Sunday, December 28, 2008

Babble Before Babel: A Brief Essay into Excitable Speech

Sitting one Sunday in a Pentecostal service, I listened as someone began to “speak in tongues.” Such occurrences have a strange effect on me. I grew up in this church, and have noticed a sharp decline in the past decade or so of people speaking in tongues (and a slight recent resurgence), and so, at least psychologically, there is a strange feeling of comfort, of reminiscences of my childhood when such utterances occasionally occur. I care much less for the so-called “interpretation” afterwards, the attempt to make this excitable speech intelligible. It always seems like a betrayal of that speech, which, as excitable, should remain unknowable. At the same time, I am a scholar of religion. I cannot but think about that this is a phenomenon that occurs in multiple contexts throughout the world, whether a Shaman on the Eurasian Steppes (you can also see it in the movie Kundun, about the life of the current Dalai Lama), the Pythia in ancient Delphi, or a Pentecostal service in twenty-first century America: both the excitable speech and the attempt to interpret it. I now almost automatically notice the social and psychological triggers and very subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) cues that allow and disallow this speech, as is true with any meditative or altered state. I also know the theological and historical paths this has taken: Acts 2, the xenolalia, or speaking in foreign tongues, which undoes the damage of Babel, restoring human communicative unity, and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 where Paul brags that he speaks in tongues more than any of the excitable Corinthians did. Yet, with Paul’s situation, it is no longer xenolalia but glossolalia, not speaking in foreign languages but speaking in completely unintelligible sounds—seemingly babble, like the Pythia. These babblings are the “tongues of angels,” or in the Pythia’s case, the tongue of Apollo.

These sounds, often derided by outsiders as mere babble, have absolutely no clear signification. This is not the infinite play of signifiers as discussed in contemporary linguistics, but speech that simply does not signify anything. But, in that may be its importance or its power for those who participate in this practice. Unlike the infinite play of signification, this non-signification has the potential to signify anything. Perhaps on some level, that is what I like about this practice of excitable speech: it is pre-signifying language. It is a non-language of infinite potentiality. That is also why I dislike the “interpretations” that always accompany speaking in tongues: it concretizes one particular path of signification excluding all others. For this same reason, I find the Delphic oracles as less problematic: they remain more obscure and ambivalent (at least the more famous ones), their meaning remains elusive or, in another sense, they remain in the realm of potentiality to a far greater degree.

But there is another element of the speech before speech, this non-signifying speech that I never thought of before. On this particular Sunday, I was sitting in church with my 11-week-old niece. In a moment of subconsciously Freudian inspiration, hearing her garbled cooing at the same time as the glossolalia struck a chord. It reminded me: God has given wisdom to babes and hidden it from others; unless one becomes like a child, one cannot enter the kingdom of God. Is this glossolalia, this garbled speech, this “babble,” a return to childhood, to the brainwaves of speaking before language, a return to the presignifying language of a baby? Is there a direct correlation between them? When anyone in any religious context (the Shaman, the Pythia, the Pentecostal), does this, does the practitioner’s excitable speech (unconsciously) recreate that early moment of non-differentiation? Moreover, when early Christians (or at least the author of Luke-Acts) thought they were reversing Babel with this, how were they imagining pre-Babel language? What was this “one language” before Babel? Jewish tradition says it was Hebrew; Hebrew is the language of God and all others were the “confusion.” Islam claims Arabic. And so on. Yet this speaking in the unintelligible tongues of angels may provide a different answer. I wonder, and can only wonder, if it is this excitable speech that simulates or reenacts the cooing of babies (those who have wisdom hidden from adults), which can only occur extemporaneously or in altered states of consciousness. At least in this context, by returning to baby-speak, practitioners of glossolalia return to pre-Babel speech, moving beyond (and by beyond, I mean before) differentiated speech patterns of any known and knowable language. By speaking in tongues, they return to childhood, they return to pre-Babel, and they precipitate heavenly speech (since they are all the same)—the unintelligible, unknowable speech of infinite potentiality that has not yet been ossified and confused into intelligible language. That reverses the situation: what we speak daily is post-Babel babble, and those moments of excitability designate the true speaking—speech that does not yet signify anything and therefore potentially signifies anything and everything, creating a surfeit of meaning so great that it is completely unintelligible.

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