Face to face

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The physical, corporal power of poetry; the need for language and expression to originate in the body–these are concepts that resonate with me as a poet and that make poetry such a difficult art. For how can one be in the body through words? Words remove the physical language of the body which is so important a component of communication. That is why tweets and social media posts and email often work to the detriment of genuine understanding.

What follows are three rather diverse chunks of thinking concerning the corporal and the intellectual.

Ren Powell writes in her blog:

And it made me more certain than ever that the separation of the corporal and the intellect is truly the root of every evil. It’s why all the studies show that getting people to talk face-to-face, breaks down bigotry in a way nothing else ever will. A linguistically relayed concept has to be replaced by a body that we experience in the sensual world.

It brings me to Orr’s phrase to describe poetry: “the eros of language”. I think poetry is necessary because it bridges the gap between the corporal and the intellectual in a way no other writing can. Why we say novels that tell the truth are “poetic”. When we speak poetry, sing it, it becomes corporal. It’s funny that when we sing the word “love”, we are not supposed to sing “luhv”, with its stingy and clenched vowel, but we’re supposed to open the mouth, sing “lahv”- with a wide-open palate. Because it hits us in the gut with its beauty then. Openness.

And counter-wise (which should be a word),  we can infect our minds with the routine that reinforces ugliness: I believe writing or drawing words and images of hate can infect the body.

~~

Reading Ren Powell’s words, I thought immediately of two poems of Gregory Orr‘s, from his book Concerning the Book that Is the Body of the Beloved. Here they are:

How small the eyes of hate.
I’m not making this up
Or being metaphorical.
A man held a gun against
My head and I saw how
Small his eyes were
With what they refused
To take in of the world.
This happened beside
A small highway
In Alabama in 1965.
What history called
The Civil Rights
Movement; what I call
The tiny eyes of hate.

~

How large the eyes of love.
How the pupils dilate
With desire (I’m not
Making this up: science
Has proved it’s true).

Those eyes wide
And glistening: gates
Thrown open. What’s
Inside, free to flow
Out as feeling,
And the whole world
And the Beloved
Welcome to enter.

~~

I just saw the movie “The Arrival,” a science-fiction film based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story of Your Life.” Any movie whose main character has a PhD in Linguistics sounds intriguing to me. The narrative uses the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a kind of plot point: the theory that language molds culture. An underlying possibility in the movie is that perhaps it is language that gives us consciousness, transforms us into sentience, and–possibly–has the capacity to unite and heal us.

But it needs to be face-to-face, as in the movie, wherein Amy Adams encounters aliens in person, insisting that in order to interpret any new language she must experience the process of “speaking” personally, to judge body language, movements–not just sounds or written “text.” How we communicate teaches us who we are. In order to understand one another truly, we need authentic encounters, not slogans.

We need to bid each stranger as Beloved, “Welcome to enter.”

 

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Language & teaching

I’ll be teaching a new crop of freshman writing students tomorrow morning. A thought lingering in my mind as I prepare myself mentally for the first classroom contact with these 17- to 19-year-olds concerns language, and an ongoing argument about its uses and origins. The argument is part semiotics, part linguistics, part sociological, part neurological, part cultural, part philosophical: what is the relationship between language and the human thought process? It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg question. Bruner, Goodnow & Austin, in 1956, characterized the two main theories at that time as “mould theories” in which language is “a mould in terms of which thought categories are cast” and “cloak theories” that hypothesize language is “a cloak conforming to the customary categories of thought of its speakers.”

In other words, does the language make us who we are/how we think (culturally), or does our culture make our languages reflect the cultures in which we live?

The famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis theorizes that we experience the things we do, and speak about them to others in our community, because our language habits incline us towards certain interpretations. It is therefore a mold theory. Whorf wrote, in 1940, that “We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.” Ie, if our culture values, say, coloration, our metaphors and cliches and descriptions would be largely based on color-values. In a more recent essay by David Chandler,* the author points out that this sort of interpretation of what language is can be interpreted in so relative a fashion that every form of linguistic communication, even with in a culture, becomes a kind of translation. Chandler finds this situation “problematic.”

Problematic, perhaps. But incorrect? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that our very individualist U.S. culture offers so many personal and sub-cultural perspectives that even everyday commerce and chit-chat involve constant translation. One of the most challenging things I have to teach to my students is how to understand what their college professors want from them, which is largely demanded in terms of a vocabulary that is not necessarily academic jargon but which is connotative in ways most incoming freshmen cannot know; they have seldom or never been exposed to that perspective. It is not part of their culture.

So does that make language a cloak or a mold?

Probably–as in most things–moderation serves best. The answer is not either-or, but a bit of both, because the human brain–and human culture–is so commodious and adaptable and complex. Chandler promotes “moderate Whorfianism.” That’s another one of those rather irritating academic –isms, but what he means is: “Meaning does not reside in a text but arises in its interpretation, and interpretation is shaped by sociocultural contexts.” This theory affects my role as educator even when I am teaching the introduction to academic writing and rhetoric class rather than some higher-level analysis course. More so, in some ways, because the introductory course is where students learn to question their socio-cultural assumptions as they read and write. I have to learn their slang, their habits, their leisure activities and distractions in order to make compelling analogies that work for them. They have to learn to transition into academic and business-world conventions from their peer-oriented and narcissistic teen environments.

It is a form of translation.

It is also an opportunity for new perspectives, for my students and for me. Wish us luck!

~

*David Chandler, “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis” UWA 1994 (from The Act of Writing)