Category Archives: Postmodernism

Etaoin Shrdlu

Today I learned something new about journalism. According to a recent article in the New York Times, reporters sometimes use nonsense words and expressions to mark unfinished parts of articles they’re writing. For example, a busy reporter might realize that he needs a fact or statistic for an article he’s writing. Instead of stopping to look up the information, he decides to finish drafting the article. He types in TK – meaning “to come” – as a reminder to himself, and then he keeps writing.

Or – something that used to happen before newspapers modernized their typesetting practices – a reporter discovers a mistake in a piece she’s been writing. Because of the peculiar way newspaper type used to be set, she can’t fix it herself. She types in the nonsense words Etaoin shrdlu as a signal that the printer needs to look for the problem and fix it.

But sometimes those signals are overlooked and find their way into a printed article. Readers who come across a TK or Etaoin shrdlu are – obviously – going to be confused. Huh? What’s that about?

I’ve made similar boo-boos myself – for example, putting a reminder to myself into the subject line of a blog post, and then forgetting to remove it before I clicked PUBLISH.

And now you’re probably expecting a reminder from me about the importance of slowing down and carefully proofreading what you’ve written.

Or maybe – if you’re a regular visitor to my blog – you know that I try to avoid posting obvious advice, and I’m going to swerve off in an unexpected direction. (Good for you – you’ve hit the jackpot!)

What I want to tell you today is that language has an unlimited supply of tricks and pitfalls for sabotaging your earnest efforts to do quality writing.

After I read the New York Times article about TK and Etaoin shrdlu, I remembered something that happened to a close friend (now deceased, sadly) who wrote religious books for young readers. Joan wanted to write a book about Teresa of Avila, a dynamic 16th-century woman whose spiritual writings are still popular today.

Joan sent a letter to her publisher to see if they were interested in a young people’s biography of St. Teresa. But Joan (a notoriously bad speller) made an error in her letter, asking if the publisher was interested in a book about St. Theresa. Back came a letter saying the company would be delighted to have a book for young people about Therese of Lisieux, a saint Joan was not even slightly interested in.

Common sense (and the opportunity to write another book and make some money) won the day, and Joan really did write that book about St. Therese. (It’s a fine book and still in print!) But Joan never got a shot at the book she really wanted to write.

__________________________________________________

How many writing instructors have you heard droning on and on about the importance of checking your work for errors? How many literature instructors have lectured endlessly about trying to uncover the theme in a novel, or short story, or poem – or analyzing the structure – or explicating the historical context?

All of those activities are useful and important. But wouldn’t English be a far more exciting subject if we sometimes approached it from the perspective of language – that untamed force that resists our mightiest attempts to control it?

My life changed – that is no exaggeration – when one of my professors casually mentioned that he saw Bernard Shaw as a writer “struggling with language.” Those three words have kept my brain busy for years, and there’s no end in sight.

How about you? Do you ever struggle with language – or ponder how a particular writer battled against this wonderfully slippery communication tool of ours? It’s a project I heartily recommend to you!

 

Share

What’s a “Species”?

Sometimes when the topic of postmodernism comes up, I get a disdainful look. “It’s a fad.” “It’s just a word game.” “Isn’t it time you moved on?”

Sigh.

Postmodernism – I insist – is important, useful, and here to stay. I am happy to report – hooray! – that I just came across an article that backs me up. It never mentions postmodernism – the article is actually about science. But the language principles are right there, if you look for them.

The article is from the Washington Post: “Our biological concept of a ‘species’ is a mess.”  Taxonomy – the scientific system for classifying living things – is much more arbitrary and prone to errors than we might expect: it’s a “mushy, complicated concept.”

If you – like me – weren’t terribly good at science in school, you probably assume that the way we classify plants and animals is based on fact. A dog is different from a cat. A daisy is different from a potato.

