The Traumatic Word (2)

This is the second post in a series on “The Traumatic Word.”

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The word in its purest form, in its most human and divine form, in its holiest form, the word which passes orally between man and man to establish and deepen human relations, the word in a world of sound, has its limitations. It can overcome some of these—impermanence, inaccuracy—only by taking on others—objectivity, concern with things as things, quantification, impersonality.

The question is: Once the word has acquired these new limitations, can it retain its old purity? It can, but for it to do so we must reflectively recover that purity. This means that we must now seek further to understand the nature of the word as word, which involves understanding the word as sound.

— Walter J. Ong, S. J., The Presence of the Word (page 92)

The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world.

— Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (page 184)

We listen not so much to words as through them.

May years ago, when I first had to start wearing glasses, which was not until well into adulthood, it took me a while to adjust, as is common. Until that adjustment had taken place, I often found myself seeing my glasses themselves, rather than (or at least in addition to) what I saw through them. My eyes were unsure, as it were, about just where to focus: on my glasses, or on what lay beyond them. During that adjustment period, the glasses were more of a distraction to my vision than an enhancement of it. I found myself wanting to look at my glasses, rather than through them.

Similarly, when some year later I had to start wearing hearing aids, at first they were also more distractions to my hearing than aids to it. I found myself wanting to listen to the hearing aids, rather than through them.

As is true for any good, useful tool, the job of glasses and hearing aids is to vanish into their usage—in the case of glasses and hearing aids, into the vision and audition they are respectively designed to make possible. That’s just what both my glasses and my hearing aids did, at least as soon as I’d adjusted to wearing them.

Insofar as words are no more for us than means of conveying information or “messages” back and forth between “senders” and “receivers”—they too, at least when they are good little words, vanish into their usage. Otherwise, they become “noise” in the sense at issue in information theory: “interference” that distorts the message, just as static does on a radio. Words that call attention to themselves are just so much noise, when it comes to the transfer of information.

It is worth noting that, taken as the Word of God, Jesus is very noisy. He constantly calls attention to himself in one way or another.

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At one point in The Presence of the Word Walter J. Ong discusses how the word, as spoken sound, is “noninterfering” (page 147), whereas in contrast the gesture is “interfering” (page 148). By that he does not mean that the word is low on the noise-making scale, and the gesture high on it. Obviously, the contrary is the case. As sound, the word is nothing but noise, whereas a gesture makes no noise at all. The word is to be heard, and therefore must sound off; it must make noise. The gesture, however, is given to be seen.

Of course, in saying such things I am clearly just playing with the word noise, since the noisiness of the word is not a matter of its interference with the delivery of a message, but is instead actually essential to the usefulness of the word for carrying messages. A word that made no noise in the sense that it did not sound at all, would be a word that remained unspoken and therefore incapable of sending any message, conveying any information, whatever. In turn, however, the same thing applies to the gesture: a gesture that called no attention to itself—which made no noise in that sense—would be no less incapacitated as an information-transfer system than would a never-sounded word. It would be tantamount to a gesture that did not “give itself to be seen” in the first place, and therefore utterly failed to deliver any message at all.

By making such noise about the word noise, by playing noisily with that word, what I want to call to readers’ attention is, at least in part, that when Ong says the sounded word is “noninterfering,” whereas the gesture is “interfering,” he is not using that latter term the same way it is used in information theory. Rather, what he means when he says the sounded word, the voice, is “noninterferring” is, he explains, that “one can use the voice while doing other things with the muscles of the hands, legs, and other parts of the body.” In contrast, the gesture is “interfering”: “It demands the cessation of a great many physical activities which can be carried on easily while one is talking.”

Despite differentiating between gesture and word in that way, Ong nevertheless writes (on page 148) that “[i]t may be that human communication began with gesture and proceeded from there to sound (voice). Gesture would be a beautiful beginning, for gesture is a beautiful and supple thing.” If we take that suggestion seriously, then it may even turn out that the word itself remains a gesture—only a vocal, audible gesture, rather than a nonvocal, visible one. That would still fit with Ong’s point about the voiced word being “noninterfering,” since it would simply require confining “interfering” to non-vocal gestures. And that, in turn, would still leave room for what Ong says next, right after remarking on the beauty of a possible gestural beginning for the word: “But, if this was a development which really took place, the shift from gesture [that is, now: non-vocal gesture] to sound [vocal gesture] was, on the whole, unmistakably an advance in communications and in human relations.”

