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COSMOLOGY: INTELLIGENCE AND INFINITY IN LANGUAGE

15 Years Ago


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COSMOLOGY: INTELLIGENCE AND INFINITY IN LANGUAGE

"Scrape the surface of language, and you will behold
interstellar space and the skin that encloses it."
� Velimir Khlebnikov, Zangezi, trans. Paul Schmidt

During a recent conversation with the English experimental poet Tom Raworth,
my colleague Lyn Hejinian said, as close as I can remember: "Language is much
bigger and smarter than we are. We should let it speak...The possibilities are
infinite." This is a very seductive and exhilarating assertion, and in a certain
sense true. It is a singularly concise and elegant statement, too, of a view widely
held among contemporary poets. But I want to contest it nonetheless, because I
think it has an important contrary or counter-truth.

First, it's certainly a useful metaphor to say that language is "bigger" than any
one of us. The grapholect (i.e., the unabridged dictionary of all dictionaries of
a language) is immense � and the grapholect of English is the most immense in
human history. Even the vocabulary we actually know, in the best of cases
a small fraction of what the grapholect has to offer, is capable of vastly more
permutations than we can consciously conceive.

Second, is language "smarter" than we are? Well again, perhaps in a useful
metaphorical sense: that is, each of those words and phrases that we have in our
heads is linked to an impossibly dense wealth, of connotation via both
metaphorical (similarity) and metonymic (contiguity) links. So each of these
words or phrases can be said to "know" a great deal; and when we put them
together, they multiply their "knowledge" � they "think" in ways we can't
predict beforehand, because the associative or connotative processes become
increasingly nonlinear.

But, even so, are the possibilities of language "infinite"? Again, yes, or almost
� in a sense. As Noam Chomsky points out, a given grammar is capable, given
even an average adult vocabulary, of generating a near-infinite number of
sentences, more than there are stars in all the galaxies.

This cosmic analogy, though, brings me to another one. A conundrum in
contemporary cosmology is the fact that the universe we inhabit actually
supports the organization of matter/energy into atoms, molecules, stars, planets,
and finally, life � even intelligent, language-using life. Our universe supports
this organization by virtue of quite specific and delicate balances of fundamental
physical forces. The odds against winding up with such a universe following the
Big Bang are very considerable. Far more likely, if the constants of the nuclear
forces had emerged in only slightly different relation to one another in those
first few hot fractions of a nanosecond, there would have been no universe � a
collapse back into a spaceless, timeless, pinpoint of potential � or a completely
entropic universe of dispersed subatomic particles spreading away from each
other for ever. Or there might have been a universe whose highest level of
organization was huge thin veils of dust and gas, or a great burst of black holes
of various sizes cannoning out across expanding nothingness. In none of these
universes would there be planets, especially not blue-green ones hosting viruses,
plankton, palm trees, lightning bugs, larks, and philosophers.

Modern cosmology looks to quantum mechanics in attempting to resolve this
conundrum. Specifically, explanations for the existence of an improbable,
intelligence-generating universe center on interpretations of a core issue in
quantum physics, the "quantum wave function." The wave function describes
the probabilities that a given subatomic particle (quantum), whose origin is
known, will behave in one way or another when observed at a later point in
time and space. Once the observation takes place the wave function is said to
"collapse," because out of all the probabilities, only one is "real" in the sense
that it has been observed. The standard (Copenhagen) interpretation of the
quantum wave function is that the particle's "actual" behavior does not become
real until it is observed and the wave function collapses; until that instant, all
that is "real" is the wave function, the mathematical set of probabilities. The
observer makes the specific quantum event real by observing it.

