The Kekule Problem: Language and Consciousness

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  • 10 Apr 2017 at 3:20 am #9010

    efscerbo
    Member

    Having read the article a second time, I must say I’m a bit thrown by his notion that the central idea of language is that one thing can be another thing. That the sign for water is not simply what you did to get a glass of water, but is in fact the water in the glass. I mean, on its face it’s plainly false. The symbol “water” has nothing in common with the physical substance H2O. What he seems to mean instead (and I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t have another way of reading it) is some strong link, some correspondence between the two.

    But that seems to involve a belief in a nice neat connection between signifier and signified. This from McCarthy, who doesn’t name his characters, who has his characters visited by dreams which they do not interpret correctly if at all, who coins words left and right, who makes every other sentence some outrageous simile, who distrusts language, names, and signs, and who seemingly (in my reading of him, at least) distrusts the notion of stable persistent identity (in an ontological sense). I simply don’t buy him believing that “water” means water in any absolute sense, absent any perceiver (or “witness”). But otherwise I have no idea what he means by this “central idea of language”.

    Any ideas?


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    10 Apr 2017 at 6:43 am #9012

    Ken
    Member

    Candy: These are image files of the article. If you have an older computer (I still use Windows xp), it’s right mouse click, “Save image as”, name the file (the default name is fine in this case), then return. The text is rather small and hard to read on a small screen. The official version of the essay should be available soon on the nautil.us website and we can dispense with this version.

    Your noted “influential persons (among us)” I assume refer to friends and acquaintances at SFI, and could be specific persons unnamed or the group in general. Your reaction to his many uses of that phrase would be equivalent to mine to his twice use of “(who) is very smart”:
    “Which pleased me a good deal because David [Krakauer] is very smart”, and,
    “Which pleased me a good deal because George [Zweig] is very smart”;
    which reminded me of the Diane Keaton character in the movie “Manhattan” when she names a friend and immediately describes him/her as a “genius”, as the Woody Allen character, fed up, throws back the reply “You should know some ordinary people; you might learn something”.

    I assume most fans/readers would focus on McCarthy’s philosophical discussion, but I am more interested in his expression. “Not” conventional spelling: dispenses with the apostrophe in “not” contractions: “doesnt”, etc. “Cannot” is one word, a convention he sticks to, except in one case where it’s two. Much more exciting, for me, is this sentence, my favorite and I’m pretty sure it “didnt” jump off the page for anyone else: “Hawks as distinct from foxes or cats.” Hawks and cats in the same sentence, beginning with one, ending with the other. Also he slips in “counsel” toward the end. These are markers for McCarthy:
    First published novel: birds (particularly birds of prey: hawks)/cats, counsel/council, Rattner (from German “ratt” meaning “counsel”/”council”)
    First published theatrical screenplay: cat, Counselor
    First published essay: hawks/cats, counsel
    Maybe it’s merely coincidental, unintentional, hence unnoteworthy. Maybe it’s conscious, and has personal meaning. Maybe it’s unconscious, and who can talk about that? OUROBOROS!


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    10 Apr 2017 at 7:57 am #9013

    Candy Minx
    Member

    Hi Ken, thanks for help with file.

    I did notice exactly the same items you did on my first reading….partly due to my challenges with comprehension….because I only see patterns when I first look or approach anything. So that is why I am asking all those questions about intent….why does he use those words so many times, what does that mean. It is the meaning that slips by me at first….the pattern of words definitely jump off a page at me.

    I was struck by the “is very smart” too. I thought at first “Gee is this a sign of insecurity, of social climbing?” But really….I also thought, how human. How sweet that of course, the validation we experience….I know I do…when talking to a friend or colleague we love, admire…..and we take a risk with an idea….it feels so good when they don’t think we are crazy. When they even have the same idea, or take our thoughts seriously, it simply feels good to have validation. I like that he shared this. I also think what is at play with those two personal friendships and validation…is that that validation IS currency. It’s currency and value exists in the act of research. In thinking. In meditating and letting the unconscious continue with it’s reverie, through dialogue. In the way that Hamlet doesn’t know how he feels about something until he talks about it…and having a witness to the process of thinking is extremely rewarding. And part of learning.

    I noticed hawks, foxes and cats too. There was a dog mentioned too. And toothpaste. He might as well have thrown in some shoes! Ha!

    Of course I noticed counsel in there too…because I am obsessed with the movie!


