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Words On Words April 23, 2011

Posted by FCM in books!, meta, politics, porn, prostitution, rape.
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this is a video and a radiolab podcast about words, and how language literally shapes and organizes our experience of the world.  the podcast is an hour long but its worth a listen, and it includes a few segments that are all very interesting.  dont mind the horrible bagpipe intermission, its not the end!  it keeps going!  the video i wasnt that impressed with, but it did get me in the mood to talk about words.  oh, and i havent read dale spenders “man-made language” yet, but i am sure its relevant to the discussion.

anyway, lets start with the video.  i didnt like it.  at best, i think its a nice collection of images…but these images arent connected, in any way, except by language.  which is actually very boring isnt it?  these images, when organized only by the words identifying them, do not convey ideas, or thoughts, in a coherent way.  actually, i think the video illustrates how arbitrary words really are.  they dont convey much information at all, until you put them in order, and in a way that makes sense to other people.  words dont even identify things very well, in the absence of context, but at the very least words should be expected to do that much shouldnt they?  to name things?  i mean really. 

a “fly” that flies around your house, and the zippered “fly” in your jeans have nothing in common, and they are not even identified well at all by their own names, which i find bizarre.  in context, where we add-in our preexisting knowledge about how the world works, and where flies are known to fly, the flying-flies seem properly named…but do flies fly in every language?  are oranges “orange” in any other language, besides english?  the pictures show way more than the words do, as far as identification goes.  (i guess thats the whole “worth a thousand words” bit ay?)

but apparently, as inadequate as they might be, words and language are absolutely critical to the way our brains interpret the world.  if you listen to the podcast, in the first 10 minutes or so, we hear about an experiment done on rats (and humans) that indicates that something happens to “islands of thought” that exist in your brain, when you develop language.  in humans, we have islands of thought such as “color” and “direction” that dont interact with each other at all, until we are about 6 years old.  before that, we cannot conceptualize the phrase “left of the blue wall.”  after that, we can.  and apparently, if you wake up one day having a stroke, having lost your language skills and therefore the ability to verbally conceptualize “its morning and the sun is shining” and instead just experience it without verbalizing it in your mind-chatter, you feel absolute, unmitigated joy.  interesting!

now, being that language is so important to everyones interpretation and experience of the world, and of ourselves, we could probably also talk about the effects on all of us, where misogynist men made up language, and where every single commonly used word in every language was created from a perspective of male-centrism, and misogynistic woman-hate.  couldnt we?  i mean…this cant be good can it?  unfortunately, stuff about brains and cognitive development is above my pay grade, and i dont even have anything coherent to say about it (maybe someone else does?) 

luckily, there are other things to say about words.  dworkin frequently wrote about them, and how important they are in many contexts.  regarding naming, she writes in her anthology “life and death” about the murder of nicole brown simpson:

certainly, calling wife-beating “domestic discord” is problematic.  but if naming anything, even flies, is meaningless without context, what kind of an uphill battle do women face in naming the abuse they suffer, at the hands of men?  the context of womens lives is violence, but womens context is not the context anyone cares about.  for all intents and purposes, we are all living in a male-centric context, where husbands dont kill you (because men only have wives, DUH!) and where women who are killed by their husbands are invisible (thats the whole point of hiding the body…isnt it fun to look at the world through mens eyes?  NOT!)  its the context that gives these things meaning.  and we are all living in a male-centric, pornified nightmare.  and doing so, as men.  ie.  none of this hurts.  that is our context.

now, dworkin also notes that its been her strategy as a writer to use words not to describe emotion, but to evoke it.  to use words that resonate with the subject matter she is writing about, and not just explain it:

and andrea dworkin was a skilled writer, for sure.  but she didnt make this up: it is, in fact, possible to use language in a way that it resonates with your subject matter.  so that the vibration of the word is the same as or similar to the vibration of whatever you are discussing.  to use words to evoke an emotion, an experience, and not just a two-dimensional image in the readers mind (or nothing at all).  it is possible to do this.

so.  being that this is the case, why doesnt the word “rape” evoke red and black suffocating death, for everyone?  why doesnt the word “sex” cause your stomach to turn inside out and evoke a sense of obligation, foreboding and terror, for everyone?  i mean the actual words?  why not?  if we can call an orange fruit “orange” why cant we call child sexual abuse what it really looks like?  if we can call a flying insect “fly” why cant we call PIV what it does?  men made up these words, and not only are they not evocative of anything (unless youve experienced them) the context in which they are spoken is the context of porn.  the POV kind, where we are all men.  in other words, its all extremely sexxxay, and doesnt hurt *us* at all, so who cares?

interestingly, one common side-effect of being violently sexually abused is that you lose your ability to speak.  to use words.  and its interesting, isnt it, that a narrative is required in these situations, if the harm is ever to be acknowledged and addressed?  something more…wordy?  wordish?  word-ly?  than say, “she spent the weekend at her fathers and shes never been the same.”  no, thats not even close to being good enough.  i have heard about this muteness-problem more than once, and dworkin has written about it too, for example, where she herself was terribly sexually abused after being arrested at an anti-war protest when she was 18:

men must know, mustnt they, that the forseeable outcome of sexual abuse is to render the victims mute.  and yet they require that we talk about it, using words that describe it (rather than evoke it) if we are ever going to satisfactorily “report it.”  to them.  and ultimately, even when we can speak, no matter what has happened to us, being that we are women, living in a male-centric world, where the male POV is the only POV, we have a credibility problem. 

so, being that the verbal deck is so stacked against women, and specifically against women speaking about the sexual abuse we suffer at the hands of men, will words ever be useful to us?  if so, how?

again, in “life and death” dworkin reports what she decided to do.  i read it three times.  from the essay “my life as a writer”:

overcoming muteness, using words that resonated with her subject matter, and that were stronger and more terrifying than whatever she was talking about.  words…and strategy.  word!