See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Language is a Virus

"Language is a virus from Outer Space" - William S. Burroughs.

My point being, not just to give you this 1986 video from Laurie Anderson -- surely one of the most thought-provoking and just plain ahead-of-its-time ever made -- but to give you my own little myth that's been churning around in my head for quite some time.

Laurie Anderson, by the way, was a pioneer of thoughtful performance rock; the fact that she was actually successful for a while in the 1980's tell you that we've lost something. These days she is also known as the other half of Lou Reed, one of my all-time favorites from the 70's and 80's. So go figure.

Anyway, the idea of language as a virus is anything but original to me; the idea has been posited in many other places I haven't bothered to look up for you. As I said in a previous post, you should know how to Google by now. I'm not even sure if the famous quote attributed to Burroughs is from one of his works, or not. Burroughs is one of those writers whom for me, like Kerouac, the bio is worth more than the oeuvre.

No, but the final self-convincing moment, the birth of the entry of that phrase into my own personal pantheon, came at the Circle of Friends retreat in February, as I was trying to get to sleep with too much caffeine in my system. I had one of those kensho moments when everything is clear. Of course it's when you try to write about it later that you realize how limited your vision was. However, to eschew digression:

Let's say that language was just a disembodied entity floating through the abyss looking for a host and found one in early humans. Maybe it did come from outer space; I wouldn't be the first to adopt that theory. Maybe its existence is not quite on the physical plane, as the spiritualists would say. I'd say all those expressions are a bit off; let's say Language is a creature, an entity which is not biological. Somehow it couldn't adapt to any other creature, but it found itself able to infect and then form a codependent relationship, and to coevolve with him into what we now call the human race.

Because when I look at other mammals, I don't see anything different from us, except language. Sure our brains are bigger and evolved a bit differently -- but isn't that just to produce the lobes to house language? And what other difference is there between you and your pets, or the slaves you eat, the cattle and the hogs? I just don't see any.

Of course, it's a BIG difference. Because language takes over everything. Why do we feel the need to "meditate"? To get beyond language. When, for that rare moment of freedom from concept, maybe in some sort of meditative experience or more likely in some instant of sport or dance, maybe for some in sex, or in war, or traffic accident, or blind submission to any passion, do we escape language?

Or who is the "we" that would escape language? For if the consequence of the above is that the noise in our heads we fruitlessly try to escape is not the "monkey mind" of yoga nor even the "thoughts" of Zen, but simply the bare essence of language, true and simple; then is not the falseness of the concept of self not due to any "co-dependency of causes" or emptiness of skandhas, but simply to the fact that we are not one entity, but two; the animal man, plus the beast of language? This, right here, explains the inability to find the unique self (as well as schizophrenia, by the way),

So play with the concept for a moment. You are an animal, just like your cat. But when you were born, your mother passed along to you a virus, an entity split off from the one that infected her all her life: Language. This is the other being you almost see with your mind's eye; but "he" is so closely connected to "you" that you cannot see where one ends and the other begins. When you feel the other, it's the animal feeling the virus; when you describe it, it's the virus describing the animal.

So that's all the explanation needed, for all of man's religions and psychologies. No gods, no souls, no skandhas, no devils, no ids or ego. Just the beast and the virus. Locked together, forever. A composite entity. Could you deny that a human without language would be less than human? A beast.

And need I mention, in terms of human culture and history, language is everything. Language alone gave Man the ability to create and pass down ideas. You couldn't dig those oil wells, build those computers, or create all those bullshit religions and philosophies all by yourself any more than your cat could. Culture is built up brick by brick over time, with ideas passed down and maintained by Language, hosted by man. Human history is nothing more than its artifact.

As I said, it's a myth. Any reduction of "everything" to a simple formula is just that, and to mistake the myth for reality is once again to mistake the map for the territory. But this myth makes more sense to me than anything from Freud or Genesis. And it makes it a little harder ot eat that cheeseburger, doesn't it?

By the way, I purposely didn't invoke the Autostart on the video, just to make sure you read this blog entry, because I think it's an important one, as they go. But watch it!

"Paradise is exactly like where you are right now... only much, much better. "
Laurie Anderson, Language Is A Virus


pk said...

Read Eckhart Tolle. He asserts that language is a function of ego. In the stroke video posted on my MySpace page, the neuroscientist describes the same concept but instead of calling it ego, she refers to it as "left brain."

Kozan Bob said...

PK, all of that is garbage; it is the kind of intellectual, rationalist thinking that language produces, not vice versa. Language is not a function of these imaginary entities; they are a function of it. And your "neuroscientist" needs to have her corpus callosum cut.