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two points don’t make a line in the gap

July 23, 2010

When did the Gap become all I am interested in talking or writing about? It’s sort of getting embarrassing. Ah, well, I’ll stop soon.

So, on twitter, a mild non-debate. Benladen, one of my esteemed colleagues who keeps what I consider one of the weirdest blogs ever, also known as That Guy Mark Yudof Kicked Out of Twitter for a while, posted this:

next time you think something is “beyond words” or you’re experiencing something “past language,” please fucking die you idiot

Source.

I retweeted it, which is what Ohhhlala, a good friend of mine, responded to thusly:

There are ways of communicating “beyond words.” A soft touch, a kiss, a smile, tears. And more often, those are more powerful than words.

Source.

Now, I’m in a bit of a pickle, because I mostly don’t think anyone’s an idiot, especially on this topic. But I do think there are a couple main points regarding the first tweet which need to be better articulated:

1. Language is an infinite resource. Lexicographers and English majors really don’t like hearing this, but there’s no actual rule about who has the authority to create new words and use them. Which words survive and which never get out of a circle of five assholes on a street corner is sort of up to usage and spreading patterns, but there’s no law that you have to have a PhD in Literature to be allowed to coin words. People do it all the time. Moreover, there are mathematically infinite combinations you can make with existing words, because syntax is iterative and recursive, so you can keep adding on those similes and prepositional phrases with adverbial content until you are literally blue in the face, and there’s no language cop gonna pull you over for speeding.

2. Reality is totally subjective. A bold statement, but not a new or inventive one. To be clear, I do ssssssort of believe that there is some external, objective reality off of which we all base our subjective models in our heads, but since the ones in our heads are the only ones we can prove to actually exist, we’re sort of stuck. Language is one of the mechanisms we use to try and physically realize some arbitrary symbolic code representing the reality in our skulls, so that someone else can interpret those symbols and try to piece it together in their own skull. If we ever encounter a thing, an event, or an idea that doesn’t seem to be able to be expressed in words, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any words for it, just that we don’t have words in our particular understanding of language. Also, see point 1.

Now, on the other side, some equally important points:

3. Not all communication is language. Not every tenuous bridge over that scary two-layered gap between two humans is going to be made of language. Besides the basic so-called “body language” (which has no grammar and the vocabulary of which is largely intuitive but that’s not my specialty and I’m not getting into it), there’s still music, art, dancing, throwing rocks at people… these are all ways of communicating that are not within the mathematical abstract body that we can adequately call language. Are there things in the world that can only be symbolized or actualized in the world by way of throwing rocks at someone? I actually don’t know; that level of specific abstraction makes me suspect that throwing rocks would then become semi- or at least para-linguistic. Ish. Don’t quote me on that.

4. Language is a flawed tool. As demonstrated by all sorts of wonderful people totally misunderstanding me when I try to have serious conversations over text message, language alone is obviously not enough. Actions “speak” louder than words (and I use that cliche very carefully), and there are many things that would be misconstrued or not cleanly and clearly communicated in words that are very, very easily communicated by throwing rocks.

So, uh, there. For any confusion with my weird idiosyncratic gap metaphor I refer people back to my illustration of The Gap

Edit to add: In Ben’s defense, he immediately also posted this, which I then failed to retweet because I didn’t see it. It’s possibly the most crucial point in the whole debate.

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One comment

  1. I end up worrying about the gap a lot while doing science at things. I do believe in an external reality, but as you say, it’s impossible to prove or even discuss without bringing the subjective language stuff in. At a certain point, though, it doesn’t even matter, as long as it can be used to do things like build bicycles (and then ride them. With no handlebars.)



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