Language has its Limits

Recently, I attended a lecture a given by the contemporary artist, Glenn Ligon. A repeated theme in much of Ligon’s work reflects his fascination with words, particularly the breakdown of language. Many of the images he creates utilize disappearing letters. As I am inclined to do, my mind wandered during the discussion between Ligon and the uber-sophisticated and urbane National Gallery curators; I began to extrapolate from Ligon’s artistic exploration of this concept to applications in how we live our daily lives. Effective communication goes so far beyond words, doesn’t it? Sometimes we forget this and return repeatedly to language to make our point despite evidence that our audience is not receptive.

 

Laughing at herself, a friend shared with me a saying which goes something along the lines of, “I’m not arguing; I’m explaining why I am right.” Sound familiar? [Awkward throat clearing sound here.] So, what do you do when your message isn’t getting across? By my bet, you try again. As Einstein famously opined, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get different results. How many times a day do you indulge in this pantomime of insanity? How often are you on the receiving end of somebody else telling you the same thing ad nauseum?

 

As Re-booters, we realize that just trying harder isn’t the ticket to success. We need to be savvy about how we go about making our point. But, cutting ourselves off or reversing course is contrary to the way most of us have been schooled; instead, what we see all around us is husbands and wives, parents and children, advocacy groups, and religious types engaged in a minuet where the steps remain identical but the feet merely stomp harder.

 

So, back to Glenn Ligon and his disappearing letters. When words fail us—and society is largely based on language—we need to be clever about finding a different communication venue. It’s not that a hug and a prayer can make everything better, but it reminds us that there are other ways of approaching an issue, ways which exist completely outside the paradigm of our old go-tos! The more closed we are to considering new methods, the more frustrated we get as our standard approaches don’t succeed. We all can think of examples of relationships where the parties could no longer hear one another anymore because there was so much detritus from previous exchanges that jammed their listening capabilities.

 

Additionally, there remains the always available option of simply not engaging in the discussion. While this may be the choice of last resort because it signals a stalemate, it bears serious consideration on a far more regular basis because not everything requires a response. Not everything is best served by an answer. This has been an enormously difficult lesson for me to learn—and I’m only half way there. Re-booters recognize that language as a persuasive force has its limits. I want you to think about an instance in your life where you engaged in this pantomime of insanity—how did you feel? Frustrated? Angry? Exhausted? Might you have been better served simply not responding to each and every volley served? At the end of the day, did it really even matter that much? Did all the effort you expended alter the outcome? Was it worth it? How much did you enjoy being on the receiving end of such a barrage? Did it truly change your mind or simply wear you out?

 

I chose this topic because it is important to remind yourself that part of being an empowered Re-booter is recognizing the limits of language, the limits of persuasion, or of making sure “they” agree with our point (good luck with that) or whatever it is we tell ourselves. The thing about Ligon and language is this: just because the letters may disappear off our personal page does not mean we don’t exist. You don’t need to prove you count—people tend to forget this, which accounts for much of the excess noise. Language has its limits.

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