Overweening Generalist

Monday, January 7, 2013

Neologizing Ad Infinitum: Words, Memes, Religion, Humor, "Reality"

Social Phenomenon of Language
Picking up from the Robert Anton Wilson riffs from The Widow's Son, here's Peter L. Berger, the great phenomenological sociologist, in his book on the sociology of religion, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. He's talking about how an individual grows up within an environment and society, and how the local social world's roles, institutions, and identities are actively appropriated by a person; no one is an inert being being solely molded by outside forces. At an early age, a person derives a subjective and objective identity (how we see ourselves and how others see us). As a person living in constant interplay with the given world we're born into, we are part of the ongoing "conversation" in that society, and participate in its active, ongoing construction. A profound mediating aspect of this construction is the language we use. Here's Berger on this:

"The relationship of the individual to language may, once more, be taken as paradigmatic of the dialectic of socialization. Language confronts the individual as an objective facticity. He subjectively appropriates it by engaging in linguistic interaction with others. In the course of this interaction, however, he inevitably modifies the language, even if (say, as a formalistic grammarian) he should deny the validity of these modifications. Furthermore, his continuing participation in the language is part of the human activity that is the only ontological base for the language in question. The language exists because he, along with others, continues to employ it. In other words, both with regard to language and to the socially objectivated world as a whole, it may be said that the individual keeps 'talking back' to the world that formed him and thereby continues to maintain the latter as reality." (18-19)

My two favorite ideas here are the inevitable modifications of language we make, which subtly change the reality, the ontological basis of the very language being spoken. Yes, the world is "objectivated," but there's a feedback loop - which Berger and other phenomenological sociologists often refer to as "seen but not noted" - between the "world"and the language used to describe it. The second idea I like is that talk itself maintains the world.

It seems probable that this is the basis for why we say "Hi how ya doin'?" and "Fine, how're you?" and hundreds of other little things. They're a way of saying, "I'm here acknowledging your existence. Will you please acknowledge me back?" It's mammalian.

Altered states of consciousness, states that make us "more aware" or aware of the everyday in some new way, will go a long way to shedding light on this. Maybe this is why cultural creatives will neologize much more than others: they spend more time alone, in solitude, doing their thing. New words or the idea that there might be a "need" for a new word or phrase or metaphor will tend to come to them, they will share it with their fellow creative friends, and then the word or phrase might jump out of the local creative community and "go viral" which seems like a neologism that has piggybacked on Richard Dawkins's "meme."

                                   Dawkins, never one to back away from controversy

Dawkins Coins "Meme"
In his discussion of DNA and genes and how maybe they are in the driver's seat, making us think we're in control when they really are - they're so wily! - Dawkins said that the "god" idea, while we don't know how it arose in the meme pool, probably arose very many independent times via memetic mutation and is a very old idea indeed. It replicated itself via spoken word (see Berger, above), great music, great art. It survives in the meme pool, says Dawkins, "From its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next." (The Selfish Gene, 192-193 in 2nd [1989] edition)

But how did Dawkins coin "meme," a word which has become an incredibly powerful meme itself? He tells it with a thrilling High Drama I find very appealing. He says that besides the DNA-RNA-gene replication processes, there is another replication process, and we don't have to go to "distant worlds" to find it. "It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting, far behind." It is "Staring us in the face."

This new soup is human culture, and we needed a name for the transmission of human culture, something like the word imitation. "'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene.' I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme."(192, ibid)

"Meme" must be one of the most effective neologisms deliberately concocted by one man. Bravo!, Dawkins.

Neologisms as Mildly Psychoactive Non-Substances
Because they get into your brain and nudge between the circuitry of words/concepts/phrases that are already instantiated in groups of neurons that "know"how to express some feeling in your own language, I heartily recommend reading books that collect words from other languages that express something we don't have in English. When I was a young teen, some columnist for the Los Angeles Times wrote about these words, and the French term le esprit l'escalier stuck with me: it's the feeling that you're just a tad too late in coming up with the appropriate thing to say; you missed your chance. It translates to "the spirit of the stairs," as if you had had a heated talk and someone got the better of you because, while you felt you knew what you needed to say, nevertheless the words didn't come to you in time. A few minutes later - when it was too late and you were ascending the stairs on the way out? - the words arrived in your brain.

Prof. George Carlin noted that we had a word for "yesterday" but are still waiting on one for "the day before yesterday." We can see how neologizing can possibly takes us down a rabbit hole towards utter ridiculousness, but than again also: humor? (See Lee Camp video, below)

Howard Rheingold wrote an entire book on these - words from all over the world - that express some idea or notion or feeling that we probably need in English, but we don't quite have it yet. See his They Have A Word For It. Here's a blog-like piece by a guy who admires the book, and includes a small sample of the words. If you read pp.3-7 of Rheingold he's knowingly in the Whorf camp, and this book came out when the Chomskyans had made Whorf persona non grata in the groves of academe.

Pei-Ying Lin, on emotions we have but don't have a word for them. Serendipitously discovered today by me.

This is subjective, but I find it wonderfully weird to know that there are all sorts of spaces in our language. It allows me a sense of freedom, of possibility. To be a free play with language, to twist metaphors, appreciate a good simile yet more than ever. To neologize and pun. All of these terms seem as first cousins, and as we learn more from the cognitive neurolinguists: afford more of a psychedelic ("mind-manifesting") appreciation of language and our often unconscious rhetorical ploys and how they make "reality" far more than we may have ever guessed.

Lee Camp's neologizing like a madman recently here. He seems to owe Lewis Black an ounce of weed with the theatrical anger bit, but I like this guy. He's snotty and smart; a terrific punk comedian. My favorite one so far is calling the Democratic party "limpotent." It's even better than what I usually call them: "invertebrate." Here he is, for 4 minutes or so:

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