The phantom limb of language

What is a pun?

At its most basic, a pun is a way of using the sound of words to make a connection between meanings that don’t exist otherwise. The husband confuses impotent for important. Of course, the major point of the joke is the ridiculous spectacle the man makes of himself because of his mistake. A minor point is the slim connection between his biological impotence and his impotence in language, although you can laugh at the pun without explicitly making that connection.

A childless couple finally decides to get checked out by a doctor. The wife goes and the doc finds nothing wrong with her. After putting up a fuss, the husband goes to a morning appointment. The wife awaits news eagerly. The afternoon wears on, then the evening. Finally, after midnight, the husband shows up. The wife is startled to see he is all pimped out, with a fancy hat with a feather, a three piece suit, spats, and a shiny new Cadillac convertible parked outside.

“Husband, where have you been? I thought you were just going to the doctor?”

“I did go to the doctor. He told me I was impotent.”

“Impotent? Then what’s with the duds and the Cadillac?”

“Well, I figured if I’m going to be impotent, I should look impotent.”

Amputations1Amputee at the keyboard/Keyboard as amputation

Making a meaningful connection only through the sounds of words is arbitrary and to many Americans, with our love of plain speaking, silly or trivial. Puns usual elicit only weak laughter or a groan because of this perception. But puns also reveal an important truth about language: the arbitrary connection between meaning and sound. Impotence and importance have nothing to do with each other. The pun illustrates a deficiency in language, and begs a question: What would a perfect system of communication look like, one that didn’t allow such mistakes? How can we close the inevitable gap between the thing we are trying to express and the expression?

“Three lower-limb amputees who reported phantom sensations referred somatic stimuli delivered to skin regions proximal [not near] to the stump to select points on the phantom limb. Stimuli on the rectum and anus (e.g. during defecation) and on the genital areas (e.g. during sexual intercourse) induced analogous, although less precise, mislocation to the phantom limb. … [T]he mislocalization phenomenon can be considered as a perceptual landmark of new functional connections between the deprived areas and the adjacent ones, thus suggesting a dynamic neural remodelling in the mature nervous system, which was previously considered as a static entity.”

– Salvatore Aglioti, et al., “Phantom lower limb as a perceptual marker of neural plasticity in the mature human brain,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences 255 (22 Mar 1994):273-278

For instance, would such a perfect system of communication rely on sound at all? If it did, then the sounds of things would be perfectly equal with their meanings. The sound for “elephant” would evoke an elephant. It would summon it instantly, be equal to the thing in nature it described. Of course, the sounds of things would be harder to imagine if they signify actions, abstractions, concepts, qualities… What would the word for the color “blue” be? What would the word for the “mood” be? What would the sounds for “mood indigo” be? Music by Duke Ellington?

You see the problem with sound. But what other medium would reduce ambiguity more effectively? Writing is good, especially because our brain is so good at disambiguating errors – but what do these scrawls have to do with realities they’re trying to describe? Well, how about paintings? Good, but silent. Photos? Movies? Getting better, but they are implicitly imitations of reality. That’s why there are so many bad ones. They’re always already fictions. By doing such a good job of imitating reality they make us keenly aware of the distance between flickering noisy images playing on a flat screen in a darkened space and blinking in the light outside the theatre. They also make us aware of the mode of production, the medium as message, both in what it makes possible and how it constrains expression.

And so on through all our increasingly evolving media. Virtual reality. Computer-mediated brain-to-brain communication. As we get better, the difference between reality and mediated reality grows smaller, but the gap remains. So again, what would a perfect system of communication be like? As we grow closer, it becomes clearer that the arc of the evolutions of our media is towards more instantaneous, faithful, fully-sensational modes of getting my experience of reality into your mind.

It would be telepathy: pure mind-to-mind communication without any mediation. Magic intersubjecivity. Perfect intimacy. And the arc of that evolution is traced on our understanding of how the mind works – perception, cognition, expression, …. – which in turn depends on our understanding of neurology.

And insofar as we never really get there, will get there, our communications are always working with an amputated limb, we are always feeling the phantom sensation that something is there, something ought to be there that isn’t. Talking, writing, using the keyboard use an amputated limb: they extend what we can do and truncate what we can do and make us aware of that phantom something that’s missing, all at once.

