Sunday, 29 June 2014

The power of habit

“But woe unto you, O torrent of human custom! Who shall stay your course? When will you ever run dry?”
(St. Augustine, Confessions)

Vilém Flusser wrote a very enlightening essay about the power of habit, which is very much in tune with the point I made last week. Habit (remember?) is what happens to miracles when they are worn out. It is also what happens to technologies. In the essay, Flusser highlights something we know too well: that novelty is scary; it frightens us, it makes us have second thoughts.

The ugliness of beauty

We cannot function well in the company of novelty, because what is new is unknown to us. We are exposed in front of new things. Naked. Impotent. Exposed because opened-up, as is the case with miracles, which reveal to us a truth that we have never been aware of, in spite of the fact that it has always existed there, in the kingdom of miracles, indifferent to us. (Paul Valéry found it deplorable that we, humans, often attempt to count the stars; us, who count for nothing to those stars!)

Source: Gehad Elgalad
And so, goes Flusser's argument, new things don’t come to us as beautiful. They come to us as an almost unbearable tension: the tension between what we know and what we are experiencing right here, right now, as foreign to us. This tension is so high, we can’t resist its power. We lose the battle with novelty at the very moment it becomes apparent to us. That’s perhaps because any new thing is a reminder to us of how immense and yet-unknown Being is, and how threatening to our comfort its manifestations are. Jacques Derrida speaks of “the as yet unnameable,” which, not unlike Flusser’s idea of novelty, is a shock we receive at the level of existence as well as at that of language, and which catches us in a knowledge and linguistic gap. Derrida assures us that the only way this unnameable can be experienced by us, who have no experience of it, is
“in the formless, mute, infant and terrifying form of monstrosity.”
There it is, right there, the adjective that best defines the encounter with the new: terrifying. It is the very term Flusser uses to talk about novelty.
So. New things are so new to us they are terrifying. They are monstrous; they are frightening; they are ugly. And this is the paradox of beauty pointed out by Flusser: in its earliest form (in the form it takes at its birth) beauty (if we agree that, for instance, the appearance of an angel is beautiful, or the emergence of a work of art that is unprecedented is beautiful too) always appears to us as ugliness:
“Thus ‘art’ is that human activity which aims at producing hateful, ugly situations, situations that cause terror.”
No wonder we spend so much time and so much energy to reject new things. We have done so every time writing and reading were given new material support: when we moved from clay tablets to scrolls, when we moved again from scrolls to codices, when we stopped reading hand-written manuscripts and started reading printed books. Not to mention the jump to computers – which, as we know, has caused so much criticism, in which ‘ugly’ is an often-used appellation.

The terror of miracles

The crucial tension in miracles is that of their initial ugliness. No miracles were miraculous at the moment of their occurrence. Their miraculous nature was made apparent later on, when reflection became possible, when we discovered we were no longer mute, no longer incapable of creating signs to explain the “unbearable lightness of being,” to use the title of a well-known novel. When they happen, when they take place (both as in ‘happening’ and as in ‘occupying a pre-existent space’), miracles are reflection-less. The shock of their novelty impedes us from thinking about miracles, which right then, in their initial manifestation, are mere happenings: “as yet unnameable.”

Source: Kev Design
This is Flusser’s point too. Things beautiful start by being ugly, more likely to be met with rejection than acceptance. However, as soon as we get past that initial moment of shock, once we have accommodated within us the novelty of a piece of technology, we can start talking about things as beautiful. It is only now, after the shock has been processed and we acknowledge that we’ve survived the encounter, it is only now that we can truly speak of beauty as an aesthetic category. In order to move on from terror into beauty, an act of courage is necessary, since, according to Flusser,
“this is that grey zone into which those artists have climbed who have attempted, at the risk of their lives, to utter that which is unutterable, to render audible that which is ineffable, to render visible that which is hidden.”
The heroic gesture of poets (of writers, or artists, of those who have the clear-sightedness of critical perspective) is what opens for us, simpler mortals, less complicated searchers for the ineffable, the safe pathway towards admiration. Harold Bloom was right in saying that true poets always misread the poetry of their predecessors, thus creating, for their own readers, the possibility of admiration. It’s easy to understand how: a “looking-over-again,” as Bloom calls this misreading, renews the text: it presents it to the future readers as novelty. And so a miracle is enacted again, and writing can go on, miraculously, towards its completion as an art of miracles-in-the-making.
We can only admire that which we can manage, once the ground-breaking work has been done for us.

