May 042016

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It is a radical, a primitive impulse—elementary.
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Imp of the Perverse

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.
—Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals


The categorical imp of the perverse is a hybrid of Kant’s categorical imperative (“Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”) and Poe’s “imp of the perverse” (a force that will suddenly act in seeming opposition to reason). This strange imp will leap about in the following pages amid all manner of philosophical confusion and try to sew together again the patches of thought that have been ripped apart, but in motley fashion; for she is but a poor seamstress for such complicated quilting and, besides, the seams will, in the best of circumstances, burst again and require some new arrangement. There are tried and true patterns she will revert to, and for good reasons. But like all artists, she will deviate from the patterns, too, beginning new traditions and conventions in the place of old. That, however, all the patches are made of the same fabric—a fabric woven of the mind’s sympathy with the material world—we can be quite sure.


Two myths regarding the origin of language haunt our presentiments about the way we know reality and, thus, our conclusions about how and what the world means. One posits an absolute and legible world of meaning; the other an utterly meaningless world. The first tells the tale of a lost Ur-Sprache, wherein words were identical to the things they signified. Mixing Kabbalistic creation magic with esoteric Renaissance alchemy, this myth is one source of Romantic views of the world as whole, harmonious, and inherently logical (“worded” and in accordance with Reason). The assumption is that things mean, and that their meaning is at least partially legible—if not transparently through the dark glass of the fallen language of man, then at least through the visible language of nature, its patterns and repeating hieroglyphs. From ancient times through the mid-18th century at least, scholars and mystics have searched for traces of a perfect language, supposedly lost after the collapse of Babel tower or after that other fall in Eden, claiming sometimes that it was a form of Hebrew and, at others, inventing new symbol systems that promised to heal the rift between word and world, human mind and cosmos. Suspending for a moment belief in the myth’s more esoteric tendencies, the idea that language could be intrinsically related to reality is somewhat supported by etymological evidence tracing the roots of words in the world of matter, binding thought to history, nature, and social practices. Most compelling of all is its occasional call—as in Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia (1303-5)—for the modern poet to bridge the chasm between both words and the essences of ideas and things with a creative regeneration of language.

The second myth deceptively denies any correspondence between words and world, and tends to insist that individual experience cannot be translated from one person to the next. It came more recently to prominence, though there were proto-believers, or shall I say skeptics—for it is a skeptical myth, though myth just the same—even in ancient times. It came to hold sway in the late 19th century, along with other skepticisms, gained considerable ground at the turn of the 20th, and is currently one of the most pervasive articles of faith of the 21st-century social theorist and even many writers who, in holding to it, undermine a belief in their own work. In this explanation of the origin of language, words have never and never could be anything but arbitrary labels for things. This arbitrariness signals a kind of treacherous deceit. The way we think is, they warn, directed and controlled by these arbitrary signifiers— masters, which have no right to such guiding and limiting power over our thoughts and the world they pretend to describe. Words, in this story, coalesce into controlling concepts, cutting up the world into arbitrary categories and quickly shutting down thought and vision. As if that were not bad enough, this tyranny of words deceives in yet another fundamental way. By presenting an order that is invented, words give the lie to the actual dis-ordered state of the world. Words cover up a chaotic, fluid abyss that cannot (or rather should not) be reduced, differentiated, or delimited. Words impose definitions where there should be none, separating, distinguishing, discriminating. Perhaps by the end of the 21st century, light itself will be decried as another separator of substances, an arbitrary surveyor of imperialistic boundary lines between brightness and shadow; but for now we may enjoy our chiaroscuro, virtually guiltlessly. Not so our words. Words in this myth fail to translate between thing and mind and between person and person and language and language. All is a jumble. This myth of untranslatability marks a kind of second Babel, inaugurating a dire suspicion about the ability of words to mean anything, and about meaning altogether.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel

A driving force of the myth of untranslatabilty is the myth of social construction, which, in its most extreme form, denies any relationship between our social attitudes and customs and our biology, our instincts, or experiences, thus cutting the lifeline between materiality and ideas. Neither the myth of the perfect language nor that of non-translatability are true in their extreme forms, but both contain germs of truth, and both are analogies for the fears and hopes of human beings who are, naturally, quite concerned with whether or not the world has any meaning and how we might know what it is and then communicate it to others. But like all strict dualisms, their extreme polarity avoids the fruitful unification of opposites where the world meets word and both might be expanded through contact.

Over the course of the 20th century, philosophers continued the exploration begun in ancient times of how we know the world, focusing more directly on how we know the world through language. In the 21st century these queries have often been reduced to a set of conclusions about how we don’t and can’t know the world, neither through language or otherwise. Although these philosophies have often been liberating, breaking down preconceived limits and questioning restrictive assumptions, when taken to their logical extremes they lead to silence and solipsism.

Social construction is, of course, grounded in the much older philosophical supposition that it is impossible to experience, see, or know “the thing in itself.” We see only phenomena and not realities, and our seeing is determined by filters or structures in our brains that mediate the ways in which we see. Over centuries, this realization has been transformed to mean that what we see is necessarily either wrong or extremely different from what is, an assumption that was not present in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Although Kant conceived of the a priori mental structures that determined our perception as divinely given, we might secularize his exploration by accepting that there are basic biological constants in human brains through which we see, sense, and experience phenomena. While Kant did note that each person sees a different shade of red, he did not suggest that we each see entirely different colors, or that colors themselves did not exist.

The “categorical imp of the perverse” acknowledges that there are some a priori givens or essences in both our minds and the world and that, whether we can see the “thing in itself” perfectly or not, we still have some access to a reasonable sense of reality in its basic forms; that our individual perception, although subjective, is not so radically different from that of others as to prohibit correspondence and communication; that we can use words and images to approximate our meanings and expand our own perception and that of others; and, finally, that while we may follow the categorical imperative as a general law, we also will, like Poe’s imp, perversely deviate from its strictures when an uncontrollable irrational impulse, a creative urge, an ethical scruple, or simple taste dictates. This is an unfashionable idea, to be sure, for it does not provide the satisfaction of either complete wholeness and harmony, on the one hand, or of complete nihilism and alienation, on the other. Instead, it hovers uncomfortably in a middle realm where some things are real and repeating and others open to interpretation and change. It leaves us neither completely omnipotent nor completely helpless.

