Szyzygy's Blog

On language

Language is a virus. William S. Burroughs

 As a species we are defined almost entirely by words and language, for, above all, this is what gives shape to our thoughts, our hopes, our fears, our dreams, our ambitions, and the range and scope to express or conceal those innermost identities of ourselves. We are however,  producers of language to a significantly lesser extent than we are consumers. Even the influence of the most powerful of writers is but a twinkling mote of dust in that vast swirling vortex of articulation of thoughts, desires, ideas and passions which has levered the evolution of the human species from the shambling ape things which carved out a niche of subsistence, red in tooth and claw, to the somewhat more culturally sophisticated yet nevertheless still shambling ape things which we are today, substantially physiologically and biologically speaking very little different from our forebears, and yet culturally and intellectually so very different.

With a wealth of  media at our disposal for the dissemination and onward transmission of language, we have, in technological terms at least, stepped down momentarily out of the trees and into the broad and metaphorically sun-dappled glade of partial  comprehension. The trail which the technologies have followed is in itself interesting and revelatory and it is worth a moment of reflection to consider this progression in some sort of context. In the beginning was the spoken word, a transient unit of social currency capable of onward oral transmission by a second or third party, itself capable of further onward transmission by further second and third parties and so on. From the moment that the viral and reproducibly imitational nature of language was established, its effects were profound.

Limited, faulty, time and geographically constrained transmission were a significant brake. As a simple assessment of the extent and ways in which even a simple piece of perhaps vital information can radically mutate in its telling from its   point of genesis into something which it was not, the children’s party game ‘Chinese Whispers’ (sometimes also called ‘Broken Telephone’ or ‘A Whisper Down the Lane’)  provides a clue: for those unfamiliar with the game a number of players pass a piece of whispered information successively between themselves until it returns to the originator of the message at which the original and the final result are compared, often drastically mutated.

The problem of limited and inevitably erroneous reproducibility was partially resolved with the innovation of writing. Without a technology for producing multiple copies other than by hand, the dissemination of information was inevitably much curtailed until the invention of the printing press. It could reasonably be argued that without the printing press we possibly would not now be much further on from the late middle ages. It certainly was largely instrumental in the breaking of the stranglehold on power, knowledge and information held by the Roman Catholic church at that time. Widely available translations of the Bible by Martin Luther fuelled the thinking behind the Protestant revolution which was to completely and irreversibly transform Europe’s cultural and intellectual environment. Protestantism in its turn was to create the conditions for the dawning of, quote, Enlightenment, unquote, and this itself was an essential precondition for industrialisation and post-industrialisation. These are of course gross over-simplifications of historical process, although at the core of modernity technology provides the means to the ends: better, faster, more widely disseminated communication.

Technology was to add further limited refinements to reproducibility, thence the next problems to be overcome were those of transmission and geography. Multiple and oftimes convergent technologies such as semaphore, telegraphy, telephony, radio, television and computing nibbled voraciously at these issues and were all necessary precursors to the internet, the current locus of the global village, a term adopted by Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Gallery: The Making of Typographic Man to describe the inevitable collapse of these final communication boundaries. Certain problems still exist in this respect, and the obvious one is that of the homogenisation, for the purposes of universal comprehension, of the diversity of variants of languages which coexist in the global village, a veritable babel of real (and sometimes imagined languages such as Klingon and Tolkienian elvish), as well as the plethora of formal languages used in mathematics, computing and logic.

The corollary of the foregoing is that as a species we now have at our disposal, and within certain constraints, a vast library of information and a sophisticated suite of tools for the promulgation of onward communication of thoughts and ideas. There has never been such an abundance of low hanging literary and informational fruit, nor has it ever, in westernised societies at least, been so freely available.

Given this bumper harvest, and its immediacy, as consumers of words we are now confronted with a new problem, that of informational overload. To some extent this is similar to the problem which confronts us when we go shopping for food in a supermarket: we make numerous conscious, and subconscious decisions about what it is we will choose to consume. So is it with words and language: we are now confronted by a gigantic hypermarket of knowledge and information in which price, an inherent factor in the equation, is largely a function of time, for there is now so much information readily available on the internet that a search engine such as Google was more or less an inevitability and like God, if it had not already existed it would have to have been invented. The trouble with Google, and most other search engines like it, however, and this is certainly true at this point in history, is that they are very blunt tools. They lack, to put not too fine a point on it, discrimination; they are clubs where what is required is a well honed scalpel.

We are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of words and language which are now headed our way, and only a little help is at hand. The silence of the desert, the bleak, deserted moorland heath, at sea in a small boat, realistically these are among the few places in which one can be safe from it; contemporary homes, conversely, are the antithesis of informational calm but rather the final destination sink-point for the flood-water torrents of verbal garbage. A newspaper or two is thrust across the threshold and then the mail arrives; the morning news on television or radio thrust its heads rudely above the parapets and we are pulled rapidly headlong into the daily informational maelstrom where only the stupid can survive unperturbed by it, for the news, like the world itself, for most of its population, is invariably bleak. It is a curious irony that governments which once relied upon secrecy and concealment as a means to suppress the dissemination of information which they wished withheld have now become deeply adept at burying it in the full light of day by exposing it.

 Language, William S. Burroughs once wrote, is a virus, and is in fact one which threatens on many fronts to overwhelm us. We are clever animals and are constantly acquiring new tricks, some learned, some technological, to at least abate, if not fully avert, the oncoming deluge. Spam e-mail is a case in point. Technology providers have introduced mechanisms for expunging the most egregious of spam, and as individuals as we gain experience with e-mail we become progressively more selective about which e-mails we choose to open and those which we consign unread, and with barely a thought, to the garbage bin. Our inconvenience is mitigated on two fronts, and legislation, the stubborn ass of society, is slowly bringing up the rear in taking on the spammers and their ilk. We are therefore compelled as consumers to draw parameters around the massive volumes of language and information which is headed like a tsunami in our direction. There are no clearly ready defined strategies which we can employ, as we can in our judicious handling of e-mail, we have to fend for ourselves and manage the best we can in a deeply chaotic environment.

