A Short Piece

If the Word Dies

On thinking about the death of communication thanks to “omnipresent communication” in terms of Nietzsche’s famous lament

Photo by Dylan Lu

Nietzsche wasn’t excited about God dying: it meant the earth was unchained from the sun and we were going to fly off into the void — unless “man overcame man” and rose to the occasion, hence the importance of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in light of “The Parable of the Madman.” It’s another topic, but Belonging Again is a similar consideration, and ultimately will stress “a new kind of person” in terms of “Absolute Knowing” and “Deleuzian Individualism,” suggesting how Hegel can be fit with Deleuze and both with Nietzsche — but I digress.

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Mainly, the point is that without God, everything is “unbound” and it’s no longer given that people share the same values, the same ideas about the universe, and the same moral frameworks: everyone is “hermeneutically unbound,” which is to say we cannot assume a similar range of interpretation for people. Where everyone is Christian, we can generally assume everyone will believe Christmas is worth celebrating, that forgiveness is good, and so on — we don’t have to worry about “any and every possible interpretation.” This can bring us existential stability and help us function.

The consequences of “religion dying” are explored throughout Belonging Again: here, I want to say that something similar can happen with language (and perhaps already is). But communication is constant now thanks to social media, and people are typing and reading more than ever before — what do I mean? Well, in the same way that I argue “The Nova Effect” Charles Taylor discuses regarding the multiplication of religions might cause “metaphysical inflation,” there might also be an issue where the great spread of communication contributes to “words losing meaning.” People just talk; it’s not so much a craft (similarly, people “just believe” now; it’s not so much a religion). And perhaps it never was (though I can’t help but read some of the great speeches of history and suffer “nostalgia bias”), but in the past the costs of “bad communication” might have been better contained; now, the need for mastering communication might be necessary. And if it cannot be mastered, we might prove to be in dire trouble.

Words are an invisible glue holding our lives together, and where we cannot rely on words, there is chaos and anxiety. Many great writers understand this (and generated many great stories from this knowledge), and they understand how hard it was to accurately communicate: many create plays and novels are case studies on how often and easily people misunderstand one another (Chekov comes to mind). Even people who love one another deeply constantly misunderstand one another, because we send so many conflicting and paradoxical signals so often. Even when we try to make sense, we often done, let alone when we are typing fifteen different messages to fifteen different people about fifteen different subjects. Mistakes are likely, and as a single mistake in a relationship can cause weeks of drama, so the same can happen more generally. Language matters.

For an example of the philosophical consequences of language

Families can fall into this mistake: in being around each other often, it’s easy to think that “everyone knows what I mean,” and so to speak in a manner that doesn’t fill in gaps, that doesn’t define terms, and so on. Worse yet, there can be an idea that if people “really loved us,” they would “just know what we mean,” and so a family that feels like it must be clear with its words can think there is a lack of love. Thus, in conflating a kind of “telepathy” with “love,” people end up in a situation where people secretly and silently feel confused and uncertain, but they also feel afraid to say they are confused, for this could be taken as evidence that “love is lacking.” Hence, in the name of love, we let language devolve and words die, leaving us like “an earth unchained from the sun.”

Communication is paramount. If I was by myself, I could get by with just my silent thoughts, but if I am to live with other people, I must communicate. If communication fails, then the social order could dissolve — as arguably it has with the collapse of religion. Religion and language are deeply connected sociologically, which perhaps suggests why religion has cared so much about language for so long. As I discussed with Tim Adalin, language seems mystical, a strange “Bringing It Force” of a realm that seems beyond us. Language and religion seem connected: we should not be surprised if the sociological consequence of religion’s decline proves similar to the sociological consequences of language’s fate.

If there were a hundred people who had a hundred different understandings of the word “happy,” there would be chaos. This is obvious, but this extreme example is on a gradient to make a point: if we are a group of ten people and nine of us agree what the word “happy” means, we will be efficient; if seven, less efficient and prone to drama; if four, even less efficient and drama-prone; and so on. There is also an element of degree: if the nine people “absolutely know what we mean” while one only “kind of knows,” then we’ll be fine; if however two people “absolutely know what we mean” while the other eight feel “kind of uncertain,” then we might face problems. Clarity of speech and “sharing of hermeneutics” effects group dynamics, and so if language dies, it will be similar to the decline of religion. “The death of God” is like “the death of the word.”

Classically, rhetoric and oration were taught and focused on; today, I don’t believe these skills are taught. We can take extra-curricular classes on oration, debate, “toast mastery,” and the like, but these skills are not integrated into a “general education”: the majority of people do not master them. And yet they still text, type, reply on Facebook, communicate with their family, and so on — the lack of training in language does not mean we don’t use it. We know that if we are not trained in handling a gun it is foolish to handle one, and yet we don’t think twice about using words. This is dangerous, but it is a danger that we cannot help but risk. We’re social creatures. We must use language.

The more communication there is, the easier it starts to feel like “we know how to communicate.” After all, it’s all we do online, and we constantly talk and communicate with others. This can make us “feel like” we have mastered the skill, but there is no “necessary relationship” between doing x and becoming better at x. Sure, there tends to be some degree of improvement, but the average person on earth has likely not improved in their communication skills to a degree that’s fitting or needed for the amount of communication people now do on average (and across so many different mediums, do note, and every medium brings with it a different kind of communication: writing and talking are not the same, for example). Considering this, the majority of communication on earth is likely more “noise than signal,” which means “the word is dying.” No, we cannot say a “given person” is bad at communication, but collectively our communicative skills might be declining as the amount of communication we engage in increases. This is a terrible mix.

Language is hard to come to terms with, precisely because of the strange feeling of “freedom and determinism” it introduces to our lives (as explored throughout O.G. Rose), which hints at perhaps why we might not care to train it (it feels too strange). And I am not saying everyone is bad at communication, but I am of the opinion that when everything is communication, nothing is communication. Likewise, when God dies and everything becomes spiritual (following Taylor), then actually nothing becomes religion. Perhaps we could say there is a lot of communication today, but not so much “conversing.” I’m not sure, but the point is that if “the word is dying,” the sociological consequences are similar to “the death of God”: up is down, left is right, and our minds will be existentially anxious constantly. We will likely withdraw from the social sphere to the isolated areas where we can be alone with our thoughts, those entities we don’t have to interpret. Even if we don’t understand them, at least the consequences are contained.

“The skill of interpretation” is what I fear is missing today, the understanding that language is only as good as our ability to interpret it. We talk constantly, but do we engage in hermeneutics? I don’t think so, hence why I fear “the word is dead.” But how do we master hermeneutics? How do we understand one another? Well, that gets into all the mental models found in The True Isn’t the Rational and O.G. Rose in general, models that if we don’t learn, words will prove likely to best us — a living dead.




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