On the lowest rung

But this isn’t where the story ends, because we have an interesting tendency of repeating what we can manage. And so, the miracle that started off as a terror becomes beautiful, and then pretty. It reaches one grade lower. This is the manageable beauty of things enjoyed by the masses (and I don’t mean masses in a disparaging way, but as a collective appreciation of things that were once the object of a minority of odd perceivers, of freaks who used to enjoy ugliness perversely).
Once we’ve reached this stage, the next step comes about as little surprise: the intense use of a thing turns that thing into kitsch. This is the ultimate step in the degradation of something that was once beautiful, once terrifying, once of the order of miracles “as yet unnameable.”

Source: The Guardian
Kitsch is prettiness in excess. But most importantly, it is the result of habit. Habit wears out a shirt; it tatters our raptures; it makes something that was unbearably visible into pure invisibility, into non-presence. Pretty things are invisible things. They participate in the life of art by not participating: by remaining invisible and by turning miracles, for instance, into common occurrences.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Of miracles

When I first encountered my smart phone, the first thing I noticed was that it was unlike anything else I had known or experienced before. And when that realization struck me I also became aware of the affective possibilities suddenly made available to me. I grew fond of the piece of technology in my hand, and this fondness took over my other reactions, my other possible representations of it. I was, in a way, emotionally invaded by the encounter with my smart phone.

The encounter, in itself, appeared to me in the form of an affective avalanche, something in relation to which I was powerless; powerless because it suggested to me a possible loss of rationality. So powerless, I was intimidated. That piece of technology, right there, was showing me how little I meant, how little I could achieve without it. How could that not be terrifying?

The new

What I’m describing here is novelty: the newness of all technological encounters; of all encounters in fact.
The technology in my hand was new to me – and because it was new, I had no previous experience to compare it to. As a consequence, at that moment of the first encounter I perceived it as a miracle.
Miracles are like this: they come to us by ways that are unknown to us; unprecedented, uncalled-for, unjustified, and unnecessary (insofar as no necessity has called for them to take place).

Transfiguration, by Ludovico Carracci
Source: Wikipedia
Faced with miracles, we are utterly hopeless because we have no point of reference to help us penetrate their meaning (if meaning is what they are endowed with). This stands to show that miracles are not miraculous in themselves. They become so when they come in contact with us. A miracle can only be miraculous to a human being. An earthquake shattering an entire city comes as a shock to its population, but not to the ground underneath. The earth contains the earthquake. The earthquake has always already existed there, as a potentiality, within the logic of the earth (which is, needless to point out, non-human). When the earthquake ‘shakes’ the earth it is really, truly, us who are shaken. It is us who are traumatized, not the ground. The ground doesn’t suffer. It has no affective reaction to the earthquake.

Miracle and premeditation

Miracles, like catastrophes, are surprising – to put it briefly. And so are technologies. To go back to my smart phone, my first encounter with it had, like I said, the attributes of a miracle. I was prostrate in front of it. I was having a mystical experience of the desired unknown, in front of which my reason surrendered.
What’s even more important, I wanted the experience to be repeated. And this is another thing characteristic to miracles: once experienced, we want them repeated; we want more of them. It’s either because we have not understood them and want clarifications, or because the experience was so powerful, so drug-like, we need another fix.
But what happens when this experience is re-lived is this: it simply loses the shine. It is eroded by repeated use, like a shirt that doesn’t look the same the second time we put it on. The more we wear that shirt, the worse it is going to look. And this goes on and on, until the shirt becomes a rug. That’s when we can say we’ve worn the miracle out.
The first impulse we have then is to say that miracles are not written: they happen in a territory where writing has no standing. We are tempted to say this because, unlike miracles, writing is premeditated. Writing exists on the presumption of its material support: from the letters of the alphabet to the pen and paper required to jot words down, everything in writing is predetermined. Miracles, on the other hand, appear from nowhere. They are striking in the sense of a hit-and-run accident. Like lightning bolts, like landslides and avalanches, like the wrath of gods. Indeed, we often associate miracles with the divine. Not because of their make-up, but because of the force with which they become apparent to us. And that, it seems to me, is the force of revelation.

