Representation And Text

Representation and Text #

Words are the only net we have to catch the universe in. (?) Thomas Keneally.

The limits of my language means the limits of my world. Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Words empty as the wind, are best left unsaid” Homer

Language is a complex tool invented by society. As any artefact it can have beneficial or detrimental effects. It can be used and abused. Words are powerful. They can enlighten. They can save hearts and minds. They can also corrupt and destroy. The can support barbarism or cure it. Despite the aphorism that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me, words can be weaponised and have a damaging effect on us - they can poison our soul and coarsen public discourse.

They are not the only expressive tool, making the first two statements above a bit presumptuous.

Reality is also at the mercy of representation by words; language can never actually accurately reflect what is real. Distortions distance us from reality. It is the deceit of words and sleight of hand which may not involve any deliberate falsehood, but inferentially manipulates our perceptions, what Wittgensteincalls the “bewitchment of our intelligence” by means of language and eristic argument.

Richard Ackland maintains, “the authority of language is threatened, subverted and even violated by perception manipulation like this. Sometimes the exquisite finery of the law can take your breath away.”

Language can also never achieve pure representation. It cannot mean by itself – it is determined by context, intention and collective agreement. There are things which are inexpressible - ineluctable - ineffable. Words are not the only net in which to express ourselves - there are many other means. For that we turn to metaphor, sound, spell. Graphic art aims to capture a moment of social truth, be it beauty, atrocity, abuse of power… in the guise of pictures.

A democratic society needs people who have the linguistic abilities which enable them to discuss, evaluate and make sense of what they are told, as well as to take effective action on the basis of their understanding…. Otherwise there can be no genuine participation, but only the imposition of ideas of those who are linguistically capable. Kingman (1988)

Aldous Huxley- in Education on the Non-Verbal Level has seen the devastating effects of the abuse of language throughout history to manipulate the masses.

Even on the verbal level, where they are most at home, educators have done a good deal less than they might reasonably have been expected to do in explaining to young people the nature, the limitations, the huge potentialities for evil as well as for good, of that greatest of all human inventions, language, Children should be taught that words are indispensable but also can be fatal - the only begetters of all civilization, all science, all consistency of high purpose, all angelic goodness, and the only begetters at the same time of all superstition, all collective madness and stupidity, all worse-than-bestial diabolism, all the dismal historical succession of crimes in the name of God, King, Nation, Party, Dogma. Never before, thanks to the techniques of mass communication, have so many listeners been so completely at the mercy of so few speakers. Never have misused words - those hideously efficient tools of all tyrants, warmongers, persecutors, and heresy-hunters - been as widely and so disastrously influential as they are today. Generals, advertisers, and all the rulers of totalitarian states — all have good reason for disliking the idea of universal education in the rational use of language. To the military, propagandist, and authoritarian mind such training seems, (and rightly seems) profoundly subversive. To those who think that liberty is a good thing, and who hope that it may some day become possible for more people to realise more of their desirable) potentialities In a society fit for free, fully human individuals to live in, a thorough education in the nature of language, in its uses and abuses, seems indispensable. Whether in fact the mounting pressures of over-population and over-organisation in a world still enthusiastically dedicated to nationalistic Idolatry will permit this kind of subversive linguistic education to be adopted by even the more democratic nations remains to be seen.

Words Matter #

John F. Kennedy claimed that Winston Churchill “harnessed the English language and sent it off to war”. He could have added and saved the free world from the barbarous evil of totalitarianism. It is widely recognised that his speech “We shall fight them on the beaches…” was crucial as a turning point in Britain’s determination to fight to the death.

Words can support really good causes or monstrously evil ones. Unifying leaders deploy language to heal and inspire; divisive language is used to polarize and poison the atmosphere.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Martin Luther’s Freedom speeches rallied their followers. Contrast Henry V’s call to arms with Richard III’s.

Bob Hawke’s appeal to consensus with John Howard’s toxic divide and rule “We shall decide who comes to Australia”. Obama’s “Yes we can” with Trump’s scare campaign and ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees with him.

The question of linguistic provenance is raised in Humpty Dumpty’s assertion that words mean whatever he wants them to mean. This was put in plain language by Nietzsche’s observation: “interpretation is a matter of wielding power”. 200 years earlier Dr Samuel Johnson had cautioned that “power is insufficient evidence of truth”.

English lexicographers do not dictate the meanings of words; they reflect current usages. English is not prescriptive; it is amorphic, organic, ephemeral, extremely forgiving, but democratic. We do not have to despair at the decay of language. Language purifies itself in the same way that the ocean does. Popularised technicality goes in impatient vogues. It has a brief life. As a dead body or decaying matter does not last long in the ocean; so bad usage does not last long in language. However there is some evidence, even the oceans can become over burdened.

