The Traumatic Word (5)

Though for the word’s own sake I could still say much more, this is the final post of my series on “The Traumatic Word.”

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It is human to see the world made up of three kinds of things: food, proscribed edibles, and non-food. For a Hindu pork is taboo, not so begonias. These he has never thought of eating. By eating pork, he loses caste. If, however, he joins an Indio from central Mexico eating begonia flowers not he, but the world around him has changed. Begonias have moved from non-food to food.

Issues as well can be thus divided. Some are considered legitimate. Others not to be raised in polite society. A third kind seems to make no sense at all. If you raise these, you risk being thought impossibly vain.

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So far, every single attempt to substitute a universal commodity for a vernacular value has led, not to equality, but to a hierarchical modernization of poverty.

— Ivan Illich

 

Both of the citations above are taken from Ivan Illich’s 1981 book Shadow Work—from which I already cited two lines in a note appended to my previous post, the fourth of this series of five on “The Traumatic Word.” With regard to what he says in the first of the two citations above, about there being some issues the very raising of which runs risks of being thought to be as impossibly vain as a begonia-eater, Illich offers as an example the issue he risks raising in Shadow Work itself. That is the issue of the distinction between what he therein calls “the vernacular domain,” on the one hand, and “the shadow economy,” on the other (the emphasis is Illich’s own in both cases).

Being far less of a risk-taker than Illich himself, I will not risk discussing both sides of that risky conceptual disjunction. I will leave it up to interested readers to read Illich’s book itself for enlightenment (or befuddlement, if Illich loses his wager with those readers) about what he means by “the shadow economy.” For my own risk-averse purposes in this post, I will simply focus on the first disjunct, the notion of “the vernacular domain.” In fact, to minimize my risk even further, I’ll confine my attention to what is named in just the first two words of that three-word phrase—“the vernacular.”

With regard to the vernacular, I will risk saying this: the vernacular is the parochial.

In saying that, just as it stands, I am not risking much. That’s because, just as it stands, it will sound bland and innocuous to most modern ears. Of course the vernacular is the parochial, those who hear with such ears might well remark. After all, both refer to what’s local, informal, and more or less uneducated or “backwoods”-ish—as when we speak of “parochial concerns” and of putting something “in the vernacular,” for example. Such ways of speaking and putting things contain within themselves what amounts (to use the vernacular) to “putting them down,” reducing them to the sorts of concerns and ways of speaking characteristics of “hicks,” more or less (of the mindless masses of “the great unwashed,” to use the educated way of saying it that, as I mentioned in my preceding post, one of my old DU colleagues used to like to use).   That is, having concerns that count as “parochial,” or a tendency toward putting things “in the vernacular,” is just not the sort of thing one wants to do if one is concerned to preserve one’s status as an educated, well-schooled person who would resort to the vernacular only by putting what one says within quotation marks, as I’ve been trying to be careful to do so far. To the well-trained, well-schooled understanding, both the vernacular and the parochial always carry a whiff of vulgarity with them—vulgar being a word derived eventually from Latin vulgus, meaning “the common people,” where that phrase in turn is already pressed into service to put down such people, reducing them to the status of “the multitude,” that is, “the crowd” or “the throng,” the mere and sheer human “swarm” of “the great unwashed.”

At least part of what Illich is trying to call to our attention in his own usage of vernacular is how uppity we are in our dismissal, as always being somewhat vulgar, of everything local, home-grown, and genuinely “convivial,” to use another word he likes to risk using in unusual ways, at least by today’s hoity-toity, “grammatically correct” standards. As I already noted in my immediately preceding post, the word vernacular derives from the Latin vernaculus, which means “domestic, native, indigenous.” What I left out in my preceding post what that vernaculus itself derives from verna, a Latin word of Etruscan origin that meant a “home-borne slave.” By my reading of him, Illich is in effect running the risk of trying to liberate the vernacular itself from its slavery, thereby restoring to it the full, fully ambiguous freedom that is the birth-right of all words as words, whose worth as such is taken violently away whenever they are pressed into service as mere signs or symbols (in the sense of those two words that Walter J. Ong, for one, helps us hear).

Since Illich has already run all the big risks of such a liberation of words with vernacular, I am free to run the much smaller risk of trying to do some of the same for parochial, a word the origins of which are not already tainted by such hierarchies of master and slave as are the origins of the word vernacular.

Parochial derives eventually from Latin parachoia, which means “of or pertaining to a parish.” In turn parachoia derives from the Greek paroikos. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) that last word was used by early Christian writers to mean “a sojourner”—after its classical Greek usage to mean “neighbor,” from para, “near, beside,” and oikos, “house.” Insofar as those origins can be heard back into what parochial says, the parochial is that which belongs to home, the place where we dwell, where we are “at home”—the same “home-grown” stuff, in short, as makes up the vernacular, at least in Illich’s liberation of that word from its bondage.   The parochial, the vernacular, is what is of or pertains to where we do indeed sojourn, from Latin sub-, “under, until,” plus diunare, “to last long,” from diurnum, “day.” Where we sojourn is literally where we “spend our day,” day after day throughout our human life from birth to death—“we” being all of us common people, in all the glorious, irremediably vernacular vulgarity of our utter parochialism, our great unwashed-ness.

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I claim no special expertise on Gerard Manley Hopkins, and most especially none on the proper scholarly interpretation of his poetry. However, one of his poems once delivered an especially resonant word to me—a word pertaining to trauma. That was during my own traumatic summer vacation of 1987, about which I have written on this blog before, without at that time discussing the contribution my reading of that one of Hopkins’ poems made to my experience then, back when I first read it in 1987. When I recently read Ong’s book on Hopkins, including Hopkins’ own letter to his friend Bridges about the word sake, I was reminded of that contribution.

Hopkins’ remarks in the letter On cites struck me as no surprise when I read them for the first time in my recent reading of Ong’s book, because they struck me as already familiar to me from my much earlier reading of the poem at issue. In the light of Hopkins’ letter I was able to see—or, more accurately put, perhaps, in the resonance of that letter I was able to hear—how that poem, as I first received it years ago, during my summer of 1987, really said the same thing already, at least to me, in a poetic rather than a prosaic way. Here is Hopkins’ poem, #34 in the standard numbering:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

 

I say móre: the just man justices;

Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –

Chríst – for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

 

When I first encountered that poem, during my summer vacation of 1987—when I underwent, in full public display (at least in a rather parochial sense of “public”), a traumatic reliving of a much earlier trauma from my childhood—I heard Hopkins’ two stanzas as constituting what Ivan Illich in Gender calls
a duality, characterized by the asymmetric complementarity of that duality’s own constitutive duo. That duality emerged, and was marked by, my hearing, at the start of Hopkins’ second stanza something that remained unsaid, but nevertheless determinative for my entire understanding of everything said in the poem as a whole, in both its stanzas taken together.

