Monday, 19 January 2009

The origins of literature

The exact form of the first languages is long lost. Writing was not invented until the Neolithic era, and recording equipment even later. The best we can do is look for indirect clues from fossils and social evidence.

The anatomy that made language possible was already present in the first anatomically modern humans 130,000–200,000 years ago. Whereas four-footed animals must breathe in time with their steps, bipedalism allowed us to control our breathing — a prerequisite for speech. We also have a descended larynx, a relatively small and mobile tongue, etc. This does not mean for certain that our species had language from the outset, but it would be remarkable if we had evolved this equipment without using it. It would also be remarkable if that skill had developed in isolation from others, such as symbolic behaviour. Thinking and talking and symbolism evolve together.

The sign

The earliest language was probably mimetic: an imitation of human, animal and natural sounds, but this could never provide the full range of sound and meaning correspondences we needed. Language is mostly arbitrary — “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” — and cannot exist without symbolism. Its users have to agree that certain sounds have a collectively recognised meaning, are a symbolic substitution for things we have experienced.[1] Thus our ancestors may have hissed in imitation whenever they saw and heard a snake. After enough repetitions, the hiss would become symbolic of ‘snake’ even when the snake was not there. Through abstraction they had created a word.

With abstraction, objects and experiences became signs, patterns, symbols. The Russian linguist Valentin Voloshinov, in his classic Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929), argued that “any physical body may be perceived as an image”, that is, it may be converted into a ‘sign’.

Everything ideological possesses meaning: it represents, depicts, or stands for something lying outside of itself. In other words, it is a sign.[2]

Signs allow our consciousness to interact with external reality. Voloshinov is right to stress ideology. A naturally occurring object simply exists, whereas a sign, as a human creation, cannot but take on a specific, socially mediated human meaning. “The physical object is converted into a sign. Without ceasing to be a part of material reality, such an object reflects and refracts another reality.” Signs, including words, are mediators that convert our concrete experience into ideological, symbolic forms.

This probably first served as a means to share information about food-gathering and dangers, share cultural behaviours, etc — early humans may have mimed a predator, together with an agreed vocal signal for that predator. And it is more efficient to tell the community where it can find an animal carcass than for individuals or hunting parties to retrace their steps to show others where it is. It became possible to gain knowledge of a thing, via someone else’s report, that one had not experienced oneself, and include this third party experience in one’s own calculations. This was another gain in the efficiency and effectiveness of learned behaviour.

Ernst Fischer said:

All tools of a particular kind, it will be remembered, came out of the first tool of which they were an imitation or copy. The same is true of many other abstractions: the wolf, the apple, etc. Nature is reflected in newly discovered connections. The brain no longer reflects each tool as something unique; nor does it reflect every seashell in that way. A sign has been evolved to cover all tools, all seashells, all objects and living things of the same kind. This process of concentration and classification in language makes it possible to communicate more and more freely concerning the outside world, which man shares with all other men...

Language not only made it possible to coordinate human activity in an intelligent way and to describe and transmit experience and, therefore, to improve working efficiency: it also made it possible to single out objects by attaching particular words to them, thus snatching them out of the protective anonymity of nature and bringing them under man’s control.[3]

Creative language

In combination with an advanced brain, words also created the possibility of creative, for example metaphorical, expression. The explanation of how to find a carcass becomes the story of a kill, with the recreation of emotions, gestures, and what the participants said, and becomes a kill that never actually happened.

Let us recall Marx, who said:

The poorest architect is distinguished from the best of bees by the fact that before he builds a cell in wax, he has built it in his head. The result was already present at its commencement, in the imagination of the worker, in its ideal form. More than merely working an alteration in the form of nature, he also knowingly works his own purposes into nature; and these purposes are the law determining the ways and means of his activity, so that his will must be adjusted to them.[4]

Using language to recount something that has happened in the past already implies a certain conscious control of one’s own experience. To tell a story means being able to model the entire narrative in one’s mind before one embarks upon it, just as Marx’s architect plans a building. Our dependence upon learned behaviour meant that when we imitated a comrade to make a handaxe, we knew in advance what we were making, having an ‘ideal’ or ‘best’ handaxe in mind as our goal. This allowed our abstraction of experiences and things into concepts and symbols. Here is Voloshinov again:

