Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. And, as always, a special welcome to those who are receiving the newsletter for the first time. I hope you find it hospitable and useful. This post began as the attempt to jot down a quick thought in the Is This Anything spirit, which arose as I worked on another, longer post. As it turns out both continued to sprawl a bit, and both take up the topic of language under digital conditions. So here’s the first, and the second, in which I suggest that perhaps we ought to “render unto the Machine what is the Machine’s,” will post in the next few days.
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1. Too many words, and not enough.
The first clause is almost certainly self-evident. We are awash in a sea of words. Words on our screens. Words in our earbuds. Words on the walls. Words everywhere we turn. The internet has given all of us a ready means to speak our mind and say our piece (whether anyone was listening has always been another matter). The result is a practically infinite stream of words. AI tools now promise to effortlessly generate even more words, and by orders of magnitude.
Fine. But what about the second clause? How then might we be said to not have enough words.
An abundance of words, of course, does not necessarily imply an interesting and compelling diversity of words. The quantity of words does not guarantee the quality of what is said. We encounter a mass of words, but it is a stark and monolithic mass, composed of abstractions, generic terms, and words that have lost their power to convey a distinct sense to the imagination. We’ve asked too few words to do too much, and now they are tired.
Alternatively, the volume of words numbs our semantic sensibilities. We rarely take care with our words—spoken, written, or read—because there are so many to get through on any given day.
Also, the semantic half-life of certain words under digital conditions is such that they become relatively useless at an alarming rate. But, more troubling still, they continue to circulate as if they still meant something. One of the first examples of this dynamic that I remember catching my attention was the phrase “fake news.” The scale and structure of the digitally mediated information ecosystem is such that key terms, which would ideally focus debate and discussion, instead become worse than useless.
2. As with so many other ecosystems, we have been poor stewards of the domain of words. Language has been stripped-mined and depleted of its resources.
This is an old complaint, Orwell famously makes this case in 1946. And in his opening comments he already anticipates the accusation that his concern for the state of the English language will be read as “a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes.” However, as he observed, “underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.”
That the complaint is longstanding, of course, does not imply, much less prove, that it is false.
3. At this moment, I am pursuing a line of thought I developed in a previous essay from earlier this year: “Language Under Digital Conditions.” In that piece, I proposed “the possibility that having built our political structures on the assumption that human experience and human society can be ordered by human language and speech, we may now be suffering through the discovery that the world we have built is no longer responsive to either.”
The general intuition that I’m exploring is that the nexus of mind, body, word, and world has been disrupted in a manner that demoralizes, disempowers, and alienates. We are less at home in the world; public life is thinner, more unproductively contentious; and our agency is diminished.
4. But what is happening exactly? I’m curious about two seemingly related developments.
The first is a shrinking lexicon of words related to sense experience. I’m relying here on an observation Ivan Illich makes in “Guarding the Eye in the Age of Show,” and, by extension, the sources he cites. “Dozens of words for shades of perception have disappeared from usage,” Illich notes. “For what the nose does, someone has counted the victims: Of 158 German words that indicate variations of smell, which Dürer’s [d. 1528] contemporaries used, only thirty-two are still in use. Equally, the linguistic register for touch has shriveled. The see-words fare no better.”
I would add to this, on a strictly anecdotal basis, a similarly diminishing lexicon of names for natural phenomena such as flora and fauna. Generic categories do a lot of work in ordinary speech: birds, bugs, trees, etc. More specific names seem to elude many of us.
Relatedly, while language tethered to the material world appears to diminish, language tethered to the virtual realm endlessly proliferates and fragments.
I am reminded of Arendt’s discussion of a common sense and a common world.
“Only the experience of sharing a common human world with others who look at it from different perspectives,” Arendt argued, “can enable us to see reality in the round and to develop a shared common sense.”
Common sense, in this view, is common because it is the bearing down of my senses and yours upon a shared world that is materially present to us. And this sense we hold in common has important epistemic consequences. “The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear,” she believed, “assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.”
Thus, “a noticeable decrease in common sense in any given community and a noticeable increase in superstition and gullibility are therefore almost infallible signs of alienation from the world.”
The difference between what Arendt describes and what we experience, however, is that we have not retreated into a private subjective realm. Rather, we have retreated, if that’s the right word, into bespoke, hyper-mediated experiences of reality. And these experiences are constantly shifting and changing. They lack the stability and the materially public quality necessary to ground a common sense and, consequently, a common language.
5. There is another dimension to what troubles the nexus of mind, body, word and world. It is the old familiar problem of how we are encouraged to attend to the world (or not), and Iris Murdoch’s discussion of attention, language, and the moral life can help us a bit with this.
