You perceive a tree on a hill obscured partially by mist. I, standing on the opposite side of the hill and with the sun to my back, barely perceive the mist at all, and see the comfort of a sorrowful autumn. Returning inside of the cottage behind you, you smell the acerbic flavor of tobacco and recoil in disgust. I, reflecting on the death of a loved one, savor the burning in my lungs as I drag on a cigarette in the common room. Reading an article, you internally lament a political position, drawing the lines of demarcation in your mind as you parse the text for meaning. I, reading the same newspaper, draw different lines, as if reading entirely different words. Conversations, some of critical import to the affairs of business, liberty, or morality can often be perceived as transpiring in separate languages the way the parties to the conversation carry on.
When we communicate, even when we internally process images and phenomenon around us, commonality is assumed. Yet experience has taught me that experience is anything but common. The way we see the world, and the personal history we bring to our dialogues about the world threaten to seize everything. In the East, there is an account of the Buddha’s transcendence, and thus his encounter with death. Death presented himself as a beautiful woman, the most beautiful woman that ever existed or would exist in any potential future. Pardoning the syncretism, we can almost imagine Sankara whispering “not this, not this” into the Buddha’s ear as the Sage wrenched himself away from the woman’s embrace. Scorned, Death manifested itself instead as a horrifying beast which stared at the Buddha with ravenous hunger. The Buddha stood his ground, and by way of doing so arrived at the truth. In this myth we encounter the concept of the sublime, something both immeasurably beautiful and utterly terrifying. Being a moral parable, the tale implicitly suggests a singular answer, a universal truth. Christ’s remarks about the “resurrection and the light” suggest the same, as do the Koran or the Brahman of the Vedas. Upon these bedrock religious precepts many resort to the notion that the same concept – truth vis-à-vis universality – is, in-itself universal. In reality, it seems possible that the one concept fails to translate to the other, perhaps necessarily so.
Whatever objective universals exist are beyond our ability to know on any quantifiable level. We dwell in a different world, one governed by our perceptions. In that mire, we cannot escape our own judgments, our prioritization of the issues presented. We can consciously amend the priority, even focus upon separate aspects of the question. But whether we perceive the optical illusion of the dancer swinging left or swinging right, we still can do nothing but perceive and, through perceiving, redirect our illusion.
Foucault would categorize these observations as “problematizations of truth.” Maurice Merlau-Ponty suggested these discrepancies go to the heart of the object-subject dilemma, the question of how there can be “for us” an object “in-itself.” Ironically, academic thought has increasingly drawn parallels between Merleau-Ponty’s work and that of Eastern thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, bringing the problem, seemingly, full circle.
Irrespective of how we perceive, however, the greater question is how we communicate what we perceive. Not very well.
A man is shot. A man is shot in an alley. A man is shot in an alley in the Bronx. A black man is shot in an alley in the Bronx. A black man is shot by a policeman in an alley in the Bronx. A black man was shot by a white policeman in the Bronx. A black man, minding his own business, with no criminal record was shot by a white policeman in the Bronx. A black man, visiting the United States on a tourist visa from Great Britain, got lost in the Bronx. Turning a corner into what turned out to be an alley, he was confronted by a while policeman who shot him. A black man, visiting the United States on a tourist visa from Great Britain, got lost in the Bronx. Turning a corner into what turned out to be an alley, he was confronted by a while policeman who had elected to kill himself moments before. Pulling back the hammer on his service revolver, the image of a figure suddenly appearing startled him; the weapon discharged accidentally, the black man is shot.
This simple exercise reflects the way in which words matter, but it further illustrates so many preconceived notions about how those additional words and details change our internal judgments that it becomes almost meaningless to parse it. As an English speaker, we can sense how each of these sentences in sequence adds something to the story -plot, context, causality – but in truth, even these concepts presuppose that we share understanding of how those notions affect our world, values, and sense of ethics. On the other hand, if we strip away of every last scrap of perceptive judgment, deprive them of any noun, adjective, or adverb we’d rely upon to convey the meaning of the sentence, we’d be left with nothing other than the concept of being. An object. Man, dead body, doesn’t particularly matter. As linguist George Lakoff noted:
[T]here can be no objectively correct description of reality from a God’s eye point of view. This does not, of course, mean that there is no objective reality—only that we have no privileged access to it from an external viewpoint.
How then are we to communicate reliably? In one sense, perhaps we aren’t intended to. Language is, like most of reality, largely an illusion of convenience. As I write, I am attempting to persuade someone like myself; I write from the perspective of being my own audience. If I can satisfy myself that the material I put to paper is intelligible, then I am satisfied. In essence, I am doing nothing other than structuring my own thoughts, my own priorities and judgments. The concept of writing to a readership, like art, posits an absurd assumption that others will be able to gaze into my mental impressions by means of the words I have selected. Like art, the readership is free to reject, accept, or even misappropriate the material in its absorption.
These concepts, all of them, may appear to endorse relativism. Far from it. There is a reason why civilizations around the globe have often prized deeds over words. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but only when we acknowledge, as we must, that the pen’s might lies in its efficacy to affect the mind of the reader. The sword plunged into the surface of the ocean will not pierce the heart of a fish lying in its depths. A word on a page cannot infest the mind of a reader that denies it consent. If we are to convey meaning at all, apart from the utterly superficial – i.e. Lucky Strikes, “it’s toasted!” – it must be by eschewing broad appeal for the individual encounter. Again, coming full circle, communicating perception seems to depend primarily on perception – asking the internal question again, and again, as to whether the recipient has understanding. The answer will invariably be “no.”
We often consider human history as a ladder of advancement, but there is no such thing as human advancement. The entirety of human achievement and suffering is reinvented in every perception we have and every communication we broadcast. That sublime visage stares at us all, waiting for us to find it. Rather than retreating to relativism; we awake to encounter the constant need to live life responsibly, never ceasing to assess our perceptions, communicate them, and make the appropriate judgments about the objects in our eyes. It’s absurd because it is, conceptually, impossible. Nevertheless, it is our only nature; we can do nothing else.