Language, Thought, and Bluets

Blue Figure in a Chair, Arshile Gorky

In Bluets, Maggie Nelson tells of how male bowerbirds lull their prospective mates with a colored bachelor pad. They assemble blue caps, strings, flowers, feathers and human debris, going so far as to paint their bower “with juice from blue fruits, using the frayed end of a twig as a paintbrush.” The bowerbird then dances on a nearby stage of yellow grass where, if the contrast is right, and the dance is good, he will attract a partner.

“Am I trying, with these ‘propositions,’ to build some kind of bower?” wonders Nelson. “But surely this would be a mistake. For starters,” she writes, “words do not look like the things they designate (Maurice Merleau-Ponty).” Nor do they sound, taste, smell or feel at all like those things. The word blue is not, of itself, the color blue. What Nelson is saying is that words are only weakly iconic. They are signs or symbols. Throwback to Saussure: the word or “sound-image” is tied to the concept not by resemblance but by rule, social contract or convention. Sign is arbitrarily assigned to signified. But this is no weakness per se. If words are arbitrary, they are free to symbolize anything, abstract or concrete.

It is indeed a trade-off. On the one hand: range, scope, and freedom; on the other, low fidelity and the concomitant problem of putting things ‘into’ words. Nelson does not so much offer a workaround as a proof of concept. Hers are the blues of flapping tarps in places of longing; the inner blues of depression; the papery, blue legs of the quadriplegic friend for whom she is carer; the aggregate wavelength emitted by the universe (thought, for a time, to be a shade of blue). But it goes without saying that Nelson cannot literally show us these blues, absent accompanying photos. Her book is black on white text-only, too.

“Please don’t start protesting here,” Nelson writes “that there are no thoughts outside of language, which is like telling someone that her colored dreams are, in fact, colorless”. Yet it is as language that these colored dreams can all be talked/thought about. There, in the mind, they can turn sky blue. They squirt blue-black ink, in defense of their integrity … like so many gills of squid-creatures. They are, in short, what you make of them. The phrase azure spread of a rounded globe’ is, itself, in darkness, inner eye turned to nothing. But it begs of our memory a suitable picture of beauty. Over to you, reader.

It is not just that Nelson’s font is black, never straying into cerulean, nor that it lacks full color prints or photo inserts. It is that Nelson must bottle her inner, phenomenological ocean––sea blue in spirit but grey on the surface––in words that cannot possibly contain its multitudes. “If you only do not try to express what is inexpressible, nothing will get lost,” she reminds us, by way of Wittgenstein. Here is the catch two-two of language as social phenomena, as mother tongue to us all: you can never quite transmit how you think or feel. Not exactly. Words are neither a medium of telepathy nor a kind of Vulcan mind meld. They are fluid, since that is what enables each of us to make them our own while making sense to others.

Only as a semi-abstract concept can ‘love’ cover both yours and mine. It is an overlap: communication as a Venn diagram, but with a circle for every text, speaker and utterance. We stay mostly on our side, but always with a view of the center. To essay in love, or pain, is to speak into the middle, to humanity––or at least to whoever is listening. As a title, or a theme, of the kind On Love, it points in the general direction. Details to come in the body (text). As a concept it is concretized by every individual’s experience; every Sunny-Jim, Josh and Harrison; every emerald eyed boy. An essay in Love speaks to one and all of them.

Only as words, only as signs, are concepts opened up. Black is the color of death, and red of love. The ancients personified concepts in the figures of the pantheon: love as Aphrodite, lust in Eros. But as colors or allegories the concepts are brought back to earth; closed off; concretized. Therefore, symbolism cannot quite cover what the concepts mean to us. Nelson: “When I talk about color and hope, or color and despair, I am not talking about the red of a stoplight … or a black sail strung from a ship’s mast. I am trying to talk about what blue means, or what it means to me, apart from meaning.” Only by blowing open concepts, only when they are words, can they let everything in: blue sea and blue of me.

“On all sides,” noted Virginia Woolf, “writers are attempting what they cannot achieve, are forcing the form they use to contain a meaning which is strange to it.” And yet what is Bluets doing, if not circumventing this problem? Neither blue, nor loneliness, nor heartbreak is being illustrated in a picture. But the propositions in the book are being hooked up to the concepts; and as a reader my neuroplasticity rushes to keep up, mirroring the connections that Nelson herself is making. Writing: nebulous but stubborn; rooted in the self, and yet letting go of it.

Nor does Nelson abstain from the force of abstraction. She writes mostly through sense and introspection, and “avoids generalities” in certain instances (notably, categories like gender whereby man is x, or woman is y). And yet Nelson does offer up some conceptual shorthands. Working hypotheses. “Loneliness is solitude with a problem” she writes, an aphorism that is clearly an induction from her experience but that will do as well for others, myself included.

How to reconcile this way of thinking with a colour wheel? As she puts it in The Argonauts: “On the one hand, the Aristotelian, perhaps evolutionary need to put everything into categories—predator, twilight, edible—on the other, the need to pay homage to the transitive, the flight, the great soup of being in which we actually live.” To this I say: cup your hands and join the needs, alphabet into soup. But be on the guard for generalisations that are just a little too ambitious.

Take Bluets the book, for instance. In what box should we put it? Under which label? It simply won’t fit with the darlings of lit/crit or the shelves of “all good book shops”: it is not a novel or novella, nor a collection of stories, or poems, or articles. But one must call it something. Enter the metaphors, rife in the discourse. It’s a collage! A montage! No, a mosaic! Cue the usual introductory spiel: “There are 240 numbered paragraphs that read like prose poems…”.  It ‘threads’ quotes with anecdotes. It ‘weaves’ the personal and philosophical. Voices in a choir. Better yet: seats at a symposium.