But classifications aren’t always so obvious. Taxonomy is based on thinking – and because humans are doing the classifications, disagreements and errors are inevitable. Some living things have odd quirks that make them difficult to sort: do they belong in this category – or that one?

This Washington Post article explains that “Science is rarely the rigid discipline we often think it is. It’s worth reminding ourselves that we’re defining the way we talk about these things as we go.”

The article is fun to read (here’s the link again: http://wpo.st/uJxP2)…and it mirrors exactly what language theorists have been saying: The way we name things is – like taxonomy – arbitrary, confusing, and sometimes based on errors.

Here’s an everyday example: the word “upset,” as in “I was upset all day after I talked to Jimmy’s teacher.” Naming your feeling upset won’t be helpful when you’re trying to deal with Jimmy’s problem. You’re putting your feeling into such a broad category that you can’t do much with it.

Suppose, though, you changed upset to something more specific: indignant (with Jimmy, or the teacher, or the school), guilty (because you haven’t been dealing with some important issues with Jimmy), worried (because the problems might affect his future), scared (because the school intimidates you)…you get the idea. Once you’ve named the feeling, you have something to work with.

Right now I’m working on an article about Shaw’s play Major Barbara. One of Shaw’s goals was to prod audiences to have a different reaction to the word “poverty.” You could say he was trying to reclassify it – to move it from the categories of “social problems” and “human weaknesses” to a new category: “crimes.”

I often think about a professor of mine who used to say that the act of naming is one of the most important things that we do. Over the years I have gradually begun to understand what he was talking about – and to agree with him.

 

Share

How Many Ways Can You Tell a Story?

I taught in a state prison for three years, so of course I wanted to read a December 12 article in The New Yorker about former inmates who are pursuing college degrees at U.C. Berkeley. It’s a remarkable story about serious criminals who have dramatically turned their lives around.

The article brought back many memories of my own work with offenders. But it also started me thinking about…writing. More specifically, I was reminded of Ann Berthoff’s assertion that writing is about “making meaning.”

The ex-cons in the New Yorker article insisted that they don’t deserve credit for their success. They worried that amazing-success-against-all-odds stories about individual inmates might soften the harsh truths about crime and prisons in the US: That the system is inherently racist and tends to drive criminals ever deeper into despair, hopelessness, and further criminal behavior.

Here’s how one of the ex-cons explained it: “When someone reads a story about someone who made good—the redemption narrative—what that does is that lets society off the hook. Because we can say, Oh, look, it works! The system isn’t racist.”

To put it differently: The rare exception who bucks the system and makes a success of his life is paraded around as proof that prisons are doing a great job of rehabilitating lawbreakers. Which they’re not, according to the ex-cons at Berkeley.

What I want to do right now is look at a phrase that ex-con used: “redemption narrative.” We tend to believe that the meaning of a story is embedded in the events. A story can be told only one way. It really happened.

Or did it?

One of the important tenets of our postmodern era is the discovery that we create the meaning of our stories. Psychology has made wide use of this principle. If you seek counseling, very likely you’ll be encouraged to reframe your stories. Your miserable childhood, for example, may turn out to be the impetus that helped you figure out a better way to rear your own children. A seemingly beautiful love story might turn into a narrative of control and manipulation.

Back in August The New Yorker published another article that challenges a “redemption narrative”: The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad.

During the Civil War era, many brave people (Harriet Tubman is the most famous example) faced considerable risk to help slaves escape to freedom. The system of guides, trails, and hiding places was called the Underground Railroad, and it has been receiving much attention of late, with two recent novels and a TV series.

Harriet Tubman and other “conductors” on the Underground Railroad set a shining example for more ordinary mortals like you and me. But some historians are expressing concern about the fictionalized accounts that are so popular right now. Kathryn Schulz, who wrote the New Yorker article, cites numerous dangers.