The unsaid I heard then, during my traumatic summer vacation—which was most especially traumatically healing, I will add, with regard to a much earlier trauma from my childhood—of 1987, when I first heard Hopkins’s poem, was but a single word. In fact, it was but that very word: “But.” Though it is not there in what Hopkins actually says, not written there in letters beside all the ones he did write in that poem, I heard (and still do) the second stanza sound a silent “but” at its very beginning, to set the tone not only of what was to follow as that second stanza itself, but also of what lay there already to be found in the first.

According to the first stanza of the poem, “each mortal thing” keeps on redundantly saying over and over again the same old thing. That same old thing is nothing but itself. Each thing says the same thing all the time: “Myself it speaks and spells/Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.”

However, the “I” who speaks in the second stanza, does not just say that same, does not just “fling out broad its name,” crying out always only “Myself.” Rather, the “I” who speaks in the second stanza remains utterly anonymous, which is to say name-less. That nameless speaker does not cry out itself, and beyond that shut up, saying nothing else. Rather, that anonymous “I” says “more”—which Hopkins himself already doubly emphasizes by placing the diacritical mark over that word in the already wholly italicized stanza: “I say móre . . .”

The “I” who speaks the second stanza says “more” than what “each mortal thing” says, according to the first stanza. That is what I heard in hearing a silent “But” sounding to open, and thereby thoroughly to tune, the whole second stanza–and, with it, to attune the reader’s ears for properly hearing what the whole poem gave voice to.

What it gave voice to, when I first heard it during my own doubly traumatic summer vacation of 1987—“doubly traumatic,” because it was an itself-traumatic, asymmetrically complementary reliving of an earlier trauma—was itself dual, precisely in Illich’s sense of that. What I heard was the duality, in short, on the one hand of entrapment in hell—the pure hell of total self-absorption, in which the self, has become so wrapped up and entangled in asserting itself that it has lost itself entirely—and on the other hand of liberation from that entrapment—the very “harrowing of Hell” by Christ himself between his death on the cross and his resurrection on the first Easter Sunday, according to Christian tradition, which was of course the tradition to which Hopkins himself so crucially belonged.

According to another tradition, that of Mahayana Buddhism, samsara and nirvana are said to be “the same.” Well, in the same sense of “the same,” hell and the liberation from hell—which is to say hell and heaven—as Hopkins’ poem 34 long ago now gave me at least to hear, are “the same.” That is, coming to be liberated from hell is not like being taken from one location and transported, by magic or airplane or any other means, to some other, new, different location. It is, rather, being freed from the bondage of self, wherein the self loses itself entirely in the entanglements of claiming its own, into genuinely being oneself, which one can only be in what Ong—glossing Hopkins’ remarks about the sake of such expressions as “for one’s own sake,” in Hopkins’ letter to his friend Bridges—well names one’s “outreach to others.” Only when liberated from the bondage of having always only to be myself alone, am I given to know that I have all along been no one other than myself—but always already and only myself among others.

That’s what I heard when I first heard Hopkins’ poem 34, during my summer vacation of 1987. It’s what I hear still, when I listen through all the noise, rather than to it.

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It is far from accidental that, as Walter J. Ong reminds us in the lines from The Presence of the Word with which I began this whole series of posts on “The Traumatic Word,” the word as word is not only not a “sign,” but also not a “symbol” either. To take each in turn:

The word is not a “sign,” properly speaking, since the word sign itself ultimately bespeaks something visible, something to be seen, whereas the word word bespeaks something audible, something itself spoken, to be heard rather than seen.

What is more, to repeat, the word is not only no such sign, says Ong, but also no “symbol.” That is because, as he tells us, originally “symbolon was a visible sign, a ticket, sometimes a broken coin or other object the matching parts of which were held separately by each of two contracting parties.”

In the concentration upon the visible imposed upon him, regardless of his own will in the matter, by the already now long-standing tradition of treating language as nothing more than an elaborate system of “signs,” and the word itself as no more than a “symbol” of what it names, in the just re-cited passage Ong may himself have misheard some of what sounds in the word word itself.   It is not simply because the word belongs among what sounds, and so gives itself to be heard, rather than belonging among the visible, which gives itself to be seen, that the word as word is no “symbol.” It is also—and in my own judgment above all—because the word as word is no token of coercive power, that drives to make everything fit. The word as word is no sign, such as a torn ticket or a broken coin, the two sides of which fit perfectly together, thus signifying the official authorization of the messenger, who carries one half of the symbol with him, to carry some official message to the officially designated recipient of that message, who proves his own authorization to receive it by providing the matching other half of the symbol, to perfectly fit the messenger’s half. A word as word, as a breaker of the silence to which it gives voice, is no such torn ticket or broken coin or modern digitized equivalent that testifies to such polarized and polarizing authorization. The symbol as such is always a sign of claimed power, claimed “authority.” The word, as word, claims no authority. It just speaks.

That is why the word is no sign. As Ong so rightly observes in the next to last line from the epigraph with which I began this entire blog series: “The word cannot be seen, cannot be handed about, cannot be ‘broken’ and reassembled.” However, he misses, I’d say, the deepest, truest reason that the word cannot be broken, as is every “symbol.

That the word cannot be broken derives not from some timeless or indestructible durability of the stuff of which the word consists, certainly. After all, as Ong himself repeatedly emphasizes, there is nothing more passing, less enduring, more easily destroyed than sound, which is finally all the word consists of. The reason the word cannot be broken—and why it is therefore so unsuitable for being made to do service to coercive power, the sort of power that imposes itself on those it over-powers, as do all institutions that have passed beyond conviviality—has nothing to do with that.

The word cannot be broken because it is always already broken to begin with, and only so does it speak. The name and what it names—the same as glory and the glorious, or luster and the lustrous, or shine and the shining of that which shines of itself—are never two halves of some once presumably unitary totality that somehow got subsequently broken apart, such that the pieces could ever, even in the wildest fantasy of security and authority (beyond even “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” that couldn’t re-fit Humpty-Dumpty back together after he dumped from his wall), be fitted seamlessly back together again.

The name, the very being of what is named—its being “outside” itself, with and among others—on the one hand, and its being “in” itself, “indoors which it dwells,” on the other, constitute a duality, not a polarity. The two are strictly incommensurable: There is no common standard by which they can both be neatly operationalized, measured, ranked, and set to order within a hierarchy.

The name and what it names are really the same, but that is so only in the way that men and women are really the same, which does not in the least mean that the two are “one and the same thing.” If the name and the named were just one and the same thing, then the name could not be the named itself outside itself, given to others. Then neither God nor anything else could ever be honored for its own sake, and nothing would ever have any glory.

