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Wording-our-way toward altered states.

Three linguistic themes or elements inform this narrative: virtual reality, philosophical Taoism, and altered states of awareness. The initial purpose of this symbolic experience is to enable us to become mindful of symbolic experience through exploring the three themes or linguistic elements of this essay. Ours is an excursion of words and words have their ways -- ways essentially self-referential so that written and spoken discourses speak first of themselves. Consequently, the three linguistic elements (the word "elements" used here to keep us aware of the language space we are momentarily inhabiting) of this narrative reside most fundamentally in the symbols of their expression, where the relationships between them (i.e., the symbols) hold more firmly, if less transparently, than the meanings we ascribe to their referents. In other words, when we use the linguistic elements "virtual reality," "philosophical Taoism," and "altered states of awareness" referentially, we first depict the nature of language and then, perhaps, something about the nature of the referents themselves referred to by the symbols. Thus, to think and to depict what is thought can be largely symbolic experience.


By making apparent the transparency of linguistic expression, we anchor personal experience in the symbolic world and the symbolic world in personal experience. To make apparent the transparency of linguistic expression opens the way for the transformation of personal experience and the possibility of atypical perspectives and altered states of awareness. The process of changing the cognitive chemistry of my language (i.e., symbolic expression in the wildest sense symbolically possible), spins my reflexive self in an ineffable space of semiotic potential that far exceeds the possibilities of conventional discursive practices. tgrffffffffffff fffffffffpoik (Motley, the cat, just stepped on the keyboard.) It does seem to be the case that I can word-my-way to different ways of knowing and transcendent realms of experience and realization.

One way to word-my-way is to encounter the conundrums of linguistic expression and symbolic experience. To acknowledge the centrality of linguisticality and to reside fully in this acknowledgment while simultaneously recognizing the limits of my language, leads me, paradoxically, to other worlds of symbolic space -- metaworlds of meaning and making real. Words and other kinds of texts are ubiquitous mediums for other kinds of worlds that may transcend what seems ordinary and transform me when I encounter them. If the limits of my language are the limits of my world (Wittgenstein, 1961), then this borderland, this luminal and marginal place/space, may be a testing ground for experimenting with symbolic behavior and escaping the bounds of the prosaic. A conventional semantic way in may be an unorthodox way out, an escape through the very limitations that normally restrict me. When I word-my-way, when I call my world into existence by virtue of the symbols and rituals of my calling, I also make possible my liberation from the very domain I have called. I embark on new and personal terrain of pristine, symbolic realization. I enter a riddle that sets me free.

The philosopher Colin McGinn (1994) depicts an instance of this symbolic experience and consequent liberation through the course of his commentary about the mind-body problem -- the "deep metaphysical question about how mind and matter meet" (p.67). McGinn believes this conundrum is outside the capabilities of our thinking, that it is solved by realizing it is not solvable. He writes:

Our modes of concept formation, which operate from a

base in perception and introspection, cannot bridge the

chasm that separates the mind from the brain: They are tied

to the mental and physical terms of the relation, not to the

relation itself. This solves the metaphysical problem in a

way, because now we are under no pressure to think that

the world contains something heavy with intrinsic impossibility:

from the fact that we cannot make sense of something

it does not follow that it makes no sense. We know that

consciousness exists and that it is robustly natural, though we

cannot in principle produce the theory that would make its

nature manifest. There is thus nothing mysterious about the

existence of mystery. (p.67)

McGinn appears to be acknowledging that the linguistic worlds we create are representational and more coherent in "the mental and physical terms" of our representations than in whatever it is we are attempting to (re)present. He asserts that this "perimeter of our conceptual anatomy [makes] itself felt" (p.67) when conundrums such as the mind-body problem get addressed, and consequently denies "the perfectibility of man, epistemologically speaking" (p.69) -- a "cognitive pessimism [that] collides with the kind of indelible optimism characteristic of modern (especially American) culture" (p.69). Furthermore, McGinn suggests that the genetic code may contain "precisely the information about our mental makeup that we cannot acquire by the exercise of our rational faculties, since the genes have to encode the information necessary to organisms with consciousness, free will, and so on" (p.69). And he humorously observes that critics will assail him not only for putting boundaries on human reason, but also for suggesting that "DNA molecules are better philosophers than we are!" (p.69).

