George Carlin once amusingly commented on that old phrase – common in courtrooms and in classrooms, he points out – “your own words.”
“Tell us,” an authority figure will often say to you, “in your own words….”
Carlin’s joke continues as follows: “Do you really have your own words? Hey, I’m using the same words everyone else is using! The next time someone asks you to say something in your own words, just say, ‘Nigflot blorny quando floon!’”
As much as it pains me to explain a joke, the humor in the above piece relies on the fact that the joke’s speaker – i.e. the character through which Carlin is ironically speaking – takes the phrase so literally that he misunderstands what it really means: no one has their “own words,” in the most literal sense. We might even appeal to the dialogism theory of literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who noted that much, if not all, discourse comes from recycled language: not only do we use a language that was made long before we were born, our basic speech and writing patterns reiterate phrases, verbal tendencies, and other structures that we have absorbed from sources other than ourselves. How many of us use phrases that were used by people around us when we were growing up? How much of our daily speech consists of repetitions of or variations on phrases we’ve heard elsewhere or in popular culture? On an even more trivial level, how many of us have watched a few episodes of The Sopranos and found ourselves, the next day, greeting a fellow fan with “Ohhhhhh!”
The point here is that there’s nothing new under the sun of language. And we all know this – partially, this is why Carlin’s super-literal reading of that phrase is so funny. We all know perfectly well that “in your own words” simply means “don’t quote someone else verbatim.” And even then, it frequently doesn’t even mean that: teachers in classrooms are usually happy for students to compose a reply to a question in advance, and judges in courtrooms are usually fine with witnesses preparing their statements ahead of time. Some degree of quotation – even if it’s self-quotation – is inevitable.
The bottom line is that you really don’t have your “own words” in a silly, overly-literal interpretation of the phrase: participation in discourse is part of a shifting amalgam of other discourse that originates somewhere beyond what you call “you.”
This observation about words might possibly be applied to interpretation as well: when it comes to studying a subject, do you have your “own interpretation,” your “own answer”? What is it about the answer you come up with that is your “own”?
The topic comes up a lot among occultists, some of whom are staunchly against anyone who explains a subject clearly and lucidly, on the grounds that a clear explanation robs a “seeker” of the chance to “find his own answer.” In Thelema, such sentiments surround the idiotic ideas that people have about “The Comment” to the Book of the Law. There actually are some people – believe it or not – who think we shouldn’t be talking about the Book on the grounds that such talk may “influence” someone’s interpretation of it and prevent that person from “finding his own meaning.”
The premise behind these ideas seems to be that if one is “influenced” in some way in one’s interpretation, then one will be unable to “find one’s own answer.”
I would like to question this idea of “your own answer.” As this post will demonstrate, occultists who fetishize their “own answer” are ironically misunderstanding that phrase in a way analogous to the manner in which the speaker of Carlin’s joke misunderstands “your own words.”
Read on for more