Authorities who deny the provenance of commonly accepted meanings of words endanger their own credibility and authority. In recent cases Judges have ruled that “absolutely” does not always mean that. Correspondence between the Queen of England and her Australian representative was “deemed” “personal”, and a Canadian Judge benignly ameliorated a woman’s psychiatrically diagnosed Schizophrenia as mere “eccentricity”. All could be seen as examples of Orwellian warping of reality.

Sometimes we need to call a “soil relocation implement” a spade.

Ron Wilson, a conservative High Court Judge, investigating the Stolen Generation began calling it genocide; a very big move. He is credited with starting the culture wars, and, of course, he was criticised roundly for it.

Gillian Triggs, started in commercial law representing the Australian Government in dispute with East Timor over oil and gas boundaries. While the law was right, she now questions the ethics of it. As Human Right Commissioner she became radicalised.

Gillian maintains the job does that to you. “You start off over here using very, very careful language, and you find yourself faced with the facts and the law, and you reach a conclusion. Perhaps you surprise yourself …. [When] I reached a conclusion that I thought was inescapable I spoke up". She became under extreme and sustained attack by the extreme right for her advocacy on Asylum seekers.

When questioned about the lack of progress in human rights, Gillian suggested we might have to coarsen our language.

Whenever you complain about something it is may be best to use measured language. Extreme or intemperate language can weaken your case, while temperate language implies a sounder, measured or controlled response rather than an emotional reaction.

Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, is credited with fomenting the American move to independence. His language was pugnacious, provocative and effective. He argued unequivocally, forcefully and relentlessly for independence from King George III. He referred to him as “sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, - a brutish man, - the royal brute of England and accused him of sleeping with blood on his soul”. It worked. Thomas Jefferson was impressed; Benjamin Franklin felt it lacked dignity.

Issues can become bedevilled by preconceptions, ideology and idiocy. Poets do it with enchantment, advertisers arrest our intelligence long enough to get our money, politicians as Professor Marshall McLuhan writes:

Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object now. And to generate heat, not light, is the intention.”

Wittgenstein calls it the bewitchment of our intelligence. Lawyers do it as theatrical rhetoric to win cases.

The ineffability of Language #

Language is limited and inadequate to express the profound depths of our thinking and feeling. This is a recurring motif in the writings of T.S. Eliot:

Emotions are sometimes too complex for simple rational language and the thoughts too deep for intellectual articulation. For this reason Poets resort to metaphor, images, rhythm, style and myth. For that we turn to metaphor, sound, spell.

“It’s strange that words are so inadequate. Yet, like the asthmatic struggling for breath, so the lover must struggle for words.

“I cannot tell you what happened. I can only tell you about events. And people to whom nothing has happened cannot understand the meaninglessness of events.”

And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean! Prufrock.

It is the inadequacies and limitations of language that make other expressive means necessary. There are many. Linguists maintain that in any dialogue, words by themselves convey less than 10% of the message.

Body language, stance, expression, tone and many other factors create more reliable meaning. We have many other expressive outlets such as music, art, dance, sport…. Words are not the only net in which to capture or convey meaning.

Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves.

The lack of genuine communication as words have lost their meaning and language is not always a reliable tool for genuine discourse. Language is used to reveal the shallowness of relationships and the emptiness of modern society.

In Lewis Carrol’s famous Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty says to Alice.

When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.

Alice’s reply was: “The question is whether you can make words mean different things.”

Humpty: The only question is, who is to be master?

Absurdists agree with Humpty. Language like truth is relative and subjective, not absolute or objective like Alice assumes. Politicians and other persuasive writers have debased our language so that many words have lost their integrity.

As Vanessa Redgrave commented: “In England you have had centuries when words are totally divorced from truth.

Virtue signalling #

Words change the way we think about things; by altering the language we reframe issues.

In a remarkable coup, same sex couples named themselves “gay” rather than pejoratives like, poofters, shirt lifters or pillow biters.

Thatcher reframed capitalism as free markets or free enterprise and de-regulation as ridding us of red tape or hurdles to growth and wealth creation.

All authorities are charged with keeping our language intact. When Activists described Ms Dhu, an aboriginal death in custody, “as being dragged “like a dead kangaroo” from her cell, down the corridor, to the hospital’, a coroner merely described it as “inhumane” and “unprofessional”.

CCTV vision of Ms Dhu being carried and dropped was “profoundly disturbing”. The coroner, euphemistically, considered the matter “unfortunate” some 25 times. It was “regrettable” 11 times. “Sad”, 12 times.

Not systemically culpable? Indictable? No sanctions?

Pathology became a way to avoid blame – disguising violence as disadvantage or doom. Canadian Aboriginal scholars suggest that inquests see Indigenous bodies in custody as “already dead” and their suffering as nothing but “sad, timely deaths – “the only thing we can expect from a disappearing race.” US scholars investigating police violence suggest that it “masks systemic harm”, turning “systemic government misconduct” into “anecdotes”. Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet and law scholar. She undertook this research at Harvard Law as a Fulbright and Roberta Sykes scholar - extracts from The Guardian

Another commonly used misnomer is “unfortunately” to ameliorate a systemic failure. This blames Fortuna, who is an unlikely suspect. Generally the fault is a deliberate policy decision, non-compliance or callous disregard by a nameless and faceless unaccountable bureaucrat.

