Melinda Selmys recently wrote about the value of experiences that transcend or conflict with systems of signifiers. The entire post is well worth reading for what it has to say about mysticism and communion with God (a communion that does not rely on linguistic communication), but I want to pull out this portion that relates to my topic:
At the first stage, we come up with words, images, and ideals that represent the real. So, for example, if I’m thinking about apples I’m thinking of a category in my mind called “apple,” not about an actual real red fruit hanging on a tree. At this first stage, we basically create an icon that renders truth accessible to minds, and allows us to manipulate it.
Now, from our stock of phantasms we begin to abstract, seeking patterns within the data so that we can ascend towards a higher kind of truth. Slowly, over time, the abstractions become more and more distant from the original object. And this is the crucial point: as this process takes place, there comes a moment when the fruits of our abstraction start to be projected back onto reality itself. At some point, we come to believe in an ideal apple and start judging actual apples by this standard. Before you know it, you have breeders trying to create hybrids that will produce perfectly shiny, round red fruits, and workers spraying a thin layer of wax onto apples before setting them out in the store, because we will no longer accept the lopsided red-green objects that tend to grow on wild apple trees.
The ideal supplants the reality.
What use is a signifier that supplants the signified? Can language be a vehicle to communion if it has become detached from the direct experience of individual persons? I’ll come back to this thought, which has significance, I think, to the question of the value of a plurality of voices.
Where is the person?
If the purpose of language, as I posit, is to bridge to some small extent the gap between persons, then our use of language must put persons in a primary place of importance, not in the aggregate, but in the particular; each time we speak or write, we are speaking or writing to someone, whether to ourselves (to clarify thought or provide a journal of experiences), to others, or to God. Language is transitive; it is transmitted from persons to persons. But since persons are particular, and language is contextual—language signifies and points to reality and is acquired via reference to reality and experience—a person-centered use of language must consider the context and experience of particular persons to achieve communication.
Am I the audience?
I think private/public context is relevant because then the question of audience—and whether we ARE the audience or merely presume we are—comes into our understanding of another’s use of language.
Not everybody is the audience for every post or blog. When I, on my own tiny personal blog, used the word "shit" to describe false teachings that propagate spousal abuse, I offended at least one reader. But I wrote out of love and knowledge that strong, unequivocal language, even language meant to jolt and shock, would be experienced as a blessed relief to those women who had been or were presently subject to those false teachings from those around them. My intended audience responded as I expected they would, with gratitude and exhilaration at having their own experiences both expressed with strength and considered within the light of faith.
It's difficult, I think, to accept that sometimes we are not the intended audience. More than that, it can be difficult to accept that it is a good that we are not always the intended audience, because others deserve and need to be loved differently and with different words and metaphors than would reach and move us personally.
If the goal of language is communion, it must always fall short. Which of us has not had the frustrating and bittersweet experience of explaining ourselves or seeking to understand a loved one and feeling that no matter how many words are poured forth or how much “active listening” is attempted, there still remains an unbridgeable gulf? It is the nature of persons to desire communion, but it is also the nature of the person that our attempts at communion must always fall short of understanding and grasping the full subjective experience and being of another.
Here is where context and subjectivity comes into communication. I asked earlier if language can be a vehicle to communion if it has become detached from the direct experience of individual persons. The obvious answer, I think, is that signifiers disconnected from experience are like signposts lifted up and moved away from the roads they are meant to mark. You can read and move them around, but you can’t ascertain from the signposts alone where they came from or what way they should point. In Mindy’s example, the person attached to their abstract, ideal apple may, (like the child who has learned a word from association with idealized pictures in books) deny the “apple-ness” of the imperfect and varying fruit the rest of us know by that signifier. The signifier acts still as a way to represent an abstract to the self, but it has lost its function as a mode of communication with others because it has lost its connection with reality.
The gift of Babel
The story of Babel speaks to the obstacles created by our lack of common signifiers across all of humanity. Past the state of near-complete disconnection described in our example of the apple is the lesser but equally intransigent problem of signifiers which different people associate with different realities. Without even addressing language barriers between people who speak different human languages with entirely different vocabularies, we encounter fairly frequently the barriers between people who use the same vocabulary to signify subtly or widely different realities.
But there are tastes of a pre-Babel state. We all know that there are people we communicate with better than others. I’ve found myself saying of particular friends that their company is a relief because we “speak the same language.” I do not mean by that that we have our own particular vocabulary and grammar. What I mean is that we have a shared context which gives us confidence that our words do indeed signify the same realities. Sometimes this context is born out of co-experience, out of long friendship and events experienced together. Sometimes this context is born out of parallel experience, where we have discovered similarities in how we have each lived and come to understanding of different ideas and realities. And sometimes it isn’t apparently obvious why we understand so many of the same things by the same signifiers.
I've never had an experience of complete communion, and don't expect to. The subjectivity of lived experience is such that there is never complete identification of context, never complete assurance of communication. But we can approach improved communication by listening and observing the person (or, in the case of public or semi-public speech, those persons in our desired audience who respond to us). Our attempts at communication are themselves shared experiences, and they give us the opportunity to both adjust our understanding of how others use language through observation and attention to the context of the other, and to adjust our own use of language with better understanding of the role of subjective experience in our own use of signifiers. This movement and growth in communion can only be personal though, even when it is public. We cannot use the same signifiers to invoke the same realities for all we might encounter, and being finite, very few of us will ever master more than a handful of “dialects” of shared experience and context.
It should not come as a surprise, then, to find that, given the freedom to seek to communicate with a wide range of people online, there should be a plurality of distinct voices with distinct uses of language within even communities of shared values or creeds. This, I would argue, is the gift of Babel. Just as it gives glory to God to praise Him in different tongues and modes, so it is a source of great beauty and healing to witness the many different ways we overcome our differences to pour ourselves and the richness of our subjectivity out for others in pursuit of communion with particular persons. Catholics observe this daily in the way different saints appeal to each us as models and intercessors. There is no evil God cannot bring to good, Christians profess, and this seems to me to be the good most desired by God. He chose to save us through His own person; he seeks to sanctify us and meet with us through other persons; and, judging from the example of the Saints, He evidently takes great joy in the brilliant spectra of His love refracted through our individual subjectivity, shining forth through our persons to shed light, drawing others into communion in varying shades of love.