Baby talk is good or back to writing

Continuing on with what has become a frequent – and to me quite enjoyable – exchange on the religious roots of nationalism and many forms of social cohesion, I received an email from BK below that continues where the last post on ‘Let us get back to belief shall we? Again. And memory in writing’ left off.

From: BW

I am thinking that the way we have learned to act is often related by what we read into the symbols that make up written language. That is, Noah is ‘real’ because he can be referenced with some consistency in many places. If I am in Muranga in 1902, Noah is realer than the Kariuki who I have heard lives in Molo and is my cousin – because the reports of him are inconsistent. If we are conversing about Noah, and disagree, I can remove my bible and show; and you remove yours. And we continue to argue – and may or may not reach a consensus – BUT, we have spent time training each other to read similar things into the Noah situation. If we do the same thing about Kariuki, immediately afterwards, we find, soon, that we cannot go far – for I believe one thing based on my interpretations of what I have heard. And you another based on your own interpretations. Our sources and emphasis may be vastly different. So for me, the heart of the growth in the importance of the bible was in its writenness.

Even when most people could not read, there were those who could and could translate or explain it to others. This power of writing, among many others, is allows people to make contracts with greater consistency. If somebody is far removed from you in the way they choose to perceive life and measure the value of physical things, it makes transactions difficult. But a text around which is a measure of consensus allows for both parties to gauge their transactions – and come up with a close result.

Belief – and faith come in because your imagination, which has much power to mimic organisms and the ‘flesh’ and interactions of living – can now solidify reality removed from present action, by constant reference to characters and situations who can be measured against your imagination, so your imagination becomes closer to the reality of the present eye.

“Noooo. You lie. Noah never lived in a fish.”

In the absence of television or radio the daily reading of the bible can make biblical characters have sustained narratives more ‘real’ than distant friends; than yourselves even, in any past. Instead of peppering examples from remembered clan transactions, it becomes more efficient to provide examples from the ‘living flesh’ of biblical relations – because they are now more real than the past.

From: MMK

Nice. That is the thing, the written word creates a canon whether it is the one that forms the basis of a nation or merely the ‘rules’ around which the interaction between cousins can be mediated as you say by an external, ‘neutral’ storehouse of experience and thought. The Bible is THE founding text in so many places, not only of nations but I think of families as well. Just a quick look at some of the stuff that Adrian Hastings and David Aberbach have to say:

Adrian Hastings: For the development of nationhood from one or more ethnicities, by far the most important and widely present factor is that of an extensively used vernacular literature. A long struggle against an external threat may also have a significant effect as, in some circumstances, does state formation, though the latter may well have no national effect whatever elsewhere. A nation may precede or follow a state of its own but it is certainly assisted by it to a greater self-consciousness. Most such developments are stimulated by the ideal of a nation-state and of the world as a society of nations originally ‘imagined’, if you like the word, through the mirror of the Bible, Europe’s primary textbook, but turned into a formal political philosophy no earlier than the nineteenth century and then next to canonised by President Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles peace settlement of 1920.

‘Religion is an integral element of many cultures, most ethnicities and some states. The Bible provided, for the Christian world at least, the original model of the nation. Without it and its Christian interpretation and implementation, it is arguable that nations and nationalism, as we know them, could never have existed. Moreover, religion has produced the dominant character of some state-shaped nations and of some nationalisms. Biblical Christianity both undergirds the cultural and political world out of which the phenomena of nationhood and nationalism as a whole developed and in a number of important cases provided a crucial ingredient for the particular history of both nations and nationalisms.’

David Aberbach: The Hebrew Bible, though generally seen mainly as a religious document, has also provided models of secular national identity. A number of biblical motifs have been revived in modern cultural nationalism: for example, the importance of moral regeneration, attacks on internal and external enemies of the nation, and the unification of disparate groups despite geographic dislocation. The Hebrew Bible also anticipates various forms of conflict in modern national identity: between the individual and the group, chosenness and egalitarianism, the narrowly national and the universal. In the two centuries after the invention of printing, the Hebrew Bible in vernacular translation had a decisive influence on the evolution of nationalism, particularly in Britain. The Bible was essential in the culture of empires but also, paradoxically, inspired defeated, suppressed and colonised people to seek freedom. A number of modern national poets, notably Whitman and the Hebrew poets Bialik and Greenberg, adopt a free verse neo-prophetic mode of _expression. The Hebrew Bible can, therefore, be read as the archetypal, and most influential, national document from ancient times to the rise of modern nationalism.