How is the nerve like a pun?

Because so much is riding on it, not least our understanding of the mind, let-alone multi-trillion dollar communications technology, the nerve is a hot commodity.

The nerve, like the pun, like the gene and like the quark, is a dramatic concept on which we write whole sets of assumptions, philosophies, and hopes. Depending on what our investigations of them reveal as science progresses, they will prove or disprove assumptions we make about nature and about human nature. For instance, depending on what we learn about the nerve, we will understand the connection between mind and body and thus help resolve debates like Nature vs. Nurture or Mechanism vs Vitalism, all of which, as Norbert Wiener said, “should be banished to the limbo of badly posed questions.”

So if we look at the nerve in terms of the narratives we tell about it, we uncover stories about ourselves and our ideas of what it means to be human as much as about that biological thingy in our bodies.

In my view, the nerve and the gap between nerves, is a violent synaptic space where strong cultural forces froth for control over human destiny, where multibilion dollar industries have gambled that the nerve really is like a binary gate, and that the brain is really like a computer, and where whole academic disciplines are founded on that metaphysical assumption. In fact, the cultural forces arrayed on the side of this simple metaphor, this metaphysical article of faith in an equation that cannot be true – these forces are so strong that perhaps the nerve itself has been effaced and no longer makes a differance; perhaps the nerve has disappeared in itself so that we can hardly know what it is through conventional means of inspection, any more than we can know the status of a subatomic particle in midflight or how an individual gene knows how to express itself as skin or lip or eye . Not surprisingly, the current revolution in the scientific paradigm of The Nerve from simple I/O switch to something more, well, rhizomatic, something more autopoetic and just plain poetic. The mistake we make when they think about the nerve as mechanism is that we confuse the material circumstances of the nerve with its blueprintability or stipulability. Just because you can determine the material nature of a phenomenon doesn’t mean you can explain it. This is analogous to the printer’s dilemma: the printer may know everything about paper and ink and printing and binding, the weight and measure of a book he’s typesetting, but he may be utterly unable to say anything sensible about the plot of the novel contained by that book. They reside at different levels of description.

I propose a different metaphor for the nerve. This metaphor is meant as less than a model but more than an analogy, for reasons that I hope will emerge. Since the early days of nerve investigation in the middle of this century, the nerve was compared to a telephone wire or a cable. Even during my undergraduate days at MIT, Jerry Lettvin assigned us a book on the nerve (1969) that blithely posited the following model:

The myelinated segments of our nerve fibers are the nearest biological approach to submarine cables (on a miniature scale) in which electric signals are conducted along the cylindrical axon core, which is separated from the conducting tissue fluid by a concentric insulating sheath.

Like any strong metaphor, this comparison seems to be intended as an innocent analogy or loose model; yet, it has lurking in it a strong persuasive element, an ideology, a metaphysics, even: The nerve is a machine. What happens among nerves does not have miraculous or divine origins.

Like any inexact comparison, it foregrounds certain features and purposely suppresses others. It gives rise to all sorts of related or parallel interpretations that are implied or as linguistic philosophers say “given-with” the metaphor, and these given-withs are persuasive. That is, they are not so much proofs or evidence as they are attempts to convince us to believe something which hasn’t yet been proven. For instance, note that the value of the comparison is inverted: it talks about nature in her construction of the nerve approaching the ideal of a submarine cable instead of vice versa. It elides or ignores evidence to the contrary, excluding bits of information that clash with the orderliness of its metaphorical prettiness. And finally, it can mean more than it says, pushing a view of the nerve that embraces its structure, its function, and its knowability without actually having to be held accountable. After all, it’s only a metaphor, its proponents will say. For instance, this metaphor emphasizes the mechanicalness of the nerve. [It’s like a cable.] Secondly, it emphasizes or illuminates its function [It conducts positive information or signals in the form of electrical impulses]. Finally, it emphasizes the graspability of knowledge about the nerve [We may not know exactly what the glia, Schwann cells, or nodes of Ranvier do, and we may not fully understand the action of the signal across the synapse, but look here, it’s just a matter. How complex can a cable be?] However, especially in terms of account for neural activity in the brain, this metaphor is woefully inadequate. Recent research on the nerve reveals aspects for which the mechanical model cannot seem to account. Each of these aspects tacitly critiques, in turn the current, impoverished models of artificial intelligence. As one of my friends quipped, AI people may be building nerves, but they are the nerves of a potato not a brain.