Without the interventions of the foolish imp (pointing out naively that the emperor has no clothes, for example) an utterly de-materialized form of reader response theory might prevail in the social scene, regardless of the “text” that is being interpreted. The categorical imp wags its finger at an “anything goes” interpretation of the world, blurting out “foolish” truisms to make sophisticated social theorists blush, but also does not stay long within any constructed system that can be exploded or questioned.

Kant Imp PoeLeft: Immanuel Kant, 18th-century portrait  Right: Edgar Allan Poe by Michael Deas (Both public domain)

Nietzsche, inaugurating the “linguistic turn,” made us aware of the way language conceptualizes reality by creating names or descriptions of things that may leave out as much as they contain. Words are inexact figures and metaphors, inaccurate and incommensurate attempts to describe reality. We group similar things that nevertheless exhibit many differences into general categories; and this process induces a sort of simplification of seeing. We come to perceive dogs, trees, men, women, instead of each individual creature and entity. This eventually leads us to create abstractions and reifications, such as love, good, bad, noble, moral, money, which may become more and more removed from physical reality and experience. Yet, while many theorists after Nietzsche came to see the use of language as a treacherous crime committed upon reality, he tended to see it in a more creatively joyous light. Just as long as we do not come to be the slaves of ossified constructs and concepts, just as long as the “creative subject” continues to make new terms, new words, new metaphors, new figures to describe a changing reality from his own shifting perspective, just as long as individuals stoke the flame of a living language, language can be a prod and a stimulus to new seeing.

Social construction theory has tried to moralistically discredit this joyous aesthetic and existential world- and word-making activity and has replaced it with an imperative to strip every word and every concept of its given meaning by calling all designations and conceptualizations into question. Berger and Luckmann, authors of The Social Construction of Reality (1966), reduce all human culture to “an assemblage of maxims, morals, proverbial nuggets of wisdom, values and beliefs, myths, and so forth, the theoretical integration of which requires considerable intellectual fortitude in itself, as the long line of heroic integrators from Homer to the latest sociological system-builders testifies.” Thus the enlightened skeptics discard all of literature, philosophy, and history in one fell swoop—excepting, of course, their own myth and narrative, of a social system occurring randomly and ex nihilo, which just appears and dupes all subsequent humans into following rules and belief systems which have nothing to do with human tendencies, desires, or human nature. The champions of the subsequent puritanical silence would discredit myth, historic narrative, fairy tales, religious legends, songs, poems, paintings, totems, and talismans as random and as traitorous social constructions. They would have us scoff at any product of the human imagination as if it had been made by some abstract non-human author, as something necessarily imposed upon the passive human from some extraneous force that would have to be virtually extraterrestrial, not ourselves, not natural. They would insist that a human is not capable of experiencing his or her reality without being blind-sided by the already constructed way of seeing determined by his or her society, as if construction only works in one negative, exclusive, terminating direction, when, in fact, new ideas, new conceptualizations, new abstractions exponentially proliferate over the ages, as new details, microcosmic particulars, and relative complexities are incorporated into our shared cultural, scientific, and artistic discourse.

Of course our visions and perspectives are colored by our social context and these visions vary from one culture to another, often extremely. The variations between cultures must be the product of many different influences, from genetics to climate to landscape to the requirement for survival of a particular place and a particular people (gene culture co-evolution). Originary group social experiences are passed down from generation to generation, and are altered or not over time. Certainly old customs can be kept longer than necessary and humans on the whole may act according to originary evolutionary necessities that are no longer useful and even sometimes harmful in our current context. But these ways of seeing and ways of acting are not random. In other words, while there certainly are many social constructs, there is no such thing as “just” a social construct—a phrase that suggests that the construct appeared out of nowhere and has no validity whatsoever. Social constructs including language, education, and art are the positive product of human interaction with nature, the physical world, social groups, experience. They may always be questioned and often must be challenged, but they are fundamental and indispensable to human culture.

Over time there is oscillation between repeated forms and invention, including the benefit of influence, interaction, discourse, criticism, the scientific method, testing of assumptions, positing of hypotheses and theories, gathering of facts and evidence to support the hypotheses and theories, foregrounding certain facts over others, selecting out and focusing on one or another aspect, evaluating based on differing values and differing relative needs of the moment.

One can say that different people notice different things when they read a story; that their experiences color what they will remember and the emotions that different words or images inspire. But one can’t say that the story itself is different. What is in it is what is in it. A test consists in the subjective reader pointing out something (making an observation). Is it really there? Or is it a wrong reading, a reading into, a hallucination? Do others see it too, now that it has been pointed out? Indeed, since people do largely see mainly what others have seen before them, it takes a particularly brave or odd reader to suddenly find something there that others have missed repeatedly. Different reading capabilities will see more nuances; simpler people will miss complexities or misread altogether. Someone may grasp the literal but not the allegorical or ironic level.

