Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Language and Christianity, Part 1

In which something is said about meaning...
     (This, my second posting, started to get longer and longer as I worked my way along, so I broke it up into two parts.)
     What is “postchristian,” anyway? Is it possible to be a postchristian? Is there such a thing as postchristianity, or postchristianism? Is this simply a clever new way to say “liberal christian?” What should evangelicals, or main-streamers or fundamentalists think about it? What about catholics, or anglo-catholics, or the orthodox, or coptics? Or atheists or agnostics? Does it mean replacing traditional Christianity, of whatever stripe, with some new and possibly heretical notion? Is it biblical? Experiential? Traditional?
     In many ways, that's what this blog is all about. And many posts down the line, it may arrive at an answer, or two, or three. I hope. Since it's my blog, I'll approach the issues my way—slowly and carefully, with, I hope, respect for my readers as well as my ideation processes. The questions above are not straw men set up for knocking down like pop-up targets on a military shooting range. I'm not sure I have answers for all of them, but I'd like to find out.
     In a sense, I'm reverting to Montaigne, who began each of his open-ended Essais outside Bordeaux and ended up in Villefranche-sur-Mere or Ouistreham. Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind ending up putt-putting down the Quai de la cordiere on a Vespa Primavera, taking in the sailboats alongside. Or better yet, on the Carrer Moll de Llevant in Mahon (I've always wanted to see Admiral Nelson's villa on Menorca). But alas, only in fiction can I pick up a fountain pen—a Wing Sung 698 piston fill, if you're interested—and go to the Mediterranean or the Channel.
Speaking of fiction, it was Juliet (Shakespeare's pen at work) who asked
     What's in a name? that which we call a rose
     By any other name would smell as sweet;1
     Thus this troubled teenager opened up a can of worms that has bedeviled philosophers and scientists since at least Plato, and which forms (yet again) one of the central issues of something much like “postchristian,” “postmodern.” Would a rose smell sweet if we named it an artichoke? In Plato's day, one group would have answered “we would never call it an artichoke, because it's a rose, and it we did, we would be losing the ability of language to carry true meaning,” and the other would answered ”oh, pshaw, who cares—let her marry the guy,” or something to that effect. There's a whole discipline called “semiotics” that deals that with that today, and which may or may not be a postmodern discipline, depending on which scholar you nudge out of her afternoon nap. Haaah, I'm getting ahead of myself. I wanted to go slowly. And carefully. So, back to the beginning. (By the way, Romeo had his own answer in the next speech, and I rather like it with respect to Christianity. You can either look it up or stick with me to the end of this post, where I'll quote it. I promise.)

In the beginning, was...?
     School. Two schools, actually; school school and Sunday school. One was five days a week, 9 months a year, sort of like work for kids—it got us out of our parents' hair while they went to their work. The other was once a week, all year long. In one, I was bored to death. I still remember sitting dutifully while other first graders struggled to read a couple of lines of “Run, Lois, Run” out loud. How in the heck could they not figure out how to read and say words like “Lois?” If they were Japanese, I could see it. That “l” isn't easy for them, I later learned. My Japanese secretary had to resort to calling me by my first name (“Mel-san”--she could get individual 'l's), since there was no way, despite her good English skills, she could pronounce my perfectly good Scots surname. But native English speakers, in a white, middle class, 50s neighborhood? So, for twelve years, I sat numbly in school school and thought about other stuff.
     The other school was easier to get through, because it was shorter. The hardest part was memorizing those Psalms in Jacobean poesy, but it was good practice when in college I had to memorize the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. “Whan that Aprils shoures the droght of March hath perced to the rote...” Sixty-four lines, still got'em.
     School didn't get interesting until I showed up on the college campus. Actually, I'd grown up on college campuses—and lived in dorms—but this was the first time I got to go into an actual college classroom with actual professors and—remember, this was 1965--a damned maroon beanie with “69” embroidered on it. Nevertheless, the beanie was worth it, because for the first time most of the teachers, as opposed to a minority of them, actually knew what they were talking about. Many of them knew more than I did. (That's not a joke.)
     On the Sunday front, school also got interesting, as we finally lost those canned Bible lesson plans and began to focus on the relationship between our beliefs and our own culture and society. We even got to talk about S-E-X and stuff! Meanwhile, back across the street (literally) at college, I encountered something I would later learn was “structuralism.” Structuralism was everywhere. It was in Freshman English, Anthropology2, Sociology, Psychology, Art History, and Music Composition Theory, though not in Intermediate Tennis.
     Structuralism was something that had made its way into language study early in the 20th century, thanks to Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who proposed that language consisted of two distinct parts: actual speech (parole in French, in which Saussure lectured), and a structure--language--that allowed people to create and understand speech (langue in French). One uses langue to create parole. Thus understanding language was the result of examining and dissecting actual speech to discover the overall structure of language. Saussure was soon overtaken by linguists who disposed of some of his ideas, but he had pointed the way.
     His way was soon adopted into the social sciences, philosophy and almost anywhere it could be made to fit. Basically, if one could discover the interrelationships between things, one could construct an overall structure that would explain them.

