Words Lie

As a writer, I’m acutely conscious of the verbal aspect of our thoughts and the ways in which words stand for and ultimately replace experience. As a visual artist, I often endeavor to create and recreate primary experience, unfiltered by verbal descriptions.The thing about words is they are not original. Words are a shared commodity and have a communicative function. Words are transactional and often useful for conveying information that can be understood by others. But we also use words as mechanisms of thought. That’s a problem – because as cultural constructs our words are not our own. Our thoughts are not truly original as far as they are composed of strings of words. And those words have been conveyed to us as substitutes (replacements) for our experience of living in the world.What writers and speakers do is to translate experience into words. That seems simple enough but it is far from a straightforward process. The coercive function of verbal communication is always present in both written and spoken forms of address. Besides the simple conveyance of potentially useful information, words are used to influence those who apprehend them. Words are the primary way in which we attempt to manipulate events to serve our intended purposes. The act of putting things into words is inseparable from the act of intentional (and coercive) presentation of self. It’s a conundrum – perhaps the mother of all conundrums.*When we think about things we’re reprocessing the same words that have been conveyed to us by family, friends, peer groups, politicians, institutions, hucksters, egoists, and wordsmiths of all stripes.It’s important to keep the dual function of words in the forefront of our minds when we’re making sense of the world and our experience. Becoming a critical thinker involves, first and foremost, developing the ability to see words for what they are – imperfect and external substitutes for experience that we reuse and internalize as thoughts. The agendas conveyed by verbal communication are not always apparent but they amount to the standard types of influence peddling in which we all take part. We attempt to gain some leverage over people and events by means of our verbal communication.We’re all complicit in these verbal deceptions. Freeing ourselves from the persuasive and coercive power of words involves looking at how we may be using them in problematic ways.To actually experience nature or people we truly care about, for example, we can work to bypass the tendency we have to instantly translate our experience into words. We can put some distance between our sensations and thinking about them. They are two different things. And the map is not the territory. It is at best a pale imitation of our lives. To be (and to see) in the moment – with an open mind and aesthetic sensibilities – is to accept the impressions we get via our direct experience and to hold off on the desire we have to verbalize. Gaining some ability to do this allows the higher faculties of thought, feeling, and insight – critical, analytical, integrative, and synthetic processes – to exist as “truth filters” as it were. When we do take the inevitable steps toward verbalization, at least we have given consideration to the elusive and complex nature of thought and communication. This is step one in coming to terms with ourselves and with those who would convince us that things are how they want us to see them.*Image: “Words Lie,” Tullio Francesco DeSantis, 2005

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