Another police inquiry found a deputy commission had done something “unlawful”, but not “illegal”.

Another inquiry labelled questionable conduct as “not actionable misconduct”.

Rupert Murdoch, John Howard, Donald Trump and radical conservatives taunt intellectuals by calling them “elites” to prove themselves, of-the-people.

Hannah Arenht urges us to preserve freedom, we have to become guardians of our language. We have to keep it alive and working. That means being very intentional about using words. That means, for example, calling lies, “lies.” - not a “misstatement,” The definition of “lie” involves intent—a lie is a statement made with the intention to deceive. and the court does not have conclusive information on intent. The problem is, the euphemism “misstatement” clearly connotes a lack of intent.

Using words to lie, destroys language. Using words to cover up lies, however subtly, destroys language. Validating incomprehensible drivel with polite reaction also destroys language. This isn’t merely a question of the prestige of the writing art or the credibility of the legal domain: it is about the basic survival of trust in the public sphere.

Here is what Confucius had to say on the topic:

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.

An insurance company disallowed a claim because though the client had insured for flood damage, they were not insured for “rising water”.

Words have protean possibilities subject to sloppy usage.


T.S. Eliot notes in “Burnt Norton” - Four Quartets:

Words strain Crack and sometimes break, under the burden
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place
Will not stay still…………..

*One of Sylvia Plath’s last poems before her death she called “Words” Here’s how it ends:

Years later I
Encounter them on the road–
Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.

17 year—old girl, in a survey of attitudes to modern Society, England 1970s

I am terrified by the enormous gap between me and every other individual - I hate to think that my mother can’t know my needs without having to tell her or that my father could rape my best friend. I want to set up a home and family with the person I love, but I hate the idea of promising to feel the same way 30 years later, when your proposed partner for life is in effect a complete stranger, as both of you are sure to have changed.

It is the deceit of words and sleight of hand which may not involve any deliberate falsehood, but inferentially manipulates our perceptions, what Wittengenstein calls the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language and eristic argument.

British Science writer Richard Doyle claims language is a powerful lens for shaping reality that we frequently forget it is a tool at all and take it for reality.

As Karl Rove put it, about the Bush imperium in 2004, laying out the case for a new way of perceiving the universe, “when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

In this view, reality is expressly the realm of power, and the rest of us become hapless victims, reduced to wordless observers. Rove’s prescient words could have been an instruction manual for Donald Trump.

And in the face of this coming wave, it matters more than ever that we have ways of reconciling the experience of our lives with that of the larger world – a world in which we find false words are routinely used by power to deceive, dissemble and disempower. It matters that there might be a society where some are allowed the possibility of questioning, of not agreeing, of saying no, of proposing other worlds, of showing other lives.

Lack of communication is a recurring theme in Absurdist plays. People can talk to each other without really communicating. Language is used to conceal your purpose rather than reveal it. Language can express limitless protean possibilities.

As Rosenkrantz says of Hamlet:

“half of what he said meant something else and the other half didn’t mean anything at all.

Attributed to Alan Greenspan (former Chairman of the Federal Reserve in the USA):

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant”

Sometimes we need to read between the lines or souse out innuendo:

Donald Rumsfeld in 2002, said:

‘‘Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me because, as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns: the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’’

People should say what they mean, and mean what they say.

Tex Perkins & the Dark Horse** in the Track title: Looking At You But Seeing Her

“I heard what was said but I knew what was spoken.”

Ronnie Barker:

“When she opened her mouth she put her foot right inside.

We heard what she said but we knew what she meant.”

We do not have to despair at the decay of language because of the proliferation of jargon, euphemism, cliché, slang or turgid prose. Language purifies itself in the same way that the ocean does. The English Language is not prescriptive; it is dynamic, democratic and evolutionary. Popularised technicality comes and goes in impatient vogues. It has a brief life. As a dead body or decaying matter does not last long in the ocean; so meaningless jargon does not last long in language.

The syllabus says:

This module requires students to explore various representations of events, personalities or situations. They evaluate how medium of production, textual form, perspective and choice of language influence meaning. The study develops students’ understanding of the relationships between representation and meaning.

Each elective in this module requires the study of one prescribed text offering a representation of an event, personality or situation. Students are also required to supplement this study with texts of their own choosing which provide a variety of representations of that event, personality or situation. These texts are to be drawn from a variety of sources, in a range of genres and media.

Students explore the ways in which different media present information and ideas to understand how various textual forms and their media of production offer different versions and perspectives for a range of audiences and purposes.

Students develop a range of imaginative, interpretive and analytical compositions that relate to different forms and media of representation. These compositions may be realised in a variety of forms and media.