Nouns and verbs

As Elaine Scarry observes, pain starts against.  But pain moves as not! … intensely, in all directions—space, time, and mood.  Not! modifies changing and moving.  Not! says how we move and how we feel about changing and moving.  Not! expresses how we imagine and realize against.  We call not! an adverb, not a noun. We call not! an exclamation, not a noun  …  when we think we have to name or categorize not! instead of doing not!

Saying this does not mean a dichotomy between nouns and verbs.  We tend to forget or ignore the fact that we are acting and acting with, for, and on others when we use nouns, just as much as when we behave in the ways to which they refer.  In the words of Kenneth Burke, both nouns and verbs are “symbolic acts,” which “do not merely reflect the world but do something in it and to it.”  Perhaps not by “direct force” perhaps through symbols, but we are doing, we are acting without as well as within (another dualism to explore) when we use nouns and verbs.  Frederick Jameson points out that a symbolic act is both “a way to act on the world” and a substitute for such action.

There is something to be said for Hans Selye’s contention that scientists need to name what they’re studying in order to study it.  “You can discuss a rose by any name because everybody knows exactly what is meant by a rose, but you cannot discuss, and far less define, a new scientific concept, such as an atom or a molecule, without first identifying it in some way by a name.” The first point in favor of Selye is that he is not talking about names as static entities, but the activity of naming as an aspect of his scientific work.  He was “speaking about the naming of stress before [he] was able to define the concept of stress in precise scientific language.  That unfortunately is the order in which events actually develop in science.” (Selye 46-47)

The psychologist Piaget argues that to know does not mean to copy an object, but to act upon it. The acting involved in knowing involves, for Piaget, transforming (changing) inside our head to become more and more isomorphic with the actions outside our head.  What we call abstraction and logic arise more from our activities (operations) than from the objects of our activities.  But beware of that noun “objects” and the distinction between inside and outside our head!

We question nouns and pay attention when we use them.  Paying attention means following what emerges if we look at and question what we are doing whenever we make implicit claims such as that there is this thing.

Watch the “what” in the phrase “what emerges.”  This is a methodological stance, not ontological or epistemological.  And the method is just that: watch, watch out, attend as you speak, write, think.  I’m not going to attempt to take that watching to develop some new terminology that gets rid of nouns.  I couldn’t talk with anyone if I did.   Astronomers still says that the sun sets and the moon rises.  As B.F. Skinner argues, “it would be ridiculous to insist” that they fully describe the rotation of the earth in each instance.  “All we ask is that [they] can give a more precise translation if one is needed.”

Buddhists say that there are three “marks of existence”:  no-self (anattā), impermanence (anicca), and suffering (dukkha).  Too often, however, these insights are not used as methods of questioning, learning, and living, but as nouns telling us what is.  When used as such, these three signs or characteristics of something called “existence” are subject to the yellow flag telling us to look into what we’re doing when we say them.  The Prajnaparamita school of Buddhism calls this process of looking into what we’re really doing the process of emptying. They’re close, but they still emphasize the noun “emptiness.” Emptiness itself must be “emptied” into the changing, moving, doing we do when we “empty.”  When we look at what we are doing when we talk about existing and again when we reflect on our looking, we do not seek, much less arrive at, some fundamental ground for knowledge, reality, or being.  We are just continuously changing, moving, doing as we change, move, and do.  Let’s see what emerges if we don’t interfere with changing, moving, and doing.  Wherever we emerge I anticipate it won’t be with a “what.”

Nor will we emerge where it all begins or ends.  It’s been said that philosophers, particularly metaphysicians, are looking for the starting point, the point where it all begins, which for many becomes the end towards which we are all heading. When I talk about paying attention to what we are doing, I am not looking for some activity (much less thing) that is prior to—logically, chronologically, ontologically—to what we are doing, not searching for some activity before, behind or under what we are doing.  I am with Olendzki until he leaps “beyond and behind” to posit “a vast and unnamable process.”

“All nouns are arbitrary constructions. A person, place or thing is just an idea invented to freeze the fluid flow of the world into objects that can be labeled and manipulated by adroit but shallow modes of mind. Beyond and behind these snapshots we take for ourselves is a vast and unnamable process.”

There may or may not be a starting point.  Many others have and have had an itch to find the starting point, the source for everything (life, love, all our problems, the earth, the universe), some “vast and unnamable process” under, behind, and especially beyond.  I am not trying to scratch that itch here.  I’m not even trying to find out why Laura suffered and died, why Anne Mei and I love her, why we carry on without her.  I’m just looking at how this happened and how it continues and writing as best I can so that you can see what we are doing and have done, too.

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