1. Reflections on paradox

The originary operation of language is paradoxical, or “paradoxical,” in its very essence, since the originary sign designates as referred-to-by-the-sign and thereby as significant what had previously not been the referent of a sign, and was therefore not significant. Or in other terms, it refers to as sacred what had previously not been referred to as sacred, although this reference is not (and could not be in advance) thematized as the conferral of sacrality. In Austin’s terms, the originary ostensive sign does not offer itself as an illocutionary or performative act. On the contrary, whatever the results of later analysis, the sacred must be experienced as discovered before it can be thought of as created.

With this fundamental paradoxicality in mind, we can understand the secondary nature of the category of “logical paradox,” and show that in each case what goes wrong is the prior assumption that the meaning of words can be made by fiat to correspond to an objective worldly reality of the sort that “the cat is on the mat” is supposed to typify.

I found the Barber a precious help in understanding paradox because it is the only common one that refers to the real world in such a way that we are able to distinguish the element of arbitrary postulation from what appears to be description. The paradoxical idea is that of the barber who shaves only everyone who doesn’t shave himself. Then we can’t tell where to put the barber himself, since if he doesn’t shave himself then he must shave himself, etc. Recalling my critique in Chronicle 390, the paradox depends on the idea, which in the real world is absurd, that “X shaves himself” is a permanent state, whereas the very action indicated by the verb implies that on the contrary, shaving oneself involves a transition between two states, from that of unshaven to that of shaven. Thus when the barber shaves himself, he passes from one to the other, shaving his unshaven self before becoming someone who “shaves,” meaning has shaved, himself. There is no paradox in the idea of a barber who shaves everyone who has not yet shaved himself.

The same method can in principle be applied to all paradoxes, save that they rarely provide an “objective correlative” like shaving. Thus the familiar “this sentence is false,” which takes advantage of the fact that we normally consider sentences to be true or false, that is, to exist atemporally, when in fact, like shaving, they are composed in time. The nullity of paradoxes of this sort is more obvious in “This sentence is true… no, false” where it is even harder to figure out what truth or falsity is being referred to. But there is still a further step to be taken; what does “this sentence” really mean? How about the following:

This poem doesn’t rhyme

This novel is very short.

This symphony is not written in musical notation.

This automobile …

Now surely no one would claim that the last expression is an automobile, or even that the preceding one is a symphony, but can’t one write a one-sentence novel? And surely one- and even no-sentence poems are written all the time. My point about paradoxes is not at all to mock the logicians’ quest for formal closure, which just because it can’t be perfected is not a worthless goal (cf Gödel for systems with infinite membership). It is rather to dwell on the significance of what we discover about the impossibility of a paradox-proof system. The scientistic mind (there is unfortunately no way of naming the persons associated with such minds: we can’t call a partisan of scientism a scientist; maybe we should try sciencist?) always handles these questions by seeking some kind of neuronal feedback loop or other biological counterpart to the cultural sign system. But animal brains have the same components as human ones; what makes our thinking different is that it involves signs, which are not properties of brains, even if their operations require new kinds of brain activity.

What the above examples suggest is that “this sentence,” even when it clearly refers to a sentence, is making an appeal to the conceptual authority of the emitter. To read the sentence, we have to “suspend disbelief” and begin by assuming that it is a sentence, a poem, or even a novel, and perhaps in some fanciful imaginary universe, a symphony. These three acceptances, however different in detail, have the same ontology, which is not that of finding a correspondence between a proposition and a state of affairs in the real world. This is what links all language to its originary configuration as the “arbitrary” designation of the central being as “significant,” and therefore (for the moment) interdicted to the participants’ appetitive activities.

In a word, the “this” is more fundamental than the word that follows it. If I can tell you that this is a sentence, I might as well be able to tell you it’s an airplane, because with the “this” you have bought into my fictional world where “the cat is on the mat” has meaning independently of any real cat or mat. The “self-referential” nature of paradoxes corresponds to their unveiling of this essentially creative, and therefore “violent” or more precisely, deferred-violent nature of all uses of signs. To make you attend to the sign, you are forced out of the real world into a sign-universe that, whether or not it obeys a set of formal rules (“logic”) is nonetheless extra-worldly, and therefore cultural, human, non-objective. If I can say “the grass is green” or “today is Monday,” I can say “this sentence is false,” because there are no real-world constraints in the world of signs beyond those of life in general. (Such constraints may themselves become the matter of paradox, as in the “St Petersburg paradox” of the gambler or the “unexpected examination paradox,” which depend on the fact of our lives as mortals in time.)

  1. BS in Advertising

Language is about creating utopias. Harry Frankfurt’s BS concept (see Chronicles 429 and 453) touches on the essence of language because it at least suggests that language is a mode of interaction between potentially violent, constantly resentful beings whose greatest problem, unlike that of all other living creatures, is, as the late Rodney King put it, getting along with each other.

To take an example alluded to in the previous Chronicle: that of advertising. My mother, who had worked in an advertising department in the 1930s, owned a book that described the three basic advertising categories. According to the Internet, these are still standard eighty years later. The first two are simple enough. The Pioneering stage is that of the introduction of a new product, where you focus on its advantages over what preceded—washing machines over washboards, for example. The Competitive stage is when you tout the superior qualities of your brand over others—no need for an example here. But the third or Retentive stage is a bit different: here the point is “simply” to remind people of your product, which is presumably already well-known. Back in the old days, the first and second stages generated lengthy descriptions and stories of the kind found today in low-budget ads for TV gadgets or diet fads. Today, almost all advertising, even “pioneering,” tends toward the retentive, the reminder-of-presence. The representation of the product, while conveying little or no concrete information, reveals it to us in such a way as to make it memorable, desirable beyond desire, sacred. If you want to compare it with others, there are plenty of websites that let you do this, or you can read Consumer Reports, but the advertising itself is centrally concerned with situating the product in what we might call a quasi-sacred space, the “quasi” being, more or less, the qualifier corresponding to BS.

