I can't tell you what
I was just thinking. As in Augustine's view of intuition, the associations
I registered were too free of any repeatable limitations for me to verbalize
the experience. Perhaps these associations were of diverging thoughts
that have not departed my mind. The most handy example of something similar
is the simultaneity of sense perception. Each sense perception is specialized
and in that respect removed from the whole and yet also registered in
the same moment. In the thought I'm speaking of there were different concerns,
we might even say a universe of concerns none of which I can fully express.
This complex event might be considered incidental in regard to what I
have learned to value. I am now attempting to acquire a greater appreciation
of something I cannot verbalize, meaningful associations I can't excite
a recurrence of through keying words into a computer.
is never original. It must always be familiar. Language does excite original
sensations, as in the sound of a speaker's voice, but the semantic experience
itself is never sound or vision, or any other sense perception of the
material universe. Original experience of semantics would be like immediately
comprehending a language we never heard before. This kind of appreciation
is possible with music. Music we've never heard before can be immediately
appreciated as music, but semantics, like memory, must always be a response
to what is already familiar.
My concern is how to proceed. If I can only register verbally what has
already become familiar through cognitive means, my work with language
is not directed toward spurring meaning for the first time. Has
there ever been a first time in regard to comprehending language? Is anything
we read utterly strange, or is it rather strangely familiar? We may read
something and make no sense of it, and later return to it and find familiarity
as if we always should have been able to comprehend this particular passage.
This parallels how we initially acquire language through a growing familiarity
with the effects of verbal expression. We learn to fortuitously repeat
limited effects. We grow to appreciate what we had already experienced
albeit as incidental and free of the constraints of communication. Infants
can distinguish between phonemes their parents, having learned a particular
language, can no longer tell apart (Pinker 264), and meaning is similar
in this respect. To understand how this can work we must put aside the
notion that language makes meaning. If this were the case we would begin
with a rather meager supply of semantics that we would not want to reduce
by limiting what we come to appreciate. The verbal cannot originate anything
we come to value as verbal expression. Perhaps this is true of all our
senses; the original experience is what we take in from sensory organs
that does not result in sense perception, sense perception being that
which we perceive to the extent it is already familiar to us, already
among the effects we are prepared to make. In this sense the original
is not an object, but rather that which we are unprepared to value: particular
and unique effects we do not register.
Perhaps I simply want to learn, having reaped benefits from what I have
learned in the past by reducing the number of hard choices I must make
or that are made for me. Does the construction work, through which I make
a living, decide what sort of interests I can successfully pursue? If
cognition is verbal then it must follow that we can only appreciate what
language excites an interest in. If meaning originated in language semantics
could not have the benefits I hope for. The use of language would be the
limits of its effect, and all the incidental experiences that I accrue
on a construction site, when I seldom talk, and much more rarely about
what I'm now writing, would go for noughtor worse. My time on a
construction site would suspend the cognition I long to learn from. What
I then felt to be my most prized asset, the verbal, and all my work with
the verbal, would be suspended as I endured a painfully irrelevant expenditure
of time and energy. Furthermore my understanding of the world might be
contaminated by prevalent views that re-inscribe my thoughts with unwanted
We can see that my disposition toward construction work is strongly impacted
by my regard for language, and this involves study that is, in part, motivated
by a desire to develop an understanding through which I can regard different
aspects of my life as of mutual value. I want this view to be revised
within different kinds of experience that I am never fully "conscious"
ofeven if some rehearsal of what I cannot register is, at this very
moment, being performed as simultaneous events in my mind. Language is
not only directed toward fortuitous limitations, but also toward realizing
a universality that is always changing in its simultaneous instances of
social expression, expression that we cannot oversee, or monitor in any
way, but that our minds do, to some extent, incidentally receive. Mental
activity may be full of simultaneous events some of which act like separate
subjects we anticipate. It may be that these subjects, if we are removed
from interactions that disrupt our expectations, must form into a consensus
of what others will expect from us, and limit what we can expect of ourselves,
selves that come to behave as sovereign beings constituted as a uniformity.
