The Humiliation of the Word by Jacques Ellul
Jacques Ellul was Professor of Law and Sociology and History of Institutions at the University of Bordeaux. He has published several hundred articles and over thirty books. This book was published by Williams B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 1: Seeing and Hearing: Prolegomena
Forget about origins and history. Let’s deal with our simplest, most direct experiences. I look out in front of me, and perceive the sea lit up out to the horizon. I look around me: to my left and right, I see the limitless straight line of the beach, and behind it, the dunes -- all in space. With my gaze I make the space my own. The objects are clear and plain. I see the wind bend over to the ground the reeds that keep the dunes in place.
I record these images one by one, and their juxtaposition shows me the real world in which I live, the world around me. I am at the center of this universe by means of my gaze, which sweeps across this space and lets me know everything in it. By combining these images of reality, I grasp it as a whole, and become a part of it as a result of my looking. I am the point of departure from which the universe and space are ordered: my vision situates me and every other component, placing each where it belongs. As I look I discover order. My looking is in itself what constitutes this order, by means of its sequence, which provides me with a progressive discovery of everything around me.
The very fact that I express myself in this way shows how inevitably my sight makes me the center of the world.(This is true in all societies, although it is denied by the extremely peculiar and dogmatic notion which considers perspective to be a Renaissance invention that expresses the bourgeois universe: separation between values and facts, between subject and object. Of course, these dichotomies are seen as results of the class struggle. Although this idea is partly correct, it has become an extremely trite commonplace because it has been expressed so dogmatically. See for example Jean-Joseph Goux, Les Iconoclasees (Paris: Seuil, 1978). It lets me know what is to the left and right of me, what is near and what is far away. All of reality unfolds itself to me little by little. Without sight, I would be suddenly deprived of the very possibility of grasping reality and of situating myself in space.
My sight constructs a universe for me. It reveals to me a directly perceivable reality composed of colorful, simple, harmonious images. But it also furnishes me with more subtle materials. I learn to read my brother’s or my enemy’s face. Transmitted images are superimposed on one another, and as a result, I now know that a given image belongs within a particular context of reality. It conjures up another image; I anticipate what I am going to see, but what is coming will in any case be located in space and will constitute part of reality -- deeper and hidden, in a sense, but still reality.
By looking I learn the signs in the sky that indicate what the weather will be. But in itself, my gaze shows me only heavily laden clouds coming from the northwest, with ambiguous round shapes rising high in a gray sky. I deduce a rainstorm, but my sight has shown me only a group of images.
Vision also furnishes me with information. I need to know what action to take and where to place myself; my sight enables me to know the reality in which my action will take place, and whether my action is possible. Sight gives me information concerning the world around me. It permits me to accumulate pieces of information, each of which is an image, in space, of reality. How could I possibly take part in this reality without such an unfailing source of information? Such information is precise and pinpointed, and deals only with reality. Nothing else, no other dimension, is ever involved. A different activity allows me to understand and associate, to see beyond, in the distance, the thing I cannot physically see.
Vision works exactly like a camera, which provides me with dozens or hundreds of snapshots that are connected only if my mind relates them. And because of this information, I can take part and involve myself in this reality by means other than sight. Sight has made me the center of the world because it situates me at the point from which I see everything, and causes me to see things relative to this point. My vision makes a circular sweep of space, working from this point: my point of view.
But now I am tempted, as the center of the world, to act on this spectacle and transform this setting. What was missing in my vision was someone to act, and I am available. Sight moves to action at the same time that it serves as the means of action. Again, without it, how could I act, since I wouldn’t even know what my hand was touching or what was within my reach? Sight previously showed me reality as a thing present to my consciousness; now it urges me to be a presence myself, in relation to this reality. I will use all the information that sight has conveyed to me, as I change this universe of images by creating new ones. I am a subject, not separated from what I look at. Rather, what I see becomes part of me, as my action involves me in what I see.
Images both permit and condition my action; they are always imperative. I lean out the window and look searchingly into the emptiness. Images of distance and depth thrust themselves on my consciousness. I know I mustn’t lean out any further. The image defines and marks the boundaries of my action. The image does not induce my action, but establishes its conditions and possibilities.
Without visual images my action is definitely blind, incoherent, and uncertain. Sight conveys certainties and pieces of information to me, as we have said. Such information is reliable. I perceive a gray ocean and an overcast skyline. This is unquestionable. The reality around me is a certainty in which I can be confident. It is neither incoherent nor deformed.
I know, of course, that this is also something learned; there are no data coming directly from the senses, and the shapes and colors and distances I apprehend are perceptible to me because I learned them. My culture has furnished me with the very images I see. But however important this may be (and we must not push this idea too far!), it is still true that I see. I see images which are reliable. In order to change the shape of this reality, I must intervene or change my viewpoint, by putting on glasses or distorting it as I draw it. But in this case, I see my drawing rather than the reality of the universe.
What a dreadful uneasiness takes hold of us when reality becomes uncertain because it is submerged in fog. Then sight fails to furnish me with reliable, clear, guaranteed images, and I cannot act because I no longer have unquestionable sources of information -- visual images. Fear of the dark is a consequence of the same uncertainty. The world loses its midpoint. It is off center because I cannot see it anymore. The center could be anywhere, but it is no longer located where I am. It could be anywhere, or nowhere. I am not situated anymore. Things are no longer situated in relation to me. Dimension and colors have disappeared. I remain immobilized and wait, incapable of intervention and unable to change the situation. I am suddenly paralyzed without images.
Sight offers me the whole realm of reality, space, and concrete objects, thus allowing me to act.(But we will see later on that this relationship between sight and action is profoundly changed when sight is based on projected images.) Without space, no action is possible. Without a known, constructed, coherent space, no action is possible. But on the other hand, action is called forth and induced by the very existence of this reality, in which everything beckons to me. My outstretched hand is also an image of this reality; how can I avoid extending it toward this fruit ready to be picked?
The visual image of the fruit ready for picking is not ambiguous. The image furnishes me reliably with precisely what I need to know in order to act. It is neither deceptive nor hypocritical, and does not mislead me. In order for my sight to mislead me concerning reality, there must be some unusual phenomenon, like a mirage. The image is not ambiguous. This peach I am looking at is red and weighs heavily on the bending branch. This is absolutely certain. But the image is insignificant. It has no meaning in itself and must be interpreted. In the case of a fruit ripe for picking, the visual image gives me indisputable information, but if I stop there, nothing will happen -- my action will not be set in motion. I see clearly that the peach is beautifully red. I see clearly that it is round and heavy. But so what? The image does not provide me with any meaning for this reality which it so faithfully conveys to me. It must therefore be interpreted. In order to move from the vision of the fruit to "I should pick it" or "It can be picked," there must be an interpretation: an attribution of meaning to these real images of reality. Another dimension must be added to sight: interpretation will come through speech.
Thus the image contains within itself a deep contradiction. It is not ambiguous: it is coherent, reliable, and inclusive; but it is insignificant. It can have innumerable meanings, depending on culture, learning, or the intervention of some other dimension. For this reason I must learn to see, before looking at the image. After seeing it, I must learn to interpret it. The image is clear, but this clarity does not imply certainty or comprehension. My certainty is limited to this directly perceived reality that my sight reveals to me. Nothing beyond that. Next I must decide what I am going to do about it. Nevertheless, what I perceive in this limited manner is the reality in which I must live.
The image furnished by sight is neither dream nor vision. Certainly visions are not the same thing as sight. On the contrary, I compare them with what I see. I recount what I see; it is as if I were seeing, but I see nothing. These visual images owe nothing to sight. Instead, they are the product of nerves excited in a different manner. I call them "vision," but only by extension -- by projecting onto this phenomenon the guaranteed reliability of my good, solid sight, in which I can have confidence. I call these images "vision" because they are connected with the other images I am accustomed to. I would be tempted to say in this case that the order is reversed. The visual image exists, and then I attribute a meaning to it; but the vision appears only as the illustration of a previously established meaning.
No matter how insignificant it may be, the visual image is always rigorous, imperative, and irreversible. I saw what I saw. I cannot change this image. I cannot change the reality which is conveyed to me in this way, except through my action. There is no ambiguity at this point. Nor is there reversibility. As irreversible, an image indicates the orientation for my action. This involves a kind of "meaning," but it is like a circular drive with only two possible directions: one prohibited and the other obligatory! By virtue of the image I am situated in this reality which is neither polyvalent nor polynuclear. It is ordered in such a way that it is irreversible and invariable. It is an order of permanence; each image could be, and is in fact, eternal.
This reality is directly perceived, directly present, and permanent. Duration has no effect on this image which is conveyed to me by my sight. It is always an instantaneous matter. No duration is included in an image. As we have said, there is a sequence of instantaneous images which are connected and which can be coordinated or not: instantaneous "takes" of a single image that are superimposed on each other.
My sight is not really continuous, even when I fix my gaze on the same broom plant. I do not see it change. I see it; then an instant later I see it again, and the image is imperceptibly different. The same thing applies to different instantaneous images in space. My view covers only a limited field. I change my angle of vision and join together the instantaneous views of the different fields which I have recorded. This way the visual image, the images I have grasped and accumulated, produces a world made up of small dots, as in a pointillist painting.
The visual world is pointillist. Images are points which take on value only when reassembled, so that they acquire an identity as part of a total picture. If I had only one "view" of my universe, I would be a participant in a totality which would be both terribly coherent and yet at the same time composed of fragments without any necessary relationship. The totality would be like a cloud of irrational dots which can form only the framework of an action, a change in the relationships between the points. But the cloud of dots cannot be used for understanding anything, because this pointillism of images is space but not duration.
The image is present. It is only a presence. It bears witness to something "already there": the object I see was there before I opened my eyes. The image exists in the present and conveys to me only a present. For this reason it seems permanent to me, as a thing with duration because of the passage of time. The image conveys to me objects that do not change -- truly unchanging objects.
The visual image constitutes the object -- ob-jactus: that which is thrown before me. The word "before" implies in itself this visualization, which makes something an object. But I exist in this world of seen objects that are objects because they are seen. I belong, inseparably, to this observed setting. I am continually involved in it. I am continually refashioned within myself by what I see, and I cannot take my distance from it. I have a point of view, a location from which I see things, but it is situated within what I see and inseparable from it. Wherever I place myself, however I shift my position, I remain in the field of vision, I remain in the middle of what I see. I can never take my distance, act as if I were not present, or even begin to think independently of what I see.
At night, when I cannot see, a certain distance is established. This explains why the day’s events become so painful at night: the distance between me and the world around me allows for reflection and meditation. A flood of images overwhelms me, beckons me, and carries me along: an image I have seen follows immediately after the one I have just dismissed from my mind. I can never stop this movement of reality in space. I can never consider a given image like a diamond or a painting from which I can take my distance in order to be "myself," instead of being overwhelmed by the images composed of dots.