In keeping with this notorious but widely accepted bit of weirdness, one school
of thought attempts to resolve the improbable-universe conundrum by
proposing that the improbable universe we inhabit exists precisely because we
are here to observe it. This a version of what is called the Anthropic (human-
centered) Principle. Another, somewhat less popular view, the "many worlds"
or Everett interpretation of the quantum wave function, says that all the
universes possible at any given moment actually exist, some parallel to one
another, others branching in and out of each other as quantum events occur � as
wave functions collapse one way in one universe and another in another. Many
of these universes, of course, have only infinitesimally brief existences, since
they differ from their nearest "sister" universe only by one quantum's-worth,
and may simply become identical with this sister again in the next instant. But
other "sisters" branch away, becoming more and more different from the
"mother"; and still others branch away from these in turn. By this interpretation
the continuity of "our" universe is no more real than that of a film, in which
apparent continuous movement is produced by the rapid succession of individual
still images, each differing only slightly from the ones preceding and following
it. Just so, we "surf" the continual appearance, divergence, and disappearance
of timelines, in others of which different events happened than the ones we
remember, and in still others of which we (or our parents, or our culture, or
life on earth) died in the next moment or never existed at all. We are, according
to this theory, surrounded by an infinity of universes, all originating in the Big
Bang � and in most of which, according to the laws of probability, nothing of
any great coherence or interest exists.

I suspect that the same is true of the infinity of language. The possibilities are,
in a mathematical sense, limitless; but most of them are pretty dead. It's quite
easy to write a software program to compose sentences, building from a
dictionary and sets of grammatical rules. But even if the dictionary has
attractive and resonant words in it, even if one programs in a few tropes �
simile, alliteration, anaphora, assonance and rhyme � the result gets quite
monotonous after a while. Occasional lines gleam with vivid meaning or
mysterious beauty like fool's gold in a stream, but they become genuinely
meaningful or beautiful only when lifted out of the flow of routine-generated
sentences and linked to some human context � when "observed." We don't need
the chimps with typewriters now � computers can do the random "typing" a lot
faster � but it would still take an awful lot of very powerful processors a very
long time, using the most scholarly programming based on Shakespeare's
stylistic and narrative repertoire, to compose anything even remotely as good as
the most mediocre Jacobean play. And randomly, it would still take forever.

The astute reader will object at this point that the analogy breaks down because
language is a human artifact. That is, unlike the potential range of relations of
physical constants in possible (or parallel) universes, all the elements of
language are parts of a semiotic system and always have some meaning in
relation to one another, even if only in the faintest connotative way. When
Chomsky, famously, proposed the sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep
furiously" as an example of the way grammatical rules can generate
"meaningless" sentences, poets took this as a challenge and based poems on it.
(Arguably, it was the very strenuousness of Chomsky's evident effort to be
meaningless that made the sentence interesting, because he gave it at least two
oxymorons � "colorless green" and "sleep furiously" � that are suggestive to
the poetic mind. As a theoretical grammarian, Chomsky lacks a good grasp of
connotative processes, which are not grammatical. For really low levels of
meaning, try mid-level butt-covering bureaucratese or sub-Lacanian academic
theory-babble.) There's still a problem, though. This is like saying that language
can generate an infinity of universes with, say, stars in them. However, only a
minority of these stars will acquire planets; and only a minority of these planets
will engender living ecosystems; and only a minority of these ecosystems will
produce self-aware intelligence. Combinations of words appear to give off a
sparkle of "meaning," no matter how vague or tantalizing, because our brains
have evolved in tandem with language. The semiotic impulse hardwired into
the human neocortex and triggered by early language experience perpetually
strives to assign meaning to any potential sign-system. But where the average
density of meaning is thin, the mind tires after a while of seeking it (and,
arguably, creating it), and turns to richer, more organized zones of signification
� ones where the rifts, as Keats put it, are "loaded with ore."

