March 28th, 2007

Words Before Things

Many of the problems that confront the study of culture -- or, to speak more narrowly, the discipline of cultural studies -- can be solved by retrieving the mental note that falls onto the floor when the wind we generate in walking towards particular works pries it loose from the spot to which we had carelessly affixed it. Edges torn, the trace of a footprint covering the text, it reads, "In the end, we begin with words." The struggle to define what a work is or isn't is fueled by a fantasy of being in which we forget that to be is inevitably "to be."

William James presents a puzzle. There's a squirrel in a tree. Trying to get a look, a man circles below. But no matter how fast he moves in one direction, the squirrel moves faster in the other, denying him what he seeks. "The resultant metaphysical problem now is this: Does the man go around the squirrel or not? He goes around the tree, sure enough, and the squirrel is on the tree; but does he go round the squirrel?" Some say, "Yes;" others, "No." The answer to this seemingly intractable dispute, James goes on to argue, "depends on what you practically mean by going around the squirrel." Words will never fall away to reveal a truth that transcends them.

We find ourselves in the midst of the same dilemma. You argue that "punk" is x. I argue that "punk" is y. We exhaust ourselves trying to come up with examples to prove our points. But the only truth of the matter is that "punk," like "truth" and "matter," was a word before we convinced ourselves it is a thing. And, yes, even "word" is a word, so there really is no way out. To study culture without studying the way we apprehend it through language, is to circle James's tree in search of that squirrel we can never hope to see without obstruction.