Language is wonderful because, by inventing and using it, we create worlds. Its drawback is that these worlds do not exist, in the same way water and rocks and you and I exist. There is an actual difference, an epistemological abyss, between our “world” and the “earth.” (Many examples could be listed, but: Thoreau’s Walking and Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and the movies Avatar, and Aquirre, Wrath of God, play on this abyss.)
When we consider how long humans have been evolving, our language is a recent invention (approx. 600 years old). Writing appears only 5000 years ago, a blink in geological time; the most recent ice age ended 15,000 years ago.
We use language to think, and to communicate, our thoughts; it’s what we’re doing right now. What I want you to consider is the extent to which language thinks you—i.e., constructs your identity into pre-formatted categories as proof you either fit, or don’t fit, into those established norms that, added together, make a culture.
And as you do this, consider, too, how we also think without language, via instinct (hunger, fear, pain, pleasure, dreams, sexuality, etc.). The actual abyss between the “world” and the “earth” is mirrored by the abyss between the “you” constructed by our language, and the “you” constructed by the elements.
Let’s consider the “you” constructed by language. Many words we use did not exist ten years ago. Cell phone. Streaming. Scanners. ATMs. Collateral debt obligations. These new words are, more or less, necessary for our survival, here, at the tail end of the fossil-fuel era. We use them to think thoughts that are “marketable” so we can earn $$, and pay for stuff. Unless we actively resist or escape them, we are these words.
As technological industries invent new things, new words are invented to describe them. TV was a new word 60 years ago. Now it is an anachronism. We speak of cable or internet or DVDs, and use the word TV in the same way our forebearers spoke of speakies (movies w/sound).
SO: knowing that when we invent new words and drop old ones, we gain a new self, and lose an old self, here’s the epistemological problem I want you to think about:
“The Industrial Revolution gave birth to an economic growth model rooted in structures, behaviors, and activities that are patently unsustainable,” says Worldwatch Senior Researcher Michael Renner, co-director of State of the World 2012. “Mounting ecosystem stress and resource pressures are accompanied by increased economic volatility, growing inequality, and social vulnerability. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the economy no longer works for either people or the planet.”
We’re at the end of the “world” of fossil fuel; the problem is that our present language constructs this world and our “marketable” identity, both of which are vanishing.
Our present language serves to support our present world, and as long as we attempt to keep the world as it is, words survive (like “take out” & “drive-through” & “rush hour”) that will not survive without oil.
How many of these soon-to-be-jettisoned words make up the thoughts we think, and the “I” you claim as your own?
How does our present language keep us from evolving, from out of the fossil-fuel self and into the biocitizen?
By keeping old words active—by generating the thoughts we use to think about our present—our language blinds us, because words create worlds.
Old words keep old worlds in place. They also blind us to other alternative and much-needed better worlds.
As the car world is clunking to a halt and vanishing, its language—that whole structure of knowledge, ethics and culture—will serve to blind us to what is actually happening. We will be blind because, as a result of 200+ years of fossil-fueled language, our language does not describe the water and rocks, except as lifeless commodities also known as “natural resources.”
The ability to see, and to perceive with your eyes what is actually occurring—i.e, the world of water and stone and you and me not in and of this “world” but instead in and of this “earth”—requires us to evolve our language—to make up new words, and retire old ones. If we don’t, we might not survive—in precisely the way climate-change deniers will not survive.
New words are appearing that will survive the death of our automobiles—permaculture, watershed, consubstantial, biocitizen, transgenerational, superorganism. They are outside the mainstream media, and barely even the dictionaries.
Thoreau said “in Wildness is the preservation of the world.” The words we need are there, beyond the barbed wire of present language—
go! listen to the wind speak what you have not heard, and will never hear, on the nightly news; Shakespeare—the language inventor who authored the English Renaissance and by extension ourselves—understood how wildness is the preservation of the world.
Here, in As You Like It, Duke Senior explains how a new language, a new self and a new world appear the moment he leaves the “world” and enters the “earth”:
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we not the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which when it bites and blows upon my body
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile, and say
’This is no flattery. These are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
and good in everything is what we want—so … here’s some endosymbiosis for you!!
Think wild long enough—and we’ll find the words we need to evolve.