The image prevents me from taking my distance. And if I cannot establish a certain distance, I can neither judge nor criticize. Of course, I also feel pleasure or displeasure in what I see. I can find it beautiful or ugly. But this is not a critical process. No judgment is involved. Furthermore, what possible criticism or judgment can we make with respect to space and reality? In spite of the frailty we have all observed in a person’s testimony about what he has seen, everyone has the same certainty about anything he has seen. He has seen reality. And this leads to the widely held opinion: seeing the same images results in an identical viewpoint! When we describe in this manner the characteristics of the visual image as pointillistic, permanent, and irreversible, and as eliminating distance and criticism, we are only pointing out the characteristics of the reality which we perceive in this manner.
* * * * * *
It happens, however, that we have started down a more perilous path than we thought. Sight guarantees my possession of the world and makes it into a "universe-for-me." Seeing gives me the possibility of action. The apprehension which sight gives me of reality commits me to action. I see objects and am tempted to place my hand on them. Isn’t an object made to be used once it has been seen? Sight is the basis of my mastery. (Reality is what is seen, counted, and quantified, and is located in space. But reality is at the same time what is definite (Axel Hägerström). This corresponds clearly to the visual universe. The indefinite is the domain of the word. Thus visual reality is clearly noncontradictory. You can say that a piece of paper is both red and blue. But you cannot see it as both red and blue at the same time. It is either one or the other. The famous principle of noncontradiction is based on visual experience of the world, just as the principle of identity is. Declaring that two opinions cannot both be true, when one denies what the other affirms, has to do with vision, which involves instantaneousness. But language involves duration. Consequently what is visual cannot be dialectical. Knowledge based on sight is of necessity linear and logical. Only thought based on language can be dialectical, taking into account contradictory aspects of reality, which are possible because they are located in time. This is basic for understanding the opposition between the two methods of thought we will be discussing in Chapter Vl. But this distinction also teaches us that language grants us access to knowledge of a plurality of aspects in a reality that sight cannot grasp. In other words, truth includes reality and permits a deeper knowledge of reality. But this knowledge is not based on evidence or immediacy.) Deprived of vision, I find myself in the paralysis of darkness where nothing seems right.
In connection with mastery I am led to a technical process. Sight alone is not sufficient to accomplish it, but without sight no technique is possible. Sight is not sufficient, but at this point Spengler may well be right. A human being’s sight commits him to technique. The visual image points out the totality of my possible life in a world where I am both master and subject. All techniques are based on visualization and involve visualization. If a phenomenon cannot be transformed into something visual, it cannot be the object of a technique.
The correlation is even more marked with respect to efficiency. Sight is the organ of efficiency. Conversely, making use of images is efficient. Images sell things in advertising. Images ensure a pedagogical efficiency unknown before our time, and science now depends on visual representation. We will return to this matter. The correlation between "visual" and "technique" is one of the first facts to note. The visual image potentially contains within itself all the traits and characteristics of what later becomes the experience, experimentation, and organization of technique.
At this point we are on the threshold of a new dimension in sight. Up until now we have remained on the most elementary level of direct apprehension as the response of sight when brought to bear on things in nature, in the human environment, or in the cultural sphere. But now we are beginning to see that sight is a great deal more than this. We have already alluded to its larger role. What is seen is constructed. We have said that an image depends on the individual’s cultural background. We must go farther on this point. Sight refers to and proceeds from a specific notion of humanity, from a previously established image, an eidolon, which we already have in mind. Sight places us in the most direct and natural relationship possible with the environment, but at the same time it involves the artifice of a given element. This artificial element, as we have seen, causes a direct division between subject and object. Then it transforms nature into something outside the human environment and changes the human observer into someone outside his own milieu.
Sight leads us simultaneously along the paths of separation and division, of intervention and efficiency, and of artificiality. It has been said, quite accurately, that the urban milieu is a visual world where sight finds its satisfaction. The city allows humanity to see its mirror image in the sense of contemplating itself as it contemplates the product of its own work.
* * * * * *
Sight involves a relationship with reality as established in space. It is an artificial construction. Medusa’s head transfixes whoever gazes at her. Whoever looks at the scenes on the shields of the Iliad is terror stricken. Sight introduces us to an unbearable shock. Reality when seen inspires horror. Terror is always visual. Horror stories play only on our visual sense and suggest representation.
In contrast, the spoken word can involve us in mystery or drama. It places us in situations of conflict and makes us conscious of tragedy. But it is never on its own terrifying or stupefying. We are dazed by sight -- by an image or a vision. The word takes us to the edge of terror only when descriptive and painting extremely precise images. Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories are an example.
All the descriptions we have heard of Nazi death camps move us to revulsion and to a judgment that may be based more on strong feelings than anything else. The image of bulldozers pushing along mounds of skeletal corpses, which shortly before had been living beings, faces teetering from the machine’s pushing -- this image drawn from Night and Fog (A film by Alain Resnais (1956). -- trans.) moves us to abject horror. It terrifies us, because we see. Such terror results from the horror of reality.
Reality apprehended by sight is always unbearable, even when that reality is beauty. We have a horror of reality, perhaps because we depend on it so. Language, even when it is realistic, allows us to escape from this terrible reality. Sight locks us up with it and obliges us to look at it. There is no way out -- except by controlling and mastering the reality. I think that through technical process I can claim to be master of what I see. But this process in turn breeds stupefaction and misgivings when we see its results. All at once technique does not belong to us any more. We see it in these reflected images that both excite and terrify us. It is a vision of apocalypse.
I hear noises. The wind is blowing through these pine trees. In the distance the sea roars. I can judge its force and its condition. The pine cones crackle. I hear their bursting. Their sound reminds me how hot it is. The sequence of sounds sometimes forms a symphony. Noises come to me. I do not turn my ears toward a certain spot where I suspect there might be something to hear. I direct my gaze, turning it spontaneously toward a certain face, toward a landscape which awaits me. I am the subject. I act and decide what I want to see.
Sounds come to me, and I receive them when they are produced. They form a sequence of impressions that carves up time. A baby’s cry drowns out everything else. Instead of a symphony, now I hear an outburst. The noise assails and haunts me. I cannot close anything, as I would my eyes, to shut it out.
Images fall into a pattern with respect to each other, but sounds do not. Instead, sounds contradict each other and cancel each other out. I am listening to a Mozart concerto, and suddenly near me someone speaks. Or a visitor knocks at my door. Or someone starts noisily putting away dishes and silverware. Sounds produce incoherence. The noises I hear form no panorama of the world.
Apparently a dog’s panorama of the world is basically olfactory. Using various odors, dogs create a coherent whole. For us as human beings, on the contrary, an odor is only an incidental sign. Our coherent and unbroken panorama of the world is visual (it is an unbroken panorama even though it is pointillistic, just as the impressionist painters saw it!). It is not auditory. The sequence of noises I perceive does not constitute a universe. They cannot be compared with the sequence of images resulting from the movement of my eyes.
Noise overwhelms me with uncertainty, because of the very fact of its sequence. Where is it coming from? What does it herald? I cannot avoid asking these temporal questions. A sound is never clear and plain by itself. It always brings questions with it. What is going to happen? It may be that this uncertainty is really a cultural matter, if we have learned to decode shapes and colors accurately but not sounds. But whatever its origin, this uncertainty is part of us.
I am much more concerned with the temporal origin of sound. Sight is spatial. Sound’s domain is temporal, and it inserts us within a duration rather than an expanse. Sound generates an immediate, unconscious interrogation: What now? What sound will come next? Naturally, sight also can, on second or third thought, give rise to the question: What is beyond? I see the horizon; what is beyond it? But anyone can see the difference between the two. The question "What lies beyond?" is secondary and indirect; it is based on thought. The question about the sound I hear -- What next? -- is immediate and primary, arising in the same instant I perceive the sound. What will the next sound be? And this brings us to the highest order of sounds.
Alone among all other sounds there is one that is particularly important for us: the spoken word. It ushers us into another dimension: relationship with other living beings, with persons. The Word is the particularly human sound which differentiates us from everything else. In this connection a fundamental difference between seeing and hearing is immediately apparent. In seeing, the living being is one form among many. A human being has a special shape and color, but he is included with all the rest as part of the landscape: a discrete, moving speck. When I hear speech, however, the human being becomes qualitatively different from everything else.
Right at the beginning of this issue, we find ourselves in the presence of a gripping question. We have just seen that our auditory sense is probably less culturally sharpened than the visual, since auditory education is less complete, complex, and distinctive. This is true for all cultures, including musical families and "primitive," societies that are much more skilled in interpreting the noises of the forest or of the savanna. In all societies, the auditory sense does not permit us to construct a universe. And yet language, which is related to it, is the most culturally elaborated, the richest, the most "universalizing," and the most significant aspect of a culture, as well as the sign of human specificity.
This contradiction gives us a profound insight into the complex nature of speech and hearing. Speech always depends on hearing. It engulfs us in temporality, because of the unfolding of discourse, if for no other reason. A sentence has a certain rhythm, and I must wait for the end of it to know what is being said to me. Some languages accentuate even more strongly this suspense over meaning during the development of the sentence. When German places the verb at the end of the sentence, I must listen to the entire sentence before I can understand it, and that occurs in a temporal sequence.
Sight, however, can give me an image not limited by time because it is instantaneous and inclusive. I need not wait in order to grasp the meaning of what I see. But I must always wait in order to grasp the exact meaning of the sentence which has just begun. I am suspended between two points in time. The beginning of the sentence has already been pronounced, and has already faded away; the end has not yet been spoken, but it is coming, and it will give meaning to what was said at the beginning. Let’s not deal yet with writing, and certainly not with tape recording; these involve a forcing of speech into space, in which it ceases to be speech. We will return to this matter, but for now let’s limit ourselves to spoken language.
The spoken word, even if it involves an essential proclamation or the thought of a genius, falls into the void, passes, and disappears, if it is not heard and recovered by someone. The ocean over there, even if no one contemplates it, remains what it is and what it was. I see it, and it produces a flurry of emotions in me. I leave. I go away, but it does not. The spoken sentence has sunk into nothingness; time has gone by, and there are no "frozen words" which can make themselves heard again later.(An allusion to François Rabelais’s Quart Livre (1548), in which words spoken long ago were "frozen" and could be heard later by those traveling to the spot where they had been spoken. -- Trans.) Time does not return, and speech has no permanence.
When I hear a sentence, I am in the present with it. I have grabbed hold of and memorized its beginning, which is now past, and it plunges me into the past with it. I am also listening carefully for the end of the sentence; I am waiting for the direct object which will clarify the meaning of the whole sentence. I am straining toward this future implied by speech.
