by Brian Awehali

People suck, and that’s my contention.
We’re a virus with shoes.

Bill Hicks

I quite like a lot of people, but there’s much to recommend Hicks’ notion that we are viruses with shoes. It’s a fact that well over 40% of the human DNA chain is viral in origin, as Michael Specter writes in a fascinating New Yorker article, “Darwin’s Surprise”:

Nothing—not even the Plague—has posed a more persistent threat to humanity than viral diseases: yellow fever, measles, and smallpox have been causing epidemics for thousands of years. At the end of the First World War, fifty million people died of the Spanish flu; smallpox may have killed half a billion during the twentieth century alone…

Scientists have long suspected that if a retrovirus happens to infect a human sperm cell or egg, which is rare, and if that embryo survives—which is rarer still—the retrovirus could take its place in the blueprint of our species, passed from mother to child, and from one generation to the next, much like a gene for eye color or asthma.

One scientist interviewed for the New Yorker article, Thierry Hiedmann, contends that the mapping of the human genome project and recent findings about “endogenous retroviruses” show that genes and viruses are not, in fact, distinct entities, and that the concept of virus and humanity as enemies or combatants, rather than as co-evolutionary forces, is in error. Heidmann and others have even suggested that without viral influence, mammals might never have developed a placenta, which protects the fetus and gives it time to mature and led to live birth. “These viruses made those changes possible, [and] It is quite possible that, without them, human beings would still be laying eggs.”

So the stuff of us, the meat of our matter, is partially viral in origin. What of our language, and our culture?

Well. That partially depends on whether or not you believe language shapes thought or vice-versa. Lots of smart people who study the subject disagree on this particular point. On one side are those like Noam Chomsky, who say cognition and certain innate brain structures give rise to infinitely varying, yet universal, linguistic impulses. (Of late, Chomsky’s dominant theory of universal grammar has been coming undone, according to a recent article in the Scientific American.)

On the other side there are linguistic relativists, like the curious Benjamin Lee Whorf, an amateur linguist (Darwin was an amateur biologist) and evolutionary biologist, botanist, theologian, and physicist, who in addition to linguistics, wrote about gravitation, “being,” trees, color theory, evolution, large stemmed plants, electromagnetism, dreams, and even wrote a Hopi-English dictionary.

Whorf grew to prominence and influence through his work, exploring how languages shape the habit and thought of their users.

Presume, as many linguists do, that there’s a middle ground between these two positions, and admit the possibility that language acts on people much as people act on or through language.

“A virus operates autonomously, without human intervention. It attaches itself to a host and feeds off of it, growing and spreading from host to host. Language infects us; its power derives not from its straightforward ability to communicate or persuade but rather from this infectious nature, this power of bits of language to graft itself onto other bits of language, spreading and reproducing, using human beings as hosts. The notion of the meme—coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins to illustrate the field of memetics—crystallizes this view of the communication process.

Georges Bataille similarly argued that communication was best understood from the perspective of contagion.

In Bataille any human being is no more than a conduit for communicative process, a channel for ideas which pass through him/her.”If, as it appears to me, a book is communication, then the author is only a link among many readings.” The author is simply a node on a network, through which ideas pass…

Subjectivity is an illusion, one that allows us to operate comfortably in this plane of existence, but which nonetheless masks true reality, in which there is no division between subject and object: “There is no longer subject-object, but a ‘yawning gap’ between the one and the other and, in the gap, the subject, the object are dissolved; there is passage, communication, but not from one to the other: the one and the other have lost their separate existence”

—Bernardo Attias, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at California State University

The complicated relationship between language and its host was a major theme in the work of William S. Burroughs. When pondering the all-encompassing constancy of flux, and the role of human beings and viruses as co-evolutionary partners, and when wondering at the viral properties of language and culture, it’s worth considering the thoughts of a visionary like Burroughs, who identified as a Manichean, and who believed he was writing mythology for the space age (let’s just agree to ignore his time among the Scientologists):

“I am advancing the theory that we were not designed to remain in our present state, any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole forever,” wrote Burroughs, suggesting that what human evolution requires is actually a biological mutation away from that which one knows as human.

Burroughs always did have a way of making profane things like “Get over yourself, changeling,” and “extinction is inevitable” sound somehow like an already familiar pulp novel.


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