The word can never be broken, because it is, as word, the break itself. The word is the very breaking open of the cosmic egg, without which the egg can never attain its own glory, for its own sake. The word itself is traumatic. That’s why I have entitled this whole series “The Traumatic Word.”

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There is no one, all-encompassing, all-comprehending uni-vision, uni-perspective, uni-conception that can reduce everything to one single all-inclusive, all “other” exclusive, totality of beings. As Heidegger already taught in “What Is Metaphysics?”—his inaugural address in 1929 when he took over his mentor Edmund Husserl’s chair of philosophy at the University of Freiburg—we are never given “the whole of beings” (das Ganze des Seienden). We are only—but also always—given “beings in the whole” (das Seiende im Ganzen). Whatever gives itself at all has, as so self-giving and self-given, its own being “outside” itself, as Hopkins so well puts it, that is to say, its being open and given to all the other beings with and among which alone it can be.

To my ears, ever since they were first attuned to hear it during my traumatically healing summer vacation of 1987, Hopkins teaches the very same lesson in poem 34: “As kingfishers catch fire . . .” As I hear them, Heidegger and Hopkins say the same. It’s just that they say it, appropriately, in two radically different, asymmetrically complementary ways.

Such differences can only help us hear if we let them. And only a hearing attuned to such difference can hear at all. So we should let them.

What they help us to hear, among other things, is that, as for the universe, in opposition to the cosmos, at least in the original sense of that latter word—well, there simply is no such thing. There is no “uni-verse,” no one thing that is the whole of everything, and turns everything into just one thing. There is no such all encompassing, all other excluding, single thing. There is only and always what might well be called “the di-verse,” if I may risk putting it that way.

The universe, were it to be, would be nothing but a total, monotone horror, and a colossally monotonous bore, on top of that. The diverse, however, is richly chromatic—we might call it extra-chromatic—and ever entertaining.

Therefore let us thank God that there is no such thing as the universe, but that there is only the diverse. That is, let us give thanks that there is only the being together of each with all—in which all things act for the sake of each other, to the glory of each other’s name: the word by which each is called, the very being of each outside itself, with and among all us others.

Amen! Which is to say: So be it!

The Traumatic Word (4)

As plans have a way of doing, my plan to complete this series on “The Traumatic Word” with today’s post has fallen through. However, this series of posts of my words on the word will end with my next post, most of which is already composed.

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            Sake is a word I find it convenient to use: I did not know when I did so first that it is common in German in the form sach. It is the sake of ‘for the sake of,’ forsake, namesake, keepsake. It mean by it the being of a thing outside itself, as a voice by its echo, a face by its reflection, a body by its shadow, a man by his name, fame, or memory and also that in the thing by virtue of which it has this being abroad, and that is something distinctive, marked, specifically or individually speaking, as for a voice and echo clearness; for a reflected image light, brightness; for a shadow-casting body, bulk; for a man, genius, great achievements, amiability, and so on.

— Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Exchange drives partners toward ever clearer fit (homogeneity and not ambiguity), whose asymmetry therefore tends toward hierarchy and dependence. Where exchange structures relationships, a common denominator defines the fit. Where ambiguity constitutes the two entities that it also relates, ambiguity engenders new partial incongruities between men and women, constantly upsetting any tendency toward hierarchy and dependence.

— Ivan Illich

 

The passage immediately above—that is, the second epigraph for today’s post—comes from Ivan Illich’s 1983 book Gender (Berkeley: Heyday Books, page 76, end of footnote 57). That book was no less controversial when it first appeared than were such earlier Illich publications as Deschooling Society, first printed in 1971, and Medical Nemesis, the first edition of which appeared in 1975 and which probably gained the most widespread attention, and engendered the most controversy, of all his works.

Born in Vienna in 1926, as a young man Illich became a Roman Catholic priest. He remained in the priesthood from then until his death in 2002, despite falling into conflict with the Vatican and—by mutual but non-official agreement, in effect, between him and the institutionalized hierarchy of the Catholic Church—ceasing to function publicly as a priest toward the end of the 1960s, though he even continued to say the Catholic Mass in private on occasion throughout the rest of his life.

Recurrently in his work, Illich argued and documented that the formal institutionalization of practices and processes pursued beyond a certain point becomes counterproductive. That is, pursued beyond that point institutionalization no longer facilitates the realization of that for the sake of which the institution was purportedly established. Instead, it begins to become an obstacle rather than an avenue for such realization, even beginning to generate specifically opposite results.

For example, in Medical Nemesis Illich argues that the institutionalization of medical care, carried beyond a certain point, starts making the society in which such institutionalization occurs less healthy overall, rather than more healthy. Put in different terms, pursued beyond that critical point, the institutionalization of medical care not only passes what economists call “the point of diminishing returns,” but actually sets off an inflationary spiral of ever-rising overall social costs for healthcare. As is true of all such inflation, although it massively benefits an ever more select few, it works to the growing disadvantage of the vast majority of society. In the case of medical care, that means medicine institutionalized past that tipping point starts making the society as a whole sicker, even and especially generating iatrogenic (“doctor- caused”) illnesses—a clear example of which is the disturbingly high rate of hospital-caused infections in the United States today.

In case after case, book after book, Illich advanced the same general argument about institutionalization becoming specifically counterproductive whenever it is pursued beyond such a certain, surprisingly minimal point—“surprising” at least for those of us today who long ago became used to living in a globally over-institutionalized society. Whereas in Medical Nemesis he addressed the counterproductivity of contemporary institutionalized medicine, a few years before that book appeared Illich addressed, in Deschooling Society, the institutionalization whereby education becomes “schooling,” which takes place only in specially designated places called “schools” at specially designated times (“school-time,” as we say) and ages of life (as reflected in talk about someone being “school-aged,” for example—though with the rampant commercialization of education and the emergence of the total horror of “life-long” schooling well under way today, that expression may be well on the way to losing its currency). Illich does a good job of showing how such over-institutionalization of education by enclosing it ever more tightly within schools and schooling ends up making the society as a whole less, rather than more, educated.*

In general, institutionalization becomes counterproductive once it passes the point of what Illich calls “conviviality.” He uses that term in the title of his 1973 book Tools for Conviviality, and means by the “convivial”—which he will also connect with what in various works, including Gender, he calls the “vernacular”—what can be pursued within ongoing local community life as such, and is “expressive” of that community itself.   “Convivial” tools as well as institutions would be those that are established and maintained truly for the sake of those who establish and maintain them, as expressions of themselves.

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The first epigraph for today’s post, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, about the sake of such expressions as “for the sake of,” comes from a letter Hopkins wrote his friend Robert Bridges dated 26 May 1879. Walter J. Ong cites it in his book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986, page 38), and then glosses it by writing: “Doing something ‘for my sake’ is doing something for me in so far as I have an outreach to you. What is distinctive about ‘my sake’ is not that I am totally self-contained in a solipsistic, self-sufficient world but that the outreach to you is in this case the outreach that comes from me and only from me, that is distinctive of me, not found in any other.”

