In his book “Wholeness and the Implicate Order”, the physicist David Bohm uses the word “fragmentation” to describe our language’s hidden consequence: that our reliance upon its intangible structure leads us to impose its inherent, restrictive divisions onto our reality. Building on the previous discussions of language’s limitations in “Saying, and Seeing“, in this post I explore this idea deeper though the lens of “fragmentation”.
(~8 Minute Read)
While the unconscious mind may deftly navigate our environment and perform simple or familiar tasks like “2 + 2 = ?”, in order to piece together a map of reality beyond our immediate experiences we must rely on labels. Only by using words and emotions to anchor concepts outside of time, to create a system of ‘arrows’ or waypoints in a self-sustaining model, are we able to form ideas; to pin down some idea of ‘the self’ upon which to reflect for self-awareness; to define ‘a society’ with which to enable mass cooperation; to agree upon a lifelong commitment to a monogamous relationship; to create money and trade; to take a desire for pleasure or aversion to pain and expand them into ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’… This much may be obvious, and only of interest as a curiosity of human development (i.e., that language is seemingly essential to intellectual growth and a driving force behind a species’ evolutionary out-pacing). What is less obvious, is the role languages play in defining our perspectives and restricting us to one way of viewing an otherwise chromatic existence.
Every action has a cost, and defining a language is no different: every choice for a word, is a choice against a broader definition. By labelling ‘banana’, you are cutting it off from its place in the whole— from the tree it came from, from the reality and cost of it travelling halfway across the world to get in your stomach, from its potential application as a weapon or pleasure-device… These ideas may be incorporated into our understanding of the word, but only through our understanding of other words. That is to say, the definitions of words rely upon the definitions of all other words tied to it.
By singling one entity out, we lure our minds into the belief that understanding may only come from language, and that only language defines its truth. This is arguably less important for bananas, as it is with the more elusive and volatile ideas created by humans such as Identity, Property, Power, Fear, Responsibility, Purpose, Morality. Once we begin attaching labels to concepts not physically accessible in reality, that underpin our every action and through them our entire lives, yet whose identities are much more fluid than words with tangible origins, we are at much greater risk of suffering at the hands of underestimation.
One of the simplest instances where language can be seen to force our life in a direction, to cause us undue pain simply because of its inherently restrictive categorising process, is with arguments. So often in my life, have I had a heated discussion or all-out row with someone only to look back on it (or even more painfully, to look out from within it) and see my inability to express myself as I intended— not only simply to cause miscommunication, offence or any other unnecessary difficulty, but more fundamentally to be drawn into fixating upon ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and overlooking the basic intentions. Language, when combined with our psychology and shaped into socio-cultural structures or patterns of behaviour, has a tendency to make confrontation easier and more appealing than outright empathy. It would be exhausting to declare all one’s prior awarenesses and considerations before every point. The cumbersome nature of spoken language means we must rely upon a great deal of implication when we speak, hoping or assuming the listener understands our intention and where we’re coming from, for otherwise we must go to great pains to clarify this (and even then, rarely hit right on the mark).
In reality, in any discussion or even any human interaction of any kind, there sits merely two well-meaning creatures, both seeking the best route to their happiness that their experiences have revealed to them, both doing the best with the tools they have to get the other on-board with their plans. When we look out upon animals fighting, upon two squirrels for example, we would not usually consider one to be some inherently evil monster that deserves to lose, or the other to be entitled to its victory— we might feel one is being more harsh than the other, and joke about them getting what they deserve, but really we (should) understand they are both ‘just animals’, in that they are just doing as mother nature guides them to. They’re fighting for a loved one, or for food or territory, because that’s what they do. Yet when we argue with a sibling over taking something that’s ours, or with a stranger for being careless, or with an entire country for trying to kill us… we all too readily dive right into ascribing to them monstrosity— of foregoing all association of universal sister/brotherhood as a member of our species with exactly the same drives and needs, and instead casting them out.