It is not just that these terms have been peddled ad nauseam, worn thin by the gluttony of ‘reviews’ and ‘studies’. Bluets just does not lend itself to being put-in-a-box or a précis: a classificatory or summative attitude would be at odds with Nelson’s project (to say nothing of the quasi-lyrical, tangential style of this piece). It does ‘engage’ some ‘key’ questions as they say in business (and, thus, not in Bluets). Questions, like mine, of minds, writing, language and so on. For instance: How can Nelson possibly express the depth of her hurt, with words that are merely signs of the thoughts and feelings they signify?

But a synopsis or a summary is as doomed as a what-is-it taxonomy. It would be to Bluets what a CV is to life: a gross misreading. What is it about? What does it mean? Well, it’s just too hard to say (this being, for me, part of the point). I have tried instead to give an ‘impression’ (again with the jargon, but then is this not itself criticism?). I would not know how else to do Bluets justice, except perhaps by inventing infinitely more neo-categories for it. A zodiac of text. A concerto of quotations. A speech act orchestra.

The concept of writing free from norm/form may be the literary license to do so, but the congruence of abstract/concrete is actually in the blood. In Thinking in Words, Guy Dove makes the case that language is a kind of ‘cognitive enhancement’. His thesis builds on the paradigm of embodied cognition, according to which our thinking, and our concepts, are grounded in representations of our sensory memories. The sentence ‘I am eating a pineapple’ lights up the brainplaces for vision, taste, aroma, the action of eating, etc., in which places the concept for the fruit is ultimately hardwired. When you are fed the concept of ‘pineapple’ you simulate how it tastes, how it is prepared and so on. The word is merely a hyperlink to the memory.

Empirical evidence suggests that concrete concepts activate the parts of the brain underwriting their associated sense ‘modalities’. Dove looked at an experiment where participants were shown a sentence about an action that would be “typically performed” with the mouth or feet, to which they had to respond using a microphone or a foot pedal. “Response times with the microphone were fastest with ‘mouth-sentences’, and response times with the pedal were fastest ‘with foot-sentences'” reports Dove, in a tone that divulges the comic simplicity of psychological methodologies. The footbrain was faster as it had already been stimulated.

But abstract concepts present as a problem for embodied cognition. In what part of the brain is the concept (cf. this essay itself) grounded? Is it seen? Heard? Tasted? There is evidence that abstract nouns do not preferentially activate brainparts for a specific sense, but with those associated with language processing more generally. Critics of the embodied model point out that all words activate these areas and that this does not make abstract concepts more central to language. But if the concept of, say, ‘writing’ does not also have a sensory home in the brain … how do we grip it, grasp it, taste it, interpret it?

Embodied cognition grounds thinking in sensory circuits. Classical cognitive science, in contrast, sees it as a cognate of language, “a finite set of stored lexical units or complexes and [their] combinatorial principles”. Dove suggests that there is a third way: even if we accept the evidence for embodiment, i.e., that cognition is not inherently linguistic, we “raise an intriguing possibility.” He continues: “The acquisition of a natural language may [be] a means of extending our cognitive powers … by giving us access to a new type of representational format”. Because that format is symbolic, it can signify anything. It can be grounded in a sensory representation but it can also point to two such representations, or two thousand, in aggregate. It can map them. It can abstract from them.

“My proposal,” writes Dove, “is that the language system itself provides a means of extending the computational capacities of embodied cognition.” Extension? Computation? “We don’t normally think of it as such,” writes Ted Chiang, “but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated.” My proposal is that writing which combines the conceptual with the sensory, the abstract with the concrete, is the closest thing we have to a literary (or artistic) fulfilment of that technology.

Words land on the eyes and the ears but then they branch out on the synapses … where everything is implicated. It shoots to a sense and/or an abstraction, but from there to anywhere: one line out to a memory, another to a line we remember from a poem, even as another tendril tickles our ears or leaves us in stitches. Meanwhile a new branch grows, or is tweaked: the brain is changed by what it hears or reads. Signs and signifiers that are tracks through the labyrinth. The skull is the limit. Thus, even the most abstract concepts are linked to a memorable instance of them: image, object, prototype, archetype, schemata, exemplar. Particularities that are, literally, thought relevant. Think, for instance, of love.

Nor is it only memory, nounstuff and lily-pad adjectives that keep words from flying off into the abstratosphere: it is also the pronouns (pointed fingers), action verbs (movement), interjections (voices), prepositions of place (the where-you-are-right-now), conceptual metaphors (e.g. love is a journey), and on and on. All these vestiges of the body-on-earth, the reptilian brain stem, that are built into language.

In short: let no generality drift in a vacuum. Naming, labelling, shoehorning, pigeonholing, categorizing, compartmentalizing: these are negatrons cause they’ve been torn from context, whether by the will to power, the propriety of genre, or the wayward need to put things in their place sans attention to the place from which they had already come. What then is the alternative?

Concepts not as abstractions from the concrete but as abstractions that always anyway return to them: “Every concept,” wrote Deleuze and Guttari, “is at least double or triple … It is a multiplicity [which] must be understood not as a general or a particular but as a pure and simple singularity”. Who said it? Who heard it? Who wrote it? Who read it? And what else was uttered? It depends on the circumstances.