“Behold, I make all things new!”

Revelation and prophecy are the two major ways whereby truth is made apparent to us. This is not only in religion, but in any manifestations of our relationship to Being (the totality of existence, human and non-human together, which is often, but not always, associated with God).

Midtown Manhattan, 1944, by Andreas Feininger
Source: Simotron
The truth about Being is that it is overwhelmingly more complex than we can imagine; that it can only appear to us in fragments, through separated events, and never as a whole. A prophecy is one such fragmented representation insofar as it provides a hint as to the complexity of Being. A prophecy is a forecast of our desired command of Being (a desire never truly fulfilled, since all we can perceive, if anything, is a fragment of the Whole). And while prophecies are forward-moving, revelations takes backward steps towards the same aspect: the truth of the complexity of Being. Through revelation we acquire confirmation of what, in prophecy, was only a guess. As Georges Florovsky made clear, though,
“In sacred history, ‘the past’ does not mean simply ‘passed’ or ‘what had been,’ but primarily that which had been accomplished and fulfilled. 'Fulfilment' is the basic category of revelation. That which has become sacred remains consecrated and holy forever.”
It only makes sense to call something revelation if it’s accompanied by novelty. Old things are not revealed. They are known in advance. They cannot surprise. But this is a kind of novelty that we are always prepared for, insofar as we already expect to be surprised by it. The prophecy, of which revelation is a fulfilment, has made us aware of everything.
If I find out that bungee-jumping adventurers have died before, even if this happened only once, the possibility of death from bungee jumping imposes itself with the force of the thing already revealed. What was required to make the plane of potentialities apparent to me was that one occurrence alone. Now I know that it is possible to die from bungee jumping, and that’s the reason I’ll never do it. Never, as in that ‘forever’ found in Florovsky’s quote given above.

Terrible revelations

Simple logic of revelation: once something has been revealed, nothing can un-reveal it. Once a particular technology was invented, we can never say it has never existed. Insofar as Being is concerned, once we have understood that it is the repository of truths that come to surprise us, it will always present itself as capable of surprises. And so, we always expect to come out surprised from the encounter with Being. And that’s why we fear it: because surprises often hurt. In the texts of Christian mystics, revelations are always terrifying, painful realizations of a truth that cannot be named or spoken. They speak of joy and enlightenment, but this is a painful enlightenment, one that requires the deep wounding of the humanness in the mystic.

Life of Francis of Assisi, by José Benlliure y Gil
Source: Wikipedia
Freud’s Uncanny is the occurrence of something familiar in an unfamiliar environment: of something we knew from a prior experience but never expected to encounter again; not here, not now. The uncanny is a miracle we want to reject, because it is too terrifying. Just like above. To Freud, it is through ‘miracles’ that we relate back to the Unconscious. To Florovsky, it is through ‘miracles’ that we relate back to the Divine. To Heidegger, it is through ‘miracles’ we relate back to Being. Of course, they use different words to designate these miracles: Uncanny, Revelation, Event. But do they sound similar, the three of them? Maybe not overlappingly so, since they are situated differently, treated by different means. But the Unconscious, the Divine, and Being do have things in common; the most prominent of which is the reference to something that we perceive as an overwhelming complexity, as an entity we strive to attain but never succeed. And that gives us food for thought when it comes to writing. Because writing is, in spite of everything we suspect, capable of enacting miracles.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Writing and naming (3)

In Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, God points while Adam lets his hand fall, in arrogant refusal. The real tragedy of the episode is this: Adam’s gesture loses forever the pointingness of the index finger. This is how we, humans, have grown accustomed to experiencing the world through definitions, through intermediaries, through signs. By closing the fist, man started creating the illusion of self-sufficiency.