From: BW

What I am thinking is that your memory needs your imagination to create scenarios; not just new ones but to keep what you saw, heard and experienced fresh and fleshy. Left on their own, the imagination would take control of the memory and run anywhere with it. But, because you share memories with those you live with – and sharing these is central to all your dealings with everybody; they keep you close by sharing back. But this is inefficient because if you are all affected by some sudden outside event or act your memories could all be rearranged – because all memories are a present take on the past. If the present changes dramatically, the past will get rearranged too. And when people gather to renegotiate the memories, it becomes a battle of the dominant, the charming, and the witty – not of the one closer to the events as they happened. Writing made people’s relationships consistent – it offered a third party storage that could always be referred to keep the centre in the same place. So the loss was shifting centers – centers had been shifting for ages…..

So the monopoly is not Christianity to make modern nations. It comes from not Christianities ‘marketing’ of Israel; or the Judeo-Christian innovation of the 20th century nation-state. Sanskrit, King James English – same thing: a fixed centre of’ reality’ could exist for the first time; and the citizenry would now ‘radiate’ to the ‘fixed’ centre and measure themselves against it – and measure the value of things against. This made durable empire – and even more durable citizenry later. So first church is the centre of mediation; of ‘reality building’ and when it is realized that this ‘system can transfer, school becomes where consistency is transmitted. Church was dangerous because power automatically transferred from the military warlord families who controlled Europe, to the pyramid of religious transfers, the priests had more power over individuals than anybody else. The only immovable thing was the black and white of the text; and power became vested in whoever could build consensus most widely around a text that claimed to represent their interests…..who could ally their power, their ideas around a text that could represent it.

So now we gather, completely gaseous against the solid reality of the text. This is what a court case is: all can shift. Fact, history, evidence, perception and future depending on how you can persuade the text. This is a parliament, an exam, a bank form, a text book, a census. A person: a corporation is simply a person composed of nothing but texts; texts talking to texts and people coming to them to mediate reality.

So. A company is realer than a person. You can track everything; and measure everything. This is a person you can do business with from anywhere in any language and you have better trust that he will deliver your maize more than you trust your brother to deliver your maize. There is no inconsistency that a company can provide than cannot be measured – it has no mystery; and mystery is what we have been trying to abandon all along. How come religious epiphanies do not call people to destroy markets or trading monopolies or access? We are all able to believe that a company will behave predictably; we are able to be completely ‘secular; with it – even at the most fever-pitched time. If you kill the Tutsi shop-owner, the shop becomes colorless and a perfectly able to immediately become Hutu.

The mystery of the motivations of those Tutsis: the hidden negotiations; the suspicious genes: unchangeable, unseeable, the larger part of a person is invisible; and so the imagination of the enemy cannot be limited when drastic action is requested….there is not human way to measure the size of their threat, and so in a competition for power, the fastest disseminators of a compelling reason or strategy can win easily.

We are coming to worship the text; it has proven larger and more solid than God. You can make your text, your own one, to fit reality. But where only the bible continues as the overarching text – the war is over who owns it.

From: MMK

Is it the poppers? Is this what they do to a brain: make it spew out surprising and provocative ideas? If, as you say, memory is always new, contingent on circumstance and need, then it requires nothing as much as it does the imagination. But then I started to wonder at how differentiated are the imagination, memory, reality, the written/codified word. Take the imagination for instance which I think is sitting at the heart of your argument. Aristotle argued that the imagination is a kind of phantasm, a mind picture almost, that fused together the inputs of the sense organs. Then the modern era in the form of a Descartes followed mostly in his footsteps thinking of imagination as that which allows us to take chaotic, jumbled sense data into coherence. Hume went further: the imagination through its ability to bundle and categorize sense data leads to the use of specific words for specific impressions. Words then become a part of our empirical interaction with the world and it is this process, this joining of the mind and body that I think we call reality. Because of a shared commonality of experience in regard to sense data – for example when a Stone Age band gets chased by a woolly mammoth – there is probably a drive to standardize words. Our baby world with its constant revolutions of paradigms, perceptions and interpretations becomes a narrower, more externally agreed-upon interpretation of the physical world expressed in words.