To embrace limitation and to offer the possibility of more robust "epistemic systems" is not necessarily defeatist. In fact, McGinn's seemingly bounded position gives him new found optimism and freedom. He has taken a long, cognitive journey and discovered a satisfying place that allows him to both end and continue his trip. McGinn has been able to word-his-way through a particular conundrum and find both rest and inspiration by recognizing the limits of knowledge and consequently turning his attention to ethics, "an area of mere difficulty rather than blank mystery" (p.71). By thinking deeply about the mind-body problem and personally discovering the border of cognition in this regard-a "truth" as it exists for him (Was this Kierkegaard's project?)-McGinn has undergone a transformation and found his way free in the riddle. His gives us this account:

What difference has being a mysterian made to my life?

From an internal point of view, it has released me from the

uncomfortable sensation that philosophical problems have

always stimulated in me -- the feeling that reality is

inherently preposterous, ill-formed, bizarre. Now I believe that

the eeriness of consciousness and allied enigmas is just a

projection of my limited intellect interacting with the

phenomena -- it is not a feature of the phenomena themselves.

I also feel less intellectually embarrassed in the face of

problems than I used to, as if I really ought to be able to do better.

It is not that I have been given the right tools but lack the

necessary skills; rather, nature has given me a toolbox with

other jobs in mind. A happy side benefit is that I feel no

temptation to deny the existence of things that are terminally

puzzling. I can now, for example, see my way clear to

believing in free will again after twenty-five years of denying

its very possibility -- on the ground that neither the random

nor the determined could accommodate it. Free will is,

indeed, I still think, a phenomenon about which we can

form no intelligible theory, but given the idea of cognitive

closure it does not follow that it is unreal. We can be free

without being able to understand the conditions of the

possibility of freedom. (p.71)

We can be free, it seems to follow, through the process of wording-our-way along the limits of our language and the depictions of our experience. We can be free in the many ways we symbol our selves through the linguistic expressions of our apparent awareness during the course of our encounters with others. Consider, for instance, this conversation from Don DeLillo's (1985) White Noise:

"It's going to rain tonight."

"It's raining now," I said.

"The radio said tonight."

I drove him to school on his first day back after a sore

throat and fever

"Look at the windshield," I said. "Is that rain or isn't it?"

"I'm only telling you what they said."

"Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses."

"Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they're right. This has been proved in the laboratory. Don't you know about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems. There's no past, present or future outside our own mind. The so-called laws of motion are a big hoax. Even sound can trick the mind. Just because you don't hear a sound doesn't mean it's not out there. Dogs can hear it. Other animals. And I'm sure there are sounds even dogs can't hear. But they exist in the air, in waves. Maybe they never stop. High, high, high-pitched. Coming from somewhere."

"Is it raining," I said, "or isn't it?"

"I wouldn't want to have to say."

"What if someone held a gun to your head?"

"Who, you?"

"Someone. A man in a trench coat and smoky glasses. He holds a gun to your head and says, 'Is it raining or isn't it? All you have to do is tell the truth and I'll put away my gun and take the next flight out of here."'

"What truth does he want? Does he want the truth of someone traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy? Does he want the truth of someone in orbit around a neutron star? Maybe if these people could see us through a telescope we might look like we were two feet two inches tall and it might be raining yesterday instead of today."

"He's holding a gun to your head. He wants your truth."

"What good is my truth? My truth means nothing. What if this guy with the gun comes from a planet in a whole different solar system? What we call rain he calls soap. What we call apples he calls rain. So what am I supposed to tell him?"

"His name is Frank J. Smalley and he comes from St. Louis."

"He wants to know if it's raining now, at this very minute?"

"Here and now. That's right."

"Is there such a thing as now? Now' comes and goes as

soon as you say it. How can I say it's raining now if yoUr

so-called `now' becomes `thee' as soon as I say it?"

"You said there was no past, present, or future."

"Only in our verbs. That's the only place we find it."


Roland Barthes (1988) gives us an apt description, I think' of what Don DeLillo (1985) seems able to evoke through the nature of this conversation. The words DeLillo chooses and the manner in which he unfolds this exchange not only depict an episode of talk and turn-taking but also illustrate the liberating and transforming nature of language itself, the symbolic realm where the action really takes place. Barthes writes:

Narrative does not show, does not imitate; the passion

which can excite us upon reading a novel is not that of a

"vision" (indeed we "see" nothing), it is that of meaning, i.e., of

a higher order of relation, which also possesses its emotions,

its hopes, its threats, its victories: "what happens" in narrative

is, from the referential (real) point of view, literally,

nothing, what "takes place" is language alone, the adventure

of language, whose coming never ceases to be celebrated.


