Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Beyond Language?

In his Chinese Notebook, Ron Silliman tells us that "there is no grammar or logic by which the room in which I sit can be precisely recreated in words. If, in fact, I were to try to convey it to a stranger, I’d be inclined to show photos and draw a floor map." (§26) Since I am vaguely totalitarian about grammar I am naturally effronted by this sort of talk.

Recent events have sharpened the point a little. "Some horror is beyond words," says Silliman in a recent post. "Watching the news footage this past week from South Asia, the Indian Ocean & Horn of Africa has been like that, a scale of devastation that goes further than our language can carry us."

A bit of perspective may be established if we recall the very ordinary sentiment normally associated with the phrase "more than words". The thing that distinguishes the first invocation of a realm beyond words from the others is that it is not intended as homage. Silliman is not saying that he is sitting in a site of especially profound devastation or beauty. What he is saying is that even the most ordinary things are beyond words. Notice the point of connection between Silliman's remarks about his room and Asia. In both cases, the field "beyond language" is occupied by other media: photos, maps and news footage. Visual images. In the case of love beyond words a certain shall we say manual imagery is normally invoked.

If I recall, the thing that connects Rene Daumal's A Night of Serious Drinking with Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus it is the dictum that if something can be thought it can be said clearly. Wittgenstein located the "thought" behind a sentence in the operation of making pictures of the facts. If we can form a picture of the devastation in Asia, then we can think it. And it is then not beyond language. I refuse to be more horrified by CNN's insistence on showing us corpses bulldozed into mass graves than I am by the words I have just written.

We understand. And we understand what must be done. The images (not as Silliman says, the numbers) are what numb us, by projecting our empathy into a realm of silence, of quietude. "Language is, first of all, a political question." (Chinese Notebook, §6) And the first of these questions is where the limits of language run. If we allow CNN to propel us into a realm of inarticulate grunting we are not being serious about the very specifiable, very quantifiable suffering that is going on in Asia.

Here's what I want to say, meaning no disrespect. What has happened is wholly articulable. We can say what has happened, and we can say what a fitting response to the event is. Its victims CAN articulate their need for shelter, for clean water, for food, for medical supplies. And we CAN understand these needs. Indeed, it is within our power to satisfy many of them. Our representatives, such as they are, are engaged in that effort as we speak. They are able and willing to do so because of ongoing political struggles and commitments that reach beyond the high profile media moment -- not beyond language.


Mette said...

Thomas, you are right. and wrong. the feelings of powerlessness can make us afraid to speak out. and if we are afraid to speak then there are no words.

Thomas Basbøll said...

A thought we are afraid to speak is silent, but it is not beyond language. It is not being expressed in words, but it is not incapable of being expressed in words. My point is that things may be beyond belief, even beyond our emotional capacity . . . but not, beyond language. Silliman could have said, as you might, "I don't know what to say." But he chose to raise his own dumbfoundedness to a philosophical point: it can't be talked about, there are no words. But there are words: precisely those we are afraid to speak. If they weren't there, what would we be afraid of?

Laura Carter said...

I think he meant that it is "beyond comprehension."

Other atrocities are comprehensible. We can talk about war because we are now, unfortunately, "used to" seeing the footage, the understanding of how it takes place.

But this is unusual. It is unlike anything most of us have been exposed to before.

I, for one, am more horrified by mass graves than I am by your words. I think that's the human response.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I appreciate the charitable reading of Silliman, Laura, and that is of course a possiblity. But even then, he passes from his own inability to understand something (something he has seen on TV) to the incomprehensibility of the event.

Keep in mind that you are more horrified by pictures of mass graves than by my words (which are actually his words). What interests me are the facts the pictures distract us from. And these are nicely tractable to language.

(In a sense, the task of poetry is to teach us to respond appropriately to the news of such a disaster. I'm not sure that the way we respond to news footage, even unusual news footage, is the right response. Try not watching TV.)

Just as tractable are the acts that are demanded of those who know what has happened and are in a position to help. The key players here are governmental and non-governmental aid organizations. And they are doing a lot. It is up to us, the people to whom these players finally answer, to see that they are doing things properly. But we can't carry out this function if we concentrate our emotional responses on pictures that have been designed to evoke them. Best to put the thing into words.

One of those jobs (arguably) is to dig mass graves and fill them ASAP. There are people who must articulate that horror.

Laura Carter said...

I agree. I think feeling horrible should not preclude sending even a bit of money to the Red Cross, etc.

And of course, when I sign on to AOL, the first thing I see is: "Soldiers helping save civilians," etc. The US desires to look good by this tragedy.

