The Failure of Words

Words are insufficient to even begin to describe the universe. Not only do words completely fail to describe the universe, words also create an entirely other set of fictional identities which then the reader has to try to distinguish from the real world. By creating words, the users of words are able to constantly reclaim meaning and erase the obvious klunkiness of human existence. Words are dangerous, words are unimportant, words fail, they fail to describe an experience or to create meaning.

Just take a basic experience like trying to describe your environment. There are so many objects in your environment unless you are living in a space with nothing, but even on this planet, nothing is still full of detail. Try to write about anything in your environment. Nothing that your write will even come close to describing the truth of what you see or experience, and yet we have this faith that somehow words move us.

Words are a distraction from real identity, from actual experience. Life can only be experienced as life, it can never be anything but direct experience. Even words, at their best, can only provide yet another kind of experience. Very few words spoken will ever matter. The best thing about the people who make words is that they die, and every new generation that is born has the potential for revolution and recreation of meaning.

We have failed as a culture, I think that as much is clear. Our world is full of garbage and lies and our future is just manufacturing more garbage and living more lies. Our laws are a set of lies that are designed to control us and manufacture cooperation through the use of force. We haven’t even taken the first step as a species toward anything beyond basic, elemental expression.

The sophistication of our weapons and the pain and suffering they are meant to inflict is an expression of the failure of words. When you look at your environment and you see everything that it is lacking, that is a result of the failure of words, the failure of our culture to create any kind of meaning that is sustainable over the generations.

This is why words are meaningless, in fact, words are worse than meaningless, they are meaningful, but the kind of meaning that words create is completely distorted. We have these brains and our brains have their own architecture, their own agenda, our bodies have an agenda and as a species, we rely on the assumption that the humans around us have some kind of similar agenda. This mutually assumed communication is the foundation of language.

Part of why language fails is because of that space in between the assumptions. That is what has interested me lately about language is the space in between words and the ways in which words fail. I think in part the failure is due to the extreme abundance of language. Language is everywhere now and it is cheap and easy to access. We do know at least in general we seem to know that an abundance of language is incredibly important to human freedom.

It could be that having access to so much language helps people create and use the tools that they already have and the tools that are available to the culture. The access that language provides is a method of problem-solving but it still requires a real person to do something to give the language meaning. Most of the language we access today is a dead language — the weather, sports, politics, food, entertainment — garbage that is meant to distract you as you go through the day.

Real language is transcendent, it has to slip under the sheets of awareness and slip into the cracks of the mind and wedge in there somewhere, like a virus and slowly infect the mind with a novel idea. That is language at its best, but most language doesn’t do that. Most language is used against the person experiencing the language.

Most language is used to convey lies, distortions, and mistruths. People write a language to feel better about themselves and to tell themselves things that aren’t true and have no relationship to reality. At its worst language infects entire cultures with lies. In using language I myself am unable to express anything that has any real depth of meaning. Language is either the expression of suffering, hope or descriptions.

As a species, we haven't figured out how to efficiently categorize language, thought, or meaning. We are unable and fail to do anything except the basics that we have always done, the dictates that biology puts on all of us as animals to make shelter, gather food, water and meet our social needs. We are unable to create meaning out of the world we have created because it is completely out of sync with the natural world.

The good news is that the world doesn’t care, no one cares about language or anything we make. Animals don’t really care about us and we don’t really care much about each other or about the past. What we care about is what is happening to us personally right here, right now, and about the people we love and care about, which is usually only a few people because most of us lack the real empathy of caring about the entire world.

I am not saying that as some kind of critique or wish for something different, I mean, do I wish the world was different, yes of course I do. I wish that people really did rise up from the dead and I wish people never got sick and died but the reality is that we do and the only escape hatch is more people but then those people are born with the same set of problems that we have and each generation the problems get deeper and deeper and they never stop.

Now we are at the point of global climate change and that is on top of the collective trauma of having lived through at least three generations of fear of nuclear war and that is on top of two generations of war for Europeans in the west and colonialism, subjugation and genocide in the rest of the world.

