Tensing up

Tensing up

How we vocalize things reflects our view of the world. In Dr. Anderson’s class last week, we watched Pay it Forward to look at the way that verb tenses portray our perception of events. We’d been looking at it in texts, but it was interesting to hear it play out in well written conversation.

The passive voice is a product of the literate age. It removes the agent from a act, making it abstract and hard to grasp. Mistakes were made. Nobody made them, of course. This is the staple of bureaucratic discourse. When Jon Bon Jovi appears on the scene, to tell Helen Hunt that he has recovered and is no longer a drunk, he speaks entirely in the passive voice. He takes no responsibility as an agent of suffering, the suffering just happened. This linguistic construction distances our lives from ourselves, so we can try to make sense of it. But in doing this, we become uninvolved, and safe from criticism.

Kevin Spacey’s revelation of his past shows how he thinks of his experience. He tells the story in past tense, until he gets to the central image of being set on fire by his father. Then, he shifts to present tense. It is as if the traumatic event is still happening inside him, right then, right now. We use language to make sense of time, and we haven’t made sense of an event we betray ourselves in our language.

I found out today, reading The Older Sophists, that Protagoras is credited with introducing verb tenses, and the gendering of nouns. His world view was relativistic, and he increased the power of language to convey that relativity. More than that, he expected to be paid for his language skills. His new verbal technology could be had, but only for a price. It is this aspect that troubled most of his contemporaries, and resulted in his being marginalized as an important figure of the classical age. It is the economic aspect that made “sophistry” a dirty word. The problem is, Plato was paid for his skill as well. History seems to have forgotten that bit. We all get tense, when it comes to money.

Temporal ordering is only found in more highly developed creatures; it may be what separates us from lower animals. It’s hard to place perspective on the amount of work it required to transfer this to language, so we could take the next step in evolution. Lower animals live in a perpetual present, untroubled with any notions of past. Traumatic feelings are locked outside of temporal ordering as well, and turn us back to where we began: in a perpetual present. Until we got tense about it, that is.