Murdoch observes, for example, that language is dependent on “contexts of attention,” and that “if the common object is lacking, communication may break down and the same words may occasion different results in different hearers.”
[As an aside, I think this is one of the reasons why online discourse so quickly detaches from its ostensible subject matter and devolves into meta-positioning games. Arguably, the only common object that presents itself in the immediate digital context is the psyche of the other, thus that is what gradually becomes the real object of discussion.]
Murdoch also tells us that “words are the most subtle symbols which we possess and our human fabric depends on them.” “The living and radical nature of language,” she warns, “is something which we forget at our peril.”
These comments lead her into a discussion of the role of attention in relation to choice and freedom and the importance of coming to see the world as it is through “a just and loving gaze.”
What interests me here is how she goes on to explain that attention of this sort, which discloses the orders of reality, yields, as a matter of course, a more nuanced and varied vocabulary. In context, Murdoch is primarily concerned with moral character, and she suggests that vague and general terms like “good” and “right” could be “dispensed with entirely and all the moral work could be done by the secondary specialized words.”
The implication, as I see it, is that a failure to attend to the world with care, with Murdoch’s just and loving gaze, will cause our perception of the world to become hazy and indistinct. It will lose its specificity and, consequently, our language will likewise be diminished and impoverished.
Were we to properly attend to the world, its particularities and distinctions would emerge, and we would be impelled to call these new emergent and unfolding dimensions of the world by their names or search for the fitting metaphor or otherwise learn to speak adequately if not exhaustively about what we have seen (or heard, or felt, or tasted, etc.).
In that scenario, care, attention, and language bind us to the world.
6. In the Pensées, Pascal observed that “there are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.” With regard to language, we might say that there are two analogous extremes: to exclude the possibility that language can adequately express something truthful about the world, to admit only the truths language can convey. I would assent to the claim that there are truths beyond language. There are inexpressible realities and ineffable experiences. But language is itself a miracle and a gift of extraordinary range, power, and beauty. It is one thing to reach the limits of language by testing its resources and searching its depths, and another thing altogether to mistake our own apathy and incuriosity for the inherent limits of speech.
“In a forest clearing,” philosopher Erazim Kohák has written, “the word is not an intruder upon experience.” “Nor is its function restricted to naming, whether as objectification or as a passive conceptual mirroring of discrete entities,” he goes on to say. “For that is not how reality presents itself.”
“That is not how reality presents itself.” How, then, does reality present itself? This is the vital question. Here is how Kohák goes on from that point:
“The reality of the pole bean or of the porcupine is never their momentary presence. It is the sense of the cycle which is the life of the bean, from planting to bearing, or of the porcupine through all the stages of his life. Words do not merely mirror—they reach beneath the transient surface to grasp the enduring reality it manifests. So, too, with the sense of a human life. Words are the way in which the sense, the very reality of that life, emerges through the manifold doings of the seasons.”
A bit further on in his discussion of language and experience, Kohák wonders “whether the conception of language which Cassirer labels ‘primitive’ or ‘mythical’—words embodying experience, participating in it and representing it pars pro toto—may not in truth be far more basic than the factual, ostensive usage we tend to take for normative.” “The detachment of the word from the lived reality it presents,” he adds, “while crucial for a whole range of tasks on the level of technē, may represent not an advance but a degradation of linguistic usage for the purposes of philosophy which seeks to grasp and evoke the sense of being.”
7. There is a certain risk worth considering, and that is that words themselves can become veil over the world. Perhaps one way of putting this, if I may improvise a distinction, is to say that words become mere labels.Rather than invite the encounter, they halt it. I suppose this is where the idea of attending to the world comes in. The work of attention, as Murdoch, and Simone Weil before her, have argued, must be continuous and ongoing. If we conceive of the relationship between speech and the world as a matter of discrete once-and-done transactions, especially if we do so in a strictly instrumental manner, then speech may very well darken rather than illuminate the world for us. On the other hand, if we inject the concept of attention into the matter, then we will be more likely to keep our words alive and refreshed by the practice of persistently attending to the world in humility, in expectation of the unexpected gift.
Language, of course, does give us a grip on the world. And with this grip we may begin to act in it. This is language in the service of technē as Kohák noted. And this has its place. But language is not merely a way of getting a grip on the world in the service of action. It can be aligned as well with memory, with the work of holding open the pathways through which relationships may deepen and networks of care and meaning may flourish. And it can also be aligned with what Ivan Illich called eutrapelia or graceful playfulness.