Compare the excerpt from the Katz book (above) to a version of the same metaphor offered by John LeCarré, the popular author of spy novels. Here, the son of the “perfect spy” is trying to recapture the precise feeling of confusion, multiplicity, richness, inspiration and fear that flooded his brain while trying to conduct a religious service at his school and, at the same time, sort out his feeling of being abandoned.

Tom considered a number of other matters that turned out to be weighing on his mind, some of which were new to him until this moment. He had no expectation any more that his mind would be ruled by what was going on around it, even in work. In Friday’s gym class he had found himself thinking out a problem in Latin grammar. In yesterday’s Latin he had worried about his mother’s drinking. And in the middle of French construe he had discovered that he was no longer in love with Becky Lederer, despite their ardent correspondence, but preferred instead one of the Bursar’s daughters. Under the pressures of high office his mind had become a slice of undersea cable like the one in the science lab. First there was this bunch of wires, all carrying their proper messages and doing their appointed jobs; then swimming around them like a shoal of invisible dolphins, ran a whole lot more messages which for some reason did not need wires at all. And that was how his mind felt now, while he honked out the sacred words in his deepest possible voice only to hear them tinkling like cracked bells in a distant room.

 – John LeCarré, A Perfect Spy (1986)

This passage is very fine, for it takes the metaphor of the submerged cable and continues to ruminate over it as a good metaphor invite us to do. The nerve doesn’t just carry messages, but it is immersed in a sea of messages, some of which appear mysteriously and don’t need wires to carry them, nor bodies at all. They arise from the fluid context of the nerve, the frothing of the synaptic bath, let’s call it, and thus mirror the fluid context the boy himself is immersed in, call it the human condition. Knowledge and experience don’t cut neatly into disciplinary boxes, any more than we can make the mind think only about Latin during the time set aside for that subject. Rather, next to the neat, mechanical divisions or models of the nerve, knowledge and experience we need also have a somewhat more fluid and uncalculated sense of how “messages” are communicated through the brain, and how the brain interacts with its owner’s situation.

The two versions don’t exclude each other; they rather complement each other nicely, as in this parable about Tom’s mind. In fact, neurophysiologists are discovering that the nerve is just as much like a shoal of invisible fish as it is a bundle of task-specific wires. Here are some aspects of neural action, specifically action of Purkinje nerurons in the cortex. Each of these points serve to critique the current, impoverished models of artificial intelligence. As one of my friends quipped, AI people may be building nerves, but they are the nerves of a potato not a brain.

  • Neurons act directly; i.e., as neurotransmitters; but they also act at a distance; i.,e. as neuromodulators that emit or seep various chemicals which change the ecology or environment in which they and their partners operate. They “innovate large areas non-specifically and non-trivially.” That is, they can affect the responsivity of hundreds of neurons, hundreds of neurons away, very rapidly. ¥ The connectivity of Neurons change within five minutes of learning a task. They alter their own structure at the molecular level. ¥ Neurons create their own pathways with use but they also wither with neglect. (Use it or lose it: the principle of neuroplasticity)
  • Neurons can have use for more than one neurotransmitter, and they can change the neurotransmitters they use by a process not completely understood. In other words, in a sense they signal the environment about what they need or can respond to. This process is discontinuous: the nerve stops using one when it starts using another neurotransmitter. ¥ We don’t know how neurons hold signals. Do signals arc pre-synaptically, post-synaptically, or w/in the neuron itself? What then is the significance of the switch from one neurotransmitter to another ?
  • APKARIAN’S SECOND LAW: Neurons abhor a vacuum. They fill space indiscriminately, randomly. If a part of the brain is excised, neurons will move and grow to fill that space, but not because of any physical or chemical pressure that we can determine (in other words, it’s not because their mitochondrial factories increase energy and protein production, or because they are pushed by chloride ions seeking to fill quantum numbers with sodium ions.) ¥ The distinction between soma-axon-dendrite is fluid. An axon, under certain pressures, can act as a dendrite, and vice versa.
  • Axon branches can act as “demultiplexers” or filters of a signal directly. They filter signals proportionate to their physical thickness. So that their impedence matches their thickness matches the frequency of the signals they filter.
  • 90% of neuronal action is inhibitory, not excitatory. If you want a light to shine in a certain pattern, it is easier to build a bright light that shines indiscriminately and place a cut-out template (silhouette) in front of it than it is to build a light that will shine in that pattern. Also, the brain would overload from sensory input if the nerve was primarily an excitatory not inhibitory instrument.

