Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Pandemonium of Word Demons

The common sense model of what happens when we speak is perhaps something like this: an intention  (e.g. to say something encouraging) is cut and shaped by a ‘formulator’ into appropriate words which are then given the nod (by a kind of adjudicator) to be spoken out loud. A univocal intention passes into an equally univocal statement (“Hi, there! Your were great, I really loved the play”)
In Daniel Dennet's Consciousness Explained, by contrast, we find* a 'Pandemonium' model of language, whereby:  “Words and phrases from the lexicon, together with their sounds, meanings and associations, jostle with grammatical constructions in a pandemonium, all trying to be part of the message.” There is something like a pre-personal circuit of word-forms - or "word demons" - and thoughts, a congerie of different phrases which are also the bearers of different kinds of intention:

-to shock
-to conform
- to ‘say the right thing’
-to say something witty
-to upset the apple cart
-to say something that sounds good
-to repeat a favourite word or phrase

The word-demons are, as it were, free-floating intentions. They intend only their own vocalisation. Each word or formulation is a demon urging that it be uttered. What determines which word-demon gets spoken is perhaps only a force of desire. That is, each demon is also a desire and whichever is the strongest desire (in this pandemonium) makes it to vocalisation. Sometimes, as in the ‘Freudian slip’, one word demon will usurp the other - ‘flatten’ for ‘flatter’ or whatever. But the usurper is not the privilaged bearer of my 'real' intention.

For the further suggestion is that none of these word-demons are emissaries of our "one true self". And this should partially expunge any guilt we feel when the urge to insult importunes us as we speak to a friend or relative. Perhaps it's just a particularly choice formulation, pleased with its own eloquence, and aggressively pressing its case to be said. It is not the ‘real’ desire of our ‘real self’. In this tumult of possibles, importunings, this zone of creative volatility, there is perhaps no executive authority that stays in one Olympian place (or lays down at night when the word-demons of misrule assume soveriegn rights). The prize of vocalisation is more like a sceptre seized by different demons.

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