But here we are talking about a story, something made with some level of intention by a conscious being, something limited. What of the vast and contradictory text of the world? How do we read it collectively even though there is no author and no given purpose? Arrive at an interpretation of its infinite elements and relations? Not all readings are acceptable or right. Yet they persist. How do people live entire lives misunderstanding reality, or not understanding aspects of science, biology, history, anthropology? We still come to absurd conclusions about observed phenomena, like primitives inventing myths to explain the terrors of nature. What of these myths? They are readings and explanations. Technically, scientifically wrong, but often they are allegorically, humanly, right. People lived, perhaps, more beautiful and richer lives believing in Zeus and the divinations of the Oracle than we do today with our scientific knowledge of cause and effect. But there have also been instances when superstitions and wrong-thinking have led to terrible misery and violence (as they still do today, alas). What we want would rather be myths that are “true” to the most healthful, life-affirming essence of Nature, myths that help us to understand who we are and to face up to the fearsomeness of the unknown. Myths that help us to embrace change and mortality and reality. The myth of a perfect language and the myth of untranslatability can be classed in the larger philosophical categories on either side of hope and despair. Which myth is most true to our potential as a species and which do we want to dream on? Do we want skeptical solipsism or holistic Idealism? Again, as in all such extreme polarizations, the sweet spot is in their synthesis, in the creation of a new myth: perhaps that of the categorical imp of the perverse.

Imp of the Perverse by Leonard BaskinImp of the Perverse (from Leonard Baskin’s Imps, Demons, Hobgoblins, Witches, Fairies and Elves, Pantheon 1984)

How much, then, is our reading of the world, of events, of words, of symbols invented or constructed; and how much, on the other hand, is it inherent in nature, in our biology, in our evolutionary coding? Words and symbols describe, denote, suggest, but they may also coerce and imprison; words calcify clichés, but they also can be rearranged and newly coined to make us see and be in new ways. The relationship of the material world with the world of words and ideas has, of course, significant bearing on the very question of meaning, not just the meaning of words, but of the meanings or values we attribute to the world and our ability to share, compare, and translate these meanings with others over time and space. Meaning in the sense of an intentional predetermined purpose by some external agent is not credible. We are not here for something (short of evolutionary processes, which cannot always be counted on our side or in our interest). And yet, our biological sensory essences are replete in themselves with a life force, a will to power, a will to pleasure and also, surprisingly, an evolved ethical and social sense. According to E.O. Wilson, in The Meaning of Human Existence, “The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction—the inherited propensities to communicate, recognize, evaluate, bond, cooperate, compete….” If this is the case, what would it mean for the continuation of our species were we to turn our backs on these originary processes? We create and find meanings, valuations, scales of significance about things, acts, people, as a result of our shared experience. These conclusions are not random or arbitrary, but based on our own bodies, on nature, on what seems to work, on what brings pleasure, excitement; on instinct, on counter-instinct; and, yes, also by conditioning and resistance to conditioning. By denying the direct influence of material reality on our ideas, we undo the bonds between thought and action. By breaking the current from world to word and mind, we break the current back as well: a disembodied idea cannot touch an embodied world.

Modernism introduced both freedom and alienation through the recognition of perspectivism and relativity, inventing non-linear modes of communication such as symbols, metaphors, novel arrangements of forms to express the newly significant internal states that could not as easily be expressed in didactic language. Postmodernism robbed the individual of even the comfort of her own temporary, provisional, shifting view—relieved by moments of being as extratemporal, exceptional moments when all flux was set in a harmonious form before being dispersed once more. And then further denied us the notion that these experiences might be translatable to others through poetic form. Declaring that everything cancelled everything else out, and that any interpretation was as good as any other (thus none were any good), postmodernism simultaneously opened the airwaves to an inchoate cacophony and closed many mortal ears to the music of the spheres. Ostensibly taking away the privilege of the elite reader, any reader of the world was now equally entitled to affirm his own arbitrary reading over any other. Some contemporary theorists, lacking, however, the compensation of another world that may have softened the blow of Berkeley’s 18th-century de-materialism, go a step further, by suggesting that there isn’t even a world or a reality to know in the first place.

But through materiality we are literally in touch with the textures, the colors, the approximate spaces and dynamics of iteration and difference in our shared physical world. Although our experiences of the real are necessarily colored, limited, or expanded by our personal experiences and subjective lenses, we need not give in to alienated despair and a rejection of the possibility of translation from person to person, language to language, culture to culture, or past to present to future. Although my perception of the world is filtered through my own brain, experience, and interests, it is possible that the words that I use, the images that I make to evoke that world will mean something to you. And the differences between how I see the world and the way you see it are, in fact, enriching and expansive variations of individual and group worldviews, creating awareness of individual sentience and self-consciousness.

Schiller noted the difference between what he called “naïve” and “sentimental” approaches to poetry, the former exemplified by the simple objectivity of Homer, the latter by the subjectivity of Romanticism. We are all-too-well aware today that all vision (even Homer’s supposedly objective reporting) involves re-vision and that all expression comes from a particular perspective; but that need not mean that each representation is hopelessly inaccessible to other humans who share, at least to some extent, much of the same cellular structure, much of the same instinctive apparatus, and much of the same social and natural experience. Henry David Thoreau, though labelled a transcendentalist and thus supposedly a proponent of innate knowledge rather than empiricism, was really committed to what he called “fronting the facts” of reality: “All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy:” he wrote, “we reason from our hands to our head.” Analogies would not mean anything to us if they did not correspond to something we recognized from a shared real world.

In this age where alienation is taken by some as a mark of sophistication, I would rather hearken back to a time when sentimentality—which in Schiller’s sense is a mode of perception and expression that infuses some external entity with a subjectivity—was not a dirty word. For the cost of abandoning communication and correspondence between persons and between persons and their world is far too high to uncritically accept philosophies that insist on the absolute incommensurability of perception and phenomena, word and thing, individual and individual. The ultimate cost of abandoning an approximation, a translation of some shared meaning, is not only culture and community as George Steiner and others have noted, but also any impetus for individual or group agency. For, if we cannot know the world well enough, and cannot know others more or less, and cannot know even ourselves, it would not only be impossible to function on a daily basis, but it would be impossible to dream about and to work to minimize the space between what is and what could be. The kind of knowing that helps us with practical functioning and the kind that helps us dream and engage with the world are both proximate, but they have different uses. The former is a pragmatism that accepts certain probabilities for the sake of efficiency and practicality. The kind of knowing that allows us to dream and act, however, is one that fathoms the difference between what is determined and what is yet determinable, keeping always a lifeline from the palpable facts of nature down to the subconscious watery depths of the imagination, a kind of knowing which must continually measure what in our life is necessity and what might yet be changed.

