Friday, 19 February 2010

728 - Word Up

After reading Jay Griffiths on the essential wildness of all things, it sure is hard to resist putting her thesis into action.

So, if time is wild, and time is money, then money can be wild; money can be, say, words. And words, in turn, can be wild.

Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid sets the thought going. She's talking about the brain areas that inter-wire themselves as we learn to read: visual areas; visual association; auditory and language centres; centres for analytical and forward planning. Her suggestion is that as these link up, our cognitive abilities change, and our ways of relating to the world and to our culture with them.

In her book this is pretty much unequivocally a good thing. Hugh Brody and Jay Griffiths, who both champion the intelligence of preliterate peoples, might want to suggest that the potential that we direct towards reading is, amongst those who don't read, directed towards other, equally meaningful, ends.

I'd like to suggest that, by interrogating the nature of words and text to discover just exactly what they are, we might begin to find surprising word-forms in many places. Taking Wolf's point that our brains have changed neurologically in response to exposure to text-based cultures, there are perhaps other ways that we could encourage them to develop as we become fluent in forms championed by newer cultures.

Perhaps the essence of a word is that it is a meaningful communication. The call across a clearing from one to another, using the medium of sound-waves, explains the link between the auditory sense and our language centres. The weighting we give to our visual sense as a means of interacting with the world explains why most, but not all writing, is visible. But the question of how many senses are involved in word formation and comprehension grows rapidly more complicated.

Early texts, Wolf says, include cuneiform scratches on clay tablets, and hieroglyphs on papyrus, but also knots on Mayan rope (quipus), and script on tortoiseshell oracles. The cuneiform, knots and tortoiseshells are tactile - indeed, writing is itself a movement of the wrist. These actions, like Braille, extend the senses involved to touch and proprioception (body-sense). The same senses form the basis of sign-language, and the language of dance. Up is an orientation of the body, so up-ness can be a word. Body pressure, the application of which stills some people with autism, such that weighted blankets are common in therapy centres, is surely key to the communication of a hug. And where would meaningful communication be without the kiss, stirring visual, auditory, pressure, temperature, taste and olfactory senses? A kiss is surely a word.

If language is seen in its widest sense as an interplay of meaning, which is not limited to words on a page (or screen), then the nature of words is set free. This video challenges, and is fascinating, about the insight into language that one person's experience of autism has given her (and us). Surely there is nothing to stop a culture, and cognitive develop among the people within it, centring upon and elevating, if they choose, any given word form. Might that not take the culture into hitherto unsuspected realms of human experience, as the book has done? Might that not be the true legacy of virtual reality technologies?

And seeing every sense-meaning combination as part of a flow of communication illuminates the world of inner as well as outer experience. Dream language, with its powerful imagery and sensory stimulation, does not seem quite so alien if it is understood to be of a piece with the exchange of information we can engage in between ourselves and others during waking hours. Perhaps, latterly, these literate millenia, we've just been ignoring this daylight exchange.

Perhaps as our fluency in such exchange increases, our dream life will begin to blossom into daily activity. That might help explain why altered states of consciousness are more easily achieved in dance and music, or sports, where such language flow is already prevalent. To repeat, it may not be so much that these are exceptional states, but our natural state, which has been utterly narrowed by our focus on oral and textual exchange as the only legitimate means of information transfer. That would turn our thinking about the relative values of preliterate and modern civilisation on its head. It could give a genuine scientific basis for admitting magical thinking back into the public arena, alongside, and in engagement with, the discourse modern thought has given us.

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