Language as apraxia and my granddaughter Siona
“No one sleeps in this room without
the dream of a common language.
– Adrienne Rich, “The Origins and History of Consciousness”
My granddaughter Siona is 23 months old, God bless her. She is very communicative and expressive and highly intelligent (aren’t all granddaughters?). But she doesn’t speak much yet, at least in English. She has a few monosyllables: da, ma, pa, dee, koh, bay, ekk, choo, sniff with nose [flowers], cluck with tongue [horsey]. She has a couple dozen signs that are fairly conventional in baby sign language: rub tummy for hunger, squeeze hand for milk, put fists together for “more,” thump chest for “teddy,” slap sides for “dog”… Until she learned to articulate the word “yes” clearly and firmly this week, she had a funny way of nodding her head, tightening her whole chest and saying “Unnhh!” for affirmation. We all imitated it and laughed. Now she says, “Yes,” with a tiny trace of her former sign, and it’s disappearing fast.
Those of us who spend a lot of time with her know her signs, mostly. And if you look in her eyes, she will hold your gaze and speak volumes. But she is clearly struggling with making herself completely and easily understood. Her struggle causes us all pain. It makes me sad, because Siona gets it: she’s not getting it. Neither are we. Here at the cusp between infancy and girlhood, between signing and speaking, she is re-enacting a universal drama of human communication. If we understand her pain, it shines a light on the whole scene of language, of humanity itself.
To Siona’s frustration and amazement, it has dawned on her in the last few months that telepathy doesn’t exist.
Until recently, she thought it did. Until she waded into the ocean of language, she was a baby. She thought she was in perfect communication with those around her. She expressed what she could and we responded as we would. Now that she has language, though, she realizes the deficiency of signs, spoken or gestured, for getting what’s in her head into ours. She knows now that both she and we, her loved ones, don’t have enough language. She may be beginning to sense we both will never have enough language. It will be this way always, now, forever after, for her and all of us: signs and any other medium will always be deficient for getting what is in our mind into others’ minds. Languaging is crippling.
Until recently, she also thought she understood us perfectly, because she couldn’t understand the concept of not understanding.
Maybe different infants have this moment of recognition come on them earlier or later in their growth, depending on how well they’re cared for. Maybe a baby who is not well attended to knows early that his cries do not get the message across. But even then, that infant will lack the idea of not understanding. Even in a harsh environment, for an infant, everything is a given, everything is taken for granted.
Siona struggles with the tokens we give her. She can see the gap between what she knows, what she expresses, and what we comprehend. “What Siona? You want Deedee to take you in the car? Oh, you want to take Chip for a walk? Outside? You want to go out?” She also is beginning to foresee, and here is the heart-wrenching part, what lies before her. Perfect communication is lost forever. Though she doesn’t know the particulars, she senses she will have to labor to learn how to make all the intimates around her understand what is in her head. She’s going to have to get the words right, the act she is struggling with, or against, right now. Then she will have to accumulate a large number of those words. Then she will have to put the words in a certain order, a grammar. And there will never be enough words to express everything she thinks and feels.
This monumental work, the painful, glorious, tortured fun of the journey in front of her makes me want to cry. It is like watching her getting kicked out of Eden. In fact, it is exactly like getting kicked out of Eden. Siona is now learning she will have to communicate by the sweat of her brow. She will have to claw her way back into making people around her understand in a vague, veiled, and deficient medium, when just a few months ago everything was all-at-once known, obvious, and true. She used to be a telepath speaking in the language of God. Things were their names. Calling them summoned them completely in all their presence and essence. She expressed everything she could, which was everything she felt, without restriction. The universe, and her parents, responded as they would. There was nothing she lacked, because even if there was, she wouldn’t have known it.
Now she has to signify. She has to tune in to the channel, let alone twiddle the right knobs.
The speech therapists to whom Siona has been dragged for lessons have a name for her condition: they call it apraxia. When I first heard the diagnosis I laughed. “Apraxia!” I scoffed. “Do you know what that means? It means ‘can’t do it’ in Greek. It’s a fancy word for ‘pay me a lot of money so I can torture the child.’ ”
But what is language but apraxia? What we talk about when we talk is always what we cannot quite talk about with language, in any medium, which is perfect intimacy, perfect intersubjectivity, perfect mind-to-mind communication. What we always say when we speak or write is, “Why do I need language at all when once I had telepathy?” We are always practicing apraxia. The Tower of Babel is always falling on our heads.
Soon enough, the Tower of Babel will collapse on Siona, too. She will learn, even after conquering English, even after learning that English will always be insufficient when measured against that receding telepathy, that not everyone speaks the hard-won language she’s learned, and that there are hundreds of parallel and mutually incomprehensible tongues out there. She is her own, unique, universe constructed in her private untranslatable tongue.
There’s no rush for that pain, but it’s coming.
As she slowly adds words and connects them syntactically and begins her voyage down through these infinite but constrained channels of spoken language and then written language, she will re-enact the evolution of technologically-mediated telepathies. She will manipulate the media that our civilizations invent to replace pure mind-to-mind communication.
We mark this evolution as progress: talk, cave paintings, writing, printing press, telephone, tweets, IMs, Skype, virtual reality, brain-computer interface … but Siona at this moment is experiencing the loss of getting kicked out of Eden. She is quickly losing her infantile, divine conviction that everyone is telepathic. Yes, she will learn how to play the keyboards of these telepathic technologies we invent, and if she’s really good at it she’ll get into Stanford or MIT or Yale.
And as she climbs the mountain of the ever-more-sophisticated technologies for approximating telepathy – Technologically-Mediated Telepathy – her own experience will mimic the progress of civilization. To put it in a fancy way, her ontogeny of communication recapitulates the phylogeny of civilization’s evolution of media. Siona and all of us, every time we communicate, however eloquently and intimately, also communicate the distance between this lost telepathy and our deficient approximations of it.
I abet this glorious disaster by teaching her spoken words and soon enough the alphabet, but I do so with remorse, for every learned sign affirms the distance from Eden she travels. Every sign affirms that Eden is lost forever. Every signal sent through the technologies we’ve invented to approximate telepathy reminds her of its difference from the real thing.
These are words we don’t say to ourselves or others when we speak: We do not usually say, “I cannot be perfectly clear.” We do not say, “Everything we say has a residue, a deficiency, a distance between what’s in my head truly and how much of it I managed to get into your head.”
We don’t not say, “Better to say nothing at all. Let me just look into your eyes.”
It would intrude on the scene of every communication. It does intrude on the scene of every communication, but we don’t say it. It’s there, silent and tacit in everything we say, the hopelessness of and nostalgia for perfect intimacy.
Talking is hard enough, as Siona knows. Writing, transcription even if only of our own thoughts to ourselves, has other more arduous deficiencies of its own. Translating between languages is just a further complication. All are re-enactments of the aboriginal problem of the lost telepathy. It’s why Derrida insisted that all language is already translation.
We are always enacting Siona’s moment, that moment when we recognize that perfect telepathy, perfect intimacy, is lost.