Language: what is it?

Language: what is it? What is this thing we use all the time, that you are reading now, that De Saussure calls a “concrete natural object in the brain”? Is it Burrough’s infamous virus? Possibly. But that’s a way of seeing it that requires a little psychotic torque. Or, is  language (take a deep breath here) an inanimate functional formal system of amodal symbols generated by recursive grammatical transformation rules occurring within a human cognitive architecture[1]? Perhaps. But even though there’s clear explanatory power in linguistic or logical descriptions, structural definitions rarely touch or attempt to explain ambiguous intimate meanings: language’s emotional capacity. Language evades easy reification; all definitions are contingent, no size fits all.

Poetry gets us into even more trouble. Ambiguity occurs when we try to locate it: where is poetry? Is it in the mind? Body? Culture? Language? Meter? Is it a universal feature? Culturally-specific? What does it include? Song? Visual art? Dance? New media? Ads? Websites? Film credits? Off-balance, most sane critics have decided to defend some niche; poets (self-reflexively, effectively and perhaps wisely) invoke poetry itself:

“Poetry’s bones are the bones of dance: not movements and pauses as such, but meaningful units of movement and pause, which is to say images and events.” (Bringhurst: 27) The way Bringhurst sees language transform through rhythm into images and events is crucial to accept as tenable before proceeding toward a theory of visual poetics.

In The Neuroscience of Language: On Brain Circuits of Words and Serial Order, Friedemann Pulvermuller considers “language in the language of neurons” (1), and proposes that “Distributed functionally coupled neuronal assemblies, functional webs, … represent meaningful language units. These distributed but functionally coupled neuronal units are proposed to exhibit different topographies” (50).  To explain meaning, Pulvermuller introduces a metaphor: in the presence of meaningful words, neural webs ignite and reverberate: “Ignition is a brief event, whereas reverberation is a continuous process lasting several seconds or longer” (Pulvermuller: 169). This metaphor of fired ignition and structural reverberation resonates with poetry[2]. Brain becomes fuel for passion again: a musical  instrument, and it is language which is the spark, flame and burning reverberating sound.

With the beat of meter, poems strike neurons into songs, and these songs sing language into being: biochemical topologies, undulating in a wind of transduced signals. Neurology is not incompatible with poetry; the disciplines agree on the transformation of language into topographies, words migrating into the palpable form of affect[3].

[1] See Boden’s  (2006 : 590) Chapter 9 ‘Transforming Linguistics’ on Shannon, Humboldt, Chomsky, Harris, etc. etc. etc….

[2] Ignite resonates in spite of its having been subsumed in behaviorist discourse.

[3] A visual epistemology is difficult to envision because of the ambiguity of images in comparison to numbers (Jim Andrews reminded me of this structural fact in a recent email). But in the digital era, when images are translated into data (formally rigorous mathematical notation), implausible disciplines like this may emerge. By analyzing masses of images in conjunction with responses (from crude meters like time watched, to sophisticated metrics like BMI), the topography of  affect experienced while seeing images will itself become an image of a global aesthetic appetite landscape. Information visualization is the landscape painting of the next century.


Boden, Margaret A. 2006. Mind As Machine: A History of Cognitive Science. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bringhurst, Robert. 2007. Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking. Gaspereau Press.

Pulvermuller, Friedemann. 2002. The Neuroscience of Language: On Brain Circuits of Wordsand Serial Order. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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