In the wake of social and political upheavals now spreading like wildfire throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East, we hear noble slogans and soothing words about the will of the people being expressed and their desire for democratization. We find such sentiments slipping comfortably from the lips of Western politicians and splattered across the pages of our presses, as they seek to reassure us that this is just the natural longing of the human spirit to participate in our ideals of democracy and free markets. There is a concerted effort on the part of our elites to paint these events as an endorsement of Western values and lifestyle. But what exactly do these calming references to ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ denote coming from our elite? And are the changes these diverse populations seek really consistent with the worldview and values of the West? In light of these questions, it is appropriate to consider the role of language today, and particularly the challenge it poses with respect to the discomfort underlying current global upheavals.
In the slogans alluded to above, as is the case with much communication today, one might notice how there is quite a bit of talk but very little being said? Well, it’s true. Language has been truncated, if not trivialized in the modern world, stripped bare of its depth and power. Where words once were heard as pregnant with signification, in our rationalized, digitized, and abridged vocabulary of the West all that has changed for the worst. Now a strictly calculating and logistical principle holds sway. Words have been reduced to mere symbols in an equation, placeholders in a syllogism, each having a single unambiguously identifiable referent, and only one. A must equal A, and it can never equal B; let alone A, B and C all together at once. There must only be one precise “signified” for each “signifier” – everything disambiguated – following both the formal demands of objective science and the legalistic requirements of hierarchical control.
But if you look back into the obscure and shadowy origins of language, you will find that before the written word there was only speaking, with oral traditions passed down from generation to generation. The written word emerging a little less than six thousand years ago, only fully appeared coincident with the birth of cities, with the organization of empires and their apparatus — with civilization and history. We began making history only when we began to write that history!
This was another momentous invention of domesticated life. With the birth of cities on the heels of big agriculture, it was necessary to develop uniform (if not abstract) systems of economic, social, and political control to handle the gathering together of diverse and unrelated village, clan and tribal members, now as urban strangers – within and well beyond the city walls. This demanded a severe change in the nature of human communication, including the removal of polysemic ambiguity inherent in primal speech, and the articulation of a strictly univocal, disambiguated, written code.
Such linguistic rationalization was only effected with the invention of the syllogism, early on perfected by the Greeks, and recast by scientists, legislators, and politicians down through the ages. According to syllogistic reasoning, universal statements were to be related to particular circumstances within a coherent structure leading to unambiguous legal and scientific conclusions. So it all came down to “precise words and correct syntax…that is where social laws [were] made and natural laws [were] made or discovered.” (Bram, The Recovery of the West)
But long before such sweeping linguistic changes took hold, our pre-historical speaking and proto-historical writing were much involved with myth. Passed on from originally oral sources, myth had a textural depth, ambiguity, and resonance that was still packed with meaning. Not only did the mythic word call up multiple referents, but also the copula between those diverse referents was extremely strong. To speak the name of something was in fact to invoke its existence, to experience its power as fully present. It was not then as it is now, where a metaphor or a simile merely suggests something else. For a preliterate gatherer-hunter, to identify your totem was to become one with it, and to feel the presence of your clan animal within you.
Even revisiting one of the earliest known written languages, Old Kingdom Egyptian, one finds oneself immersed within a polysemous, poly-textural world whose non-alphabetic characters still bear this sort of weight and significance. Hieroglyphic writing retained almost as much multi-referential power as did the preliterate word of far-older, oral traditions. Hieroglyphs not only allowed of multiple meanings; they also embodied the power of the signifieds within the signifier, whether it was etched on a tablet, a sarcophagus, or the temple wall.
Such was the wealth, potency, and openness of primal tongues. Over millennia of civilization, these languages were destroyed, forced into univocity and impotence. Stripped of their resonant depth, words were flattened-out under the cold and calculating logic of imperial and imperious histories. Words became slaves to the exacting requirements of syllogistic reasoning, eventually defining the direction of all civic life – social control grounded in rigid laws and specious principles artfully constructed to protect increasingly arrayed power hierarchies.
Chris Hedges has correctly noted that empires often communicate in two languages, one of imperatives and decrees, the other employing a gentler vocabulary of transcendent values and high-sounding ideals. Yet, they both do violence and are controlling in their own right, leading ultimately to the same end – disempowering the body politic (“Recognizing the Language of Tyranny,” Berserk Magazine). So just maybe in their hearts and in their ears, the peoples to our east have finally identified one source of their suffering — in the words they hear and the relentless assault of syllogisms that keep them enslaved within a language of violence.
Of course, I am not suggesting that the Egyptian people (or others) have rebelled against their regimes due to the loss of rich oral traditions. Their burning issues likely have much more to do with their bellies than with their tongues. But perhaps the political and economic deprivations imposed by such hierarchies have been masked by a linguistic straightjacket foisted upon citizens increasingly forced to live in a world made empty by the violence of the word as much as by threat of the sword.
A key catalyst of today’s “global crisis” may be found in this emptying out of language, leading inexorably to an emptying of human experience – a hollowness that finds its only fulfillment in the proliferation of novel distractions and diversions as they consume and ravage all available resources, leaving nothing of value in their wake. Or perhaps, it finds solace only in rebellion. It is worth considering especially in light of Hedges final warning about any “centralized power.”
American democracy [itself]… looks real even as the levers of power are in the hands of corporations… It too communicates in two distinct languages, that is until it does not have to, at which point it will be too late.