This week I came across a post by Ian Bogost in the Atlantic called, “Shaka, When the Walls Fell“. The subject matter, of all things, was an episode of Star Trek, but more generally, language, figurative language, and meaning. If, like me, you are not a Trekkie, Bogost has your back. He recounts the episode nearly play-by-play while leading you gently in to the deep waters of language and meaning. I suggest reading the piece, so I won’t give a grand redux here. Rather, here are some main points and questions that I have been thinking about since:
Bogost offers a subtle and powerful critique of the way metaphor is typically depicted. The characters on the Enterprise are trying to talk to another species, the Tamarians, who communicate purely through short verbal referents to historical, cultural occurrences. Some call it metaphor, some images, and Bogost suggests: “Troi and Picard can’t help but interpret Tamarian through their (and our) cultural obsession with mimicry: Metaphorical language operates not by signification, but as poetry, by transforming the real in a symbolic mirror.”
He doesn’t go here (and in fact goes a completely different direction), but he has me wondering when (or if ever) words, whether figurative or as referent or sign, are ever real, or if they are always merely mirrors. I want to veer to the other end of that proposition. There are times that I feel words like weights inside me. They dangle before dropping from my thoughts. My eyes tighten in response and recast my vision and memory. This isn’t always. But there are times when words, especially those operating as metaphor, couldn’t feel more “real” (whatever that is).
Bogost concludes that “strategy” would be the best way to depict the Tamarian language. He argues that with short referents like “Uzani. His army. With fist open,” the Tamarians aren’t referring to something other than what they mean, but are enacting a speech act inclusive of itself. Defining strategy as: “A strategy is a plan of action, an approach or even, at the most abstract, a logic,” he continues:
Here we might distinguish between the invocation of a particular logic and the simulation of a creature, thing, or idea by replicating its image. The simulation of life in art often concerns the reproduction of surfaces: in painting, the appearance of form, perspective, or the rendition of light; in literature the appearance of character or event; in photography and cinema the rendition of the world as it appears through optical element and upon emulsion or sensor; in theater the rendition of the behavior of a character or situation.
While all these examples “simulate” to various extents, they do so by a process of rendering. For example, the writer might simulate a convincing verbal intercourse by producing a credibility that allows the reader to take it as reality. Likewise, the actor might render a visible behavior or intonation that is suggestive of a particular emotion, event, or history that the theatrical or cinematic viewer takes as evidence for some unseen motivation.
A logic is also a behavior, but it is a behavior unlike the behavior of the literary or theatrical character, for whom behaving involves producing an outward sign of some deeper but abstracted motivation, understanding, or desire. By contrast logics are pure behaviors. They are abstract and intangible and yet also real.
All of this reminds me of the YouTube sensation from a few years back of a three year-old reciting “Litany” by Billy Collins. Many of the comments questioned the value of the child’s memorization and recitation, because the child lacked the “understanding” of the words. I wonder if the words, as sound and rhythm, and as vocalized by a three year-old, are inclusive speech acts, are logic, pure behavior, not simulations or referents, but meaning made, pure meaning. At least the mother and another commenter seem to think that is possible (posted here below the video).
Perhaps I am drawn to Bogost’s propositions in this piece because of a final critique he levels at understanding language as description and our cultural tendency to think we make meaning through narrative. I am not a fan of calling everything “story,” and no matter how much I have studied and considered it, I don’t understand what people mean when they say “narrative.” I am far more drawn to a world of words that Bogost concludes with: “one built of weird, rusty machines whose gears squeal as they grind against one another, rather than as stories into which we might write ourselves as possible characters.”
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