The Message of Words
Abstract: In this article, Edwin Thor discusses the problems that DonParagon has with verbal language. Don likes to express his Vision and the part that optionality plays in his Vision. But Don prefers to use music and generally prefers to express himself by other means than through words. Verbal language, as it is used so often in public life and as it is taught at school, in Don's view expresses a dictatorial message.
A. The 'Dictionary Syndrome'
The Medium is the Message is one of the most famous slogans by Marshall McLuhan, indicating that the peculiarities of specific media influence the messages they carry. Many media analysts have since described how books can force people into isolation, whereas the TV-set can become the centrepiece of family togetherness.
Written language is not always the easiest way to express oneself. The saying is: a picture is worth a thousand words. DonParagon likes to add to this: "and a TV-ad is worth a thousand pictures." Written words are often quite elaborate, in the sense that one tries to describe, say, a spectacular event with coded sounds (i.e. speech), which are in turn transformed into sequences of coded visual signs (i.e. letters) on a piece of paper. It does indeed take quite a bit of schooling to master this kind of communication. Instead, a photo may be much easier to understand, as it does not require such literacy skills.
The January 1995 issue of Optionality contained an articles called Music that breaks the Rules, that described differences between speech and script, concluding that the written word is much more dictatorial than verbal speech, while speech has many simularities with music. Such views have been given a lot of attention before in Optionality Magazine, notably in the articles The Rhetoric of Literacy, Learning Language and The new Fluency.
Don actually believes that words in general, whether spoken or written down, are too limited to describe his Vision. Don argues that the mass media make a lot of use of coded information and thus promote universal acceptance of such codes. Words are just codes that suffer from what Don calls the Dictionary Syndrome; words tend to be deterministic, they put things in a box, they classify. The Dictionary Syndrome makes people believe that there is a single, fixed and indisputable meaning behind each word; that if words are used in another context, spoken with another accent or translated into anotherlanguage, still remain the same and, like synonyms, mean the same thing.
According to Don, such characteristics of words contradict his vision of optionality, which rejects forced standardisation. Don says people could better exchange views, if they expressed themselves more in other ways than through words. Most people will disagree with Don, they want universal agreement on the meaning of words; they feel that, without such an agreement, it would be hard, if not impossible for people to communicate. But for Don the prominence of universal verbal language fits into a historical era that has brought about the Government, the mass media and many other aspects of the society we live in, an era that is about to end. According to Don, verbal language constitutes a mass medium in itself, a huge carrier of many codes, each with one pre-defined meaning, a system that tends to make people accept one and the same meaning for sounds and combinations of letters. "The word communication, e.g., implies common ground, common interpretation of codes, even community-held values, but what occurs may well be limited to only two persons exchanging personal views that reject community values. The presumptuous nature of words makes people prone to accept the idea of one coherent society, of authority, the law, judges and courts; it makes people prone to believe in a singular truth", says Don.
B. Alternatives to Words
DonParagon's reservations in regards to words are reflected in his attitude towards his song lyrics. "My lyrics are sounds before words", he says. Those who take notice of Don's work may not all interpret his lyrics in the same way and this is exactly how Don thinks it
should be: "Meaning is added by each listener individually, I merely express myself without wanting to be understood universally by all who may listen. I do not reject the use of words, I just have a problem if words
are taken out of their context and used on their own".
Don has built up a name for himself as a musician, but he ackowledges the importance of visual ways of expression. "Visual clues often are more
important than sound, so I prefer to use a number of media when expressing myself".
Don does not regard logic as an exclusive part of verbal language: "There can be meaning and, if you like, logic in all kinds of behaviour, which may be expressed in other media than the medium from which it originated. Rhythm, e.g., may be generated as sound, but the audience could see it as flashing lights", says Don. "Other ways of expression often make more sense than words, but they rarely claim superiority as verbal logic usually does! Some try to interpret everything with words. They claim to use the logic of words, but tend to use the 'logic' of pointing a gun at your head to make you obey their words".
Don does not look at optionality as a word. "In my songs optionality may be a sound, but I could also think of visual representations of optionality other than by means of letters". Don mentions so-called bullet-points
as a visual example, but adds that this under-represents the option of not having to choose at all: "Bullet points also do not make clear if only one or two can be taken out of all the points listed, without having to accept all the other points as well. Isn't it significant that there appears to be no single word for 'and/or', as opposed to 'either. . or'? 'And/or' only became popular when computers needed such an instruction in programming languages! Verbal language is so focused on narrowing down choices, that a word that means freedom of choice yet has to enter daily speech", Don says, "it shows how language tends to rule out flexibility and multiple interpretations, and force a singular solution upon society".
Most people use words as they regard this as the best way for them to make clear what they have to say, or in Don's words, what they want to express. It is this perceived clarity that makes them appreciate words. Don rejects this: "Words often lead to disputes, to fights as to who is 'right', which in turn often leads to calls for judges, courtrooms and prisons".
C. Historical Development
DonParagon points out that words have evolved into what they are now as the result of a historical process. Speech in the old days was part of a
broad range of interactions and circumstantial factors that together made it possible for people to exchange views on a rather personal basis. People
did not always use words, e.g., they used their hands to point to things they saw around them or imitated sounds of animals.
When people started to write, words lost intonation, body-language, circumstanciality and other clues. Everything had to be expressed without such clues, everything had to be captured in words. Words were taken out of the context of individual expression, and, taken on their own, they became symbols that referred to supposed a-priori objects, knowledge and meaning.
"You may talk about, say, a chair, but using the word 'chair', i.e. naming something, does not prove that it exists other than in your imagination. In fact, there is no scientific evidence that any chair exists as a coherent object independently from the people who talk about it. Physical science has long searched for the 'building blocks' of material, only to find chaos and random structures at the smallest level of measurement. I'm not rejecting the existence of your 'chair', I'm only arguing for optionality - an optionality that includes our mutual agreement on the relevance of any referrals to this 'chair', as well as different views on whether it exists in one way or another".
D. Only one Point of View
Don does not reject words, instead he does accept that words can be helpful in making clear, say, what the problem is. Don only regrets that words are
so often used to portray something as indisputably this or that; as if it is an absolute fact. "This persistence that only that person is right, who 'knows what it is', this arrogant refusal to accept that there could be other views, that is the ugly face, the intolerant message of words!"
As Don says, people more and more seek to exchange multimedia views and expressions on a one-to-one basis, rather than to passively accept to be dominated by all the verbal language that is now imposed on society by the Education System, the mass media, the law, etc. "In future, says Don, "there will be more and more optionality!"