A Letter Explaining “Cuts in Communication, Words and Images”

From around Summer 2010



Hi Richard,

Thanks very much for your kind reply.

I am none too confident about this but I will explain myself as best I can. I’m excited about getting advice on this problem – and there is a mordant irony in this.

An inner psychological experience hit me like a train recently.

I’m looking maybe for – at first – classic philosophical or psychological texts that might encapsulate the experience I have tried to describe and for fictional or autobiographical texts that do it too.

OK here goes:

I wish I read more. I get worked up trying to digest current affairs or fiction or bits of philosophy. I do a boring job – I doggedly think more stimulation would objectively get my mind working more and make it healthier, happier, more illuminated, more “me”.

I am a fairly good communicator, singing and playing live music for years. I work in market research – it is neccessary to grab the attention of people and get them to answer questions, synthesising their experience of finance or technology into verbatim.

One night a few weeks ago I was trying to understand something in a review of a book by Steven Pinker. I cannot remember exactly what it was – probably about Pinker’s view of the evolutionary function of the Arts. I think it was in the New York Times – a sound organ of public meaning. Something else I dutifully try to read. I did read “How the Mind Works” several years ago so I am vaguely familiar with Pinker’s views.

I was tossing this around in my head, while cooking supper, trying to distil the argument, get to firm grips with it, and argue some case myself.

Something very strange happened.

I had this sense of a wrenching revolt in my mind from the whole exercise in horror, or incredulity – or I dont know what – at what I was doing. I caught a glimpse of myself desperately trying to understand a model, a picture, an explanation that had universal application to the world, to people.

And I suddenly really, really, really, really didnt want to do it anymore.

You might have thought : ‘Hmmm, well, would I take seriously my own thoughts on a book I havnt read that I am reading about in a newspaper review ?’

This is grist to the mill: the issue of primary and secondary sources was another thing I think papering over the elephant my psyche was trying to grapple with, that it felt in danger of being flattened by. And I sense even the business of writing this letter does a similar job, much as I am very grateful for your attention.

So I have to put into narrative what I think this was about :-

That strange night, doing the cooking, I was – and you are now – attempting to “swallow” or identify with a narrative, a model, a picture – with all its attendant metaphors. It is as if this will explain The World. And, by extension, oneself.

You do this every day in conversation as you both explain things and have them explained to you by others, make an account of yourself or things to others. You do this in speech out loud – but also silently in your head.

So far, so a statement of the psychologically bleedin’ obvious.

But all these representations, these communications sharing the Self with others or with oneself are radically not the experience they seek to make present.

But they attempt to imply that there is a roughly coherent, antecedent Self that understands ideas that refer to real things in the World and that makes these representations. And ultimately statements about the World are about states to which the Self (or the fragmented, non-unitary Me) corresponds – because the Self is part of that World to which we assume we refer.

But nothing describes experience, what it is like to live, to be You or be Me. There is no language or narrative or image that describes, matches our subjective experience, that grasps it the way we can grasp physical objects or mentally grasp a diagram in order to then for instance effect a change in a machine or biological body.

But we go around day in day out acting internally as if we can. Or I certainly do. Why ?

We spend our lives using and thinking in language and pictures that we assume explain ourselves to ourselves and ourselves to other people.

And as I write this I have the spooky feeling (albeit liberally accepting the irony because I’ve got to live in the World after all, life goes on) of being at an even further distance both from the person I address and from Language itself. Language – and image – I thought was my tool to get closer to things and people and myself.

The world goes dark – very, very dark, somehow.

Somehow I am haunted by a sense that if we agree or disagree on this it matters not a whit.

Everything I say undermines everything I say in terms of the fact that language, communication and representation just do not do the job that we think or would sincerely like them to do. I’d treated them ostensibly as tools to get us closer to an understanding of things (and one another) and thereby closer to the heart of whatever we address our attention to. But here I am feeling most strongly that they are also ways of almost crushing our very subjective sense of selves.

I imagine this issue is dealt with in philosophy of language or in epistemology. I think I would have had something to say on it a few years ago at university studying politics when I foggily understood the idea of incredulity at metanarratives. It was fine when it came to deconstructing ideology, political dogma, social institutions. Even if these were abstract, academic ideas they seemed to ‘refer’ to things one could scrutinise. There was political optimism in this i.e. the world – or one immediate environment – may be in a bad state but it can be changed. I imagine this would hold whether one was on the Left or Right.

But when this idea seems to radically affect one’s ideas about oneself, about how competent one’s mind is at dealing with learning and experience – and affect ideas about the whole point of education, the valuable social meanings involved in the learning process – well, I was pole-axed. This really was quite traumatic.

And I cant work out whether or not this is based on faulty thinking and a silly wish for some kind of meaningful or truthful event or experience.

If I am a dunce I can accept this because how clever or quick I am in my thinking is not as important as the psychological and experiential import of this issue. IF it is real, of course. And which has really slowed me down.

Hope this is worth your attention. I apologise if I appear to play fast and loose with any terms but I hope you will see past that to the spirit of what I am driving at, if indeed it is there.

The other thing thing that drives me here is derived from experience as a musician and speaker on stage – and as someone who was moderately left-wing in his twenties, tussling with problems about individuality and collectivity, truth vs bias and propaganda: I hitherto believed in the neccessity that texts, whether linguistic or musical, unify audiences. Or that we want and need them to.

It is very disconcerting when you experience a fairly visceral revolt within yourself against text, image, model, or understanding. I cannot work out whether this is a kind of maturity or regression.

As I said I’m looking for a fairly clear bibliographic area on this. If you can give names to this problem from different disciplines I’d be over the moon.

Thank you very much,

Warm regards,


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