Friday, April 30, 2004

A rambling discourse on discourse; or: Free-floating signifiers, indeed

Today I kept bumping into situations and texts that brought home to me yet again, as if, in my profession, I needed further reminding of it, that language is a slippery fish . . . and that, if some are correct in their thinking, it will only become more so.
First up today was the Sears auto repair shop.  I had learned, to my considerable joy and relief, that Sears could do the remaining work my car required.  This pleased me because I actually have a little credit remaining with them.  So, I arrived there and began to tell them what I had been told at Pep Boys regarding what my car needed.  When I mentioned that it needed "a CV . . . something or other," it suddenly occurred to me that not only had I forgotten the full name for the part (it's a CV half-shaft, by the way), I had no idea what exactly it was that I was talking about--that is, what its function was.  Yet at Pep Boys the fellow told me that I needed a new one "before your wheels fall off."  That, of course, I understand; and that simply made my ignorance of this piece even more painful and embarrassing to bear.  After all: it's not as though this piece was merely some piece of automobile esoterica; it was vital not just to the functioning but also the saftey of my car, and yet I hadn't the foggiest notion of its existence, let alone its job.  At first I thought, rather simply, that this was yet another instance of what happens when any of us wanders into an area of knowledge that has its own language and we're not familiar with it.  But whereas in those other instances my ignorance doesn't unnerve me, in this case it did, profoundly so.  I felt disconneceted from a part of the world that both was and was not connected with mine, one that I should know more about and yet did not.  The automobile is ubiquitous; we here in this nation have relandscaped open spaces and (re)built whole cities to accommodate it.  It's so ubiquitous that we don't even SEE it any more--it no longer registers on our conscience how it has utterly altered the world's topography and, now, climate.  Yet here I was, about to pay $500 to have a part of my car replaced that I hadn't even known existed before Sunday and yet was vital to its operation.  Without knowing it, I got a small intimation of that state I would be reading about later in the introduction to Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition.
CV, I came to learn when the part arrived, stands for "constant velocity."  The CV shafts transfer the power generated by the pistons to the front wheels of the car to push them forward when one steps on the gas pedal.  Once the mechanic explained that, I instantly understood why I'd hear a very loud clicking noise only when I would accelerate.  No more clicking noise now, except in my little brain when I was able to explain the noise my car had been making.  Education is expensive.  I don't know if the lesson I learned has a value equivalent to the $500 I paid; but given the alternative (a car with its wheels falling off while I'm driving it), an ounce of prevention . . .
While I was waiting for my car to be fixed, I read some more in Bhabha's The Location of Culture.  As I noted in my entry about this book, Bhabha continues to say everything I want to argue about the New World as a miscegenated culture, except that he (still) has so far said nothing about miscegenation.  I've not gotten to it yet, but he has a chapter on the New World, so we'll see if he addresses it there.  At any rate, in what I read for today he discusses a small portion of Arendt's The Human Condition.  Arendt is one of those thinkers whose work I bump into with some regularity via other people's work but otherwise know little about.  But of what I HAVE read, I'm always impressed by her levelheadedness, her way of making things sound obvious and profound at the same time.  So today, I decided to go to my favorite Barnes & Noble in town (we actually have two on my side of town) to look for her book and at least read the introduction.  But of course, when I got there, I browsed and found some other things to look at and, in the meantime, forgot all about Arendt.  For the time being, at least. 
At any rate, one of the things I found was a book of art criticism in the John Berger vein by Rebecca Solnit called As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art.  I read her essay called "Noah's Alphabet," which consists of musings triggered by a visit to Dublin's museum of natural history.  The visit caused two central responses in her: 1) her appreciation for the animals' forms, which, curiously, she said she could appreciate more in their stuffed, posed states better than she could when the animals are alive (she said that in zoos she hopes to glimpse wildness but is usually disappointed; in the museum, she has no such expectation and so can concentrate on the animals' shapes); 2) (the more sustained and richer of her responses) the museum's displays of animals which were once native to Ireland but no longer exist in the wild causes her to meditate on the fact that the earth is fast losing its wild animals and that even its domesticated animals are no longer as easily seen in rural areas as they once were but are now raised in what we might as well call factories.  She thinks back on bestiaries and how, while we have vestiges of such books in children's ABC books ("aardvark to zebra"), animals are fast losing their privileged place in our cultural conscience as a source of metaphor--in other words, as sparks for the imagination.  My image of language as being a slippery fish, for example, would not help us visualize a certain quality of language if we were no longer familiar with the actual feel of fish.  The results are not just a further impoverishment of our languages' resources but also a further psychic detachment of humans from the very world that nurtures us--what Fredric Jameson describes as "modernism" (postmodernism is/will be that state in which there is no nature--that is, that nature will be of no consequence in our daily living).  The scene Solnit closes with drives this last point home most effectively: she describes a display at one end of a long hall consisting of skeletons of an orangutan, a chimpanzee, a baboon and a human.  The ape skeletons are standing but hunched over, supported by rods as though they were invertebrates; the human skeleton, though, stands ramrod-straight--or hangs, rather, because it is actually suspended from the ceiling by a golden chain that penetrates its skull.  A visual argument against evolutionary theory, at the very least; one could go further, Solnit says, and imagine that that chain links humans to God, keeping us from being grounded on the earth.
Something in that essay, for some reason, reminded me that I had wanted to look at The Human Condition, so I went off to find it.  I turned to Arendt's Prologue, and there I find writing that, though written in the late 1950s, may be even more apropos of our own time--and it seemed especially pointed in my direction today.  She says she started the inquiry that led to this book by attempting to answer a simple question: "What are we doing?"  Her occasion for asking it is the Russians' launching of Sputnik: the first sending out of a manmade object into space and thus, for her, the first concrete sign of technology's ultimate, unspoken purpose--to help us to quite literally escape the earth and its claims on us.  Because technology intervenes between us and nature, we paradoxically find it hard to talk about technology's effects even though it is of us, and this poses a danger to us as social animals: "Whatever men do or know or experience can make sense only to the extent that it can be spoken about."  Yes indeed.  Language helps us make sense: we convey and create meaning through language that we can then transfer to another conscience; and because technology separates us not just from Nature but from each other, language--and thus our attempts to think about the implications of technology--will suffer.
So also suffers our notion of work.  The other blessing/curse of technology is that it is designed to reduce or eliminate the need for human labor.  Arendt must have known, having written one of the definitive studies of totalitarianism, how the following argument would sound to certain ears; nevertheless, she indeed does raise a vital question by implication:
It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. . . . What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them.  Surely, nothing could be worse.
She is right in the sense that we've created a leisure class (or, a class with more leisure than it's ever had before) whose members have no sense of what could/should be done with that leisure: "Here we are now/Entertain us."  And the computer now causes many people to believe they are now freed from having to perform even the labor of thinking.  People don't calculate; machines do--that's the most benign example of what I mean.  But each semester I must remind my students that spell-checks only confirm the correctness of a word, not its rightness.  Imagine, then, their imprecision with language generally, impeding comprehension.  I have had two students this semester who, in different ways, held ME accountable because I was not able to convey to them that the words on their page didn't say what they were telling me they intended to say.  Yet such students are in college with the goal of avoiding "labor."  Be sure not to ask them to perform much while in school.
Rambling, indeed.
This was Book Talk, two days early.  Tomorrow: some notes on Joe Henry's album, Tiny Voices.

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