J.M. Basquiat, "Boxer Rebellion"
    Consider this: When was the last time you looked at the moon? Not the great sphere that orbits the earth, that reflects sunlight or is periodically hidden by the Earth, becoming ‘full’ or ‘new’— but that crazy white shape that fills the night with its presence; the mysterious other half of the sun that silently watches over you at night or sometimes sneaks out during the day…
    I imagine that, for many, the last time they looked at the moon and truly took it in to their world, letting themselves be lost in wonder and unfettered beauty, was probably as young as seven years old; for it is not long before we become intellectually fertile enough for words to take full root in our minds— only a few years do we have, before our individual experiences start to become overlaid by the concrete world defined through words. Soon enough, that silver face that looks straight through you, or the hole in the sky through which all beauty shines in, becomes overlaid by ‘the moon’. Accustomed to it, and convinced we ‘understand’ it, we see it purely as that big, pretty, lifeless rock in the sky.
    This is by no means to imply any lack of beauty or awe in the knowledge that the moon is stranger than fiction, an otherworldly echo of our own home locked in silent 1 km/s waltz, rather that such knowledge is imposed upon us with little room for subjective truth; that our perceptual (sensory), bodily understanding becomes bound – literally, ‘tied up’ – by words and the rational idea that they impose. ‘The moon’ is ticked off as understood, as placed within our world, and so the part of ourselves that tangos with sensory awe becomes sated— silenced, so that the mind may direct it elsewhere (toward other imminent intellectual puzzles).

    Countless lives have come and gone without giving the role or power of language a second thought. We use it every day and, importantly, not just for talking but for thinking. Non-stop, around the clock, our minds are wrapping the world in words. It seems almost unavoidable, completely natural, as though we were always meant to use language and the world was meant to be divided up into the labels we’ve settled upon. Yet look at what I did there— your mind just breezed past the word ‘meant’ as the most natural thing, but what does it really mean? Have you ever seen something that was ‘meant’ to be or do anything? A glass, we’re told, is meant to hold liquid, it was intended to; but does meaning or intention exist outside language, outside our mutually accepted mental structure? I’ve certainly never seen it. “Some things are meant to be”, but only through the lens of our human, all too human, meaning-seeking eyes. Meaning is something we look for, but that doesn’t mean it exists outside language, outside our collective thoughts.

    For our fifth destination, we’ll be considering the role language plays in shaping our experiences, and I’ll be looking for answers around questions such as:

  • Does language shape the way we think? While a number of psychological studies have presented evidence against this hypothesis, the fact remains that the world exists “before” language, and that we cannot form complex thought without the structure it enables.
  • Is the use of language inherently contrary to being “present”? The over-dressed monkeys that we are, it seems impossible to both speak and listen at the same time, and that fact coupled with the sheer imaginative complexity enabled by language begs the question of whether or not the cost of language is our sense of calm and well-being.
  • What affect do other forms of language have upon us, such as art, music, and dance? We communicate our inner feelings and ideas through more means than purely words, so there must be fruits, faults, and powerful interactions across interactions and translations of every kind.
  • What are the limits of language, and what is beyond them? While some, like the ancient Greeks, hold language (through rational thought) to be the key to elevating the soul, our modern scientific picture implies that our minds will always only capture a limited picture of reality. What is the true role of language in this regard, and what alternatives are there to this end?

The themes of this destination are all central to my book, “Saying Nothing”, so I’m very much excited to be sharing and getting feedback on what I have been working on!
    Do you have any further questions you would like to see discussed? What are your thoughts so far? Do you think language is our most sacred and powerful tool, or some other aspect of our lives? Help provoke discussion in the comments below, and please help the site grow by sharing this wherever you like!


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