Monday, August 12, 2013

Langauge and Concrete Gesture: Re-examing Dave's Challenge

  photo mauthner_zpsf3c7c662.jpg
Fritz Mauthner

I've put in a lot of effort on Dave's Challenge because I think it's important. I'm not going to keep the reader's attention focused on it forever. After this I will do a piece on an Indian theologian who has radical new ideas, then I'll give it a rest for a while. In the mean time I want to make a small point about the core idea of Dave's challenge that Christian terminology has beccome worn out. There is a German thinker, a philosopher and Theater critic called Fritz Mauthner (22 November 1849 Horschitz, Bohemia.– June 29, 1923, Meersburg, Germany). I remember him because he figured prominately in a paper I wrote in graduate school about Samuel Beckett (Waiting For Godot). Mouthner was important to Beckett and some of his core ideas influenced basic concepts Beckett used as that motivated him. It is said that Beckett read Mouthern to the blind James Joyce. Mauthern is still unsung. His works have not been translated out of German.

He is best known for his work: Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache (Contributions to a Critique of Language),

His philosophical endeavour deals with the psychology and science of language as well as the role of grammar and logic. It is a response to the perceived misuse of language and is preoccupied with the implications of language. He believed that words have pragmatic social value, but, because they are applied subjectively and are ever changing, they represent sense experience only (and that imperfectly). The word as such is a metaphor, a transposition of definite terms on indefinite impressions, and that it is enclosed within an image that can only refer to other images. Words cannot adequately express concepts, and they necessarily misrepresent reality by encouraging philosophers to anthropomorphise events through their use of language. He argues that philosophical endeavour is redundant as language cannot be used to create an overarching concept that is abstracted from a collection of distinct entities. In philosophy, doctrines are built out of abstract ideas that can often lead to nonsense if removed from their context. According to Mauthner, thinking never allows access to reality but is always mediated by language. Language sanctions universal meanings, ideas whose validity seems to be due to a cause, to something real. In fact, it lends its protection to a metaphysics given over to what Mauthner calls “superstition” or “word fetishism” (Mauthner, 1901–1902). For the fact is that our vocabulary gives an illusion of a supernatural, ideal world. For example, he denigrates the metaphysical concept of being as "merely a word, a word without content" (Worterbuch der Philosophie, Vol. III p. 171) and extolls that "being is not a genuine concept as genuine concepts must be reducible to something representable" (Worterbuch der Philosophie, Vol. III p. 176).
I first discovered Mauthner back in the 1990s. I was in a seminar class on Samuel Beckett. It was a grand project, two semesters. Semester one was an academic seminar on all things Beckett, and the second semester our class actually staged a play by that author, "All that Fall," not one of better plays either. I was the "dramaturg." Meaning: they didn't trust me to act or do anything else so they had me gather meaningless obscure academic research on the background of the play, no one read it and no one cared about it. Yet at the end of semester one I did a great paper on Mauthner's  influence upon Beckett. Unfortunately I don't have the sources any more. So the reader must take this with a grain of salt, because it's all coming form my memory. The authors I read at that time suggested that Mauthner believed that language began as concrete gesture. A cave man makes a sipping gesture with open hand and mouth, to indicate 'drink' then points, to say "I have found water." Or maybe "give me water." Over time language becomes abstract. We create worlds beyond our knowing, beyond reality perhaps, in the could of our abstractions, and language ceases to have concrete meaning. We must begin again reinforcing language with concrete gesture.

Reinforcing with concrete gesture is a hard thing to understand. In a nutshell it might mean shooting the finger instead of calling names. What value is that? I think it has a more metaphorical meaning the Dave's Challenge is a good example. It's not just Christian phrases that are worn out and trite and cliche. All of language has become worn out. Here we are in very pragmatic territory, a well worn cliche might explain: less talk and more action. This is bound to be the cure for what ales Christianity. Stop trying to communicate the Gospel in the proper words and start acting it out by loving our neighbors. The expression of Christian love as opposed to descriptions of what love entails, that's probably the only thing that will save it.

That leads to a couple of other matters, the issue of right doctrine, and creating an unreality in the clouds of our metaphysical verbiage. This is not a matter of creating a false world out of arm chair ideas. It need not be construed as a reductionist diatribe, but the failure of all language to convey the actual experience of being itself. That is not a matter of disparaging academic theology, but of disparaging the very notion that we can understand transcendent divine reality though logic and reason. That is the bread and butter of the mystic. God is beyond our understanding we are not going to pin him down by the illusion of technique. That's what all our reasoning and everything we do with language comes down to the fashioning of a technology, and what we do with technology is manipulate and control. We cannot manipulate or control God. This doesn't mean don't talk about theology any more, we have to do that. It means we have to live our theology as well. We have to experience (through divine encounter--chiefly through prayer) and we have to take it into the world and show to other people by acts of love. After all that's the major aspect of the atonement that says more than the proper doctrine of atonement, Jesus' modeling the character of God first hand.

As for proper doctrine, yes that's important, and a right understand of doctrine is important. Yet "right understanding" is not conveyed solely by the proper words, or by properly academic words. I think it's more helpful and more to the point to model it by acting out, that can only amount to the demonstration of love. Words by themselves can obscure truth. Words can hide aspects of truth that only actions can bring out. That's the point at which faith enables us to open up to the guidance of the spirit. That's where faith becomes a living reality. The best way to describe the gospel is to mode it, through living it.


Performance of Waiting for Godot

University of Maryland, directed by Beckett himself.


davidk said...

Jacques Ellul has some important things to say about language. The Humiliation of the Word

Metacrock said...

Ellul is a good one. He's very interesting, one of the great's of the human era who has been forgotten. Thanks for your comment.

Hilda said...

This is gorgeous!

Metacrock said...

thanks Hilda! kind comment.