Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Something from Nothing: Seeking a Sense of Self

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Something from Nothing: Seeking a Sense of Self

Article excerpt

THE TOPIC I wish to take up here is the relationship between communication and the sense of self. In doing so, I intend to communicate to you a little bit about myself, and will thereby run the risk of narcissism. At the same time, I will run the risk of echolalia, as most of what I have to say is merely a repetition of what has been said before. And I want to begin by echoing a story taken from a children's book by Phoebe Gilman entitled Something From Nothing (1992), a book that my son Benjamin and I enjoy reading together. The text is itself an echo, as it is adapted from a Jewish folk tale, and I in turn will adapt and paraphrase Gilman's story.

It is about a tailor who made his newborn grandson a wonderful blanket out of some rare and beautiful material. Joseph, his grandson, loved that blanket, but as time passed and the blanket got worn and frazzled, his mother wanted to throw it out. But Joseph took it to his grandfather, who said, "There's just enough material here to make a wonderful jacket." When, in time, Joseph outgrew the jacket and his mother wanted to throw it out, he took it to his grandfather, who said, "There's just enough material here to make a wonderful vest." When the vest grew old, and his mother wanted to throw it out he took it to his grandfather, who said, "There's just enough material here to make a wonderful tie." The tie in turn became worn and stained, and Joseph's mother wanted to throw it out, but he again took it to his grandfather, who said, "There's just enough material here to make a wonderful handkerchief." But over time the handkerchief grew dirty and tattered, and his mother said, now, finally, it's time to throw i t out. But Joseph believed in his grandpa, and brought it to him, and his grandfather said, "There's just enough material here to make a wonderful button." But one day Joseph lost the button. Distraught, he ran to his grandfather's house. His mother, running after him said, "Joseph! Even your grandfather can't make something from nothing," and his grandfather sadly agreed. The next day Joseph went to school, where he put pen to paper, and said, "There's just enough material here to make a wonderful story."

The theme of material is a natural one for a writer and artist like Gilman, who used a folk tale as source material for a wonderful children's book. For my part, I am using Something for Nothing (1992) as material for this essay. Material is a concern for anyone engaged in acts of creation and communication: public speakers need material for their speeches, stand-up comics need material to get their laughs, teachers need material for their classes.

The humor of Gilman's story revolves around the double meaning of the word material. On the one hand, it refers to physical substance, on the other to communication content. This pun is part of a larger metaphor through which communication is compared to cloth, tale-tellers are linked to tailors, and text is turned into textile. Across various cultures, stories are woven like fabric, yarns are spun, accounts embroidered, and falsehoods are manufactured out of whole cloth. The thrust of this ancient motif, in Gilman' s folk tale and elsewhere, is to ground the abstract concept of communication in the concreteness of the human life-world. It reminds us that both form and information are rooted in physical matter.

We therefore should not forget that even the social construction of reality requires raw materials, and that common sense and scientific knowledge alike are rooted in our physical existence; they are not simply a result of political decision-making. Spiritual approaches to communication need to take this into account as well. After all, the theologians tell us that only God creates ex nihlo, out of absolutely nothing. All the rest of us have to make do with the materials at hand.

I believe that an understanding of the materiality of communication leads naturally to the study of media, and to Marshall McLuhan's (1964) famous maxim, "the medium is the message" (p. …

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