Others become mere foils, since they can only be modeled after this consensus
that determines what we are disposed to find.
Our only particular
and unique experience is that purveyed through sense organs that introduce
stimuli from the material universeand yet language is often external,
as in the example of lines of words on a monitor. How is it so very different?
How can it be lacking in original experience if there is an external and
physical text that we respond to in the material world? The answer is
that our experience of physical language, whether as sound, or text, or
raised dots in the case of braille, is not semantic, but a different kind
of sense: vision, sound, touch. Even if vision, sound, touch, also respond
only to what is already familiar they still form our sense perceptions
of the material universe, while the semantic effect excited by language
is never a direct expression of material reality.
As you read these words they arouse an immaterial universe simultaneous
with your perceptions of material reality. A simplified version of what
happens is this: the stimuli from your eyes travels along the optic pathway
until it enters the region of the cerebral cortex associated with language.1
This linguistic region responds only to the familiar stimuli, the marks,
that spur semantic sensations. Stimuli from the eyes passes on to the
visual area of the occipital lobe where it excites the visual perception
of the physical world. The visual follows hard upon the semantic so that
you register both without any discernable interval and you cannot tell,
from what you experience, that more than one sense perception is responding
to stimuli from the eyes.
The preceding description
is far from an exhaustive account of what happens when we are engaged
by written text. Language could only have developed because our response
to the stimuli from our ears, eyes, or the surface of our skin was never
exclusively devoted to creating sense perceptions of the material universe.
Our perceptions may be more of an afterthought. It is possible for a creature
to have an eye, and to respond consistently to stimuli from that eye without
the luxury of any visual impressions.2
Such behavior would not be derived from cognition minus sense perception,
but rather a reaction lacking in a consistent impression that could become
either reliable or doubtful.
When reading, we do
not fix our attention on the series of characters in order to receive
visual impressions that we then interpret, transforming the visual into
semantic sensations. Sense perception does not work sequentially in that
way. We do not see something, and then, after we have concluded seeing,
hear a sound, and then take a turn at smelling.
Stephen Pinker, in The Language Instinct, refers to the linguistic
as a sixth sense. When I read his book, I began to feel less trepidation
in regard to proposing that semantics is the sense perception of, and
creation of, an immaterial universe. Here was a respected linguist repeatedly
returning to the idea that linguistics is a form of sense perception as
I was. But this mutual appreciation was one version of myself, while I
was also aware that I had a social identity, within a community of writers,
as a construction worker writing about writing from a position of disadvantage.
This identity presently determines what is expected of me more than anything
I could say to the majority of those people who are familiar with what
I write. Being able to cite Pinker may up my chances of convincing others
that I am not merely avoiding, through intellectual exercises, the emotions,
that fueled earlier writing. The proposal that semantics is a form of
sense perception does not allow for creating new meaning as the direct
result of innovative language, and what I am saying will not be understandable
if approached with the expectations that we can create new meaning solely
through unconventional grammatical constructions.
If semantics must be consistent like any other sense perception, and we
can only read what we are already disposed to read, this is not to suggest
that there are no surprises in reading, or that we all read the same,
or that we should ideally read the same, or that we should always use
words in a similar manner. It does not even necessitate that we must change
our current expectations to learn, but rather that we must form new expectations.
This is an important distinction since we tend to think of values as a
set of values so that to change we must replace one set of values with
another. Perhaps this is the path of least resistence, as in the example
of fully adjusting to the demands of some vocation we want to succeed
withinbut, what if we want to gain the advantage of studying more
than one discipline? The material for interdisciplinary study would be
available even if there were no programs that encourage it. Perhaps the
main concern, in this regard, is whether or not we can become proficient
without limiting the focus of our interests. Can we learn, not only from
close study with expedient results, but also through a delayed cognitive
response that includes more material than we can consider within any close
reading? In "The Love of Reading" Virginia Woolf speaks of "the
process of after-reading." After a book is read it takes on a shape
"held in the mind" (416). After-reading may occur days after
the book has been set aside, and this later experience may become related
to other experience; simultaneous mental events that were incidental at
the time of reading may become appreciated as meaningful associations.