Barthes "adventure of language" may be an altered state of awareness, a personal experience that removes me from the everyday constructions of time and places my attention in other places. DeLillo's conversation may be a soft kiss and nip to the neck that drops me into marks on a page as though life lived there undisturbed, perennially ready to be viscerally known, and ready to set me free. In the Preface to the American Edition of Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco (1986) recalls that Charles S. Peirce once said, "A sign is something by knowing which we know something more" (p.xi). I close my eyes. I lean back in the chair and think about rain and get wet.

Philosophical Taoism is another way to word-my-way to altered states of awareness. The Tao Te Ching (Trans. Feng & English, 1972) and Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (Trans. Watson, 1964) appear rich with paradox and contradiction. To inhabit these texts is to experience the possibility of a radical change in perspective and the co-occurring shifts in the constructed nature of my personal and seemingly specific identity. When I consider certain passages in the Tao Te Ching or Chuang Tzu, when I read these classics and project my present awareness into the transcribed and translated words of their characters, when I try to imagine the contextual antecedents of these books and the persons who have initiated and continued their legacy, I encounter a cognitive, experiential, and psychosomatic space intangible and concrete simultaneously. To think in terms of the "mystical," to ponder about matters that seem "practical," to disappear the "self" in contemplative silence may mark my way to uncommon and fleeting destinations where I barely linger before moving on. Consider, for instance, this passage from Chuang Tzu:

In the northern darkness there is a fish and his name is K'un.

[Watson (1964) notes that "K'un means fish roe. So Chuang Tzu

begins with a paradox -- the tiniest fish imaginable is also the

largest fish imaginable."] The K'un is so huge I don't know how

mary thousand li he measures. He changes and becomes a bird

whose name is P'eng The back of the P'eng measures I don't

know how many thousand li across and, when he rises up and

flies off, his wings are like clouds all over the sky. When the sea

begins to move [Watson notes, "Probably a reference to some

seasonal shift in the tides or currents."], this bird sets off for the

southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven. (p.23)

The exceedingly small and the unimaginably large co-exist in a semantic space that inhabits me when my attention turns to my attention turning to K'un and Peng. To encounter images from a culture so seemingly different from images familiar to me locates my awareness where it can be precarious and open to change. Without trying or pretending to be the other, I can attempt to appreciate K'un and Peng. I can surrender to the imagery and be content with what happens momentarily. I can embrace the paradox, perhaps, without promoting my ways or condescending toward the culture that gives me the paradox. I can be still in the altered state of my apparent awareness. I can word-my-way with K'un and P'eng to "the southern darkness, which is the Lake of Heaven."

Chuang Tzu's words about K'un and Peng appear to partially represent his philosophy of language described by Burton Watson (1964) in an introduction to Chuang Tzu. Watson writes:

... like all mystics, Chuang Tzu insists that language is in the

end grievously inadequate to describe the true Way, or the

wonderful freedom of the [person] who has realized ... identity

with it. Again and again, he cautions that he is giving only a

"rough" or "reckless" description of these things, and what follows

is usually a passage of highly poetic and paradoxical language that

in fact conveys little more than the essential ineffability of such a

state of being (p.7)

Consequently, Watson (1964) offers the following advice:

In the end, the best way to approach Chuang Tzu, I believe, is

not to attempt to subject his thought to rational and systematic

analysis, but to read and reread his words until one has ceased to

think of what he is saying and instead has developed an intuitive

sense of the mind moving behind the words, and of the world in

which it moves. (pp.7-8)

So it appears possible, then, that our minds may move with the mind of an ancient one by virtue of wording-our-way to the world behind the words. An experience similar, perhaps, to an out-of-the-ordinary episode that stops us in our tracks until we notice we have stopped and our awareness seems ordinary again. Words can do this. Words can make us mindfully mindless so we cease to be linguistically and become personally transformed in the process.

A world behind the words suggests a reality at once empirical and transcendental -- a reality partly known and mostly mysterious. An intuitive sense of the mind moving behind the words frees us from the intentions of the author and places us firmly in the realm of our personal awareness. To relinquish the intent of apprehending the author's intentions as the author intended them is to subvert one of the most common approaches to a text and facilitate, perhaps, a new and more resonant reading -- a reading more likely to question the dominant ideology of the time. (The Tao Te Ching, we are told [D.C. Lau, 1963], was a radical text for survival during a turbulent time of China's history.) To take up the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu in their contemporary forms may allow us to word-our-way to other spheres of experience and insight, and to realize that the paradoxes and parables of these ancient Chinese classics may be agents for altered states.