In short, the nerve ain’t an underwater telephone cable. Certainly, as Chilean neurophysiologist Humberto Maturana poetically described it decades ago, it’s autopoetic; Certainly, it’s ecological in the sense that an effect here has consequences there that in turn impinge upon the origin. Certainly, it’s self-contextualizing, in the sense that it fills spaces, builds its own connections, becomes more labile with use, and registers recursive effects. And it seems likely, as Karl Pribram suggests about the brain, it’s a hologram; And certainly, it transcends questions of mechanism and vitalism, as Wiener suggested when he prayed that “Cybernetics banishes the mechanism-vitalism duality to the limbo of badly-posed questions. If the nerve ain’t a mechanism, what is it?

Karl Pribran in his classic paper on “The Role of Analogy in Transcending Limits in the Brain Sciences,” shows how the evolution in sophistication of analogies for brain activity from telephone to servo or thermostat to computer aided the growth of brain science and urged a growing sophistication in our view of the brain itself. Pribram himself then forwards an even more complex and sophisticated analogy for the brain in the hologram. He makes his argument even more convincing by calling cognition ‘holonomic’ – implying that the brain’s work is more aptly compared to moving holographic images (strips of holograms) than to a single static hologram. This argument is extremely convincing, even when it moves into a consideration of some mystical speculations about the relationship between consciousness and the fabric of the universe. But if we exert some postmodern tactics on the field we can’t help but note that even the holonomic metaphor for the brain compares it to a technological or mechanical artifact, thus not really breaking the frame or plane in which the set {cable, telephone, thermostat, computer, hologram}exist together. So in typical postmodern fashion, I’d like to break the technological plane or frame within which all these analogies, including the holonomic one, reside by resorting to a self-reflexive image. I would like to suggest that the best metaphor we have for the nerve is one that would include or subsume all its mechanistic aspects or behaviors but preserve a sense of contingency and self-modulation that we are beginning to suspect is true of human communication at all levels, from the micro- to macro-scopic. Therefore, I suggest that a better model for the action of a nerve is found in the pun.

On the epistemological potency of punning

When two words share a prefix, or any other etymological root, they trace an embedded history, a secret history, in which talmudists, poets, punners, kabbalists, postmodernist authors like John Barth and philosophers like Derrida have very strong belief. This belief is that words preserve a faith-full grammatology, a summoning to faith of some true trace of meaning that is lost in casual speech – or even witty, intimate punning dialogue (“two-tonguing”). Reading makes readers superstitious beings, as Derrida says, in the sense that we “stand after and bear witness.” This true, superstitious trace, or trace of the truth, can only be carefully identified when the words are written down, and can only be faithfully resurrected when the etymology is conjured up in writing. Like reading – that is, really reading, with a sure slow hand (or eye) – a good Rich poem, which in turn must have been slow to write. Such etymologies if performed rigorously as well as playfully form a science that gives us a map not of nature directly but of how knowledge is formed, a map of lines preserved in language as words grow, take on new applications through metaphor, branch out to embrace new meanings and discoveries, and form entangled root structures – like a system of shinging paths, neurons – that are beyond rational reduction or inspection. As an example, think (read) on the simple pun in Adrienne Rich’s luscious poem “Origins and History of Consciousness”

We did this. Conceived
of each other, conceived each other in a darkness
which I remember as drenched in light.

