Monday, April 9, 2007

History of a Disturbance

I've been party to an exchange among general semantics mavens that began when Milton Dawes, a leading general semanticist (and fabulous drummer) e-mailed a bunch of us about a short story that had appeared in the March 5 issue of The New Yorker magazine, entitled "History of a Disturbance" and written by Steven Millhauser.

The story takes the form of a long message from the narrator to his wife, in which he tries to explain his "vow" of silence, a vow to forgo language altogether and remain in the world of the senses. As the narrator explains in one passage early on,

I’d been taking in the day, just like you, happy in all my senses. Then you said, “What a wonderful day!” and the day was less wonderful. The day—it’s really indecent to speak of these things! But it’s as if the day were composed of many separate and diverse presences—that bottle of soda tilted in the sand, that piece of blue-violet sky between the two dark pines, your green hand by the window—which suddenly were blurred together by your words. I felt that something vast and rich had been diminished somehow. I barely knew what you were talking about. I knew of course what you were talking about. But the words annoyed me. I wished you hadn’t spoken them. Something uncapturable in the day had been harmed by speech.

Later on, the narrator seems to be especially irritated by the ambiguity of higher level abstractions, such as the word love:

But you said, “Do you love me?,” which seemed to require me to understand those words and no others, to think what they might exactly mean. Because they might have meant, Do you still love me as much as you once did even though I know you do, or Isn’t it wonderful to sit here and whisper together like teen-agers on the dark porch, while people are in the bright living room, talking and laughing, or Do you feel this rush of tender feeling which is rising in me, as I sit here, on this porch, at night, in summer, at the Polinzanos’ barbecue, or Do you love everything I am and do, or only some things, and if so, which ones; and it seemed to me that that single word, “love,” was trying to compress within itself a multitude of meanings, was trying to take many precise and separate feelings and crush them into a single mushy mass, which I was being asked to hold in my hands like a big sticky ball.
Do you see what was happening? Do you see what I’m trying to say?
As times goes on, the narrator comes to feel increasingly more alienated from language:

In the course of the next few days I began listening with close attention to whatever was said to me. I listened to each part of what was said, and I listened to the individual words that composed each part. Words! Had I ever listened to them before? Words like crackles of cellophane, words like sluggish fat flies buzzing on sunny windowsills. The simplest remark began to seem suspect, a riddle—not devoid of meaning, but with a vague haze of meaning that grew hazier as I tried to clutch it. “Not on your life.” “You bet!” “I guess so.” I would be moving smoothly through my day when suddenly I’d come up against one of them, a word-snag, an obstacle in my path. A group of words would detach themselves from speech and stand at mock attention, sticking out their chests, as if to say, Here we are! Who are you? It was as if some space had opened up, a little rift, between words and whatever they were supposed to be doing. I stumbled in that space, I fell.

Perception threatens to give way to chaos without the filter of language:

I recall one evening, it must have been a few weeks later, when I stepped from the darkened dining room into the brightly lit kitchen. I saw a whitish thing on the white kitchen table. In that instant the whitishness on the white table was mysterious, ungraspable. It seemed to spill onto the table like a fluid. I felt a rush of fear. A moment later everything changed. I recognized a cup, a simple white cup. The word pressed it into shape, severed it—as if with the blow of an axe—from everything that surrounded it. There it was: a cup. I wondered what it was I’d seen before the word tightened about it.

Again, pure perception as chaos:

One evening I looked for a long time at my hand. Had I ever seen it before? I suppressed the word “hand,” rid myself of everything but the act of concentration. It was no longer a hand, not a piece of flesh with nails, wrinkles, bits of reddish-blond hair. There was only a thing, not even that—only the place where my attention fell. Gradually I felt a loosening, a dissolution of the familiar. And I saw: a thickish mass, yellowish and red and blue, a pulsing thing with spaces, a shaded clump. It began to flatten out, to melt into surrounding space, to attach itself to otherness. Then I was staring at my hand again, the fingers slightly parted, the skin of the knuckles like small walnuts, the nails with vertical lines of faint shine. I could feel the words crawling over my hand like ants on a bone. But for a moment I had seen something else.
Even the prelinguistic world of infancy was not satisfactory for him:

I tried to remember what it was like to be a very young child, before the time of words. And yet, weren’t words always there, filling the air around me? I remember faces bending close, uttering sounds, coaxing me to leave the world of silence, to become one of them. Sometimes, when I moved my face a little, I could almost feel my skin brushing against words, like clusters of tiny, tickling insects.

So, he takes his vow of silence, but denies engaging in a monastic approach:

When a monk takes a vow of silence, he does so in order to shut out the world and devote himself exclusively to things of the spirit. My vow of silence sought to renew the world, to make it appear before me in all its fullness. I knew that every element in the world—a cup, a tree, a day—was inexhaustible. Only the words that expressed it were vague or limited. Words harmed the world. They took something away from it and put themselves in its place.

And yet, the narrator's experience is an epiphany that is highly religious in nature:

As I train myself to cast off words, as I learn to erase word-thoughts, I begin to feel a new world rising up around me. The old world of houses, rooms, trees, and streets shimmers, wavers, and tears away, revealing another universe as startling as fire. We are shut off from the fullness of things. Words hide the world. They blur together elements that exist apart, or they break elements into pieces, bind up the world, contract it into hard little pellets of perception. But the unbound world, the world behind the world—how fluid it is, how lovely and dangerous. At rare moments of clarity, I succeed in breaking through. Then I see. I see a place where nothing is known, because nothing is shaped in advance by words. There, nothing is hidden from me. There, every object presents itself entirely, with all its being. It’s as if, looking at a house, you were able to see all four sides and both roof slopes. But then, there’s no “house,” no “object,” no form that stops at a boundary, only a stream of manifold, precise, and nameless sensations, shifting into each other, pullulating, a fullness, a flow. Stripped of words, untamed, the universe pours in on me from every direction. I become what I see. I am earth, I am air. I am all. My eyes are suns. My hair streams among galaxies.

