Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Tacit and the Explicit

Illustration: Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)

Today I want to talk about language – the “tacit” and the “explicit.”

“Tacit” means “understood without being clearly expressed.” Other synonyms include -- unspoken, implied, unsaid, implicit, indicated, unvoiced. The dictionary says that we use the word in the sense of “implied or indicated, as by an act or by silence, but not actually expressed, as e.g. a ‘tacit consent’ or ‘tacit admission of guilt.’”

Tacit derives from the Latin tacitus, silent; Old High German, dagēn, to be silent. It is odd to think that the “tacit” forms a very large part of what we understand as speech – or at least it seems odd until we begin to realize that speaking (communicating or saying) is primarily gesture or usage. The cognitive act is, so to speak, post-gestural; it comes after the placement of the act in real space. [1]

This is Ortega y Gasset’s argument about the nature of language in his book, Man and People, where he says, “Silence constantly acts on language and is the cause of many of its forms.”

He points out that: “…in proportion as conversation treats of more important, more human, more ‘real’ subjects…its vagueness, clumsiness, and confusion steadily increase…The stupendous reality that is language cannot be understood unless we begin by observing that speech consists above all in silences.”

I was thinking of the word tacit in connection with a blog entry from the writer known as Xymphora. He was writing about the pedophile scandals in the church. It was only after I re-read the piece today that I realized that Xymphora did not actually use the word ‘tacit’ and that I had, as it were, interpolated it. Here is what he wrote yesterday: “It is obvious that the Catholic Church had a deal with World Jewry. The Jews would use their control of the media to help the Church cover up its kiddy diddling. In return the Vatican would completely abdicate its responsibility to look after the interests of Christians in the Holy Land. I don't know why the Jews reneged on the deal. Probably just arrogance, the realization that the Vatican can't do anything now having failed to do anything for so many years… I wonder if we will now see some faint bleatings from Catholic officials about the outrages being committed by Jews against others in Greater Palestine.”

True? How would we go about verifying it? Xymphora is arguing that the Church had a tacit understanding with the owners of the world media. And yet it is this very “tacit understanding” that makes it so difficult to prove wrongdoing, or even to discuss conspiracy theories. Perhaps in this sense conspiracy theories are an unnecessary distraction. Thus Ortega’s point, that a large part of language consists of silences. But what happens when, as Paul Craig Roberts has said in his final piece (linked in a post a few days ago) that there is nothing left but “propaganda”? How do lies and propaganda impact on language and silence, on tacit understandings? What if there came about a society so utterly impregnated with falsehood and lies that a truthful statement would just appear – as e.g., as mushrooms after a rain, and nobody would remark it?

This seems to me to be the category in which to place General Stanley McCrystal’s recent statement concerning the war in Afghanistan: "We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat."

McCrystal’s statement signifies a new stage of history, one described by Baudrillard -- "... [Evil] … has become fluid, liquid, interstitial, viral… It … shows through in all things when they lose their image, their mirror, their reflection, their shadow, when they no longer offer any substance, distance or resistance, when they become both immanent and elusive … So long as Evil was opaque, obscene, oblique, obscure, there was still a transcendence of Evil and it could be held at a distance. It has now become immanent and interstitial….. a phase of definitive dissemination..”[2]

Maybe in losing the "silence," the invisible backing of language, we have lost the good itself, or at least the idea of the good -- that truth matters.


[1] From “The Power of Great Poetry to Shape the Character and Build the Nation: Dante, Humboldt, and Helen Keller,” by Muriel Murak Weissback, Fidelio, Summer, 1996: “Helen Keller wrote a little poem to describe how it was before she had the power of language. She wrote:
It was not night--it was not day,
But vacancy absorbing space,
And fixedness without a place;
There was no stars--no earth--no time--
No check--no change--no good--no crime.”

(Thanks to Lewis Smith for sending me this article.) I find the poem very interesting in its ‘geographic’ sense for language. It is quite possible that Helen Keller was able to read Milton’s Paradise Lost in later life, and captured some of the ‘darkness’ visible’ of Milton’s description of Hell in her poem about pre-linguistic state. Nevertheless, her poem does convey the idea that meaning is first of all a gesture, a sense of bearings - an incarnation, an idea of 'mattering.'

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Stanford, 1994.