Dead Words & Live Ones on Television

John Jay’s fascinating post has been rolling around in my mind – one that seldom if ever thinks in terms of numbers. I find minds such as his admirable and am delighted by the clarity with which they pierce my more hazy process.

My family, of course, lives our lives amidst words. My son-in-law once said he was happy he was writing his dissertation in English. An indication of my family’s (if not my own) interest in languages is that when he arranged their Italian honeymoon he booked Italian lessons as well – and she was thrilled. His first language is German; he studied in France, where he met her. Therefore, he had written many papers in both those languages. He welcomed English because he found its breadth & depth gave him greater precision with which to capture, contain & communicate ideas than did other languages he knew.

This is how word people think – that our language is rich with meaning & our ability to pluck the exact word that captures an idea is both a joy & a power. We tend to think numbers communicate in a relatively rough & proximate manner. But, of course, John Jay’s point (followed by Shannon’s comment) is well taken. Nobody – or hardly anybody – thinks two is three. Words move & shift; if we hope to communicate with them, we must all have the same (or pretty close) meaning in our heads. Post-modernism, a bit obsessive about wielding as well as describing power, argues such meanings are arbitrary. Of course, the person who gets to do the defining wields the power. So in a television drama a petty academic tyrant creates a world in which he and a succession of his attractive young students live & love. In that world, his will is absolute. But the words are not tethered to reality – what he means & what others hear appear to be different. And he means them to be so. For instance, he wields power over these young & impressionable students, but he pretends that the relationship is one of love. He has created a world in which his power is absolute, because he sets the rules, defines the words. He creates this little, separate world & in it his rules apply.

As I’m sure many – especially Lex – would observe, I spend far too much time watching junk TV. I leave it on as I wander about, pushing dust around or on the treadmill or vegetating or grading quizzes. Whatever. So, I’m back at the treadmill, huffing & puffing because all that ice cream has been having a not altogether pleasant effect on my weight, when I happen upon a Cold Case rerun. Central to the plot is its core detectives’ collision with that fictional academic life. Some of it was silly. (The officers thumb a bunch of Cliff Notes, trying to find a relatively famous line; it’s from Hamlet, as Google would have found in minutes.) Some of it was incredibly unrealistic: a girl had been murdered ten years earlier; the suspects include the married art history teacher with whom she’d been having an affair, a paranoid schizophrenic who loved her, and an ex-con covered with jail tattoos. The references to post-modernism baffle the detectives. This is not their world. But, then, the show is fictive – it is no one’s world; the references are to a faux reality – a fictive world within a fictive world. (And that’s before they begin interviewing the schizophrenic.)

Nonetheless, the professor’s argument is arresting — we all want narratives; a search for a pattern & resolution is central to this series & his remark gives the characters self-referential pause. But if that is archetypal, no more new is the professor’s belief all is random, meaning neither intrinsic nor true The series’ writers assigned him the role of art historian; certainly that discipline’s descriptions are often opaque. Catalogs for exhibits bemuse (if not irritate) the museum goer, as words cover ideas loosely, clearly finding no verbal precision for plastic arts.

The professor as nihilist, as solipsist is a long tradition. Certainly it can be successful: a ploy that ends speculation & debate. In each generation, the strategy is discovered again, probably because all of us occasionally doubt an order lies beneath a world irrational, unfair, and tragic. One of my favorite fictive examples is the charming Hulga of Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” She has returned to her mother’s farm with a Ph.D. in philosophy & a certainty all is nothing – or nothing is all, fed by post WWII writers. Hulga’s presence at her mother’s table is large & hulking, her “constant outrage had obliterated every expression from her face, [she] would stare just a little to the side of her [mother], her eyes icy blue, with the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.” Of course, her mother is a bit of saccharine fluff. But O’Connor demonstrates Hulga’s persistent refusal to see beyond her own nihilism is yet more blind, yet more superficial.

Cold Case is designed, of course, to convey meaning (we look to such shows for comfort and no series would last long without resolutions). It fulfills our great human need for narrative. Its premise is that later, even generations later, those who loved the victims long for – indeed, need – the closure that comes from knowing who and why their lives were devastated. The guilty, too, need closure from public acknowledgement as much as punishment; Hawthorne’s picture of Dimmesdale remains psychologically true a century and a half later. What drives these fictive detectives is human nature – our desire for resolution, indeed, for atonement.

The show played out, reinforcing the series’ premise: the professor had indeed killed the student, but then had fashioned a narrative detour (the details melodramatic, falsely tying together the loose suspects). Following the tradition of such TV formulas, the detectives first act upon his narrative, searching the schizophrenic’s room, tracing the convict’s alibi. Then, in formulaic fashion, luck – or stupidity or greed – leads to the narrative his narrative was intended to conceal. The noise he has created is silenced; the detectives hear the clear ring of truth.

So, we find the murder of ten years before had been prompted by a perception. The student had looked across the room at a faculty gathering, watched her lover embrace his wife, pick up and hug his child. Coming from a strong family herself, she saw his family as the real thing. Of course, the fictive family is built upon deception, illusion, denial, but she sees it as betrayed by the private in which she has immersed herself. Often see as facile & naive, integrity – the private communicated by the public, the feeling by the act – is alive to her. She understands the difference between Othello’s refusal to hide, his “Not I / I must be found: / My parts, my title and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly” and Iago’s “The native act and figure of my heart / In compliment extern, ’tis not long after / But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.”