After all, we all know that what the housewife or glamor girl or rugged workman or doctor says or implies in the ad “isn’t really true.” But we are at least tempted to enjoy the fantasy, not only because we might be happy to be like these people or attract people like them, but simply as a fantasy, the way we read romance novels. I apologize to readers who find this all too obvious. What is less obvious is that such language-as-sacralization is not simply a frivolous indulgence but the very essence of the human use of signs.

Advertising “works” despite our full awareness of its lack of objectivity, not because we are hopeless dupes, but because we are grateful despite ourselves to the advertiser for the pacifying utopia that he produces. The great religions perform this function collectively, and great art individually, without a commercial interest and with far greater insight into fundamental anthropological truths, but what is essential and insufficiently appreciated is that this, not the arguments of a scientific treatise, is the fundamental mode of language. Fact-checking is a discipline imposed upon language, first by the bricoleur and then by the laboratory; it is not the “natural” operation of language.

Although a really good commercial cannot do without a modicum of insight into the problems of the human—say, in those famous Volkswagen ads that showed that inexpensive cars could confer a bonus of hip, less-is-more “cuteness” on poor but future-rich college students—its necessarily limited and commercially interested focus makes it fundamentally BS, no doubt the best example of avowed BS in everyday life. As I have said, the trouble with the category of BS is that it affirms its sacrality by denying it, as do all “dirty words.” But this should only encourage us to understand it in originary terms that transcend its vulgar appellation.

In contrast, the insults hurled at religion in recent years would reverse the direction of insight from the sublime to the ridiculous. Instead of seeing BS as an homage paid by everyday life to the foundational necessity of the sacred, the critics of religion denounce the sacred itself as BS. Which sometimes leads its defenders to. . .

  1. “Natural” theology in the National Review (2/10/14)

In response to a reader who claimed that the theistic response to “Why is there not nothing?” must affirm the existence of a creator-God, Nicholas Frankovich replies:

. . . you can’t refute theism unless you understand it first, and to understand it, you have to start at the logical beginning, with the so-called God of the philosophers. . . . [T]he most fundamental theological precept is not that “there exists God, creator of the universe.” It’s that the mystery of being is irreducible, absolutely immune to attempts at demystification. . . . The closest thing that the question “Why is there not nothing?” has to an answer is the wonder that it elicits in you when you ponder it. . . . This is what theists mean by theism. (p. 2)

I have omitted the author’s patronizing inserts, such as “Now stop right there,” “Think slowly,” etc., which are meant to demonstrate the thoughtful theist’s superiority to the hasty atheist who foolishly believes, given the number of churches in his neighborhood, that “theism” can generally be associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition, or the Islamic one for that matter. Instead, our theist knows we must begin with the “God of the philosophers,” a phrase that shows scant respect for our religious tradition, now relegated to a secondary flourish on a fundamental sense of “wonder.” The point of this switch, we understand, is that although we may quibble about “creator-Gods,” among whom that of the Old Testament (let’s call him “Yahweh”) has nothing particular to recommend him (or her) over the competition, these historical particularities only distract us from the “philosophical,” and therefore presumably “universal,” and consequently “natural,” sense of wonder that we feel at the existence, as Heidegger put it, of “essents rather than nothing”: Warum ist überhaupt Seiendes und nicht vielmehr Nichts? Das ist die Frage.

No theology is more anemic and naive than “natural theology.” There is very little distance between Frankovich’s language and the old Max Müller account of “primitive man” in the primeval forest prostrating himself before the divine power of the sun, or of thunder and lightning, or of an earthquake, etc. The fact that our closest animal relatives do not engage in sun- or earthquake-worship never disturbs such thinkers, since “man” is defined as the creature who “wonders,” or who “knows he is going to die,” or some such seminal human trait. The need for language in which to formulate these thoughts is not worthy of mention, since language, presumably, comes along with the package. Müller associated the beginnings of language with the awareness of objects of worship, albeit without proposing a clear path from ape to “man.” But now our Sapiens exemplar is more sophisticated; rather than bowing down in servile worship, he has the philosophical acumen to “wonder.” In Girardian terms, the violence of solar heat or lightning strikes would be understood as a substitute or “metaphor” for (proto-)human violence; such is not needed in the Rousseauian proto-faculty-lounge of our modern Adam.

I hope I don’t need to rehearse the originary hypothesis for the n+1th time to persuade the reader of these Chronicles that religion is not in the first place a “natural,” let alone a “philosophical” phenomenon. The abstraction of Mr. Frankovich’s definition of “theism” has a long prehistory in the Western religious tradition, and to deny or forget this prehistory is to make it impossible for us to understand whence comes our sense of “wonder,” or let us simply say, our consciousness, but a consciousness mediated by signs, which is what makes us human. The more appropriate question to ask, from a perspective that respects both anthropology and human history, is not “Why is there something rather than nothing?” but “Why are there creatures who (can) ask the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’”—a question to which the originary hypothesis provides a minimal answer.

In future Chronicles, I hope to offer further observations and speculations concerning what language is really for.