The drive to codify develops through songs, children’s stories, etc. It gets to the point when a founding book – often a dictionary written to translate the bible into a vernacular language according to Hastings – which demands that the author choose one word and eliminate another. Language, which can vary wildly even within short distances, becomes standardized and the bible with its narratives popularizes this version of language.

Our imagination meanwhile is getting fed with an infinite amount and variation of sense-data but eventually has an ever more finite and pre-agreed store of words with which to represent a coherent picture when it can form it – it seems to me that words then curtail possibility if you think of it as an infinity of perceptual or interpretive choices. Then comes Kant who goes argues that yes, the imagination is an associative tool but that it is limited to templates that exist in the mind before the ‘entry’ of any sense data. But he has no accounting for where these formats come from; he thinks they are a mystery, a matter of the human soul – God perhaps? He too spurns the odd and perhaps impossible to communicate possibilities of perception and interpretation that we had as non-speakers of a public language but does so more reassuringly by assuring that the source of this limitation is not of this earth, not limited by the senses. I only partly go with Kant as far as the mystery of the soul, which sets me up later to conceive of a basic and essential human drive to be the need for transcendence and of our unavoidable need for a god. (But you, and correct me if I am wrong, have a strong desire to eliminate this god/heaven/beyond the grave thing from the way you conceive of human interaction with the world outside us.)

My question really is whether the imagination can ever see us beyond the sense data of the physical world. Can we as writers conceive of it as a ‘wild’ zone of creativity that is unruled or at least unruly? If so, then it offers the possibility of creating concepts or categories or a paradigm that did not exist previously. It is out of this hope of possibility that I believe the desperate refutation of death, which after all is completely confirmed by our sensory input, emerges; the need for life after death. Surely we need not tax possibility when the imagination as a picture of ‘reality’ allows us to manipulate and operate such that we are able to build systems and methods that prolong life or at least make it more profitable and comfortable. I am possibly being slightly jumbled when I say that the store you set on the memory and imagination as ways of negotiating reality does not go far enough in accounting for the element of possibility and the uses to which human beings put it. As the text becomes God, it narrows possibility. By codifying language so relentlessly we get further drawn into a conception of the world that is ever more empirically based (see the argument between creationism and evolution.) Yes, the text tends toward the solid as you say but we seem to fight this process all the way even as we use it to operate better in the world. Why else would the genocidal killer view his victim as you say, unchangeable and unseeable? Where does the act of killing lie: with the text or with an imagination unhindered by the limitations of standardized interpretations of sense perception?


About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

10 Responses to Baby talk is good or back to writing

  1. Keguro says:

    I’m still stuck on poppers. Last I knew, the only thing they gave was a nasty headache and dry nasal passages. From anecdotal evidence, of course. I would never admit that I spent a pleasant summer in Seattle etc. etc.

    BK: One may disagree with Benedict Anderson, but is this not his insight: that certain forms of media/narrative create national identities, bound by an imaginative temporality. I’m less struck by the notion that texts create (fantasmic) modes of social cohesion, than the sense that interpretations come to be shared in quite organic ways.

    I am uneasy with the sense that meaning and meaning-making, or what I would term interpretation, is quite so organic. Infected with Foucault, I would ask what purpose is served in believing that shared meanings are necessarily organic, how do we understand the workings of ideology via/as consensus? For ideology, we could substitute power in its multiple flexible ways.

    MMK: to claim the written word creates a canon ascribes a certain historical determinacy to the process of canon formation. In part, yes, this happens at a certain point due to the scarcity of written texts, but even among the written texts, there are huge battles over which should be authoritative.