This time of recent human experience is an optimistic time, in part because of language. Language has opened up a new set of realities for all of humanity and there isn’t any limit to what we can do with language, but it is important to understand what language is. It is best to start with how language fails, and then to analyze all the ways in which it has failed because they all matter.

The supremacy of language belies the arrogance that it has accumulated over the generations. In this time of human existence, animals are granted freedom and rights on the basis of language. They are denied those same rights on the basis of language. Language is used as if it were an entity in and of itself as if language itself created rights, laws, and conditions of categories of actions as if language itself owned those categories of identity and experience.

This arrogance, that the crafters of language have imbued it with, belies our true nature. We are animals, and we will do as animals do, in every sense of the word we are animals. We are not anything more than animals, but language, tools, and the accumulation of time make us believe in our own fantasies all crafted by language.

People are born free, we are wild and free and meant to experience the exuberance of life. That is our future and our fate. There is no escaping our identities as animals. We have an evolutionary heritage that has programmed beings like us for billions of years. Every molecule that has ever bumped into another molecule to make one particle of DNA, every single-celled organism, every mistake a predator made when trying to catch its prey. Every spin of the earth and the gravity it pulls on our bodies has made us who we are.

We are animals and we don’t need language. In fact, we have lived without written language for almost our entire existence. We have probably had spoken language a long time, but the limits of spoken language were always good for us. It was good to think we are in the center of the universe, actually to not even think there is a universe.

It is much easier to not know that the world is a vacuum filled with radioactive particles and that the universe is cold and dead and mostly absent of any meaning or purpose. It is better to not know that we are the result of minor variations in the uniformity of the universe during the moments after the big bang and that the clumpiness of the universe is mostly an expression of this variation in texture at the origins of the universe.

It is so much better to believe that there are gods and that there is a purpose and that words have meaning and that we are moving toward something, some future that we can all feel hopeful about. The problem is that we aren’t, and so what we are left with is this moment now as well as our own personal experience and the experience of everyone who has existed.

Mostly we are filled with information from our own internal experience and that narrative is basically what drives our entire lives. We have become so influenced by this tool of written language that language and the brain have co-evolved together. I don’t have any evidence that this is true, but I personally have a belief that it is true, that language has shaped and reframed our brains to accommodate more and more language.

I don’t have any explanation of the mechanism or how it works, it is something I can only intuit due to my lack of understanding regarding how the brain works, but I will say that on some level it seems intuitive that if we use language generation after generation then it is going to shape how we use our brains and how our brains are wired. Even if it is just something we do as children we are exposed at an early age to langue and that exposure is going to shape our brains to respond in certain ways.

The crazy thing is that we look around at everyone about us and seem to think we can guess what they are thinking and what they are experiencing based on language and our own internal experience of life. No matter what we do we can’t help but make assumptions about everyone around us. Actually, the truth is that we will never know almost anything about all of the people who surround us, and that is exceedingly strange.

What is even stranger is that in direct contradiction to this entire essay, language is the only medium that we have to actually communicate with almost all of those people. That is not to say that we will ever really have any meaningful connection, but through language, we do have the possibility of some kind of connection.

The problem with human existence though is that once we leave a few basic circles of reference to one another, then after that our experience of other people is really an experience of flatness. There is something about language that really fails to connect one with one another unless we all have some agreed-upon baseline and that baseline set of expressions is the fundamental pivot on which all of culture rests.

In our generation, it is social media. Social media, which is in part an expression of language, although it is mostly an expression of images, is the baseline pivot point of culture right now. In the past it was television and that still plays an important role in the shaping of our experience, and before television it was radio and before radio it was the printed book, especially the printed religious texts.

Still, none of these are meaningful without the threat of force from the state and the sense of punishment that is built into every level of our culture, from an imaginary deity who is going to punish you, to the police who will punish you and take away your rights if needed on to the military which can basically do the same thing as the police only with even more damage.

