Featured image: According to Jean-Paul Sartre, language is a sacred gift with magical consequences: in language I express myself to myself, and I cause you to experience something else.
What is language? It is the deeds and gestures our species has mutually agreed to misunderstand. What is born of such misunderstanding is all that is human, for we are usually everything we aren’t saying. However, our redemption lies in our attempts to translate ourselves back with clarity.
The conditions to misunderstand
Jean-Paul Sartre (pictured). It is necessary to consider the role of consciousness in Sartrean philosophy, in which it is said the subjective experience of reality (existence) precede its nature (essence). Our reflective consciousness gives us access to the free, purposive 'for-itself', which, in its transcendence, subsumes the material makings of the 'in-itself'. This psychological experience, which grows outward but looks inward, is both liberating and alienating. To myself I become the 'Other'—the object of subjectivity outside my grasp, 'the one who looks at me' as my in-itself is 'objectified' by my for-itself and my experience of interpersonal relations with other subjects. Language is the vehicle.
We never translate between languages based on mutual understandings but based on the oftentimes timid reaction to one right word in a sea of words we neither understand nor misunderstand. So, one might, in a sense, wonder as to what language does. What is its use? Why do we speak this way and that way and not some other form?
Some answer these questions by deciding to bow, as one might in a temple, uttering as they do because understanding is far too weighty a quest. Words, to them, were never meant to strain beyond superficially describing everyday experience.
Others use words to joyously relate themselves to other people as one might with a magic trick: in awe, they wish to peak behind the communicator and learn so they might reproduce them, to continue a particular illusion, under the guise that they, too, know the truth.
Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of language as a sacredness and a magical means of ‘Being’. One might, being a phenomenologist, have expected him to designate this concept in abstract terms. Indeed, Sartre claimed, language is ‘sacred-magical’. But what, in fact, did he mean? To use his words will be the start:
Language, in this sense, is the instrument between the internal and the external: the medium through which our worlds come together. It is sacred when I employ it, as it departs my world, and becomes a ‘magical object’ for those who, at a distance, see the effects of its actions.
To Sartre, then, language facilitates the collisions of our worlds. However, only ‘in seduction’ are objects constituted through language, from one person to the other. Language is a ‘primitive mode of being of expression’ which ‘does not aim at giving to be known but causing to experience’. In consciousness, each of our worlds are constructed in language; but our worlds don’t meet, only interfere with one another insofar as I see myself as an object in your world.
When I express my knowledge in language, it does not reach you in the way in which it was created, for knowledge is a personal ‘relation between the for-itself and the in-itself’, intuited by a necessarily present consciousness which we do not step outside of. Still, language points beyond me, and, yet, it holds meanings for me: that which lets me flee myself and find myself.
To put it poignantly, Being is a circle of my own self, going forth and returning. But our freedom is always held at the tail by unfreedom. To encourage one’s strengths is to encourage their flaws; to communicate is to return to what cannot be communicated. The sacred-magical is to realise that when I express myself through my sacred meanings, I become open to the magic of the other individual’s ability to accept, twist, and deny my meanings, to the point that this magic replaces the sacredness of my utterance (‘Hell is other people’).
Thus, what language does is, perhaps, the wrong question. What it is, to me, is the human condition expressing itself: a search for my authentic self, expressed in language—a liberating but alienating experience as I freeze out my material makings and embrace the freedom of transcending it. Sartre expands:
Being anchored to the unknown
We do not wish to speak so we can communicate, according to Walter Benjamin (pictured), but so we can express.
For all that I love of Sartre, a systematiser he was, he often expected people to follow his circular style without getting dizzy: that we come back to a point repeatedly. And even when he would come back to a point, he would dig no further than he had before setting his post. ‘What do you mean?’ Some might ask in frustration, clutching their heads.
To dig deeper and elucidate my point, I must synthesise Sartre’s work with that of a fellow thinker, Walter Benjamin. Similarly to Sartre, Benjamin thought that, in language, we are expressive but not communicative. My language is only revelatory to me: an instrument of my consciousness through which I express myself to myself and cause others to experience. But there is more.
Firstly, language, to Benjamin, communicates mental entities as linguistic entities, which are subsets of mental entities. To put it best, what I speak of is always an expression of a deeper notion, something that becomes less and less like the words previously used to bring it about. And words, ultimately, express that which we have no words for: an unconscious, or, as Benjamin would put it, an ‘optical unconscious’.
What is this optical unconscious? It is the material condition of our existence, the unconscious basis from which we mediate our experience of the world. In this theory of mind, experience is underpinned by our unconscious but ‘optical’ nature, for memory allows us to process the physical objects we’ve experienced, like processing the unintelligible states of a camera into an intelligible photograph.
