OFF THE MAP

In “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche writes of how language generates meaning.  Words are simply metaphors which enforce the illusion of a world constructed through language.  Words then come to replace the signified, reducing them to generalizations or categorizations.  In order to operate in a way we deem cohesive, we depend upon these abstractions to navigate the sensual world.  Nietzsche calls truth “[a] mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are” (Nietzsche, 3).  Eventually, language becomes so stale that we forget words are an invented metaphor for the actual thing itself.  Speaking of a deaf man who has never experienced sound, Nietzsche writes, “[p]erhaps such a person will gaze with astonishment at Chladni’s sound figures; perhaps he will discover their causes in the vibrations of the string and will now swear that he must know what men mean by ‘sound'” (2).  Nietzsche suggests that this is the way all of us experience language; namely, we believe we have experienced the things of which we speak, and yet we possess nothing of these things except the metaphors we use to describe them.  Through Nietzsche’s understanding of language, we learn that the individual is invented through thought.  But what happens to thought when language as we know it ceases to exist?

This question reminds me of Werner Herzog’s documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), in which a deaf-blind woman, Fini Straubinger, communicates with other deaf-blind people to create a dialogue amongst the community.  Straubinger communicates with others through a learned system of touch symbols on the palm of the hand. The film pushes its audience to question the nature of thought and communication in the sense we take for granted.  In one scene we visit a home for boys who were born deaf and blind.  The boys range in abilities. Some have their own system of communication similar to the palm touch, and are responsive to external stimuli. Others, to an outsider, may appear to remain within their own realm of existence.  One boy cries out with apparent glee when he turns the knob to the shower and feels water spray down on his head. Another stares off into space as he hits a rubber ball against his forehead. How does one make “sense” of this? How might one “classify” these behaviors?  And where do we locate ourselves in relation to them? The urge to define the anomaly is a way of containing it in order to preserve our seat in the center of the universe.

We learn from Nietzsche that it is irrelevant to ask which world view is the most “valid.” Of course, humans construct what it means to be human: the definition of man is created by man.  Nietzsche understands that people anthropomorphize the world in order to accommodate it to our human-centric perspective.    He reminds us, “[a]t bottom, what the investigator of such truths is seeking is only the metamorphosis of the world into man” (4).  We create an arbitrary system of categorizations in order to fit nature into our schema.  Language is the thing that situates us, locates us, maps us.  In this way, we become definable.  It provides a context in which we may conceive of ourselves.  This human desire to create a system of relations — the need to name something — is challenged by those who do not use language in the expected way. If it is not the ability to express ourselves through the senses that defines us as humans, then what is it? When confronted with individuals whose qualities that lie outside the norm, we are forced view the world through a foreign lens which makes us alien to our own existence. This is why individuals who are different are so often placed in the category of “the other” and are estranged from society.    Anomalies throw us off the map; they challenge our preconceived idea of what it means to be human.  In Herzog’s film, he pushes us to step outside the boundaries of the maps we have drawn for ourselves.

 

J.C.K.

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References:

Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” trans. Walter Kauffman and Daniel Breazeale, at <http://academics.eckerd.edu/instructor/starkjl/jls–inactive/405/September13/Nietzsche.pdf&gt;.   Fragment, 1873: from the Nachlass.

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