Years ago, an old boyfriend of mine had an academic colleague. One day, he said, “Language informs consciousness—we know this.”
We found this sentence so hilarious that we incorporated it into our lives. Whenever either of us was being didactic or ponderous, we’d catch ourselves and say, “Language informs consciousness—we know this.” Sometimes we’d just use parts of it: “Varick Street runs North–South—we know this.” It was a rhetorical device that functioned both to leaven the conversation and to end it. It was useful for sweeping, ludicrous generalizations—“dancing requires gum—we know this”—and highly specific observations. “Cloves are the scepters of elves—we know this.”
This is the definition of an in-joke: not that funny, requiring far more explanation than it’s worth, specific to its moment. Certainly, other such witticisms in our repertoire died natural deaths: the restaurant sign that listed its age as “old as hills,” the nerd who referred to an ironic tee as a “weird-type shirt,” the old lady who almost made us miss a bus in Cornwall by asking the clerk “Have you got … have you got … have you got … have you got … a bus?”
And yet, as one sometimes does, I carried “language informs consciousness” with me long after that guy and I had broken up. And after the initial labored explanations, future boyfriends took to it, as well. They found it funny, or at least knew I did. It became shorthand in all my relationships, an improbable golden thread of inanity that seemed immune to resentments and jealousies and the inevitable erosion of time.
I’m sure the original speaker had no memory whatsoever of the statement. Presumably, he said these sorts of things all the time. And I suppose what I am trying to say is, language does indeed inform consciousness. I’m coming to know it.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.