All the way back at least to Being and Time, Heidegger distinguished between, on the one hand, what we find or fabricate for use “in order to” (um zu) pursue some extrinsic end (a redundant expression, actually, since any end as such is necessarily extrinsic to the thing we find or fabricate for use to achieve that end) and, on the other hand, what we use all such means for pursuing all such ends “for the sake of” (um willen). His discussion helps make clear that what we do “for its own sake” is precisely what we no longer do “in order to” accomplish something else.

So, for example, what we do “for God’s sake” (in German: um Gottes willen) is nothing that we do for any “ulterior motive,” as we put it—some such motive as currying favor with “the Czar of the universe” (to borrow an apt phrase from AA co-founder Bill Wilson’s telling of his own tale in the first chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous), in order to keep the Big Bully from zapping us for not obeying his orders, or to get him to give us something we want, or the like. What we do “for God’s sake” is just what we do for no other end or reason at all, save adding to God’s own “glory.”

Hopkins is right in what he says in his letter to his friend Bridges about the English word sake, including his remark about the German cognate of that word, which by the conventions governing written modern German would be Sache, meaning “thing” or “matter.” So, for example, a work Heidegger published late in his life was a collection of essays all of which dealt with the same matter—what he called, in the title he gave the whole thing, Zur Sache des Denkens. That title for its own sake might be translated as “On the Thing of Thinking” (or “of Thought”), if we use that word thing the way Baby Boomers such as I still do when we speak on occasion of “doing our own thing.”  Or it might be translated as “On the Matter of Thinking.” At any rate, what Heidegger means by his title could perhaps best be captured by noting that all of the essays in the book address that for the sake of which thinking occurs, that for the sake of which thought takes place.   That is, to ask after die Sache des Denkens is to inquire into what thinking or thought adds to the glory of—what it adds to the luster of, as gold adds to the luster of those suited to wear it.

Hopkins himself is deeply thoughtful to note, for Bridges sake and for his own, that he, Hopkins, himself means by the word sake “the being a thing has outside itself.” That is why I have been speaking in my own turn of what is done “for the sake of” someone or something as done “for the glory” of that one or thing. I will continue to use the example of doing something solely “for God’s sake,” that is, doing it solely to add to God’s own luster, God’s own glory.

The “glory” of God is not something extrinsic to God. It is, rather, to use Hopkins’ own way of putting it, the very being of God as such, God Him-self/Her-self/God-self, “outside” Him-/Her-/God-self. How gloriously Hopkins puts it! The “sake” of a thing is the thing itself as outside itself—as itself there in its shine, its splendor, in short, its glory.

The glory of God’s—God’s very “sake” as such, in Hopkins’ glorious sense of that word—is not there for its own sake, however. The (Hopkinsian) “sake” of God is there to the glory of God, not to it own glory. It is God’s own luster–God’s “name, fame, or memory,” to borrow what Hopkins applies to what he names “man,” but which in his spirit we can happily apply just as aptly (if not even more so) to what we name “God.”

To do something solely “for God’s sake” is thus the same as doing it solely “in the name of God,” or as we also say “for His [sic] name’s sake.” In turn, to act solely “for God’s name’s sake” is not to act to the glory of something apart from God—since God’s “sake” is God’s “name” itself, and both the same are not different from God, but are God’s very being “outside” God Her-/Him-/God-self, that is, what we could aptly and happily call, borrowing from Ong, God’s “outreach” or “presence” to others. To act “in God’s name” or “for God’s name’s sake” is to act to the glory of God God-self. (I hope I have sufficiently indicated by now that I am using that expression God Godself to avoid talking of God Himself or Herself, while still avoiding turning God, that “who” of all “who’s” rather than “what’s,” into any “It”—Id in Latin, and Lat-anglicized Freud. In the name of God let us, to be sure, avoid drafting God’s name into service to sexism, but not at the price of letting that name degenerate to no more than the sign of an “it.”) To act solely for God’s name’s sake is to act in such as way as just to add glory God’s own glory, shine to God’s own shine, luster to God’s own luster. It is to polish the gold in which God always already comes decorously bejeweled. In short, it is to adore the divinely adorned.

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Division by “gender,” as Illich analyses it in his 1983 book of that name, is a convivial duality, as opposed to the non-convivial, specifically counterproductive polarity of division by “sex.” He thereby reverses—or rather “transfigures,” to use a more convivial term, since he does not just turn it around—what still at that time at least (the early 1980s), passed as conventional feminist wisdom. The latter took sex to be less “socially constructed” than gender, and objected above all to distinguishing between two supposedly natural genders rather than the two sexes, of “masculine” and “feminine,” “male” and “female,” “man” and “woman.” Thus, “gender” was commonly taken by feminists to mean something “social” or “cultural,” whereas “sex” was taken to mean something “biological.” In sharp difference, Illich writes (pages 3-4):

I use gender, then, in a new way to designate a duality that in the past was too obvious even to be named, and is so far removed from us today that it is often confused with sex. By ‘sex’ I mean the result of a polarization in those common characteristics that, starting in the late eighteenth century, are attributed to all human beings. Unlike vernacular [from Latin vernaculus, “native, domestic”—so what is “convivial,” in the sense Illich gives that term, which I explained above] gender, which always reflects an association between a dual, local, material culture and the men and women who live under its rule, social sex is ‘catholic’ [that is, claims “universality”—from the literal, etymological meaning of catholic]; it polarizes the human labor force, libido, character of intelligence, and is the result of a diagnosis (in Greek, ‘discrimination’) of derivations from [what, under such a “diagnosis,” becomes] the abstract, genderless norm of ‘the human.’ Sex can be discussed in the unambiguous [a mark of its “catholicity,” since the “vernacular” is always and inescapably ambiguous] language of science [that most universal, or catholic, language of that purely, purified catholic “knowledge” that is science]. Gender [in sharp contrast to the exclusively uniform and uni-forming totality of “sex”] bespeaks a complementarity [What a glorious word for it!] that is enigmatic and asymmetrical.

As he sums that up nicely, much later in Gender (in footnote 101, bottom of page 138): “Gendered speech constantly breathes, whispers, and utters gendered duality, while sexed language imposes discrimination. Grammatical gender (genus), therefore, becomes in sexed language what it could not be in gendered speech: a constant device for a put-down.”

For my purposes in this post, what I will take from such fine passages, and from Illich’s Gender as a whole, will not be the issues of sex, gender, totalization, discrimination, globalism, and feminism, the disconnections and interconnections of which he deftly traces in that book. That discussion is most certainly worthy of careful reading and reflection upon for its own sake, to be sure. But for my purposes here all I want to extract from it is the distinction therein between what he calls “duality,” characterized by the “asymmetrical, ambiguous complementarity” of its two sides or halves, and what he calls “polarity,” characterized by how it “imposes discrimination.”

