I live in a city called Philadelphia. When you view it from above via Google Earth it looks like someone dug out a patch of grass and shoveled gravel and concrete chunks into the hollow. What it looks like from the ground is more difficult to describe.
When you try to describe the sensory ingressions of objects rather than simply naming the objects, you glimpse the degree to which our most foundational technology (language) has estranged us from the pure vibratory profusion of reality. I stand at the corner of 13th and Pine and try to compose a catalogue of what I see without using the following words: Building. Brick. Window. Glass. Street. Asphalt. Sidewalk. Cement. Car. Traffic light.
I have a very hard time of it.
The term "brick building" is a switch. Your eyes pass over B R I C K B U I L D I N G and through the synaesthetic conversion filter mechanism of reading comprehension the visual information becomes the phonemes brɪk bɪldɪŋ, which flick the lever on your personal perceptual stereoscope
and pulls up the slide with the picture of the brick building on it—the
ideal brick building, the rudimentary, unparticular brick building that's the essence of brick building.
To say that it is fatuous to attempt to convey a scene with reference to sensory experience rather than the labels with which we generalize certain broad categories of sensory experience bespeaks the same kind of bias carried by those who, say, dismiss as outmoded the practice of committing information to memory in an age where most of us carry an auxiliary brain in our pocket.
Western literature is rife with (condescending) praise of the strength and
athleticism of "primitive" peoples. Any modern reader can't but be astonished by the ancient Greeks' capacity for retention and recall. The use of any tool atrophies the faculty the tool replaces.
Language is a scalpel applied to the tissues of temporal-material flux in which we exist. As verbal creatures, the world we move through is a tinted glass tunnel looking out to the whirlwind, and over the glass we've imposed neon signs spelling out the names we've ascribed to particular arrangements of sensory events. We often perceive the categories more clearly than the events.
This is a natural consequence of the technology on which all human progress is predicated. This is not to suggest we would be better off without it (indeed we could get by without electricity more easily than we could manage without language), but it is foolish to consider the benefits of a technology without at least taking note of the costs.
Now let's imagine. Let's imagine another moment at another location (say, Third and Market) and I'm going to attempt to circumvent the restrictions of a palette consisting of imagistic flashcards and try to use the words at my disposal to convey with precision what's around me.
I find I cannot. I do no have the words at my disposal.
This brick building and that brick building—they're made of different kinds of bricks. What is the word for this sort of brick, the word for that sort of brick? What's the word for the type of trapezoidal metal pole (the kind you've all seen) to which stop signs and no parking signs are mounted? Where do I start with that frieze at the top of that building? How do I describe the shapes? What's it made of? What style or tradition does it represent? Those curlicue adornments on metal gates, what are those called? What the hell is this thing?
I feel like a dullard for not knowing. But was I ever given impetus to learn?
The Sami of Northern Europe have hundreds of words for snow and ice. Their ancestors, living and surviving where they did, had very practical reasons for needing to communicate with each other about snow and ice, about the particularities of events in which frozen water is implicated.
Language crystallizes around what we deem worth communicating. If one language contains a word for a concept for which no term exists in a different language, it means the one culture had cause to differentiate some particular configuration of the general flux and tag it for future reference, while the other found it unnecessary.
"If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology," Jaron Lanier wrote, "follow the money." And if you want to know the things a culture feels are most significant, follow the vernacular. Find out which words everyone knows.
If most of us don't possess the vocabulary to describe in detail the topography of a city street, that's because those particulars are not important to us. Where there's no words, there's usually a blind spot.
Most of us probably can't go into the woods and identity every tree, bird, or rock we come across. That's fine, we say: we don't live in the woods anymore. We live in towns and cities. But even in a city—a material reflection of ourselves, our needs, desires, and dreams—we find ourselves not really knowing what we're seeing. Or: we're not really seeing it.
This seems as strange to me as looking into the mirror and not being able to make sense of your own eyebrows.