Monday, July 2, 2007

Through the Looking Glass of Language

The story that pretended to be real and in the end, destroyed reality and became a waking, walking, breathing figure all unto itself; the Story that breathed itself into existence, slaying the author.

The idea of the simulacra isn't a new one; Jorge Luis Borges wrote his fiction using this idea as the fulcrum of the narrative. Baudrillard coins the term in his theory of language.

Of what significance is such an idea to human existence? Why bother with an exploration of meaning and language?

I think there are a number of simple ways to answer these questions: simple stabs in the dark by ones who think simple questions are easy to answer. But of course, these one-liner answers-- "Because of curiousity," "Because we want to understand language," "Because it makes us more aware,"-- are insufficient. They do not begin to tackle the beautiful complexity that underlies the process of human inquiry. I revolt against the quick and easy answer for the reason that the knowledge I seek is that of the explorer, the adventurer who plunges into the wildness of thoughts, the brambles of contradiction and seeks, not answers, but understanding.

And so, what then of the significance of how arbitrary language can be (that is, at least from one perspective)? If one had to trace the pattern, and follow the meandering logic of the statement that "the meaning of language is arbitrary", it leads to a curious road. Language is comprised of symbols-- the entire pantheon of symbols, from the physical edifices of political power to road signs and Euclidean geometry-- which are representations of meaning. In themselves, they contain no meaning. The meaning behind them comes from our society's agreement or convention on what meaning must be attributed to what particular symbol. Borges speaks of an arrow, "pointing the way", which I presume to be some sort sign to give direction, as a symbol that has "mutated" from one of iron and wood, from the object that clouded the skies at Thermopylae and pierced the skin of Harald. In other words, Borges sees the mutation of meaning; the symbol remains unchanged, but the arbitrary meaning given to it by social convention has morphed from that of an object of terror and death to the harmless thing of streets corners and detours (which, in turn, may also give another meaning to one who has been mugged on the street corner, or has experienced being stuck in traffic because they followed the arrow).

Which leads to another disturbing thought. Mathematics is actually a science of symbols and their definite relationship to one another. The relationships between the digits, between the numbers, are there by social convention, by our articulation of meaning through the symbols of the arabic numeric system. "1" and "200" do not hold any meaning on to themselves; We, the readers, give them their meaning. And even the concept of "1" on its own, is not very useful. What disturbs me is the idea that numbers are consistent and precise, meaning that the convention of meaning has reached such a level that a thousand different people can arrive at the same conclusion using the convened operations of mathematics. This has made mathematics an extreme application of the arbitrary, to the point where we take it for granted.

George Berkeley, the English thinker, would argue otherwise, that mathematics belongs in the realm of the abstract, which exists apart from humanity's arbitrary meaning. However, I'm not quite ready to simply accept this enshrining of mathematics as apart from human interpretation. What makes more sense is that all symbols represent an abstract ideal that can never be articulated, because in the process of articulation, they lose their abstract nature and become-- to stick with Berkeley's classification of realities-- mental, that is, merely part of the construction of human experience. I say "merely" in the sense that through interpretation, whatever meaning is given is now arbitrary. The abstract remains an unattainable sublime, and our attempts to approximate the abstract result in its reduction.

If mathematics cannot be trusted-- in so far as its being real rather than useful-- then in a sense, there is no reality behind logical thinking; "logic" is another victim of arbitrary meaning, and reason is non-existent, except of course, in the minds of those who claim to possess it or wield it.

At the end of this discussion, we arrive at a bleak outlook: a world in which reason is only an illusion, windmill that we thought was a dragon, a barmaid who we thought was the Lady Dulcinea. It is an existence of collective madness, where everything is as we agree it to be, rather than what it actually is. And yet, we call ourselves sane and reasonable, and we thrust our reason upon others. Isn't this the core of conflict? This expectation that we are more correct than the other, as if there is some absolute standard to measure ourselves against? As if our language, our meaning, is fortified in unquestionable "rightness"? That's the madness of human civilization, a quest for meaning that really cannot be found.

Which leads us to Don Quixote, whose madness came from his inability to dissociate the symbol from meaning, the language from the reality. But, as he comes to his sense, Alonso Quijano realizes that his pretended reality has begotten itself in the form of actual reality, and that he must now defend this new reality with the same fervor that created it.

Yes, language and its arbitrary meaning can be only pretend realities; but, if Baudrillard's ideas have weight in this matter, there is a faint shadow of hope. Our pretend realities can become actual realities because that is how we have constructed them to be, and the conflict an irremovable facet of the imperfection of our articulation of meaning. Language is therefore, the vehicle of reality rather than its destroyer; or rather, in the process of developing a reality, it destroys the old ones. And this, at least for me, is less troubling, because it indicates a meaning that is evolving, growing, fearlessly facing its contradictions and lending itself to destruction and reconstruction. That could very well mean progress, which is an encouraging thought.

Significance of inquiry? In this case, the failure of words to capture significance seems appropriate.

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