The pun on “conceived” derives from its two meanings: both to “think of, imagine” and “to become fertile with.” It takes no great etymology to discover how the two words are connected. Both share a meaning “to become pregnant with [thought, child].” But when one discovers – through etymological tracing – that the pun is 2000 years old, at least in Latin, and that the Greeks made the same conflation before them, then one opens up a vista of our Western romance with the mental, with the mind, as a place set apart yet prepared for penetration and fertilization, like a womb. One also then begins to wonder at the implied action of fertilizing. Who or what does the fertilizing in the mental womb? For the Greeks, Latins, and for most of the Western world, it is Spirit, Genius, or the Ideal, aspects of the same larger conception of some metaphysical Other, even if the Other is within us. Furthermore, the implication of engendered action is clear: these metaphysical other Agents are male. The mind, penetrated by them, is female, although the action is undeniably mutual.

One etymological reading of the word “conceive” is “To hold with and keep” (con-cept = con-kept, concept and conceive being etymologically identical). So … since the history of Western ideas of “thinking” began, the origin of consciousness has had something to do with the interpenetration of the metaphysical Other (the “vous” or “tu” form, the Thou with a capital T) and the intimate womb of the self-mind. This deeply embedded idea is there, waiting for us, in almost every *conceptio* we have about ideas, thinking, imagining. As we resurrect it, it exposes our nostalgia for a perfect communion between the greater Mind, the noosphere, and our intimate selfmind, of which all relationships with the longed-for “other” become shadows, traces, echoes, enactments. Intimacy itself and all its fertile consequences is defined and measured, – is figured – in Rich’s poem and I daresay in most of our images, as a form of telepathy. “a rope over the unsearched” a kind of rope dance, to which dreams (in Rich’s poetic view and again, I daresay, in most of ours) give us momentary access, and from which we “lower ourelves” into wakefulness, consciousness, and trusting intimacy. Now one or two more turns and I’m done. Armed with this etymology, we have been reading and can continue to read, really read, Rich’s poem. For instance, the last stanza is (perhaps? obviously?) an allusion to the Platonic cave, where thought conceives ideas that are but mere shadows of the Ideal Real, playing on the back wall of the cave. But we can also begin to forge out of this pun a critique of the Western concept of consciousness, uncovering the nostalgia for, and therefore the metaphysical assumptions we have about, some Original Place or State where the mind was at rest, unsplit, unspilt, at One with Itself, both divine and alive in the world, in dream and wakefulness. That’s a pretty good ride out of one little etymology, one pun. Makes one wonder if there isn’t some power to this alternate method after all.

Applied punology: the punning nerve

Adopting the madness, the dysfunction of punning, which always shows us the apraxia in the practice of language, as the root of a metaphysical episteme leads us then to reflect not only on the impoverishment of traditional metaphors for the nerve – switch, wire, cable, servomechanism, transistor, hologram – but to be hungry to apply this new perspective, to take it our for a spin around the neurological block. So in the time remaining, let’s see if we can get a little joyride out of this poetic punning, this PP approach to the nerve. In an article entitled “Phantom lower limb phenomenon as a perceptual marker of neural plasticity in the mature human brain: authors Salvatore Aglioti, Andrea Bonazzi and Feliciana Cortese of the University of Verona, report their findings from patients who …well let me read the abstract:

“Three lower-limb amputees who reported phantom sensations referred somatic stimuli delivered to skin regions proximal to the stump to select points on the phantom limb. Stimuli on the rectum and anus (e.g. during defecation) and on the genital areas (e.g. during sexual intercourse) induced analogous, although less precise, mislocation to the phantom limb. Although the representation of the stump in the somatosensory pathway is lateral to that of the amputated lower limb, both anus and genitals are mapped medially to the areas formerly subserving the amputated lower limb. Therefore the mislocalization phenomenon can be considered as a perceptual landmark of new functional connections between the deprived areas and the adjacent ones, thus suggesting a dynamic neural remodelling in the mature nervous system, which was previously considered as a static entity.” (Aglioti, 273)

Recount experiments: “deep pressure was the most effective stimulus in eliciting phantom sensations.” Then

“She reported that both defecation and sexual intercourse elicited a tiny, painless ‘electric current’ sliding from the stump to the phantom, which ran on the lateral surface of the leg…” [275] “It is important to stress that Patient 2, like Patient 1, spontaneously reported what he judged to be a mysterious and amazing phenomenon. Both defecation and sexual intercourse evoked clear sensations on the phantom foot…” [275-6]