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    10 Apr 2017 at 8:11 am #9014

    Ken
    Member

    “Toothpaste” leaped off the page for me too in my first reading! Which pleased me a good deal because Candy is very smart. One of these days I might actually learn to read like a normal literate person. Some people might say I’m missing the point of McCarthy’s writings. Oh, and, “Ouroboros” appears in the first paragraph (see my last post in the “Forthcoming McCarthy non-fiction article” thread). Heck, here it is, I’m quoting myself:

    If it has anything to do with Kekule’s dream (which may be more myth than history [claim] [dispute]) that inspired the carbon ring structure of benzene, then OUROBOROS! and we can relate it to the usual suspects: Hermetism, Gnosticism, death/rebirth, ….


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    10 Apr 2017 at 8:33 am #9016

    Richard L.
    Member

    Well, it is a very good read.

    He says that our subconscious speaks to us in math, symbols, etc. because it is not yet adept at language. This seems plausible. And the symbols may be Jungian, such as the eternal return.

    I daresay the publication of this article might lead to articles by other scholars who have already figured out that although evolution occurs, the complete gradualism of evolutionary theory is false, and that all life expresses itself as an algorithm in response to the right triggers. That language is but complicated math and mathematics is the basis of the universe. That narrative is the string of equations we make to describe our world pattern as we recognize it.

    And perhaps to other things as well.

    A mighty fine article, and thanks (to Rick) and Ken and Candy who showed us how to access this.


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    10 Apr 2017 at 8:36 am #9018

    Candy Minx
    Member

    testing


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    10 Apr 2017 at 11:11 am #9027

    Candy Minx
    Member

    Ed,

    I believe that the question and answer are more weighty than might seem. They are simple. the point is…that McCarthy is describing how language uses sounds while the unconsciouss uses picture-story. The picture story is older than the words. I am terribly interested in this article….because the research and papers I’ve been writing and presenting are entirely involved with this issue of picture story…only I am exploring it with memory, gesture, and game theory. I could easily say…”wow McCarthy agrees with me and he is very smart”

    but back to your query about “The central idea of language is that one thing can be another”

    this is very valuable….and comes from the picture story.

    here are some of the things that McCArthy says….to explain further your question…

    “Of the known characteristics of the unconscious its persistence is among the most notable. Everyone is familiar with repetitive dreams. Here the unconscious may well be imagined to have more than one voice: He’s not getting it, is he? No. He’s pretty thick. What do you have to do? I don’t know. Do you want to try using his mother? His mother is dead. What difference does that make?

    What is at work here? And how does the unconscious know we’re not getting it? What doesn’t it know? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us. (Moral compulsion? Is he serious?)

    The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After what would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of language into their present shape and form-their syntax and grammar-has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. there is nothing else to describe.

    All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.

    We don’t know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there-wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing out-sized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. The facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point the ind must grammartise facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.

    So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and sad: Wow. One thing can be another. Yes. Of course that’s what we are saying. Except that he didn’t say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course they don’t think it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics-found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain art preceded language it probably didn’t precede it by much. Some influential persons have actually claimed that language could be up to a million years old. They haven’t explained what we have been doing with it all this time. What we do know-pretty much without question-is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.

    One hundred thousand years is pretty much an eye blink. but two million years is not. This is, rather loosely, the length of time to which our unconscious has been organizing and directing our lives. And without language you will note. At least for all but that recent blink. How does it tell us where and when to scratch? We don’t know. We just know that its good at it.But the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether-suggests rather strongly that it doesn’t much like language and even that it doesn’t trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple million years?

    Apart from its great antiquity the picture-story mode of presentation favored by the unconscious has the appeal of its simple utility. A picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot. Unless one is an Asperger’s case. In which event memories, while correct, suffer from their own literalness. The The log of knowledge or information contained in the brain of the average citizen is enormous.But the form in which it resides is largely unknown. You may have a thousand books and be able to discuss any one of them without remembering a word of the text.

    When you pause to reflect and say, “Let me see. How can I put this,” your aim is to resurrect an idea from this pool of we-know-not-what and give it a linguistic form so that it can be expressed. It is the this that one wishes to put that is representative of this pool of knowledge whose form is so amphora’s.If you explain this to someone and they say that they don’t understand you may well seize your chin and think some more and come up with another way to “put” it. Or you may not. When the physicist Dirac was complained to by students that they did’t understand what he’d said Dirac would simply repeat it verbatim.

    The picture-story lends itself to parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause. The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation. The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use. And wile the path which it suggests for you may be brand it doesn’t include going over a cliff. We can see this in dreams. Those disturbing dreams that wake us from sleep are purely graphic.”


