‘In the animal kingdom, the rule is eat or be eaten. In the human kingdom, it is define or be defined. The struggle for definition is the struggle for life itself.’ – Thomas Szasz
Man. Woman. Liberal. Conservative. Economy. Environment. Right. Left. Nature. Culture. Old. New. Optimist! Pessimist!
Definitions, labels, meanings, identities. Oppositions, debates, opinions, positions.
In the hiatus of moving countries I’ve been dithering around, looking for a way of writing about my growing loss of ease with these noun-driven things. My unease, and my sense of tongue weakening; losing more of whatever fluency I might once have had in the confident business of nailing the world down here and there with the grand words of being. Sometimes the loss occupies me to the point of obsession; in day-to-day conversations, in statements and exchanges that I encounter in my reading and listening, as routine wrangles in my thoughts.
I skirt around the topic, blaming laziness and inadequacy and having just moved country; or play clever and go round and round in the dead conundrum of not being able not to define the problem. If I get any closer, a stampede of clichés thunders to mind and blocks the view. ‘The death of language’; ‘the crisis of meaning’; ‘all naming is already murder’ (the last most variously attributed to Dennis Hopper or Jacques Lacan).
Still, I keep catching the note of mounting desperation these days in whatever voice wants absolutely to insist that things must be things, and must, yes must, remain firmly under the jurisdiction of the identities which have already been prescribed for them. It’s a tone that sounds hollow whenever I knock against it, it grates and makes my spirits sag. For the so-named things are wriggling around impatiently, eager to cavort and sing outside the box, become more than a limited edition of being forged in a fading era. We’re deep into an epochal flux in which things are manifesting all around us as no longer what they seemed to be. The old words that served to bind them are dead; the new words that will, in time, be fit to call them, are still for many just faint heartbeats from a distant incubator.
The favourite devils habit and fear, the cultural condition of impatience, the desire to keep a story straight and above all the urge to stay in control, all conspire in the brittle insistence that of course this is this, and of course that must under every circumstance remain that. All these, and another force, unexpected.
When I had a garden, I slowly learned to stop pruning the old growth right back to earth in the autumn, to leave dead stems and leaves as something for the frost, wind and snow to catch on, and so protect the new shoots of the coming year from harm.
It’s hard to let go. If identity, purpose, belonging, or just keeping food on the table depend upon a worn-out label staying stuck on, power must be diverted for artificial life support. The suppleness needed to tolerate honest differences is no longer available, questions and hesitations must be countered by the endless, ritual repetition of the preferred word-charms.
Victim. Monster. Doomer. Pollyanna. Silence. Music. Noise.
The thud of incantation sounds like poison, yet echoes as protection; and not necessarily of what is dead and no longer defensible.
Until the difference arises in plain hearing, it helps to remember that dead objects float, and not to feed them your own – or anybody else’s – life blood. To keep a back door in your mind open to the air. To improvise instead of reciting, and listen closely to which of these comes back out of the people who surround you. To act without words; to misread and mishear wherever possible.
To learn, or dream in, or invent more of, those fabled languages like Navajo and the Ursprache of Tlön, which hand the power of nouns over to rich, ever-unfolding variations upon verbness.