The words and graphics of virtual reality are also a way to altered states of awareness. To text my self in a virtual place, to wander about in cyberspace, permits me to project my disembodied presence into a fiber-optic-electronic-world. The nature of reality gets (re)configured. What constitutes the "outside world" takes on another case. Francis Crick (1994), who received the Nobel Prize in 1962 with James D. Watson for their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, writes:

[A] philosophical conundrum that needs clarification

concerns the reality of the outside world. Our brains have

evolved mainly to deal with our body and its interactions

with the world it senses to be around us. Is this world

real? This is a venerable philosophical issue and I do not wish to

be embroiled in the finely honed squabbles to which it has led. I

merely state my own working hypothesis: that there is indeed an

outside world, and that it is largely independent of our observing it.

We can never fully know this-outside world, but we can obtain

approximate information about some aspects of its properties by

using our senses and the operations of our brain. Nor ... are we

aware of everything that goes on in our brains, but only of some

aspects of that activity. Moreover, both these processes -- our

interpretations of the nature of the outside world and of our own

introspections -- are open to error. We may think we know our

motives for a particular action, but it is easy to show that, in some

cases at least, we are in fact deceiving ourselves. (p.12)

Crick's (1994) reality of the "outside world" invites the epistemological question of whether experience and knowledge can be anything other than personal and local. It does seem apparent that there is a world "out there" apart from my perception of it, but it also seems evident that I can "know" this world only in the terms of my radically present and everchanging moment-to-moment experience. Consequently, my sense or knowledge of the world occurs to me as profoundly empirical; that is, grounded in my senses and the operations of my brain and reading me, it seems, to interpretations and introspections that may be nevertheless out-of-awareness and open to error -- a reality already and fundamentally virtual.

Consider this excerpt from an interview with Jaron Lanier, the person who coined the term "virtual reality" and "coinvented fundamental VR components such as interface gloves and VR networking" (Wilhelm, 1994).

What's interesting about virtual reality, ... is that it forces one to

have a different sense of one's place in an environment. For

instance, when you watch a movie, the camera is like an ego, in

that you're always looking from an imposed perspective. When

you're in virtual reality, however, the

only thing that identifies you as being in a particular pert of the

world is that your sensory motor loop is attached to that part of

the world. So if the world happens to be set up so that your

eyelids control the doors, then the doors feel like part of your

body. In VR there's a flexible definition of what your body is and

what part of the world it isn't. So if cameras are a metaphor for

the ego, then virtual reality would seem to be something that

suggests a pervasive kind of identity. You can't suddenly turn into

a bird in reality, for example, but in VR you can. What a person

looks like from the outside in VR is a wave of creative change.


It may be that the bird I become in the sensory motor loop of Lanier's virtual reality mirrors Chuang Tzu's Peng with a back of many thousand li across. If I release my eyes and motion my gaze I can visually word-my-way to a realm of experience both larger and smaller than the semiotic space of my expressible expressions, while precariously perched on the wide back of P'eng as we virtually wing toward a door I control with my eyelids. There appears to be, in Crick's (1994) sense of an "outside world" and Lanier's "wave of creative change," an electrifying and mysterious

>Session ended.

>Contact lost with host ...


Barthes, Roland. (1988). The Semiotic Challenge. (trans. by Richard Howard). New York: Hill and Wang.

Crick, Francis. (1994). The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

DeLillo, Don. (1985). White Noise. New York: Viking Penguin.

Eco, Umberto. (1986). Travels in Hyperreality. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Feng, Gia-fu, & English, Jane. (1972). Lao Tsu/Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.

Lau, D.C. (1963). Lao Tzu/Tao Te Ching. Middlesex, England: Penguin.

McGinn, Colin. (1994). Out of Body, Out of Mind: Philosophy's Limit Experience. Linguafranca, 5, 66-71.

Watson, Burton. (1964). Chuang Tzu: Basic writings. New York and London: Columbia University Press.

Wilhelm, Maria. (1994). Comparative Illusions: Jaron Lanier on the Potential of Virtual Reality. tricycle, 3, 57.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1961). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. (trans. by D.F. Pears and D.F. McGuiness). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Lyall Crawford is Associate Professor of Communication at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.
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Author:Crawford, Lyall
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Previous Article:A general semantcis glossary (part XIII).
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