no subtitles

Several months ago I had occasion to watch a film in German with no subtitles. Despite having only an average proficiency in that language, I was able to follow the plot and most of the dialogue. I wasn't bored, nor was I fatigued from having to translate. However, I didn't much enjoy the film. I thought the performances superficial and the whole look of the film bland and uninteresting.

Just recently I happened to catch the film again, this time with subtitles. While I was pleased to see I had understood the plot, I could not help but be struck by something peculiar: far from looking bland, it was this time visually superb and full of colour. The performances, too, came alive. As a whole, the film had acquired a depth previously lacking. The missing element here, of course, was language and, more importantly, my (fuller) understanding thereof. Or rather, what was lacking the first time was the more-than-understanding (colour itself) that one 'has' or 'is' in one's own language. I had understood the first time. But I had more than understood the second.

Clawing at the door of this little argument, however, is the fact that in speaking of language this way I risk hypostasising and dehistoricising it, treating it as a 'thing'--in this particular instance almost like a pair of glasses one puts on in order to see correctly. But language is not a thing. At least not in any simple sense. It is dynamic not static, dialectical not ontological. My concern here is that the notion and the experience of language as more-than-understanding, as colour, as depth, as the third dimension is growing fainter. My fear is that language has already passed from history altogether and that what we have in its stead is not language at all, but its memory, a shadow on the cave of meaning.