One is that the “atrocities of slavery” tend to be attributed to “individual pathology” rather than widespread moral apathy. Schulz also discusses fears that these heroic stories will “assuage our conscience, distract us from tragedy with thrilling adventures, give us a comparatively comfortable place to rest in a profoundly uncomfortable past.”

Now let’s turn our attention to our own stories and our own writing projects. You – reading this – have stories to tell and wisdom to share. What meanings are you assigning to your stories – and are you sure they’re the meanings you want?

I encourage you to spend some time thinking about your favorite short stories, plays, novels, movies, memoirs – everything that contains a story. Dig deep. Analyze. Do your favorite authors ever tell their stories from an unexpected perspective? How do they do it, and what is the result?

Here’s a seasonal example. Every year I watch Alastair Sim’s masterful performance as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 film A Christmas Carol. Talk about a “redemption narrative”!

But when you watch the film (especially if you’ve seen it more than 50 times, as I have), something else emerges. One surprise is that the spiritual meaning of Christmas plays a much smaller part in the movie than you might expect. Far more prominent is its critique of England’s (and perhaps our) social problems.

Even more astonishing are the changes in the way we feel about Ebenezer Scrooge. Despite his stubbornness and meanness, we begin to like him and care about him, even before his Christmas-morning conversion.

To put it another way: Perhaps it is we – not Ebenezer – who need redeeming – who need to learn a new way to relate to people who seem inherently selfish and unlikable.

Great writers tend to prefer – even insist on – a fresh retelling of their stories. Can you follow their example? Try it!

 

Share

Imaginary or Real?

Today’s post is a follow-up to something I said in a recent post about “gaslighting” (manipulating people into questioning their sanity): “If you’re a student of postmodernism, you know that naming these forms of manipulation empowers victims to fight back.”

My purpose today is to draw a connection between gaslighting and Jacques Derrida’s insistence that “there is nothing outside the text.” That quotation from his book Of Grammatology has often been used to show that deconstruction is a silly and irrelevant word game. Postmodern thinkers supposedly believe that the world is just a figment of our imagination.

I’m going to argue that deconstruction is both serious and relevant. Our useful term “gaslighting” is a perfect example.

What Derrida actually said (remember that he was writing in French!) was “there is no outside-text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texts). We can’t get away from language because we need words to process our experiences.

Even people who don’t have access to language (think of Helen Keller before Anne Sullivan became her teacher) have a system of symbols that serve as words. (For example, Keller used to stroke her face as a sign for “mother.”)

Suddenly Derrida doesn’t seem so nutty!

But there’s more. An important postmodern dictum is that if something doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t exist. You’re allowed to be skeptical about that – but I’m asking you to at least consider what it means.

Gaslighting is a perfect example. In the original Gas Light play (thanks, Jenna!), Bella Manningham thinks she’s going crazy. The truth, though, is that her husband Jack is manipulating events to make her distrust her perceptions and thoughts. She is powerless.

Fast forward to a modern-day woman or man – “Dana” – who’s being manipulated in the same way by a romantic partner, spouse, family member, or boss. Dana – like Bella Manningham – is powerless.

But then Dana talks to a therapist who explains the term “gaslighting.” Dana begins to see a pattern: Every thought, word, and action has been discounted by the person in power: “You’re overreacting. “You’re hysterical.” “You’re confused.” Once Dana recognizes the pattern and starts looking for other ways to respond, the game is over.

The same principle applies to many psychological issues. There’s no exit ramp when you’re in the grip of a feeling. It engulfs you. But find a name for what you’re feeling – depression or anxiety, for example – and you can put some distance between the disorder and yourself. Once you find a new vantage point, everything begins to look different.

Talk to any parent, and they’ll say they often tell their children to “Use your words!” What they’re really teaching children is that if you name the problem or feeling, you can classify it and start to deal with it.

