Monday, November 18, 2013

Ellul on SK: noise, Godsong and hearing through silence

Ellul,  The Humiliation of the Word, from Chapter 5: The Religious Conflict Between Image and Word

The present humiliation of the word is only the current version of a permanent reality: people detest the fundamental word, which nevertheless establishes them as human beings. As can easily be imagined, this is the central drama of every individual; it is another aspect of the death instinct. It is the key to the suicide wish and the real truth concerning the radical separation in a person’s heart. It explains his explosion when he denies what he has believed.

With brilliant insight, Kierkegaard has seen this better than anyone. (For this analysis I return to the first part of the previously cited book by Viallaneix, Kierkeguard et la Parole de Dieu. In this section, Viallaneix has thrown light on the degradation of the word especially well. But one should read her entire book.) Viallaneix has gathered his thoughts on the subject under the title "Captive Words," because all human words are overpowered by dissonance. And among these captive words can be discerned the forgotten word, which is the word of creation, the frozen word of philosophy, and the poetic word that is sung. We are made to live these words, but they have become incomprehensible to us when spoken; they lead to misunderstanding. The entire creation speaks, but instead of listening to this word, we want to see the secret of this creation. We want to see, and this leads to scientific demands. The words of creation, the world’s song, and the echo of Nature become confused words. According to Kierkegaard, God speaks this way, and creation tells of its creator. But we grasp only an echo that is actually a parody or a counterfeit of the creative word, which as human beings we can no longer hear because of our rupture with God. Nature "promises harmony and speaks to us of a divine message; but it gives us only incomprehensible signs which have to be interpreted." This is made essentially impossible by parasites on the wavelength and by interference, which prevent us from understanding this first indication of a possible word. These "noises of life" usher in all sorts of dissonance and drown out the intelligible word.

Kierkegaard then shows with prophetic vigor the kind of noise we experience today, whose importance he had discerned: the racket of the city, of speed, of politics and revolution, the racket of the press and of advertising, "urban chattering and gossip, like a snowy whirlwind" -- all this (and what would he say in our day!) utterly suffocates the word. "The problem with the daily newspaper is that it is expressly designed to glorify the present moment"; "nonsense, gossip, foolishness . . . these things are caricatures of the word; they transform it into impious chattering, yack-yack, so that the content of the message is scattered by senseless noises." "The retransmission of objective information is a parody of the communication of knowledge.,’ Faced with this mockery of language, Kierkegaard’s only possible response is "the catharsis of silence." Silence these noises and fall silent oneself. Nothing but silence can allow a person to hear a word of truth again as it traces its path through the echoes of nature.

Instead, people attach themselves to these noises. Thus they enter into another domain of the captive or betrayed word: the frozen word of philosophy, which claims to be listening for the ideal. Here again Kierkegaard appears to be amazingly ahead of his time, as he poses the basic question of the relationship between word and language. But he situates the question in its relationship to the rupture between human beings and God, between the word of human beings and God’s. "For the divine code, Nature’s code, and the human code are different. It follows that a person who tries to understand God’s message by himself is condemned to replace it with another message, from another language, which is human language." "The person puzzled by the jumble of words that creation whispers around him refers them to a linguistic system which he hopes will be able to tell him these words’ meaning.... The word is developed into a language; that is, it finds itself dialectically united to a language."

Kierkegaard proposes an observation (that for his time is astonishing) in which "the basic error in modern times is just this: being continually concerned with what one needs to communicate, rather than with the nature of communication." But after profoundly studying language as an ideal object, he discovers what we thought we had just recently discovered (Viallaneix deserves the credit for showing the extent to which Kierkegaard was ahead of us here!): that "each element of society has an element of discourse that corresponds to it. Both perform a function -- one in life and the other in language. The workings between these elements take on the same form. In short, there is an isomorphism in the human universe and the universe of discourse. Based on this fact, a human typology can be conceived based on an analogy with the study of language."

Language expresses what is deepest in a person, so that it should be clear and coherent. But its reality is quite different: confusion and gibberish. Human discourse has submerged us in misunderstanding and noncommunication, because language has triumphed completely over the word (Kierkegaard gives an extraordinary demonstration of this). So "language and thought are swallowed up by the same chaos." Once again, Kierkegaard connects this contemporary perversion with our inability to hear the Word of God. We substitute our own approach: logic, for example, or philosophical speculation, etc. It is pointless to fill in these outlines, which are found in Viallaneix’s book....LINK, full book

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