8. There is a risk that all of this may come off as elitist or overly academic, but that is not at all how I intend it. I remember an older gentleman for whom I worked when I was a teenager. He had grown up in North Carolina during the Depression—dirt poor, as they say. No one would mistake him for an academic or an elite of any sort. In my adolescence, I was amused by the colorful expressions, vibrant similes, and striking images that colored his speech. It all seemed very quaint and archaic. But now I realize that while his words were not elegant, they were alive. And they were alive because they had been drawn from a proximity to soil and beast that most of us now lack. Neither is this a matter of what one might have once called bookish learning. While writing and print certainly help grow the lexicon extensively, my contention here has been that the most important factor is not formal learning at all, but rather something like a disposition (and the capability) to encounter the world with the full range of our bodily senses. The body is the anchor of language in the world.
9. “Their Lonely Betters,” W. H. Auden (1950):
As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.
A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.
Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.
Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.
10. There is a path just outside my home that I walk on most days, sometimes two or three times a day. It is about 200 yards or so in length and connects my part of the neighborhood to another. It is thickly wooded, and for brief moments you might be able to forget that there are houses clearly in view through the trees and bushes. I’ve decided to take this path as a little school of attention for myself. In this short stretch, there’s a startling variety of plant life, a cacophony of bird song, and a host of other creatures that have disclosed themselves in their particularity once I decided to attend to them. I’m learning, too, to name these plants and creatures.In learning these names and attending to this small patch of land over time, I’m also learning about the region I call home, its history, rhythms, and patterns. Like the diurnal rhythm of night and day, I’m betting that it is good to be more in sync with these other kinds of rhythms, too. The rhythm of flowering and decay, of avian comings and goings, of caterpillars turning into moths, and rain yielding growth.
It is, by most measures, an inconsequential practice. But it is good precisely because it is gratuitous and idiosyncratic. In any case, it is an anchor of sorts I’ve chosen to put down amidst the rising tide of words, images, and virtual experiences. Mileage may vary, as they say.
Among Illich’s sources: Arthur Kutzelnigg’s “Die Verarmung des Geruchswortsschatzes seit dem Mittelalter,” Ashley Montagu’s Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, and Carl Darling Buck’s A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principle Indo-european Languages.
This is to say nothing of the way interested actors actively weaponize words, which is always a way of rendering them effectively meaningless. Such words, I’ve come to think, may be best abandoned, at least for a time, so that they may lie fallow, and perhaps in this way their semantic vigor will be restored to them.
As, for example, Murdoch does in the case of willing and choosing.
Lest I be accused of never saying a positive word about a contemporary technology, I’ve found two apps especially useful and instructive: Merlin and Picture This. Naturally, I have thoughts about how their use alters the experience in interesting ways, but they have undoubtedly helped me.
I've used the Chat function on the Substack app to chronicle a little of this work. Far be it from me to push you into an app, but should you already be there you can take a look if you’re so inclined.
While (as a trained linguist) I bristle a bit whenever anyone talks about a language being diminished in the ways you do here, research is on your side. Studies like this one (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0160289618302198?via%3Dihub) show that Americans' vocabularies have been shrinking for some time (despite huge increases in educational attainment over all). Studies that examine (weird and interesting) statistical laws that govern word birth, death and frequency have also shown this contraction (https://www.nature.com/articles/srep00313#Sec2).
Of course, the one area where the language has grown much richer is in online and texting discourse, but it is worth thinking about the limits of the arena. These new words, emojis and images don't frequently make their way into real-world interactions and typically have a short shelf-life. And as anyone who tries can tell you, it requires a good deal of energy and nimble-mindedness to keep up with the ever-rotating and evolving terms driven by technological innovation and use. So perhaps its not that our linguistics prowess is diminishing, but rather that we're just putting all of it to work in one limited sphere - the place where most of our attention is focused, after all.
One more point to affirm what you're saying here, since you are using the Merlin app and attending to "the birds, our teachers." As I've gotten into birding over the past 18 months, I realized first that I was accessing a well-established system of knowledge. I have relished learning all the bird names and their songs and learning to identify dozens of species on sight. BUT, what I've recently realized is that a lot of this is just, as you say, using language for labelling. To really know these birds is something else - it is to be able to accurately and precisely describe them. Experienced birders do this easily and as I've tried to mimic them in my ebird checklists, I've found it impossible. It requires intimate knowledge of parts of a bird's anatomy, terms that describe subtle color differentiations, ways of describing flight and foraging patterns, etc., etc., etc. You don't just have to know terms, you have to really, truly understand birds and all of their birdness. And you only get that understanding from long, sustained periods of attention and interaction. I suspect I'm at least four or five attentive years away from doing it well.