If constructs in the form of language and images have a tendency to direct thought, thereby potentially limiting how we see the world, then the “creative subject” (to use Nietzsche’s term for all humans who act upon the object of the world) has an ethical and aesthetic responsibility to rejuvenate where ideas have become ossified, and to invent new living language where vision has become merely conventional. Even evolutionary and genetic coding can be resisted to varying extents, so that individual and group choice may deviate from long-repeated patterns and veer away from social and biological conformity. Environmental events also alter what is beneficial for survival, inducing adaptations which change the course of social behavior. But extreme forms of social construction deny the biological and evolutionary foundations of our thought and action. According to Stephen Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, the old, established, standard social science model made a religion out of the idea of the impressionable empty mind waiting to be imprinted by any external force whatsoever, denying any connection between one’s physical characteristics, one’s material surroundings, and one’s behavior (gene-culture co-evolution), shifting the entire cause of social systems to conditioning and social engineering. Pinker’s radical stance is that:

We have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome.

Although, as he notes in his introduction, most people acknowledge that everything is both nature and nurture, when it really comes down to it (in liberal milieus, in any case) politically correct assumptions veer sharply away from biological causation. Pinker traces the ideological shift from biology to historical materialism to social construction, and quotes Franz Boas saying, “We must assume that all complex activities are socially determined, not hereditary;” and Durkheim: “Individual natures are merely the indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms;” noting also that Skinner’s behaviorism was based on a belief in the complete malleability of individuals. The blank slate model has been used, of course, as political leverage to affirm the equal potential of all persons; but, as Pinker argues, it also works against the development of the kind of innate ethical behavior that can do battle against totalitarianism, the shadow that looms large over this discussion. Marxist historical materialism, which, certainly in its received form, oddly leaves the material of the body out when calculating what material forces shape the individual, is based on the blank slate model; and whereas Nazism was, of course, grounded in an ideology of ethnic cleansing with direct links to biology. Rescuing the humane exploration of the extent of genetic causes of behavior from its associated calumny, Pinker reminds us that, “Government sponsored mass murder can come from an anti-innatist belief system as easily as from an innate one.” The Stalinists, in pursuit of a political goal based on the blank slate, killed just as many (or more) people as the Nazis. Noam Chomsky, whose research on universal grammars leans in the direction of the perfect language myth, echoes Pinker’s reservations about the political benefits of the blank slate model:

If, in fact, man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the ‘shaping of behavior’ by the state authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement, and participation in a free community.

Social construction theory, likewise dependent upon the total malleability of the blank slate model—although ostensibly a radical attack on exploitative and oppressive essences, universals, and absolutes—has a paradoxical tendency to discourage rather than inspire radical activity. This is because it is cynical about the individual’s participatory agency in creating and, if necessary, reconstructing our shared world, the essential ethical agency affirmed by existentialism. Adorno finally conceded that there can be some form of poetry after Auschwitz, but can we find our way back to a scientific and philosophical ideology that balances the influence of both biology and environment, an assessment of language that allows for some measure of conceptual correspondence with reality, a way to appreciate the significance of civilization amid its cruelties and kindnesses? And if we cannot, how shall we possibly proceed as a culture, as members of an extended and complex cultural and ecological system? Centuries after the Kantkrise, when people rightfully experienced the disequilibrium of a world from which the horizon, in Nietzsche’s image, had been wiped away with a sponge, a world wherein all established values were subject to reevaluation, a mature attempt is called for: to do our best, despite subjectivity, perspectivism, and cultural differences. Because the real costs of abandoning the possibility of communication are nothing less than culture, community, and ethical agency.

Nietzsche characterized language as a “prison house,” and Wittgenstein famously noted the challenge of struggling against the walls of language, but both concluded that there was no choice but to attempt to communicate despite the challenges. Nietzsche wrote: “We have to cease to think, if we refuse to do it in the prison house of language.” I suggest that, instead of a prison house, what we really have is a misprision house, a house where misunderstandings haunt our communications; a house, however, which we may readily transform with all manner of expansion, rearrangement, implosion and explosion. A house of our own making, subject to our own renovations. A house of any kind requires foundations. In language, these foundations are words and concepts; in society, the foundations are shared universals. Cultural relativity is one of the largely unexamined assumptions of contemporary society, but many anthropologists and sociologists have made the case for a wide number of behavioral constants across all cultures. Steven Pinker includes a list compiled from Donald Brown’s Human Universals as an appendix in The Blank Slate, featuring such commonalities as ambivalence, figurative language, rituals, gift-giving, in-group and out-group consciousness, nuclear family structures, incest taboos, art appreciation, attempts to predict the future, punishment for antisocial behavior, distinguishing self from others, sexual jealousy, synesthetic metaphors, taxonomy, language applied to misinform or mislead, synonyms, cooperation, selfishness, status seeking, explaining events by causation, fear of death, proverbs, ethnocentrism, private inner life, redress of wrongs, risk taking, hope, &c. Chomsky, as already noted, argues for an innate and universal grammatical structure for all languages. Despite manifest differences, he writes, “…it seems that very heavy conditions in the form of grammar are universal. Deep structures seem to be very similar from language to language, and the rules that manipulate and interpret them also seem to be drawn from a very narrow class of conceivable formal operations.” Although there are variations across cultures in terms of language and customs, “the deeper mechanisms of mental computation that generate them may be universal and innate.” There are more things in heaven and earth that are universal than the social constructionist will usually allow, and the tension between these universals and individual will and choice is the same tension present in the categorical imperative, put into new and equally paradoxical words by the American transcendentalist Emerson, who received his Kant filtered through the German Romantics. In his famous essay, “Self-Reliance” Emerson writes: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius”. In other words, if you follow your own conscience instead of blindly following conventions and social constructions, you probably will find yourself where the most conscious humans before you have found themselves; but it is not something an ethical person can take for granted. Thus one must assess and experiment anew— while keeping the experiments of others always within reach.