In other words, the nervous system creates a virtual reality out of its preorganized map of a body that is no longer all there. It projects – out of what Gilles Deleuzes called “the body without organs the missing organs of “a body with missing organs”. If VR, as one of my waggish students defined it, a technology for fooling the brain into thinking it’s riding a body somewhere where it isn’t, then contained within the secret of neural plasticity is the technology of the brain fooling itself. The trouble is, this isn’t a technology at all. It is what the brain does best in its default, and dare I say “it’s most natural” state: the phantom limb experience is not only not the most haunting and bizarre of summary neural activities, it is the most commonplace, ordinary and pedestrian. Barth and his buddies postmodern authors of the sixties and seventies made puns the foundation of  funny but intent critiques of our culture and our engagement with machinery and cybernetics. Puns are foundational and accepted practices of Talmudical explication and discourse. Derrida shows how this madness is a sub-version, the postulation of an alternative episteme that percolates along as a sub-cross-current of Western culture. One of the ironies of this postmodern moment is that Western culture has brought itself to a pass, a deep epistemological oxymoron, through the operations of its most embedded and dearly-held metaphysical exercises – exercises of reason, and rationality called the sciences and mathematics – where it finds itself bumping against the limits of those exercises, the self-contradictions in the belief that pure rationality can really describe the universe. Faced with the Incompleteness Theorem (which makes mathematics seem like nothing more than a grand tautological field of word play), faced with the paronomasic behavior of sub-atomic particles, faced with numerous other breaches in sciences like genetics, cosmology, and artificial intelligence, we can wonder in this historical moment whether or not the talmudists, the punners, the mad aphasic paronomaniacs, the postmodern players, and all the poets may not have been getting us closer to the truth all along.

NOTES: See also Giovanni Berlucchi and Salvatore Aglioti, “The body in the brain: neural bases of corporeal awareness,” Trends in Neuroscience Vol 20, n. 12: 560–564, (1 December 1997).



Night-life. Letters, journals, bourbon
sloshed in the glass. Poems crucified on the wall,
dissected, their bird-wings severed
like trophies. No one lives in this room
without living through some kind of crisis.

No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true natures of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.

Thinking of lovers, their blind faith, their
experienced crucifixions,
my envy is not simple. I have dreamed of going to bed
as walking into water ringed by a snowy wood
white as cold sheets thinking, I'll freeze in there.
My bare feet are numbed already by the snow
but the water
is mild, I sink and float
like a warm amphibious animal
that has broken the net, has run
through fields of snow leaving no print;
this water rushes off the scent-
You are clear now
of the hunter, the trapper
the wardens of the mind-

yet the warm animal dreams on
of another animal
swimming under the snow-flecked surface of the pool,
and wakes, and sleeps again.

No one sleeps in this room without the dream of a common language.


It was simple to meet you, simple to take your eyes
into mine, saying: these are eyes I have known
from the first....It was simple to touch you
against the hacked background, the grain of what we
had been, the choices, years....It was even simple
to take each other's lives in our hands, as bodies.

What is not simple: to wake from drowning
from where the cean beat inside us like an afterbirth
into this common, acute particularity
these two selves who walked half a lifetime untouching-
to wake to something deceptively simple: a glass
sweated with dew, a ring of the telephone, a scream
of someone beaten up far down the street
causing each of us to listen to her own inward scream

knowing the mind of the mugger and the mugged
as any woman must who stands to survive in this city,
this century, this life...
each of us having loved the flesh in its clenched or loosened beauty
better than trees or music (yet loving those too
as if they were flesh - and they are - but the flesh
of beings unfathomed as yet in our roughly literal life).


It's simple now to wake from sleep with a stranger,
dress, go out, drink coffee,
enter a life again. It isn't simple
to wake from sleep into the neighborhood
of one neither strange nor familiar
whom we have chosen to trust. Trusting, untrusting,
we lowered ourselves into this, let ourselves
downward hand over hand as on a rope that quivered
over the unsearched....We did this. Conceived
of each other, conceived each other in a darkness
which I remember as drenched in light.
                                        I want to call this, life.

But I can't call it life until we start to move
beyond this secret circle of fire
where our bodies are giant shadows flung on a wall
where the night becomes our inner darkness, and sleeps
like a dumb beast, head on her paws, in the corner.

Adrienne Rich, 1972-1974

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