With respect to number 4, where you (correctly) lament the "diminishing lexicon of names for natural phenomena", I am reminded of the wonderful work of writer Robert Macfarlane on exactly this troubling trend which bespeaks our accelerating alienation from both direct experience of and close attention to the particularities and nuanced, multifarious marvels of the nonhuman world (both, in turn, worsened by the accelerating pace of destruction of the same, further materially removing even the possibility of such deep attention and encounter from ever more people and from future generations) and the urgent need to 'rewild' our language vis-a-vis the nonhuman world (itself predicated on saving what remains). His book Landmarks (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/536563/landmarks-by-robert-macfarlane/) is all about this, as is his later book The Lost Words (which in turn led to the exquisite Spell Songs album). Some years ago he explored this issue in these pieces among others:
In the latter, he quotes from a Cambridge study:
"Young children clearly have tremendous capacity for learning about creatures (whether natural or manmade),” they wrote, but they are presently “more inspired by synthetic subjects” than by “living creatures”. They pointed to evidence linking “loss of knowledge about the natural world to growing isolation from it”. We need, the paper concluded, “to re-establish children’s links with nature if we are to win over the hearts and minds of the next generation”, for “we love what we know … What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren”?
He has hope in children's innate capacity to connect to and resonate with nature and to re-enchant it as it were, but he also contends that "names matter, and that the ways we address the natural world can actively form our imaginative and ethical relations with it."
This post also brought to mind a beautiful essay by Thoreau biographer Laura Dassow Walls called 'Articulating a Huckleberry Cosmos: Thoreau's Moral Ecology of Knowledge' (in the volume, Thoreau's Importance for Philosophy) which explores the tension many of us feel between gaining (scientific) knowledge of and naming constituents of the natural world versus leaving her mysterious, un-studied and un-named, and whether the former approach diminishes, or enhances and deepens, a sense of awe, wonder, reverence, appreciation etc. She writes: "[Thoreau] was ever alive to the way a scientific term might reveal an overlooked fact, like the rush he had passed for twenty years but never quite seen until he had the scientific name for it. "With the knowledge of the name comes a distincter recognition and knowledge of the thing. That shore is now more describable, and poetic even." As he added elsewhere after a similar moment of illumination, "Science suggests the value of mutual intelligence." But other languages were also important.... he celebrated the languages of Indians, with their "more practical and vital science." How much more "conversant" are their languages with wild animal or plant, as if their knowledge, instead of being dry and arranged like our science, were still in "conversation" with its object, proliferating with multiple names for "moose, or birch bark, and the like!...It was a new light when my guide gave me Indian names for things for which I had only scientific ones before. In proportion as I understood the language, I saw them from a new point of view."
It can go in either direction - with a Thoreavian disposition that has an ethical, awestruck, humble starting point, knowledge and naming (within and embracing of limits, to be sure) can and does arguably enhance a sense of enchantment and respect; with a Promethean, Baconian, domineering point of departure, of course, we get knowledge and naming as reductionism and power over - the ominous declaration of the Judge in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: "Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent."
For me personally, it has been a mixed experience: sometimes, new scientific knowledge (even the humanly-given names of things) about the natural world (basically, natural history) deepens and widens my sense of awe and wonder. Scientific knowledge about the miraculous animal migrations criss-crossing the planet as chronicled in the book Supernavigators, for example, or the myriad wonders revealed in Ed Yong's recent book, An Immense World. A few years ago I had the privilege of witnessing the monarch butterflies in the mountains of south-central Mexico massing in preparation for their multi-generational migration, and I must say, learning some of the scientific details about it made it seem all the more miraculous and, well, sacred. (Nevertheless, while science has figured out a lot of the 'how's' of this epi-phenomenon, I hope/trust the totality of it will forever elude the "naughty thumb of science" prodding the earth's beauty (as ee cummings put it so well)).
As a colleague of mine wrote me, "Where is the line between curiosity about how the world works, and the desire to know how the world works in order to manipulate and control it? It’s likely that there always have been and always will be individuals driven by dreams of control. But it was the marriage of science with the market that rewarded those (possibly) outliers and sent the whole process into hyperdrive."
I think this question, about the dangers of even the most innocent, nature-admiring science/knowledge/naming to get appropriated for commercial ends, is an important one. No doubt there is in the reigning capitalist political-economy an institutional bias towards commercialization. Can knowledge ever be made safe from instrumentalization and commerce?