Steven Pinker Blank SlatePhoto of Steven Pinker by Rose Lincoln, Harvard University

A young male friend of mine told me of an experiment he conducted with a woman friend to try to “be together without preconceptions,” without language, without definitions. It fell flat. What is left when we take away history, archetypes, essence? Some preconceived images and roles are still meaningful, though others have become empty shells, simulacra, and conventions. What still reverberates, and why? Consider Proust’s Swann and his comparison of his beloved Odette to the women in old paintings. Her beauty in the present is enhanced by its comparison and relation with the already delineated forms of archetypal female beauty. When I was a young woman, I was attracted and repelled by de Beauvoir’s encouragement in The Second Sex to simply live as one is, and let that define what a woman is. I understood the problem with any individual woman trying to fit into a pre-existent role of womanliness, and judging her success and failure as a person based on the extent to which she fits into this role, especially in so far as the myths have often been written by men. Indeed, de Beauvoir’s discussion constitutes one of the clearest illustrations of the existentialist motto: existence precedes essence. But much is lost if we abandon the ancient archetypes altogether. Some essences do precede existence, and they cannot easily by altered by even the strongest will. A woman is whatever any particular woman is; but at the same time a woman is an echo and a continuance of what women have always been: in poetry, history, song, painting, myth. Today’s blank slate theory is tantamount to a total blankness, a neutered neutrality, especially as it threatens to wipe away not only history and archetype, but even biology and instinct. If fantasies of roles and patterns do not excite the modern contemporary moralistic lover (who may try to be blank even in his or her perception of eroticism), then at least biology ought to do the trick. But even that is repressed or denied. Nothing is supposed to be determining except social context, which is allegedly random and created by oppressive institutions. Shall we then sacrifice erotic imagination and sexual pleasure for a sterile—indeed blank—moralistic neutrality? Or is it possible to play affirmatively with the fruitful tension between innovation and an engagement with determined biology and past archetypes? Today we speak of fluidity and the social construct of gender, often without considering the implications of these ideas. Fluidity is consistent with a rejection of the “construct” of gender, but transformation of physical and stylistic trappings seems still to keep faith with the gender roles it claims to repudiate, only changing the individual’s physicality to match a pre-created role. I certainly have nothing against each individual pursuing his or her or their own sense of sexuality. I sometimes feel like a thunderstorm, a mountainside, a young boy, an old book, a lioness, a flower, a lightning bolt, a field of moss. Yet I am concerned about the way in which this new mode of thought joins other current ideologies to deny the reality of the material world.

I suppose I am rather old-fashioned though, believing even that words mean something that can be traced back to nature through their roots. Emerson, who nowadays is also old-fashioned but in his time was a proponent of the new thought, wrote that words were “fossil poetry;” and an archbishop of Dublin, Richard Chenevix Trench, D.D, elaborated on this suggestive phrase in a book much loved by Thoreau. Trench writes:

[A] popular American author has somewhere characterized language as “fossil poetry.” He evidently means that just as in some fossils, curious and beautiful shapes of vegetable or animal life, the graceful fern or the finely vertebrate lizard, such as now, it may be, have been extinct for thousands of years, are permanently bound up with the stone, and rescued from that perishing which would have been theirs,—so in words are beautiful thoughts and images, the imagination and the feeling of past ages, of men long since in their graves…Language may be, and indeed is, this “fossil poetry.” [But it also is] fossil ethics, or fossil history.

How far from this belief in the significance of etymology we are today! Some contemporary people seem to really not believe that words have any meanings at all. They do not keep their words and speak untruths easily, just as advertisers do, with rampant euphemism, ignoring the proper use of grammatical symbols like possessive apostrophes (perhaps a subconscious attempt to do away with private property and possession?), sprinkling them around haphazardly, in hopes that one might make some sense somewhere or sprout into a sentence.

Sounding somewhat like Wittgenstein, who came to believe in the organic communal development of language over time, Trench writes, “Man makes his own language, but he makes it as the bee makes its cells, as the bird its nest, he cannot do otherwise.” Indeed, why should human language-making (like the mind) be something outside of nature? Why an imposition upon nature? Trench compares the natural growth of the tree of language to a “house being built of dead timbers combined after his own fancy and caprice.” “Language,” he writes, prefiguring the coming Modernist crisis, “is as truly on one side the limit and restraint of thought….” And continues, landing on more solid ground than the later language philosophers, declaring that it is “on the other side that which feeds and unfolds thought”; and that “there is…a reality about words.” Words to Trench are not mere arbitrary signs, but “living powers…growing out of roots, clustering in families, connected and intertwining themselves with all that men have been doing and thinking and feeling from the beginning of the world till now.” Tribulation: from tribulum-harrow, a threshing instrument; Caprices—from capra, a goat; Daisyeye of day; Laburnum—golden rain. Words are like artifacts in curiosity cabinets, except that they are living, evolving.

If originally words were arbitrary, they grew out of each other in accord with reality. But why do we worry so much about the distinction between what is and what is perceived or how named, when the perceiver and namer is made of the same nature as the observed thing? Why would the structure of the human mind and its brainchild language commit treachery on its own kith and kin, its own world? That sometimes false etymologies are attached to words whose real etymologies have been forgotten may only prove the connection of words to realities all the more, since the new explanation relates the old word to some existing reality. We are always binding words to what is, even if they do not strictly come from one particular is. Trench writes: “errors survive in words” and “disprove themselves”: tempers, humors, saturnine, mercurial, jovial (descriptions of people born under these planets); to charm, bewitch, enchant, lunacy, panic, auguries, and auspices (from divination), initiating (from rites)—all mark the persistence of Pagan words in Christian lands. The universe was named “cosmos” or beautiful order, probably by Pythagoras. Was this not an expression of natural human sentiment, voiced by one man? It is surely one possible good name for the universe, though not the only or ultimate one. Someone else in a later era might choose rather to name it “chaos.”

