“In the beginning was the word”. Indicating some problems with this “beginning” in critical terms.

The concept of a beginning is a complex notion; the concept of ‘the’ beginning an even more complex one. By beginning, something comes into being that wasn’t present before; but in the case of a singular beginning, the first instance of anything ever being created, what existed before? How can something begin if there is nothing for it to be created into? It is problems like this that surround the concept of the word and create difficulty whenever the sense of anything beginning is applied critically. Indeed, is there any sense of separation between something beginning gradually or in an instant?

So what then is implied when we consider this specific ‘beginning’? The statement is problematical firstly due to the fact we do not know whether the ‘beginning’ is a time, place or both. What we are told however is that in this specific time/location we can find ‘the word’. This brings with it further troubles, as reading ‘the word’ as a concept rather than a physical element, how can we in fact find it? A concept is an intangible subject, contained only within the minds of intelligent beings, so for this concept to exist in ‘the beginning’, surely physical beings of intelligence such as humans must also be present.

The way the statement counters this problem is by differentiating between ‘the beginning’ and ‘now’; the present state of things which differs from the earlier period the statement explicitly describes. In this regard, those capable of understanding the concept of ‘the word’ can now exist, looking back to ‘the beginning’ when they did not exist. Thus, ‘the word’ could exist independently of them, a thing in its own right, but only now given full meaning when it can be named and understood as something.

Applying this sense of ‘the beginning’ and ‘the word’ in a literary sense, we can take the statement to imply that in ‘the beginning’, a place and time before anything else was present, ‘the word’ was the first thing to come into being. The logic of this revolves around the fact that for anything else to truly ‘be’, it must be labelled with a name. For us to think of and comprehend something, our minds must have a name for it. Thus, we link it with a ‘word’ – in this regard, the concept of ‘the word’ had to be the original thing to exist.

The trouble is however, that the further this concept is analysed and attempted to be fully understood, the more problems arise; flaws in the logic of how the process works. Firstly, when ‘the word’ came into being, what decided it would be called ‘the word’? This process by which we name all other things must itself have been named. But also, in the statement’s scenario of ‘the beginning’ and ‘the word’, which existed first? Did they spring from the previous nothingness at the same time or did the beginning establish itself before the word followed shortly after? All these aspects matter because language, at its most base level represents a formula; the shaping of letters into words, sounds into language. It is a process of symbols and at the heart of every process must be rules. So if the concept of ‘the word’ is afflicted with problematic logic that stems from its very beginnings, its use as a system of communication is weakened.

In his essay From Codex to computer; or, presence of mind, David Scott Kastan explores many similar ideas, his argument centred around what format ‘the word’ finds itself put into in the modern age. An early passage presents the view that “How the words got there does not seem to cause a problem; it is where ‘there’ is that does.” So, in much the same way that we previously examined the concept of ‘the beginning’ as being a problematic place for words to exist, Kastan’s essay presents the idea that the existence of ‘the word’ in specific forms of media are problematic. Again, a specific ‘place’ is specified, and that when this place interacts with ‘the word’ things become troublesome – the two exist independently, but when brought together, conflict is created. Surely this goes against logic however as already highlighted, without the presence of ‘the word’ to label everything else, we could comprehend nothing else. In a sense, every other thing is indebted to ‘the word’.

Kastan’s statement is interesting as it explains that there is no such problem inherent in the idea of how the words come into being. Here, the words seem only to problematic once they are fully formed and within the ‘place’. This contrasts with the concept of the ‘beginning’, which by its very nature carries with it notions of timing and creation. On closer inspection however, Kastan’s statement carries another layer of meaning; it is not that there are no problems associated with the creation of the words, just that the process ‘does not seem to cause a problem’. This implies that there may in fact actually be a problem, but that it is hidden because it has either not been identified or it has been chosen to be ignored. This notion brings us to the second complication – who precisely are these problems being caused with?

This is important as Kastan’s statement links in with ideas of perception, and more specifically, a kind of selective viewing. The person or persons he talks of are choosing to find a problem only with the latter element Kastan proposes; the ‘there’ and not the ‘how’. Why is it that something becomes a ‘problem’? This links in again with the concept of ‘the beginning’ being problematic when applied in critical terms. In both cases, our individual mindsets evaluate a situation based on a number of criteria, and if it fulfils certain criteria, the situation then becomes a problem. But most importantly, it has become a problem because the person has chosen to see it that way. This lies at the crux of the argument – there are only two outcomes to the situation; either the thing is a problem, or it is not. There may be degrees of how problematic something is, but ultimately, it will always ‘be’ or ‘not be’ a problem – a specific ‘choice’ of one option from two, something that has been reached after some kind of internal evaluation.