For the word to exist, then, we must have several elements present at the same time: duration, two people (the speaker and the listener, who are living in the same moment of time), and concentration on the fact that the past is abolished. Thus speech is basically presence. It is something alive and is never an object. It cannot be thrown before me and remain there. Once spoken, the word ceases to exist, unless I have recovered it. Before it is spoken, the word places me in an expectant situation, in a future I await eagerly. The word does not exist on its own. It continues to exist only in its effect on the one who spoke it and on the one who recovered it. The word is never an object you can turn this way and that, grasp, and preserve for tomorrow or some distant day when you may have time to deal with it.
The word exists now. It is something immediate and can never be manipulated. Either it exists or it doesn’t. It makes me what I am, establishes the speaking me and the listening me, so that my role is determined by the word itself rather than by its content. For the word to become an object, someone must transform it into writing. But then it is no longer speech. Yet even in that form, it requires time. My glance must scan the line, then the page, moving downward, and this movement of the eyes takes time. The image I see changes: an overall glance is not enough. There is no possible instantaneous approach to the written page; seeing takes time when it is applied to the word.The word remains sovereign even when transformed into writing and visualized.
* * * * * * *
The word is, of necessity, spoken to someone. If no one is present, it is spoken to oneself or to God. It presupposes an ear; the Great Ear, if necessary. It calls for a response. Every word, even a swearword, an insult, an exclamation, or a soliloquy, begins a dialogue. The monologue is a dialogue in the future or the past, or else it is a dialogue incorporated into a monologue. Here again, time is involved. Dialogue develops according to a variable timetable, but dialogue cannot exist unless those engaging in it are inserted into time.
Language is a call, an exchange. I avoid using the threadbare term "communication." It is not true that language exists only to communicate information. This concept is superficial and holds little interest for us. Obviously, language is also communication. It communicates information also. But if we spoke only to convey information our relationships would be greatly impoverished. To verify this you have only to listen to the "information" given on television, in spite of the speakers’ talent and the surprising and varied way things are presented.
Language is uncertain, communicating information but also a whole universe that is fluid, without content or framework, unpretentious, and filled with the rich complexity of things left unexpressed in a relationship. What is not said also plays a role in language. More accurately, what is said sometimes hides what could be said, and on the other hand sometimes it reveals what is not said. Language never belongs to the order of evident things. It is a continuous movement between hiding and revealing. It makes of the play in human relationships something even more fine and complex than it would be without language. Language exists only for, in, and by virtue of this relationship. Dialogue involves the astonishing discovery of the other person who is like me, and the person like me who is different. We need both similarity and difference at the same time. I speak the same language that you do; we use the same code. But what I have to say is different from what you have to say. Without this difference there would be neither language nor dialogue.
Do we have something to say? In spite of the condemnation of this concept by linguists and modern artists, I insist that I speak because I have something to say. If this pressure were absent, I would not speak. Speech is not born of nothing. It does not itself give birth to the signified that it points to. In spite of the extravagant modern ideas we will examine later, it is still true that when I speak to another person, it is because I have a desire to convey to him something I have that he does not have -- or that I think he does not have. And based on this situation, I find the words and phrases that correspond to what I indeed have to say. There is something that precedes speech.
Speech does not take its pattern directly from what there is "to say"; it creates in addition a sphere of unexpectedness, a wonderful flowering which adorns, enriches, and ennobles what I have to say, instead of expressing it directly, flatly, and exactly. I have an idea in mind -- or a fact, an outline. I begin to write, and if I reread what I have written a few days later, I am amazed by what I have written. It tallies, to be sure, with what I had to say, up to a point, but it overflows this, and I realize that I have written a different text. What I have written conjures up ideas, images, and shapes which I did not expect, which I have forgotten.
Dialogue involves a certain distance. We must be separated as well as different. I do not speak to a person identical to me. I must have something to say which the other lacks, but he must also be different from me. Yet similarity is required as well. When Adam sees Eve he bursts into speech. He speaks because of her and for her. She was flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone; and yet different: a dissimilar similar person.
Speech fills the infinite gap that separates us. But the difference is never removed. Discourse begins again and again because the distance between us remains. I find I must repeatedly begin speaking again to restate what I have said. The result is an inevitable, yet rich and blessed, redundancy. The word is resumed and repeated because it is never fully explicit or an exact translation of what I have to say. It is never precisely received, never precisely understood. Language is Word. The Word contains fuzziness, a halo that is richer and less precise than information.
Even the simplest word -- bread, for instance -- involves all sorts of connotations. In a mysterious way, it calls up many images which form a dazzling rainbow, a multitude of echoes. When the word bread is pronounced, I cannot help but think of the millions of people who have none. I cannot avoid the image of a certain baker friend of mine, and of the time during the Nazi occupation when bread was so scarce and of such poor quality. The communion service comes to me: the breaking of bread at the Last Supper and the image of Jesus, both present and unknown.
I pass quickly to the moral lessons I learned as a child: that it is a crime to throw away a piece of bread, since it is a sacred substance. And from there, of course, I arrive at the enormous, incredible amount of wastefulness in our society. We waste many things besides bread, but it remains the negative symbol of our squandering ways. Memories come back to me: the warm, crusty bread of my childhood. The promised bread of life that will satisfy all hunger. And not living by bread alone. What ever happened to this Word of the Father which is proclaimed without being understood?
Not all of these memories are conjured up every time I hear the word, and they do not all come at once, but it is a rarity when none of them follows the oft-repeated request: "pass me the bread."
Language deals with connotations and overtones. It takes its place in the center of an infinitely delicate spider’s web, whose central structure is fine, rigorous, and dense. As you move away from the center, the web becomes larger and distended, until it reaches incoherence, at its edge, where it sends off threads in every direction. Some of these threads go a great distance, until they arrive at the invisible spots where the web is anchored. This complex web is a marvel which is never the same, not for me at different points in time nor for another person.
The spoken Word puts the web in motion so that waves sweep through it and cause lights to flicker. The waves induce vibrations that are different for the other person and for me. The word is uncertain. Discourse is ambiguous and often ambivalent. Some foolishly try to reduce language to something like algebra, in which each word would have a mathematically precise meaning, and only one meaning. Each word would be put in a straitjacket, having only one meaning, so that we would know with scientific precision what we were saying. And the receiver of our message would always know exactly what we meant.
But the blessed uncertainty of language is the source of all its richness. I do not know exactly how much of my message the other person hears, how he interprets it, or what he will retain of it. I know that a kind of electric current is established between us; words penetrate him, and I have the feeling that he either reacts positively or else rejects what I have said. I can interpret his reaction, and then the relationship will rebound, accompanied by a rich halo of overtones. He does not understand, and I see that. So I speak again, weaving another piece of cloth, but this time with a different design. I come up with what I think will reach him and be perceived by him. The uncertainty of meaning and the ambiguity of language inspire creativity. It is a matter of poetics, but not just the esthetics of poetry. There is a poetics of language and of relationships also. We must not limit this poetics to language, which must be constantly rewoven, but remember that the relationship is also involved. Language requires that we recommence this relationship, which is always uncertain. I must disavow it over and over again, through sharp questioning, explanation, and verbal interchange.
Discourse is ambiguous; it is never clear. It arrives from one person’s unconscious aggregate of experiences, desires, skills, and knowledge, only to fall into another person’s, thus producing a different meaning. Because of these continual misunderstandings, new life is breathed into the relationship. We must constantly begin all over again, and as a result the relationship becomes a rich, complex landscape, with unexpected mountain passes and inaccessible peaks. By all means let’s not turn language into something mathematical, nor reduce the rich complexity of human relationships to identical formulas.
Meaning is uncertain; therefore I must constantly fine-tune my language and work at reinterpreting the words I hear. I try to understand what the other person says to me. All language is more or less a riddle to be figured out; it is like interpreting a text that has many possible meanings. In my effort at understanding and interpretation, I establish definitions, and finally, a meaning. The thick haze of discourse produces meaning.
All of intellectual life (and I use the word "all" advisedly), even that of specialists in the most exact sciences, is based on these instabilities, failures to understand, and errors in interpretation, which we must find a way to go beyond and overcome. Mistaking a person’s language keeps me from "taking" the person -- from taking him prisoner.
We are in the presence of an infinitely and unexpectedly rich tool, so that the tiniest phrase unleashes an entire polyphonic gamut of meaning. The ambiguity of language, and even its ambivalence and its contradiction, between the moment it is spoken and the moment it is received produce extremely intense activities. Without such activities, we would be ants or bees, and our drama and tragedy would quickly be dried up and empty. Between the moment of speech and the moment of reception are born symbol, metaphor, and analogy.
Through language I lay hold of two completely different objects. I bring them together, establishing between them a relationship of similarity or even identity. In this manner I come to know this distant, unknown object, through its resemblance. It becomes intelligible to me, because through language I have brought it near this other one that I know well. This is an astonishing process, and logically a foolish one. It is obviously an indefensible operation, yet there it is, utterly successful, utterly enlightening. The uncertainty and the ambiguity of language have permitted it to function. I have access to the unknown through verbal identification, as well as through symbolic language that allows me to express the inexpressible.
As a result of this alchemy, after many efforts, the nugget of pure gold appears: we are in agreement. This is completely unexpected, and always a miracle. Through metaphors and syllogisms, analogies and myths, in the tangles of uncertainties and misunderstandings, agreement crops up. In the middle of so much "noise" (in the sense of interference), word and meaning come to the surface and permit an unclouded agreement, a conformity, in which heart meets heart. The innermost being of one person has reached the innermost of another through the mediation and ambassadorship of this language go-between. Overloaded with meaning, it has now been stripped of all excess and reduced to its essence. Now we can engage in common action without fear of error. Our life together can continue on the basis of a renewed authenticity.
But we must be careful: this happy result is achieved only to the degree that -- exactly to the degree that -- we have experienced all the "interference" of meaning: the rich connotations, the polyphony, and the overtones produced. In the middle of all this, and because of it, a common understanding springs forth and is formulated. It is not exactly what I said (fortunately!). Rather, it is more than that. Nor is it exactly what a tape recorder could have taken down. Instead, it is a symphony of echoes that have reverberated in me. Our agreement commits us to a renewed relationship that will be more profound and genuine. We will be continually reinventing this relationship, just as our speaking must continually recommence.
The word reduced to the value of an algebraic formula with only one possible meaning would be useful for us in carrying out an identical superficial activity. But such language could never create meaning, and would never produce agreement and communication with another person. "Algebraic" language could never produce -- or suggest a story. Bees communicate pieces of information to each other, but do not produce anything like history.
History is produced by the tangle of our misunderstandings and interpretations. Something unexpected is continually cropping up even in the simplest of our relationships. This unexpected element involves us in some action, explanation, or procedure that will constitute the history of our relationship. History is a product of language and the word. This applies not only to something memorized so that we can tell it later. The historian, even if his field is the history of science, is always limited to telling stories -- sometimes his own. This is not only true of the history that is distant from us, which only language can evoke and make new again, since it is told in the present. It is also true of the history we are making, which has yet to be invented: history in process, whether mine or the story of my society or of humanity in general. In every case, language alone sets history in motion, defines it, and makes it possible or necessary. This can be a word from the politician or from the masses.