The story ends with his plea to his wife to join him in his new world of pure perception.

The irony of the story, of course, is that the author can only convey this experience on the part of the narrator through words. Whether this irony is intended or not I cannot say.

But the story conveys in an artful way the basic point that words and symbols direct our perceptions, and in doing so limit our perceptions. Symbols help us impose order on an otherwise chaotic reality, but this means shutting out the chaos, selecting only the data that lends itself to a coherent view of the world. Symbolization involves the process of abstraction, which in turn involves leaving out details and making generalizations (which details to omit and which generalizations to make are a matter of choice, to a degree). The narrator, on the other hand, becomes immersed in a world of detail, and resents the imposition of labels and categories (don't we all, to some extent?), resents generalization and even connection among discrete perceptions of unique events.

Symbols mediate between ourselves and our environment, and thereby become our environment, our symbolic environment. We live in a symbolic reality, and removing the symbols generates an alternate reality.

Symbols are media, and media, as McLuhan famously put it in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, are extensions of man, by which he meant that they are extensions of the human body. In particular, McLuhan stressed that media extend our organs of sensory perception. In extending our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin, media come between our senses and the outside world, becoming the environment we actually live in. And in modifying our perceptions, media become our reality (at least the reality we perceive).

especially as a teenager in the 70s. And McLuhan's media ecology, which emphasized perception, was immediately appealing to me when I first encountered it a few years later, as a freshman at Cornell in Jack A case can therefore be made for getting closer to reality by engaging in pure perception, by ridding oneself of all media and symbols. Such ideas were especially popular during the 60s, a period marked by an exceptional openness and interest in perception. Some used hallucinogenic drugs to eradicate language and unlock the senses, but of course the result was a distortion of perception and a numbing to reality. Many others turned to transcendental meditation, which some pursued quite seriously. I mentioned the meditative approach I encountered in my visit to the Buddhist-founded Naropa University in Boulder in a previous post. As an undergraduate, I along with many others became very taken with the New Age shamanism of Carlos Castenada, who wrote about the importance of silencing the inner monologue. It was the first time I had encountered the idea, and with some effort, I was able to achieve that state of inner quiet. Even if his tales of the shaman Don Juan was a hoax, it opened the door for me, and I can step through it whenever I like. I first became interested in mysticism, and Kabbalah as a teenager at the start of the 70s, and I was introduced to Marshall McLuhan a few years later as a freshman at Cornell University, in Jack Barwind's Introduction to Communication Theory class (he also introduced me to general semantics, cybernetics and general systems theory, and many other ideas that grabbed me then, and still do now).

In the short story, the narrator is, in some sense, on a spiritual journey, and acknowledges the comparison with a monk taking a vow of silence--I suppose part of his denial that he is in effect a monk is the fact that he does not want to lose his wife, which presumably would result in a celibate lifestyle. But another difference between the narrator and a monk is that the narrator's aim in taking a vow of silence is not transcendence, but pure immanence. In this sense, it is more of a descent than an ascent.

The narrator acknowledges that this state of pure perception represents a return to infancy. The argument has been made that the ability to see things unprejudiced by names and labels is a skill that we lose when we learn language, one that we need to reclaim. And I would certainly agree that it is good to be able to shed the symbolic for a period of time, to silence that inner monologue, but abandoning language altogether seems more regression than progression. That's why I find that virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier makes no sense when he says that virtual reality offers us a post-symbolic form of communication. Either he is confused about what constitutes a symbol, and doesn't recognized the symbolic character of visual images, or he has romanticized the infantile state, as have so many others before him.

After all, loss of language, aphasia, is a symptom of brain damage. It is what Marshall McLuhan tragically experienced in the last months of his life, following a massive stroke. It is also a symptom of autism, either the loss of language or the failure to develop it in the first place. And while it may open the door to other modes of consciousness, nonverbal autistics are classified as low functioning, and tend to have difficulty taking care of themselves in even the most basic of ways. It is hard not to see the absence of language as anything less than a disability--on a larger scale, remove the capacity for language and symbolic communication from our species, and we would not be just another ape, we'd be extinct.

Our senses are the body's own media, and they mediate between our inner consciousness and the outside world. Depending on the kind of eyes we have, for example, we may see or may not see infrared or ultraviolet, and this will determine the nature of our visual reality. Depending on the range of hearing of the individual organism and the species in question, a particular acoustic environment may be experienced as quiet or loud (e.g., those whistles only dogs can hear). The senses abstract information from the environment, and this can be seen as the most basic of symbolic activities. And it has long been acknowledged that the senses can mislead us about the nature of reality at times, while our technologies can provide us with a mediated view that is more accurate than anything our senses can provide. Likewise, symbols can uncover aspects of reality hidden to pure perception.

We can't trust our senses, and we can't trust our symbols. What then can we trust? The dialectic between the two, the relationship and interplay. General semantics advocates for a scientific orientation in all things, and scientific method depends on a back-and-forth between theory which is rooted in the logic of symbolic communication, and empirical research, which require the use of the senses to test reality. Religion and spirituality also relies on a dialogue between the word, be it the sacred text or song, and the senses as appealed to by a sacred setting, incense, wine, music and rhythm, ritual that by repetition may empty symbols of meaning, and meditation achieved through prayer. As human beings, we mediate between the two extremes, and try to quiet disturbances and find balance and harmony in the space that separates them.