The fist

Any enclosure is a means of delimiting what is one’s own. The closed fist encloses the index finger, which is the way things were denominated before man came about, with his language, with his understanding, with his embarrassing impotence. Fold the index finger and you’ve cut off your access to Paradise. Fold the index finger and you’ve got a revolution. The revolutionary clenched fist indicates specificity; it indicates the uniqueness of one’s beliefs.

Source: Classical Concert Reviews
The First Revolution, the revolt against the self-explanatory nature of paradisiacal objects, was, unfortunately, a success. And here we are now, fists clenched, never letting go. It’s not by accident that even the most religious gesture (the positioning of the hands in prayer) is itself a form of enclosure, of placing one’s fingers together (sometimes even knotting them together) in a way that’s anything but paradisiacal. In prayer, we ask for what’s been taken away from us. We ask, in fact, for the return of the identity between objects and signs.
To re-inhabit the Tower of Babel or, better still, the earlier glory of the world without signs, would be a form of ecstasy for us as a species.

What if

I’m fully aware of what this would mean, what this return to Paradise would entail. It would mean our definitive erasure of the arts, of sciences, of everything that makes humankind great. In order to return to Paradise we would have to forget all the things we have been admiring ever since we started making. Homo faber, man the maker, is what we have become when we lost Paradise. And as homo faber we started admiring our own creations. But this admiration is really admiration of ourselves. Of what we have been capable of. Of what we have created by ourselves ever since God rejected us from the kingdom of Everything.
Without our Fall there would have been no poetry. There would have been no chronicles, no epics, no romances, no novels. There would have been no painting, no music, no sculpture, no dance. There would have been no theories of the atoms, no arithmetic, no geometry, no invention of flying objects. There would have been no folklore and no telling of heroic deeds. There would have been no heroes, really, because they wouldn’t have been necessary. There would have been no history!
Without the Fall there would have been no wars and no lethal epidemics, no fear of death, no betrayals, no jealousy, no stupidity, no drunkenness, no vain glory, no starvation, no social injustice.
Stop. Rewind.
For a better understanding of what is good and what is bad in our life as a species, let’s list the latter part again. Without the Fall there would have been no…
  • wars (the source of the Iliad and the Odyssey)
  • lethal epidemics (the source of the Decameron)
  • fear of death (the source of the Divine Comedy)
  • betrayals (the source of almost all Shakespearian tragedies)
  • jealousy (the source of the entire Arthurian Cycle)
  • stupidity (the source of Gargantua and Pantagruel, of comedy and farce)
  • drunkenness (the source of everything Francois Villon ever wrote, of everything that Omar Khayyam ever celebrated)
  • vain glory (the source of Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina)
  • fear of starvation (the source of Crime and Punishment and Knut Hamsun’s The Hunger)
  • social injustice (the source of all of Emile Zola and Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Without our Fall from the grace of the index finger, we would have had no masterpieces. We would have had no writing. No need to “justify the ways of God to man.”

Source: Dreamomania
The index finger, however, is not completely lost to us. It has been preserved by orators, who, in their attempt to persuade, have made pointing the ultimate argument: an appeal to the authority of the divine. Declamation poetry has been doing the same thing by invoking the greater powers of gods and muses, by making them their source of wisdom and truth. But there is little else left in the tip of the index finger to persuade us about. That’s because writing has taken over all other forms of expression. And writing is, of course, the work of a closed fist.

“Oh how unlike the place from whence they fell!”

