Birds and Genie
I sit, holding a bird watching guide in front of me: vintage, with colored illustrations of birds. There are diagrams of birds, and lines point to labels like “male,” “female,” or “immature.” Some birds are labelled “winter,” some “spring,” some say “peter peter peter,” while others make a nasal “car” sound (as opposed to “cah”). The labels are haphazard (why is the bird labelled only “winter” next to the different bird labelled only “male”?), but most of the lines emanate to nothing—no label—to signify the most distinct feature of the bird. It is this absence that I’m interested in. For the reader, labels like male, female, winter, spring, and peter peter peter are certainly helpful ways of identifying birds, but there is an elusive quality to the ostensive, yet silent labels, which, apparently, are the most important. And so, if the intuitive sense of something is the most essential, why the labels at all?
For most of us, labels are intelligible enough to refer to something, even if that something is vague and hardly-defined. Words demarcate categories, each of which, in this case, might tell me that I should be looking at three different types of beaks on a bird. They shape my perception of the world around me; they teach me what to look for. But enough attention to detail would render these labels meaningless, because a sense of difference need not require the proclamation of that difference. I would only need to pay attention to notice that birds like a Least Sandpiper, a Semipalmated Sandpiper, and a Western Sandpiper differ, whether or not I have language to acknowledge the difference between their beak sizes. This is because language refers to the world abounding in differentiation: a world not contingent on language.
And so, of course there are those who wish to return to silence, or wish to emphasize the absence upon which language imposes itself, often to problematize the fact of speaking itself. We find this attitude in post-structuralist thought or queer theory, we find this in mystical and contemplative literature, we find this in the silent presence of others, or we find this in the desperation of anti-intellectualism. It’s an attitude of setting scopes beyond linguistic or discursive structures, broken from the constraints of intelligibility. There’s a positive quality to the lack of language: it is an encounter with a world loosed from the limitations of categories of knowing, a return against a world burdened with language towards a feeling of unity.
Yet, a case exists as an instance of extreme deprivation, the near-limit of silence, demonstrating an original flight from the development of language; it is the original position—although highly unnatural, in the sense that humans are naturally social—of returning to silence (will we find a boundless unity beyond language?). Here it is: Genie, a thirteen year old child, was discovered tied to a toilet in a small room in Arcadia, California, having only been fed sparingly by her mother. Her family locked her in the room for almost her entire life. Her father despised noise—Genie’s older sibling died after being abandoned in the garage for crying too loudly—so that Genie grew up with very minimal auditory stimulation. In fact, she was punished for making any noises, and her family did not speak to her. The day after she was found, her father committed suicide, and her mother regarded her as mentally deficient. Her mental development seems to have been stunted, although no neurological reports nor any chromosomal tests indicate any causes other than a lack of environmental stimuli; she was a normal child placed into a non-stimulation vacuum. This rendered her dumb, and she acted like a “wild child,” or someone close to an animal.
So, when the social services found Genie in 1970, researchers taught her language and observed. Genie made social and linguistic progress within the next couple years—from being mute to saying “next time through” or “angry burn stove,” which referred to longer and more meaningful sentences: “next time give me the kind you can see through” and “grandma got angry at me and said I’d get burned if I stayed by the stove.” She became known as the “great abbreviator” because of her “lazy” approach to language. But, for the most part, she pointed, in silent ostensive reference, with little indication of anything beyond the physical world around her. One might say that Genie mastered the intuitive stuff, immersed in a non-linguistic way of being, back to consciousness that precedes categories—only using language when necessary. She, like the Buddha, silently points her finger at the moon; she embodies enlightenment, a pre-discursive existence, a return to the continuous pre-linguistic animality that Georges Bataille insightfully says underlines much of religious experience.
Obviously this comparison between religious experience and a traumatized child—even if it is legitimate—is problematic, if not unfair (who would dare make Genie’s path the path of sainthood? Me, apparently). And, only those with extreme commitment would lock themselves in a room to attain a religious experience (think of Bodhidharma, who spent nine years gazing at a cave wall to attain enlightenment; also Shimon bar Yochai who hid in a cave for thirteen years, for the preservation of his Judaism). And even then, most are not seeking a complete forgetting, a loss of all social functioning, an existence like Genie’s, but an experience that internalizes their understanding world—which is an understanding that transcends language. Religious experience aims at erasing labels only because their reference is understood as pre-linguistically given (it just is); its goal is not to erase a worldview, but to transform a conscious worldview—something that can be hotly contested—into a background assumption, experienced only as “truth.”
But that internalizing impulse spills beyond religious stuff (religion is just a particular way of internalizing a total worldview) for it is even present in the ostensive character of the birding diagrams. The labels, of course, contest this givenness of something not described—they subject it to a consciousness that can share and debate the givenness of the thing identified by the label—which is certainly important, but hardly useful for the quick and impulsive real-time act of identifying a bird. One does not bird by reading a book of birding, but by internalizing the book and identifying birds.
So maybe the most “truthful” existence, one which avoids idealizing a life like Genie’s, and one which seeks to break out of the intellectual structures of the world, is the middle way between two extremes: one in which everything is taken for granted and given, where you only refer to the world that you have experienced (for Genie, this was the physical world around her), the world taken as “true” because it has been interpreted and internalized; and one in which everything is subject to thinking and debate and scrutiny, living in the thinness of a structured and rationalized and linguistic reality, one constructed only by consciousness that breaks beyond experience. One: an existence in a world that precedes language; the other: an existence transformed by new ways of perceiving that world, through new categories of thought. It is this middle way that is alluded to by the birding book, through both labels and ostensive reference, contestation and belief, thinking and practice. It is this third, middle path of moderation that operates as a goal, one which turns away from the absolute on both sides. And so, I sit in the silence without words observing, only to stand and speak: “there is, in fact, a Semipalmated Sandpiper that demonstrably differs from the Western.”
In a letter by the Jesuit monk Francis Xavier, written in 1552 in Japan, Buddhists and Christians engage in a dialogue. Here, the Buddhists ask questions about the benevolent God of the Christians: how could a good God make the devil (and how, exactly, did the devil leave hell to visit the world?). Why would a good God tempt humans or punish people who have sinned? Or, why would a good God write the Ten Commandments that were, in the Buddhist perspective, actually so harsh? Why does God condemn people to hell for eternity, especially if he desires to save humanity? But the most important question that the Buddhists asked: why had God condemned so many generations to perdition by his silence, by his unwillingness to manifest himself to the Japanese?
Xavier answers the latter: a natural law ordained by God, available to all humanity, leads to salvation. You know it in your gut. There’s a baseline morality that all humans share—the manifestation of God to all—and this, Xavier says, is the Ten Commandments. So, he suggests, why not take a man who was raised up on the mountain, without any knowledge of written or oral language, without knowledge of any moral laws, “a complete barbarian,” and ask them about the truth of the Ten Commandments.
I do not think Genie could have replied.