An architectural adage of Mies van der Rohe, I would contend, represents a possible way ahead: less is more. When writing program code, I strive for a balance between a number of competing criteria: readability ( the people who follow in my wake will need to understand what it is I am trying to achieve), elegance, functionality and re-use. I try and bring these same virtues to my own poetry; a good poem, in my estimation, should function according to these criteria. [1]

Consider the work of the tragic and brilliant White Russian poetess Marina Tsvetaeva, arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century (or indeed of any century). Her poetry operates and acts on a multiplicity of levels, and it shares at the same time qualities which exceptional code possesses: it is clear, it does a job exceptionally well in evoking a particular emotional response in the reader, it is reusable in that it can be read over and over again from a variety of angles and perspectives, and the consummate elegance of it, written, as it was, against a backdrop of huge personal and geopolitical turmoil, is simply breath-taking in a way in which only truly magnificent works of art can be. Her work is full of omens and portents, and this is not a particular suprise when one considers that the Symbolist Movement, of which she was a member was a menagerie of  mystics, savants and seers; in Elaine Feinstein’s exquisite translation of La Poeme Comme Ça, one can see this augury in full play from the very outset.

A single piece of rusting tin

Marks the place we move to, he and I

She is writing about the her own life, the end of the love affair of her life, and even here, at the very start of the poem, we know exactly where it is we are going to be taken, in a long and uncomfortable  walk across the bridges of the city of Prague where that life, her life, like a patient etherized upon a table, will be laid out in a perambulation down  certain half-deserted streets, streets that follow like an argument of  insidious intent to lead you to an overwhelming question.

The question in this case is one of a woman and her destiny, in exile from the Soviet Union, impoverished, on the wrong end of a failed love affair, a life which was ultimately to end in suicide in an impoverished, exiled, obloquy. Those two lines in their devastating and awesome simplicity are underpinned by a central tenet of Tsvetaeva, that, in her own words, ‘In the life of a symbolist everything is a symbol’. Here, the signpost, the single piece of rusting tin not only stands for a literal signpost, a fixed geographical meeting-place which points in a given direction that is to be taken, but one which is metaphorical and allusive. Such a little thing, it crystallises meaning in an instant: less really is more.

Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinian master of the short story, was another who recognised, independently, the ineffable power that condensation of language and meaning brings to the party. There is a line in ‘Kafka and his Precursors’ to the effect that every writer creates his or her own antecedents[2]. This is a very subtle line of argument, and Borges has a lot of fun with it. A lesser writer than Borges would have ploughed a very different and altogether less productive furrow than the one to which he sets his share.

 In my way, I too could elaborate a great deal on this short but comprehensive essay which would reveal nothing much more than you could yourself by reading it yourself in the case you yourself had not already read it. Briefly, Borges makes the contention that writers have precursors of which they are often entirely unaware and who are themselves unaware of their impact upon our reading of their successor, drawing thematic connections and relationships which were previously unconnected. If you make a small leap of faith, you can see instantly that what I am going to suggest is that a subsequent writer’s work can act as a form of subconscious hyperlink[3] between previously unconnected writers and their texts. In less than two pages Borges opens up vistas of conceptual opportunities with words in the same way that the graphic illusionist Maurits Escher did with his exquisite watchmakerlike drawings.

 There is little or no evidence to suggest that Tsvetaeva was read by Borges and the balance of probabilities would tend to suggest that the former was never read by the latter, although I am open to correction on this point, but they are bound not only by their deep care and precision in use of language, but  also thematically on the same front. Both are deeply intrigued by the nature of predestination, two very different writers working more or less contemporaneously in different forms, separated by language, continents, cultures and oceans. I should perhaps also note at this point that Borges’ relationship with Symbolism also ran deep, and here we can trace tangible mutual precursors for both writers in Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarme and Baudelaire, and although the Russian Symbolist Movement was divergent from the French, steeped as it was in Eastern Orthodox traditions, there are nevertheless strong correlations.

 That these two writers, so different and so geographically and culturally divorced, should strive toward the elegance and loaded concision of overloaded minimalism, could, I suppose be argued as synchronicity or pure coincidence, or something else entirely. It is this third possibility which both interests and which eludes me, but something inside me whispers seductively that it was the virus, stealthy, unseen, but all pervasive in its action.

  [1]          In case anyone should wonder, I came to this conclusion independently and only became aware that this was not a unique or original discovery after a quick Google to discover whether anyone else had walked this particular line of thought. The American software programmer and poet Richard P. Gabriel was one of the names that came up fairly frequently and early; much of what he has to say on both subjects struck resonances within me.

[2]          Already my precursors and influences are stacking up in this work; the obvious and stated ones of which I am aware such as Tsvetaeva, Borges, Elaine Feinstein, Richard P. Gabriel, Franz Kafka, J.R.R. Tolkien; the allusive and unacknowledged quotes from T.S. Eliot, Osip Mandelstam; the thematic such as W.G. Sebald, whose fascinating intellectual wanderings were the principal conceptual starting-block for this essay.

[3]          One of the things which drew me early to Wikipedia, that vast and gothic pantheon of knowledge, was the ability to readily hyperlink. I have always been interested in the way in which things, people, places are related, and a game which I occasionally play with myself  is to pick an author and trace their relationship by Wikipedia hyperlinks to another author, and not necessarily by the most direct route.


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