On Racial Divides

Ernest,

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I am a white person.  That is an indelible facet of my human identity.  I carry my whiteness with me wherever I go, and it invades every corner of my life: not only my appearance, but also the way I talk and act, the sensibilities I have for style, even the subconscious decisions I make about how to move my body and what kind of physical bearing to use as I walk through my life from day to day.  Race is a deeply entrenched element of human culture, and it isn’t going away.  The influence that ethnic heritage and racial identity has on an individual is even a good thing; it affirms the capacity of peoples to affect meaningfully the lives of future generations.  But the disconcertion that comes with racial identity is how something so natural and right could ever become so perverted.

Ernest, as you know, many bright minds have wrestled with this question lately, and in the wake of recent events, plenty of folks more clever than I have expressed a frustrated and profound confoundedness over the issue, which seems to escape the reaches of reason itself.  But it is because I sincerely believe that the philosopher’s duty lies not only in quiet condolence, but also in speaking to the sufferings of the world, that I write to you now on this question, which has most often silenced the voice and immobilized the pen of the discerning.

how something so natural and right could ever become so perverted

I believe, Ernest, that the answer has a lot to do with the way our society makes sense of the reality around it.  The primary tool we use to do this is language.  Language lets us render incoherent information into intelligible meaning, and it does this by means of opposition.  Perhaps when you were only a couple months old you felt a wet and slimy something on your cheek and saw that it belonged to a brown and furry something else.  It wasn’t until you learned the word ‘dog’ that you were truly able to make sense of that experience.  As your vocabulary expanded, your words enabled you to give a meaningful opinion about the creature; it was a ‘good’ dog precisely insofar as it was not a ‘bad’ dog, because ‘good’ is the opposite of ‘bad’.  By means of linguistic opposition, you found meaning in your environment and were able to assign distinct identities to yourself and everything around you.  As it turned out linguistic opposition was a very powerful tool, and there’s no telling what great (or not so great) things might come of this new discovery.

Maybe when you were still very young you searched for new words only when you absolutely needed them—like when you later encountered a ‘cat’.  Eventually, though, you grew out of that childish habit and came to appreciate words also for their own sake, even if they didn’t correspond to anything you had ever yet experienced.  Language is in fact useful not only to communicate existing realities but also to express potential alternatives.  You can use language to tell fictional stories, to express intangible emotions, or to describe objects that do not exist.  As you grew up you came to value this impractical use of language, because you saw how it could enrich your life and make everything more meaningful.  When you fibbed to your mom about the fate of a missing cookie, the immoral deed carried meaning because language could surmise in your mind the perilous state of a society governed by falsehood. When you got married, it was the best day of your life in part because you knew the word ‘love’, which you had bothered to learn even though it didn’t correspond to any tangible reality in your environment.  And when you lost someone very dear to you, it meant so much more because the bereavement was wrapped in the symbolism of a thousand losses that you had found in the literature of novelists and poets, all of whom now shared in your present suffering.  Each of these experiences carried identifiable meaning due to the opposition not of two existing realities but of something actual and something potential or hypothetical.  Today, Ernest, as the intelligent man you have grown to be, you are capable of identifying a ‘good dog’ without relying on any actual experience with a real ‘bad dog’—a hypothetical bad dog would suffice just as well.

But when man falls back on childish habits, his concept of identity becomes perverted.  In this scientific age of ours, knowledge comes only from empirical data, not from the wisdom of fairy tales or even the predictions of hypothetical reasoning.  It is this epistemological stupidity that is responsible for racial divides.  Racial divides exist because we cannot identify ours as a ‘good race’ in its own right without there also existing an empirical ‘bad race’.  If there exists an ‘us’ then there must equally exist a ‘them’, and that them must be observable to us via our five senses.  But while this rudimentary use of language was sufficient to identify a ‘good dog’ or a ‘bad dog’, it is not sufficient for creating human identities.  When we identify ourselves only in opposition to empirical others, we deny that aspect of our humanity which transcends empirical measurement.  The human soul is not in fact fungible.  If one human dies, we can’t simply replace them with another human of equal or greater value.  A materialist understanding of human identity will not do.

Ernest, I confess that this is less a scholarly opinion than a personal apprehension, but it appears to me that man and science today are in a kind of metaphysical arms race with each other.  Science continually tries to codify and categorize the human experience in terms of quantifiable data, while man repeatedly shows himself to be more complicated than any concrete measurement can communicate.  If only we could fit people into square simple boxes that compare neatly through standardized tests.  But our whole undefinable nature is repulsed by the proposal.    These are troubling times, and the human spirit is aching for a change of heart.

