Notes on Contemporary Language

Sticking with our running theme of Giambattista Vico, let's delve into what insights he might offer to the use of language today. The primary insight to draw upon here is the historical dimension of language. This historical dimension does not just mark different words being used at different times, but rather the whole plane of human reference changes with the epoch.

In crude anthropological terms, language gradually transitions from a "magic" phase to a "scientific" phase, with something of a "religious" phase in between (Vico calls them the ages of Gods, Heroes, and Men, but Frazer's notation is at least commonly understood if not accepted). In the first, words exist in a powerful dynamic with the creative force of the universe. There are universal, eternal meanings that words evoke, even as they're being used in limited, ephemeral ways. Every speech act is equally a hymn of praise or a curse. This language references divinity directly, and so should be understood in the context of creation and end-times mythology.

In the second, the "religious" or Heroic phase, language still carries meaning beyond its immediate use, but this meaning is restricted to human history, mythical or otherwise. A great way to approach this is through the modern concept of ideology and our blindness to it when participant. A Jew understands his actions in how they stand up to Moses, a Christian in how they stand up to Christ, a Buddhist in how they stand up to the Buddha. "Historical" personages and their stories provide the referential context for any communication in which we engage. This is as true for political histories as it its for religious (in America see "Greatest Generation," "Founding Fathers," "Camelot," etc.).

Finally, then, the third, the "scientific" phase or the Age of Man. Language becomes increasingly vulgar and specific. Words carry their meaning only with respect to their immediate contexts and circumstances. They acquire a highly technical flavor. People worry about the clear communication of information, denotation is the stock in trade, connotative noise must be excised at all costs. Words relate to one another, but only through elaborate, structured systems of logic that are parseable by a computer.

Irony is the necessary result when this age comes into contact with the previous two. Once language is stripped down to a purely utilitarian existence, the (re-)presentation of past truths will definitively be a case of "say one thing, mean another." For the intimacy with nature and community presupposed by the ages of gods and heroes that underwrites the entire project of their language is lost. Like a frog to be dissected, the living words die in the hands of logic and linguistics. Their relations can be traced and mapped, but these maps don't furnish the reader with a new way to comprehend his own life as the myths and poems of the past might. Rather, they help the reader dissolve the myths and poems of the past, and so protect him from their lessons.

1 comment:

Vanitas said...

Hi! Great blog. If I'm not mistaken, you once gave a talk called "Vico, Secularism, and Charles Taylor". If it was a paper, would you happen to have a draft of it floating around? You seem to be the only person in the world who has written about the two thinkers in connection with one another.