Here’s something I’ve been mulling over for a long time (decades!): the “blessing and the curse” that is human language. What an invention! Making sounds together creating meanings, meanings creating and shaping and reshaping perceptions, concepts, beliefs, feelings, relationships, images, imagination…
What we have done and continue to do with, and to, language have created an infinitude of human-ness—processes, products, tools, rules, many of which are paradoxical. Two in particular occupy my waking hours.
One is the activity of otherness. It’s our language ability that created otherness (the “curse”). Here is how John Shotter, a professor of communication, colleague, and writer whose work I greatly admire, put it recently, referring to the western philosophical tradition:
…that tradition has generally assumed that there is only one way in which we make things intelligible to ourselves: as conscious subjects with minds, that we set out in a deliberate fashion to understand the things around us, cognitively and conceptually, as objects—with our life as subjects radically split off from the ‘dead’ world of objects. In understanding the others and otherness in our surroundings in this way, we only understand them ‘from the outside’, so to speak, and thus relate ourselves to them in terms of a priori categorical schematisms.
And, yet, it’s our language ability that allows us to touch the other thus created (the “blessing”). Speaking with each other responsively and relationally (Shotter might say, “from the inside”) to create meaning together and not to speak “truths” to each other is how. Engaging in and responding to the activity of speaking and the performance of languaging is how.
Which brings us to the other paradox of my musings—the activity of narrative. Our language ability makes it possible for us to talk about things, to tell stories about them. And tell stories we do—all the time, in conversation, poetry, plays, songs, dance, novels, etc. We tell them to ourselves, to people we know, to people we just meet, and to the world (trying to reach across the distance to “the other”). Narrative is a major way that we create culture, and stories are one of the main vehicles for adapting to the particular culture we are living in. We’re so societally enamored of narrative, however, that the activity of speaking, the performance of languaging, has become alien to us and isn’t part of ordinary conversation. In other words, our very language ability has come to severely limit our language possibilities.
Ironically (and fortunately) we didn’t burst from the womb as narrativists. We had to learn that there are “others” and we had to learn to speak “about” things. For the first few years of life, we speak/babble responsively and relationally, engaged in the activity of language. We perform before we narrate. Speaking as performance (performed conversation) precedes and makes possible speaking as narrative (talking about things). And once narrative begins, it pretty much takes over in most people’s lives. In much of the work that I do, as well as my colleagues who practice social therapy, we help people take their ways of speaking and listening to each other—their narratives and stories and accountings—and use them to create a new kind of conversation, a conversation that reveals the activity of speaking that the use of language to talk about keeps hidden, a conversation that is performed. We invite people to awaken the performatory in order to loosen the grip about-ness has on our ways of being in the world.
The quote from John Shotter is from his essay, “Ontological social constructionism in the context of a social ecology: the importance of our living bodies.” It appears in the book Discursive Perspectives in Therapeutic Practice, edited by Andy Lock and Tom Strong (2012, Oxford University Press). I recommend the whole book!