The word can also obstruct and impede history, when mythical language immerses us in an ahistorical time that is repetitive and continually reduced to myth. Language is either historical or ahistorical, either a discourse on action to be undertaken or of myth to listen to. According to the sort of language used, human history either arises and becomes a significant aspect of humanity’s existence, or else it remains on the level of everyday incoherence.
As in the case of human agreement, history is born and organized, continues, and takes on meaning as a result of the innumerable sounds arising from the Word. Finally the moment comes when understanding takes place, when language is understood after so many setbacks. From the level of being and of the heart, language proceeds to the level of intelligence, and finally it is understood, beyond and because of the repeated misunderstandings which have been progressively eliminated. All this takes place without losing any part of the symphony of meaning.
The instant when language is understood seems like a genuine illumination. It is not the sum of the understood fragments, not the slow and tortuous march of a gradual and complicated unfolding, nor is it the triumphant QED of a solved algebra problem. Instead, this moment of insight is an inspiration which reveals in an instant the meaning of the entire message the other person was trying to give me. Everything is reduced to this sparkling moment which makes order out of the rest of the imbroglio and finds the way out of the maze. In a single instant the entire idea becomes clear: the other person’s argument ceases being mere rhetoric, and his symbols and metaphors are no longer pointless. In a flash that some have compared to a kind of vision, communication between two intelligent beings has taken place.
Have I really "seen" what the other person said? Sudden insight has nothing in common with sight but its instantaneousness. Insight is not a kind of vision, but rather a light. The difference between the two will become clear in a later section. With insight, meaning becomes perfectly transparent. The other person’s words become mine; I receive them in my own mind. I experience utter intellectual delight, but a delight in my whole being as well, when I understand and am understood.
The Word ushers us into time.(I will not deal here with the question of language learning or of whether genetic programming is open to more than one language or oriented toward a single tongue. These matters go beyond my purpose. See the conflict between Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget, Théories du langage, théories de l’apprentissage, Centre Royaumont pour une Science de l’Homme [Paris: Seuil, 1979]). It makes us live with endless misunderstandings, interpretations, and overtones. Language does not enlighten me concerning the reality around me. I have no need for someone beside me to describe what I can see as well as he can. I have no need for spoken information about the reality I can verify directly. In this situation no ambiguity or distance is involved. Instead, based on my own experience of reality, I could establish the unreliability of the other person’s useless words. This is what happens when someone testifies to what he has seen.
In this reality, language naturally also has its uses. It can command an action. It gives birth to institutions. But reality is not where its specificity lies. We have mentioned myths and symbols, allegories and metaphors, analogies and history, as spheres in which language moves about easily. In these contexts it takes on its full stature and becomes truly the word. In other words, it is true to itself when it refers to Truth instead of Reality.
Of course, I do not presume to deal with Truth here, nor do I intend to define it. When I say that language normally deals with Truth rather than Reality, I only mean that there are two orders of knowledge, two kinds of references we use as human beings. There are references to the concrete, experienced reality around us, and others that come from the spoken universe. The spoken universe is our invention -- something we establish and originate by our words. We derive meaning and understanding from language, and it permits us to go beyond the reality of our lives to enter another universe, which we may call phantasmic, schizophrenic, imaginary, or any other name we choose. I am certain that since the beginning, human beings have felt a pressing need to frame for themselves something different from the verifiable universe, and we have formed it through language. This universe is what we call truth.
Lewis Mumford can dream all he wants to of another world; Cornelius Castoriadis can make up imaginary things; and Roger Caillois can say that myth constitutes our human specificity, our only singularity, but these ideas do not matter much to me. The important thing is that the unique value of language lies in truth. Language is not bound to reality, but to its capacity to create this different universe, which you can call surreal, meta-real, or metaphysical. For the sake of convenience we will call it the order of truth. The word is the creator, founder, and producer of truth.
Note carefully that I am not establishing any hierarchy in this connection, from a mediocre reality with no value, ascending toward a transcendent truth. I merely establish two different orders. Rather than speaking of Truth, at this point I am still dealing just with the order of truth (which is also, to be sure, the order of untruth, error, and falsehood!). Nor am I saying that language has nothing to do with reality. We will examine this relationship later. I am, instead, looking for specificity, and in this case it resides in the fact that nothing besides language can reach or establish the order of truth.
This brings us to the distinctives that characterize only the word: discussion, paradox, and mystery. Language is always unobtrusive, even when it tries to be demonstrative. It includes an unknown aspect in the background that makes it something secret and revealed. Language is unobtrusive in that it never asserts itself on its own. When it uses a loudspeaker and crushes others with its powerful equipment, when the television set speaks, the word is no longer involved, since no dialogue is possible. What we have in these cases is machines that use language as a way of asserting themselves. Their power is magnified, but language is reduced to a useless series of sounds which inspire only reflexes and animal instincts.
Authentic language is of necessity debatable, and therefore unobtrusive, even when a person is speaking from extremely strong conviction. However forceful the arguments may be, however close the reasoning or ardent the speaker, we all know how possible it is to protect ourselves from such outpourings. How often we have come up against a blank wall instead of a face, when the other person did not want to understand! How can we make him understand as long as he persists in that attitude?
In reality, language is an extraordinary occurrence in which each person’s liberty is respected. I can oppose my word to the other person’s. Or I can turn a deaf ear. I remain free as I face someone who tries to define me, encircle me, or convince me. Nothing is more absurd than the argument we hear over and over again these days (we will come back to it later), where someone pompously labels the word and language "terrorist"! I would say that language is the only nonterrorist form of expression! People who use labels so loosely have not experienced the difference between the violence of words and a whip with braided thongs -- or between a human mouth, even if it is shrieking, and the silent muzzle of a revolver.
By its very ambiguity, which is a fundamental and essential part of it, language leaves the listener with a whole margin of freedom. As the speaker, I actually invite my listener to exercise his liberty in two ways. First, every act of speech supposes either assent or rejection. In other words, of necessity I give my listener a choice to make. A situation where there is choice is a situation where there is freedom. But at the same time, I invite him to use the gift of liberty inherent in language, just as I have. He must speak in turn, consciously making use of his freedom. I invite him to start down the difficult road of self-knowledge and self-expression, of choice, self-exposure, and unveiling.
Language always involves the exercise of freedom. It is never mechanical, just as it is not an object! Subtle structural linguistic analyses are of course limited to texts; that is, to finite, fixed words rather than open-ended ones. Such analyses seem to account for everything: codes, units of meaning, morphemes, etc. But they overlook one thing. Once the languages and lexicons, rhetorics, discourses, and narratives have been stripped of their mystery, one thing is left: language itself. It remains because it is history, and such linguistic analysis excludes history. The word remains because it is a call to freedom, and in such analysis structures and systems are closed. Language is an affirmation of my person, since I am the one speaking, and it is born at the same time as the faint belief, aspiration, or conviction of liberty. The two are born together, and language is a sign bearing witness to my freedom and calling the other person to freedom as well.
This is so true that the word is always paradoxical. This is its second characteristic. The paradox, let us remember, is something situated beside or outside the doxa (opinion). The paradox is free of all doxa, but at the same time calls the doxa into question. Roland Barthes is right in showing that "the real instrument of censorship is the endoxa rather than the police." "Just as a language is better defined by what it requires (its obligatory rules) than by what it prohibits (its theoretical rules), in the same way social censorship is present not when one is prevented from speaking, but rather when one is obliged to speak. The deepest subversion (countercensorship) does not consist so much in saying something to shock opinion, morals, the law, or the police, but in inventing paradoxical speech."(Etienne Dagut, Etude sur Baudrillard [Mémoire de l’lnstitut d’Etudes Politiques de Bordeaux, 1978]).
Whereas rules of language can be the doxa, the word is always paradoxical. Enrico Castelli was right again in reminding us that paradox exists, and that there is no need to emphasize it in a heavyhanded manner. The absence of paradox would be the unusual situation, since it is not a profound and subtle invention of the philosopher or intellectual revolutionary, but something that proceeds from common sense.
Common sense defies organized thought. Common sense escapes from any sort of integrating doctrine, and, after half a century of oppression, it springs up strangely unharmed and expresses itself in paradoxes. Common sense is not an inferior stage of thought: it is paradox standing up to structured, logical, organized thought, which follows the rules (of logic, dialectic, etc.). Paradox, always related to the word springing up as something new, prevents thought from closing up and reaching completion. Paradox prevents the system from accounting for everything, and does not allow a structure to mold everything.
The poetic word contains paradox within it. You believe poetic language to be insignificant, a side issue in comparison with political and scientific talk? You are right, but poetry continually brings the uncertainty of ambiguity to our attention, along with double meanings, manifold interpretations, false bottoms, and multiple facets. The word is always paradoxical because it corresponds directly to our ambiguity as persons.
Now we are coming to the last characteristic to keep in mind about the word: it is mystery. The most explicit and the best-explained word still brings me inevitably back to mystery. This mystery has to do with the other person, whom I cannot fathom, and whose word provides me with an echo of his person, but only an echo. I perceive this echo, knowing that there is something more. This is the mystery I feel as I recognize spontaneously that I do not understand well or completely what the other person says. There is a mystery for me in my own lack of comprehension, as I become aware of it. How am I going to react? How can I respond? I sense a whole area of mystery in the fact that I am not very sure I understood correctly. I am not very sure about answering. I am not very sure of what I am saying.
There is always a margin around our conversation. More precisely, conversation is like this printed page, framed on all sides by white margins, without words, but which can be filled in with any word at all. The margins situate a conversation and give it the possibility of rebounding and beginning again. They allow the other person to participate with his marginal comments. I am aware of this possibility, but I do not know what marginal comments are going to appear beside what I say, changing it. Here again we are dealing with the unexpected. And we come up against the mystery of silence.
The mystery is silence as a break in discourse, not silence in the sense of something that discourse fills up! The enigmatic, disturbing, saddening silence of the other person is an inconvenience as I wait. I expect a response, an explanation, or a statement from him. He falls silent, and I no longer know where or how to take my place in relation to him. More precisely, I no longer know how to be as I face him. I find myself faced with a mystery which eludes me when there is a lull in the conversation. I expect words, but this silence constitutes a chasm in the word, which continues unspoken. It is unheard, but it cannot be eliminated. Thus in all sorts of ways the word is related to mystery. It expresses and engulfs us in mystery. There is a reason why mythos and logos go together.