With siblings this may only be temporary (sometimes certainly not), but with strangers and foreign nations? The world-model created by language makes it all too easy to crystallise a simple idea, a snap judgement, into a rotten cornerstone of our beliefs. That other human being, who was simply on their way to work, but in your world crossed a line, happened to be black or Jewish, and you happen to have a building body of reasons (through cultural programming or circumstances) to which you can use as justification for a sweeping generalisation: that “black people have no respect for personal space” because more often than not it’s a minority that aggravates you on the train, or that “Jews are arrogant and greedy” because when one ‘pushed in front of you’ in line, it fitted into your growing worldview easier than having to shift your model to accommodate sympathy for someone you don’t understand (disclaimer: I obviously do not condone or agree with either viewpoint!).
Much complex anthropological, psychological, neuro-scientific analysis will have been done to provide reasoning for our tendency to judge before empathising, but the case I put forward is that, at the root of it all, is our systems of language. Not how they are constructed, so much as how we are raised to use and live with them. In (all too literally) shaping our thoughts, allowing concrete and lasting form to be given to originally fleeting impulses – ideas – language makes it easier to ‘reside’ in our heads than in the mess of reality. The process of overlaying reality, mapping it out and labelling with meaning all elements possible, is so efficient, convenient and rewarding, that we give no second thought to the idea that ‘the messy present’ should be worth letting go of thoughts for. To top it off, without words, the gnawing ache of loneliness snaps at our heels— not least because of the difficulty forming bonds with others without them, but all the more so for our inability to talk with ourselves. Without language, we have no means to a monologue in our mind, and so no means with which to drown out the deafening emptiness of our being; the resounding, unshakable silence lying beneath our thoughts and within every one of us.
I do not blame you! When one comes face to face with agony, the decision between being in that moment and burying yourself in the world inside your head (even when you can hear the walls crumbling around you), is an easy one. To take a personal example that I still feel scratch at the bottom of my heart: when coming face to face with a grandparent, my only as-yet unsullied rolemodel and a loci of immense love and untarnished respect, lying on a bed in a vegetative state, the face and body of the man I knew but the manner and behaviour of a broken toy— my ‘self’ crumbled in on itself, desperately running from being there, from having to process through the facts the world was forcing upon me. That is (to whatever degree) what trauma is: our emotional self retreating deep into the structure of ideas enabled by language, and sealing itself off; refusing to adjust the model to meet the facts being presented to it, because of the sheer pain apparently required to do so.
This process occurs not only in the extreme instances, of great loss or pain, but continuously wherever and whenever it is more convenient to focus on your thoughts— because we are not taught the importance of doing otherwise. We all, as a species-wide, language-wielding collective, have been perpetually drawn into the trap of living more in our heads than in the (beautiful, transcendent) mess of existence, to the point that we have collectively lost track of our original state of being. The convenience of language, the instantaneousness of it and how, like a magic genie, a vaguely working response to our every question or desire miraculously pops up in our heads, and how for whatever need our physical, animal self manifests, our verbal-logical consciousness is able to proffer a solution– all of which pulls us toward elevating the verbal consciousness over and above our physical, immediate self. Our every desire, sensible or not, is given a pathway; our every intention, no matter how dark or confused, is made possible.
This is, in my eyes, the root of the vast majority of all our global, human, “dissonance”. Perhaps, if language’s lure toward fragmentation was easier to notice, and we were raised to be more conscious of it, we might see more cohesion and acceptance in the world instead of such wide-spread prejudice, competition, selfish disconnection… But thankfully, remedying it begins with each individual: all we need do, is persist at learning to see beyond language, beyond the precise words that are said, and into the real intention and “suchness” of our lives and the interactions within them.
*Are there any clear examples where you notice unnecessary fragmentation being created in your life? Do you agree with the picture that language pushes us to divide the world? What solutions do you have for counteracting it? I’d love to discuss these ideas with you in the comments section!