Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Personal Growth and Evolution

I absolutely adore Jessica Palmer's art and her blog, bioephemora.  She posts some of the very sexiest art and also manages to toss in some very interesting discussions that often revolve around shifting media paradigms.  But in a recent post about a very intriguing piece of artwork, she made a rather innocuous comment that really bothered me - because I didn't actually know why she objected.  The subject of the post is an electroformed copper sculpture entitled "Evolve."  It's a depiction of a chrysalid formed in metal, which I agree is rather interesting - it is certainly the sort of notion that makes me rather happy in and of itself.  But Jessica doesn't like the title.  I misunderstood her objection to mean that she didn't like it being used to describe individual development in the manner I was reading the actual art - i.e. personal development.  Instead her objection is specifically to evolve being used to describe the individual biological development. 

This sort of misunderstanding happens to me rather often, as I tend to be an extremely abstract thinker. 

I am going ahead and posting this post anyways, because outside the context of Jessica's post, what I wrote still stands - even in regards to the notion of evolution.  While Jessica doesn't actually object to using evolution to describe non-biological processes, I have run across the objection before.  More importantly, I also bring some other words into the discussion that have been known to raise some hackles and there are a great many more words for which this discussion is relevant.  Language purity and mechanical accuracy unquestionably have their place, but there are also contexts in which both simply get in the way.  Sometimes they interfere with making a point, sometimes they they make it hard to express oneself accurately and precisely.  Other times they interfere with the creation of sculptures, paintings of words, of panoramic wordscapes that ebb and flow across and through, under and over our consciousness, melding with it's own intricate pathways and webs until we forget where the wordscape ends and our mindscape begins - blurring definitions and lines and even the grey dwindles and condenses, coalescing into a greater whole that is something completely different, but no less beautiful than it's melting into other minds.

When the guidelines interfere, throw them out the window.

I do not believe that there is any good reason to restrict the use of any word that can be used to accurately describe many processes to a singular context.  This may just be part and parcel with my very favorite medium as an artist being words and sounds, but I am all about stretching language to it's very limits and beyond.  Words have power and I have argued rather voraciously that overusing particularly powerful words just lessens that power.  However, using words accurately, outside their normal context can have the opposite effect - or more to the point can both increase their own potency and give strength to the point they're being used to make.

Language is and always should be fluid.  There are certainly situations where one must stay within very strict parameters - I am having a hell of a time learning to write formally in an academic context, for example.  But outside the context of more formal writing, I believe that English mechanics and grammar are more of a loose set of guidelines, than strict laws.  For that matter, I am all about making up words, when there isn't a word available for a given situation.  A "few" of my readers have noticed that I rather overuse commas - or a few have noticed who actually decided to mentioned it to me...A few of those have noticed that I use commas the way that I do, because rather than putting them where mechanics would dictate, I put them where I would be utilizing them, if I was actually verbalizing what I am writing - mostly people who have spent much time talking with me notice...

And evolution is a word that I actually like to use in a variety of contexts, because I think that it is a very precise word for describing concepts that would otherwise take far more words to describe.  It implies things that needn't then be explicitly stated.  And I am sure that everyone who reads what I have to say, knows how very important brevity and saving on words is to me...Ok, so I am actually rather fond of the words, but those who know me well understand that I am very keen on my language being rather concise.  And for that, evolution is a very useful word to describe processes of change over time, influenced by complex variables both internal and external - kind of like the process of slowly changing one's world view, personal moral frame, religious beliefs and even one's personality.  Not one of us is the person we were ten years ago and I think that evolution is possibly the perfect word to describe the process that changed us from the person we were then, to the person we are now. 

The example I used in comments on that thread, was my religious beliefs.  I explained that I have evolved from a fundamentalist Christian when I was young, through a rather twisted mixture of Christianity and magic (or more accurately mysticism) and eventually became the atheist I am today.  By using the word "evolved," I can avoid being specific about my journey through magical thinking, while implying that it is a lot more complicated than the vague stages I described.  I am thus able to communicate in a sentence, what could easily take a couple paragraphs, which depending on the context in which I am describing that journey, may be entirely irrelevant.  Another example where using the concept of evolution is quite handy is when describing interpersonal relationships and for that matter, extrapersonal relationships.  Or when describing changes in complex social systems. 

Though it turns out that her objection is in the context of using evolve to describe a biological process that isn't actually evolution, but rather biological development,  I run into a lot of folks in the world of psychology who, for example, strenuously object to the use of misogyny, outside the context of a pathological hatred of women, or who object to the use of addiction to describe anything that isn't actively causing the addict significant harm and in some circles anything that isn't a substance addiction.  I understand these objections to a certain point.  I would certainly question someone using misogyny in a professional setting, to describe someone who is actually just an extreme chauvinist who makes very generalized statements about the inferiority of women - or someone who described someones fondness for a particular type of music as an addiction.  In a professional context these descriptions would be entirely inappropriate. 

But in a social context I believe not only is it appropriate, there can even be a certain utility to it.  In the case of evolution, I think it is a net positive to use the concept of evolution as a pop-culture reference because it gets people used to the word - even people who in the context of science, believe evolution is an attack on their faith.  In the case of addiction, I think it's a net positive because it can only reduce destructive stigmas relating to addiction, if addiction is used more often outside the negative context of self-destructive tendencies.  Misogyny, on the other hand, is a mixed bag.  I've discussed the overuse of misogyny and misandry and the notion that using them outside of very specific contexts reduces their effectiveness.  It is a lot like accusing people of being Hitler - using them too often makes them virtually useless when it is appropriate to do so.  Ultimately the same is true of the other words I'm discussing here and many that I'm not.  But these are two that are invectives and therefore require a great deal more discretion.  But I digress...

Language is power.  Language is what we use to define, express and in a great many ways perceive reality.  So much of what we see with our eyes, smell with our noses, feel with our bodies, taste with our tongues and hear with our ears is rendered nearly meaningless without the context that language provides.  Consider for a moment what it would be like to see the elegant beauty of honeysuckle, to smell it's fragrance, to feel the soft, velvet texture of it's flowers, to hear the breeze rustle through it and to taste the sweet, slightly bitter flavor of the heart of its buds.  Now imagine all that, without language to consider it in the privacy of your own mind, much less express it outwardly.  Language is so profoundly important, beautiful - human.  Language is really what makes us human.  Limiting language, is nothing less than limiting the scope of human experience - like somehow we're human enough, we're fine the way we are and don't need to grow and expand ourselves.

When we stop growing, we start dying.


Stephanie Zvan said...

That's lovely, DuWayne. Thank you.

Although I must admit, for a minute I thought you were going to get on Jason's case about prescriptivism. :)

Jessica said...

A very interesting rumination on the relationship between words in different contexts. I think it's precisely because words can mean so many different things that scientists get paranoid about using synonyms, metaphor, etc. and can end up with rather dry, repetitive writing. It's sometimes better to use a smaller set of words on which everyone in the field can agree, rather than branch out and risk inadvertent ambiguity. Unfortunately this makes scientific writing rather flat and unimaginative - which is NOT how scientists themselves think!

Anyway, a very interesting post.