The Two Viruses
by Jeff Benjamin email@example.com
March 16, 2020
My friend Theodore once asked me: "Can sound spread disease?" After years of research into sound I still have no clear answer, but considering recent events I would tend towards the affirmative. It is no mistake that we employ meteorological terms to denote freedom of speech, thought and expression, this is the material culture of air, after all: we try to create a “climate” conducive to health, learning, thought. In a gathering or in a classroom, we create a sonic micro-climate. We maintain an attentiveness to competing speech forms, how words coexist or collide. A sensitivity to spoken language is well situated to discern these shifting forms.
I recall this conversation with Theodore because I think we are now, as a species, contending with two viruses: the Coronavirus Covid-19 and a far older, more pernicious virus, namely, language. William S. Burroughs once conjectured that language is a virus that has achieved a symbiotic relationship with its host. This suggestion has kept me pondering for years. This apt metaphor seems so appropriate that it teeters close to being a "dead metaphor," or a truth. It is certainly undeniable that words enter our brains through our ears and cause us to do crazy, weird things without thinking them through first. Burroughs celebrated the cut-up technique for writers to better understand words, by encouraging a “tactile communication” with them, as a way to possibly achieve a form of resistance. Also, the poet Gary Snyder celebrates the 'wildness' of language, thinking of language as a kind of 'uninvited guest,' suggesting a foreignness from the human organism, speculating that it came from “someplace else”. Burroughs also proposed that the cut-up form of linguistic reorganization even has a prophetic capacity, stating: “Perhaps events are pre-written and pre-recorded and when you cut word lines the future leaks out”.
The human tendency towards repetition is certainly one trait that keeps academics in business, but as archaeologist Thomas McGovern has observed, we are also in a unique position to discern the perpetuation of repeated mistakes, and I would assert that this includes linguistic ones. McGovern specifically addresses this repetition of error concerning resource depletion and waste, showing how error occurs when there is a restriction and narrowing of the stream of knowledge. This quite naturally segues into language. Burroughs has stated “There are certain formulas, word-locks, which will lock up a whole civilization for a thousand years”. But there are also well known techniques for freeing up and loosening language from an artistic standpoint. The metaphor of a lock and key is one employed for both viruses and language. Perhaps Burroughs was correct?
I would like to suggest that the work that lies ahead of us is in finding the proper word-keys that can release us from the word-locks that have kept humanity in a feverish viral stupor for the past five thousand years; or as long as humanity has been infected by language. The skies are bluer, the air is cleaner. We now have an unprecedented opportunity for environmental healing. I hope we can find or create the word-keys to release ourselves.
Jeffrey L. Benjamin