“Itch and Scratch” sums up my recent reading of Suzanne Langer’s Language and Thought (1953). After midterm grading, I finally found time to read this essay and unexpectedly encountered a rationale for erotic literature.
Langer offers an interesting distinction between a sign and a symbol. She uses this to argue for a basic difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. To Langer, our humanity rests upon this difference.
She asserts all intelligent animals use signs, which are “anything that announces the existence or the imminence of some event, the presence of a thing or a person, or a change in the state of affairs.” Accordingly, Langer views signs as a referent to reality, meaning perhaps a reality according to the correspondence theory of truth.
Langer argues a symbol differs from a sign: “The difference between a sign and a symbol is, in brief, that a sign causes us to think or act in the face of the thing signified, whereas a symbol causes us to think about the thing symbolized.” Langer sees a shift from reference to reflection as a variance between sign and symbol. In other words, she argues, there is a meta level recalibration in the difference between sign and symbol, and this is a movement from reference to reflection.
Signs make reference; symbols prompt reflection
Langer samples her point nicely by suggesting there is a difference between responding to a name versus the named person: “The fact is that our reaction to hearing a person’s name is quite different from our reaction to the person himself.” There is the hallmark of effective teaching within this that only makes me admire Langer more.
The ability to evolve from referent response to reflection forms an important feature of humanity for Langer, who uses this distinction to assert the function and value of symbols: “The process of transforming all direct experience into imagery or into that supreme mode of symbolic expression, language, has so completely taken possession of the human mind that it is not only a special talent but a dominant, organic need.” She explains this need by analogizing it to the experience of dreaming as an essential part of the human experience.
Langer traces a line from dreams to the function they derive from as well as perform. She begins by pointing out their basic utility, which we might understand more readily today as hope (for is not hope a dream of tomorrow if not also the stuff of its nightmares?): “It is easier to dream than not to dream, as it is easier to breathe than to refrain from breathing.” Here, Langer likens dreaming to a biological function, which echoes Freud’s insistence on reading the psychic apparatus in terms of evolutionary biology.
“It is easier to dream than not to dream,
as it is easier to breathe than refrain from breathing.”
Within this, Langer understands a progressive development, which she casts in terms of symbol mongering: “The special power of man’s mind rests on the evolution of this special activity.” Langer views symbol mongering as much being much more interesting than the mere interpretation of dreams. She sees it as a uniquely human activity that holds the potential to respond to a first and basic need within humans:
“Because man has not only the ability but the constant need of conceiving what has happened to him, what surrounds him, what is demanded of him—in short, of symbolizing nature, himself, and his hopes and fears—he has a constant and crying need of expression. What he cannot express, he cannot conceive; what he cannot conceive is chaos, and fills him with terror.”
Itch and scratch: Langer’s formation provides an additional way to think through my approach to erotic literature—as desire rises from the body the symbol mongering begins as the fingers respond.
The erotic word answers the individual’s need for understanding “what has happened to her, what surrounds her, what is demanded of her.” The itch of desire–much less what it leads to–all too often remains unanswered and unexplored in a culture that plasters the air with sex but refuses its social grounding. Erotic literature erects itself as resistance to this refusal.
The erotic word works to answer the individual’s need for understanding.
Otherwise, as Langer points out–“what she cannot conceive is chaos, and fills her with terror.” This terror threatens a projection that forces abjection. Such terrors return us always to the recourse of language–in this case erotic literature.
There is often a high level of serendipity between what one randomly comes across and what they are working on, and my encounter with Langer provided synchronicity. My peek at Langer’s work has been refreshing, especially as it considers the productivity of language instead of the vampiric considerations that oft drown the productive consideration of literary aesthetics.
This productivity certainly appears in Langer’s argument for language: “Conception, not social control, is its first and foremost benefit.” Let us note, the quote says benefit and not only concern. In the halls of what passes for literary studies today, Langer’s statement is so radical it underscores how much language much less literature has been filtered through the institutional bias and fitted to the dominant discourse of our day. Rah, Langer’s essay leads toward something more productive.