The image, however, is never mysterious. We have seen that it can be terrifying. Mystery does not terrify. It is an existential questioning. The image is nonparadoxical, since it is always in conformity with the doxa (opinion). As we will see, it is especially an influence toward conformity. Thus cultural revolutionaries succumb to a childish illusion when they believe that films or posters can promote revolutionary ideas. Images never reinforce anything but conformity to the dominant doxa. Only the word troubles the waters. Images contain neither blank spaces nor margins. They refer to reality and give a direct account of it, without mystery, since reality has none. Images can include unresolved problems or paralyze me with horror, but they contain no mystery. What paralyzes me is the manifestation of horror. There are no false bottoms, no echoes in the reality I perceive through sight. But truth presents neither problems to resolve nor dreadful hallucinations. It is made up of sympathetic vibrations and vibrations of reason, discreet insights and interruptions, just like the word. Truth assails me and circumvents me with mystery. Everything seems to depend on evidence; reality is evident; sight, naturally, gives me evidence. But the truth is never evident. (It is clear that I am utterly at odds with Marshall McLuhan on this point. When he tries to show that the visual world is continuous and homogeneous, I agree. But when he expounds this by saying that the visual world is a universe of continuity and development, whereas the acoustical world is a universe of simultaneousness, because we hear from all directions at the same time, but do not see everywhere at once, this seems very weak to me. We hear the noises of the area around us, just as we see everywhere within our visual range.
Amazingly, McLuhan considers the visual to be the origin of the linear and the sequential, and therefore of the temporal, whereas he related the acoustical world to what is spatial and global. I have wondered what the source of his error could be, and it seems to stem from the fact that when he speaks of the visual universe, he considers the visual only in terms of alphabetical writing, related, of course, to rationally. But in order to do this, he severs the relationship between Writing and the Word. And when he speaks of the acoustical universe, he considers only music, which can of course be called spatial, global etc., as well as simultaneous. But here he excludes language.
The same thing occurs when he says that the visual universe furnishes us with classifications, whereas the acoustical provides immediate recognition. But it is evident that we recognize a person’s face much more quickly than the sound of his disembodied voice. Immediate recognition is related to sight! In order to arrive at his conclusion, McLuhan must exclude the universe of noises. Whereas sight allows me to distinguish shape and color, which tell me immediately what something is, hearing may allow me to classify the sound or noise but I do not discern immediately what it is.
Thus McLuhan’s definition deals exclusively with the sight of written language and with hearing music. Having said this, I hasten to add that I find myself agreeing with many of his characterizations of both universes: the visual, universe has to do with the quantitative, active sphere, and perceives clearly expressed outlines; the acoustical universe is emotional, intuitive, and qualitative, having to do with abstract perceptions. But how can he miss that these attributes are precisely what contradicts the sequential and therefore temporal characteristic of the one universe, and the spatial characteristic of the other?)
3. Seeing and Hearing
It stands to reason that seeing and hearing are inseparable and complementary. Nothing in human affairs can be done without their joint involvement. I have considered them separately only for the sake of convenience. Their difference is fundamental, however, and it is probably out of their confrontation and opposition that human uniqueness is born. To show how they differ, I have exaggerated their characteristics, distinguished them by isolating them, and thus made their contrast more startling. Their difference is of fundamental importance, but rarely understood.
Now let us try to confront seeing and hearing. Their main antithesis concerns, as we have seen, the distinction between Space and Time, on the one hand, and Reality and Truth on the other. Our civilization’s major temptation (a problem that comes from technique’s preponderant influence) is to confuse reality with truth. We are made to believe that reality is truth: the only truth. At the time of the controversy over universals, the realists believed that only truth is real. We have inverted the terms, believing that everything is limited to reality.
We think that truth is contained within reality and expressed by it. Nothing more. Moreover, there is nothing left beyond reality any more. Nothing is Other; the Wholly Other no longer exists. Everything is reduced to this verifiable reality which is scientifically measurable and pragmatically modifiable. Praxis becomes the measure of all truth. Truth becomes limited to something that falls short of real truth. It is something that can be acted upon.
The Word is related only to Truth. The image is related only to reality. Of course, the word can also refer to reality! It can be perfectly pragmatic, used to command an action or to describe a factual situation. The word enters the world of concrete objects and refers to experiences of reality. It is the means of communication in everyday life, and as a result it fits precisely with all of reality. It conveys information about reality and takes part in the understanding of it. It can even create reality, producing effects that will become part of reality. Thus the word is ambivalent. But its specificity lies in the domain of truth, since this domain is not shared with anything else. On the contrary, the image cannot leave the domain of reality. It is not ambivalent.
At this point I can hear someone tempted to ask: "What is Truth?" I will carefully avoid answering by suggesting some specific content for the word. Such an answer would be challenged immediately, involving us in a long digression which would exceed my capacity. Without attempting this sort of definition, I can show what the object of truth can be, and this will serve to distinguish it clearly from reality. The very questions asked about truth can indicate its nature, replacing the answer that cannot be given.
We can grant, then, that anything concerned with the ultimate destination of a human being belongs to the domain of Truth. "Destination" in this sense is the same as "meaning and direction in life." We can add to this everything that refers to the establishment of a scale of values which allows a person to make significant personal decisions, and everything related to the debate over Justice and Love and their definition.
These considerations allow us to become conscious of what we call truth. There is nothing original in this idea. But when we say that everything related to these considerations belongs to the domain of Truth, we do not mean at all that every answer to these questions has the same value and is therefore true; we are not advocating syncretism. We only mean that none of these matters belongs to the sphere of reality. They can only belong to the domain of reality if truth and reality are decisively merged with each other, in which case the entire group of questions we have mentioned above simply disappears.
By saying these questions belong to the order of Truth, we imply that the answers given will be either truth itself, a reflection of this truth, error, or falsehood. It is important to note that falsehood and error belong to the domain of truth. If there is no truth, neither falsehood nor error exists. They are indissolubly linked, since they belong to the same order.
There is another important matter: the question of Truth is not the same thing as truth. I am not entering into metaphysics here. The question is not truth, because it is not the question that a person asks himself about his own life. This sort of question is just another intellectual game and a way of remaining outside truth. After all, it does not matter if one can answer or not, nor does it matter whether the answer is personal or is objectified as philosophy or revelation. But when a person asks about his own life (consciously or unconsciously), then the real question of truth has been asked. And when anyone claims to have resolved it, he is lying. When he tries to answer this question within the framework of reality alone, he has no answer to offer. The question which his life puts to him in all its aspects and its expressions remains an open question. It is continually being put to him, and this is truth itself.
Therefore, affirming the value of material happiness and the irreplaceable value of happiness as a response to being is simply giving a final answer to the permanently open question of truth. Nothing is resolved or achieved in this manner. Such an answer leaves a person faced with the same uncertainty, immersed in the same adventure as before. A civilization based on happiness becomes a civilization of consumerism, or else the gloomy gray paradise of Sweden. Swedish-type "paradises" finally produce either rebels without a cause (such as the 1953 New Year’s Eve youthful rampage in Stockholm), or strikers who strike for no reason, since they are not revolting against anything Certainly people who have testified to the eminent value of material happiness have not attempted to answer any other question, or even tried to ask this one in the face of men and women thirsting for the unusual.
The opposition between word and image is therefore not the same as the opposition between idealism and materialism. The assertion that praxis is the solution to human problems is words, as long as it remains an assertion. The entire relationship between praxis and truth as established by Karl Marx is words. Praxis, which appears to be an action for the purpose of changing reality, an action that constitutes the only measure and limit of truth, is of necessity initiated and produced by language. And language is also the means of describing and justifying praxis. Thus even in Marx the word is prior to all praxis. The word belongs to the order of the question of truth. An individual can ask the question of truth and attempt to answer it only through language.
The image, on the other hand, belongs to the domain of reality. It can in no way convey anything at all about the order of truth. It never grasps anything but an appearance or outward behavior. It is unable to convey a spiritual experience, a requirement of justice, a testimony to the deepest feelings of a person, or to bear witness to the truth. In all these areas the image will rely on a form.
Images can convey a rite, and thus people have a tendency to confuse religious truth with religious rites. In a world obsessed with images and where statistics are necessary, people feel a need to grasp"religion" by its rites, since it cannot be understood any other way. In this manner people get the impression that they have at least grasped the expressions of faith, whereas they have grasped only some aspects of a reality which of necessity clashes with the truth.
An image can catch a psychological expression on someone’s face: ecstasy, for example. People will believe that they are seeing authentic faith, whereas all they have is a psychological state that can be utterly unrelated to faith. Such a state can be induced by a drug, for example. Faced with such a problem, those who identify reality with truth are so monumentally confused that they deny faith because a psychological state can be artificially induced! An image can show a body’s position, as in a photograph of clasped hands and bowed head, seeming to say that this is prayer. But in reality, no prayer is involved in this image; it could be only a joke. Even when no one is joking, an image is incapable of expressing the seriousness of truth. I remember a photograph of Pope Pius XII in prayer, on the cover of the magazine Paris Match. It was an image that reeked of inauthenticity, utterly lacking in seriousness. It made you wonder how the Pope could have agreed to pose as if he were praying!
An image can properly be used to illustrate the history of the Church for us, but it will never tell us what the Church is. Even by allusion an image cannot enable us to grasp the deep and true life of the Church -- the body of Christ, for example. The image cannot even express the visible Church, except for outward acts and stereotyped forms, which are always false expressions of the visible Church. An image can report miracles, but only recorded miracles -- after they have taken place and grace has departed. The image can never penetrate as far as the holy place where the Word proclaims that an individual has become a new creation. The miracle is an expression of this new creation.
No image is able to convey any truth at all. This explains in part why all "spiritual" films are failures. When we insist on expressing spiritual matters this way through images, something other than truth is always perceived. Even more serious and alarming, truth tends to disappear behind all the lighting and makeup. It tends to vanish when squelched by images. The spectator of such films finds his attention diverted from what the film should be making him feel. The better the quality of the film the more insensitive the spectator becomes to the truth which the reality should be expressing.
Given this exclusive relationship between image and reality, one can easily understand why images have expanded so much in recent times. Our generation is characterized by the exclusive preeminence of reality, both at the factual level and in our preoccupations. We are moved in this direction by the marvels of technique, the prevailing tone of our time, the great concern about economic matters, etc. Our era is further characterized by an absolute identification of reality with truth. Marxism has prevailed absolutely in this matter, and science has finally convinced people that the only possible truth consists in knowing reality, and that the proof of truth is success relative to reality.
Thus in the thinking of modern individuals the image is the means par excellence which communicates reality and truth at the same time. This attitude concerning images can be held only if one confuses reality and truth to begin with, believing that a scientific hypothesis is true when it is confirmed by experiments. Such a hypothesis has nothing to do with truth, and is merely accurate. Of course, this preeminence of reality and this confusion coincide with the universal belief in the "fact," taken to be of ultimate value.
