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)