Excellent chapter for the RAW book club this week.
A Zen koan of long standing goes as follows: The roshi (Zen teacher) holds up a staff and says, “If you call this a staff, you affirm. If you say it is not a staff, you deny. Beyond affirmation or denial, what is it?”
The chapter describes three situations in which a choice of language puts a risk to someone’s life; one religious, one political, and one seemingly trivial. A customer shooting a waiter for calling their dog a “Fussy Mutt” is put side by side with the implications of to whom we may call Londonderry “Derry”. The implication is that the former is an overreaction, and by association so is giving a city two names.
It stands that the map is not the territory. The meal is not the menu. But, after some healthy debate we weren’t sure we could hold to that conclusion that the map is a triviality and only a distraction.
We are asked to consider the difference between “Choice Cut of Top Sirloin Steak” to “A hunk of meat chopped of a dead castrated bull”. Both may be accurate enough descriptions of your dinner, but you wouldn’t expect the latter on a menu. Yes, they could be used to describe the same object, but they describe entirely different subjects. The fallacy is describing language as purely factual. As RAW posits, we may hallucinate meaning into the words where there is only suggestion. However, different choices of words, and their reality tunnels, do have differences of inclusion, omission and second order effects.
One comment on the nature of a staff reminded me of a description of a a screwdriver being used to open a can of paint. The word “screwdriver” is literal, and declarative; it describes an object and it’s intended use. It’s a story all by itself. And we attach that story to any object of a certain shape and size. Something like that with a bezel and some length can also be used as a lever to open a can of paint.
In that moment it is both a screwdriver and not a screw-driver. It has moved beyond the definition of form and the constraints implicit in the label. Similarly, what is the staff? What is left out with that story?
The tree that this staff came from grew out of the Earth, using the energy of starlight. The wood was cleaved from the tree, fashioned into shape, and brought by the roshi in the moment. It could have many labels given to it over this time. From here, it will eventually be consumed by fire or rot. In time it will return to Earth, and the cycle will begin again. Sure, it’s a “staff”, but what is it?
I also read an Ursula K. Le Guin short story this week that played with related themes. In the culture the story is set, the word magic translates as anything unnatural. In practice, this is applied to the structure of society and the act of persuasion. The story follows an ethnographer and her daughter researching this culture. They see the place with very different world views.
“My dear,” she said in Hainish; there is no way to say “my dear” in my language. She was speaking Hainish with me in the house so that I wouldn’t forget it entirely. “My dear, the explanation of an uncomprehended technology as magic is primitivism. It’s not a criticism, merely a description.”
“But technology isn’t magic,” I said.
“Yes, it is, in their minds; look at the story you just recorded. Before-Time sorcerers who could fly in the air and undersea and underground in magic boxes!”
“In metal boxes,” I corrected.
“In other words, airplanes, tunnels, submarines; a lost technology explained as supernatural.”
“The boxes weren’t magic,” I said. “The people were. They were sorcerers. They used their power to get power over other persons. To live rightly a person has to keep away from magic.”
I love the difference between persons and people described in this story. The narrator states “there are no people here.” Only persons. No crowds, no statistics, nowhere for the abstraction to hide.
Yep, kept playing The Witness. We got the second achievement, which less than 5% of players have.