tunneling

“Philology has been dethroned from the high place it once had in this court of inquiry. Max Müller’s view of mythology as a “disease of language” can be abandoned without regret. Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water.” -J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

Consider, in this light cast by the patron saint of this year’s holiday box-office, the following rather ‘deep’ passage from an essay entitled “Thought and Language”, written by Samuel Butler, in which the infamous Professor Muller, an important early scholar of Eastern religions specializing in Sanskrit, is queried on the use he makes of Sir William Hamilton, the child prodigy who was called ‘Ireland’s greatest mathematician’ (for inventing the Hamiltonian, among other things…):

“The following passages are quoted from Sir William Hamilton in Professor Max Muller’s own book, with so much approval as to lead one to suppose that the differences between himself and his opponents are in reality less than he believes them to be:

‘Language,’ says Sir W. Hamilton, ‘is the attribution of signs to our cognitions of things. But as a cognition must have already been there before it could receive a sign, consequently that knowledge which is denoted by the formation and application of a word must have preceded the symbol that denotes it. A sign, however, is necessary to give stability to our intellectual progress–to establish each step in our advance as a new starting-point for our advance to another beyond. A country may be overrun by an armed host, but it is only conquered by the establishment of fortresses. Words are the fortresses of thought. They enable us to realise our dominion over what we have already overrun in thought; to make every intellectual conquest the base of operations for others still beyond.’

‘This,’ says Professor Max Muller, ‘is a most happy illustration,’ and he proceeds to quote the following, also from Sir William Hamilton, which he declares to be even happier still:

‘You have all heard,’ says Sir William Hamilton, ‘of the process of tunnelling through a sandbank. In this operation it is impossible to succeed unless every foot, nay, almost every inch of our progress be secured by an arch of masonry before we attempt the excavation of another. Now language is to the mind precisely what the arch is to the tunnel. The power of thinking and the power of excavation are not dependent on the words in the one case or on the mason-work in the other; but without these subsidiaries neither could be carried on beyond its rudimentary commencement. Though, therefore, we allow that every movement forward in language must be determined by an antecedent movement forward in thought, still, unless thought be accompanied at each point of its evolutions by a corresponding evolution of language, its further development is arrested.’

Man has evolved an articulate language, whereas the lower animals seem to be without one. Man, therefore, has far outstripped them in reasoning faculty as well as in power of expression. This, however, does not bar the communications which the lower animals make to one another from possessing all the essential characteristics of language, and as a matter of fact, wherever we can follow them we find such communications effectuated by the aid of arbitrary symbols covenanted upon by the living beings that wish to communicate, and persistently associated with certain corresponding feelings, states of mind, or material objects. Human language is nothing more than this in principle, however much further the principle has been carried in our own case than in that of the lower animals.” -Samuel Butler (ibid.).

So perhaps language is just the system of tunnels that distribute and disperse a certain circulation of consciousness, of ‘thought’. Furthermore, in the quantum era, we find that such distributions are not, as in the classical world, fully determined by its material scaffoldings. Quantum Tunneling is the peculiar possibility of the unpredicted event; of a “we went in here, traveled so far, and should be popping up right… whoa!” variety. One can never be entirely certain as to where the expedition will take one. This means, keeping with our Hamiltonian metaphor, that sayings are doings, & doings sayings. Thought and feeling, as biological phenomena, can always find forms to inhere in, or supervene on; caverns to explore. Perhaps our era’s Mullerian emphasis on the ‘rationality’ of language has obscured for us its more sonorous properties.

Paul McLean once suggested (in conversation) that animal communication–birdsong was his example–could be thought of less as a conveyance of discrete ‘bits’ of information (since their languages don’t necessarily seem to support this kind of modularity), and more as media; establishers of common ‘spaces’, which could in turn support synchronizations and correspondences which would look a lot like telepathic ‘instantaneous transmissions’ (cf. some of Alex Wissner-Gross’s mind-boggling work on the ‘singularities’ of instantaneous transmission) to me this evoked Bohm’s ‘pilot wave’ model of quantum mech., & also the standard (classical) telecom notion of ‘carrier waves‘. All information is transmitted as interferential ‘modulations’ of such ‘vehicles’, themselves considered ‘channels’, media, made to disappear (like Heidegger’s hammer), rendered inaudible by the transduction of the music, its retrieval…

Heidegger dances around this in his work on language too; his axiom, ‘the being of language: the language of being’, means that beings are the ‘speech’ of being. Perhaps it’s not (only) that we have ‘transmission’ without language, but rather (also) that we have language without (around, beneath, above…) ‘transmission’. There’s a ‘doing’ of language itself which both exceeds and precedes our (or any) particular ‘uses’ of it…

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