The Power of Speech and Texts
Before you could talk I used to stare at you a lot and wonder where you lived. In what kind of world? I confess to being somewhat addicted to the Linguistic Turn in Western philosophy—the counterintuitive notion that it is language itself that constitutes the things around us as opposed to words merely being labels we stick on pre-existing things.
Okay. Either a chair is just, um, there—as the thing people sit on—and then, eventually, we learn the word for it: “chair.” Simple enough. OR… it’s the word itself—chair—that gives rise to the thing upon which people sit. Calls it into being, so to speak, so the world we live in is only as large as our vocabulary.
I like modern art and poetry and destructive philosophy that teases the logic of common sense so it’s probably no surprise to you that the latter relationship between language and thinghood appeals to my taste.
Which brings me back to the curiosity that got this essay rolling. In what kind of world were you before you could speak? A sloppy swirly soup of color and form, I imagined, like a trippy Jackson Pollock movie. No wonder you cried all the time, swimming around in such chaotic flux. But sometimes you stared right back into my eyes, seemingly unafraid and perhaps even defiant, which was weird. And then you’d smile all gums as if mocking my world among reified things.
I waited and waited for your first word—that first thing upon which your world would stand and against which everything else would contrast, not being that, being something else until the whole wide world would snap into place. Chairs. Owls. Snowmobiles.
It was cracker. Out of chaos you called forth a cracker, which was actually a Cheerio, but I think you really just meant food, an expansive word that of course embraces crackers, cheerios, and Peking duck. By what monstrous act of mentation do we cull our first signifier in isolation from all others? It’s impossible. It resists explanation. But after your first great leap, you soon distinguished kitty from cracker and, from there, you never shut your flapping yappus. You were one of us. It was amazing.
And as you spoke and continued to speak, naming and constituting a world of things, something equally—perhaps even more—mysterious evolved in conjunction with this eruption of external reality. An inner life. The thing we call you. It grew and grew and grew in rooms of thought and memory and I have never stopped wondering who you are. Did your acquisition of language bring us closer together or cleave us apart? Hard to say. And isn’t that—what is hard to say being hard to say—precisely the problem?
Who are you? Where did you go? What’s on your mind as you gaze out the window?
* * *
You turned 10 a few days ago and got an iPhone. I wasn’t thrilled by the plan but, more important than the fact all your friends have them, your activities and travels around town are beginning to expand and you’re finding yourself in more and more situations where a phone is just practical.
It’s easy to get swept away by the negative critique of “you damn kids today,” your mobile devices, social media, the end of grammar, the death of spelling, and the corrosion of the ability to form deep and meaningful relationships. Narcissists! Sociopaths! Brain Cancer!
But I have to confess that, in spite of the end of the world as we know it, I have been delightfully surprised and charmed by the way you’ve so intuitively embraced and used the text message.
“BOO! I love you daddy :)”
You will probably never know how often I think about you, imagine you, wonder about you, and hope for you. And this device, this supposed blemish on our crumbling civilization, has granted us access into each other’s lives whenever we want from wherever we are.
“Tell me something good,” I type and hit send.
“I made 2 new friends :)”
And then, late, I’m reading in bed and drifting in and out of sleep when my phone beep beeps.
“Im supposed to be asleep, daddy hee hee. I love you goodnight :)”
* * *
Tonight, you’re flying to Washington, DC, and we’ve promised to stay in touch. I’ve assigned you the mission of finding a statue of Abraham Lincoln and sending me a picture. I will sneak attack you with declarations of love and flowers and butterflies and cupcakes. And in this minimal amount of time, exploring these new ways that a father and daughter can appear to one another in language, I can’t help but wonder about the power of the text message. In what way—how—can it utilize and possibly extend those original magic powers of the word to call forth crackers and kitties? The text message spans the distance and closes the gap. Speaks love and so it is. In new ways? In ways that alter the reach and shape of love? Perhaps. Hard to say.
“Fly home soon, Lola Blue. I miss you. You are the cool breeze blowing through the window. xo”
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