Words born of specific cultures attest to that culture’s history and tendencies. Though sometimes it may be difficult to ascertain which is the stronger, dominant friend, language or reality, we cannot deny that a relationship obtains. Smith comes from smite; wrong from wring; haft from have. Shire, shore, shears, share, shred, shard are all connected to the idea of separation. The contemporary fear of mastery and dominance denies even this relatedness. Some people would rather have no meaning than a meaning that is possibly imposed. Rather not use language at all, they think, than use the language of the oppressors. Why not, instead, make new words? Become ourselves creators?

A belief in the meaningful relation between words and the world extended in Thoreau to a belief in man’s ability to read the visible meanings (verba visibilia) in nature as lessons in human conduct of life. In his 1837 journal he writes, “How indispensable to a correct study of nature is a perception of her true meaning. The fact will one day flower out into a truth.” A few entries later he is observing ice crystals on the lake:

When the ice was laid upon its smooth side [the crystal] resembles the roofs and steeples of a Gothic city, or the vessels of a crowded harem under a press of canvas….Wherever the water, or other causes, had formed a hole in the bank, its throat and outer edge, like the entrance to a citadel of the olden time, bristled with a glistening ice armor. In one place you might see minute ostrich feathers, which seemed the waving plumes of the warriors filing into the fortress, in another the glancing fan-shaped banners of the Lilliputian host, and in another the needle-shaped particles, collected into bundles resembling the plumes of the pine, might pass for the phalanx of spears.

Thoreau cannot help but draw meaning, make stories and connections between observed natural phenomena and human life and civilization. We all make meaning when we look at Nature. We say the moon is smiling on us lovers, fancy an overcast, stormy sky is melancholy and a bright one happy. These are merely natural phenomena with no intentional meaning inherently attached. But spring blossoms make us think of newness and rebirth because they are new rebirths; just as autumn’s gloominess is death, a temporary going-under, a symbol system of the Urpflanze’s recurrence. This surely is no invention, but the truth of their significance. We naturally tell ourselves stories of human life when observing nature (as we do when we listen to music, as sounds suggest landscapes and actions, crises, moods, narratives from human life). And Thoreau would have us learn from Nature how to be more noble, more hearty, more equanimical about changes and cycles: “So let it be with man,” he writes, over and over, after describing a natural process.

But just as there are repeating natural laws that can reliably be studied to learn about the world, ourselves, and each other, there is the categorical imp of the perverse, which, again and again, proves that man can break the patterns of thought and behavior constructed by his forefathers and foremothers. Changing presentiments over centuries have been initiated by individual discoveries and inventions, by accidents and reactions, by experience that proved old presentiments wrong, and in response to new physical realities: infinity, entropy, solar heat death, eternal recurrence, millennial apocalypse, chaos theory, robotics, creationism, evolution, and social construction itself.

The Horn of Babel by Vladimir KushThe Horn of Babel by Vladimir Kush

Was evolution (“just”) a social construct? No better than the one it replaced? Darwin’s critics accused him of gathering data to support his hypothesis, as if such a process were a manipulative and dishonest method of forcing existence into a certain essence. The opposite was true. In the twenty years of gathering and testing evidence from the natural world leading up to his writing of The Origin of Species, Darwin actually worked from observation toward hypothesis in a remarkably innocent way, not expecting to find (to borrow Nietzsche’s wonderful image in “On Truth and Lying in a Supramoral Sense”) the truth he had himself hidden behind a bush. But ironically, he actually discovered data that undermined Creationism, the socially constructed truth of his society, thereby proving that individuals are not all such dupes as social construction theory makes us out to be. Social construction theorists tend to reduce the rich history of human thought down to a few coercive institutionalized oppressive ideas, ignoring the variety and ingenuity and complexity of any given society’s presentiments, dreams, and beliefs.

In fact, not only are there repeating universals and also deviations from these universals over time and space, but differences among cultures and throughout history may actually depend on a vital interplay between universality and deviating human agency. If everything is not entirely, externally, randomly constructed, or, on the other hand, entirely determined by biology, inheritance, or evolutionary urges, then we have some degree of agency to choose what we love and hate and favor and impugn. We have the agency to break out of established patterns and create new ones, which then create individuated modes and variations. Paradoxically, thus differentiation proves comprehensive, as the deviations of so much that usually repeats (archetypes, life forms, ways of living, attitudes toward beauty, others, family, nature, ethics, deep structures in languages), can be attributed to choice rather than coercion or random conformity.

In After Babel, Steiner talks about translation (by which he means not just from language to language but from person to person) as a process including destructive aggression, appropriation, and expansion. We break the meaning of the other when we attempt to understand and re-present; we appropriate it into our own idiom, idiolect, understanding. And then we also add something to it. We expand it with interpretation, elucidation, interest, passion (thereby deforming it). This is analogous to all relations between individuals and countries (passionate love, colonialism, anthropological study), and I suspect that the current distrust of language has something to do with our sensitivity about appropriation and mastery. No one wants to dare speak for someone else or for another kind of person, assuming incomprehension; practicing silence. At the Vermont Studio Center, where I was resident one winter, some of the other writers were sensitively discussing whether a white person could write a black character or a male a female one. But is not at least one part of what a writer does imagining the “other” and delineating and dissolving, dissolving and delineating the differences between everything? With such fastidious exclusions, most of literature would have to be banned. Today, it seems that many people don’t dare express themselves or dare love or enter into relationships at all, for fear of overcoming or being overcome by another person’s personality, power, desires.