We can see that the space-time of simultaneous events is non-sequential;
intervening experience does not conclude previous events. Our appreciation
of simultaneous events effects our conception of space-time, and even
what is continuous through intervening events that need not determine
the end of prior events. We have the example of sense perception in which
case specialized processes occur simultaneously; we register very different
senses in the same moment, and this simultaneity of perception may very
well have developed from simultaneous mental processes we never register,
processes as incidental to particular occasions as continuing to breathe.
In the case of my own life as a construction worker there is no way I
could make useful contributions to philosophy or any other academic discipline
if close reading, or some similar attention, was exclusively how we learn,
and perhaps my confidence in being able to offer useful models is deluded.
Within a fairly isolated effort I cannot tell the difference between adding
to current understandings and my own ignorance of other people's efforts
that I may simply repeat. I may expend time and energy in a direction
others have long ago recognized the folly of. To some extent this is rhetorical
in that I have found confirmation for my efforts in books I've recently
readbut I do depend upon intuition to an extent that may seem sloppy
to anyone who expects strong textual support for what I might propose.
My own social identity, and also my ability to think of learning as a
greater appreciation of what is already cognitively familiar, are at stake
in, to some extent, replacing sequential models with those of combined
influences, the influence of simultaneous expectations I can never be
fully aware of. Often when I write, I key words into a computer as a one-time
event that does not work well for later verbal communicationeven
with myself! Though writing did excite an experience that I believed I
was fully expressing, the words I laid down failed to spur a strong recurrence
of that experience the following day. Perhaps there were events occurring
within cognition that were registered as successful writingbut I
was learning a new emphasis on the familiar, at the same time as I was
making language, and I was not only reading the effect of what
I was keying into my computer. I don't mean to suggest that this considerable
cognitive delay is the only way we learn in regard to language. Certainly
there are occasions in which learning is derived from a close focus on
a passage that is difficult to comprehend without repeated readings in
which significant aspects of language begin to emerge, and it may seem
that we are bringing meaning into "consciousness." But even
this instance of close attention requires a non-linguistic, cognitive
response to make the already familiar appreciable.
If we cannot learn
without others, and if, as I believe, reading is not sufficient in itself
for changing verbal expectations, how can this learning even occur sitting
alone before my computer monitor? I do not know the kind of physical incidents
and the frequency of those occasions required to learn. We may even learn
from anticipating upcoming social events in regard to which our participation
will be expected, events that we have not yet entered. One important element
is that others we learn from do not have to be proven. We do not unlearn
if we find that we gained a new appreciation of a subject through misreading
what someone saidor at least misreading what we later came to believe
they felt they were saying. We may conclude that we need to anticipate
others more in line with what we come to believe they meant, or we may
continue to look for the unintended meaning beneficial to our own study.
The social stimui that infuse cognition with original experience may not
be traceable, especially more enduring influences that occur over a greater
lapse of time. Since language is only acquired through cognition, new
linguistic expectations, that have a broad influence on our thinking,
cannot be the immediate result of verbal interactions.
We must be disposed to anticipate what we read before we are engaged by
language to receive semantic sensations. If this is true then we cannot
become self-taught through isolated reading. Having said that, I should
point out that I am not talking about having rallied all our senses to
participate in a social occasion like a classroom discussion, and then
later on, after we arrive home, reading similar texts. Even the expectation
that we may benefit by repeatedly reading a difficult passage must be
learned as a change in what we are able to appreciate. If rereading is
sufficient for comprehension (that is, there are no unfamiliar terms or
an unconventional use of a word that requires us to turn to other sources
like a dictionary or the instruction of a professor familiar with the
author) we must still somehow realize that the components of what we are
reading are already familiar, and that we must adjust our expectations
when what we were initially looking for is not discovered.
When I speak of isolated
reading, reading in regard to which I have not become well disposed toward
a text by any prior social occasions, what I then need to read effectively
is the expectations of others to disrupt my satisfaction with the values
I was trying to read with. An important consideration here, is whether
new expectations, that allow me to comprehend more, displace previous
values or become simultaneous with previous values, adding to the mix.
