I have just submitted my contribution to a Patheos anthology called ‘Pagan Consent Culture’ that will come out next year. The editors seem pleased with it, and I am fairly confident of inclusion in the final book. I am now experiencing that peculiar and specific delay that writers have, where I would like people to respond, to continue the conversation as soon as possible, but I have to wait months until the book is published.
In other words I’m resisting the urge to just blog the whole thing, in order to do right by Patheos and to engage in a wider, more fulfilling conversation in the end. This unusual and strangely delicious pause between communication and response becomes increasingly rare in a digital world full of words and writers; comments, ‘likes’ and responders. And, as an animist, interaction is as vital to my being and sense of self as breathing. This isn’t a choice I make in order to fit my idea of what-an-animist-should-be. It is how I see the world. Animism is the way I live, rather than a philosophical position I take.
My religion, my animism, is formed of human and other-than-human interaction; of bodies and their ecology. It is shaped by what I can see, smell, hear, feel, touch and hold. Life flows through everything within my reach. I know that every action we make is a connection; a contact somewhere, somehow, to some entity that experiences some form of life, human or other. I truly believe that every connection holds the potential for experiencing the miraculous. Thus I believe that every act is, in some way, sacred. This is deeper than belief. This is bone-deep knowledge. Like many bone-deep facts of existence, it resists easy explanation and justification. This is my organising principle; my working hypothesis for life itself.
Perhaps this is also why I have always been fascinated by language. Simplifying greatly, in Lacanian thought, language is the heart, cause and shape of self-awareness. The idea is that language – or in its more general formation, semiotics – is the process by which we conceive of ourselves as a self, separate from the rest of the universe. Pre-language awareness is the undifferentiated bliss of union. But language is pre-constructed by the culture that surrounds and pre-exists the individual human being. So the language we are given and the identity we are gifted never quite fit. Cultural development is the constant evolution of language to better describe those who people it. The right to name ourselves is heartfelt, fundamental and political.
Language separates and language connects. Language matters because identity is fluid. It can be shaped and forced, evolve and flourish. And language matters because interaction and relationship is the heart and point of life itself. Helene Cixous wrote “Fais que ta langue te reste etrangere”, and these words have become talismans in my lifelong exploration of verbal and other-than-verbal communication. In translation: let your language be strange to you. Literally: let your tongue be a foreigner to you. I love the visceral sense language has as a word in French – that feeling that speech is not an abstraction, but a bodily product and physical action.
So in gathering the wandering train of my thoughts for the submission for Patheos, I inevitably paused to consider the etymology of the word ‘consent’. I had noticed how many words in my notes began with ‘con’ or ‘com’, and I had a firm feeling that they were related. These little root syllables hidden in the intricacies of our complex modern, multi-syllabic communications are echoes of one of the earliest human cultures. You’ll see them referenced as PIE in dictionaries, meaning Proto-Indo-European. This is a linguistic root language reconstructed from its traces – a form of linguistic archaeology. Current consensus holds that a single language that flourished at least five or six millenia ago, possibly in Eastern Europe, developed, diverged and was subsumed by later languages, so that its traces can be found even today from the West coast of Ireland to the mountains of Tibet. The song of ancient common ancestors can be heard singing in the background of words spoken across an entire continent.
The root syllable ‘con’ or ‘com’ emerges from the PIE word root ‘*kom-’,
and codes for any form of beside, near, by or with. It always describes the shape of relationship between two things*. Words containing it sing to me of connectedness. And the individual etymological roots of many of these words have a resonance, a poetry that is worth sharing. Thus consent is ‘that which we feel together’, reminding us that it is more than a list of acts consented to by each individual. It is a process of inter-personal negotiation – a reaching out to another that relies upon our ability to empathise with them.
Here are some more, some from the submitted article, and even more discovered in writing this post. These are all the ways we bring ourselves together. I am utterly grateful in this for access to the amazingly concise and informative Online Etymology Dictionary, and for the hours I have lost to its depths.
First, the simple intimacy of connection:
- Contact – that which touches together
- Connection – that which is joined together
- Continual – that which hangs together
- Contain – that which is held together
- Constant – that which stands together
- Construct – that which is piled up together
The acts of connecting:
- Context – that which is woven together
- Conceived – that which is taken in**
- Conversation – that which turns towards each other
The things acted upon together
- Concern – that which is sifted together
- Commit – that which sends or puts together
- Common – that which is shared or changed together
- Compare – that which is prepared alongside
The things we communicate:
- Comfortable – that which transmits strength
- Contribute – that which is paid towards
- Conscious – that which knows together
- Consent – that which we feel together
- Confident – that which holds faith together
The commonality we create:
- Communication – that which is shared by all or many
- Community – the many or all that shares together
- Complex – that which is encircled and embraced
- Confused – that which is mingled to the point of being indistinguishable
The power we hold over our boundaries:
- Control – that which checks against or verifies
- Concise – that which is cut from another
- Contemplate – that which is near to the temple
* Incidentally, the verb ‘to come’ derives from a totally different PIE root: *gwa-, *gwem- “to go, come”
**Compare this to disseminate – that which is spread like seed or semen – and feel how deeply bodies are encoded in language