But, I suppose Silliman's point is that the TV, whose managers have chosen to focus here, shows us more about this tragedy than it has shown about previous tragedies. 3 1/2 million people died in N Korea due to flooding & famines in the mid-1990s, but I don't remember hearing much about it. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention.

I would like to see more of these emergencies brought to our attention, including the domestic ones. The networks will never have it, of course. They are all haunting. There's no way to picket against a tsunami. It's frightening in a way that war is not, & war is frightening for obvious dark reasons.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks for the comments, Laura. My view is that the ideological nature of news today can be seen in the way it gets us wound up about singular events, rather than structural conditions. No one can deny that the tsunami is horrible. My concern would be with something like being so horrified that you send money to the Red Cross and stop working seriously or donating money to, say, the Green party in the US (or another alternative of your choice). If that happens then you have been distracted. Moreover, I don't think the economic ends (aid to Asia) justifies the aesthetic means (the dulling of the Western mind). I'm not being heartless here. I vote for parties who believe in using substantial portions of my taxes to send to the third world and to support organisations that are ready to deal with disasters like this recent one. I just refuse to get wound up the media kitch side of the operation, that's all.

Laura Carter said...

I'm not supporting "media kitsch," but I think that the gravity of this situation, which is an unusual one due to the extent of the practically instantaneous damage, can serve to spur folks to consider the realities of the structure (why wasn't the warning system in place? we certainly would have one here in US-ville) & perhaps to reconsider their loyalties. Certainly the internet will help as folks "click around" looking, out of curiosity, for information, albeit in voyeuristic upheaval. But I suppose I also would like to bypass the media question here & reiterate that, for me, even to see the numbers in headline form, just once, without pictures, is dreadful.

I'm probably quite a bit like Silliman in certain ways, and find his political evolution a more interesting aspect of his "blogging" than his take on the camps of US poetry. I am much more interested in reading his blog when he turns his attention to politics.

I find it difficult to simply "support a third party" right now. I would rather send a wad of cash to an Indonesian family, or to an organization I'm reasonably sure will spend the money wisely.

I perhaps have a better chance as a writer & possibly a teacher of actually having any sort of "political" influence, which will be "political" only to the extent that the words can hold it.

Thomas Basbøll said...

But then you have been distracted! There will always be some crisis of the moment that the media can get you to be more passionate about than long term economic change (including changes in the economies of third world countries). Can't move 'em with a cold thing like economics, Pound noted (quoting Mencken . . . interesting because Mencken compared economic change to geological processes.) You're right about the warning system, but it shouldn't take a disaster to make us think about it. Poor people generally suffer from natural disasters. Rich people generally relocate. I mean that as a matter of statistics. The problem is not the devasting power of nature, but the ordinary pettiness of culture.

Laura Carter said...

This conversation is perhaps not the best one for us to have.

But: in closing:

my response to the tsunami I consider a "wake-up call" on certain issues, particularly human ones, & also political ones.

I find it heartening that when I sign on to check my balance there's a lil' Red Cross logo & an opportunity to help. I doesn't, of course, inspire me to deify America as the most generous country on earth or any shit like that. But if it helps those folks, why not?

Perhaps I'm the wrong person to comment on the abuses of media. I listen almost solely to progressive radio, & there are issues with similar, but considerably less instantaneous, consequences that arise constantly. The entire electronics industry, sending old computers to third-world countries to be bathed in acid, polluting rivers, etc.

I'm not arguing against the educated response, I suppose I'm just arguing in favor of a brief mourning period, which ought to be allotted in Western culture considerably more frequently than it is, a time in which perhaps argumentative discourse could be suspended. Every death deserves that.

Laura Carter said...

In spite of the fact that I am arguing here &, hence, kicking my own proverbial ass for hypocrisy.

Laura Carter said...

One last clarification:

I find it difficult to support a third party right now, but it has nothing to do with the tsunami.

I think that's a longer conversation. I found it difficult to support a third party before the election, & have numerous reasons (as do many progressives) for being skeptical of the changes brought about by such a commitment. The Greens, tho, as you mention, are I think the most palatable progressive option.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I think the tradition that is available in most Western countries of honouring the dead in catastrophes by two minutes of silence is absolutely in its place here. It is a way of paying respect in measure to one's connection to the event. I think it is silly to suppose that a 15 dollar donation is somehow a more serious way of involving oneself. Demanding that one's government allocate a significant portion of its resources (drawn from its infrastructure, including its military) to assist in the salvage and reconstruction effort is much more serious. In representative democracies this means keeping an eye on the sorts of relief packages that one's elected officials propose and support.

I'm not going to say that we should ignore this wake up call (and go back to sleep). All I was saying is that we should also acknowledge how many people are wide awake on this and employed in jobs responsible for acting on that awareness.