In all this, I am not trying to minimize the importance of the image. I mean only to specify its domain and understand its limits. The image is an admirable tool for understanding reality. In the social or political world, it can even be explosive and terribly efficacious. Land without Bread by Luis Buñuel and Our Daily Bread by King Vidor are admirable films for their ability to convict and to unsettle people’s good conscience. They are genuinely revolutionary. A documentary film of a riot enables us to penetrate the world of anger better than any speech could. But an image is explosive only if the spectator knows what it represents and if it is taken for what it is: a faithful representation of reality.
An image becomes falsehood and illusion as soon as a person tries to see truth in it. At that moment, by means of an amazing reversal, the image loses all its explosive power. For example, a person who finds truth in the films we just mentioned walks away from them with a perfectly good conscience. All techniques of justification stem from the confusion of truth with reality. The spectator of one of these films may believe, for instance, that any movement capable of showing such truth is itself truthful: "Since I adhere to this movement and am sensitive to the scandal portrayed in this film, I possess the truth." So when we believe that an image expresses truth, the image gives us a good conscience and a peaceful spirit. When the image is understood to speak only of reality, however, it is explosive and terrible.
At this point we discover a new problem. images in our society are always the product of a mechanical technique. Technique is truly an intermediary, since the universe of images is established for us by technique. But this is the equivalent of saying that we find ourselves in the presence of an artificial world, made by an outside force with artificial means. Therefore it is important to realize that stark reality is never conveyed to us in this universe of images. Instead we find a more or less arbitrary construction or reconstruction, with the result that we must constantly remind ourselves of the ambiguity behind the apparent objectivity of the image: it expresses a reality, but of necessity it presents us with an artifice. In this sense the image is deceptive: it passes itself off as reality when it is artifice; it pretends to be unilateral truth when it is a reflection of something that cannot be truth.
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When we say that only the word is related to truth, we are not saying that the word is necessarily true. We are stating that only the word can be truth, as, consequently, only the word can be falsehood. An image can be inaccurate with respect to reality, but it is never false because it cannot deceive us about the truth. Images have nothing to do with truth, except for the confusion established in the modern mind between reality and truth. Only the word can be false, since it is destined to express truth and because it occupies the central position.
The word is lying when it gives a lying answer to a question concerning the truth. This has always been an open debate in human history. We will not dwell on this, since it would involve us in a discussion concerning the content of truth, which is not possible in these pages. Let us just note that this permanent debate is always situated at the level of the word, and that it has always been conducted by this means.
But we will dwell on another aspect of this falsehood of the word which is less known and more relevant: the word becomes falsehood when it denies its relationship with truth. This happens when the word claims to be nothing more than an evocation of reality, as if it were an image; when it turns aside from its vocation in order to serve only vested interests, practices, and efficaciousness, whatever their spheres: economic, political, or scientific. Not that the word should refuse to serve in these areas; but it should not enclose itself in them so decisively. Even in its pragmatic uses, the word must always remain a door opening to the Wholly Other, a question concerning ultimate causes, and an indicator of ultimate answers.
The Bible provides us with a remarkable model of this, since it recounts all sorts of concrete and practical stories, factual adventures, politics, and psychologies. Yet in its concrete use of the word, the Bible seizes ultimate mystery from all angles, and in so doing, reveals truth itself. When the word denies its dual use, it becomes of necessity a lie and a counterfeit.
In such a situation, when the word claims to speak only of reality, it is so rapidly outdistanced by the image that the word loses its vitality and its gravity. The image is ever so much more efficacious, and the word is stripped of its authenticity; people stop committing themselves to what it says because it has become merely a practical thing. Under these circumstances, the word no longer deserves to be believed. This is our present situation. The Word is devaluated in our day because it has come to be used only to express reality. Thus no one puts his whole weight behind what he says, and such a word appears useless. Indeed, it is useless, partly because it is a falsehood; it is completely useless because its only true value has been repudiated.
In this state of affairs, people no longer have any means of approaching, discerning, and grasping truth. Thus we can understand the seriousness of the warnings against vain speech, words said "in the air," which are neither yes nor no, committing us neither to anything nor to any person.
Purely doctrinal or doctrinaire language is no more closely related to truth than words said in vain. We are still influenced by this strange movement in which the preeminence of reality has attempted to restrict the word to pure objectivity. The nineteenth century, under the influence of science that dealt with reality, wanted nothing but objective language, separated from the person using it. This transformed the word into something false. If the word of the Gospels is separated from Jesus Christ, the person who says and fulfills it, it is mere vanity. All human speech is intrinsically connected to a person. Not only in theology and from God’s point of view is the word the equivalent of the person. The objective word, left to itself, and in itself, loses all its weight, because of its very inability to be an object. Since someone has tried to separate it from the person who speaks it, it has lost its relationship with truth and has become a lie.
Let us be clear that this is not the same as saying that the word becomes true simply because the person who says it commits himself to it and does what he has said. Even if we can believe only the words people would die for, that still does not guarantee their veracity. It simply means that only these words have something to do with truth. Only these are worthy of entering the great debate, the great human quest. The word detached from the person speaking can never fulfill this minimal condition, because it is a dead word. Who would die for an objective word? Galileo answered the question well: you do not become a martyr in order to insist on the earth’s turning!
Reference to reality situates me in a universe of precision and imprecision, exactitude and inexactitude. I see either a red or a green light. I act in such a way as to find the right answer, the precise solution. The visual is the royal road to discerning what is correct and incorrect, and it gives me direct experience I have no need for reflection; I know immediately what is accurate or correct in my gesture as it relates to the situation I have seen. Hearing involves me with speech, and places me in the universe of truth, and therefore of falsehood or error. The questions are no longer the same. There is never any direct experience of truth, falsehood, or error. Truth and error dazzle equally: since speech is of necessity paradoxical, it presupposes a long effort at discernment, choice, and experimentation. What comes from the word is never obvious. Reality can be obvious, but truth never is.
* * * * * *
In this study we are not attempting to make a radical separation between image and word, reality and truth, but rather to recall the distinction between them and the place of each. It is good for language to accompany images, to add another dimension to them and give them meaning, as long as the image is dearly subordinate to the word. For the image, like reality itself, can never be anything but the raw material for a human decision. In itself the image supplies no fundamental basis for judgment, decision, or commitment. Only the word (since it is at the same time instrument, agent, and locus of confrontation between truth and falsehood) can be also the agent and the locus of differentiation and criticism, thus leading to a judgment.
Criticism is the preferred domain of the word. In its relations with images, the word is called on to criticize the image, not in the sense of accusing it, but in the more basic sense of separation and discernment of true and false. This is one of the noblest functions of the word, and discourse should relate to it.
We realize, of course, how this mission of the word aggravates people in our day. They need prefabricated certainties (stereotypes that are not subject to criticism, images without words). They need monolithic attitudes, behavior guaranteed not to require choices. Criticism seems completely sterile to them because it impedes action. They find it negative because everything is not accepted in advance -- and pessimistic because it does not automatically give its stamp of approval to all of reality.
For this reason the most distinguished use one can make of his language is the most hated one in our day. This is just one more facet of the devaluation of the word. What is at stake here is a conceivable expression of the truth within reality itself, but which must be uprooted by force, in the midst of the pain of affirming that it is falsehood. If language is not useful for this, what else could allow us to accomplish this task without which human beings do not have much significance?
Today, of course, this task seems negligible, compared to the importance of making refrigerators or refining oil. Anyone who tries to interfere with such efforts by means of the word is considered to be nothing but a conjurer. To that extent our contemporaries have lost the sense of their language and their life.
As means and locus of criticism, the word permits judgment -- not the judgment of practical matters and experience, which are the only judgments we are willing to submit to in the modern world, but the laughable judgment that involves ethical values. Only through the use of language can one learn to make ethical decisions. These are a result of the choices we make in critical thinking, as we criticize situations and ourselves.
As a product of criticism, the ethical decision operates in the domain of the word because it is utterly personal. It expresses the person; it can in no way be simply the act of participating in some group activity (if the ethical decision is genuine and not simply a matter of moral conformity). This is absolutely opposed to the guidance which an image can give someone. The image tends, on the contrary, to produce conformity, to make us join a collective tendency.
Indeed, images create certain kinds of human behavior, but these are always in harmony with the societies expressed through the image. This is true even when the image tries to be nonconformist. In such cases there is always a degree of ambiguity confusing what is possible with what is good. The decision an image would lead us to make can never be an all-or-nothing decision. But the word does constrain us in this sense, probably because of its very nature. For when the word is not authentic, it is absolutely nothing. All that remains is air. On the contrary, the image and action, however inaccurate they may be, always remain and give the illusion of reality and effectiveness.
* * * * * *
In these times we know only too well to what extent people’s psychology depends on the language they were taught. Their reactions, their relationships, and their manner of understanding and being, in the cultural sphere, depend on language. Feminists are right in claiming that the very structure of a language places women on an inferior level. Saying man to indicate both masculine and feminine, deriving the feminine grammatical form from the masculine, and a hundred other examples in vocabulary and syntax cause the masculine attitude to predominate. The effect of language in this area is much greater than the games which are said to orient girls toward the kitchen and men toward war! Language determines our psychology as well as our mode of reasoning. My intention here is not to emphasize cultural factors over natural ones, but to show the uniqueness of the mechanism of the spoken and heard word. It determines us as both psychic and knowing beings. It is as if everything on this level depended on verbal expression.
Furthermore, sight and language determine two different kinds of thinking. (Here I limit myself to a brief reference to a theme we will consider more thoroughly later.) Language, which is written, involves a long, careful process. My eyes follow the words one after the other, and thus a sequence of understandings are connected to each other. Thought develops according to the axis of this sequence of words. I receive knowledge progressively as the elements of what I am trying to understand link up in succession. Ideas are gradually laid bare as I follow the sentence. The sentence unfolds within a given time span, so that my knowledge necessarily takes the form of step-by-step reasoning. My knowledge progresses by following the curves of this language, assuming a certain continuity in the sentence and rationality in the relationship between words.
Finally, knowledge always involves consciousness. Language is endowed with rationality; I need to understand what the other person says to me, and I can do so only if there is rationality in the very structure of what he says (rationality by itself is not sufficient for this, but it is necessary). Thus language calls me to a conscious operation that leads me not only to new knowledge but to a broadened and developed consciousness.
The visual world with its signals based on images belongs to another order altogether. The image immediately conveys to us a totality. It gives us in a glance all the information which we could possibly need. It dispenses a reserve of knowledge I need not itemize or coordinate differently than the image itself does: that is, spatially. The transmission takes place instantaneously so long as I am located in the same space as the image. The image conveys to me information belonging to the category of evidence, which convinces me without any prior criticism. It is strange that so often a photograph is considered proof whereas there is hesitation about accepting the testimony of a witness (testimony lacks "credibility"!) or a reasoned demonstration.