To shift analogical ground: the language, with its dense web of connotative
links, is itself like a vast virtual brain, to a version of which each of us has
access. In this virtual brain, connotation forms the "axons" and "dendrites," the
connective fibers, of word-neurons, while syntax makes up the coherent paths
burned along these connections. Within patterns of connection in the language-
brain, as in the biological brain, memories are stored. Since this virtual brain is
very largely a copy or clone of the same one used by all other speaker-writers,
the vast bulk of the memories held in the language-brain are not our own, but
are the shared experience of countless people through generations, growing less
specific and less consciously available the further back in time one reaches
toward etymonic roots and grammatical origins. What's more, all these personal
copies of the language-brain are in continual communication with many other
current copies through daily social interaction as well as via the mass media �
and in communication with earlier "editions" via reading, viewing old films,
listening to old recordings, and so forth. Yet crucially shaping the
personalization of each copy of the language-brain is its possessor's actual
material and emotional life. This life, no matter how much it is shaped, like
the language, by historical and social forces, is also unique and, however
infinitesimally, is itself part of these forces and shapes the social and physical as
well as the linguistic world. To paraphrase Marx: "People make their own
meanings, but not with a language of their own choosing, rather, with a
language given and transmitted from the past." Finally, it is the experiencing
biological brain, the living body in the social timescape, that brings this virtual
brain to life, maintains it moment to moment, thinks it and thinks with it.

In this thinking, when we write poetry, there is a necessary suspension, a "float,"
whereby we make space for the new and appropriate word or phrase to appear.
This suspension is analogous, in my quantum-cosmological model, to the
moment before the collapse of the wave function, when the photon goes one
way or another as I observe it doing so. For purposes of the analogy, it doesn't
matter whether I somehow unconsciously "choose" for the photon to go one way
rather than another � or whether one "I" chooses to inhabit the universe in which
the photon goes that way, while another "I," brought into being that moment,
"chooses" the universe in which it goes the other way. Or � if we are loyal
followers of Einstein, who hated to think that God plays dice � we could say that
the universe chooses for me which way the photon will go. And it is a truism
that in writing well, we often have the sensation of receiving words from a
mysteriously familiar "elsewhere." This source may also feel like an "elsewhom,"
a power beyond our conscious control, but one with which we have entered,
momentarily, into a covenant like the ones the Greeks often made between
themselves and the gods. The basis of this covenant was the similarity between
humans and gods, their common ancestry as children of Earth and Sky, Time
and Space.

What, then, is the "universe," the bigger, smarter source that chooses the words
for us? I would argue that it is a state of the language-brain conditioned by my
consciousness, existing only in interaction with it. This is the covenant. So that
what writes is neither "I," nor "language," but I-in-language, the self-process of
experience and desire mapped onto the language-web, physical brain and virtual
brain acting together. In this moment, biology fuses with society, history with
Now, the many with the one. Because this is so, the writing has meaning. And
the more closely my experiences and desires, perhaps unrecognized until this
instant, are mapped by my attention onto the language-web, the more sharply
my imagination reveals huge patterns of protosyntactic paths in that web lit up
by those experiences and desires. The synapses, the spark-gaps, in these paths
are the differences between my unique experiences and desires and the similar
yet different experiences and desires, conditioned by the same large historical
and biological forces but varying by circumstance, of many others. (Pierre
Reverdy, famously quoted in the first Manifesto of Surrealism, says it this way:
"The image . . . cannot be born from a comparison but from the juxtaposition
of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two
juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be � the
greater its emotional power and poetic reality . . ." [my emphasis].) The more
of these synapse-firings I perceive, the more meaning I-in-language make,
reaching asymptotically toward infinite density. Connotative links at this point
are not merely nonlinear; they achieve a complexity and infoldedness like that
of the seven-dimensional space around the nucleus of an atom. If I have trained
myself well, so that I can maintain that suspended, neutral, yet passionate focus,
I can release at least some of those path-patterns via the nerves of my arm and
hand onto the paper. "The clock ticks, the page is printed."