In a brief footnote discussion entitled “Complementarity and Social Science,” within a chapter called “Vernacular Gender” (footnote 52, to pages 68-69), Illich observes that light, in the sense of the Latin lumen, or “way of looking,” was once thought to “stream” from the eye out to the visible thing—in effect, “palpating” it, as Merleau-Ponty liked to put it in various texts, though Illich doesn’t mention him here. Applying that to the vernacular duality of gender, Illich writes that in the analysis he is attempting to present through using that duality, “each culture appears as a metaphor, a metaphoric complementarity relating two distinct sets of tools, two types of space-time, two domains,” which “find expression in different but related styles in which the world is understood or grasped”—two incommensurably different but related beams of light, streaming out from two incommensurably different but related sets of eyes to palpate the visible.

In contrast, he goes on, science “is a filter that screens from the observer’s eye the ambiguity of gendered [that is dual, asymmetrically complementary] light.” As a result of such filtering out of all such irreducible ambiguity within what is called “social science,” the “asymmetry that constitutes the social reality of each vernacular is effected by the central perspective of cultural anthropology,” which institutionalizes a “monochromatic, genderless [that is, utterly univocal and uni-sighted] lumen”—the single, glaring, contour-blanching light “of such concepts as rule, exchange, and structure.” Such concepts—which word comes from Latin con, “with,” and capare, “take, grasp, seize”—cease to conceptualize (to grasp in and for thought) anything of what Illich calls “the Eigen-value [from the German eigen, “own,’ in the sense of belonging or being “proper to” that which has, manifests, or in short shines forth with and in, it] of each and every vernacular reality,” that is, every local, native, domestic, home-grown and home-growing, concrete, really real reality.

Accordingly: “What the scientific observer sees through his diagnostic spectacles are not men and women who really act in a gendered subsistence society but sexual deviants from an abstract, genderless cultural norm who have to be operationalized, measured, ranked, and structured into hierarchies.” Thus, as Illich then concludes his discussion in this footnote by writing: “Cultural anthropology that operates with genderless concepts is inevitably sexist,” with a sexism that is “much more blinding than old-style ethnocentric arrogance.”

Later in the same chapter, in a footnote discussion entitled “Ambiguous Complementarity” (footnote 57, bottom of pages 75-76), Illich himself nicely grasps in his own thought just what such pseudo-concepts as exchange actually accomplish, which has nothing to do with vision, but everything to do with imposition. I have already given that passage above, as the second epigraph for this post, but it bears repeating here, to end today’s post:

Exchange drives partners toward ever clearer fit (homogeneity and not ambiguity), whose asymmetry therefore tends toward hierarchy and dependence. Where exchange structures relationships, a common denominator defines the fit. Where ambiguity constitutes the two entities that it also relates, ambiguity engenders new partial incongruities between man and women, constantly upsetting any tendency toward hierarchy and dependence.

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My next post will finish the current series on “The Traumatic Word.” (I promise!)

* Of course, a select few are singled out by the schooling system to become hyper-educated (Ph.D.’s like me, for example), but just as the income gap between the monetarily rich and the monetarily poor keeps on widening, so does the education gap between us members of the hyper-educated elite and the common folk whom one of my colleagues at the University of Denver used to like to dismiss by calling them “the great unwashed.”   As to how schooling pursued beyond the tipping point at issue can create its own teacher-caused equivalent to doctor-caused illnesses, I am reminded of something I used to tell the students in my own classes, before I learned more skillful means of subverting the university: “Any idiot can get a Ph.D.—in fact, being an idiot helps.”   In Shadow Work, published in 1981 (Boston and London: Marion Boyars), two years before Gender, Illich himself writes (page 31): “Students ask if they are in school to learn or to collaborate in their own stupefaction. Increasingly, the toil of consumption overshadows the relief consumption promised.”

 

The Traumatic Word (3)

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

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All that glitters is not gold.

— Old commonplace

Even for us, gold still glitters. However, we don’t any longer attend especially either to gold or to glittering . . . We have no sense for that “sense” any longer. Insofar as gold “is” gold for us, it is only as a metal that carries value.

— Martin Heidegger

 

The word gives voice to the silence it breaks.

Sometimes during the second half of my long university teaching career, I would bring a small Tibetan meditation gong to class, to give the students an opportunity to experience two different modalities of listening, as I myself had first experienced them once by fortuitous accident. I would ask the students to find a comfortable position in their chairs, close their eyes gently, and hold themselves relaxed but attentive. Then, before ringing the bell, I would telling them to focus their attention on the sound of the ringing itself, and to hold onto the sound for as long as they could continue to hear it, however dimly, then just to stay quiet and attentive, eyes closed. After giving the ringing sound ample time to die away, I would ring the bell again. This time, however, I would first direct the students not to focus on the ringing of the bell as such, trying to hear it as long as they could, but rather to listen for the silence to return to the bell.

Afterwards, the class and I would talk about the difference between the two experiences of listening. Some of the students reported that they really hadn’t been able to tell any difference. However, others—usually a smaller number, which is to be expected, for reasons I need not discuss here—would report surprise at just how different in quality the two experiences were.

I would then end by encouraging all of the students, whichever of those two reporting groups they belonged to, to practice the two different ways of listening on their own. I know from subsequent feedback that some did, but I also have good grounds for suspecting that most did not—for reasons similar to those I think account for the disparity in size between the two reporting groups, but that, once again, I do not need to discuss here.

As I already remarked above, when I first experienced the difference at issue myself it was not under any special guidance or direction, but just by serendipity. It happened twenty or so years ago. I was quietly meditating one fall morning, with my eyes gently closed, outside the chapel of the secluded Benedictine Monastery where I’ve retreated for a few days from time to time for the last quarter-century. As I was calmly and quietly sitting there, thinking nothing, the bell in the chapel tower began to ring, calling the monks to come together for one of their daily session of common prayer. Calm and comfortable yet attentive as I found myself at that moment to be, I just continued to sit there, eyes closed, thinking nothing, and just let the ringing of the bell continue to sound. I was so calm and comfortable that I didn’t even find myself listening to the ringing itself. Rather, as I said, I just let it go on, giving it no special attention, but still fully aware of it in my open, attentive frame of mind.   To my surprise, as the sound of the rung bell died away, I heard the silence return to the bell, and with it to the world of the monastery as a whole.

Through the slow dying away of the bell’s ringing, I heard the silence itself began to ring.

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Decorations, ornaments and adornments are there to call attention to what they decorate, ornament, or adorn. So they glitter, like gold.

