Bruno Latour on Religious Language

At its best, religious language does not mystify and blur, but focuses the attention with absolute precision upon some expansive reality. The ongoing use of language tends to render once-crisp metaphors stale and cliche. Given that religion tends to deal in so many intangibles and has a strong inclination to preserve and pass on particular formulations, its language is especially susceptible to codification into strange esoteric systems in which very many words are employed to say very little. This whole article is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by the description (more of an exhortation, really) given to religious language.

Uncomprehending outsiders will assume that the transformative truths of religion are about getting yourself teleported to some other, better world, but for insiders the opposite will be the case: religious truths serve to remove distractions, enabling us to focus on what is taking place in our space and in our time – to attend to incarnation, to the flesh, to a face, a stone, a child, a fly, a tomato or a piece of wood – and to find them replete with significance, and calling for no response except gratitude, reverence and love.

Religious language can be risky “it requires great care,” Latour says – “it might save those who utter it” but it is never mysterious: it contains “nothing hidden, nothing encrypted, nothing esoteric, nothing odd”. It has its own robust wisdom, and does not need to beg for “tolerance”, or to plead with tough-minded sceptics to concede that the facts of science are too dry for some tastes, and that a spoonful of “wonder” or “quaint religious feelings” might make them much more palatable. Contrary to what we have been brought up to think, the daring heroes of intellectual escapology are not the religious believers but the practising scientists, going boldly into the unfathomable mysteries of eternity; while religion, properly speaking, is a set of exercises in “breaking the will to go away, ignore, be indifferent, blasé, or bored”, and focusing our minds on the intimate textures of what lies close.

via The cult of science — newhumanist.org.uk — Readability.

Roots in the Air: Honesty, Poetry, and Abstraction

“Man is an upside-down tree, the roots of which are in the air.”

 – Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov

In context, Shem Tov—a Spanish Kabbalist quoted in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory—is speaking about how humanity feeds off of spiritual nourishment, rather than the material world. The image, however, has stuck with me for another reason, and fed my thoughts over the last week or so with regard to the integral role of abstraction within our thought and language.

Personally, I’m recognizing how frequently I take recourse to abstraction in my writing and in my teaching when I’m unsure of the point that I’m trying to make, or trying to dance around some sensitive issue. It’s always easier to treat a topic from 10,000 feet above it, rather than mucking through the particulars. It is a symptom of my laziness, an attempt to avoid the hard work of research or careful thinking that would allow me to write or speak more exactly. As such, I’m trying to shorten my own leash on abstractions.

More generally, I’ve become aware of how much power there is in abstract language to mask and distract. Abstraction allows someone to speak when there is really nothing to say, or to speak in a way that obscures what is really taking place.  Not only is abstract speech very often the language of politics (especially campaign politics), it is frequently the language of religion, and most unfortunately, the language of prayer. Abstraction is empty talk, the raw material of ideology; but it is nonetheless effective for that. We have our roots in the air, and we feed on abstractions.

In contrast, concrete-ness is the blood of poetry; intimacy with poetry provides an education in avoiding abstraction. I’m sure that this statement will come back to bite me, but I can’t think of any straightforwardly ideological poetry.

Of course, politics, religion, and prayer are hardly dispensable or peripheral human activities, and I’ll be the last to try to put a stop to any of them. But without question, politics, religion, and prayer are the most honest, and do the most good, when they forego winged words and endlessly maleable concepts and speak instead with earthy imagery, verbs that move, and visible nouns.

watching my language

I’ve recently found a manageable practice for maintaining my language skills. Presently, I’m mostly concerned with German and Greek, because my knowledge of French has never been anything but superficial (meaning that it can likely be recovered with little effort) and my Spanish is well-sedimented in the crypts of 5th period adolescent angst (accompanying so much emotional baggage seems to aid the memory); unfortunately I’ve more or less abandoned the year of Hebrew I took at Regent, though I imagine that too might be recoverable.

At the beginning of the day I’ll sit down with a passage of Scripture in both German and Greek and read through them together without the aid of a dictionary or English translation. I spend about 15 or 20 minutes reading between the two texts. When the syntax or vocabulary is obscure in one language, I’m usually able to parse it out using the other (and my own familiarity with the text as well). The main benefit here is that I’m not clarifying every confusion by mediating it through English—when I’m stuck in Greek, I’m improving my German in the process of getting unmired.

This is only a strategy for bare-bones maintenance of the facility that I’ve gained with these languages; I don’t think that I’m actually gaining in vocabulary or translation skill. But, I haven’t previously found a strategy that would allow me to maintain several languages at once without devoting an inordinate amount of time or alternating between languages (which translates into an unrealistic “habit” dropped before it’s ever formed). This is also far more effective and enjoyable than the periodic cram sessions where I try to regain what I’ve lost over the last six months through a few intense weeks of remorseful rededication.

Anyone else have practices of language maintenance?

words matter :: physicality and meaning

We think of words as non-physical things, unattached and uncommitted to location or time. Words are transient, the same word may pop up on a dozen different tongues and refer to a dozen different things.

Our common-sense way of thinking about words misses out on an important aspect of word-iness. There is no such thing as a pure word without physical mediation.

Think about it, we never meet words except where we meet them in the context of meeting something (or someone) physical. Whether that mediation comes in the form of a computer screen, a sheet of paper, a friend’s face, or a loudspeaker, words are always intrinsically rooted in tangible encounters. Spoken words rely on the vibration of molecules, written words rely on their arrangement in some opaque surface, and even the words in your mind are inseparable from the firing of little neurons in complex networks. Where there is no matter, there are no words. Continue reading “words matter :: physicality and meaning”