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Signs of chaos - located in Pasadena

Chuang Tzu's
Chaos Linguistics
by Hakim Bey

This nOde last updated October 15th, 2001 and is permanently morphing...
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Aimless Wandering: Chuang Tzu's Chaos Linguistics

by Hakim Bey

internal linkFringeWare Review 10:12

The bait is the means to get the fish where you want it, catch the fish and you  forget the bait. The snare is the means to get the rabbit where you want it, catch the rabbit and forget the snare. Words are the means to get the idea where you want it, catch on to the idea and you forget about the words.  Where shall I find a man who forgets about words, and have a word with him? --Chuang Tzu

Does internal linkTaoismTao have a "metaphysics"?

…Chuang Tzu not only has no internal linkmetaphysics, he actually condemns and derides metaphysics. internal linkSupernaturalism and materialism both appear equally funny to him. His only cosmogonic principle is "chaos". Oddly enough the only philosophical tool he uses is logic -- although it is the logic of internal linkdream. He makes no mention of divine principle, of the purpose of being, or personal internal linkimmortality. He is beyond Good and Evil, sneers at ethics, and even makes fun of yoga…

Chuang Tzu has no interest in why humans are so inept (no concept of "sin"); his only concern is to reverse the internal linkprocess and "return" to the internal linkflow…

To illustrate this internal linkchaosHail Eris!-ontology we could do worse than investigate Chuang Tzu's take on internal linklanguage.

But first let me define a few terms. I call hermetalinguistics the concept that god revealed language and that there exists such a thing as the conveyance of essence through language. This conveyance can be direct (Hebrew and Arabic are languages "spoken" by god) or emanational, as in Neoplatonic linguistics. It can be "internal linkhermetic" (or occult, as in internal linkKabbala), or even meta-linguistic (as in religious internal linkglossolalia, the "charism of internal linktongues") -- but in either case it saves language from utter relativity and opacity.


Against this traditional theory of language we moderns have developed a nihilistic linguistics in which words convey nothing of essence and in fact do not really communicate anything except language itself. I trace this current to internal linkNietzsche, to Saussure and his nightmarish experience with the Latin anagrams, and eventually to internal linkdada.
Friedrich Nietzsche

A leading exponent of hermetalinguistics today (oddly enough) is Noam Chomsky, who (despite his anarchism) believes that language is somehow internal linkwired in, although he substitutes internal linkDNA for the Platonic internal linkarchetypes! Whom might we pick as a leading exponent of nihilistic linguistics? How about internal linkWilliam Burroughs? (In his honour we might call it  "heavymetalinguistics".) Much as I admire the aesthetics of both schools I can "agree" with neither. I find myself wishing (as a "spiritual anarchist") for some language theory which might "save" language from the charge of mere re-presentationalism and internal linkalienation. However, I want a theory without teleological excrescences -- no "lord" of language, no categorical imperatives, no determinism, no revelation from "outside" or "above", no genetic coding, no absolute essence. I find it in two places, one "ancient" nicely balanced against one "modern" -- Chuang Tzu, and Chaos Theory.


In part our language troubles arise from the absolute quality assigned to the Word in all western hermetalinguistic traditions. Although some western mystics already express distrust of human words, they can never -- on pain of heterodoxy -- question the integrity or finality of god's Word. All western religious thought is based on a sort of sacred nominalism which goes unquestioned till "internal linkheresy" calls it momentarily into debate. "Orthodoxy" crushes the rebellion against the Word in its own ranks, while the war against the Word becomes an underground guerilla campaign carried out primarily within literature, in criticism, and in linguistics -- against "religion".

We might learn something useful for our search by looking at a spiritual tradition with begins with a distrust of words and yet still manages to make language perform in a internal linkmagical way. Taoism supplies us with precisely such a radical tradition. "The Tao which can be spoken is not the Tao," begins Lao Tzu. Why then did he write the book at all? Why not stick to the internal linksilence where all language eventually vanishes, right from the start? One might answer that such a project would amount to precisely the sort of refusal to go with the flow which Taoism most despises. Humans talk, so Taoists talk. This answer might suffice -- but a much more interesting response is given by Chuang Tzu.

"Saying is not blowing breath, saying says something," Chuang Tzu asserts -- but "the only trouble is that what it says is never fixed. Do we really say something? Or have we never said anything?"

Finally this question must remain unanswered, since Chuang Tzu's uncompromising perspectivalism and linguistic relativism make any categorical attempt to distinguish between "It" and "Other" an act of futility. As the translator (A.C. Graham) points out, for Chuang Tzu "all disputation starts from arbitrary acts of naming". Nevertheless, "saying says something" rather than nothing. Language is at once totally "arbitrary" and yet capable of meaning. Otherwise the Taoist would indeed fall silent…

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