On recycling, General-Semantics, early summer reading lists and project-whoring

Today was a lucky day.

This morning, I drove down to Manzanita to drop off a whole bunch of old books and random stuff I no longer care about at CARTM Recycling. If you haven’t been but are into the idea of finding cool homes for your cast-off belongings whilst additionally foraging for new and even-more-interesting treasures, you should visit.

This place recycles, repurposes and resells just about everything. It’s got a crazy cool thrift store and a home improvement section and bins for old shoes, old tires, old magazines, old anything. Prices are cheap and the staff is super friendly. So that’s my plug.

Their website: http://www.cartm.org/

Today was more of a dropping-off than picking-up kind of day for me, and I somehow managed to get out of CARTM with just an armful of summer literature. This isn’t always easy for me.

Among my finds: a few years’ worth of back issues of Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly! Score! It’s like winning the Gigantic-Ass Nerd lottery!!

Also, and … OMG OMG OMG!!! This is the thing that I am by far the most excited about: For a mere $12, I picked up a 1941 edition of S.I. Hayakawa’s “Language in Action: A guide to Accurate Thinking.” (In modern reprint, the title has changed to “Language in Thought and Action.” I know because I already own a contemporary copy, and yes, I need them both, but I might let you borrow the newer one if you ask nicely.)

I was introduced to this book in the General-Semantics course I took during grad school at the University of Missouri, and it completely rearranged the way I think about words, and language, and the ways in which they limit as well as facilitate self expression.

The definition of General-Semantics we were given to work with in that course was roughly as follows: General-Semantics explores the ways in which we construct, perceive and evaluate language. Hayakawa in particular was interested in understanding how such an exploration might change the way we navigate our everyday lives, how it could alter realtime interactions.

I may be biased in my assessment, considering that I get paid to work with words and language, but I think the world could be massively different if we all committed ourselves to using both with just a bit more precision.

Here’s an excerpt from a paper I wrote for that class:

“Language, at its most basic level, allows us to construct decodable messages about what’s going on in our inner worlds. Mastering this code is an essential part of the human norming process. A small child is taught to tag sensory experiences with audible, organized utterances which enable it to bond with its parents, to assert its personality and widen the scope of its influence, to express preferences, to accept or refuse. Later, the child labors for years to learn a code of lines and circles and squiggly marks and sometimes symbols that correspond to those utterances. And that’s only the beginning.

Humans confirm, deny, affirm, and reaffirm information about what’s happening around them almost neurotically, compulsively. The chatter is constant, and comes at us from all directions. However, try as we might to sort out the general mess of living and being, our primary means of describing our experiences often feels inadequate. It is, perhaps, inherently problematic. It takes no leap of insight to recognize this, and many philosophies and religions have pondered the problem at length.

Zen Buddhism, for example, shuns the study of religious or philosophical texts and suggests instead that the nature of reality can only be transmitted directly, at a level that transcends or perhaps slips under the radar of the verbal world. Thinking about enlightenment will never lead to enlightenment because the mind does not hold the answers —they arrive instead through subtler and less tangible conduits: the sound of one hand clapping, a slap to the face, a monk’s sandal in a pile of dirt. It’s called intuitive insight.

But it doesn’t take a Zen master or a crusty old philosopher to recognize that words fall short. As we wade through the sea of vagaries, we learn to accept the fact that misunderstandings will occur, that, bizarrely, a signifier doesn’t always have a correspondent in reality. Indeed, as we become more sophisticated, we learn to manipulate and mine that ineffable gap between the inner and outer worlds.

I still remember the first time I told a lie. I was four. My mother asked me if I’d cleaned up my blocks. The word “yes” slipped out of my mouth, almost of its own accord. I cringed. Miraculously, impossibly, my mother simply nodded and went back to chopping carrots. I can still remember what I was wearing, the color of the blocks scattered in the basement, well out of her current view; the yellow basket they were meant to be stored in. I stood stalk still, my mind spinning. It was an astonishing moment.

It’s a survival tactic, cultivated throughout the maturing process. In fits of rage, we utter cruel words to lovers, and then escape their wrath by claiming that they’ve misunderstood, that what they heard wasn’t what we meant. We laugh in delight at clever jokes that play on our pre-programmed assumptions about what is being said, and why: Beethoven’s last movement becomes fodder for potty humor; “a salted” peanut is the punnish victim of a drive-by shooting. We deal in the currency of reading and misreading, and we accept missteps as inevitable. But it is often easy to forget that as we struggle to mold the world with our thoughts and our suggestions and our manipulations, we ourselves are being subtly reformed, as well.