Here’s a sad example: the lack of a name is one major reason sexual abuse is so devastating to children. Because they can’t process what has happened to them, the abuse falls into the unconscious and runs rampant, hidden underground where no one can see what it’s doing. But if we teach children that the problem has a name, they can classify it and start finding their way back to health.

I’m also thinking about Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique and its exposure of “the problem that has no name.” Women’s lives were never the same again after Friedan published her book.

Words are more than just a label that we slap on things. They organize and interpret our existence. Let’s be grateful for the gift of language – and for the thinkers who are trying to pull back the curtains on its mysterious inner workings.

A Gas Light

              Gas Light

 

Share

James Hillman

Four big writing projects are looming. Don’t feel sorry for me: I’m having fun with them. But to escape from the pressure this weekend, I did some recreational reading that had nothing to do with the tasks ahead.

On Saturday I took a break to reread (as I thought) the New York Times obituary of James Hillman, a psychologist and postmodern writer who…quite simply…transformed my life and my brain. Hillman died in October 2011, and I was shaken by his death, even though he was 85 and I’d known he was ill.

The obituary mentioned that a writer named Dick Russell was working on a two-volume biography of Hillman, with Part I due in two years. Let’s see: 2011 + 2 = 2013. How did it happen that a book certain to rock my universe was published three years ago without my knowing about it?

Surely I’d read that obituary back in 2011 when Hillman died. I’m such a maniac that I’ve read just about everything Hillman published. How did I forget that a biography was forthcoming? Ten minutes after I’d read the obituary, I had the Kindle edition of The Life and Ideas of James Hillman: Volume I: The Making of a Psychologist loaded on to my ASUS Transformer. Do you want to guess how I spent the rest of the weekend?

Please note that I’m not encouraging you to read the biography, which is a book that only a Hillman fanatic could love. I’m finding it tough going. Here’s a typical Hillman quote from the biography: “Analysis is the result of the decline in collective culture….It becomes healing and spiritual discipline when it is an individual phenomenon in the protestant model of I, ‘ego,’ who will work on transformation and development and healing.”

Do you know what that’s all about? I don’t.

So – why has Hillman been so important to me? Lots of reasons.

I first came across Hillman’s name back in 1987 when I was trying to finish my doctoral dissertation. After an exhilarating start, I was finding the going almost impossibly difficult. I had fallen into a severe depression, mixed with fears that I might be impossibly crazy and would never get better. (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t, and I did.)

While I was grappling with this mess, I came across an intriguing paragraph from a book called Insearchby a writer I’d never heard of – James Hillman – quoted in another book. Something stirred in my gut, and I started checking libraries.  I was lucky enough to find a copy of Insearch in a library in the next town. (Among other problems, my husband and I were so broke that I couldn’t afford to buy any books.) I read Insearch three times through without stopping. What I experienced on almost every page was a voice saying, “You’re not crazy.”

I wish I’d taken notes while I was reading. I have no idea what points Hillman was making that had such a powerful impact on me. What I do know is that I slowly started finding my way back.

I’ve since learned that most doctoral students go through a similar experience, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something archetypal – something far bigger than the typical stresses of graduate school – that causes those crises.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the most important lessons I learned from James Hillman: Our problems aren’t always personal. They don’t always hark back to a dysfunctional childhood. They’re not always caused by character defects or relationship problems. Large, mysterious forces swirl within us and outside us, and sometimes we have to fight for our lives to come to terms with them.

Thank you for that, James Hillman.

Here’s another example. In 1992 I was all set to travel to a Shaw conference – my first – to be part of a panel of New Shaw Scholars. I had written a paper about Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion that I considered (and still do) the proudest achievement of my life. I had a suitcase packed, and an attractive outfit and makeup ready to go, and an appointment to get my hair done….

I was diagnosed with shingles in my left eye less than a week before my flight to Virginia for the conference. I was a mess – an angry rash on my forehead, an eye patch, and persistent headaches and exhaustion. My bewildered doctor gave me permission to go to the conference anyway. (To his everlasting credit, he never said, “Are you nuts?” and over months of treatment he saved my vision in that eye.)

