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Are We Imprisoned by Language? On Freedom and Linguistic Sensibility

In this week’s discourse, I aim to present an exploration of the non-Cartesian concept of language as it resides within the metaphysical realm. Specifically, I delve into the realm of private language, and its influence on inner sensibilities.

The notion of freedom is intrinsically tied to the concept of language as a potential prison. It exists between the complexities of communication and introspection, straddling the paradox of liberation without language and entrapment within it.

My thoughts on this matter are as follows:

Language, when employed in the public domain, becomes a convoluted game. True communication finds its haven in the realm of “private language,” where thoughts hold greater dominion than words. Precision in communication becomes a mirage, as thoughts themselves are transient, ephemeral entities. They consist of data destined for entropy. The invention of the alphabet, akin to the rise of the modern state and the birth of post-war America’s first hamburger stand (McDonald’s), stands as a historical misstep. Throughout human history, miscommunication has spawned endless conflicts, wars, and rivalries. The ascent, prominence, and eventual dominance of computer language marks the pinnacle of these misunderstandings. Humans were perhaps meant to communicate telepathically in an environment free from language.

The belief that language elevates human intelligence above other species may well be a misguided philosophy of existence. It’s plausible that there are more intelligent entities we’ve been attempting to connect with over the centuries, but our communication tools (the alphabet, speech) remain too rudimentary for them to grasp.

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Contrary to expectations, the Messiah’s Second Coming might not involve a sword-wielding figure on a white horse. Instead, it could manifest in a more advanced form—a spacecraft surpassing the Enterprise, establishing a World Government that disciplines NATO, reproaches NAFTA, chairs the WTO, and even halts conflicts like the one in Ukraine. Can true freedom be attained if we envision existence as merely constructing consensus? Amidst human communication, consensus-building leads to a struggle for power and dominance. Language and speech are wielded as tools of gatekeeping, creating winners and dispossessed.

Language and speech have been infiltrated by power dynamics, to the extent that the line between truth and propaganda has blurred. Noam Chomsky’s works, such as “The Real Terror Network” and “Manufacturing Consent,” grapple with this sophisticated manipulation of language and communication.

Edward Said, in “Orientalism,” elucidated the concept of perception, particularly the Western view of the Orient. This perspective is laden with power dynamics, stemming from a Eurocentric standpoint. The knowledge produced about the Orient is influenced by this view, creating a sociology of knowledge grounded in regressive dimensions of language and communication.

Over centuries, the art of “Othering” has evolved within knowledge-building. Language and speech, ostensibly liberating, harbor dualistic oppression. While language releases constructs, individuals, and institutions from domination, it propels them into an alternate form of freedom. This notion of freedom implies liberation into a “Material world,” replete with objects. This aligns with Jean-Paul Sartre’s exploration of being and becoming within a worldly context.

Can language and speech avoid being confining, regardless of the linguistic system in question? The term “system” itself, used to describe the transformation of sound and the alphabet, perpetuates confinement. Imagine this: we are systematically enmeshed in systemic transformations, systemized into constructs known as systems.

This is the prison house of language. Picture a world devoid of language, and consider the potential for redemption it might entail. In our pursuit of understanding our role as history-makers, where do we navigate from here? This entails becoming members of society who possess critical sensibility for inner dialogue and external speech. Society, thus, becomes a text to analyze—a preliminary step toward embodying a postmodern flaneur.

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This stage involves evaluating and judging dehumanizing forces, identifying structural violence operating across levels of consciousness and linguistic representation. This encompasses signs, symbols, sensory experiences, individuals, communities, institutions, ideologies, myths, rituals, and more. Postmodern here denotes the unresolved aspects of modernity, as advocated by Frederic Jameson. Reflexivity, the decline of affect, loss of critical sensibility, diminishing creative faculties, relativization of the absolute, rationalization of violence, and trivialization of significant matters characterize this state.

A flaneur embodies an outsider, a tourist, an observer existing within but detached from society. They shun materialism and ideology, scrutinizing society akin to a crystal ball.

The postmodern flaneur resembles Kafka’s hunger artist—profoundly logical, though perceived as suffering by those consumed by consumerism. This creature rejects mainstream entertainment, politics, and consumerism, advocating for revolution and justice. It’s a being found primarily in academia, occasionally venturing into the corporate realm, even starting tech companies before seeking solace in California ashrams.

On a weightier note, the postmodern flaneur embodies harmonious self-understanding, fostering the groundwork for praxis. This entity’s duality lies on the spectrum between constructive and destructive tendencies. Violence’s root causes, as Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out—racism, materialism, and militarism—permeate our consciousness at varying depths. Subtly, these forces shackle both oppressors and the oppressed, relegating us to “puppets” rather than the architects of history.

Our objective and the nature of the social map we etch into our consciousness is pivotal. To be human is to identify oppression and use it as a conduit to creativity. Institutional racism, militarism, and materialism have shaped us through history, masked in the garb of objectivity and cloaked within seemingly “value-free” institutions—education, citizenship, and more. We must scrutinize what Robin Hood opposed.

In a world wrestling with communitarianism versus cosmopolitanism, nationalism versus internationalism, education versus liberation, we grapple with the prison house of language, a term coined by American Marxist and literary critic Frederic Jameson in his seminal work, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.”

Or can we ever truly be liberated from it? After all, we cannot escape reality.

This reality is language.

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DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR. AZLY RAHMAN
DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.
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