twenty-eighth part, called “the subject XXVIII,” of a series of ‘letters’ written to you, the reader, towards a book called, theatre | writing

the subject

Is symbolisation necessary for metaphysics? What is the difference between words in the air and on the page? That words are available to us on screen, in contexts composed of other symbolic data, helps create a metaphysical impression; but this impression is given even greater cause by the availability of words to the mind. So great is the impression made, it is almost as if consciousness itself were of linguistic construction. It’s as if thinking required words.

We have, however, to ask what kind of words. The words we have available to our minds… Laurie Anderson says in Heart of a Dog (I am thinking of her right now because in 28 minutes I hope to be attending the Norton lecture she is delivering via Zoom) that she took her dog, Laurabelle, around whom the film revolves, out into the desert. She had been told fox terriers, like Laurabelle, were capable of learning 500 words, and she wanted to find out which ones.

Which ones, which words we have in our minds, is a question but, like that of asking given the dog brain being a container that can hold 500 which ones, it is not the question. At least, not the question we are asking here. The words we have available to our minds are not seen as any special category of words. They are regarded to be the same words, as words, floating around in the air, or on the page or screen. They are regarded to belong to a language, or, in the case of machine languages and other specialist languages, to a code. This language or code is, in addition, considered to be the condition of their coming to mind, the condition presupposed by their coming to mind, and a condition preexisting either the one who uses the words or the one into whose head they pop.

Which words we have available to us as speaking subjects is a question for scoring competencies and marking differences, dividing populations up into categories. It is a question of language management, or the management of life languages. I am thinking of the social cohesion assured by universal education, driven by literacy, as it was for the missionaries and people of the book. There is here a want to have the same or restrict the variables of language—accelerated, intensified and augmented by digital literacy—across populations.

The systematic imposition of structure goes all the way to the letters, and is reciprocated by minor languages, those dominated, in their demands that differences be marked. Speakers of te reo, the language of New Zealand Māori, demand macrons, like that over the ‘ā,’ not so much to show that vowels so marked are lengthened when spoken as signs of respect, in what remains a moral mission, in this case imposing the Latin alphabet. It is then a moral system of language that is said to generate meaning, explaining the case made for the preexistence of symbolic structure by the claim that without it, and such markers as the macron, there is no meaning.

Our question opposes this one. No, not which words, but words made of air or letters? What sort of words have meaning? And which in the context of their mental image? as they come to mind. Because, to repeat, as they come to mind the dominant view has it that they are pre-symbolised. Giving cause for the metaphysical impression words make, since they belong to a certain sort.

The question then is one of focus: focused within, it’s difficult to detach our thoughts from the words embodying them. And so it’s difficult to separate that embodiment from symbols, because we don’t seem to have any air in our brains for them to sound out and be heard, or overheard. Focusing without, their sonorous qualities are obvious, but not their silences. These are hidden. As Anderson said about technology, in the lecture, which I did attend, it is not very good at doing. This.


In fact, it can’t. The digital world is structured by the constancy of communication, of information, and interconnectivity. Structured insofar as we can call this its moral code. Her silence, on the Zoom screen, playing live although the lecture was clearly pre-recorded, seemed to be that of thought. Although we couldn’t overhear it. So she had to read it—the meaning of lecture.

The air in our brains cannot be heard. It is not like the wind. Or the still air carrying birdsong… traffic-noise… but if we look to our brains, inward, we see a kind of receptive surface. Meanings come from it unprompted, sometimes preceding words. Sometimes preceding either words or sounds. They are not cloaked in the sonorous symbols of their sounds. Neither are they, as far as I can tell, symbols floating in space; if I imagine symbols, these seem without meaning.

They seem to be images. And words will come to me unprompted, in full symbolic dress: but these are often shapeshifters. They are the subjects of dreams.

I think in the dream they mean one thing. When I wake up they mean another. Or they are nonsensical. Or a name that a person has in my dream on waking I find is quite wrong: this person is not called that. Tobyguppy, and so on.

The meanings words have in dreams are different. Then, they differ from themselves. Behind the surface meaning is a latent one, as Freud says. But if we consider how they differ from themselves, we find a different structure of meaning.

In Saussure’s terms, aren’t these the signifieds? The signifiers, like the dresses they wear, being quite arbitrary, not expressed in their sonorous symbolic or the symbolic qualities they have to other senses, slip. Behind them we know there to be other masks. Under the dresses, pants. Under the pants, flesh that is not too solid. And below? Nothing.

Isn’t it the signifiers then who lie? Who claim to point to signifieds, betraying the existence of further signifiers? And like the selfish actor, they come to curtain call, without a smile, with palms open and empty, as if to say This is all I am. Meaning, more than you can possibly imagine.

note: source references available on request–these will be part of the book, if it should come to pass.

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