Language, thus, can be used as a tool for expressing these unconscious experiences, and it’s compendiously effective in communicating our mental lives into meanings. I could call this thing ‘a hat’ because the excessive manner of trying to explain what thing is would be a laborious task. For me to express this thing as ‘a hat’ I must express it through material conditions in words: describing it physically, I mention subatomic particles and properties, such as shapes and sizes. Alternatively, in a pithy but Sartrean fashion, I state that it simply must exist because, intuitively, I know it’s there, and language will help me define my relation to it.
To Benjamin, words bind humans to the world of objects, where the optical unconscious is a hub of unprocessed photographs: once processed, in images and words, they will reveal all that I express of myself, communicated, eventually, as mental meanings related to my particular social unconscious.
This binding, for me, is of much interest. In our sacred-magical language, we find ourselves surrounded by objects with names, and we find that we have made our own museums. There is ‘my hat’, ‘my phone’, and ‘my bed’; in language, I accept my binds to them. I am surrounded by all that I did not express myself in, too: ‘my makeup’, ‘my uniform’, ‘my suit’, and ‘my tie’; I am defined by them because I have been convinced they are needed or helpful in my dealings with the world. However, nothing is more subversive than a uniform you have dirtied yourself; suddenly, it belongs more to you than the people forcing you to wear it.
We are beings who bless items with expressions of ourselves. What Benjamin calls ‘thing-language’, Sartre calls relics. To both thinkers, words translate the world of objects into one’s human lifeworld; that is, we find that our being has become a linguistic being; a being that is expressed beyond us, a sacred being. It is a being that expands outwards, anchored by an incommunicable shadow. In the clamorous and heated discussions of whether humans are rational beings, irrational beings, divine beings, or evil beings, I wish to suggest a more-radical idea: we are ritualistic beings. Our rituals, which our relics express, are shadows to the unknown. ‘Monday morning coffee’ is something I do every week, yes, because I choose to, in some sense, but this ritual is built behind an existence I cannot perceive nor communicate, and it is only uncovered, in my transcendence, insofar as my linguistic descriptions illuminate it.
How the shadows express Me
'[W]hat is not truly a being is not truly one being either.' — Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (pictured) (Wikipedia Commons)
Allow me to, perhaps, address some discrepancies.
Benjamin speaks of our ‘mental entities’ as a part of a ‘magical community’, and his idea of the optical unconscious is actually attested to as a ‘social unconscious’, fittingly enough for a Sartrean context.
To me, a Sartrean to my core, when I see ‘mental’ in any capacity, I see it as phenomenological. Mental is ‘experience’ in that one’s ‘mental life’, as Benjamin put it in his essay, is how one has related to the sense data they have procured through their intuition; that is, they interpreted it. The epistemology does not matter, to this essay anyway, but suffice to say, linguistic being is but the expression of the phenomenological experience of our ontology. And the only way we express phenomenological experience of our ontology (consciously) is through ontic existence (real-world objects). Our Being is experienced through our being-in-the-world in our projects, which is facilitated by language (and a desire for freedom and authenticity and an aversion to self-deception).
We never know ourselves, only what we express of ourselves. We know that we smoke—we can see the relic in our lives—but we never truly comprehend the desire behind the ritual. Nevertheless, behaviour and project illumine each other: if we believe that being is a totality, we can decipher and conceptualise the meaning of our behaviour and learn to intuitively understand ourselves
Thus, the ‘magical community’ Benjamin discusses is something I relate to Sartre’s view of language, which is ‘magical’ to ‘Other’ minds. You see your hat as yours, and I see it as yours; the difference is, you relate to it through your experience of it, and I relate to your description of it as a magical object.
Sartre said he was against any idea of an unconscious in Being and Nothingness, expressing a distaste for the fact it absolves people of responsibility for their decisions. It is odd, to some, to suggest his ideas would work with Benjamin’s optical unconscious, both because of the incessant push to relate Freud and Benjamin psychoanalytically (Sartre is known as anti-Freudian). Be that as it may, both provide similar frameworks for binding being to the world through language which are ripe for synthesis.
The code I am in search of
Since as long as I can remember, I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes and the replications of him in my time. The keen eye, the logical deductions, the obsessions with the obvious as an ecstatic clue to a greater truth: it birthed within me a desire to be intelligent, and to be observant, and to be in love with the mundane and the ecstatic, as they are one in the same. It turned me into a philosopher who pontificates changes in one’s morning coffee. I am in love with the crimes of the obvious. I am, to steal once again from Sartre, a psychic cryptographer; I look for the code of our relics, so they might reveal the secrets of our rituals.
In my observations, I have found people as beholden to rituals whose freedom in the selection of relics comes with the shadowy unfreedom of where it will be placed. A change in relics is often accompanied with a spoken change in ritual, even if the ritual is always a platitude because the person doesn’t know the ritual. As long as we don’t know our rituals, we will be victims of apparent changes; people don’t change, insofar as they know it, because that change cannot be perceived or communicated. Yet, through language, possibility of finding oneself being in and bound to the world—by intuiting who we have become—lies.