Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On Standing

It is at least as old as the Sphinx’s riddle:

What being, with only one voice, has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?

Man, Oedipus answered, because he crawls on all fours as an infant, stands firmly on his two feet in his youth, and leans upon a staff in his old age. [Robert Graves, The Greek Myths: 2 (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955) 10.]

We call ourselves wise (homo sapiens) and argue that our language differentiates us from other species of animals. But even more substantially, we define ourselves by our ancestors’ revolutionary achievement of a standing posture (homo erectus). We became human, in one sense, because we stood up. In another sense, we are who we are because of what that physical act has been made to stand for. Reflecting the substantial nature of that original erection, our languages and cultures constantly, insistently, even obstinately establish superstitions and understandings related to the constituative circumstances of our existence by systematic reference to our station and stature as standing beings, as static and ecstatic beings whose destiny is to cause things to stand. As these words based on the *stā root illustrate, metaphors of standing determine our conceptions of time and space; they shape our understanding of existence and ecstacy; they are the tools and the subject of philosophy and painting, poetry and fiction, sculpture and law, history and psychology, anthropology and linguistics, archaelogy and teleology. Wherever, in short, humans have payed scientific or artistic attention to our status as human beings, we have done so through metaphors of standing.


Torben B said...

I love this post (and the handout from class). Don't most scientists (anthropologists) believe that the ability to speak was a function of standing upright (rib cage/lungs)?

Perhaps the 'standing' words not only reference our shift to bipedalism, but also our evolution into spoken language.

Grabloid said...

I love this too. Not only did standing change our ribcage and lungs...but also sunk our larynx (if I recall correctly) back into our throat (correct me if I'm wrong Scott), allowing us to speak...among other things I'm sure.