Both possibilities occur. The latter case does not involve displacing
one social logic with another felt to be superior, but simply developing
the expectations through which to read a text that my life has not prepared
me for. I may then discover what was already, incidentally, familiar to
I am trying to anticipate sufficient social involvement to lead to expectations
of further participation with what could be regarded as incidental aspects
of my own mind. My social position, is, and must be, one of inferiority
in relation to material I have already assimilated. Despite whatever mutual
effort I am working toward, social inferiority is still an important aspect
of my efforts. I may feel that as my physical body, alone in an
unsympathetic universe, the vulnerability, the loss of control over the
sensations of my skin, my face, my mannerisms and my speech if I speak
out in a classroom or within some other public event. This physical experience
disrupts my sense of being a coherent whole "conscious" of who
I am, and these occasions have always had this effect on me, but earlier
in my life I felt this disruption as revealing weakness, and perhaps it
does, but it is the weakness of risking a social life.
Poor beginnings left me too confident in my own mental resources in comparison
to the culturally-deprived interactions I was limited to. Like Nietzsche's
mosquito "feeling within itself the flying center of the world"
(42), isolated efforts tend to return me to an exaggerated sense of "self-importance."
There is nothing within cognition and semantics to prevent me from being
highly successful at meeting my own expectations, and imaginary others
as wellthough I will, at the same time, feel a nagging suspicion
that something is missing. I have become deceived in regard to the expectations
of those others who I anticipate impressing. Augustine states "If
I am deceived, I am" (33), and it seems that he is talking about
being deceived in a social context. If I realize that I have been deceived
in anticipating the expectations of others I am a social being learning
from the effect of rallying my senses to deal with the vulnerability of
Paradoxically it would
seem that we exist, as social beings, because we are not in full control
of our body, our appearance, voice, mannerisms, what anything we express
means. Judith Butler states, "If one always risks meaning something
other than what one thinks one utters, then one is, as it were, vulnerable
in a specifically linguistic sense to a social life of language that exceeds
the purview of the subject who speaks" (87). If we have no disruptive
memory of interacting with others, we not only do not "exceed the
purview of the subject who speaks," we slip into a false consensus
of what the language we use means.
Learning requires an infusion of original experience from the material
universe and, however much we may discount other aspects of learning,
while paying close attention to a text, reading, alone, will not likely
allow us to comprehend aspects of a text we were not already disposed
to understand any more than it will allow us to exceed our own consensus
of what the language we use will mean to others. The semantic universe
of each individual is private, and yet the disposition to appreciate incidents
of cognition differently than we have previously is not. In that respect
the potential of our minds is not entirely our own, in that relying exclusively
on our own values is a form of deprivation, a reliance on a false consensus.
Isolated reading and writing can locate us within this deprivation; vision
is relegated to locating words, as the verbal appropriates the eye, and
other forms of sense perception become distraction or incidental to reading.
I exaggerate. Our
other senses do, and must, remain significant while we read. The historical
examples that Martin Jay provides in Downcast Eyes suggest that
a greater attention to text can result in the denigration of vision as
the purveyor of "truth," but, as Jay points out, this need not
result in the denigration of vision as a rich experience. I don't know
that reading and writing as a form of sensory deprivation has ever been
studied, or how it could be researched since anyone isolated in their
efforts, in the manner I'm suggesting, would not succeed in drawing attention
to himself, and so, for me, this must remain autobiographical, a concern
I will return to.
When walking down
a street we can register both the sight and sound of people passing by
and the traffic in the street. We can the feel a breeze on the skin, the
pressure of a backpack over one shoulder, and the contraction of muscles,
all at the same time, and this simultaneity of sense perception is essential
to our beingeven though we do not require equal focus on all possible
forms of sense perception. Speech is very different from written language
in that, though the semantic experience is no different in kind from that
excited by written language, the sound of a voice and even background
music may be considered enhancing. Taking a walk and enjoying a view may
be considered an occasion for conversation, as also may be the excitement
of participating in a classroom discussion. When reading, we can begin
to realize that the sensations excited by language are not vocal, but
rather sensations unique unto themselves.