I’m using this predominantly religious symbolism and I am not even a religious person. Somehow, the thought of writing makes it necessary for me to talk about things non-human, because I feel the need to have some kind of perspective. Some kind of critical distance is what it is.
Without the awareness that writing is a technology, we run the risk of not realizing that writing is not exactly the holder of truth. ‘It’s true because I’ve seen it written’ is an old argument by now. It came about with the advent of inscriptions and it hasn’t lost its force ever since: not even when visual media (painting, photographs, television, the internet) attempted, at various moments, to hijack the realm of signs. ‘It’s true because I’ve seen it written’ is the argument on which the media thrive. But in this little statement one will also find the seeds of how things go from innocent reporting to the roaring thunders of the most villainous ideologies. Tyrannies of all kinds have built their careers on the foundation of this propensity of ours to take things for granted and to grow accustomed to signs.
So having this perspective (which seems irreverent because it is irreverent) is, I think, a necessary measure of self-defence. We love the products of the spirit: the good ones, that is. And we’re so pleased, so excited by this admiration that we turn a blind eye to everything else. But the problem is that the good things originate in the same place where the evil ones are born. And so we need that perspective – we should beg for it. We should be irreverent to the point of self-exclusion. At least so long as to understand that what is human is only part of what is.

Source: The Telegraph
“Someday we must write the history of our own obscurity – manifest the density of our narcissism,” Roland Barthes ones suggested. This is not an impossible project. To materialize it, all we need is honesty and perseverance. Honesty, perseverance, and the ability to declaim, like Milton, that the place we lost when we fell is so unlike the one we have been given.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Writing and naming (2)

There is a beautiful sentence in the beginning of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
This is a world where humans enjoy the comfort of the index finger. The index finger is a guarantor of sincerity and of objectivity. Behind the index finger we cannot hide. It is too thin and too imperative to allow us such self-concealments. Most importantly, because it doesn’t contain an utterance, the index finger is true to nature. It does not represent anything; it only points out.
But once things become complicated in Macondo (in the world at large), once there is an inflation of objects, pointing is no longer sufficient. Language appears right here – at the moment when the index finger loses its referential power.

Of forgetting (again)
But the deluge of objects is not only the beginning of language; it is also the beginning of forgetfulness. A new problem appears along with the naming of things: how to remember what we’ve called this object, and this, and this?
When it is discovered that the sickness of insomnia had struck the town of Macondo, the Buendía men in One Hundred Years of Solitude devise a stratagem to impede forgetfulness (because insomnia, García Márquez explains, was not exactly about not-sleeping; it was about not-remembering: “a kind of idiocy that had no past”). This stratagem, this remedy is none other than the art and craft of Writing. In order to overcome the plague of forgetfulness, José Arcadio Buendía decides to brand the world:
“With an inked brush he marked everything with its name: table, chair, clock, door, wall, bed, pan. He went to the corral and marked the animals and plants: cow, goat, pig, hen, cassava, caladium, banana.”
And then he is struck by the reality of writing: the fact that writing deceives, the fact that it transforms objects into signs:
“He realized that the day might come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but that no one would remember their use.”
And henceforth the inscriptions he hangs from objects become detailed descriptions, whereby future readers are told, for instance, what a cow is and how it is to be used (fed, watered, milked, slaughtered).
Here is presented, in a fictional guise, the fundamental problem of writing as a form of deceit. Brought about as a promise to cure forgetfulness, writing severs the ties between world and language. And the cut is so deep, the damage is permanent. The world will never be the same.

Of how little we know
A name makes apparent a lack of knowledge on the part of the one who’s doing the naming. In the naming of a place, we make apparent how little we know about the place in question. Captain James Cook calling a place in New Zealand ‘Doubtless Bay’ – an excellent example.

