Broken Words, In Four Parts

‘The Tower Of Babel,’ Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“He discovers that words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say.” Paul Auster, Ghosts

The dark joke at the heart of the Harry Potter series is the fact that an eleven-year-old boy is more willing and able to name evil than the adults that are sworn to protect him from it. He’s routinely castigated for daring to utter the name “Voldemort,” and the grown-up placeholders for Voldemort are comically murky: He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, You-Know-Who. Even when Voldemort unequivocally returns and kills a Hogwarts student in front of Harry, he is not believed. He is ignored, even silenced by adults (specifically by the politicians—author J.K. Rowling makes a magical world that nonetheless functions much like our own).

The Harry Potter series subtly echoes “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, swindlers dress the emperor in imaginary, unseeable clothes, and his subjects ignore this fact even though they can see the “clothes” are false. Finally, a child speaks up, pointing out to a crowd that the emperor is wearing nothing at all. That’s where I remembered the story ending, illustrating the bravery and intelligence of children. But the original text ends on a sadder note: after being called out, the emperor walks “more proudly than ever” in his invisible clothes.

At the end of the Harry Potter series, Professor Dumbledore reminds Harry that “words are… our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” Spells, after all, are conjured through words, and across the books, misspoken spells have a habit of inflicting harm on the speaker themselves. But broken words—words used to misinform, obscure, or degrade meaning—are still incredibly powerful. Over time, they erode tongues, minds, and hearts. They can fracture societies. The once-sturdy foundation sinks into quicksand, into a routine of recrimination, half-truths, and lies.

It is staggering how normalized this kind of spellbound discourse has become in American life. You feel crazy for seeing so much craziness in everyday communication, and speaking out against so much craziness starts to feel even crazier. You get to a point where you can’t even trust your own words anymore.


“To what extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? To any extent.” Paul Auster, City Of Glass

In his poem “Big Grab,” Tony Hoagland points to the way the meanings of words are subtly eroded over time, not just through common speech but through advertising, commerce, and politics. A corn chip bag intentionally contains a few less chips than before but it’s still called ‘The Big Grab.’ An absurd billboard sells “a beautiful girl / covered with melted cheese.” It feels like such an American poem, until Hoagland zooms out:

Confucius said this would happen:
that language would be hijacked and twisted
by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department
 
and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder
until no one would know how to build a staircase,
or to look at the teeth of a horse,
or when it is best to shut up.

Does Hoagland include himself as a “trickster”? Does making art give artists cover to deny their involvement in this crooked situation? Are advertisers, businessmen, and politicians the ultimate artists, toying with language until it breaks apart? Imagination is not a benign thing.


still from La Antena

“The present is no less dark than the past, and its mystery is equal to anything the future might hold.” Paul Auster, Ghosts

In La Antena, an Argentinian silent film, the voices of an entire city’s people are stolen by a malignant media mogul named Mr. TV. The people can still talk, but their words are spelled out above their heads, like text messages. Mr. TV doesn’t stop at stealing voices. In the final act of the film, he steals the words themselves as the people are lulled into a kind of hypnotized stupor by his television broadcasts. Random words flood the screen, floating into the air like let-go balloons.

La Antena was released in 2007, just before Twitter debuted, but it nonetheless feels like an early glimpse of social media’s cancerous growth on society. Social media advertises itself as giving “voice” to everyone, but it is a new Tower of Babel where context collapses under the weight of so many voices: a cat meme, followed by a police brutality video, followed by a photo of your friend’s delicious brunch, followed by an advertisement, followed by a political half-truth, followed by a link to an Article You Have To Read Right Now, ad infinitum. In this world, so many voices and words are rendered meaningless, which is the same as stealing voices and words.


City Of Glass, Paul Auster’s first story in his New York Trilogy, is nominally a detective novel, but one interested in the mystery of language. His characters are trapped by words and definitions, every dawning truth leading to another room in an endless, onion-like maze. At one point, Peter Stillman, the foil to the writer-turned-detective Daniel Quinn, declares that “unless we can begin to embody the notion of change in the words we use, we will continue to be lost.” He asks, can a broken umbrella still be named an “umbrella,” or does it need a new name to describe it? Stillman, by the way, is also an insane, religious quasi-criminal, hell-bent on tearing down the Tower of Babel that invisibly surrounds all of our speech and spirituality. He later commits suicide, but it’s offscreen, and you’re not sure if you can trust that information.