What are the consequences of such paranoia in regard to appropriation? Steiner writes: “If a substantial part of all utterances were not public or, more precisely, could not be treated as if they were, chaos and autism would follow.” Although language can limit the horizon of our consciousness, it is also one of the ways or maybe the only way to expand it. Poetic language, as Wittgenstein suggested, is the answer to a cliché–ridden, ossified thought. Living language, as Robert Musil practiced and preached it, is the active process of revivifying stale meanings through the magic of metaphor-making. Although the process is inaccurate, metaphors, writes Musil, “bring beauty and excitement into the world.” Steiner concurs: “Vital acts of speech are those which seek to make a fresh and ‘private’ content more publically available without weakening the uniqueness, the felt edge of individual intent.” And continues:

In significant measure, different languages are different, inherently creative counter-proposals to the constraints, to the limiting universals of biological and ecological conditions. They are the instruments of storage and of transmission of legacies of experience and imaginative construction particular to a given community. We do not yet know if the “deep structures” postulated by transformational-generative grammars are in fact substantive universals. But if they are, the immense diversity of languages as men have spoken and speak them can be interpreted as a direct rebellion against the undifferentiated constraints of biological universality.

He suggests that we use language to hide, keep secrets, lie, imagine fictions; that groups use language to differentiate and leave others out, in ways that give us advantages evolutionarily. Of course, over time, the circle of insiders grows larger, as the unknown becomes more and more rare. Amid persistence of sameness, however, there exists persistent resistance to sameness and a constant generation of difference.

George Steiner After Babel

The existential requirement is that each person decide for herself, in all circumstances where there is choice, paying heed to the essences and facts that cannot be altered. The best way to make meaningful decisions is to choose based on the real characteristics of real life. This does not mean we must choose always the most practical, the most reasonable action for survival. We may choose to throw all our comfort and safety away because of the perverse beauty of an irrational gesture or passion or an act of ethical bravery, or to act in direct contradiction to nature and society as an affirmation of our free will. The biological, evolutionary imperative would seem to favor survival or protection of self, but sometimes we do things that are certain to mean our downfall. Why? Out of a sense that there is sometimes something more important, more beautiful, more brave than personal safety, possibly to protect our genes living in the bodies of our relatives, possibly in consideration of the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run; mayhap for reasons we will never understand. Consider these three gestures:

1. Sophie Scholl, the young German resistance fighter, who with her brother smuggled anti-Nazi propaganda into the university while classes were in session, stood at the top of the balcony as the professors and students streamed from the classrooms, her work already safely done. Instead of sneaking home and avoiding arrest, she flung the rest of the fliers down over the heads of her fellow Germans. Papers flying freely in an atmosphere of terror. She and her brother were beheaded, but for one moment the word sang. For one moment, everyone was free.

2. Nastasya Filippovna, in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, is courted from all sides by scoundrels and maniacs. Her “virtue” has already been compromised due to her situation as a woman without means, yet she has a lofty soul. Beloved of Myshkin, the “idiot,” she glimpses, then loses faith in, a possible redemption. When Rogozhin, one of the scoundrels, comes to a party with 100,000 rubles with which he effectively means to “buy” her, she agrees to go with him; but first she casts the bundle of bills into the fire with a last wild gesture of free will, daring another suitor to plunge his hands into the flames to take the money for himself. He does not, and Nastasya transcends for a moment the petty laws and priorities of her society.

3. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston and Julia risk torture and death to resist the stronghold of their totalitarian society. They do many useless things (Winston buys a cloudy glass paperweight and a creamy papered journal even though either of these acts, if discovered, would mean arrest). But the most powerful symbol of these many resistances is repeated twice in the book, once as a pre-vision in Winston’s dream of the “golden country,” and the second time in reality when the two lovers meet for the first time in a landscape strikingly similar to the dream: “She stood looking at him for an instant, then felt at the zipper of her overalls. And, yes! It was almost as in his dream. Almost as swiftly as he had imagined it, she had torn her clothes off, and when she flung them aside it was with that same magnificent gesture by which a whole civilization seemed to be annihilated.”

Nineteen-Eighty Four, a picture of a totally constructed universe based on a brutally enforced ideology of the blank slate, shows us how close and how far we are from being infinitely malleable today.

Consider a paved path in a city. Sometimes, even though the powers that be have paved a sidewalk and expected the citizens to conform to its guidelines, someone feels that there is a better way to get from here to there. And when enough people feel their feet drawn to this alternate way, the people begin to tread a new path through an area that was intended to be grass. There are desire lines stronger than pre-established social constructs, and these desire lines insist on new arrangements of the world even though (or perhaps precisely because) the old ones have been established by asphalt. The new paths, which were once rebellious and eccentric, become in time established, sanctioned, and limiting; and new people may find that there are better (or worse) ways to get from here to there. If language has tendencies to close down against thought, language users also have tendencies to disrupt these patterns. If people in power attempt to coerce and control, less powerful people also have always subverted these attempts. No path is made without the desire of some person, without the choice of some person or for some reason (however good or bad). The path may be made in a certain place because of beauty or because of utility; for sentimental reasons; for access to a view; because it is private; because there are obstacles adjacent to it; because there are special features along the route; or because there are no other options left. Yet any path will revert to wildness in time if no one walks upon it.

