On The Inadequacy of Language

Filed under: philosophy, communication, essay, language

Maybe one of the most tragic love stories is between language and the need for meaningful communication. Neither is completely capable of each other. Neither asks for help. Sometimes, in the middle of conversation, attempting to transfer our inner workings on to another, we are hit with the despairing realization, "It’s not working, I’m not getting through, I can’t". Suddenly, something gets caught in the gears of words and tones, and the heavy feeling of something noncommunicable takes over our limbs.

Words are, generally speaking, never enough. Within the transfer of a message alone, there are at least three obvious resistances we cannot escape: the encryption of a message into words, the properties of the medium, and the consequent decryption on the receiving end. To simply get the bare minimum content of the message through, the words must be chosen in such a manner that they can survive the losses across all these basic resistances and more. Most of the times, we do such an act of genius intuitively, unconsciously. Yet there are times language fails us, when words cannot be trusted and we find all our clever linguistic aerobics unprepared for the message.

A (basic) Circuit Model of Communicating Thoughts [edit: The diode terminal signs are labeled incorrectly :)] A (basic) Circuit Model of Communicating Thoughts [edit: The diode terminal signs are labeled incorrectly :)]

Undiscriminating between affections and anger, language often back stabs us in times of emotional intensity. It is agonizing to be misunderstood, to attempt communication but be found unintelligible. Traumatized by the ravine between one human and another, a poignant mixture of shame and helplessness compliments the wound of betrayal. Soon, a deep mistrust of language alongside a shy desire for touch - haptic communication - makes its way into the psyche. We try a hug or hold in attempts to transfer cryptic feelings. Sometimes this is enough, sometimes not. Assuming touch is even socially accessible to us, eventually arms come to terms with their own inadequacies to hold together a stream of consciousness and stop it from leaving. Disillusioned by haptic approaches, we return face to face with our deep need for meaningful communication and our inability, lack of means, and helplessness to do so. Ironically, (or maybe not), I’ve found it’s the writers that experience the inadequacy of language most sharply, and somehow - with surprising grace - manage to contain it within sentences. Huxley makes the observation:

“For in spite of language, in spite of intelligence and intuition and sympathy, one can never really communicate anything to anybody.”

And yet even Huxley cannot deny that every atom of our being desires to communicate, to be understood meaningfully, to not be betrayed by the medium. The nausea experienced within this contradiction leads to the extremities of communication. Anticipating the agony of failed communication, we choose the bitter respite of silence going forward, feigning a non-existence of sorts. Or we overdose on language - communicating (writing, talking, tweeting, dancing) repeatedly like the crazies, attempting to vomit the need to be understood out of our nature. For the latter approach, aside from the embarrassment of being human spam, it is excruciating to witness someone - especially if it's yourself - postponing their inevitable breakdown. As for the former refuge we have found in silence, it only takes a short while to come to the realization that silence is also a form of communication. As Sartre had philosophically noted and the sociologist Goffman had socially observed: we are always in a state of 'performance' (always presenting an image of the self, always 'existing'). And so, silence betrays us just the same - communicating a 'state of self' to others that we do not wish to be understood as. We are condemned to be free said Sartre,** maybe we are equally condemned to communicate.**

It’s David Foster Wallace who finally manages to give us some comfort, “You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” What may sound depressing at first is the sweetest, most caring thought we encounter around the subject. The notion of brief social non-existence - to be forgotten, eliminated, erased from the canvas - surprisingly gives us a peace we couldn’t rationally fathom had it not come about. In the Islamic tradition, the mother of Jesus, Mary, anticipating the difficulty of communicating the virgin birth to society, sits underneath the date palm lamenting to God "Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!" - experiencing the anti-evolutionary desire for non-existence. Mary made it through, Wallace tragically did not. And perhaps if he had been right, if everyone truly did not think of us, if we were left to our own devices even amongst our loved ones, he wouldn’t have continued to feel the anxiety of communication. Yet, there are people who make it through the faceless crowd and assert their presence - or even their lack of presence - in our lives and we find, with great dismay, the inadequacy of language mistreating even them.

Language and God

In the Islamic tradition, addressing fears of one’s camel being stolen when left outside a building, the Prophet (PBUH) advised, “Tie your camel first, then put your trust in Allah”

And then there is the believers, who have the ability to access the only lossless language there is: God. Knowing it is He who changes hearts, it is better to have Him as an operator while we converse. Anyone would rather play broken telephone with God (prerequisite: faith) in between than take the responsibility of communication on themselves. We put in our best effort to select the right words — tie the camel — *and then take it as a fact that the message has been communicated in the best manner — *trust in God. Our actual choice of words become significantly irrelevant, the larger factor becomes our intention, our methods, and our will. This ‘trust’ does not guarantee the message you intend will get across as you intended it, it only satisfies you with a faith that whatever gets through is ‘for the best’. While this releases us from the anxiety of finding the ‘right words’, it adds to our responsibility to find the right methods and intentions. As with the general concept of faith, it’s not so much a solution to language, but a framework to effectively come to terms with its inadequacy.

A (basic) Circuit Model of Communicating Thoughts through God [edit: The diode terminal signs are labeled incorrectly :)] A (basic) Circuit Model of Communicating Thoughts through God [edit: The diode terminal signs are labeled incorrectly :)]

So is this what we must do, to start speaking in God? Abandon a betraying language for a language that is, for all intents and purposes, a black box? Turn to God to have our inner will communicated through a medium that has no resistance? But then there is the condition of sincerity, for if we talk in God, we cannot decorate, dress, or cover. The message will be taken in its pure form before it is contaminated by expectations, manipulations, and desires. We will be unable to design it for ears. With God, only the truth of ourselves will be propagated — can we live with that?

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