Yet even if that be granted, it still remains the case that, in the sense of “interference” at issue in information theory, as opposed to Ong’s own usage of that term, it is not just what he calls gesture, that is, what I just suggested might better be called “non-vocal gesture,” that “interferes.” Rather, both his “gesture” (my “non-vocal gesture”) and his “word” (my “vocal gesture”) are essentially “interfering.” That is, both by their very nature throw up obstacles to optimum transparency of any “message” they might be used to carry, any transmission of information they might be used to accomplish. That is because both call attention to themselves, not just to what comes packaged in them.

The beauty of gesture to which Ong himself calls attention is inseparable from gesture’s thus calling attention to itself. Beauty does that. It stops us in our tracks, brings us up short, dazzles us, stuns us, shocks us into silence and admiration—from Latin mirare, “to look,” and ad, “to or at,” but we also extend our usage of “admire” with ease to cover as well our attitude toward perceived auditory beauty, beauty that is heard rather than seen. Both gestures and words (or non-verbal gestures and verbal ones, if that is what the distinction at issue finally turns out really to be) have that arresting quality. Both a raised middle finger and the verbal equivalent, for example, have it.

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Whether I silently “give the finger” to people or yell “Fuck you!” at them, in either case I am telling them the same thing. What is more, however, the process of telling those to whom they are directed whatever those two, the nonverbal gesture and the verbal one, do tell them, both gestures tell it in a way designed to call attention to the telling itself. For both, just delivering information is far from all they are doing, or even the most important thing.

What they are doing, when taken in their fullness as gestures, is actually sharing a world. To be sure, the specific nonverbal and verbal gestures I have chosen as my examples (flipping someone off, or telling someone the same thing verbally) share the world with the person to whom they are directed in a very polemical, which is to say war-like, way (from Greek polemos, “war” or “strife” ”—which, according to Heraclitus, is “the father of all things”). Such gestures, verbal or not, convey enmity, even hatred. Indeed, it is for that very reason that I have chosen them as my examples.

As Sartre was good at pointing out, hate no less than love is a way of taking the other person seriously. It is a way of remaining genuinely in communication with that other person, rather than breaking the communication off. What breaks off communication—or never lets it get started in the first place—is not hate, but rather the indifference of passing one another by, unheeded.

In communicating with one another, we certainly process information back and forth. By yelling, “Fuck you!” at someone, I convey considerable information to that person, should said person wish to treat my behavior as no more than a message to be processed—ignoring me and focusing instead on decoding whatever information my behavior encodes. Such a decoder could decode lots and lots of bits of information from that single bit of my behavior: information about me (such as information about the current condition of my vocal apparatus, or where I was born, from details of my pronunciation); information about the culture from which I come; information about the decoder himself or herself (including that he or she apparently just did something that somehow triggered my outburst, and may even be under immediate threat of danger from me as a result, should I stop yelling and start acting). My behavior is chock full of all sorts of information, enough to satisfy any would-be decoder. However, in ignoring me to focus instead on decoding the information contained in my outburst, the person to whom I directed that outburst would run the very real risk of just enraging me further through such a display of personal indifference.

Sartre’s point that hating someone is a way of remaining in relationship with that person can be put in a more Heideggerian way by saying that hating is continuing to care about the other person. Ong also makes essentially the same point in The Presence of the Word, when he says that no matter how polemical or even verbally abusive talk between people may become, at its core (page 192) “[t]he word moves toward peace because it mediates between person and person.” As he proceeds to point out (page 193):

When hostility becomes total, the most vicious name-calling is inadequate: speech is simply broken off entirely. One assaults another physically or at least ‘cuts’ him by passing him in total silence. Or one goes to court, where, significantly, the parties do not speak directly to each other but only to the judge, whose decision, if accepted as just by both parties, at least in theory and intent brings them to resume normal conversation with each other once more.**

To pass from speech, no matter how vicious or even abusive, to a fist striking a jaw or a bullet tearing flesh is to cease gesturing at all any longer, whether verbally or nonverbally. To send a fist into the face of another or a bullet into that other’s chest is not to gesture at anyone. It is to break off all gesturing, and therewith to break off all genuine further communication.