I presented my paper, attended every session of the conference, flew back home – and spent the next month lying in bed in a darkened room.

Common sense would diagnose overwork (I was juggling an impossible schedule at the time) and overexcitement. But Hillman, I think, would say that the academic gods had thrown down a challenge: Proving that I was worthy to claim a serious place in the world of scholarship. (I was a community college English professor, and people of my ilk didn’t do serious academic work.)

I shook my fist at the gods and dragged myself to the airport.

I hope that everyone who goes through a dark time (and that’s roughly 100% of the human race) is able to find the help they need, just as I did. But I want to veer off in another direction here.

James Hillman knew how to make meaning. I have never – after hours and hours spent reading his books – come across a trivial or banal idea. It’s true that I sometimes hold my head in dismay and wonder what the hell he’s talking about. But that’s a small price to pay for the all exciting discoveries I’ve made while reading his books.

Do you aim for that kind of excitement when you write?

James Hillman

Share

Struggling with Language

I subscribe to a daily electronic newsletter called Today in Literature. Each issue features several literary events related to the date. The stories are warm, revealing, and sometimes funny – and a bonus is that I’ve learned a lot about literature that wasn’t covered in my academic programs.

A recent issue commemorated the publication of Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust in 1939. West chose the Hollywood film industry as his subject, and his novel is widely hailed as a searing critique of popular culture.

One point in the article particularly caught my eye. West intended to write a novel along the lines of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath…”but when he sat down at the typewriter, everything came out as satire.”

West was such a superb novelist that The Day of the Locust is listed in the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of the Century. Why wasn’t he able to write the novel he wanted?

The common-sense explanation is that West  – despite his gifts – was not a strong enough writer to complete the task. But there’s another possible explanation: West was struggling with language, and he came out on the losing side.

Crazy as it sounds, that’s the explanation I’m going with. And I’m going to push it further to argue that everyone who sits down to write – from high-school freshmen to Nobel Prize winners – sometimes gets caught up in that struggle.

When someone writes a weak paper or an unpublishable book or article, we usually diagnose immaturity or a lack of skill, experience, or discipline. We think of language as a tool, like a hammer or screwdriver. When something goes wrong with the writing process, it’s obviously our fault: Tools are lifeless and inert.

I’m going to argue otherwise. One of the most important insights from postmodernism is that language has powers of its own, along with a strong will that can resist our fiercest efforts to keep it under control.

I’ve often begun a writing task with a clear idea of what I wanted to write – only to see it wander off into parts unknown, despite my best efforts to steer it. Writers face this struggle all the time, and you can see the evidence in the unfinished projects that clutter our hard drives.

I want to focus on this problem today because I think we often misdiagnose our writing problems, blaming ourselves (or, if we’re English instructors, our students) for a problem that’s much bigger than we are.

As evidence, I’m going to cite a therapeutic tool favored by many psychologists: Freewriting about a problem.

A friend sought professional help in shoring up a foundering relationship. Her therapist told her to fold a piece of paper and write all the positives on one side, the negatives on the other side.

My friend was furious. She was paying $100 for advice that her mother could have given her! Besides, my friend had been thinking about the pros and cons for months. The exercise was clearly a waste of time.

But the therapist insisted, and my friend folded her piece of paper and started writing. Fifteen minutes later she looked up, astonished. “I’m breaking up with him,” she told the therapist. The act of writing released so many insights that she saw clearly – for the first time – what she needed to do.

I find it useful to think of writing as a kind of archeological dig – you never know what you’re going to find. Spoken words can work the same way: How often have you been astonished to hear a new idea or fresh insight coming out of your mouth in the middle of a conversation?

But there’s a downside too. That tendency to go deeper and farther is wonderful if you’re on a search for the unknown – but it can create huge problems if you’re aiming for a sharp focus.