How do we repair broken words? Is an umbrella still called an umbrella if it lets in the rain? Auster repeatedly points to the Old Testament command to name all the animals and plants in the world; the very act of naming gives them life. It appears that it is up to us to rename the world.

Oblique Gardening

I’m taking a course in permaculture design. Permaculture is a combination of “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture,” coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, but the basic tenets were developed by indigenous societies across millennia. It starts from the assumption that nature knows what it’s doing and encourages the designer to harness that momentum to human needs. Permaculture focuses on understanding environments as systems, not parts, and designing landscapes to closely mimic nature. Instead of even crop rows with one type of vegetable—like the American ideal of a farm—permaculture aims for a wide variety of plants, all interacting with one another horizontally, vertically, and over time.

What draws me to permaculture is its emphasis on making connections, among plants and among disciplines. It can be very narrow or far-reaching, from redesigning a backyard garden to creating cities and societies that are anchored in sustainability. I realize I’ve been looking for this kind of ethos my entire life. Our society is so set on specialization and myopic thinking. Permaculture pulls the blinders off.

I’ve started applying permaculture to music and audio recording. Designing a good permaculture system is very similar to a good audio mix. Every frequency, from bass to treble, sits in a specific auditory niche, and a good mix is balanced among these frequencies. Sometimes when I’m working on my own music, I’ll hear how “it needs something really treble-y.” That treble-y sound doesn’t sound very good on its own, but when it’s combined with the other frequencies, all the sounds work together in a way that’s almost magical, or like a landscape that has exploded to life after a little rain.

The permaculture design principles remind me of Oblique Strategies, a collection of prompts designed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975 to break creative blocks in the recording studio. Here are some of my favorites:

*Honor thy error as a hidden intention
*Use an old idea
*What to increase? What to reduce?
*Are there sections? Consider transitions
*Try faking it!
*Give the game away

Creative work can be incredibly frustrating sometimes, and logical thinking can actually be your worst enemy since it’s grounded in habit and the limits of knowledge. Oblique Strategies encourage lateral thinking and the breaking of habits. A little bit of chaos or randomness goes a long way, and the prompts’ gnomic nature—which you have to decipher for yourself—contributes to their use. They turn a frustrating situation back into a game and get you thinking in a more playful way. They get you back into the dirt like a kid.

And here are some of the more playful permaculture design principles:

*Observe.
*Stack elements in both space and time
*Make the least change for the greatest effect
*Optimize edge

Already, I’m thinking about how to apply these principles to the world of music, and conversely, how to draw on Oblique Strategies in my garden. That’s not what they were intended for, but that “wrongness” feels like a new Oblique Strategy. It creates the perfect amount of friction that can lead to spectacular (or spectacularly weird) results.

One of the books I read recently was Kay Larson’s Buddhism-focused biography of the composer John Cage, Where The Heart Beats. John Cage used the I Ching—basically an ancient version of Oblique Strategies—to write most of his scores (and a lot of his speeches, too). According to Cage, modern music suffered too much from the egos of the composers. There was no life to their creations, just endless logic and rigidity. You could hear their hands around the necks of every note. The I Ching offered randomness and loss of control, which is an incredibly lifelike and natural feature. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, one of Cage’s dearest teachers, counseled him that “the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation.” So that’s what he set out to do, and by doing so, he explored Coomaraswamy’s ethos of interconnection, where “art is religion, religion art, not related but the same.”

“I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases,” Cage said. “Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.” His music sounds like a natural environment: random, surprising, buzzing with the life of independent sounds bouncing off each other. His music is not “pleasing” to many because of this chaos. We’re hardwired to organize, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that need can lead to segmentation, segregation, and destruction for the sake of order. It’s how a manicured, geometric lawn turns into a lifeless, resource-sucking space. How much of the world do we not see because of this innate organization bias? How much of life goes unnoticed?

“Recognize that you don’t know where you stand, and you will begin to watch where you put your feet,” Larson writes. “That’s when a path appears.” In permaculture, this similar humility is greatly encouraged. Watch nature and work with it, don’t try to master it. Accept the randomness it gives you. Be a permanent student. All of this makes me realize how web-like our environments, interests, thoughts, and lives are. Music is nature is creativity is life—not discrete parts, but a whole. Not related, but the same.