Whenever something visible is involved, we are sure of our information. This certainty is direct and does not move gradually from unknown to uncertain and then from uncertain to known. But such certainty is based on absence of awareness. The sort of knowledge produced by an image is by nature unconscious. Only rarely do I remember all the elements of an image or a spectacle, but it has made a strong impression on my entire personality and has produced a change in me that is based in the subconscious. This overall and unconscious perception of a whole "package" of information which does not follow the slow and arduous path of language also explains why we are naturally, through laziness, inclined to watch images rather than to read a long book or listen to a demonstration. Intellectual laziness causes the image to win out over the word automatically, and we observe its victory on every hand.
Finally, the way of thinking changes: images link themselves up to each other in a manner that is neither logical nor reasonable. We proceed by association of images and their successive changes. The aspects of an image that change in this process have to do exclusively with the spectacle in its present moment. They are never a logical sequence. In this respect Marshall McLuhan’s analysis is correct. As he says, it is not the characteristics of electronic signals which have made the difference, but the manner in which images follow each other. When we think by means of images (as in typical comic strip "logic"), each image is a totality, and the sequence progresses by fits and starts.
4. What About the Philosopher?
As far as philosophy is concerned, the first to raise the question of sight and hearing, showing and speaking was apparently Søren Kierkegaard, in his attack on the philosophers who had preceded him.(In this section I limit myself to summarizing a chapter of the remarkable book by Nelly Viallaneix, Kierkegaard et la Parole de Dieu [Paris: Champion, 1977], to which we will refer often!) Kierkegaard mounts an astounding attack on the privileged position of sight in Western philosophy, where the philosopher is a spectator and philosophy is thought of as speculation.
Platonism establishes the philosophical sovereignty of sight and G. Hegel follows it closely. Plato defines the essence of things on the basis of their perception. True knowledge is knowledge of ideas and of form; but idea, eidos, comes from the verb eido, which means to see. René Descartes also places sight in an absolute and privileged position, as the model of intuition. Intueri also means to see. What a constant repetition of error!
Kierkegaard breaks the pattern: "The speculative individual wants to touch everything he sees.... Why doesn’t he respect the distance imposed by Being? Why doesn’t he deal carefully with the difference between himself and the other person, in order to under’ stand who he is? In order to understand, he must give ear: hasten to listen. You must learn to listen." For language and hearing are at the center of being. "Everything leads to the ear. Grammatical rules lead to the ear; so does the message of the law. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s unwritten base line leads to the ear, as does the system of philosophy. The afterlife is also presented as pure and simple music, like a vast harmony. If only the dissonance of my life could soon be resolved into that harmony" (cited by Nelly Viallaneix).
Phenomenology should not only cause things to appear as they are, but make them sound as they are! Classical philosophy does not know how to listen to or hear truth. Kierkegaard listens to Mozart: "The careful listener, when hearing A Little Night Music, will always set the speculative (visual) spectacle over against the silent ‘I know’ -- that silent situation in which we enable ourselves to hear the melody of the world as we listen, and as we wait for God’s call."
The philosopher who refuses to listen also refuses both truth and reality. He lives within one set of categories and thinks with others. He is "like a man who builds an enormous castle, but lives beside it in a hut." These philosophers may not listen to anything, but of course they talk! They do nothing else! But they use words not even "to hide their thoughts, but to hide the fact that they have none." Their verbal inflation has no foundation. This becomes clear when they use language only for constructing systems.
Kierkegaard develops an incessant polemic from his observation that philosophy is based on sight and at the same time ceases speaking. He satirizes philosophy, caught up in mirror tricks of speculation. These tricks lead only to the construction of a system in which one is then enclosed. Only Socrates speaks truly, "for Socrates does not look complacently on the spectacle of Nature, Being, or his own thought. As a man of character, he achieves the ethical ideal in his life, which he risks as he incarnates his demands. And he announces the need for understanding oneself, because to understand truly is to be."
Socrates is docile in relation to the inner voice that guides him. He listens to the secret voice we each hear. That is why he speaks. His irony, which asks the most ungracious questions, calls itself into question. "It abolishes speculation in favor of the word." Therefore, all Socrates’ teaching takes place within the framework of a dialogue, in which two speakers provide each other with the opportunity to find themselves and be born.
Kierkegaard calls this Socratic method of reciprocal (spoken!) interchange "indirect communication." In it the master and his disciple share in the quest for truth. If they wrestle, it is in order to understand each other. In this situation the word is action in life.
Every spoken relationship requires the mutual participation of the one speaking and the one listening, united in the same present moment. The word must be put into practice in life, or else it is interrupted. This is no theory or system or spectacle! This fundamental founding dialogue eliminates false visual knowledge (more precisely the false application of the visual to an object that is not of the visual order -- or even better, the reduction of all knowledge to the visual plane!). It also eliminates the egocentric monologue of the scholar who has understood nothing, and therefore remains unable to draw from within himself any new riches!
This is where Kierkegaard’s dialectic fits in, as Viallaneix shows so well. It is a qualitative dialectic (as contrasted with Hegel’s dialectic, which Kierkegaard calls quantitative), and a dialectic of life rather than a system of concepts. For the word is dialectical in itself and at the same time integrated into the whole of existence. By this I mean that the word is intended to be lived.
We can stop here without considering (Kierkegaardian) repetition, which Viallaneix contrasts with speculative and fine-layered philosophy. We may stop here, since beyond this point Kierkegaard involves us in the dialectically related stages within the steps leading to Christ. These are not successive steps organized in linear progression. On the contrary, each stage adds an irreplaceable element which always takes its place in the present moment of life, like a word that has been heard. Even if the word is forgotten, it leaves its mark on life.
At this point we find ourselves in the presence of a strange and happy contradiction. The reality around us changes and flows constantly. Everything flows: panta rhei. The river I see is never the same. This water I am looking at races away and will never return. At every level, reality is unstable and fleeting. Consider politics or economics: every moment changes their framework. Every moment presents some loss or accident that rules out planning ahead with a view to efficient organization. History does not repeat itself; no two situations will ever be truly comparable.
Time is not alone in making reality unstable. What is the nature of reality? Bernard d’Espagnat’s fine book (Bernard d’Espagnat, A la recherche du Réel: Le Regard d’un physicien (Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1981). questions and upsets us. I am aware that this rock I am looking at is essentially a vacuum with atoms whirling around it. But the more physicists progress, the less able we are to grasp reality. In the last analysis, only mathematics can assure us that reality exists. We finally arrive at such refined analysis and a knowledge so subtle that reality becomes a gradually disappearing object that leaves us bedazzled.
Reality is present and yet nothing is there. What I think I grasp is not only transitory and changing, but imperceptible in its "substance" (if one can still use this word in the light of the vacuum and emptiness revealed to us by theoretical physics). We have tools for measuring, but beyond that.... Is everything then an illusion produced by our senses? This old question needs to be brought up again, because it leads us to an astonishing contradiction. I perceive the reality around me (such as this table I am looking at, and on which I am writing) through my sight and sense of touch. That is, I grasp it by means of my most reliable and indisputable senses. We do not need to return to this idea: I cannot doubt what I see. Yet we know for a certainty that what I see is not what I see. But what difference does this make? My sight gives me certainty concerning reality, and I need nothing more.
Here is the other side of the coin: in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare says "Truth is truth to th’end of reck’ning." And Shakespeare is right. Truth remains truth in relation to and in spite of everything. It is firm, stable, hard, and irrefutable. We must not relativize it just because science has changed. We must not say that yesterday’s truth becomes today’s error (and vice versa). We must not become so extremely liberal that we say everything is relative, so that one person can be just as right as the person who says the opposite. If truth is truth even beyond the limits of our grasp and our approximations, it exists. And that settles it. It remains true to itself, of necessity. In observing vanishing reality, Heraclitus says something that does not vanish, and his statement falls within the scope of truth.
Truth is the absolute or eternal. We are not able even to approach its outskirts. We do not construct truth out of bits and pieces added to one another, so as to enable us to remove them and dismantle the construction. By means of language we transmit and understand this truth that is as tightly closed and solid as a dot, reliable as a map, translucent as a crystal, but hard as a diamond. We transmit it and even discern it only through language. Truth is connected to the word and communicated by it. That is, truth is communicated by the most uncertain means, the one most prone to variations and doubt, as we have seen -- by the word, that fragile thing that does not last, evaporating as soon as it has been said. Thus what we are surest of is connected with the most uncertain thing in existence; our most changeable means has to do with what is most certain.
Now here is the amazing thing: this is a godsend for us. How could we live if our senses advised us that the reality in which we live does not really exist in the final analysis, that it is only a tangle of whirlwinds and illusions? How could I walk if my senses showed me nothing but emptiness in front of me? How could I eat if my senses showed me the utter unreality of what I am eating? Not that everything can be reduced to the impressions of my senses. That is not what I mean. My point is that sight and touch, the senses of certainty, give me the guarantee indispensable for living, concerning a milieu that is strange and foreign to me. My certainty is false as far as exact reality is concerned, but this certainty allows me to live.
Physics or mathematics can teach me many things about reality, but they cannot contradict the unimpeachable evidence of my senses. What do I care about the fact that chemistry can give me the exact formula for the wine I am drinking? That has no effect on the great pleasure I derive from it.(Moreover, when chemists claim to be able to reproduce wine, vanilla, orange extract, etc., on the basis of their exact formulas, the result is always horrible -- at least for those with a sense of taste. In order for me to live, my senses must be right in spite of the scientific analysis of reality.(This is part of d’Espagnat’s rigorous analysis.)
The opposite is just as true. What would become of us if we could grasp truth with unvarying precision and express it without the slightest imperfection or without any uncertainty? What would happen if the means were perfectly adequate for expressing truth? Such a situation would be dreadful and completely unlivable. We would be pinned down once and for all in a butterfly museum. We would be there in all our splendor, unable to move any more, because everything would be said, closed up, and finished: perfect.
We have seen the horror that has resulted in the course of our history every time a person or group has claimed to express truth in its entirety, believing their word to be identical with the truth, or that truth could not be "elsewhere" or "other." This attitude has given legitimacy to all dictatorships, oppressions, falsehoods, and massacres. One person’s word against another’s is the only possible fragile pointer to truth, like a compass quivering in its case. And quite apart from human pretension to have a proud, exclusive corner on truth, even if we could seize truth as it is and transmit it without wasting any of it and without confusion, truth would crush us of its own weight and prevent us from living. In order to live, we need truth to be expressed by the most fragile agent, so that the listener remains free. The uneasiness which enables us to keep going involves knowing that we will never be able to grasp truth in its entirety, or be able to bring our adventure to a close by identifying our life with truth.
Some people, including Christians (I think particularly of my Protestant friends), have the profound conviction that truth is "there." They say, for instance, that "the word of God is expressed in the Bible." Even so, I must be prudent enough to say that this word is conveyed through human language: witnesses who pass it on to other witnesses. And when I hear it, I understand it with my words, my verbal images, and I speak it with my language -- and I am not God, fortunately. If this were not so, human life would be closed. By these statements, I do not reduce the value of revealed truth in the slightest; on the contrary, in this way I respect it and recognize its special dimension and the depth and permanence that make it truth. If I claim to grasp and express it in its entirety, then it is no longer truth.