In Der Spruch des Anximanders, a manuscript that Heidegger wrote apparently in the 1940s for a never-delivered lecture course, but that was not published until 2010, when it came out as volume 78 of his Gesamtausgabe (GA: the “Complete Edition” of Heidegger’s Works published by Vittorio Klostermann in Frankfurt). The title means “the saying (or ‘dictum,’ to use a common Latin-derived term) of Anaximander.” Anaximander was the second of the three “Milesians” (the first being Thales, and the third Anaximenes), so called because all lived in Miletus, a Greek colony in Asia Minor. The three have gone down in tradition as the first three philosophers. Only one saying or dictum has survived from Anaximander, and that is what is at issue for Heidegger in his manuscript.

At one point in the text, Heidegger has a lengthy discussion about gold, and what gold was for the ancient Greeks. I have taken my second epigraph for this post, above, from that discussion (from a passage to be found on page 70 of GA 78). In addition, a bit earlier in the same discussion (on page 67) Heidegger himself cites the German version of the old commonplace I used for my first epigraph for this post, “All that glitters is not gold,” which in the German Heidegger uses is, “Es ist nicht alles Gold, was glänzt.”

That commonplace, Heidegger goes on to add, contains implicitly the recognition that “gold is what authentically glitters, such that on occasion what also glitters can appear to be gold, even though that appearance is a sheer semblance.” The German glänzen means to glitter, that is, to sparkle, glisten, or shine. That last word, shine, can be used as a verb, as I just used in the preceding sentence, but also as a noun, as when we speak about the shine of a pair of polished shoes, or of gold itself. The noun shine is indistinguishable in sound from the German equivalent, Schein. To form the infinitive of the corresponding verb, “to shine,” however, German adds the suffix –en to form scheinen, which in turn can become again a noun when given a capital first letter, Scheinen. The German phrase “das Scheinen” would need to be translated in some contexts as “the shining” (as in the title of the famous Steven King novel or Stanley Kubrick’s movie version thereof). In other contexts, however, it would need to be translated differently, as I have done in quoting Heidegger in saying that what isn’t gold can sometimes appear to be gold although that appearance is “a sheer semblance,” which I could also have rendered as “a mere seeming”: “ein blosses Scheinen.”

To be sure, not everything that glitters is gold. However, whatever is gold does glitter. Glittering, sparkling, glistening, shining, belongs essentially to gold, constituting its very being-gold, its very golden-ness. So says Heidegger at any rate. Glittering or shining as such (page 68) “belongs to being-gold itself, so truly that it is in the glittering [or shining: das Glänzen] of gold that its very being(-gold) resides.” Glittering resides essentially in gold regardless, Heidegger says, of whether the gold has been polished up already, or is still dull from being newly mined, or has had its shine go flat through neglect.

Gold glitters. It shines. That is the very purpose of gold, what it is for: to shine. In other words, gold as such, the golden, has no “purpose,” is not “for” anything. It just shines. Gold is simply lustrous, that is, “filled with luster,” from Latin lustrare, “spread light over, brighten, illumine,” related to lucere, “shine.” As essentially shining in itself, gold adds shine to that on which it shines, as it were: as lustrous, filled with luster, it is suited in turn to add luster to what is suited to wear or bear it.

Hence the role that gold has always had as decoration, ornament, and adornment. Decorate derives from Latin decoris, as does decorous. Latin decoris is the genitive form of decus, from the presumed Indo-European root *dek-, “be suitable.” What is decent, from the same root, is what is becoming, comely, befitting, proper; what is decent is what is suitable.

Ornament comes from Latin ornare, which means to equip, to fix up or deck out, to adorn—which last ends up saying the same thing twice, since adorn also comes from ornare, plus the prefix ad-, “to.”

Worn decorously, gold adorns those it ornaments: When it fits, it adds luster to what it decks out.

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W. G. Sebald devotes one of his essays in A Place in the Country (New York: Random House, 2013) to Gottfried Keller, the great nineteenth century Swiss poet, novelist, and story-teller. “One might say,” writes Sebald in the essay, “that even as high capitalism was spreading like wildfire in the second hall of the nineteenth century, Keller in his work presents a counter-image of an earlier age in which the relationships between human beings were not yet regulated by money.”

A bit latter in the same essay Sebald writes: “It is, too, a particularly attractive trait in Keller’s work that he should afford the Jews—whom Christianity has for centuries reproached with the invention of moneylending—pride of place in a story intending to evoke the memory of a precapitalist era.” Sebald then recounts how, in that story, Jews who are welcomed into a shop built not on capital but on barter—thus, a shop that serves as an example of just such a pre-capitalist era. The non-Jewish proprietress welcomes itinerant Jewish traders among those who regularly frequent her shop, to come inside to sit and talk.

When the talk in the shop turns to tales of how the Jews abduct children, poison wells, and the like, those Jewish traders, writes Sebald:

merely listen to these scaremongering tales, smile good-humoredly and politely, and refuse to be provoked. This good-natured smile on the part of the Jewish traders at the credulity and foolishness of the unenlightened Christian folk, which Keller captures here, is the epitome of true tolerance: the tolerance of the oppressed, barely endured minority toward those who control the vagaries of their fate. The idea of tolerance, much vaunted in the wake of the Enlightenment but in practice always diluted, pales into insignificance beside the forbearance of the Jewish people. Nor do the Jews in Keller’s works have any dealings with the evils of capitalism. What money they earn in their arduous passage from village to village is not immediately returned to circulation but is for the time being set to one side, thus becoming like the treasure hoarded by Frau Margaret [the non-Jewish proprietress of the shop herself], as insubstantial as gold in a fairy tale.

Sebald then concludes the passage: “True gold, for Keller, is always that which is spun with great effort from next to nothing, or which glistens as a reflection above the shimmering landscape. False gold, meanwhile, is the rampant proliferation of capital constantly reinvested, the perverter of all good instincts.”

In their remarks on gold, Sebald and Heidegger are two fingers pointing to the same thing.

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The English word order derives from the same roots as do the English words ornament and adorn. All three come from the Latin ornare, which, as I’ve already noted, means to equip, to fix up or deck out. That is fitting, which is to say decorous, since proper order—well-ordered order, we well might say, as opposed to disordered order (or “dysfunctional” order, to use some currently commonplace jargon, even though it has already lost much of its shine, having been in circulation for quite a while by now)—is there for the sake of what it sets to order, rather than the other way around.

Proper order is an ornament to be worn by what it orders, in order to let the latter come fully into its own radiance, its own shine. Such proper order is rare, so rare as to be genuinely golden.

What is genuinely golden—what shines of itself, and needs no trafficking in the market to give it monetary value—does not really call attention to itself, properly speaking. Rather, like the sun in Plato’s Divided Line at the end of Book VI and Myth of the Cave at the start of Book VII in the Republic, which calls attention to that on which it shines, but, as shining itself, vanishes in its own blinding brilliance, the genuinely golden calls attention to that which it adorns.