The next time you’re stuck in the middle of a writing task, take a moment to ask yourself whether the problem lies not with you but with the mysterious medium of language. It’s even ok to get angry for a moment or two with Cadmus, the god of writing (and a lot better than getting mad at yourself!).

Defeated!

                                       Defeated!


 

Share

What’s So Bad about Writing?

Two days ago I asked you to listen to two songs (“More than Words” and “Gentle on My Mind”) to see if you could find a common theme between them. (I could have added one more – “Show Me” from My Fair Lady – but it didn’t fit another reason I wanted you to listen to the songs: to make you melt.)

Here’s my main point: All three songs convey an anti-language message. Hartford sums it up in “Gentle on My Mind” when he sings that he’s “not shackled by forgotten words and bonds and the ink stains that have dried upon some line.” Love is real; words are empty. Eliza Doolittle makes the same point in “Show Me” (“Tell me no dreams filled with desire. If you’re on fire, show me!”). And the Extreme musicians plead for something “More than Words” to show that “your love for me is real.”

Jacques Derrida has written at length about our cultural bias against language – a tradition that goes back at least as far as Plato. I’ve already mentioned one reason for that bias: Words lack the vitality of lived experience. There’s a good example in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

Queen_of_Hearts

“The horror of that moment,” the King went on, “I shall never, never forget!”
“You will, though,” the Queen said, “if you don’t make a memorandum of it.”

As time goes by, passions fade and memories grow dim. A written account of an extraordinary experience is just a shadow of what we were feeling at the time.

But you and I are writers. Are we wasting our time in pursuit of a lifeless art? I don’t think so – and I have a quotation from one of the masters to back me up. It’s from the Preface to a collection of letters between Bernard Shaw and actress Ellen Terry. They had a love affair on paper, rarely meeting face-to-face even though they both lived in London. Here’s what Shaw said about their unconventional love story:

Let those who complain that it was all on paper remember that only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue, and abiding love.

Now I want you to recall the feelings you had when you listened to “More than Words” and “Gentle on My Mind” (or any song or poem that strikes you right in the heart). Where would we be without words to open our souls and teach us about love, beauty, and goodness?

I think Derrida is right when he talks about actions-speak-louder-than-words bias in our culture. But he’s also right when he insists on the enduring value of written words. We writers have untold opportunities to create adventures for our readers. What could be more exciting?

What are you writing about right now?

Share

The Vanishing Palm Tree

Friends entering our living room for the first time always ask the same question: “That palm tree – is it real?”

Chamaedorea seifrizii

               Chamaedorea seifrizii

Yes, it’s real. You have to understand that my husband loves palms, so he has to have at least one to call his own – even though we live in a small fourth-floor condo.

Actually there have been two palm trees in that spot. The first – an unusual species called Chamaedorea erumpens – was later replaced by a Chamaedorea seifrizii, a widely available species commonly called a bamboo palm.

It would be logical to assume that the first palm succumbed to a disease, or outgrew the space, or no longer matched our decor. Wrong on all three counts. In fact we don’t know precisely when the switch took place. Call it the vanishing palm tree.

OK, I’ve teased you long enough. Here’s what happened: Palm taxonomists changed the name, deciding that there never was a Chamaedorea erumpens. Palms with that name were reclassified as variations of the familiar Chamaedorea seifrizii.

Does the name of our palm tree matter? Not to Charlie and me. We think it’s beautiful and admire it daily. But if we were collectors, the name might make a huge difference. Someone who’s trying to study as many species as possible wouldn’t want to allocate money and space for a duplicate specimen, even if it’s beautiful and healthy.

Why am I writing about palm trees on a language blog? I want to introduce you to an essential postmodern language concept: Language creates our reality. When we decide that the differences between two items are significant enough to be noticed, we give them different names. Things exist – in a sense – only because we name them.

