ideaspeak: a habitat for thought

I love playing with words and stumbled across “ideaspeak” while developing a stamp icon for an iPod video sample I was producing many years ago (~2007).  As a bibliophile and logophile, I delighted in discovering three word combinations in this one concept:  “idea” & “speak”, “ideas peak” and “idea-speak”. Word play is a creative impetus that numerous studies have confirmed has intrinsic educational value. But ultimately it finds a higher purpose when it creates meaning. I call this semantic enrichment. So: what semantic function does my word construct, ideaspeak, create?

Living in “Silicon Valley”, which is much more of an economic construct than a location in the Bay Area, I was satisfied for a period of time to think of ideaspeak in a kind of cyber-Utopian cognitive frame wherein technology enables ideas to reach their culmination. But this is too easy and insufficiently nuanced to do the words justice. Technology has a long way to go before it starts autonomously experiencing or exploring ideas. Information technology is excellent at processing, storing, distributing, and selling information. But we’ve allowed information technology innovations to subsume or even displace the concept of creative contemplation. Innovation is a creative act. It is often economically rewarded, even increasingly economically motivated. It is a natural expression of capitalism. But it is hardly the only creative act.

Finding ideas is a deeply humanistic, emergent activity. It happens when we write, when we have real conversations, when we are alone with our thoughts, when we walk, relax or free associate. (Once upon a time I would have included exercise with these activities, but exercise has sadly become highly mediated for many; earbuds blare straight into the brain voiding the encounter with bird song, rustling leaves, sidewalk musicians, or silence.) Ideas want to “come to us.” We have to wait for them. We have to be receptive to them on a conscious and unconscious level. In other words, ideas tend to arrive when we aren’t distracted. As Sherry Turkle’s body of work suggests, this makes ideas increasingly rare and exotic sprites.

I continue to learn of precedents in intellectual history this ideaspeak of which I write. In the introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of Erich Auerbach’s monumental work of Romance philology, Mimesis, Edward Said places the work in the tradition that includes Wilhelm Dilthey who:

“argued that the world of written texts…belonged to the realm of lived experience (Erlebnis), which the interpreter attempted to recover through a combination of erudition and a subjective intuition (eingefühlen) of what the inner spirit (Geist) of the work was. His ideas about knowledge rest on an initial distinction between the world of nature (and of natural sciences) and the world of spiritual objects, the basis of whose knowledge he classified as a mixture of objective and subjective elements (Geisteswissenschaft), or knowledge of the products of mind or spirit” (Auerbach, xi).

Despite Said’s observation that “there is no real English or American equivalent for it (although the study of culture is a rough approximation),” I choose to translate Geisteswissenschaft as the craft of intuiting the “inner spirit” of an idea. As such this term provides a useful reference for the methodology of ideaspeak.

ideaspeak also echoes a postructural precedent in the work of the inspired linguistic deconstructionist Jacques Derrida (see Cinders) and indeed in postmodern theory as a whole. An idea will speak if, perhaps only if, we listen to it. And ideas will peak if, perhaps only if, we share them and put them to work. By corollary, the way to kill an idea is to take it for granted, set it aside, commodify it, and effectively deactivate it. (You don’t need a war; just amnesia.)

For example, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the idea of a “war on terror” was ascendant (and to some degree is still an idea that is very much in play politically). The idea was activated through political rhetoric and military actions. It was also criticized on the obvious grounds that you can’t “kill an idea.” I probably succumbed to parroting this obvious critique myself. But this is a superficial criticism of a much deeper idea. The deeper idea is that responding to terror and ultimately destroying all terrorists is imperative because absent such actions it will somehow necessarily and inevitably continue because the perpetrators must be at least punished, ideally dissuaded, or better yet for political purposes: “degraded and destroyed” which is to say, annihilated. (What if it our attention, our military aggression, our hatred is precisely what they seek to accomplish?)

This deeper idea is much more difficult to deactivate because it seems to resonate with common sense and sounds quite patriotic. For this reason, it has been evoked time and again whenever terrorists strike. But after numerous terrorist attacks around the world, the idea of the “war on terror” is beginning to experience semantic entropy. Its meaning has become diluted through contradictory implementations; its value is increasingly questioned because terrorist attacks continue; and its rhetorical force is weakened from over usage and political commodification. It is now assumed that a war on terror is in progress “till further notice.” This taken-for-granted quality is a goldmine if you’re selling a product, and the military industrial complex is indeed profiting from it. But this same taken-for-granted quality is semantically toxic. As a result, the idea of “the war on terror” is essentially hollow: words that appear on the screen to contextualize a broadcast news segment. It is the profitable ghost of a concept that will haunt us more than any killing spree can possibly accomplish. Like the Cold War, it will be written about by historians while its victims are largely forgotten.

So you can kill an idea. Even if it is an idea about killing an idea.

I recently attended a gathering where I shared a piece of writing with a room of six or seven other non-fiction writers. It was suggested that I shouldn’t use the word “hegemonic” because nobody knew what it meant. I was astounded. Not because these other writers didn’t know the meaning of a word, but because they were actively encouraging me to leave it on the shelf, to dismiss the possibility that the reader should have a responsibility to understand an author by learning words they do not know. It was practically taken for granted that words were now themselves commodities to be bought and sold on the basis of pleasing a consumer-reader presumed to be utterly passive; that if a word is unknown or unusual that it diminishes the market value of the writing in which it appears. I said, “Perversely, I see this as an opportunity for my readers to learn a new word.” Then it was if they remembered something forgotten and the conversation swiftly flowed elsewhere.

I feel like an endangered species, an American postmodernist who wants to interact with ideas to understand them on their own terms so that I can use them responsibly and give them leeway to evolve naturally. This blog is not a product in a marketplace of ideas where “information wants to be expensive” or “information wants to be free” as Stewart Brand is credited with first saying in 1984. So I have refined the scope of my project. I now describe the concept of ideaspeak as a habitat for thought. As such the ideas here are not for consumption. They want neither to be free nor expensive. They want simply to be alive. Like all crave space, freedom, and refuge.

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