All of our society is based on coercion and the threat of violence. Violence is the social glue that holds our society together. It has been violence ever since 1492 when unfortunately Europeans first began to interact with this western hemisphere I live in. I didn’t ask to be born here and I don’t approve of anything that has been done throughout the history of colonization of the western hemisphere by European colonial powers who brought disease, genocide, slavery, capitalism, guns, prison, and private property to the western hemisphere.

This legacy of the garbage that was brought to these two continents, north, and south America by European colonizers is the legacy of violence and brutality. That is the fundamental expression of the state and nothing about that fundamental expression has changed in 500 years. It has only become darker and darker, culminating in the cold war and the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. We have never backed away from any of the horrors we have created as a species, we only try to cover them over with social niceties and something about the species seems to make things invisible and acceptable under any circumstances.

For example, I have always wondered how so many Germans were able to just go about their lives in the shadows of some of the concentration camps where millions of people were mass murdered. It is hard to understand but they did. They might have claimed ignorance, but the truth is that they must have had some awareness because they knew Jews were disappearing from all over Western Europe and they knew that the German state was essentially a brutal killing machine because that is what was, and yet there they were, living with their abundance and their glorious future they were already living in their imaginations. We are the new Germans and we are living in the same willful ignorance they were three generations ago.

I was driving to Gresham, Oregon the other day to visit my intellectually and or developmentally disabled friends I used to work with because one of them was celebrating a birthday. On the way there on a street corner, there was a man standing at the corner holding a “Trump Won” cardboard sign and holding his hand out in the gesture of a nazi salute also known as the Hitler salute was meant as a way of displaying honor to the dictator. I have never seen someone making Nazi salutes to cars driving by as a gesture of solidarity or an expression of political dissent.

The next day I was at home, having a wonderful, peaceful day enjoying time with my wife and the cats when I received a phone call. I answer most phone calls I receive because I run a small business and clients might call me at any time about anything, but the truth is about half the calls I get every day are spam phone calls. So I answered the phone and I heard a scratchy computer-generated voice saying, “beware on January 20th either you are with us or against us. if you are against us you are hereby given notice.” the scratchy computer-generated voice repeated the threat over and over in its slow, inhuman cadence until I hung up.

It was the first time since I moved to Oregon that I have received any kind of threat whether from a computer-generated recording or otherwise. In Tennessee where I used to live getting threats was par for the course and I received threats all the time via email, telephone and in-person including death threats.

On that same day, I waded through probably 5000 emails that had collected in my inbox mostly pressing delete. It is hard to explain the modern, increasingly bizarre dilemma that language has become. It has become junk email, spam email, and neglected information. Neglected things to do, neglected things to read, neglected words that you really needed to see submerged in a sea of words.

This is the fate of language, the dearest treasure of our human existence. Language has transformed us, it has rewired our brains, it has moved us from poverty to ignorance, from freedom to fascism, from hope to despair, from superstition to science. Language has failed us because we have believed it. We have believed in our own lies and we have lost track of the thread and become submerged in the sea of words, looking for hope and some authentic experience.

In the end, I think we will have to learn to compromise with language. I do believe that someday we will unravel the thread and when we do there will be some real freedom. As I said we are already born free, but reclaiming that awareness and holding it is a difficult thing to do every day when there are so many distractions. We are distracted by our bright lights and shiny objects and we believe in the lies that we see on television, in our social media, and the lies that we tell each other every day.

The day will hopefully come when we are able to balance our need for language with the implications of our collective human history and the ways in which language contributes to our drive to oblivion. When we reach that happy point of balance maybe we will begin to spin the world into a different narrative, one not based on nationalism, religion, law, politics, or custom, perhaps at the point we meet that happy medium we will move forward with a new word that will reflect who and what we really are.

Anna Thompson is a writer, artist and cat lover who lives in Portland Oregon with her partner and six cats. She loves writing about sex, gender and religion.

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