“If the soil is carried off by flood,/ May we help the soil to say so,/ If our ways of living/ Violate the needs of nerve and muscle,/ May we find speech for nerve and muscle,/ To frame objections/Whereat we, listening,/ Can remake our habits. ” Kenneth Burke, “Dialectician’s Hymn”
I. For years I immersed myself in scientific and social scientific literature that supported a relationship between rhetoric and neuroplasticity. Eventually I arrived at the conclusion that language is intimately involved in virtually every function of the conscious mind. Not only learning, memory, and a “sense of self” are built on language, but also emotions, visual and aural perceptions, and indeed the unconscious (at least to the extent that it is potentially accessible to the conscious mind).
Whenever I have offered this evidence in writing or at professional meetings I have met the same general and often impassioned objections. What about art? What about the unconscious? What about animals? And though the point has not been raised, I might add, the theory of the “triune” brain also problematizes this hypothetical monopoly of language. (See: The Brain from Top to Bottom).
Though at first taken aback by the emotional retorts, I have come to appreciate the pressure of affect on cognitive/linguistic processing. I have not moved from my general position, because it remains tethered to a critical mass of evidence. However, I have changed my attitude. While detractors may have correctly interpreted my tone, on previous occasions, as that of a rhetorician warm in the embrace of the linguistic turn, I now have a different view of the relationship between language, consciousness, and the world at large.
Far from thinking that the colonization of the human mind by language renders it superior to other forms of intelligence (the unconscious, let’s say, or animal consciousness), I want to suggest that consciousness (qua consciousness) is thoroughly corrupted by language.
II. In Permanence and Change, Kenneth Burke artfully engages the concepts of “trained incapacity” and “occupational psychosis” (citing Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey). The assumption underlying both of these concepts is that specialization creates a blindness to realities outside of one’s narrowed field of vision. This could be said of the language professor and even the language user in general.
Reflecting further on the ubiquity of language in thought I have come to believe, as has been suggested by rhetoricians and philosophers throughout the ages, that language itself is a trained incapacity or occupational psychosis of our species. It is precisely because we are corrupted by language as a linear thought process that we generally fail to employ those other great tools of communication and art—imagination, intuition, emotion—to better understand our place in the world. Thus we also fail to fully grasp our responsibilities to other people, other living things, and the various ecological systems that we inhabit and that inhabit us.
III. In Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (2011), Richard Doyle develops a number of audacious theses. Among them is an argument that ecoldelics (natural hallucinogenic drugs) are a means by which plant life induces altered states of consciousness in human life, so that humans may become aware of their profound connectedness to all creation. Doyle briefly describes his participation in a sacred, ayahuasca ceremony that induces powerful hallucinations, and profoundly alters his physical and psychological composition. (See: ayahasca) The bulk of the book, however, is a master argument incorporating extensive research in rhetoric, ecology, politics, evolution, genetics, ecodelics, and metaphysics (See Darwin’s Pharmacy).
With respect to rhetoric, Doyle argues that ecodelics induce eloquence, and have throughout the ages. However they also evoke experiences that are beyond representation. Again and again, he asserts that an ecodelic trip cannot really be narrated. He also argues that it is the quieting of conventional, linear thought and ego defenses that enables direct “Gaian” knowledge. He frequently refers to his sitting (mediation) practice and his experiences in a sensory deprivation tank, both of which allow him to focus away from the quotidian thoughts (and language, I might suggest) that maintain a strictly coherent (read “embattled”) sense of self, and impede alternative ways of knowing.
IV. Circling back to Burke, I suggest that ecodelic research supports the hypothesis that language is a trained incapacity. Only by somehow getting around the barrier of every-day language, can profound knowledge of complex systems be admitted to consciousness. And when this happens, the experience is (predictably) beyond words.
Are we then, for the most part, trapped in a cul de sac of thought as language? Is there nothing to be done . . . but ecodelics? Or should we just meditate more often, or perfect our shivasanas? I don’t mean to mock meditation or yoga practices. Both are supported by scientific and humanities research as means of stress-reduction and consciousness-raising. However, since I am invoking Doyle as rhetorician here, I turn to his own stunning performance for a prescription.
Doyle/Ayahausca speaks most powerfully not in the theoretical mode, nor through scientific jargon, but through music. Like all shamanic hybrids, D&A communicates through rhythm. While some readers may be frustrated by the theoretical density of Darwin’s Pharmacy, the open and devoted will be hypnotized by its poetic prose, and richly rewarded for their attention. Doyle’s initial ayahasca experience was programmed through shamanic drumming and melodic chanting (relics from a common cultural past). Thus, ayahuasca re-turned Doyle to rhetoric as poetry, music, and performance. And thus art and ritual—incorporating imagination, intuition, and emotion—may help cultivate, or rather return us to, environmental consciousness by luring us beyond our usual, linear patterns of thought and speech.
Painting: “Sky Spirits” by Pablo Amaringo
For more information about this artist see here.