Watching animals is instructive. If you see two strange dogs meet for the first time, the meeting is pretty straightforward. Usually, the tails are wagging rapidly but stiffly, and the ears are perked up, listening intently as the two approach each other.
What this seems to be saying is, “I’d like to be friends, but I’m on my guard.” Both dogs understand this state of affairs, and eventually, with the proper amount of sniffing, they usually run off to play together. (Or, one of them growls and the other decides if the challenge is worth it.) When they meet again, the body language is much more relaxed and there’s an eager energy which says, “I remember you, we played together!”
In both cases, what transpires is remarkably straight-forward. In the world of homo sapiens, I don’t think we have any equivalents in instant communication and understanding, except at the most basic, animal level (man approaches while pointing gun, other man hands over wallet—even this, though, relies on levels of experience).
I think the main reason for this is that people construct mental environments around each other, through which all events pass via a layer of interpretation. There is no such thing as a simple word or gesture, it all has to be filtered through past experience and “best guess” scenarios. And I think the reason for this is that humans use language as their primary means of conscious communication. Language is by its very nature imprecise and demands interpretation by the receiving party. This interpretation is how language communicates, through the creation and usage of shared references.
As an example, take the word “apple.” In English, this refers to certain fruits (sub word) of a certain range of colors (sub word) that grow on certain trees (sub word) and have a certain range of flavors (sub word). If I say, “Would you give me an apple?” I can imply all these sub words without having to spell each of them out. Without the word “apple,” I would have to lead you to the tree I was thinking of—at which point, I might as well get the apple myself. By categorizing these fruits as “apples” we’re able to exchange them among each other (parallels to the garden of Eden unintentional). You may get a different mental image than I do when you hear the word “apple,” and you may bring me a green one instead of a red one, but we’re thinking of approximately the same thing.
This use of language to categorize has no doubt helped us to create societies, since it was now possible to arrange common experiences with speed and efficiency. In fact, we could now create common experiences, through language, with people who had never had the experience. We did this through description, story-telling, instruction, and so on. We could even leave concrete records of experiences, so that others could share them long after we were dust.
(Humans are fascinated with collecting and codifying our experiences—blogging is but the latest manifestation–and to our knowledge we’re the only species that does, at least in forms we recognize, through the shaping of artifacts. It’s possible other species keep histories in ways we have yet to discover—which means we may not be as unique as we like to think. But I digress.)
With the ability to share experiences with those who did not experience them, comes another, possibly darker ability: to choose the means by which we present those experiences. One can be straightforward and use simple description…or one can emphasize/de-emphasize aspects, shift details, employ different words (“metaphors”) and otherwise change the impact of the experience (both for the listener and the teller) by shaping the narrative.
One can call this a form of “refined interpretation,” since it uses choice to distill the essence of the experience down to its basic form as it relates to us, rather than as a free-standing collection of facts. Rather than a simple description of events, the record now becomes a tool, by which we can convey what we wish to convey to another using the experience—what might be said to be the “lesson” to be learned from the experience.
And we’ve moved from factual description into interpretation. When we hear someone use the word “apple,” it’s no longer an isolated term. Now, it has to be centered in a context. Does the person speaking like apples? Dislike apples? Want an apple, or have an apple to sell? The word no longer has an objective meaning in relation to the world we inhabit—it’s surrounded by a host of sub words, memories, expectations and other intangibles.
It’s no longer about the term, it’s about the web of interpretation through which all communication passes. Communication itself becomes secondary, and interpretation becomes the primary information passed in conversation. How many times have we been asked, “How ya doin’?” knowing the correct response is, “Fine–you?” Other than the shaping of sounds, what exactly has transpired here? Words have been stripped of their meaning (does anyone ever answer “How ya doin’?” with a list of ailments and complaints?), but information has still been transmitted: “How ya doin—Fine, you” is a shorthand method of acknowledging recognition. We’re back to the dogs, saying, “I remember you, we played together!” But it’s recognition for its own sake, not as an introduction to further exploration. It’s a way to fit another person into our framework. It doesn’t communicate. So why do we do it? What’s the purpose? Is there a purpose, and can we know it, being language-creatures, or does it lie outside our cognitive abilities?
We’ve come full circle. While our mouths and our minds are transmitting noise-forms to one another, some other aspect of our species is communicating on some hidden, instinctual level that we seem to have out-clevered ourselves from sharing, through our use of language; specifically, the use of language to shape, reshape and otherwise obscure experience. Think of how often language is used against us, in advertising for example.
The process of communication itself has become the main information communicated between humans. The actual content still has a measure of importance, but it only achieves its true relevance when it’s placed into a context, another stone in the mosaic. The language itself has become almost decorative rather than informative.
I blame poetry, honestly. The first person who said, “My love is like a red, red rose” instead of “My girl’s pretty” probably had no idea what sort of slippery slope he just stepped onto. Because once the language is used in an interpretive way, there’s no turning back. The next person came along and had to say, “Yeah, well, my love is even redder than that,” because the bar was now raised. Language has been turned from the exchange of information into its own entity, which existed solely to obscure simple statements in the most clever way. I’ve never claimed to understand poetry, but I do like the use of language in works like Andrew Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress.” There’s some striking imagery in that. But if you boil it down to its essence, Marvell is asking his gal for sex. And that’s it!
I’m not saying we should abandon poetry or humor or songs or anything; they’re all enjoyable in their own right, even if they fail as communication. Thanks to these things, the employment of language has become more central to us than what the language itself conveys. We’re steadily losing our ability to communicate meaningfully, except by exchanging chunks of autobiography. “Here’s how you fit into my worldview,” is how a lot of conversations seem to go. “Listen to me, and reflect me back at myself, in the way that I’m convinced I am.”
Consequently, there’s no way for you to know if what you’re reading here is what I’m actually writing, or your interpretation of what you think I’m saying.
And I’m not telling.