To continue with Ong’s ways of formulating things, what is truly distinctive about communication, properly so called, is that it is the sharing with one another of what is “interior” with regard to each of the communicants—sharing it precisely as “interior,” so that it continues, in its very being shared, still to be closed off, unseen, not laid out in the open, in short, continues to be invisible. That is why Ong repeatedly insists that the word as such is sound. Sound alone can plumb the interior depths that vision—or taste or smell or touch, for that matter, in the final analysis—can never attain, depths that vision can never “sound,” as we by no accident say. Sound sounds from, and “resounds” or “resonates” from, the interior of that which is sounding, whether sounding of itself (as does the animal in its cry or the human being in speaking) or sounding through the action of another (as does a melon when thumped or a wall when knocked).

In that telling sense, communication is the sharing of what can never be processed as information, in short, the sharing of the un-sharable. Ultimately, to communicate is gives voice to the incommunicable.

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“The spoken word is a genuine gesture, and it contains its meaning in the same way as the gesture contains it. This is what makes communication possible.”   So writes Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his 1945 Phenomenology of Perception (translated by Colin Smith, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962, page 183). Those two sentences occur a bit earlier in the same passage that ends with the line I used for my second epigraph at the beginning of this post. Right after those two sentences, the passage at issue continues as follows (pages 183-184):

In order that I may understand the words of another person it is clear that his vocabulary and syntax must be ‘already known’ to me. But that does not mean that words do their work by arousing in me ‘representations’ associated with them, and which in aggregate eventually reproduce in me the original ‘representation’ of the speaker. What I communicate with primarily is not ‘representations’ or a thought, but a speaking subject, with a certain style of being and with the ‘world’ at which he directs his aim. Just as the sense-giving intention which has set in motion the other person’s speech is not an explicit thought, but a certain lack which is asking to be made good, so my taking up of this intention is not a process of thinking on my part, but a synchronizing change of my own existence, a transformation of my being.

Nevertheless, because to live in the world together is also to live in, with, and by building, “institutions” together, there is a tendency of the spoken word to lose its sonority, as it were—to lose what, favoring the visual over the auditory as our culture has done since the Greeks (that, too, has become institutionalized), we might well call the word’s “shine” or even its “glitter.” The word comes no longer to call attention to itself, but instead sinks down to the level of the commonplace utterance, and language becomes no more than a system of signs. The word no longer calls out to be heard, and to be given thought. Accordingly, the passage from Merleau-Ponty continues:

We live in a world where speech is an institution. For all these many commonplace utterances, we possess within ourselves ready-made meanings. They arouse in us only second order thoughts; these in turn are translated into other words which demand from us no real effort of expression and will demand from our hearers no effort of comprehension. Thus language and the understanding of language apparently raise no problems. The linguistic and intersubjective world no longer surprises us, we no longer distinguish it from the world itself, and it is within a world already spoken and speaking that we think. We become unaware of the contingent element in expression and communication, whether it be in the child learning to speak, or in the writer saying and thinking something for the first time, in short, in all who transform a certain kind of silence into speech. It is, however, quite clear that constituted speech, as it operates in daily life, assumes that the decisive step of expression has been taken. Our view of man will remain superficial so long as we fail to go back to that origin, so long as we fail to find, beneath the chatter of words, the primordial silence, and as long as we do not describe the action which breaks this silence.

Silence is broken by the action of speaking, of sounding the word. Hence, Merleau-Ponty ends his long passage with the line I already used as my second epigraph for this post:

The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world.

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My next post will continue this series on “The Traumatic Word.”

** In future, I may devote one or more posts to how it stands between the word, sound, and peace—especially today, our endless day of global market capitalism. If so, I may call the post/s something such as “Shattering Silence of Peace.”

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