The Fundamental Paradox of Late Twentieth-Century Thought
Before I leave the sphere of Language entirely for today, our first day in “History of Literary Theory,” however, I’m going to ask you to focus with me in a very simple way on something I’ve been touching on repeatedly. It’s the way that human beings, even as newborn babies, possess something that I’m going to call “a set toward systemicity.” Newborns orient themselves to the faces of their birth mothers in the first minutes after birth in extraordinarily detailed ways. This has been closely documented. As soon as babies can focus their eyes (two weeks), they try to follow the trajectories of objects passing through their visual range.
If you think about the explosion of sensory inputs the baby must be experiencing when it emerges from the womb into this external world of light and sound and color and touch…. yet in the midst of this assault of chaotic sensory impressions, the baby already has seems to have an orientation toward “concerted” or “constituted” phenomena, toward “stuff that moves in concert” as distinct from “background.” They also know a lot about language structure and distinguish familiar voices. And the baby is already attending to these things months before it has learned the boundaries of its own body and distinguished where they leave off and the rest of the world begins, a process of separation, by the way, that happens through language, because it is through language that they emerging psychologically as a human “self ” that possesses an “I” capable of “knowing.” [Boy oh boy, do I have something to say about the convergence of Douglas Hofstdler’s work and poststructuralism!]
So the human mind is not stocked from birth with Innate Ideas, nor is it a tabula rasa, a “blank slate.” Plato was closer than John Locke, though, because human consciousness does innately set itself toward certain systematicities and orients itself to relevant coherencies, as though this chaotic and changeable world of physical sensations were lit up for us by flashes of white lightning, telling us what to pay attention to. As we notice patternings and fluid or dynamical “moving in concert,” that concertedness is of course not something apparent or apprehendable at any one instant in time. Already we are selecting and comparing and combining sensory impressions across time – whatever time may be – so that “time” is woven in some fashion into all of human “knowing,” from the outset. Language is acquired by human beings only because of this innate genius for orienting our awareness to dynamic coherences and patterns that are both temporal and formal in their constitution.
Furthermore, of course, this means human consciousness has some kind of profound entanglement with time: it is a “time-consciousness.” Time is for human beings always in some sense psychological time (as Augustine knew) – and this statement has nothing to do with it being “subjective” as opposed to “objective” and “external.” (Dated categories, unless they should be redefined and renewed.) Einstein introduced the human observer into physics in a much deeper sense than that; he showed that what we know through physics is always-already what we can know according to our attempts to make measurements, and he realized that this cut the link between genuine human knowing and any claims to an all-inclusive or universal knowing. [N.B. The claims of this sentence to be free from bias have been contested! See comment thread! : ) ]
The discoveries of physics may very well describe “reality.” [Why is reality here in quotes? Not because I doubt that reality is manifesting itself in an ordered way in the experiements and data and theories of physics! But because all of those are still representations of the reality, and by their highly focused nature are representations of certain selected features of the whole of reality. These gaps and qualifications are of vital importance, because they mark an advance in sophistication of the theories.] But we cannot claim that we can know that they do [without noting the mediation of our own efforts to know]. After the twentieth century, every statement of what is known in every discipline must be prefaced with the qualification “for human perception” [or, according to what the observer can measure relative to something — thank heavens the speed of light is not additive …] This sort of thing has to be dealt with every single day by physicists in the interpretation of quantum mechanics, where profound philosophical, ontological, and epistemological issues are being dealt with from inside of the narrow framework of a very highly specialized way of knowing. The results are both utterly brilliant and at time quite naïve. [Eech! These were fighting words! Sorry. But isn’t this true of every discipline’s attempts to deal with the work of other disciplines? I’ve learned a lot since I first wrote the preceding sentence!] This will hold true to efforts within every discipline, including my own efforts, so it is imperative that we talk to one another.
This kind of characteristically human “set toward systemicity,” it seems, is not operating for the autistic child, who does not make eye contact like other infants and who does not assimilate language in the precocious way that most children do. Temple Grandin, that amazing woman who has revolutionized the way animals are handled in farms and slaughter yards all over the world, explains that having been autistic from birth, she finds that she can readily perceive the way animals are perceiving their environments and recommend changes that would not occur to someone else.
But she has emerged into language and the human world only with the greatest difficulty and the most courageous effort. Most little children, for example, have no trouble with “this is a puppy and it goes Bow-wow.” “This is a kitty-cat and it goes Meow.” But Temple Grandin remembers spending hours as a much older child, studying pictures of dogs and cats, trying to figure out how other people could tell them apart. She finally decided it must be the length of the nose in front of the stop of the forehead. If the nose was long, then it was a dog.
This haunting awareness of “the trees,” so to speak, without being able to perceive “the forest,” is typical of autism. What is perceived is the haphazard concrete, so to speak, and there is great difficulty dealing with identities or classes and kinds of things. The “haptic” art produced by autistic persons is extraordinarily compelling visually, precisely because it is without perspective or a sense of the identities of things as wholes. On the other hand, most toddlers “get” dogs and cats right away – or at least they develop pretty good “working theories” about them very quickly. And then they refine those theories without difficulty. This sort of dynamic formalizing capacity seems to be lacking, to various degrees, in the autistic person.