When studying some subject at home we do not want to be distracted by
noises coming from a neighboring apartmentbut we still hear. In
this case we may be preparing for experience within a classroom, and take
advantage of the different space-time of semantic experience to prepare
for expectations that may not be reflected in our immediate surroundings.
It will not likely help our solitary preparations to anticipate greater
involvement with the people next doorand yet in a sense we do want
this simultaneous experience to tell us of other lives as we study, other
lives that are not a diminishment of what we are presently involved in.
We should not be lulled, while studying, into believing that life loses
significance at the periphery of our immediate experience of a particular
I cannot monitor all my influencesbut this is not to suggest that
I do not appreciate what others have written. I would quote more often
if it worked out for me, but I edit so much that cited passages tend to
become progressively arbitrary over the course of writingand I am
also effected by undo tension associated with citing. Citing can be promotional
in giving credit where credit is due. It can call attention to other authors
and works that may be of interest to the reader, and perhaps more importantly
it keeps others in the foreground as a constant reminder that critical
writing is not an individual effort. And yet despite these important reasons
to quote others, in my own experience in community colleges, citing was
introduced as having two major concerns.
The first was plagiarism:
stealing another's ideas. The second was the need to provide textual evidence
to confirm the worth of anything we propose. I particularly remember fliers
handed out in each class defining plagiarism and warning against itthough
I never knew who orchestrated the distribution of this cautionary note.
My introduction to citing told me that we were being watched to ensure
that we did not get away with committing serious infractions, and this
emphatically warned of our full responsibility in regard to recognizing
when we were borrowing ideas, and to make sure that we did not misrepresent
any viewpoints we paraphrased. These may be valid concerns, but not ones
that I feel should be forefronted in a way that turns the novice, unfamiliar
with the terrain, into a solitary being watched for possible infractions,
since citing should call attention to the first person plural of critical
writing, the others we cannot fully separate from our own experience of
I remember, as a teenager, lying drunk on my back, in the back yard of
my parents' tract home. I was too inebriated to do much more than move
my head from side to side, through which I could see the stucco back of
the house, and the garage which, among other things, sheltered my father's
automotive tools (the trade he taught in a local high school). Letting
my head roll in the other direction, I could see the redwood fence at
the back of the yard. Looking straight ahead I saw the sky, representing
my freedom to seek out a being identical to myself. I felt my drunken
stupor to be of little disadvantage for this impossible task; I felt myself
to be different to the bone from all others. Even if my difference felt
undeniable within a tract home development in the San Gabriel Valley,
it was an impression formed in relation to a very small number of people,
a tiny perspective within the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles. I didn't
have sufficient evidence to confirm or deny what I firmly believedand
I never would even if I expanded the world I took an interest in. My disposition
was not due to a lack of similarity to others, but rather that I saw them
much as I regarded myself as an isolated being. I could not see others
as having simultaneous, and sometimes incongruous qualities. I was poorly
disposed toward critical abilities in that they were not expected of me
or anyone else. Semantics remained a mysterious by-product of physical
I felt an inexpressible
internal conflict that formed me into a mysteriously complex center, of
little value to others; they were mere foils for my troubled outlook.
I felt that only I had a complex inner world incongruous with my behavior
and I regarded this lack of the ability to act as a coherent whole as
a terrible fault. I felt such disquiet, such a need to rail against everything
that made me feel small. I was beleaguered by the anxious suspicion, barely
registered, that in richer circumstances it was possible to perform a
more varied life, a life in which projects in common with others could
displace the need to continually recreate an isolated self, reacting to
oppression in my mind.
Should I include autobiography?
It may reflect the limits of my social experience, and in that respect
I often feel torn between first person and first person plural. Finding
it difficult to settle on a pronoun is probably similar to a discomfort
with citing, a lingering weakness, a fear of leaping confidently into
a position of equal standing with those who I might quote. I want to describe
my simultaneous experience as a construction worker, even if it is an
inferior position from which to participate in a mutual critical effort.
