In love with language

Ah, “the perpetually changing, muddied, maid-of-all-work, our common language…a public instrument, a collection of traditional and irrational terms and rules, fantastically created and transformed, fantastically codified, heard and uttered in many different ways”

-Paul Valery-

Summarization often feels inherently erroneous.  Much as I have an insatiable passion for “figuring things out,” for the observable “hows” and “whats” of scientific inquiries and theory, much as it evokes a delight of fascination and sense of knowledge or understanding to learn of the makeup and behaviors of neurons or cells, cerebellums or furry beasts, none of it ever feels comprehensive or resolving.  The human, to me, is some paradoxical wonder of natural capacities and probabilities and dynamics and flexibility that can endlessly occupy and consume us.  Like any part of the cosmic system, from quarks (or smaller?) to global social and environmental systems.  Language has long served as a place of experiment and observation for me of just such probability- and convention-governed behavior coupled with a kind of infinite openness and flexibility.  I believe this is one of the reasons I’m so drawn to working in words as a medium.  But listening to other artists it is easy to see that oils, wax, clay, plastic, etc. also have these inherent qualities.  Dance.  Music.  Craft.  Parenting.  Romantic loves.  Friendships.  Relations.  Essentially, relations.

A primary personal pleasure for me is delving into theories.  Semiotics, linguistics, neurobiology, aesthetics, philosophy, information systems, communications, psychology and the like – all provide  me rich excitement and spell-bound, breathless appetites and anticipations.  The process of learning and becoming – interacting with world, others, ideas, stuff – it is what makes me tick in realms of gladness.  This past week I’ve burrowed down into the work of Max Black and related source documents, particularly Wittgenstein.  I wanted to share some of Black’s “summarizations” because they retain the mess and complexity of what he is observing in a way that feels authentic.  For those of you who share the interests…the following derive from Max Black’s The Labyrinth of Language.

“The extraordinarily ramified network of skills, habits, actions, conventions, understandings, which we bundle together under the label of ‘language’ is too complex to admit of any simple summary…”

“For all its fixity of structure at any given time, a living language has an inherent plasticity and capacity for growth and adaptation (it is more like a developing organism than an inflexible machine).”

so instead of definition, Black offers what he calls a “landing stage” for directing our attention to certain features of language…including the following:

Language is rooted in speech

Language is directed, reversible and self-regulating

Language is an institution (always part of a speech-community, a participatory action)

Language is a particulate system (“a finite repertoire of elements and arrangements generating infinite diversity and novelty”)

Language is meaningful (expressive and evocative)

Language is plastic (of the most rigid and most malleable of human institutions)

so I offer these reflections today as a celebration of the magnificent medium we all of us are using to some extent throughout all of our lives and activities – ah language – ah “open systems” – ah humans – ah world!

Writing it out : writing in

Into (and out of) the labyrinth of language

“there can be no fully articulated thought without symbolic embodiment…

language is the very stuff of which ‘ideas’ are made…

to separate thought from its symbolic manifestation would be as futile

as to try separating a mind from its embodiment in a human organism”

-Max Black, The Labyrinth of Language

“words are part of action and they are equivalents to actions”

-Bronislaw Malinowski-

            Sometimes silenced.  Pressured in channels.  A void creates a vacuum.  Fettered speech – often necessary but variant to “open” or “expressive” on a relative continuum.  To a purpose.  Carrying a message.  Responsive.  Reducing uncertainty.  Extrinsic.  Sometimes.

As if a balance of scales.  A fluid diagram – flow chart.  Internal at the individual end, external at the communicative social.  Between are many pages, many possible sounds.

If days go by.  When days go by.  After days without a feeling of spillage, a “seems” – the experience, for this writer, of unexpurgated, unconventional intrinsic release – that is, writer’s personal experience (a complexity of interactions – organism with environment and others) there ensues a kind of illness, like constipation, like perpetrated violence or censorship, like oppression – that, unless a leakage is allowed, some systemic crack, a private valve – writer risks implosion.  (Say – depression, frustration, resentment, anger).  Holding a forest beast under the lake.

Slipping out and away, writer beast finds a crevice or hollow, cavern or plain in which, from whence, he or she can reduce uncertainty, verbalizing observations and ideas.  As if life is the laboratory that would go unmarked and unnoticed without jotting tallies on a page.

Writing it out – writing in – a labyrinth.

Taking up the ball-point pen, dragging it along the surface of clean paper, is like turning the tap.

Hiss and sputter – tubes finding matter or substance, inciting energy – then flow.


I write about heaven and hell, the monsters here to there.  Of inscribing itself, the requirements of entity and imagined self or other.  The many, the few, and the plants and the beasts.  What air.  In the woods and the desert, the mind.  The heart with its loves and its rage.  Perpetual fears and the virus of mayhem.  I write about her and the children, of friendships and evil and time.  About death, about life, about learning.  In senses, in theories, in words.

It’s not difficult, I’ve just done it.  And you have provided the meaning, already.  Each term stimulating your “abouts,” descriptions and definitions, the semantics.  I craft words your eyes and ears compose commentaries to.  Little point to my telling.

Yet some of you read differently, perhaps listening.  Maybe wonder the about.  How it comes to be, what is signified for me, and why just so?


Creates conversation.  Your doctor can doll out the pills you receive and absorb, internalizing into your existent system.  Your god may tell you what you should do.  Your boss indicates how you should do it and when, friends and family surround you to be.

Not I.  I don’t want it to work quite like that.  I am spinning no story for you to follow along, no pattern upheld to your measure.  Writing it out in the labyrinth of language, I mean for exchange, for a wander – we enter, we leave the deposits we find, discover and fashion with so many hands, so many eyes, ubiquitous ears.

Write it out writing in, in the reading together, again, wending our way trading secrets and gems, co-constructing meanings and moods all to the tunes of language.


I step out of the water and dry.

The Labyrinth of Language
by Max Black

N Filbert 2012

This has been one of those weeks…children home sick from school, an art show to hang (see here!), school studies, and all the sundries of necessity leaving very little time for nourishing reading and composition.  Needed to set aside some time beginning this day.