With autism in mind, then, let’s return one last time for today to the way human consciousness is conditioned by its language very early on, in order to be able to perceive and communicate about the world. By the time we are apprehending words and phonemes and syntax and so forth, we have been fully conditioned to perceive selections and combinations of what is going on in the flow of physical sound, but we are never, on any structural level of our language, interested in all of the sound. A great deal of the empirical and quantifiable flow of sound passes us by as mere “static” or “noise.” It is empirically there, but we don’t notice it. For our deeply conditioned perception, much of the sound is not “there” because it doesn’t signify anything, with respect to the signifying systems we now have in place for making our interpretations. In contrast, then, autistic persons do not readily distinguish between what is to be taken as noise and what is to be regarded as distinctive, in an onslaught of sensory impressions. But most of us can and do, most readily, pick up the signifying clues, however subtle, by developing what we have learned to notice in language into a system that interprets language.
So yes, the world around us as members of a human speech community is a physical or empirical reality, if you wish to call it that. (When I read the Copenhagen physicists I thought they weren’t so sure, but that seems to have changed, perhaps. I’m confused about this and wish someone would help me out.) But we human beings do not perceive the physical reality that is there. Instead we are conditioned by language – and in the same way by disciplinary training and by our culture (which is a fabric of languages or signifying systems) – to perceive certain selective elements of the physical totality, and combine them in certain ways, in order to arrive at communally negotiable meanings, while disregarding all the rest of the physical order. It is not always the most physically prominent elements that we select, either. And we are incredibly good at doing this, which is why our human ways of knowing are so productive and even awe-inspiring. Still, there is so much “reality” going on around us (and inside of us) that we must always be blind to a whole lot of it.
For today, then, I’ll close this consideration of language by simply relating a story told by a high-ranking member of JFK’s cabinet. It will serve as a little parable, an illustration given to provoke thought. The story’s about a dinner at a swanky
Washington DC restaurant in the early 1960s, where the cabinet sat with President Kennedy for hours, discussing the question: “What do black voters want?” It wasn’t until years later that the cabinet member who told this story realized there were as many African-American men in that room as cabinet members. But they were serving as waiters and filling wine glasses and carrying dishes in and out, while the white men one by one gave their opinions about what blacks really wanted. While the African-Americans in that room were physically present, they were as good as invisible, because they didn’t signify. They didn’t “make a difference,” even when they themselves were the topic on the agenda. Now that’s conditioned perception! And future generations will look back on us with the same sense of shock and incredulity over what we aren’t seeing right now.
So there is always more in the flow of sound and more in the world around us than what we are conditioned to perceive and “count” as being significant. This is how our language – like our disciplinary discourse and like our culture as a whole – conditions our perceptions of everything, even while enabling us to share and preserve and enhance our perceptions. Without such sets of limiting conditions, no human community could ever achieve any shared knowledge of their world, or have a communal “world” to share. Nonetheless, these are still limiting conditions.
It seems to me that this is the fundamental paradox of later twentieth-century thought. I am so drawn personally to Derrida and Kristeva because they are always trying to work out ways to negotiate this paradox faithfully and honestly. Here again, though, I must note that this state of affairs – one that psychoanalysis and literary theory have opened up for us as late-moderns – was familiar territory to earlier Westerners. But we’ll consider that more appropriately later, as when we get to Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante, for example.
For now, however, we’re just about ready to move on to our next domain of human mystery, the sphere of Art. And if you think language turns out to be a strange and counter-intuitive phenomenon – as soon as we stop simply using it and start looking at its functional structure, or start pondering its origin – wait ‘til we get to art. Well, stop a minute. We can’t leave language, can we, without mentioning the emphasis placed on language and especially on its “naming” capacity, in the magnificent story of creation that opens Genesis, “the book of beginnings.” First, Elohim brings the universe into existence by speaking it. “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light….” This is why the instrumental maker of all things – Wisdom in the Old Testament and Jesus Christ in the New – is associated with the “word of God,” because everything that has being is brought into being through being named. Then the human creature, “made in the image of God,” likewise brings into being by naming, when the living creatures are brought to Adam to be named. After all, Adam is naming the kinds of animals. He is saying “camel” and “donkey” [or puppy and kitty] not “Joe” and “Pablo.” And while the particular animals in the story are physically there in the garden, the “kinds” of animals come into existence, at least for the human perception, by being named as kinds.
But they are named as kinds of things, it appears, according as they have their being as kinds of things. Let’s not fail to notice just how insistent this ancient creation poem is about the way each thing is made by God “according to its kind.” And so it was. “The earth produced vegetation: plants bearing seed in their several kinds, and trees bearing fruit with their seed inside, in their several kinds….” The ancient mystery, then, of how to group the animals into kinds or how seeds grow up into the cedar or the grapevine or the acacia tree…registered as supremely worthy of mention in a mythic, symbolic, larger-than-life narration of the beginnings of things. The same mystery that we probe today as the “information” that is encoded and passed down in DNA molecules.
What we’re going to be seeing when we turn to the Greeks is that these same insights about being human – that humans are able to name things according to their kinds – will come to us also from them. The Western human project of coming to know originates in our ability and desire to name according to their kinds, where naming comes in the Greek tradition to mean finding the logos or “formula” or “account” for each kind of thing. So, from the Pentateuch so revered in the Hebraic tradition, and from classical Greek philosophy – from two very different and ancient and profound traditions of knowing – we find humans knowing by “naming” (which is the Greek word logos) and we find humans knowing by “identifying the kinds” (which is also the Greek word logos, as we shall see). Both traditions are saying: “Here is the place where humans truly dwell.” As late moderns, we are deeply conditioned by our culture to ask, “Who am I?” But we are not necessarily trained to ask the much deeper question, “Who are we?” And also, as the scientistic late moderns we are, we often miss significant revelations because we are trying to reduce everything to a certain kind of fact.
[Please continue to part 5, Our Peculiar Subject Matter, when Dr. Blumberg adds more pages]