It’s not the bullet

It’s not the bullet that kills you, it’s the hole.

Something has been bothering me. First, Baldur says: “Culture forms language. Language is a symptom, not a cause.” and then he ups the ante:

“The discussion fails to recognize that language is a cultural product.”

“A Weapon.”

One might expect a rhetorician to agree with this without thinking, because skilled rhetors can wield language like a gun. But taken from another point of view, it’s when the language stops that the real shooting starts. It’s not the bullet that kills you, it’s the bleeding hole. Culture’s primary weapon is not language, but ostracism.

At first, debating this seemed a bit like entering into an argument over the chicken and the egg. It’s rather pointless.

However, it seems that the position of language in the dispute over the formation of culture (and vice versa) is worth talking about, if for no other reason than to avoid another sort of hole— the trite dismissal of our social tool as merely a cultural sneeze over which we have no power to shape or change. It’s easy to think of language as simply a matter for linguistics, when in reality it’s much more than that. As a photographer, I’ve often thought of myself as working with a language that reaches beyond words. Photographs are signs (or bullets) too. I wish they could make us smarter, but I’m not so sure. However, I’m pretty certain that language has a deep impact.

Language changes how we think. I believe that, because I watch it happen when I teach writing. It creates new patterns of thought which reflect the pattern of the language that expresses it. No matter which angle I’ve looked at it from, whether from Eric Havelock’s work with ancient Greek or Vygotsky’s work with childhood language acquisition, no matter what came first—culture or language— I believe that the road of influence runs both ways. Culture influences language. Language influences culture, particularly the written modes of language.

The primary problem is considering the vocal or written utterance which follows a syntactic pattern (universal or not) as the only mode of language. Even John Locke wouldn’t go that far:

And because the scene of ideas that make one man’s thought cannot be laid open to the immediate view of another, nor laid up anywhere but in the memory, a no very sure repository; therefore, to communicate our own thoughts to one another, as well as record them for our own use, signs of our ideas are also necessary. Those which men have found most convenient, and therefore make most use of, are articulate sounds. The consideration, then, of ideas and words as the great instruments of knowledge, makes no despicable part of their contemplation who would take a view of human knowledge in the whole extent of it. And perhaps, if they were distinctly weighed and duly considered, they would afford us another sort of logic and critic than what we have been hitherto acquainted with.

(Essay Concerning Human Understanding, XXI:4)

Locke’s proposal of a “doctrine of signs” is separate from his chapters on language, and with good reason. Though words are signs, they are not the only signs we employ. Perhaps we focus too much on spoken or written language as the only province of signs. Zoosemiologists like Thomas Sebeok certainly beg to differ.

I like Sebeok’s suggestion (which agrees with Chomsky and Popper) that “language evolved as an adaptation: whereas speech developed out of language as a derivative ‘exaptation’”. The core thought in this is that language was built as a cognitive function of modeling—thus, the deep structures that Chomsky proposes are indeed evolutionary and perhaps universal. This modeling was not designed to communicate a message, or fire a bullet at anything. It was a way of modeling the world inside our consciousness. Verbal language was a leap from this, an “exaptation” rather than an adaptation—and so it is dangerous to think that the evolutionary mechanism and its resultant use have much in common.

Hence, in Sebeok’s view, language (consisting of signs, not limited to signs with syntactic functions) is a secondary modeling system based on our perception of reality. Language makes possible a tertiary modeling system, culture, which could not be conceived of if we did not have the signs available to create it. To feel that culture only exists in groups bound by linguistic connections ignores that sociality does indeed exist outside humankind— that culture, even the hive culture of bees, uses a certain form of chemical language to model a society. Most people take a rather anthrocentric view of language.

Perhaps if we understood the nature of signs better, and not just linguistic ones, we would, as Locke proposes, find new ways to think. Even Saussure, when attempting to figure out why written language has so much more credibility than spoken language suggests:

For most people, visual impressions are clearer and more lasting than auditory impressions. So for preference people cling to the former. The written image in the end takes over from the sound.

(First Course in Linguistics, Introduction 2)

We understand very little, if anything, about visual modes of signification. Of course, Saussure also assumed that culture came before language. I find it impossible to imagine them as separate, in any way, shape, or form.

3 thoughts on “It’s not the bullet”

  1. Ani DiFranco once wrote:
    “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”
    A propos of nothing, but your post put me in mind of the quote.

  2. Another reason to focus attention on the language-user rather than on a mystified language-concept: We can hold language-users to account for their speech, but if the problems reside in the language, the dimeniosn of accountability evaporates.
    Language certainly reflects socially-embedded notions and practices (gendered languages may be manifestly neither innocent of ideological determination nor quite determined by an identifiable ideology)–but speakers and writers put language into play in ways that reinforce or undermine those notions and practices.

  3. The view of signs via Locke and your description of modeling are both very suggestive. I find the characterization of Sebeok’s view of language as “secondary” a bit puzzling. More on this in response to your comment over here.

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