by Sam Buntz
I’m starting to wonder if the way people—particularly teenagers— communicate signals a particularly odd twist of the historical spiral. If you look at your Facebook profile, or check out Snapchat or Vine, you might suspect that people in the Western World, and large parts of the Eastern World, aren’t really communicating with each other through purely written or spoken language to the degree that they once did—captioned pictures, memes, videos, comics, and other mixed visual-verbal forms of communication seem much more common than they’ve ever been in informal correspondence.
It’s almost like a new form of hieroglyphics—language that is also pictorial. Interestingly enough, this lines up with the predictions of the 18th Century Italian philosopher, Giambattista Vico: Vico saw civilization as going through three distinct phases, followed by a period of chaos and confusion, after which it proceeded through the same phases again. These big cultural and social phases also coincided with changes in the way language is used.
In the initial stages of civilization—in places like ancient Egypt, Israel, Greece, Vedic India, and, really, everywhere else, regardless of the level of material “development”—people believed that language was magically powerful. People thought that their scriptures and myths—whether in the Vedas of India, the Hebrew Bible, the texts of Greek mythology, or in any number of oral traditions—didn’t only communicate truths about the divine, but had a direct mystical relationship to those truths. To a surprising extent, I think we can see this practice evident even today, in Orthodox Jews who bind pieces of scripture to their bodies, Sufi Muslims who create charms from Koranic passages, certain Buddhists who believe they can attain good karma simply by flipping through a Sutra without reading it, and in American forms of Evangelical Protestantism, where the Bible isn’t just a book about God, but a source for experiencing His presence directly.
Yet, it isn’t just the magical attitude (a cocky Marxist would say the “fetishistic” attitude) to scriptures that characterizes this early period. The people who actually wrote or spoke the scriptures—whether prophets or inspired poets like the Homeric singers of Greece or the bards of Celtic countries and pre-Islamic Arabia—were believed not to speak and write with their own imaginations, but with the voices of good spirits, evil spirits, gods, or—in the case of Hebrew prophets, and later the Prophet Muhammad—God Himself (as the reader no doubt knows). Language, at its highest cultural levels, wasn’t just a tool for speaking about reality—it was a way of channeling higher realities or creating new realities through magic. It didn’t just describe reality: it helped determine reality. Hence the exceedingly high positions assigned to poets and prophets in so many ancient courts.
One can see this in certain Vedic incantations, which, for example, attempt to call the “yellow” quality out of a patient suffering from jaundice, ordering the color yellow back into the naturally yellow things that populate nature—yellow birds and mangos and so on. When, in the Hebrew Bible, God gives Adam the responsibility of naming the animals, and when, in the Koran, God actually teaches Adam the true names of all the animals, similar assumptions about the power of language are at play. God isn’t just giving Adam a way of describing the natural world—he’s giving him the tools to control it, and to a certain extent, to reveal its deeper nature. This was true for spoken language as well as written language—of which, William Blake wrote, “[God] in Sinai’s awful cave / To Man the wondrous art of writing gave.” Vico calls this era’s language “hieroglyphic”, because of its ancient magical associations, but also because of its ability to summon realities directly, as in the images presented by hieroglyphic writing.
But, according to Vico, language gradually metamorphosed to new uses. By the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, it was more a way of communicating truths about reality, than in calling forth or creating new realities (although the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance had plenty of magicians and would-be prophets). In this time period, language still had a transcendental meaning and function—it couldn’t create reality, but it could turn the reader’s attention to Powers lurking beyond the merely material world.
Yet, in the next twist of time—around the 17th and 18th Centuries—language became increasingly “demotic” in its usage, meaning that it served to describe physical realities that were already present somewhere “out there”. Anything that went beyond this rather scientific task could be safely filed in the realm of fantasy. As Northrop Frye has observed, this is really the way language was used historically most of the time anyway—in doing ancient banking transactions and writing receipts and so forth. It simply hadn’t been the preferred cultural usage of language in the highest spheres of power and education until recently.
Now, I’m beginning to wonder if we haven’t already forded through Vico’s period of linguistic chaos and are beginning again in a new, yet very different, “hieroglyphic” era. The ancient way of using language has long been present in the underground, and has even, perhaps, been embraced by the majority of the world’s populace—there are tons of religious people who, today, still assign this kind of magical power to words (as evidenced by the examples given earlier). Since Vico believed that his cycle was recurring, is it possible we are entering a new period where language isn’t just descriptive, but has the power to make and unmake reality in a more literal sense? The fact that we pour so much writing and speech into creating visual products—movies, videogames, tv shows, youtube videos, posts on Vine, whatever—indicates that language might be returning to its incantatory function, its ability to seed and grow new realities—or, as the case may be, virtual realities.
It’s easy to get hyped up about this and view it either as a symptom of cultural degradation and barbarism, or of some sort of impending technological singularity where we’ll all be immersed in a perpetual flow of helpful and benevolent information, merging with our machines in cybernetic bliss. I mean to suggest neither of those hysterical alternatives, only to observe the change that seems to be occurring—and to suggest its relation to Vico’s theories. Whether these alterations in the use of language end up being creative or just contribute to the endless amount of white noise with which we’re continually bombarded is, of course, up to us.
Rather than predicting that the chips fall squarely on one side or the other, I expect people will use these new forms of language in both creative and utterly wasteful ways. Perhaps contributing to the static will be the more common and obvious route… but when have things ever been all that different? This is my prediction, neither wholly optimistic nor particularly pessimistic: serious reading and writing need to survive, and will survive, because without them, the Culture of the Screen goes bankrupt, and the mixed visual-verbal form of communicating collapses too.
All these virtual realities would have their seams pulled free, with no written design underpinning them. Special effects and flashing lights and gunning down pedestrians in a videogame can only hold people’s attention for so long—they won’t in themselves suffice (at least, they won’t suffice for some people). I don’t believe they’ll totally crowd out the other, more creative uses of language, and the writer and poet’s midnight candle will still burn—bright or dim as the season bids it. The Word will continually re-assert itself, mastering territory that once seemed to have been ceded to Chaos. But we can’t yet predict what artistic forms it will assume in accomplishing its task…