Here’s what’s even more interesting: Postmodern language theory is simply restating what scientists have known for centuries. Names organize our world for us, via the same thinking tools that taxonomists use: splitting (separating members of a category) and lumping (finding connections between things that seem to be unrelated). In fact I think you could make a case for calling Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) one of the fathers of postmodernism.

Renaming is often the result of a complex thinking process. I just read a provocative article about ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder): No Diagnosis Left Behind: The Not-So-Hidden Cause Behind the A.D.H.D. Epidemic.

ADHD is a psychiatric diagnosis for children (and some adults) with persistent behavior problems. Medication can make a huge difference for these patients and the people who live and work with them. But some pediatricians are raising important questions about the way ADHD is diagnosed today: Are medical professionals overdoing it?

Sometimes it comes down to a naming issue: Where do you draw the line between a “behavior problem” and “kids just acting like kids”? Some professionals are worried that an ADHD diagnosis could result in future legal and medical problems for a group of children whose only problem is that they can’t sit still in school. [Please note that no one is denying that ADHD exists and that treatment is valuable.]

To put it differently: When we’re talking about a large number of childen, it makes a huge difference whether you lean more towards “splitting” (placing many kinds of behavior in the “psychiatric disorder” category) or towards “lumping” (assigning most childish misbehavior to the “normal” category).

The debate belongs to the professionals, and we’ll leave it to them. My point is that when we view the debate from the vantage point of language, we add another whole layer of meaning to the discussion – and that, in my opinion, is a good thing.

There’s much more to say about classifications, categories, and naming, but I just want to introduce these topics today. Here’s a project for you: Start thinking about naming. Here are two activities to get you started:

  • Criminal Justice – can you think of any behaviors that used to be labeled crimes but are now perfectly legal – and vice versa?
  • Health – can you think of any substances that used to be labeled dangerous that are now considered safe – and vice versa?

If you’re multi-lingual or multi-cultural, you have an exceptional doorway into the ways that language organizes experience. Does your first language make any distinctions that other languages ignore? And were you introduced to any new concepts when you learned a new language? (I’m thinking of the Welsh word hiraeth, the Finnish word sisu,  the Spanish word duende, and the Danish word hyggelig.)

Bottom line: Think about any great writer, and you’ll find that he or she used words in new ways to expand and explain human experience. Understanding the significance of names is the first step.

I’ll have more to say about this later!

Share

The Statue of Liberty

I’m typing this on an airplane flying from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to Orlando, about 45 minutes from where I live in Central Florida. I had a wonderful time in New York – so good, in fact, that I can’t pick one event and call it the highlight.

My first priority on this trip was to see a performance of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. A secondary one was to check off yet another item on my gotta-go list of New York attractions. That one I chose this year didn’t quite get done, for a happy reason: There was so much to see at Ellis Island (former immigration station for New York) that I’ll have to go back.

Small groups of people are permitted to don hardhats and visit the decaying buildings that comprised the immigration hospital at Ellis Island. I was one of the lucky few yesterday, and it was an amazing glimpse at what our forebears went through to enter this country – and the services that were provided for them. My grandparents came through Ellis Island, and I wish – I wish – I knew what that experience had been like for them. (Everybody: Please write your memoirs. Don’t worry about punctuation or organization, and don’t try to write a besteller. Just write them down.)

But today’s real topic is the Statue of Liberty, which we passed on the ferry that took us to Ellis Island. I’ve been to Liberty Island several times to make the wobbly-legged walk up the spiraling stairs to the Crown on Lady Liberty’s head.

Her real name is Liberty Enlightening the World. She was a gift from France honoring the friendship between our countries and America’s commitment to freedom. The French, having endured their own bloody struggle for liberty, were impressed by America’s determination to allow ideas – all ideas, including the scary ones – to circulate freely. It’s still a strongly held value: No matter how bone-headed your thoughts are, no one can stop you from expressing them.