The connection between Word and Truth is of such a nature that nothing can be known of truth apart from language. This truth establishes itself over the duration of generations (Hebrew toledoth), in the ebb and flow of words, through our fellowship and our misunderstandings. This is where this marvelously human life is located. The most reliable thing speaks to the most uncertain world; my most flexible means expresses what is irrefutable.
In finishing these prolegomena, we must say a few words about writing. This situation is completely ambiguous. It is a phenomenon that comes along and shuffles the cards after they have been dealt. We assume that writing is the written word. We invariably associate the two. First we must clearly understand that we associate them because of a long development. André Leroi-Gourhan has done a most praiseworthy job of showing that language was not written at the beginning, and that writing was not "canned" language!(Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Le Geste et la Parole [Paris: Albin Michel, 1965], I: 269-70) "Figurative art is inseparable from language; it is born from the intellectual marriage of phonation and graphic art.... From the beginning, phonation and graphic art have the same goal.... Four thousand years of linear writing have caused us to separate art and writing."
Actually we have misinterpreted picture writing and then ideograms (Leroi-Gourhan speaks of "picto-ideography") because of our familiarity with alphabetical, linear writing. In a stroke of genius, Leroi-Gourhan has discovered that present-day writing is not a normal sequence of picture writing, which would then be considered the "infancy of writing." It is true that alphabetical linearity could have originated in numerating devices, which are of necessity linear, such as notches, knotted cords, etc. Picture writing, however, is another matter, for there are two universes: "Reflective, abstract thought concerning reality, symbols which create a parallel real world, the world of language. This reflective thought is expressed concretely in spoken language, and enables people to express themselves in a way that goes beyond the material present." Therefore two languages exist: that of hearing and that of seeing.
Compared to phonetic language, graphic symbolism benefits in a special way from a degree of independence: its content expresses in the three dimensions of space what phonetic language expresses in the single dimension of time. Images enjoy a dimensional freedom that writing lacks. An image can set in motion the verbal process which leads to the telling of a myth, but the image is not attached to the myth. Thus in the case of picture writing we are in the presence of "groups of figures coordinated within a system that is foreign to linear organization and thus foreign to the possibilities of continual speech."
In other words, there is almost complete independence between pictorial expression and vocalized expression, between the role of the hand, which uses tools, and the role of the face, which is the means of creating verbal language. "The hand creates images, which are symbols that do not depend directly on the development of verbal language. In any case, they are not at all parallel." Leroi-Gourhan calls this language "mythographic," because drawing gives rise to mental associations, series of impressions "in a category parallel to verbal myth, and foreign to the rigorous specification of spatiotemporal coordinates."
The images evoked by this language can move in several divergent directions. "The hand has its language in which expression refers to sight. The face has another language, which is linked to hearing. Between the two the halo prevails that gives a special quality to thought that is in the strict sense previous to writing. Gesture interprets language, and language comments on graphics." The image linked with mythological thought integrates itself into a rich and diversified system of symbolic relationships. Leroi-Gourhan thus uses the term mythography to designate this visual language which corresponds perfectly to mytho-logy. The latter designates the recitation of myths composed of many-dimensional and all-inclusive images that occur in succession. Here we discover the relationship between spoken and written language.
Leroi-Gourhan then shows in minute detail how the changes might have taken place: the "linearization of symbols," developing into writing, the intervention of what can be counted, the transformation of picture writing into ideograms, and the appearance of linear graphics (which took the place of multidimensional graphics). He also shows how mythological thought might have developed into rational thought: then, "at the stage of linear graphics, which characterizes writing, the relationship between the two fields evolves again: written language, which paints sounds and is linear in space, becomes completely subordinated to verbal language, which is phonetic and linear in time. Verbal-graphic dualism disappears and mankind has at its disposal a unique linguistic instrument. It is an instrument that expresses and preserves thought, which is itself more and more channeled into reasoning."
We had already arrived at this point of ambiguity and uneasiness in the written word.(Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in Anti-Oedipus (New York: Viking, 1977), have made use of Leroi-Gourhan’s remarkable explanation for their own ends, to further their arbitrary and burlesque design. They say that civilizations slipped into barbarism because the graphic system lost its independence and its unique dimensions, aligning itself with the voice and becoming subordinate to the voice. After this we are treated to their hallucinations, such as "deterritorialized flow,’ and "instrument of domination." Graphics begin to depend on the voice, but it is a silent voice from the heights or from the beyond. This voice then begins to depend on graphics. By means of subordinating itself to this voice, writing replaces it. Despotism appears at this point: "The voice no longer sings, but dictates and decrees. Graphics no longer dance or animate bodies. Instead, they are written in a fixed manner on tables, stones, and books. The eye begins to read." And all this produces both religious feeling and the despotic state. Juggling with words is always easy.) Earlier we called it the "fixed" word: language that has passed from the order of the auditory to the visual. Henceforth it is a word placed in space, a word by which no one any longer commits himself: a word that no longer involves dialogue. The written word is inscribed in the order of reality, and therefore can be treated as part of reality, using the appropriate methods.
The written word is continually repeated and always identical; this is not possible for the true word. Ask the person speaking with you to repeat the explanation he has just given, and it will be different. But you can reread a page. In this sense, making a record or recording a tape is the same thing as writing: the same passage from temporal to spatial is involved. All these processes go from the unrepeatable to the indefinitely repeatable. They all make dialogue impossible. The word is no longer itself, but has become another world.
The written word is intermediary, which is why the world of writing or recording is so uncertain and ambiguous. However, as we have already said, language retains even in this form some of its fundamental characteristics. It is successive; although inscribed in space, it obliges the reader or listener to accept the law of time because of its successiveness. The sentence is still constructed in the same manner. I must follow it, with my eyes now, from beginning to end, and I grasp its meaning only through this flow of time. The linear aspect of language remains basic. Also, this fixed word is still related to truth, and only to truth. Being written down has not changed its aim, meaning, or intention. It is just diluted, weaker, and no longer backed up by a person’s whole being. No longer does it have a name, even if it does still have meaning. This word can be scoffed at in a way that would be impossible if it had just been spoken.
At this point we can profitably recall Pier Paolo Pasolini’s famous comparison of the oral and written on the one hand and reality and the image on the other. It brings into focus the double transformation characteristic of our era, when technique makes everything into an object. I cannot convey the image I see. When I place it on film, it can be transmitted so that henceforth anyone can see it. But the other person sees an image rather than the reality I had seen in a resplendent moment. There is a difference: the fixed image is not real. The reality grasped by the other person, who has not seen or known the reality I saw, is the film itself, the screen, and the colors and forms of the impression. He does not see the landscape and the face which were transformed into shapes and colors before becoming a landscape and a face. An abstraction takes place through fixation and objectification. I can recompose these abstract spots so that they become a face, but this is not the reality that is noticed at first.
The word is not itself either. Once it is written, it no longer has the sting of truth it had when said by another person -- even when the simplest things were said. No one is involved any longer. The truth is reduced to visual signs, which mean nothing in themselves; and many of the discussions concerning signifier, signified, and sign are based on the written word! The signs have become completely conventional; doesn’t the same thing happen to truth? Truth has become both abstract and objective. It no longer commits anyone to anything. Witnesses do not give their lives for written pages, but rather for words conveyed by people.
The word when written becomes a means of abstract, solemn discussion. A University based on writing is not the same thing as an Academy’s halls. Writing changes hearing into sight, and transforms the understanding of a person, with his words’ halo of mystery and echoes, into the understanding of a text. This approach involves grammatical and logical analysis, decomposition of structures, and understanding of truth through the dull seriousness of exact methods. Deciphering words and phrases leads us to reconstruct a message that has lost its life and immediacy. It becomes the result of a process, of a coming and going from the text to my knowledge and from my knowledge to the text, with an increasingly precise method.
We must not forget that writing also affects language. Images and our practice of reading and writing cause us to conceive of discourse as linear, with only one meaning, and consecutive. Writing is of necessity linear and consecutive, even when we try to sever its univocal quality through a sort of written polyphony. Efforts of this nature, such as Henri Pichette’s Epiphanies(Henri Pichette, Les Epiphanies[mystere profane] (Paris: Gallimard, 1969) or Raymond Queneau’s poems, are just stylistic exercises that cannot outweigh the unrelenting mass of texts that engulf us.
Language is thus reduced by being written down. It ceases being multicentered and flowing, evocative and mythological. In this sense, and therefore quite indirectly, McLuhan is right when he speaks of a return to a world of myth through television -- but not for the reasons he gives. Television, to the degree that it eliminates part of writing, causes writing to lose its rigor, or the implacable quality it gives to the development of thought. All this is lost when the written word is replaced by speech. Spoken language is then able to have multiple meanings again. These include the play on variations of a theme and the myriad directions in which the human spirit can move when listening. But this can happen only if the deluge of televised images has not done away with language altogether. In that case television will not produce any flowering; instead, the result will be the dismal disintegration of the very possibility of thought.
We all know that writing strips language of its certainty and even of its meaning, which then can be restored only after a certain thought process. We show that we sense this when we feel the need to go in the opposite direction and switch from the text to speech. This happens often, especially when we are dealing with the most creative, evocative, and truth-filled texts, such as poetry or religious writings. It is impossible simply to read them. Poetry needs to be spoken. We all know that it acquires impact and meaning only when recited. Then it becomes a living text because it is no longer a text; the speaker takes it up and can read it only to the precise degree that he makes it his own. He must become in turn the creator of language, with the help of the text he has been given.
The same process applies to religious writing. It is filled with life only when it serves as a support and stating point for a word that is spoken, announced, or proclaimed. In this way the word becomes current and living, having left the book’s pages and flown toward the listener. What a tremendous error people commit when they consider the verba volent to be critical and the scripta manent to be something positive. Precisely because written words subsist, and persist, they are nothing but an anonymous trace. Because they fly, spoken words are living and filled with meaning. The expressions above form a useful formula for a judge who needs proof of something that is past and surpassed -- a finished and closed matter. But they are a fatal formula for something living.
The written word is just a mummy whose wrappings must be removed someday -- not to discover a few bones, but to breathe life into it again. Only the word conveys the truth of a religious message. What the written word needs is not to be considered the source of a mere code, law, or formula, or of an indefinitely repeated prayer. It must be taken at its source and given rebirth, not by repetition, but by an inspiration that reopens it. Written language has closed the mind. Like a fist grasping a diamond, it has closed its grammatical and structural trap over a vanishing whisper that it tries to translate through enclosing and containment. But instead, writing snuffs it out, and we must open the straitjacket of writing so that it becomes a freshly spoken word. That way the whisper can be perceived and received again. Then the word can start the listener off anew in his quest for truth
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