Saturday, 24 February 2007

Language, or the framing of reference


Take *language* first. We consider it a medium of the dissemination of communication because, compared to mutual perception communication had to rely on before, it introduces arbitrary signs which take on a sort of life of their own. Noises begin to fill the social space, which are articulated and motivated and which signify while being signs distinct from the signified. Four million years ago, in Africa, people begin warning each other, singing for each other, and courting each other, as animals do as well, using the noises of what then became called called language, in order to attract, to attribute, and to govern, attention. While articulating these noises, they begin to notice, and to use and by countless means to fill, the gap between the sign and the signified.

Dissemination begins right here. Communication goes beyond mutual perception and begins to be aware of previous and next events, of other people's wording, and of similar, yet different signs and signifieds having their impact on the selection of every one social action. Temporization, i.e., reference to time and occasion, and socialization, i.e., reference to the other and his and her mind to be guessed upon, come in with the equivocal and the ambiguous right from the beginning, the latter indeed opening the space for dealing with the former, and vice versa.

If humans are the product of the co-evolution of communication and consciousness, both separated from, and reconnected to, each other by language, then there has never been paradise for human beings. That is why they think of inventing the idea of it, troubling further their difficult dealing with one another. Yet, the catastrophe of language is not to be undone. It consists in the introduction of reference. Reference means signification, and signification means distinction of sign from signified, calling upon articulation to deal with the distinction, and upon motivation to reconnect the sign and the signified depending on context, mood, and habit.

Indeed, what is sometimes been taken as language's original drama, its introduction of the possibility to not only say Yes, but also No, may already be a kind of secondary means to deal with the complexity of signification, coding by the means of a binary distinction what actually is far richer in structure and form. This may be one reason, why mathematics and logics never quite settled for just two values, the affirmative and the negative, to describe the scope and range of both affirmation and negation. The doubling of the meaning world into a Yes-world and a No-world may already be a simplification with respect to endless variations on "Yes, but…" and "No, however…."

Thus, the network synthesis brought about by language consists in the framing of reference by the means of drama, which is another word for conflict, and which is caused by double bind. Double binds may be considered to be inherent in language communication in that all of this communication can somehow mean Yes, while saying No, and vice versa, the most evident case of this being the communication of No itself, which says No while nevertheless pursuing the communication, thereby saying Yes to the communication. Any sound communication deals with double binds without even noticing, replacing, as it were, paradox by changing distinctions, thus moving the problem to places where it hurts less. But this leaves ample space for pathologies of communication to develop, which consist in taking double binds literally.

The feature enabling communication to deal with that kind of complexity, consisting of intricate knots of affirmation, negation, and ambivalence, is *metacommunication* as discovered by communication theory (notably Jurgen Ruesch, Gregory Bateson, and Paul Watzlawick). Metacommunication means to be able to communicate on the level of the content of the communication and on the level of the relationship between the social actors at the same time, thus enabling the communication to clarify on one level what is left obscure on the other, and to stay vague as to invite the very next, or some next, move of the communication to supplement what before had been deferred to further notice.

Metacommunication enables the verbal communication to select positively, or negatively, an ambiguous meaning whatsoever without having to explicitly enter into a wording of the Yes or the No. Metacommunication, thereby, is on a par with reference, in that it is able to signify without having to identify the sign with the signified. The criteria used to judge on the communication at hand can be hold separated from the communication itself. And that is what is important when the overall social purpose consists in to not forego the scope and range of communication opened by communication.

Now even lying is possible, both as a practice and as a knowledge of that practice. Indeed, lying is only possible when people know how to deal with it, thereby giving their communication further twists in its knots of affirmation and negation. Else, any lie, all deceit and betrayal would already mean the end to the communication. Instead, they just open different avenues to it, forcing it, or indeed inviting it, to explore different tracks of how to figure out what is going on.

We propose to call metacommunication the culture form of a society, which by its adoption enables it to survive the introduction of language. The surplus meaning produced by the emergence of reference, and by the difference between the sign and the signified, including knots of Yes and No, or folds of affirmation and negation (Gilles Deleuze), is both produced and handled by a metacommunication, which has learned not to confuse itself with the very situation at hand, but to look to previous and next events, to others observing the situation, to further possible meanings of the things being present, and to judge how to proceed, or how to defer any procedure, accordingly.

The culture of the oral society is its metacommunication. As long as we use any kind of language this culture of course is sure to stay with us. That also means that there is no need to complain about ambivalence, negation, drama, double bind, and conflict, since they do not just testify our fall from paradise but our ability to deal with the structural richness of language, and to extend on it with respect not only to our factual knowledge of the world but also to our behavior inside the social structure of this world.

*Tribes* come in when the oral society has to give itself a number form. Tribes define themselves by their ability to handle communication with respect to metacommunication. The boundaries of any one tribe delimit what kind of communication is possible either inside or outside the boundary, the scope of metacommunication inside the boundary being different from that outside it. It is interesting to note that the communication outside the boundary seems to be some kind of collective action, referring to social relationships between tribes rather than between individuals or families, thus combining the number of tribes outside the focal one, with the number of families or individuals inside it. That kind of collective action allows the oral society to define, and thereby ritualize, the rape of women, trade, and war, which of course necessitate metacommunication as well, albeit of a sort different from that inside a tribe.

Perhaps we should even say that it is tribes and the boundaries between them which constitute the number form of oral society, given that the boundaries are decisive in distinguishing the tribes, and given that the boundaries, being sorts of zero states of communication, allow to count and therefrom to order the people of a tribe. Remember that out structure forms consist of blanks, or of a kenogrammar, not defining who belongs where, but defining the places, as empty places, to be filled with people. That means, if there are no places, there is no possibility to belong, as to this day is exhibited by infanticide common in societies which still rely to a certain extent on the structure of tribes.

And *gods*, or *spirits*, are the form of the re-entry of oral society into itself. A re-entry lends affirmation and negation to the meaning form of a society by providing its communication with ways to refer to both the marked states and the unmarked state of the form. A re-entry manages to mark the unmarked by referring to transcendental units, which have an empirical impact on the society.

In oral society gods are both the masters of metacommunication, always giving signs which indeed are difficult to decipher, and more or less exhausting themselves in self-referentially signifying the gods themselves, not something else, and at the same time the masters of the most literal communication, saying what they mean, and meaning what they say, and passionately engaging in whatever action they are consuming themselves in. Gods, spirits, and, let us not forget them, demons and devils, thereby enact the many possibilities to deal with communication and metacommunication, engaging with their fascination, showing possible pitfalls, and giving dire warnings of what happens to those who may choose to neglect their warning. The stories told about them, and the words attributed to them, are exemplars of what, and how, to speak about, risking reference, and what not, staying clear and clean, yet unengaged.

Gods are both the end to, and the beginning of, any possibility to interpret what is going on in communication and action, such that their observation by religion, first, and theology, later, gives a reflective picture of what to affirm, and how to negate, the societies dealing with language, and metacommunication. Most importantly perhaps, with reference to gods secrets and taboos can be defined which tell what to talk about and what not.