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    • This reply was modified 9 months, 2 weeks ago by  Candy Minx.
    10 Apr 2017 at 12:01 pm #9032

    efscerbo
    Member

    (Having a bit of trouble posting. Sorry if duplicates of my posts show up.)

    Hi Candy,

    Thanks for the response (though I’m Ed… Pretty sure the guy with handle Clement is Clem). While I ultimately think I agree with you on some level, I have to nitpick on the idea “that McCarthy is describing how language uses sounds while the unconscious uses picture-story.” Because language also has a written form, which strictly speaking is a form of picture-story (the pictures being the visualizations of the words). McCarthy writes in his first paragraph, Why doesn’t [the unconscious] simply answer Kekule’s question with something like: “Kekule, it’s a bloody ring.” Sure, he means why doesn’t the unconscious *speak* those words. But presumably the unconscious could cook up a dream where Kekule *sees* somewhere the written words “It’s a bloody ring.” But it doesn’t. That is, the unconscious avoids language in both its spoken and written manifestations.

    Which may seem like I’m splitting hairs. But I’m not. I want to know what McCarthy thinks divides one act of symbolic enterprise from another. What makes the *written* words “Kekule, it’s a ring” categorically different from the ouroboros? They are both visual symbols that convey the idea of a ring to the dreamer.

    My guess is that one involves interpretation on the part of the dreamer, whereas the other does not. Or as McCarthy writes, “The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation.” That is to say, it’s not necessarily the symbols themselves but what we bring to them, how we interpret them that is paramount. But this seems to fly in the face of that signifier-signified thing I mentioned above, the idea that “water” *is* water. This is all part of why that section threw me off.


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    10 Apr 2017 at 12:04 pm #9033

    efscerbo
    Member

    Also, there are a number of parallels between this article and the conversation between Peter and Guy in Whales and Men (53-59). I’ve long believed that Peter is largely expressing McCarthy’s own point-of-view here. The similarities between this article and what Peter says are only confirming that for me. Here’re a few interesting excerpts:

    “I still had not properly grappled with the problem of what evil was. It appeared to be something primal and monolithic and yet it now seemed it was our own invention. A paradox. We know what happens to the works of man. That we could have come up with something as enduring as evil seemed a bit grand for us. So. Perhaps we were simply that which rendered the expression of evil possible. We were what evil had been waiting for. All right. What was there about us that made us so suitable? What was there about us that did not occur anywhere else in nature?

    […]

    “What gradually became apparent to me was that language was a thing corrupted by its own success. What had begun as a system for identifying and organizing the phenomena of the world had become a system for replacing those phenomena. For replacing the world. Language was like the evil aliens in the horror movie that take on the forms of things and gradually replace them altogether. Only no one knows. They look like the thing but they are not the thing. Language usurps things. That is what it does. More and more I began to understand that we were not living in the world as given. We no longer even knew what it was. When you say apple I hear the word and I see the letters A P P L E and you say no, the real apple, and I go: Ah, yes. Of course. Red. Juice. Sweet. What we live in is a linguistic model of the world. We have no way of even knowing what’s been lost.

    […]

    “We’d even come to confuse language with intelligence. Language was intelligence. It was the only definition we had. When I began to think that way I began to see the true extent of our alienation. What if there existed a dialogue among the lifeforms of this earth from which we had excluded ourselves so totally that we no longer even believed it to exist? Could it be that dialogue which we still sense in dreams? Or in those rare moments of peace when the world seems in some sense to be revealed to us and to be proper and right? I knew that dreams were prelingual. I’d seen my dogs dream by the fire, running in their sleep.

    […]

    “I began to think about the silence of monks and contemplatives. Some sense among them that language was at the root of all evil. I began to see all symbolic enterprise as alienation. Every monument a false idol. Language had conditioned us to substitute our own creations for those of the world. To replace the genuine with the ersatz. The living with the dead.”


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    10 Apr 2017 at 12:07 pm #9034

    Rick Wallach
    Keymaster

    Clem: your comment about Whales and Men made my morning, since (may Peter Josyph forgive me) I was already planning a presentation on that mercifully unpublished screenplay and Moby Dick, but have since Saturday begun annotating my precis to incorporate McCarthy’s essay. Cormac now shares the bill with C L R James and Michael S. Rogin. Matter of fack, I am heading for San Marcos next week for a few days in the Whales and Men box. Time to give my negativity about it a good flensing!

    And I’ve been fantasizing about McCarthy someday releasing a book’s worth of all those belletristic scratchings locked away in his files – a Necessary Angel for the post-postmodern.


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