    At the same time, isn’t the imagination what might work in the service of national identification, what Jacqueline Rose describes as the working of fantasy, but also what circumvents the realization of national identity, in so far as psychic processes rarely follow scripts?

    But how, then, as BK puts it, to think about the text and its relation to imagination? Is it, as BK asserts, God? My post-training cringes at such a thought, especially since we tried and still try to use the text to challenge the notion of the transcendental signified. That the text might be the place that makes that signified most concrete is true: coherence relies on closed meaning.

    Can imagination exist without textuality, or what Derrida would term writing? Not sure. Can imagination lead to an elsewhere not circumscribed by a transcendent authority? Not if we want to have meaning. Do God and Text, then, become interchangeable signifiers? Not sure.

    But I am drawn to the Catholic idea of mysteries, for it points to the limit of rational discourse and the beginnings of imagination (and faith, perhaps).

    Now, let me process what has actually been written, and my response, then I’ll supplement and correct.

  2. Binyavanga says:

    Imagination and memory. I am sure that there are many ways to see these two things as indistinguishable. But for the purpose of my analysis I see memory as a concept we carry: my memory is the one I trust to deliver things to me as they happened in the past, and I make decision based on this. Which is to say, if I argue with you about how much money I gave you, and we have no ‘paperwork’, I will close the negociation at the moment my memory asserts the amount. I will believe that it ‘what happened’, not what ‘my senses percieved happened’ or even ‘what my present imagination wants so much to happen that my memory has been compromised’.

    Sometimes I will encounter things that make me doubt how efficient this is; but it serves its purpose as the number one tool I have for this purpose.

    And Imagination:

    A really nifty tool I have to create scenerios that can mimic a slice of life – even though life cannot be sliced: to entertain, to illuminate; to make decisions – and finally and most important: to break up the rolling sprawling chaos of life into bite-sized pieces so I do not remain paralysed by the size and drama of the universe.

    My imagination is only able to juggle and rearrange things already percieved and remembered – but this power is significant – a community imagination can bring to life a cast of daily ‘dead’ characters – and live and interact with them – a lucid fiction created to govern the giant unknowabality of afterdeath.

  3. Binyavanga says:

    For sure I am dealing with these two things, memory and imagination, as ‘softwares’ – and this makes for much distortion – but there is a sound thing there, somewhere…am trying to catch it and it is eluding. I believe we have an instinct for the transcendent, one as strong as the instinct to eat; but that instinct seems to have splintered into so many places – even the lobby of a mall can become an alter, a cavern you walk into, and angels sing and your body rises closer to God, and you depart to the parking lot with your feet one inch above the ground.

    And true, the memory and imagination are definately two elents of the same enterptise: and they tussle for dominace; and we like to believe we can swich from ‘memory view’ to ‘imagination view’ but these are just concepts we create to use these to meaure what our decisions are.

    How rapture is captured and distributed in America amazes me: I have been experimenting with running quickly from TV channel to to channel and so often what I see is people in poses of receiving rapture: hands spread out head facing sky, mouth stretched, bowed, punching in the air; lifting the baby above your head and doing a slow dervish; standing triuampant on a hill, throwing challenge to the sky and earth; snowboard skidding off a cliff – silhouette of somebody dancing, turning, swinging, slouching spinning at chaos and telling heaven ” I will not be stiff and fearful facing you.”

    ..I believe the same rapture was used in imperial Europe, the same poses and rituals borrowed to make soldiers feel they have ‘transcended’ by their acts of bravery…

    I think I have waded far away from the point…

    Poppers gave you headache? Pole. I have been highly recommending them everywhere since I discovred their use. Oh dear, will I become blase about them?

  4. MMK says:

    Keguro and Binya – I will be right with you. The problem I have is that I am in Brooklyn which for me wipes out my ability to even have a thought much less understand another’s 🙂

  5. MMK says:

    I want to know how far texts can stretch: is there a limit to the use of them as kinds of imaginative templates being used for practical ends? And how really does the imagination interact with memory? What you ‘remember’ can purely be imagined and often is. I am struck by this idea that first comes action or the need for action which is what may lead to how the text is not only produced but also how it is interpreted – how a work of imagination comes to be an individual or group memory.