Your servant,

TWM

Advertisements

All’s Fare in Love and Grammar

The most romantic grammatical error in the English language is the comma splice.  There is nothing quite so lexically coquettish as the prospect of bringing together two utterly independent clauses, from the most disparate of origins, and joining them face to face in audacious effrontery to all that grammarians hold sacred.  It brings blush to one’s cheeks just to think of how close they are–without a period, without a conjunction, without even so much as a lousy semicolon to keep them apart!  So formidable!  So bad!  An editor would be remise to overlook a scandal like that, and that’s why they have rules to prevent such things.  All parallel clauses must always dance at least an arm’s length away from each other.  These sorts of rules can be burdensome at times.  But no obstacle is insurmountable, love has a way of working things out.

Are you alone?

If words didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have to read this sentence.

Dear and Deliberative Humphrey,

In your last dispatch, through whatever form disparagement and flower diversion as is your wont, you seemed to make but one thing remotely clear, or at least very nearly verging on or flirting with the possibility of being intelligible to me.  I mean simply this: you are locked inside your own mind.  Aside from that I can’t say I made anything of the entire letter; the good Lord knows I can’t understand a word of your philosophical rambling and intellectual bereavements.  Furthermore, I can’t seem to truly understand even the small portion that I was able to interpret.  If you’re isolated in your own mind, then why on earth are you telling me about it?  It’s your mind, what am I supposed to do? Nonetheless, allow me to offer, in reply, a bit of ancient wisdom and a few spontaneous outburstings of interpretative fancy.  I ask that you begin by considering with me these words:

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος.  I will not tell you what these words mean, because I am not sure of this; instead, I will write of them obliquely, and perhaps somehow you, by your honourable wisdom and scrupulous understanding, will discern my words and even these.

The LSJ, a Greek-English lexicon, defines λόγος as “I. the word by which the inward thought is expressed: also II. the inward thought or reason itself”.  This hardly explains anything.  It simply means that λόγος refers, whether indirectly or directly, literally or metaphorically, by definition or by metonymy, to some normative or empirical element, feature, or aspect of the real, imagined, or supposed universe, or to some such item—idealist or realist, specific or universal—that exists beyond the scope of the natural and supernatural universe as we define it.  So a λόγος is something that either communicates something else, or is a thing to be communicated by something else, or else it is the very action of communication, or the universal or circumstantial standard to which things that are communicated ought to be held.

Anyway.  It stands a worthy question for both of us whether thoughts precede words or words precede thoughts.  People often use the word circumlocution.  They talk of forgetting common phrases and being lost for words; as if words were independent objects sitting around somewhere in normative space like scattered buoys, long since set loose across the sea, and now waiting to be found anew or even discovered for the first time.  Neither is the thought often pilloried to fancy a man, at least intellectually, as a lost, normative pilgrim, wandering alone through that very same space, and looking, as it were, for external trappings, to satisfy his inner ardor for expressivity.  The mind is often conceived of as naked and independent agent, shameful and unfit for public exposure; it must be properly clad—by some nameless standard—in lexical decency before departing from the Platonian cave of knowledge.  But was Plato’s a cave of words or of thoughts?  If ever a philosopher thought of a word, did he not do so without using words?  What words could constitute the wording of thoughts?

Any philologist you ask will tell you that ἦν is a form of εἰμί, the ancient Greek ‘verb of being’.  Every language has to have one; you can’t talk about things without them existing or existing in a certain way.  And it’s no secrete, to anyone curious enough, that verbs of being are always among the most morphologically abhorred of lexical units.  They are used so much more frequently than any other word or idea that it’s simply disgusting.  And all those responsible for the existence of ancient Greek seem to have gone out of their way to make existence especially existentially challenging in that language, always to be confused with going or hastening, or beginning a conditional, or a relative clause (sometimes those particles hardly mean anything at all; still, that won’t stop us from writing massive books about them).  But as imperfect as ἦν is, or was, or was being, at least it denotes that much.  The Greeks never made an aorist form of existence; things existed in the past, but always progressively.  Perhaps the concept of instantaneous existence, some romantic, ephemeral beauty, is after all incompatible with the teleological nature of reason and human thought.  That which truly dies never truly was; such things are only beautiful in potential.  Hence, ἦν ὁ λόγος.

Nor, for the teleological Greeks, was seniority any different from sovereignty.  Few people question whether that which comes before is of greater consequence than what follows.  It’s vital for a man thundering away in the desert to make clear that the subject of his shouts precedes the actual words he uses, otherwise his words are worthless in themselves.  But perhaps even in the desert, where there is no one around to hear, the very sense of one’s words, the thoughts that they express, can hold value if the λόγος of them was existing ἐν ἀρχῇ.  Perhaps it’s hermeneutically irresponsible and academically barbaric or uncouth, but I consider it neither poetically offensive nor rhetorically dishonorable to offer a large number of equally authoritative translations: “Reason held sovereignty,” “Logic was in power,” “His word existed first as something separate but προς (beside) Him, but also existed first as the perfect μίμησις (representation, Aristotelian) of Himself, and therefore, θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος (God existed as the Word)”.