Signs also are particular, material things; and, as we have seen, any item of nature, technology, or consumption can become a sign, acquiring in the process a meaning that goes beyond its given particularity. A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality — it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore, it may distort that reality or be true to it, or may perceive it from a special point of view, and so forth. Every sign is subject to the criteria of ideological evaluation (i.e., whether it is true, false, correct, fair, good, etc).[5]

As we developed language, we gave names to things. Thereby we acquired power: partly in a social sense, because we could issue instructions to our fellows and see them acted upon, but also because we could bring the named things under our control. This is another aspect of the humanisation of nature: a named thing has been assigned a place within a structure of human making. There is an ancient belief, probably rooted in this discovery, that by possessing a thing’s or person’s name we gain power over it. The Bible, for example, claims that “in the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1), and that God gave Adam the right to assign names to all the living creatures in Creation (Genesis, 2:19). We see here a correspondence with the idea of sympathetic magic — a thing and its name are somehow causally connected, so that controlling the latter through the human power of language gives influence over the thing too.

Human culture is a learned and not an instinctive behaviour. Therefore, we needed an oral means to pass on tribal lore and our attempts to make intellectual sense of what we saw of the world. In an age where we had language but did not yet have writing, we needed help in memorising these huge narratives so that they might be passed to succeeding generations. To this end we developed verbal techniques like alliteration and rhyme, simile and metaphor, drawing not only upon the powerful effect of symbols upon the imagination but upon the characteristics of words themselves to make them more vivid, more memorable — a unity of both form and content. This is how, in time, simple accounts, stories and folklore evolved into the powerful myths of oral literature. The earliest literature was a communal inheritance, compiled and modified over many years by a succession of storytellers [6]. The sense of shared myths and stories would also have helped bond the social group. These were the beginnings of literature.

As society developed, new abstractions, new words, were introduced. There was no word for ‘painting’ until we had acquired the skill, just as nobody thirty years ago would know what you meant by the ‘internet’. The increasing complexity and diversity of our experience led to increasing complexity and diversity in our signs.

It is likely that language was so important that it actually became (partially) genetic. Chomsky famously proposed, as we have mentioned before, that we are pre-programmed to absorb linguistic structures — what he called ‘universal grammar’.

The Confusion of Tongues, by DoréGustave Doré’s image of the Tower of Babel, ‘The Confusion of Tongues’.

Of course, each language is culturally specific. Human communities that had no contact with one another developed private sets of symbols that were understood to them, and to neighbours, but not to people thousands of miles away. Different communities had different environmental experiences — prey animals, weather, local materials, and so on — and thus developed signs completely unknown to others. Thus, despite our common humanity and ability to communicate mimetically (such as miming hunger or fear), we don’t understand each other’s languages, because these are arbitrary and abstract.

Marxism makes a very important assumption in its theory of language: it believes that these abstractions refer in a meaningful way to aspects of objective reality, even though this relationship is complex. This places it at odds with structuralism and postmodernism, which argue that consciousness and ideology are themselves the product of language. In the postmodern view, we can never escape the web of discourses to an objective truth (as Jacques Derrida put it, “There is nothing outside the text”). This is a debate that we will explore another time.





[1] The uniformity of all living humans — their DNA differences are minor and limited to physical appearance — means we can communicate with one another even when we do not share a language. Of course there is regional variation in how particular gestures are understood. But we can all communicate basic human needs and feelings mimetically. We all have the same ‘species-being’ in common, despite the huge variety in our personal experiences.
[2] Valentin Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, (1929). A part of the intellectual flowering that followed the Russian Revolution, Voloshinov was associated with the circle around Mikhail Bakhtin. The link is to a couple of extracts rather than the full text, which is apparently still in copyright.
[3] Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art (1959).
[4] Marx, from ‘The Labour-Process And The Process Of Producing Surplus-Value’ from Capital, vol. 1 (1867).
[5] Voloshinov, op. cit.
[6] For this interpretation of oral literature we are indebted to the early twentieth-century scholar Milman Parry, whose particular study was the Homeric poems. Some bourgeois theorists dislike the social conception of art because they want art to be rooted in the individual. But only very late in human history did it become customary for literature to be the work of individuals and have authorial names attached to them.

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