“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.” “The question is”, said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
This little spectacle of the absurd from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland , is perhaps the most demonstrative of the verbally ectropic times that we live in. Never before has the logocentric human civilisation(s) produced so many words, mutating, mixing and distorting languages and grammars, to produce words, so many, so nuanced, so familiar and yet distant, that they mean nothing. And if you were a Shakespearean, you would echo Lear’s declaration that ‘Nothing shall come of Nothing’. It is possible to take words by their collars and mug them, when nobody is looking – disfigure them, torment them, twist and turn them upside down, like victims of a schoolyard bully – till they lose all resemblance to themselves and turn purple in their faces. It is possible to string together innocuous words that make sense, as a unit, in themselves and yet fall apart when they talk to each other, all we have is a cacophonic babble of empty signifiers and unmoored meanings. The only way to navigate through the treacherous surfaces of these words and their worldlessness is to resort to producing dictionaries, thesauruses, glossaries, and when all else fails, new lexicons to accommodate for the thisness and thatness of the verbal big bang we are all a part of.
It is to this – the need to invent a lexicon as a response to the quagmire of language(s) that this post shall address. Why, pray, a lexicon? What purpose would it serve? What will it do except for adding to the already murky landscape of word-meaning correlation, where each word treacherously serves many masters, who make them leap hoops, demanding incessantly, new meanings, layers and ideas which can be pinned on to the word, already burdened with its historical meaning making? Is this salvation or merely a demonstration of the implosion of meaning in the blackhole of language?
Let us take these questions, one at a time and see if there are any patterns that may emerge.
Why, pray, a lexicon? To begin answering this question, I can only draw attention to some of the most influential lexicons in the world. When we think of a lexicon, we generally see a book and presume that the book is a lexicon – a way of making meaning through a set of concepts and ideas which self-referentially explain each other. However, that book, the canonical authority of knowledge, is actually only a manifestation of the lexicon rather than the lexicon itself. The lexicon, though it is often imagined to be a book, or a new language, or a new set of words, is actually, a meta-book/language/set of words. The lexicon, at the paradigmatic level is the logic, the form, and set of rules which explains how meaning making happens in a language. It is the sum total of all the words in a language but more than just the sum of all the words in a language – It is the self-referential system by which words make sense.
The Lexical Turn that we signal to in these discussions, is thus, about a crisis in language – not only about the material and discursive aspects of language – but a crisis in the very meaning making ability of language; especially the language in theory, practice and art in the times of postmodernism.
What purpose would it serve? Probably none. Meaning making is such an arbitrary process (You can ask anybody from Plato to Kant to Derrida) that any interventions to explain or reconstruct the meaning making process, only adds to the chaos. The giant leap of faith that all of us demonstrate in reassuring each other that we understand what the other person is saying, is actually wrapped up in aching anxiety emerging of the knowledge that we can never be sure, that the blue you see and blue I see is the same blue. The Lexicon is the arbitrator of this randomness and chaos – not to make sense out of it and order it like items in a catalogue, but to remind us, more than ever, of the randomness that exists and the necessity to recycle words, repurpose them to make them fit meanings that make more sense. And if nothing else, it allows us to heal words that have so long been abused with meaning; to help them recuperate from the hollowness of overuse and give them the gift of meaning.
It is time, says this Lexicon, to go back to the dawn of time when words were free and sometimes present only in their absence, and perform three sets of actions:
The first is to rescue some words from the overuse and abuse that they have suffered at the hands of writers who have suffused them with meanings, practitioners who have denuded them of their basic meanings, and mass-media have distorted beyond recognition. These are words that are stretched so thin, that it is time, once again, to go and ask the question, “What does it mean?” Words that have been central to the articulation of our multiple modernities, words that were once useful in the capturing of the time-space continuums they belonged to, but now stay incoherent and futile in their usage. We seek to go back to those words and repurpose them, giving them new layers, new meanings, and sometimes, old meanings, that were once lost and are in need of a resurrection.
The second is to Imbricate words. Words and ideas that have been trapped in hegemonic discourses, have been straight jacketed in narrative imperatives and laced up in dominant discursive practices, need to be re-arranged in new patterns. Not the invention of new words, but the re-alignment of older existing words that still have enough cache and currency to be a part of our attention. How do we find new meanings for old words? Is it possible to think of a way in which all the existing words can toggle their meanings so that we are left in a world that is simultaneously familiar and strange?
The third is to expose words. The Lexical Turn that we chart is not a unitary activity. Rather, like Benjamin’s Constellations, it exists in a context of other shifts, transitions and transactions. Modes of thought, structures of power, ways of living and notions of the self (among other things) have morphed, mutated and mixed. And in the process, some strange old words and phrases, some fairly unknown ideas, and some very strange sounding articulations have come to light. They have a material presence in our lives but we don’t always see them in the kaleidoscopic hypnosis of our learned word systems.
Over the next six posts, this forum is going to perform these three functions. It is not my intention to make exhaustive lists and write the entire lexicon. Instead, through metaphors, through theoretical concepts, quasi-philosophical arguments and joyful misinterpretation and misrepresentation of ideas, I shall posit the methodology for understanding, documenting and introjecting this monster that we have created – The many headed hydra of the Lexicon.