The story of the sign, and a tale or two...
     Central to Saussurean linguistics was the notion of the sign. Imagine, if you would, glancing out my window at the Harley dealer's new, gigantic flagpole. If we wish to discuss this flagpole, we must first be able to direct our mutual attention to it. To do this, one of us says “flagpole.” Thus our attention is directed not to a telephone pole, a motorcycle, a middle school student, or any other item within our view, but to the flagpole. (In linguistics, this is called a “pragmatic” function of language.) Now, the word “flagpole” is clearly not itself a pole, it simply substitutes for it in conversation. Thus it can be called a signifier, or something that signifies the existence of a particular object. The object itself can be called the signified. This is rather obvious to anyone who has language, whether it's a flagpole, a mât pour drapeau, or a pòla brataich, as my fellow clan members' ghosts would say of a late, dark evening at the An t-Aodann Bàn Lodge3. What Saussure proposed was that there was a third thing involved besides the signifier and the signified. That thing he called the sign.
     The sign is a mental concept, rather than a particular physical object, such as a word, realized in sound waves or bodily movement or technological means such as writing, or a flagpole, realized by, well, just sitting there in front of us. These three things—the sign, the signifier, and the signified—form a triangle of meaning. Each is necessary. The signified is linguistically irrelevant without a signifier to isolate it from all other possibilities, and because the signified is different from ourselves, we must form an idea of it in order to talk about it. Thus language, by calling upon our ability to conceive ideas, now allows us to mitigate—to imagine and manipulate—our world.
     Saussure recognized one problem with the notion of the sign, that as a mental concept it was susceptible to change. Signifiers and signifieds can be affected by various physical alterations—erasures, destruction—but the concept of them remains unaffected. To change a concept, one must change one's mind, so to speak. In Saussure's notion of language, in which existing speech (parole) is the only evidence allowed, change in the sign is indicated by changes that show themselves over time. Thus Saussure determined that language could be studied either at a single point in time (synchronic) or over a length of time sufficient to produce change (diachronic).
    Wait a minute! Do you see what I see? (No fair quoting Noam Chomsky—he comes into this later.) In keeping with the best tradition of Enlightenment and modern thought, Saussure imagined language as an objective and discrete 'thing,' which can be isolated as a topic of science. There is, in the example above, not only a unique and separate signified and signifier—the flagpole and the word “flagpole”--but a similarly unique sign. This must presuppose a single, objective mind to conceive the thought. Of course, Saussure didn't entirely miss the problem. He posited the sign as created by a sort of social consensus. Everyone speaking a language must agree on the concept that is the sign. Except that language is objective only in the most high-flown of theoretical imaginings. Yes, language functions in part because most people agree to accept and use meanings that are equivalent. But signs share equivalencies, not equalities. What language's lexicon uses, to steal from the slogan of the French revolution, is fraternité, not ègalité. Nobody experiences exactly the same sign because everyone's experiences and learning are at least slightly different. Conceiving an identical sign c'est impossible.
     So, what exactly is the role of the social, or the subjective? Even the idea of a single, objective mind as a model for the structure of language obviously cannot exist without a social parameter. We learn, or acquire, language from our social surroundings—caregivers, family, friends, eventually school—and there is no dictionary at hand until the latter, and even there it's introduced rather late in the proceedings. Chomsky, working from observations of language acquisition and structural universals noted during the heyday of structuralist and ethnological research, argues that the human mind is biologically built for language acquisition.4 What differentiates one language from another is social input—semantic, syntactic and pragmatic options acting upon and within the potentials built into the brain. Although he has been challenged on the biological issue, in spite of pretty good evidence for it, his critics in no way challenge the necessity of the social environment for the acquisition of language.
     As for the subjective, let me tell a horse story. Horses are social creatures, raised within a band of other youngsters, their dam, other mares, a few young bachelor stallions and a breeding stallion. On a horse ranch, they also encounter a few humans, like me, who assist (if necessary) at conception and birth, medicate, feed and water them. The fillies and colts receive a good deal of training, first from their dam, then the lead mare and her 'assistants', who teach them the behaviors necessary to be good members of the horse world, and humans, who teach them the behaviors they need in order to remain safe and socially acceptable in the human world of stables, barns, pastures, gates, fences, lead ropes, farriers, tractors and pitchforks.
Horse number one in this story is a colt out of an aged Spanish stud originally from the Canary Islands, who has a fine Western conformation but, unlike the usual Spanish Arabian, has a timid streak, which he passes on to some of his male offspring. This causes them, just like daddy, to be unpredictable and occasionally aggressive around people. Not the best personality for a horse bred to ride, work and show. We also had a very old, arthritic, Egyptian stallion who'd long since passed out of his breeding days. Normally one does not dare to put stallions together in the same paddock—their immediate instinct is to fight each other. But I experimented. I took the timid colt and his stablemate, another yearling colt, and turned them out every day in a paddock with the old stallion. A year later, the timid colt, following the example of his old tutor and his young buddy, had developed completely out of his timidity and unpredictability, and responded well to further training and use around people and the farm.