Should I tell you of running to the underground MUNI in the dark of morning,
while pulling a dirty sweat shirt over my head, because I lingered too
long reading over this I'm working on? We don't really know how important
this personal information might be if thrown into the mix of critical
writing. Perhaps the singular, where a plural is wanted, carries with
it an overblown sense of the subject writing, which should be dissipated
within a mutual effort in which having been influenced by others is strongly
highlighted and rightfully so, and I'll return to that soon.
Sheet Metal work, my only income, has been recently altered by the growing
aesthetic preference for exposed duct, and this has created a tension
between the traditional building trades emphasis on hanging duct as fast
as possible (duct that will be hidden above a ceiling) and producing the
sculpture of visible duct work important to the appearance of the finished
building. The use of the eye for hanging duct is restricted by the need
to get the duct up quickly, the need to quickly handle the duct into aesthetic
lines. We are unlikely to see it painted within a finished buildingwhich
is just as well in that the finished vision will not include the heavy,
galvanized air-tunnel, physically hoisted in a dusty, gutted building,
a richer physical experience than keying words into a computer as I'm
One benefit of this work, an unexpected one considering that it would
seem to prevent me from pursuing the interests that I find more compelling,
is that it involves using multiple sense perceptions in an exhaustive
manner. Construction work can be a personal measure of the value of what
I have been writing in that it involves the potential threat of viewing
aspects of my life as mutually exclusive and harmful to the realization
of some hypothetical life more suited to my abilities. This is something
I am not likely to forget while writing, and perhaps exhaustion has come
to displace the tragic view of looking at myself unsympathetically as
if from outside the construction site, from a campus, or anywhere else
from which the view of myself as a social being will be an expression
of limitations, a small circumscribed place in society that my desires
should perhaps be shaped to fit. Where the tragic view prepared me to
pursue the seemingly impossible, as an embrace of the unnatural (my solitary
life passed before me as is said occurs before death), exhaustion has
taken the place of my previous tragic view, becoming a universal exhaustion.
Even though I may be a poor scholar, we are exhausting our
It may be that I am
inclined to make pronouncements without doing the research required to
substantiate my claimsof doing the wrong work! This is the modus
operandi I am most likely to be accused of, and that I feel a need to
justify in that I find that if I always need textual evidence to back
up whatever I propose, I cannot maintain momentumat least at this
time in my life. This doesn't mean that anything I say comes out of the
blue, but rather that I don't keep track of influences, especially since
there tends to be considerable delay, and a great deal of intervening
experience before I arrive at what I may eventually express with some
confidence. I might then speak of this universal exhaustion as a universal
delay, a disjunctive interval, in which my efforts do not come to a sudden
a halt when I must turn my attention to construction work. Construction
work itself has more meaning as part of simultaneous projects like that
which I'm now working on.
Essential Augustine. Ed. Vernon J. Bourke. Indianapolis: Hackett,
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech; A Politics of the Performative.
New York: Routledge, 1997.
Inside the Animal Mind. Episode Three: "Animal Consciousness."
Nature Video Library. Produced by Green Umbrella, Thirteen/ WNET New York
and the BBC, 2000.
Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes; The Denigration of Vision In Twentieth-Century
French Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense.
The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Ed. Walter Kaufmann.
New York: Viking, 1965.
Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct; How the Mind Creates Language.
New York: Harper, 1995.
Woolf, Virginia. "Virginia Woolf: The Love of Reading." A
Bloomsbury Group Reader. Ed. S.P. Rosenbaum. Oxford: Basil Blackwell,
Pinker states that "[Gazzaniga's coworkers] found that all the areas
that have been implicated in language are adjacent in one continuous territory.
This region of the cortex, the left perisylvan region, can be considered
to be the language organ" (307).
the documentary Inside the Animal Mind a man, and also a monkey, both
suffering from blind sight, are shown to respond correctly to visual stimuli
on their right side, visual stimuli that they do not register having seen.