Most importantly, I was opposing Silliman's suggestion that there are no words for this horror. If we are going to help we have to say what we can about it, rather than just being (or feeling) horrible. It is in that articulation that a constructive relief effort can be conducted.

(On your last comment, fair enough. But you did say you'd "rather" send money to Indonesia than think about the Greens.)

Thanks, again, for your comments. I can't think of anyone I'd rather discuss such things with.

Laura Carter said...
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Thomas Basbøll said...

You paint a picture of a population (a corpus of "popular responses") that is periodically jolted out of its fixation on Jennifer Lopez by episodes of ineffable devastation. Naturally, it's the same media that provides the imagery for both modes of awareness. I think we could just as easily excuse the Lopez fixation in terms of shell shock as we could excuse the tsunami shock as a wake up call (from the Lopez fixation, of course). I'm simply not sure it's healthy . . . the shock may be better than Lopez, in some absolute sense, but it strikes me simply as being part and parcel of that same mode of concern.

Laura Carter said...

I think that the tsunami "shock" provides a place for folks to begin to care. Lopez does not.

Whether or not folks spend money on tsunami relief or Jennifer Lopez's latest flick is important, I think.

We take what we can get.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, the Lopez phase is the fact that they don't care but want to care (everybody wants to care) and the tsunami episode is the satisfaction of that desire (to care). After a while we go back to Lopez (as you will grant).

If we go with the fifteen bucks senario (or whatever it costs to see one of her films) then I don't think where you spend it is imporant. What matters is the long term attention you pay to the way relief money is collected (especially through taxes) and spent (especially by governments).

Your last line is telling. What caring about Lopez and the tsunami as current events have in common is the "we'll take what we can get" mentality. Sorry, Laura, but I really think you're wrong about this.

It is the oscilation between catastrophe and kitsch that produces that mindset, and it's one of the older rackets I'm sure. It does something bad to the way we care. (Anyone who has seen the new Band Aid video must wonder whether caring about people who are suffering is always an expression of good taste.) And one of the things it attacks is our ability to talk about it. Which Silliman's post became a stark symbol of for me.

Once again, my deep appreciation for taking this discussion as far as it has gone.

Laura Carter said...

I know what you mean. Who's "Band-Aid"?

Laura Carter said...

I do know what you mean. Again: I think there's enough of a pre-Socratic in me to be awed by the natural disaster. It is from a scientist's perspective also quite an amazing phenomenon.

Laura Carter said...

I concede. You're right.

I do prefer your linguistic theory to Silliman's.

I also think you're paying too much for movies, if $15 was a serious hypothesis.

We're obviously talking about this situation & have been, as have the fortunate Band-Aid viewers.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Well, you know, gas & popcorn.

Here are some Band-Aid links (maybe you've already found them.)




Laura Carter said...

The *fortunate* was meant to be ironic. I should have set the word off as I've just done. I'll check the links, thanks.

Laura Carter said...

That image is atrocious.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Very. In the video there's a shot of a group of pop stars standing around a TV set crying (if I recall), looking at the same poor kid's face, and Sir Bob looking gravely on, marshaling the forces of concern. Do WE know it's christmas? But don't get me started. . .

Thomas Basbøll said...

Actually, I respect Geldof a lot, and feel a bit bad about about dragging his project into it this way. His supporters might say that the tasteless juxtaposition of hunger and Christmas cuteness is the whole point of the campaign, i.e., we have Christmas in our silly, commercial way, while they starve. Still, as an ironic comment I don't think it works. It remains as tasteless as what it is supposed to be exposed: it simply is what it is exposing. For most people it says only that these pop stars are good people, and I'm a good person for buying the song (or just paying attention and feeling "serious" for a moment), then back to waving a guitar between your legs, etc.

Laura Carter said...
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Thomas Basbøll said...

Historical note: Band-Aid 20 is a remake of the 1984 version, which was also Geldof's initiative, and which later inspired "We Are the World"--a song whose hegemonic pathos is so "American" (in the European sense of that word) that your head spins. (Just a friendly reminder to those who are trapped deep inside the American media perspective that tends to frame phrases like "we all remember" and "the idea isn't a new one".)

Thomas Basbøll said...

Sorry, Laura, I hope that doesn't sound as school-teacher like as it probably does. Thanks again for the input. I'm going to return to this sort of thing in a few weeks, probably by looking at the way Chomsky does things.

Laura Carter said...

Nothing particularly "school-teacher" about an historical note!

Pls. do look at Chomsky, I like him very much, American pragmatist that I am. I think he gets a bad rap, for I find that a number of other "radical" political thinkers are much more unreasonable.