In the beginning...

The world ended recently.

Or more accurately, a calendar ran out of days, and people got confused between actual days and the numbers used to count them. They thought running out of numbers meant running out of days, which is like thinking your room can't be longer than your tape measure.

It's nearly christmas, except here it isn't. In spite of the fact that several muslims have wished me a happy christmas.

Today is the 23rd of December 2012, except here it's the 10th of Safar 1434. Except there are at least ten institutions which calculate the lunar day of the islamic month, based on the 'interesting' method of looking through a telescope every night and trying to see 24 hours into the future to know whether the next time you look...the moon crescent will seem any thinner or not.

If tomorrow it won't, today is the first day of the month. And some people aren't any better at astronomy than they are at prophecy, so according to some, it's the 9th. This isn't just a problem for practical purposes of timetabling events and holidays, or the pretend-practical purposes of calculating which minute god wants you to start telling him how wonderful he is.

No, there's a psychological aspect of needing to know what day it 'really' is, even if it's only 'real' in one country - which by the way is defined by a line on a map which we pretend is the world.

This kind of thing happens a lot. Treating the symbol as the thing, the word as the reality, the syllabus as the subject.

In fact I think it's the main problem in human thinking. Following the spirit of the law is one thing, trying to reinterpret the word of the law and/or observations of reality until they match is another - but guess which is the job of the lawyer. How many of us feel we understand a phenomenon better just by having a word for it?

The word 'schizophrenia' refers to a loose collection of behaviors defined not by the internal states of the sufferer, but by which cultural taboos, habbits, power structures and conveniences they violate. It's no accident that different cultures have different ideas about what constitutes mental illness. But how do we 'explain' the behaviors? We speak as though they're caused by something called 'schizophrenia'.

If you have a phobia, the chances are the mention of the word which refers to the object of fear will trigger the fear. Saying the name of someone you love can be a comfort, as though holding on to the word were a way of holding the person. Speak of the devil and he shall appear, recite a prayer and you're protected. Somehow saying 'thank you' is more real than being grateful, even when the thanks is a lie.

This pattern of reification is obviously a problem, but I think it's a consequence of the ability to make symbols at all. A symbol stands in the place of the thing - whether or not the thing exists. And when we make plans, ask questions, and construct theories, we're moving symbols around.

The price of the ability to think, is the ability to think badly, and that includes treating words as deeds, and vice versa. "En Arche Ein Ho Logos" - "In the beginning was the word" - as we said in seminary.

But I might be wrong, because the categories of 'word' and 'deed' are only separate in the system of symbols I'm using.

1 comment:

  1. Feliz Navidad, Kapi!

    Merry Christmas to you and yours!