"This bay I have named Doubtless Bay": James Cook's journal entry
recording the naming of a place completely foreign to him (1769)
Source: The Doubtless Blog
This is how the story goes (for my non-New Zealand readers). December 9th, 1769; Sunday afternoon. Navigating along the eastern coast of northern New Zealand, Cook has this piece of land in sight. He comes very close but doesn’t land here, because he doesn’t know if the water in the bay is deep enough for safe navigation. Then some winds drag the ship away and he gives up. From a distance, however, he decides to call the spot Doubtless Bay, because this one thing is certain about the place: it is a bay. Simple as that. Trivial. Ridiculously uncomplicated, like the name itself. From the distance of a ship that never makes it to this shore, the place is given a name. The story is significant because it makes apparent the fundamental problem of distance: naming marks a separation between the place as a presence and the place as a document (the place as it exists and the place as it is written down).
Note: the bay was given a name not because James Cook was a professional baptizer, but because the gesture served the purpose of his expedition. Back in London, a few years earlier, he had been given the task of creating a map of the unknown (an imagined but much hoped-for southern continent). He had been sent to the Southern Seas to find a place invisible to the British Empire at home. He was to find this place and make it visible through writing. With the words ‘Doubtless Bay’ attached to its presence, the place becomes recognizable to the Empire, i.e. readable. Now, the place is written down. And as such, the name becomes a lie of the place (not to be mistaken for ‘the lie of the land,’ a technical term but not entirely exempt from a similar interpretation).
A doubt turned into a certainty; a lack of knowledge conveniently covered up by means of an arbitrary sign – a word. This is what naming is: a trick that helps us camouflage our inferiority.
Let’s face it: a place is far more than us; it is larger, it is smarter, it has been through what we can’t even imagine, it has come to us from aeons for which we don’t even have a proper means of calculation. So what do we do, when faced with this terrible embarrassment? What do we, humans, do? We cheat. We take a shortcut. We force the place to fit through the bottleneck of our language. We give the place a name for the record. So that it can be listed, catalogued, mapped, drawn, narrated, taught in schools, made into an encyclopaedia entry. In other words, we put the place to human use.
That’s why naming is lying.

Of babies and their curse
We name babies at a stage in their lives when we know absolutely nothing about them. And once the name has been approved, it becomes the label by which the child will be known for the rest of their lives. Through a mere word, we condemn the child to carry the burden of a lie in the telling of which he/she has had no part. We condemn them to carry about a sign of recognition: like a tag, like a yellow star, like a number tattooed on the skin. By means of this name, they will be easily told apart, isolated, policed, notified of their duties, slowly transformed into citizens. We tell them this name is their identity. And that’s a big fat lie, because their names are only words on paper. Their names are not the names of gods, which nobody is allowed to pronounce. And by the way, where is this interdiction coming from? Whence this fear of calling a god’s name? Not from some kind of dread that we might mispronounce the names of those we are obliged to venerate? That we might cause trouble among mortals by using a name where no name is possible other than the index finger?

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam.
The moment when man dropped the index finger.
Source: Wikipedia
The names of citizens are meant to be known, because they are not subjected to the divinity; they are subordinate to the state. Citizens are vassals, and vassal-ness can only be communicated in written form: through sealed agreements or coercions, through codices, through official documents, through nomenclatures.
Names, like anathemas. Like stigmata. Visible, readable. Names, the facts of our identities that somebody else has decided we needed in order to fare well through life. And all for the sake of writing. It could only be for the sake of writing; because (remember?) pointing us out could have been done through the use of the index finger, which requires no stress, no need to differentiate. Baptized by the index finger, we would have had a chance of living with the gods; maybe of being gods.

If it hadn’t been for our attachment to signs…

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Writing and naming (1)

Today I feel like talking about lies. A special form of lies. The lies that come with writing. Of course, we’re used to talking or hearing others talk about the mendacious nature of fiction (the most refined, I’d like to believe, form of writing). Its very name says it all: fiction is fictitious. It tells of aliens, of speaking animals, of places that never existed, of princes and princesses more numerous than the history of the entire world put together.

The other lie

Everything that lives under the banner of fiction is accepted by us, by others, by the world, as a form of lying, and we read it knowing full well that in order for fiction to be efficient we need to believe in it. Through fiction we learn how to accommodate dogma, how to turn a blind eye to the most outrageous of falsehoods, and love it to bits.