Just think about it. Greenland is made up of frosty glaciers, while the coasts of Iceland are iceless. You can’t find a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in the phone book. The restaurant still exists. The food is the same. The Colonel’s “secret recipe” is still just chicken, MSG, and grease. But it’s called Kitchen Fresh Chicken, now.

The world is constantly being renamed. But do euphemisms and their lesser know opposites, dysphemisms, simply emerge from nowhere? What, or whom, is swallowing and regurgitating all these components of our reality? Should we be concerned?

And, really, who has time to puzzle all this mess out, besides the Deconstructionists and the Dadaists and all the other stuffy academics with faces like cabbages who get paid to rant and rage on the death of meaning? If we gave words the proper attention they deserve, if we sat down to breakfast and read a paper, really read it, taking into consideration all the gloriously subtle nuances that go into a single, simple turn of phrase, questioning, wondering, reconsidering; we’d end up crying into our cornflakes and perhaps never leaving the house again. And is that really preferable? We’re laboring under severe time constraints, here: seventy-some-odd years; more if we exercise and less if we smoke, and a third of that is spent sleeping, besides. We are forced to rely on generalizations in order to avoid wasting time. But dominant power structures rely on the fact that we rely on them. Our pre-programmed responses to words and phrases are subtly poked and prodded and manipulated, until a simple word evokes a powerful, instinctual, physical reaction, until there is an ideogram ready to conjure up any feeling desired: arousal, loathing, longing, whatever.

Consider, for example, the word “Nazi.” It is a terrible word. It evokes images of naked, skeletal prisoners with shriveled testicles and gray eyes leaning against barbed wire fences, American soldiers weeping against their bayonets as the bodies rot and the Reichstadt makes for the hills. An atrocious word, which points to the worst possible human instincts. So if the president decides to compare a bothersome or querulous dictator with a Nazi, anyone who might question the president’s assertions about that dictator and the nature of his character is, by some vague but very traceable extension, denigrating those men who exist frozen in our heads, clinging half dead, eternally, to a barbed wire fence. And who wants to be that person? So we all just sip our Cokes and stare at our shoes and decide that he probably knows better than we do, anyway.

That which gives us power also weakens us immeasurably. We need words. But when we become verbal, we become malleable. Our collective store of knowledge has become so vast that it takes 22 years to transmit the essential basics. It takes a lifetime afterward to become an expert in just one or two. Most of us know a little about a lot, and we are rarely discerning in our sources. Detritus slips through, unseen hands weave outrageous untruths among the messy, jumbled pattern of what matters, what is. Fugitive meanings slink in, undetected, like bands of thieves in the night. We sense them upon us, but feel powerless to react.

We are, after all, so tiny, and the sea of meaning that surrounds us is so great.”

Wait. Did you actually really slog all the way through that lengthy little diatribe? My congratulations. At any rate, for the rest of you who just scrolled through to see if there were any more photos at the end, the CliffsNotes version: I’m looking forward to rereading “Language in Action.” (By the way, I looked it up, and it is NOT Cliff’s Notes, nor is it Cliff Notes and it is definitely not CliffNotes. FYI.)

On a related note, here’s my early summer reading list … I’m halfway through most of these and I can’t wait to dive into the rest. I’m gunning for a healthy balance between high-minded academic dribble and not-s0-high-minded fiction this warm-weather season. I’m also trying to write in my journal daily after a six-month sojourn. And I bought a book on cartooning because, well, why not? So I’m dusting off my hilariously fragmented sketch book as well. Projects!! Projects!! I am a whore for projects!

Erin J. Bernard’s Early Summer 2012 Reading List

“Language in Action: A Guide to Accurate Thinking” – S.I. Hayakawa

“Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women” – Deborah Blum

“On Photography” – Susan Sontag

“Oryx and Crake” – Margaret Atwood

“Fifty Shades of Grey” – E.L. James (I’m at the end of this one. It was/is/always will be dumb, although mildly titillating. Calls to mind that old Einstein quote: “He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.” This is spinal cord-specific kind of entertainment.)

“How Did You Get This Number” – Sloan Crosley

“Catlow” – Louis L’Amour

“Animal Farm” – George Orwell


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