Tuesday, September 09, 2008

what we have here is failure to communicate

One of the reasons I got into philosophy was a keen interest in communication breakdowns and meaninglessness (along with identity crises, personality collapses, world catastrophes). This led me to a nihilistic brand of existentialism, wherein hope for meaning or authentic communication between persons is always dashed because of a fundamental human incapacity for empathy. [As I think I've noted here before, I was a strange kid.] A few thousand pages of Pinter, Joyce, Nietzsche, Camus, de Sade, Stoppard and Beckett later, and I turned out to be a rather misanthropic and somewhat paranoid person.

Right about then, I ran into phenomenology, in particular the phenomenology of language and meaning as discussed by Ricoeur and Merleau-Ponty. Here was something entirely different. Directly challenging my sense of the meaninglessness of communication - and the communication of meaninglessness - these guys were saying that human life is meaningful, expressive and communicative from the level of speech all the way down: gesture, physical style, even the style of perception.

I had been thinking of the problem and tragedy of communication as the failure of language to express and to create intersubjective communion between persons. Pinter's plays, for example, are exercises in people speaking in ways that torture meaning and other people. Any time anyone in any of his plays says anything, they demonstrate the futility of communication - at least, this was what I thought.

But I had to re-appraise, because while speech seemed a hopeless avenue for communication, gesture didn't. I eventually came to feel that intersubjective communion is formed not through but almost despite speech, or, better, that speech is what we do when intersubjective communion can't go further. To put this another way, I was on the verge of the thought that intersubjective communion is silent sharing of present-tense living experience, and that we resort to language, to breaking that silence, only when there's a gap, a hole, or an obstacle to communion. Speech is what happens when shared meaning breaks down.

You get that in Beckett very nicely, I now believe. There's a whole heck of a lot of silence in Beckett's work, especially the novels. And in the novels, the torrent of words describing nothing serves as the background for the revealed meaning that silence has in relation to it.

Ever interested in pathology, I took up this silence project in order to ask whether the technical world of constant media bombardment could so overwhelm us that the silence is drowned out, obliterated - and with it, the possibility of meaning. This is all much more nuanced than I'm laying it out here, thanks to Dauenhauer, Merleau-Ponty, and other folks I'm reading, but the project is returning me to those old and fundamental stakes of my involvement in philosophy.

I'm working on what I'm calling for the moment the Strange Thesis, which is that communication always succeeds and always fails, in that it needs silence for speech to have a place, it needs speech for silence to have a direction and meaning, and it needs to be obstructed for there to be anything to communicate.

That's been my day. We also went to the post office.