Soon after the lines I have used as this post’s second epigraph, in which Heidegger says that we of today have lost all sense for the genuine sense of gold and the golden, he observes that ornaments, decorations, and adornments do not as such call attention to themselves for their own sake, but rather to that which they ornament, decorate, or adorn, for its sake. As he writes (on page 73), “decoration and ornament [der Schmuck und die Zier] are in their proper essence nothing that shines for itself and draws the glance away from others to itself. Decoration and ornament are far rather such wherein [that is, in the “shine” of which, we might say] the decorated is first made ‘decorous’ [“schmuck”: “bejeweled,” that is, “decked out, as with jewels”—so “neat,” “natty,” “smart,” in effect], that is, stately [stattlich, “imposing,” from a root meaning “place”—so: having “status”], something that, upright in itself, has a look [hat ein Aussehen, a word that also suggests “splendor”: “good looks,” in effect, to go with its imposing status] and stands out [hervorragt], that is, itself comes to appearance [zum Scheinen].”

Thus, for instance, jewelry, does not distract attention from the one who decorously wears it, the one to whom it is fitting or suited. Rather, decorously worn, jewelry calls attention to the splendor already there in the wearer, adding luster to that luster. It lets the wearer shine forth in all her own glory, shining brilliantly with all her own splendor, radiant.

So adorned, the radiant one is there to be adored.

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The two words, adorn and adore, have distinct etymologies. The former, as I’ve already noted, comes from ad-, “to,” plus ornare, “to deck out, add luster to.” On the other hand, adore comes from ad- plus orare—with no ‘n,’ just as English adore is bare of the sound of ‘n’ that gets added to adorn. Orare means “to speak,” most especially in the decorous, stately sense of “praying” or “pleading,” as in delivering an “oration,” a formal speech before a court or other august assembly, a speaking that honors and thereby “praises” the high standing of the assembly being addressed.

Despite the disparate etymologies of the two terms, my own hearing discerns a deeper, semantic resonance between adorning and adoring. To add luster to what is already lustrous, as adornments add shine to those who already shine of themselves, polishing that shine to its own full radiance, and to speak to and of what already speaks for itself, addressing it in such a way as to honor its stature, attesting to its renown, fit together. Each, adorning and adoring, adds luster to the other in my eyes. Each praises the other—as creation, in Christian tradition, is said to praise its Creator.

Adornments speak well of those they decorously adorn. When decorous, adornments fit the adorned, fitting them in such a way as to defer to them, letting the adorned come forth in their own glory, bespeaking the radiance of the adorned, rather than boasting of their own adorning sparkle.

So do I like to think, at any rate. It fits for me. Most especially it fits my experience, years ago, of sitting outside the monastery as the bell rang, calling the community together to pray, and calling my own attention not to itself but to the silence it decorously broke, giving it voice—calling: “Oh come, let us adore!”

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I plan to complete this series on “The Traumatic Word” with my next post.

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.

*     *     *     *     *     *

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.”

The Traumatic Word (1)

In the strict sense, the word is not a sign at all. For to say its is a sign is to liken it to something in the field of vision. Signum was used for the standard which Roman soldiers carried to identify their military units. It means primarily something seen. The word is not visible. The word is not in the strict sense even a symbol either, for symbolon was a visible sign, a ticket, sometimes a broken coin or other object the matching parts of which were held separately by each of two contracting parties. The word cannot be seen, cannot be handed about, cannot be “broken” and reassembled.

Neither can it be completely defined.

— Walter J. Ong, S. J.

We would like language to be no more than a system of signs, a means for conveying information. At least since Aristotle, and down past C. S. Pierce to the present day, that view of language has been all but universally taken for granted, just assumed as true. It isn’t, as Walter J. Ong realized.

Ong was a United States professor of English who focused upon linguistic and cultural history—especially the cleft between oral and literary cultures, which was the topic of his most influential work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, originally published in 1982.  The lines above are taken from an earlier work, however. They are from next to last page of The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History, first published in 1967 but consisting of lectures Ong gave by invitation at Yale in 1964, as the Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures On Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy for that year.

Besides being a professor of English, with a Ph.D. in that field from Harvard, Ong had done graduate work in both philosophy and theology, and was also a priest of the Society of Jesus, that is, the Jesuit order, as the “S. J.” after his name indicates. That religious provenance is manifest in his work. In The Presence of the Word, it is especially evident in Ong’s focus not just on any old word, so to speak, but on “the” word in a particular sense. His concern in his Terry Lectures is not just on “words in general,” as the ordinary way of taking his title would suggest. So understood, “the word” in Ong’s title would function the same way “the whale” functions in the sentence, “The whale is a mammal,” which is equivalent to “All whales are mammals,” thus picking out a feature that is common to whales in general, applying indifferently to each and every whale whatever. Ong’s underlying focus in his Terry Lectures, however, is not upon words in general but rather upon the word in the distinctive sense that one might say, for example, that Mount Everest is not just a mountain but rather the mountain, the very embodiment of mountain as such.

Befitting the intent of the grant establishing the Terry Lectures, Ong’s underlying focus in The Presence of the Word, furthermore, is not upon some word that might come out of just anyone’s mouth. It is, rather, upon one uniquely singular word that comes out of one uniquely singular mouth—namely, “the Word of God.” At issue is the Word of which John says in the very opening verse of his version of the Christian Gospel (John 1:1): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Thus, to put it in terms that became traditional within Christianity only long after John but based upon his Gospel, Ong’s underlying focus in The Presence of the Word is on Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity.

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Alain Badiou’s seven-session seminar in 1986 was devoted to Malebranche (published in French by Fayard in 2013 as Malebranche: L’être 2—Figure thélogique). In his session of April 29, 1986, Badiou argued that Malebranche, being the committed Christian thinker that he was, found it necessary to think of God’s being (être) in terms of the cleavage (clivage) of God into Father and Son—which, we should note, though Badiou himself calls no special attention to it at this point, is a self-cleavage definitive of the Christian God in that God’s very being, such that God is God only in so self-cleaving.

However, to think of God’s being by thinking it back into his self-cleavage into Father and Son is to empty the thought of God of any substantial content beyond self-cleaving action itself: “In the retroaction of his cleavage,” as Badiou puts it (page 149), “God is empty: he is nothing but his process, his action.” God, so thought, is nothing but the very action set in action by the act of God’s self-cleaving. God voids God-self of any substantively separate self in such self-cleavage, and is only in such vanishing.