     Horse number two is a young filly who, after weaning, was put in a stall in the mare barn and turned out to pasture with other mares. She bruised her foot and developed a painful abscess inside her hoof wall, which required three or four weeks of treatment, including daily wrapping of her hoof as well as keeping her out of wet, muddy places, which in turn required her to be turned out in the smaller, dry upper pasture. When I pronounced her cured, I planned to turn her back out in her old, large pasture, which required her, each morning, to prance through a few feet of the sticky mud that often develops near busy pasture gates in rainy climates. On the first morning of her new turnout, the filly's limp reappeared and she refused to go through the gate. She walked along on three legs, wincing painfully every time her previously bad hoof neared the ground. Her owner gasped and wondered aloud what had happened to make the abscess recur. But this was not my first rodeo, as they say. I opened the gate to the upper, dry pasture, and released the lead rope. She happily ran through that gate, all trace of a limp miraculously gone.
     While neither the colt or the filly learn to “talk,” in the human sense, they learn to communicate from the first time their dam teaches them to stick close to her, beginning a few moments after birth. Horses communicate primarily through equine body language, which has a significant vocabulary and at times a rough syntax. As they live with people on the farm, they also learn to “read” human body language, For example, a commonplace among horse people is the horse who can tell when a human approaches their territory with the intention of catching them up, even if the rope or lead line is carefully hidden. Many people who live with horses or dogs learn to rely on their animals' “reading” of strangers, which is often superior to their own.
     Animal trainers such as Cesar Milan (dogs), and Monty Roberts5 and Dan M. “Buck” Brannaman (horses) have achieved fame by learning canine and equine “language” and using it to quickly and easily train them to function in the human environment. In my nearly ten years working with horses of all ages and genders, I found that a combination of Roberts' techniques and close observation of horses using my professional linguistic training (as Roberts advises) gave me what sometimes seemed to onlookers (and me, for that matter) a “magic touch” with them. (If only I had devised such a methodology with their owners!)
     At the very least, we learn that language is acquired and developed through social interaction, including observation and teaching, and the subject's ability, like the young filly, to apply their acquired language to new situations. The case of the filly is an especially interesting one, in that it indicates that learners are not simply receptacles of an objective knowledge, but can invent new “words” or signs, and apply them in new ways to manipulate (mitigate) situations to their advantage. In one academic study I observed, children of early school age learned narrative skills by attempting to create new, fictional narratives of their school experiences that were designed to avoid criticism or negative feedback from the parents and family. At first, they were frustrated by parental skepticism or countervailing versions from older siblings. As they grew older, they learned how to avoid parental skepticism and deal with the siblings (up to a point, as anyone who has siblings can attest).
     We see, then, that language is anything but a purely objective, isolated thing. It is thoroughly social and subjective. Meaning is derived from the ability to apply and interpret signs to and within their context. So-called “dictionary” meanings that imagine signs as discrete things with precise and limited “meanings” are belied by the fact that the dictionaries themselves are constantly adding additional “meanings” to signs, and subtracting older “meanings” as outmoded. Consider the famous quote from Robert E. Lee: “Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more, you should never wish to do less."6 Merriam-Webster lists the meaning of 'sublime' as “to elevate or exalt especially in dignity or honor.”7 This seems to help us make sense of Lee's quote. But is this what Lee really “meant”? Lee's education in the first quarter of the nineteenth century was largely a product of the eighteenth, where the concept of the sublime was a distinct philosophical notion made famous by philosopher Edmund Burke. Burke and others—especially poets and artists--often commented on the sense of awe, horror and dread created by certain sights, such as their experiences in the Alps. What Lee meant by “sublimest” in all probability was conditioned by his educational experiences with the 18th century concept of the sublime. When one considers many of his other well-known quotes about war and life, and his life experience (he was known as an excellent student as well as a military officer with considerable combat experience), it is entirely probable that Lee was thinking of the 18th century concept rather than Merriam-Webster's in the 21st.
     Thus endeth part 1 of this lengthy meditation on meaning. I said earlier that I'd give you Romeo's answer, so here it is:
     I take thee at thy word:
     Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized;
     That seems to be the gospel8 in a nutshell.

1Romeo and Juliet, II:ii
2I am being generic. My own college favored cultural anthropology à la Boas-like ethnology, rather than Lévi-Strauss style structuralism, quite possibly due to its historic missions/pastoral focus, and/or the close association between Marxist thought and some structuralists (this was the cold war, after all).
3For non-Gaelic speakers seeking fine dining, great scenery, single malt Talisker, and real ghosts, it's the Edinbane Lodge in Edinbane, Isle of Skye. Go in summer...unless you have a lot of heavy Scots woolen clothing.
4Chomsky, Noam. Structure of the Theory of Syntax. (MIT., Cambridge, MA. 1965.)
5The Man Who Listens to Horses (London, Arrow. 1997)

8'god's spel', from Old English. “Spel” became the modern word 'spell', as in a magical spell. To the Angle-Saxons, words were considered to have power over the physical and spiritual world.

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