Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Verba pro re vera

Despite appearances to the contrary, there are practical applications to the study of literature. Perhaps the most important is the deep knowledge of language. English contains up to a quarter million words. Imagine a tool calibrated to a quarter million settings; that’s a high degree of precision. The study of literature brings with it a greater awareness of the clarity of language. Conversely, it can teach the dangers of imprecise language. During December 2009, my blog entries dealt with the uses and abuses of language.


Quick: what do revolutionary Jamaican theology and politics have to do with a lobster?

In last week’s entry, I discussed George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” In 1946, Orwell decried the staleness of language when people weren’t concerned with expressing their own ideas clearly. Instead, they co-opted other people’s ideas, and the result was muddled writing. The problem is still occurring. Politics plays a role, but today commerce causes many abuses of language. The words in much advertising really say nothing. The advertisers capitalize on the emotional impact of words with no consideration of their meanings.

The problem, however, is far worse than meaningless words. Entire texts get divorced from their meaning.

For example, in 1987 Nike used the Beatles’ “Revolution” to sell shoes. When the Beatles wrote “Revolution,” it was their response to the hard-left. The working-class boys from Liverpool disappointed European Marxists who’d hoped that they would promote revolution. Violent revolution. What does that have to do with running shoes?

Absolutely nothing. Perhaps Nike wanted consumers to think that their shoes were revolutionary. You know the line, “You say you want a revolution….” Except that the song is about rejecting revolution, not embracing it. However you look at it, this song isn’t good material for a commercial. And yet, Nike paid millions for it.

This type of abuse is common. Cruise lines promote themselves with Iggy Pop’s paean to heroine “Lust for Life.” Why would they want to connect Caribbean vacations to addiction? They don’t. They want you to think of the excitement of the song itself, but not what the song’s about.

The Latin title of this entry means “words as things.” The technical term is “reification,” which happens when people treat concepts as objective things. Reification also occurs to entire texts. At a certain point, it becomes so popular that it overshadows its own meaning. People remember the work as a thing, but not as the medium of a message.

Reification happens with many different works, not just songs. In Rome, the Catholic Church is sponsoring a stage performance of the Divine Comedy. The Church has forgotten how many bishops and popes are in Dante’s hell. What Dante wrote is overlooked, in favor of merely having his masterpiece on their side. In the US, political parties always invoke the Founding Fathers, often with a limited understanding of them. The slave-holding Thomas Jefferson, to take one example, edited the New Testament to remove any notion of the divinity of Jesus, including his miracles. Nowadays, Jefferson couldn’t be elected in either political party… but, boy, can they conjure his ghost!

Advertisers, the Catholic Church, political parties… they all associate themselves with texts as things. The problem is that the writers’ ideas—which are worthy of consideration, discussion, even debate—do not enter the picture. In an earlier entry, I lamented the dearth of narratives in today’s society. Reification is also part of the problem.

In high school, we all knew insecure people who wanted to be part of the cool clique. They used cool slang, or dressed how the cool kids dressed. But it never worked. In their mouths, cool expressions were out of place. The uncool kids came across as awkwardly as a child wearing a suit for a wedding. People who reify a text behave just like them. They desperately hope that some of it coolness will rub off on them. But they miss the point about why the work is cool.

To answer the question at the start of this entry: Bob Marley. Seafood restaurant chains now market themselves with his songs… and he was calling for a revolution. Of course, the restaurant doesn’t want you to think of his politics. They just want you to think Bob Marley was cool. And since they’re playing his song, they want you to think they’re cool too. Just like a high school sophomore wearing a tie.

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