The irony of course is that this evaluation and ultimate choice can only be reached through the use of words. Of course, these words may not be expressed on the page or through the means of language, but within our minds our thought process involves words to make sense of things. This entails an additional argument of what precisely is ‘the word’ as an entity? Can something like ‘the word’ exist both as a physical element and an intangible one? As already explored, this presents the question of how ‘words’ can exist in a empty, void-like ‘beginning’, but more specifically, it is another element explored by Kastan in his essay.

In his instance, the relationship between physical and intangible is one of a digital medium versus a ‘traditional’ paper based one. Kastan talks of ‘an electronic environment, the text existing only on a screen, or, more precisely and to the point, not existing but appearing on it, no longer a fixed but a fluid entity.’ Unpacking this extract from his essay, we see that Kastan primarily establishes a juxtaposition between two locations; the problematic ‘there’ that he previously picked out. On one hand is the immaterial ‘electronic environment’, on the other the ‘fixed’ notion of the printed page. Kastan’s word choice is important though, the former option is not just an ‘electronic’ medium, but an ‘environment’, a specific place. But how can an immaterial format comprised of nothing physical become somewhere that can be occupied by words? In this essence, we return to the situation of “In the beginning was the word”, but now replaced by “In the electronic environment was the word”. Do the words inhabit the electronic environment or is the environment comprised of the words themselves? Which came first? We are presented with the same set of problems and it is this notion of a ‘fluid’ environment that is so troublesome. Perhaps this is the very reason it is so problematic, it’s very fluidity making it so difficult to grasp in comparison to the traditional ‘fixed’ format.

As Kastan goes on to explain, in this environment, ‘the word’ does not actually exist, but only appears to exist. This links back not only to the idea of perception and selective viewing – we see the electronic text as ‘text’ because our minds chose to call it this – but also the concept of labelling. In this instance we have taken the labelling applied to ‘traditional text’ and applied it to this new medium of text. Now both electronic and traditional forms of text are specifically ‘text’. In both cases, the ‘text’ is still comprised of words, whether they be written on a keyboard and displayed on a computer screen, or written in ink on paper.

But what differentiates these two forms, and why is the difference so problematic? In the case of ink on paper, here the words have been physically manifested onto the paper – a physical product upon physical product combining into one finished product. A finished product that ‘exists’; it can be seen and touched and a definitive change has been brought about – the formerly blank piece of paper now contains writing. But in the case of the electronic medium, a computer screen is in constant flux. If the power to it is cut, all the words written on it will disappear, along with the ‘electronic’ page they were written on. If the text has been ‘saved’ then it can be recovered, but as Kastan outlines, any recovered electronic text will not be the original, it will merely be a reconstruction, a kind of clone of the first version. Kastan sums up the concept with a quotation from Michael Joyce: “Print stays itself, electronic text replaces itself.”

This sense of something inconstant weakens the concept of ‘the word’ as a definite entity – if something is continually changing, replacing itself and being remade, can it truly be seen as ‘words’ or ‘text’. Is it instead just something that looks like text, but is in fact not? Ultimately though, whether it is in fact text or not, it is still some kind of entity, and Kastan’s essay explores this – the sense of ‘itself’ picking out a specific object, something tangible, something that has been created. This brings us back to the concept of ‘the beginning, the start of something, when ‘the word’ was apparently created out of nothingness. The issue here is that the electronic text is not strictly being created; it is ‘replacing itself’. So in much the same way it is problematic to imagine a beginning due to the fact there must surely be something before ‘the beginning’ for it to be created into, the electronic text represents a constant renewal, a never-ending chain with no traditional ‘beginning’.

Kastan continues this theme with another quotation, this time from George Landow: “The reader always encounters a virtual image of a stored text, and not the original version itself”. It is this sense of ‘the original’ that again ties into the ‘the beginning’ and presents the core problem of its application in a critical sense. Can there ever truly be an ‘original version’, or will it always be constructed of other versions? As humans, our logic centres around the concept of ‘things’, named items, building blocks of rationality from which we can construct all other things. From the things we can see and touch in front of our eyes, to our thoughts; all of it is made up of words. The problem presents itself again; which comes first – the things we give names to, or the ‘name’ itself? Or perhaps the two are ultimately inseparable, a symbiosis where each part is utterly dependent on each-other.

 

Bibliography

Lodge, David, Nigel Wood, Modern Criticism and Theory (London: Longman, 2008)

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