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It is no accident—and it is deeply resonant with the opening of the John’s Gospel, it bears noting—that Walter Ong, long after Malebranche but more than twenty years before Badiou’s seminar on the latter, says the very same thing of the word. According to Ong (page 9 of The Presence of the Word), the emergence of electronic media in the 20th century “gives us a unique opportunity to become aware at a new depth of the significance of the word.” Not many pages later (on page 18) he expands on that point, writing: “Our new sensitivity to the media has brought with it a growing sense of the word as word, which is to say of the word as sound.” That growing sense of the word as word calls upon us to pay “particular attention to the fact that the word is originally, and in the last analysis irretrievably, a sound phenomenon,” that is, the fact that originally and always the word sounds. The word as word—which is to say the word as saying something—is the word as sound. The word only speaks by sounding.

Not every sound is a word, of course. However, every word is a sound. Or, to put that more resoundingly—that is, to make the sound louder (using the re- of resound not in its sense of “again,” but rather in its intensifying sense, as when we speak of a “resounding success”)—the word as word is nothing but sound, or rather sound-ing. As Malbranche’s God is nothing but his own process or action, so is the word nothing but “how it sounds,” if you will.

The word as sound, Ong insists repeatedly, is pure event. “A word [as spoken sound] is a real happening, indeed a happening par excellence” (page 111). In that sense, we might say that the word never is, but rather forever vanishes. The word as word is a “vocalization, a happening,” as Ong puts it at one point (page 33), adding a bit later (on pages 41-42):

Speech itself as sound is irrevocably committed to time. It leaves no discernable direct effect in space[. . .]. Words come into being through time and exist only so long as they are going out of existence. It is impossible [. . .] to have all of an utterance present to us at once, or even all of a word. When I pronounce “reflect,” by the time I get to the “-flect” the “re-” is gone.* A moving object in a visual field can be arrested. It is, however, impossible to arrest sound and have it still present. If I halt a sound it no longer makes any noise [that is, no longer “sounds” at all].

The word’s sounding is its event-ing, its coming forth in its very vanishing: as sounding, it “does not result in any fixity, in a ‘product,’” but instead “vanishes immediately” (page 95). The word as such is a vanishing that, in so vanishing, speaks, or says something. It speaks or says, as Ong observes (page 73), in the sense “caught in one of the accounts of creation in Genesis (1:3): ‘God said, Let there be light. And there was light.’ ” Such saying is creation itself, as the very letting be of what is bespoken.

In thus vanishing before what it calls forth, just what does the word—not just any old word, but the word as word—say?

It says the world.

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More than once in his lecturing and writing, Heidegger addressed a poem by Stefan George entitled “Das Wort” (“The Word”), the closing line of which is: “Kein ding sei wo das wort gebricht.” In German, gebrechen means “to be missing or lacking”; and sei is the subjunctive form of the verb sein, “to be”—as, for example, in the line “If this be love, then . . .”   If we take sei that way in George’s poem, then his closing line says something such as: “no thing may be, where the word is lacking.” It would then express the relatively commonplace idea that, if we don’t have a name for something, as a sort of label to attach to it, then that thing doesn’t really take on full, separate status for us, such that we can retain it clearly in our thought, memory, and discourse with one another. That’s the idea that a thing really and fully “is” for us, separate and distinct from other things, only when we come up with such a name by which to label it—as, for example, an old bit of what passes for popular wisdom has it that we, who do not have a whole bunch of different names for different qualities of snow, such as the Eskimos are said to have, are not really able to see those differences, at least not with the clarity and ease with which the Eskimos are purported to be able to see them.

At the same time, however, sei is also the imperative form of the same verb, sein, “to be”—the form, for instance, a teacher might use to admonish a classroom full of unruly children, “Sei ruhig!” (“Be still!”). Taken that way, George’s closing line would have to be rendered as the imperative, “Let no thing be, where the word is lacking.”

What’s more, gebrechen, “to be missing or lacking,” derives from brechen, “to break,” which is not heard any longer at all in “missing” or “lacking.” At the same time, used as a noun, ein Gebrechen means a more or less lasting debilitation of some sort, such as a chronic limp from an old broken leg, or a mangled hand from an industrial accident (and it is interesting, as a side-note, that “to lack” in German is mangeln). If we were to try to carry over some part of what thus sounds in the German gebrechen, then we might translate the word no longer as “to be missing or lacking,” but instead by something such as “to break” (as the waves break against the shore), or “to break off” (as a softly sounded tone might suddenly be broken off in a piece of music, perhaps to be suddenly replaced or overridden by another, more loudly sounded one—or by a demanding call coming in on a cell-phone with a ringer set on high volume), or “to break up” (as the voices of those stricken by grief might break up when speaking of their losses).

Hearing gebricht along such lines, the closing verse of George’s poem “The Word” would say something to the effect that where the word breaks, or breaks off, or breaks up, there is no thing.

The way I just worded the end of the preceding sentence—“there is no thing”—is intentionally ambiguous, designed to retain some of the rich ambiguity of George’s own line, most especially a part of its ambiguity which is important to what Heidegger would have us hear in that line. To say that where the word breaks, or breaks off, or breaks up, “there is no thing” can be taken two different ways. First, it can be taken to say that no thing “exists.” That way of taking it would fit with the presumably common way of taking George’s line articulated above, whereby that line says that things fully “are” or “exist” for us as distinct and separate things only when we have names for them in their distinctness. However, the same phrase, “there is no thing,” can also be taken in a second way, one in which the first word is emphasized: “there”—that is at such and such a specific place. At what place, exactly, would no thing be? By George’s line, no thing would be exactly there, where the word breaks up, breaks off, just breaks: There, where the word breaks, don’t look for any thing. There, where the word breaks, you will have to look for something else altogether, something that really is no “thing” at all.

Yet if we are not to look for any thing there, where the word breaks, just what are we to look for? What are we to expect to take place there, where the word breaks? Heidegger’s response to that question is that there, where the word breaks, no thing, but rather the “is” itself takes place—the very letting be of whatever may be, as it were, takes place there.

“Thar she blows!” old whalers would call, at least by our stereotypes of them, when a whale broke the water’s surface again after diving when harpooned. “There she be!” they could as well have said, though less colorfully. Well, where the word breaks, there be world.

Just how would the word break—in the sense that the waves break against the beach or Moby Dick breaks the ocean’s surface—if it were not as sound, breaking against silence? Sounding in the silence, the very silence that it breaks, the word is word: It speaks.

As I said before, what the word says—what its says there, where it breaks out, and up, and off as sound—is world.

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At this point, I will break off my reflections on “The Traumatic Word,” to resume them, given the breaks to do so, in my next post.

* That is worth repeating. So Ong repeats it almost twenty years later, in Orality and Literacy, just varying his example: instead of using “reflect,” he uses “existence,” and says that by the time I get to the “-tence,” the “exist-” no longer exists. That example especially well suits the word itself, which as word—that is to say, as sound sounding—“exists only at the instant when it is going out of existence,” to use Ong’s way of puting it at one point in The Presence of the Word (page 101).