    Perhaps Binya, this need for the transcendent is not so much a need for gods or the heavens in whatever form but merely the unfettering of the imagination. Perhaps being able to interact with a dead Jesus or think up a unicorn is really not so different. While action – the physical manipulation and dealing with the world – is by definition temporal, it seems to need unicorn-like aspects for it to be directed and made sense of. Perhaps without an unfettered imagination, we would be unable to make sense of the vast data/sensations that assail us. So to seek god and to prepare to wield a sword are joined irrevocably as are the ability to think and act on the planting season…

    Keguro, perhaps power is a process with different stages that are not necessarily arranged in linear fashion. It could be in the production of the text, the victory in the contest between interpretations or different texts and then the physical implementation of whatever decisions or needs are arrived at by the action of imagination becoming memory and memory serving to steer us into the future (??)

    Am I making any sense or do I need to use poppers? Just had a moment of panic to be having this conversation with people who used I used to sneak out of school with and go to Riruta. Surely there is something deeply wrong with this picture.

  6. It needs to be said that I only once ever snuck out of school with you: when we went to buy chapatis for a Boma function – and this was the day I revealed to you that I was not, as I had confessed, Emporer Bokassa’s son.

    Love it (the Harold Bloom link): Bloom is describing the real war of the last millenium: remember what you said Kima? That post needs to go up too…

    About how the English are held in ever-diminishing circles by the weight of textual law and history that refuses to ‘rot’ fast enough? So this is how the battles for text are fought – by revenge texts one one hand – shrill new testaments seeking to obliterate the stultifying rules of the previous one (not just the text, but the pharisees who maintain an iron grip on it) by 1) reassessing the original
    and 2) finding a way to distribute the ressessment and build a consensus around it.

    What we like to call revolution, which implies a wheel moving round and round and contantly changing dimension because it is collecting more and more stuff, and come back to the same place again and again with more and more weaponry, and sometimes too big and heavy to go round…small piki pikis are attacking on the side, with blades on the tyres.

    I think the most flammable match in history has been the mathe sitting and reading the bible and saying, ” I have a pernonal relationship with God” – there outside, there are peope butchering each other to make sure they were they ones who advised her, the ones she looks at n askance to translate things and explain things. The Catholic church managed to maintain more cohesive power because it gave the power of forgiveness of sin to the PRIEST. A catholic can’t ask God directly for forgiveness…and there is no unambiguous argument for this in the bible – it was an extraordinary intervention to make sure that woman cannot choose…the whole ediface collapses when she can choose.

  7. Keguro says:

    One shouldn’t sully such intellectual exchange with trash, but as the door was opened.

    I NEVER snuck out. Incredible, isn’t it? I did, however, as THE chapel prefect (the gods have a very strange sense of humor) lead my friends to adventures elsewhere, all in the name of faith, of course–and the particularly delicious women of State House.

    Sneaking out only counts if it involves God, Sex, Rugby, or Alcohol. Otherwise it’s simply shameful.

  8. Anonymous says:


  9. Tor says:

    There are Buddhist texts that describe the five senses as the five robbers, that is, they rob us of our ability to apprehend reality-as-it-is. Some other texts see the senses as actively working outward on reality, rather than being passive receptors of data.

    Michael Polanyi, in his concept of copolar knowledge, posited that the mind must have some inkling of that which it would undertake to learn. That is, the knower and the known had some connection other than subject and object.

    More germane to your discussion, the genius of religious tales and legends derives from the ability of religious adherents to make the characters live in their hearts. It is not a mere intellectual processing of letters, words and paragraphs. Adherents participate in the stories as much as they hear or read them.

    Peace to you, and congratulations on your nomination.

  10. amegon says:

    I’ve discovered this blog today, and I’m very much impressed.
    One addition to this thread: I don’t think the “trandescental instinct” is with us because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to deal with all the sensations and data. Animals also deal with that data and don’t have that instinct. So there’s something more.

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