It is also curious that for the logically positive medievals, something already as physical as a verbum would have to become flesh.  It seems a λόγος must be something both transcendental and substantial.  It is not an omom isn’t a word.  That’s because om doesn’t mean anything.  I believe a λόγος, while perhaps not merely a word, is surely something that means something, or else is the thing it means.  If we suppose that all words are defined using other words, then there is an infinite web of lexical connections that never explains itself.  But perhaps the inclusion of the definite article to describe ὁ λόγος makes it something real, and as such, something of infinite meaning—it is a worthy consideration whether ὁ λόγος might be the ultimate explanation of the endless, tiresome lexical-web.  Perhaps this is the difference between ὁ Σωκράτης and Σωκράτης.  A λόγος may very well be just another thing—something that exists in a single context at a single point in history.  But then we could hardly doubt that ὁ λόγος must be more than this.  ὁ λόγος must be The Idea, The Universal Truth, Reason, or The Sacred Word, that, while real and physical as the very sounds of one’s voice, or as Socrates himself, yet exists in absolute sovereignty and seniority, standing to the end as it was in the beginning, as something a priory, significant, and personal to all that follows across all nations, tongues, and ages.

Lexically and Intellectually Yours, to Whatever Extent Such a Thing Were Metaphysically Possible,

R. P.

Simple, not Minimalist

lucem at quoque noctem plus vel enim amo.

Upon moving into my residence hall here at the university last week, I encountered a bit of difficulty.  It seemed my plans were too complicated for the room.  The microwave plug didn’t fit into the power strip and this meant that the whole apparatus I had formed—with the printer on top of the microwave and the microwave on top of the refrigerator—had to be relocated to a place in the room that would better accommodate for all the electrical connections.  I had, from the start, opposed my bringing of so many appliances to school, but my parents insisted that I do so in order to make the place more comfortable and ‘home-like’.

After trying out a few different arrangements of the room, each one feeling more cramped than the last, I settled on stuffing all the appliances except the refrigerator into a small storage space in the upper part of the wardrobe and moving the furniture into the least confining arrangement possible.  When I was all done with this, I felt quite remarkably liberated; suddenly the little space, which had seemed very much to resemble a prison only moments ago, transformed itself into a rather pleasant study and dormitory.  Now I have a big beautiful desk basking in natural sunlight beside the window where I can lay out my orchestra scores to work (see figure 1).

I told my mum how I felt about this when I rang her up that evening.  She and I both agreed that if I felt more comfortable without all the clutter, I didn’t need to use it, seeing as comfort was the original purpose of the supplies.  As I write this, all of the mentioned supplies, along with several other items, are sitting in that storage place, waiting patiently to be brought home.  The new order of my room is by no means minimalistic—aside from the refrigerator I mentioned, I also have here a good number of my books and my unicycle—but it is simple.  That’s the beauty of it.

On the same day that I made these arrangements, I was thinking about economic styles of music, art, and writing.  Among the many examples of the aesthetic I had in mind were a couple of scenes in Shakespeare, that popped into my head, as well as the opening line of Milton’s famous epic, which reads:  “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree”.  Part of the brilliance of this line is how simply it conveys something so large and complicated.  Instead of droning on and on pedantically to lay out the details of a theological framework for the ‘fall of man’, Milton leans into the lexical and philosophical associations already built into the English language—perhaps placed their directly by the hand of God himself—in order to discuss not only the hamartiology of an ‘original sin’ or ‘total depravity’, nor the soteriology of ‘salvation’, but the entire human understanding of all the associated ideas, dreamings, and truths that have been passed down via the Indo-European language from before the time of the Romans to the present, now to be contained in the single English word ‘fruit’.

You may have already sensed this by now if you read this blog often, but I am, quite frankly, all about complexity.  I make nearly every form of art or study that I engage in as complicated as I possibly can.  But the reason things ought to be so complex, in my mind, is because that’s the only way they can become simple.  One of the greatest transformations that western languages have undergone over time is simplification.  Dead languages often have very complicated grammars, and it is through these original complex systems that modern languages have come to posses the power they hold today in their much simpler forms.  We might also note, however, the way this complexity supported something simpler even in the ancient languages themselves.  If this post were written in Ancient Greek or Latin, you would probably be finished reading it by now (assuming you were as fluent in one of those languages as you are in English).   Indeed, you would have probably finished reading a good while ago; the reason for this is that the more complicated grammars allowed for more economic communication—simpler sentences had more complicated meanings than in modern English.

I am not here by proposing that ‘less is more’.  That’s ridiculous!  Less is less.  But somehow the God of the universe has been able to communicate to humanity everything they need to know in order to be self-conscious and self-willing creatures, and if so much is possible, then is it not our duty, as artists, thinkers, and human beings, to at least try, by virtue of that very possibility, to stuff the entire human experience into something portable and sharable?

The beauty of fractals is that no matter how much or how little of their detail you can make out, they look similar and appear the same.