words, ladies. I had hoped to test out of oodles of things this semester, but because of the ol’ eye surgery it’ll probably have to wait until next term. We’ll see what happens!

  8. Victor Stoltz said, on 1/18/07 at 1:45 am

    Google is the best search engine

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