Attention is the key to this process, but imagination is the door. Seventy-some
years ago, the psychologist Wolfgang K�hler showed in a famous series of
experiments with chimpanzees that perception in large-brained animals does not
proceed by linear accumulation of details and their logical linking, but by a
nonlinear series of pattern-recognitions, within which details are configured into
a meaningful whole. A chimp, for instance, confronted with a banana suspended
about eight feet off the ground, a stool, and a stick, would not first try to grab
the banana by himself. Instead, he would survey the situation, then move the
the stool directly beneath the banana, grab the stick, climb onto the stool, and
use the stick to knock the banana down. Similarly, Jacques Cousteau showed
how an octopus confronted with a stoppered clear glass jar containing a live
lobster will first try once or twice to reach the lobster through the jar and probe
the stopper with her tentacles; finding this ineffective, she will swim round and
round the jar for some minutes, and then abruptly brace herself with some of
her tentacles around the jar while she pulls off the stopper with the others.
Rather than trying every possible action or combination of actions at random,
both chimp and octopus, after an initial experiment or two, shape the "whole
picture" in their minds and act on that. K�hler called these meaningful whole-
pictures or perceptual configurations, gestalts, meaning forms or shapes. (The
verb gestalten means to mold or give form to, thus making it a very close
cognate of the Greek poiein, to make or shape � the etymon of "poetry.") If the
somewhat overworked word "imagination" means anything, it means the power
to perceive (create) these gestalts, in language as in our physical sensations, our
emotions, our memories, our relationships with others. As Shelley says in A
Defense of Poetry, imagination is "to poiein, the principle of synthesis."

A few years before Shelley wrote this, Coleridge in Biographia Literaria drew
a distinction between imagination in this sense � "the modifying power in the
highest sense of the word" � and what he called fancy. The eighteenth century
had used the two terms synonymously, but Coleridge argued that fancy was a
different faculty altogether. While Coleridge does not fill out what he means by
fancy, he likens it to "delirium," by which was then meant a fevered state in
which one makes verbal or pictorial associations that are purely personal or
altogether random; whereas he likens imagination to "mania," which in his day
was the term for paranoia, the construction of a parallel meaning-universe
around one's own subjective experience. I want to suggest that fancy is the
recognition of that tantalizing sparkle of near-meaning given off by unfamiliar,
but still mostly one-dimensional, connotative links. I might call it the peripheral
vision of the semiotic impulse, whereby suggestive shapes � sometimes real,
sometimes illusive � are glimpsed. As such, it is one of the faculties whose
functioning is necessarily synthesized, in the poetic moment, by imagination as
Shelley and Coleridge mean the word. Writing dominated by fancy, however �
by connotative chains which may or may not have much of an "objective
correlative" in the mind of the reader � is like those universes where many stars
glitter intriguingly, but where no planets have coalesced around them. Here no
mind has evolved to link the stars in image and story or to analyze their spectra
and chart their fiery anatomy as part of a cosmology, a mapping of logos onto
kosmos.

Fancy, roaming through the gigantic brain of language, can let the rules of
syntax (and even prosody) play with the possibilities of connotation to make
endless "interesting" texts or verses, as in the minor Metaphysicals that
Coleridge uses as his exemplars, or as in minor surrealist or minor post-
modernist writing. And at least these fanciful texts and verses are more amusing
than the banal exercises in received emotion and received form produced by what
Blake called "the Daughters of Memory," the muses of the generic workshop. But
it is only when fancy is fused with deep experience by the simultaneous synaptic
arc-flashes of similarity-difference, only when the pattern of these flashes is
grasped by imagination, that poetry appears. Poiesis, in the deepest sense, is
cosmology. Moment to moment, we imagine our way across the branching and
joining of universes, telling the story of ourselves in the Language behind
languages that Heidegger says is the same as Being. Poetry enacts that forest of
journeys in the words we have. It is this poetic process, not raw combinative
potential alone, that gives language its savor of the infinite, as it is we, living and
finite in space and time, who animate its immensity into intelligence.