There’s a nice tie-in here with my previous post on dissemination, but I’m going to swerve in a direction you might not be expecting. Instead of talking about the importance of free speech, I want to use the Statue of Liberty as an example of Derrida’s ideas about dissemination.

As I pointed out in that earlier post, you can’t control what happens to a message once you start disseminating it. It can be misunderstood or misquoted. It might be mistranslated, shortened, or lengthened. It can fall into the wrong hands. There’s no way to predict the journey a message will take once you open your hands and allow it to fly away.

The Statue of Liberty is a perfect example of the unpredictable nature of dissemination. In 1886, when Liberty Enlightening the World was dedicated in New York Harbor, it bore an intellectual messsage: Lady Liberty’s torch symbolized the quest for wisdom.

But the immigrants who passed by that statue as they made their way to Ellis Island saw something different:  A loving mother whose torch lit the way to the Golden Door. In 1903, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus was inscribed on the statue’s pedestal:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Within a few years the statue’s meaning changed yet again: Her image was emblazoned on war bonds and patriotic posters to inspire Americans to fight a treacherous enemy in two world wars.

Could her meaning change again? Of course. There’s no telling what thoughts and feelings she will inspire 100 years from now – or 50, or 10.

The same holds true for our own messages. No matter how clearly you think you stated it (think of Auguste Bartholdi and  the years he spent designing and sculpting his famous statue), there’s no telling what message will be conveyed to those who behold it. Such are the marvels – and frustrations – of our wonderful language.4066553303_dd5401d1a0_o

Share

Dissemination

A few years ago, the email system at the college where I was teaching went haywire. Long-deleted emails came back to life and circulated randomly throughout the system. Some found their way to the President’s computer, and embarrassed faculty and staff members had to explain past events they’d assumed were both private and forgotten.

I don’t know whether any of my emails took that journey, but it wouldn’t have mattered if they did. When email first came to the college, a wise friend told me to treat all my electronic communications as if they were public property. I was smart enough to heed his advice: no gossip, no secrets, no snide jokes.

So the point is that we should all be careful with email, right? Wrong.

Today’s topic is dissemination, a term Jacques Derrida used to describe the random – often problematic – journeys that language can take.

If you’ve studied postmodern linguistic theory, you know that many mistakes we label “human error” can actually be laid at the door of language. All behaviors involving words are risky. Wise politicians try to avoid issuing flippant statements that can surface later in an opponent’s TV ad. Professional broadcasters are taught to treat all microphones as if they were live. And many of us learned as teenagers that there’s no safe place to hide a diary.

Let’s return to that wise advice I was given when I started using email – and expand it. You’re reading this blog because you want to sharpen your writing skills. One of the most important lessons you can learn is to treat all written communication with respect. You never know when your own words will take off in an unforeseen direction:

  • someone accidentally hits “reply to all” instead of just “reply”
  • an instructor shares something you’ve written with another student or instructor
  • while you’re out of the room, someone reads a piece of paper on your desk
  • someone looks over your shoulder at your computer screen
  • an intimate letter you’ve written is passed around to other people
  • someone misses the point of a joke and accuses you of racism or sexism

Another story. One evening I went to a meeting in the office complex attached to a church. Because the speaker function on the phone at the receptionist’s desk hadn’t been turned off, everyone at the meeting heard a parishioner leave a lengthy voicemail message – intended only for the pastor – about his marital problems.

Ouch.

Of course the pastor should have leaped up and intercepted the message. Because he didn’t, I assign most of the blame for that violation of privacy to him. But it’s also true that anyone could have walked into that complex and played back the saved messages. Those things happen.

Language is powerful, that power can be used for both good and for ill, and – most important – the person actually using the language cannot control where those words go and how they’re used.

You and I constantly size up the people we meet to decide whether or not they’re trustworthy. We need to treat language with the same wariness and respect.Eavesdropping Adobe

Share