Photo by Nicholas Noyes via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)Photo by Nicholas Noyes via Flickr “Desire Paths” group (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Herbert Marcuse’s classic book, One-Dimensional Man (1964), is an indictment of what he characterized as the flattening out of contemporary American consciousness into a closed system of self-reflexive rationality that resisted external (two-dimensional) critique. It begins by noting that the current social construct was a “project” chosen by people at one time out of a number of alternatives. In a footnote he explains that his use of the word “project” alludes to Sartre’s linkage of autonomy and contingency, and presupposes a freedom and responsibility, despite the fact that the choosers most likely were the most powerful people in the original society. His whole book is an explanation of how very difficult it is to see beyond the “rationality” of any given social construct, but also an imperative to create the conditions under which we might. Marcuse calls for a rediscovery of a lost dialectic, a two-dimensional space which keeps alive the friction between ideal and real, status quo and possibility, subjective and objective, calculable and incalculable, appearance and essence, universal and particular, concept and specific iteration, and not least of all, spirit and matter. A hero of the New Left, Marcuse nevertheless criticized many of the basic assumptions of leftist ideology, including the democratic rejection of European intellectual and artistic culture, the increasing conflation of art and life, and the increasing dematerialization of sociology, linguistics and science in his time. Contemporary physics, he notes, does not entirely deny or question the existence of the physical world, but “in one way or another it suspends judgment on what reality itself may be, or considers the very question meaningless and unanswerable.” This then shifts the emphasis from a metaphysical what to an operational how and “establishes a practical (though by no means absolute) certainty which, in its operations with matter, is with good conscience free from commitment to any substance outside the operational context.” Materiality becomes assessed only in terms of its quantifiable use for humans, diminishing our relationship with the qualities of matter and weakening our ability to counter and critique the material status quo. The end itself, of one-dimensional consciousness, is a closed system of democratic totalitarianism, controlling every aspect of our lives.

While everything is filtered through our human interests, and thus somehow “instrumental” towards our human “use,” some uses are more strictly utilitarian than others; some serve the continuation of a status quo more than others. Individually and socially we have an underdeveloped interest in the qualitative experience of materiality, in dreaming induced by matter, not merely efficiency, practicality, exploitation of resources. Critical yet utopian thinking occurs as we free ourselves from the condition of what and how much and begin to consider the why and how; two-dimensional discourse helps us to transcend the needs of the current system to consider not only alternate answers, but completely different questions.

Marcuse ended his book in a less than hopeful mood, but the revolutionary movements of the late sixties, encouraged in part by his ideas, surprised him and gave him cause to hope. But where are we now, over half a century later? We may, indeed, not be able to save the earth, or stem the rush of species loss, and we certainly cannot undo the lasting legacies of political and social havoc wrought by man’s inhumanity to man in any simple way. Although Candide provided a picture of what Voltaire had deemed an inevitably cruel and destructive force rampant in what was already in his time far from the “best of all possible worlds,” today climate change changes the equation to an extent which should prick the conscience of anyone who has retreated to his garden instead of trying to make sense of the world or make it better. We have arrived where we are because of who we are as a species. We are responsible for the good, the bad, and the ugly, for the beautiful and the damning, in compliance and resistance to genetic coding, evolutionary habits, environmental changes, and the social and cultural memes we have created together out of the deeply imbedded contradictions of our natures: competition and collaboration, love of and exploitation of nature, curiosity and will to ignorance, practicality and squandering, ethics, aesthetics, and hypocritical morality. Thus it is up to us to try to reverse the damages we have wrought and to preserve as much as possible of what is precious and essential about life and of our cultural history, both for ourselves and for all the other species with whom we must learn to empathize. But this can only happen if we begin to see again the meaningful connections between ourselves and the natural and created world, mediated through words, images, and our senses, and if we learn to use whatever languages possible to communicate a fullness of feeling about what it means to be a deeply fraught, complex human being in a world in this state of crisis. We can, furthermore, only reverse the damage wrought if we deviate from the business-as-usual status quo of our society’s current “rationality”—replacing quantifiable with qualitative, empty materialism with materiality imbued with spirit. To do so will inevitably seem foolish and perverse to those too entrenched to imagine other ways of living, to anyone too committed to the immediate profits of the current system to consider that they might, actually, be much happier without all of the possessions and processes they misconceive as necessary. If we do not, however, manage to succeed against what really are terrible odds, we must at least bear witness to the tragic fall and leave some traces of the aesthetic and ethical consciousness of humankind, even if no one ever comes after us who can decipher the script.

We have often been capable of overturning the paradigms created by our predecessors, challenging, criticizing, or revising the constructs and narratives of other humans, following old errors to new truths or old truths to new errors, bungling sometimes, but doing our best. It has been a conversation and debate, a love song and a lamentation over the ages, among strangers and friends, enemies and kin, all of us trying to understand the world and our place in it; trying to balance the many voices within each of us with the many voices within others. We can continue to discourse in this polyphonic chorus of the past and the present, or we can decide, with the social constructionist theorists and their deconstructionist allies, that no way in which anyone has ever described the world, no poem, no theory, no evaluation or re-evaluation of values is reality-relevant (except of course the social constructionist theory itself); that language is a crime against nature; that the history of ideas and the idealistic pursuit of education is an Enlightenment plot to impose random ideas of good and bad on a benighted populace. We can just do away with our libraries and our picture galleries, our approximate meanings and our attempts to understand what can never be completely mastered, our mythologies and our delightful misprisions, and smugly, certainly, moralistically and accurately, resort to grunting and sneezing. No misleading words; no oppressive influences; no images to teach us that one thing or person is more beautiful or more valuable than another; no theories; no ideas at all. Only a purportedly honest, gaping, silent void.

—Genese Grill


Genese Grill 350x479px Photo by Suzanne Levine

Genese Grill is a writer, translator, and book artist, living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of Robert Musil’s Thought Flights (Contra Mundum Press, 2015). She has just finished a collection of essays entitled Portals: Reflections on the Spirit in Matter, which is looking for a nice publishing house in which it might live. Essays from the collection have appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Georgia Review, and The Missouri Review, and one of them won the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for Nonfiction. She is proud to be on the masthead of Numéro Cinq as special correspondent.



  2 Responses to “Making Meaning I: The Categorical Imp of the Perverse — Genese Grill”

  1. Much thanks, Genese. I’ll let a quick reaction stand in for a thousand thoughts: illuminating, accessible, and very much relevant, if I can use any of those words. Most, you have given us an opening.

    • Thank you, Gary, that is exactly what I aim to do, open a conversation. I think that is what essays are for me, ways to “try out” different ideas and think through hard questions. Thank you so much for reading and thinking through all of this with me!

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