Monday, 7 June 2010

695 - Whirred

[photo by giuss95]

Notwithstanding The Language Instinct, by Steven Pinker, that we are essentially a-verbal suggests to me that we can become, perhaps already are becoming, post-verbal.

This, wryly, from Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence: "'Communication' (which always means talk) is the sine qua non of 'good relationships'. 'Alone' and 'lonely' have become almost synonymous; worse, perhaps, 'silent' and 'bored' seem to be moving closer together too.' (p.3)

I was at a discussion at which Sara Maitland spoke, and one of us who had come to listen argued that we are a noisy species, that we survive because of noise - warnings and attraction calls and the like - and that not speaking is therefore unnatural. But I wonder (following Maitland) if it is not quite as simple as that.

I follow Pinker's ideas that our relationship with language, indeed the whole of culture, is sustained through our having evolved brains that can comprehend and develop it; that, to the extent that it is evolutionarily desirable to be fluent, those of us who have an optimum capacity to handle words will, over eons, have passed our capacities down, through genes and culture, so that this generation is likely to be the most fluent ever.

And yet two thoughts intrude. First, what is evolved is the capacity to handle language, rather than language itself; second, verbal communication is incredibly effective, but not necessarily in all (even, perhaps, most) evolutionary niches.

I'll take these in turn (and I know I am using words to do so). It is true that we do, by and large, all speak, but we are not born speaking. What gets us speaking is exposure to parents and peers who can teach us. So whilst there might be a thirst to learn to speak, as there is a hunger for food, what this reveals is a brain fine-tuned to apprehend and adopt words, as a mouth can suck a teat. If every word was suddenly expunged, we would continue to be born with brains to listen for words, at least until evolution had worked its winnowing magic and replacement expressions of life, taking advantage of the distress our word-thirst placed us in, started to prevail.

Therefore a question arises: if our brains' verbal apprehension, creation and distribution technologies were combined with other neural technologies, to effect new communication (or wider than that, life) tools, might we not allow these to grow in place of modern human verbosity. Because not to do so would be to restrict our humanity. This is what has happened with the spread of reading, after all, which co-opts the brain's visual system into working with its language systems. Arguably something similar is happening as text-based communication widens into virtual reality - a phenomenon that neuroscientists are engaged in documenting.

But modern life throws more at us than electronic interfaces. Not least it continues to throw big questions from past eras about our capacity, for example, to adapt to new physical environments. Speech is great, but it'll never work, unmediated, underwater or in space or, perhaps, in noisy, jam-packed cities, where we preserve our personal space only by raising walls through which conversation cannot effectively pierce. And there is always the potential for us to create new neural technologies and subsequently to identify the niches where they can take us, for the sheer joy of it.

Evolutionary niches like cityscapes or wind-swept deserts are presently on the increase. There is no guarantee that the optimum conditions under which our language instinct evolved should continue to prevail. This drives us back to consider what the essence of humanity is. Our modern culture is, certainly, word-based; our post-modern culture less so. Perhaps it becomes more important for us to read one another's emotions projected alongside and concurrent with the brands we are wearing.

Or to adopt opportunities offered by our growing genetic or environmental awareness. If understanding is defined simply as the act of engaging with information packaged and sent between each other, and if we can package that information with greater dexterity and beauty in the form of a butterfly than a word, then our future conversations might be lepidoptic, rather than auditory.

With the hum of insect wings, in future days, words may have whirred into obsolescence.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

696 - After an AUB

Certain thoughts pertaining to identity formation, to consciousness, superfluity, life-purpose, follow from the perambulations on which my reading programme has taken me.

It is important to me to try to summarise the hypothesis I am now about to entertain.

Something happened to me, going on thirty-four. Something happens to a lot of people. During my year at theological college, many of those called to be vicars were in their thirties. It was expected. My father, too, in his mid-thirties, chose a career change. If the gospel stories are just stories, that Jesus was in his mid-thirties when he died seems an apposite choice for the storytellers. If they contain accurate biographical material concerning the days leading up to his crucifixion, it would seem that his mission, a revelation of his identity, achieved its completion when he reached a similar age. At my theological college none of this went unnoticed.

At thirty four, in certain cultures, this is the age that boys finally become men, or having become young men, warriors, in their teens, now become elders. And I've noted that at twice seventeen, or thereabouts, this is also the age, biologically, that parents see their children grown to the age where they can bear children, where the focus on nurture switches from eldest child to potential grandchild. It seems natural to me that such a switch would be accompanied by a widening of perspective, a concern growing for one's community as a whole, rather than one's immediate family.

So what happened to me then? I experienced what psychologists call a moment of Absolute Unitary Being - AUB. At this point I re-engaged with the vocation to vicarhood from which I had in my twenties walked away; though not in a desperate sense, more in the sense that any choice I might make would be good - or perhaps honest, okay, are better words. In a nutshell, my perspective widened. I sensed a one-ness with everything, including my understanding of God. Indeed, my understanding of God widened to include everything I didn't know, as well as those things I did.

How to make sense of such an event? One way might be to describe it in terms of identity. This was the moment I knew myself as an individual. Jung calls it individuation. It's quite easy to see such a moment as the apotheosis of one's life. Nothing will ever feel as good. Enlightenment is pursued through one's novitiate: afterwards, the Buddhist saying goes, one returns to chopping wood and lugging water around. Recently I've found it next to impossible to shake the idea that having experienced the AUB, yet again I've returned to a sinful state. I've been given a free pass to Heaven, and even turned my back on that.

I think - and this is the hypothesis - that a more helpful conception of what is happening would be the following. The AUB was about individuation: since then, however, I've not been regressing, I've been developing. Every faculty by which I achieved my identity the first time has not been switched off: instead it is going about its business building secondary, perhaps even tertiary or further identities. Identities that finesse the one I already feel good about, extending my range, building my empathy, giving me alternatives, allowing me to venture beyond myself at just the point in time when the first intimations of mortality start whispering about my joints (think evolutionarily, rather than idealistically, pre-cod liver oil and U3A).

The difference this time round is that I already know I'm okay, and everyone else, and everyone else I could be. All I need to do, when spectres of guilt haunt me, is remind the new identity I am constructing around me, that I inhabit, that, for the duration I am, that it is every bit as okay as the AUB proved my first full identity to be.

Multiplicities; stories with new characters I have created myself to be - these take shape as I pursue the relevant and new-minted art of storying, an art which may, actually, be what evolution has hardwired us all to experience.