Lies, lies, lies.
But there’s yet another form of lying that comes with writing. It somehow follows from what I talked about a couple of weeks ago: the (wrong) belief that writing is a form of memory. I think I managed to at least vaguely suggest that memory is far from being served by writing. On the contrary, writing is storage: it is about words preserved in a sterilized jar, whence we take them out by the spoonful and consume them to our heart’s content, without having to memorize anything at all. It’s the jar that matters, really; and writing itself is often a jar, a receptacle: it preserves the words of our language, the rules that transform these words, and the sanctions applied upon non-compliance. We learn how to avoid these sanctions by learning the rules that make writing acceptable, literary, or academic. Respectable. Worthy of our admiration. 'Good.'
Well then, writing (as a technological complication of language) is also a big lie insofar as it turns out to be a naming device.


Names. What are they? Means of recognition, right? We name a thing because we want to make sure next time we come upon it we don’t have to wreck our minds again trying to figure out what it is (what it was in the first place). Now of course, some of the naming we’re handling was done for us well before we were born. And because we were born surrounded by these names we believe this really is the way they are – that this really is the only way they can be. Little that we know, however, that we've been deceived.
To start with, these names are arbitrary. They are things decided upon almost at a whim. Between an object and the word that names it there’s very little, if any, ‘organic’ association. Of course, we have onomatopoeia, or the imitation of sounds, as it is known, which seems to point out a capacity inherent in language to reproduce the sounds of nature. But do you know what roosters say in French? In German? In Swahili? Don’t be surprised if they speak foreign languages too. Don’t be surprised to find out they have had their own Tower of Babel. The truth is this: an onomatopoeic word doesn't belong in the animal kingdom. It has been decided upon by us, humans, that a rooster should say Cock-a-doodle-do in English and Cocorico in French.
And now we’re back to the initial statement, and capable of enlarging its purpose: language in general is a lie, and writing (its offspring) is an even bigger liar. It imposes upon whatever-it-is-that-we-call-reality the artificial layer of human presence. Words (whether spoken or written) don’t reflect nature but reflect us.
There are no words in nature. Words are our addition, our contribution to the intricacies of whatever-it-is-that-we-call-nature. In nature, things exist. Among us, they are what their names tell them to be.

The redesigning of the Grand Design

So if human language is lying in the first degree, writing becomes lying in the second degree. How so? Well, language is the first imposition we make upon nature. We transform the environment (by which I mean stuff that’s surrounding us; you know - like nature, like the universe, like relationships between things) to fit our desperate need for relevance. We tame nature to resemble us. It’s very much like planting trees and pretending they are natural beings (as if our act of planting them had never existed; as if we could wipe it out with a sponge). And in doing so, we perpetrate the first big lie: we deceive the Grand Design by giving it another substance.

Source: Los Angeles Times
But this is not enough. No, Sir-ee. We come upon our own language to modify it yet again. This time, we take those names we've imposed upon nature and make them into visible signs. We create letters and make combinations of letters to figure out a way to call a dog “dog” and metamorphosis “metamorphosis.” But to do that, we once again exercise our unique ability to deceive. Because the writing of a given sound, of a given word, has nothing to do with the way we pronounce it. As much as sounds were our interpretation of nature, letters are our interpretation of sounds. It’s us interpreting us, isn't it?

Between sounds and letters

Excuse me if I’m getting a little philosophical here, but I must. There is no direct correlation between the sound and the letter called upon to reproduce it. The noise we make when we say ‘Ah’ (the noise alone, the letting out of air through our mouths) is in no way a direct source for the letter A. The three lines we use to build the letter A have a history of their own. They have evolved through time, as a result of the whims of many, many generations and many, many complications (or simplifications, as the case may be). But what’s even more important is that these lines are purely artificial. Take a look at the European alphabet in the context of other systems of alphabetic notation and you’ll see what I mean.

Our letters have never inherited our sounds. No; they merely exist out there, as a possibility – not even the best of the possible worlds, as philosophers would put it, but rather as the most popular of all possibilities. We (I mean our human race, collectively taken) have decided, in the course of history, that A, B, C, D… is an acceptable system of notation, a good way of reproducing in written form our audible world. And this is a lie, because it circumvents the truth of our descriptive impotence.
(to be continued)