She suddenly sees her relationship as false, herself as false. She doesn’t smugly assume the hidden as the real (a concept popular with cynics and reinforced by a Freudian century, a concept that drives Hester & only in the last scaffold scene does she realize its inadequacy, its vulnerability to self deception). Private words lose their truth when public acts demonstrate a different one. And our Cold Case victim senses this relationship has compromised her own integrity. Indeed, she fears she is not whole. That night, before she is killed, she tries to put her fears & her insight into words. First, she talks with her schizophrenic friend & then her lover. She stumbles, doubts herself, and fears she not only doesn’t but cannot love because she has lost herself, lost her ability to discern reality in the maze of her lover’s words. He tries to draw her back into his fictive world: first he tells her he does indeed love her and will leave his wife. These words seem insincere – a ploy to draw her back into the world he created.

Words evoke a fact, a truth. An early American, who thought much about this, Jonathan Edwards, melded his powerful sense of logic & his equally powerful desire to evoke in others & to feel in himself powerful passions. Emotions are real, but words need to be carefully chosen to evoke & represent them. But Edwards stood before both with humility – precision, clarity are valued when we try to use the reality of words, their force, when we try to understand our emotions through choosing our words carefully, finding words that communicate, describe, contain the ideas. Such writers, especially perhaps those who love the plain style but all great writers, stand with awe before words, forcing themselves to pick & choose & think to give greater precision, greater passion, greater, well, reality.

But if words become arbitrary, they are at the mercy of the will. The relationshp is built on ower rather than love: her teacher is abusive long before he hits her. Still arrogant & willful, he shouts: “I say when it is over,” he says – reflecting his sense that he, godlike, created this world. But she no longer accepts the reality of his words. She challenges his Humpty Dumpty fiefdom:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them – particularly verbs: they’re the proudest – adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs – however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’

‘Would you tell me, please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’

‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

Well, we laugh & think of the impenetrability of the prose of writers such as Judith Butler & her ilk, regularly winning the honor of composing the worst prose work of the year title. Impenetrability often looks at first to be profundity, but we’ve begun to sense that it is really an arrogance toward words & audience. And if our words are arbitrary, then we are never forced to come to terms with real implications. (Is it any wonder that postmodernism & its truly opaque prose grew up in the years that the beliefs of academics about politics, war, economics, society, themselves were slowly crumbling beneath their feet?) Neither the post-modernist’s impenetrability nor the teacher’s anger are surprising; he has bullied a series of acquiescent young girls to live by his rules. Demonstrating the motivations of his many subterfuges, he yells at her. It was he, he said, who said when it was over – and now, he acts as if he was still the God who created & destroyed; he kills. Then, he turns her, again, into his creation – a pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, floating dead in the muck.

Of course, the implicit critique in a fictive television series of the faux reality of modern academic life into which these detectives have stumbled has levels of irony an academic would appreciate. It may seem a strange place for such an argument, but an argument it is. Reality is. Words with neither subterfuge nor decoration – that was the Puritan goal in the plain style: George Marsden describes Edwards’ passion for the “naked word.” This goal is as foreign to the modern post-modernist as is the theology that informed Edwards’ vision.

Shannon agrees with John Jay and remarks with the kind of force & clarity we’ve come to admire in both: “I think this divide is what makes postmodernism so funny to those in the measurement driven world. For the postmodernist, the boxes and their labels define and control the world. They create reality. For the measurement driven, the boxes and their labels are just temporary and disposable conveniences. Freighting them with great import is like worshiping one’s sock drawer.”

I would agree that words can tempt man to think he is, indeed, the creator; they have a seductive nature that numbers seldom have But, on the other hand, those of us who think differently find numbers often too binary & crude a measurement, imprecise when faced with complexities.

All of us need humility before facts & the power of either the numbers or the words which tumble about in our brains, of their ability to capture, contain, and communicate. And, while I often find clarity & beauty in the way brains such as John Jay’s and Shannon’s work, I have my suspicions that some use numbers as others use words – to obscure rather than communicate. Such numbers, hard to trace, assume an impenetrability not unlike a post-modernist’s words. Certainly, some examined by Lomberg and the more bizarre stats Christina Hoff-Sommers describes (though I realize few scientists or mathematicians would have any patience with the numbers of the social sciences, such as the “research” that “described” the number of women brutalized on Super Bowl Sunday) are mushy. And I am reminded of my husband’s college chum, who often won his collegiate debates & went on to become a persuasive lawyer (though not a trial one). Standing up, note card in hand, he would rattle off numbers impressively. Once he started giving stats from a poll of Mafia dons. My husband was somewhat suspicious of exactly how such a survey would be carried out; the sense of “representativeness” would be difficult, for instance. His friend cheerfully admitted he’d drawn the numbers from his head.

And so, I asked my husband to read this, and he turns and says, “You know, Ginny, this is still junk t.v.” Well, maybe. But a couple of weeks of Bergman have not left me all that much wiser than a few evenings with whatever junk the cables put up. (More about Bergman, perhaps, later.)

(Thanks, though this is years ago, to Geitner Simmons, whose blog review of Jonathan Edwards led me to him. Also, on a more timely note, to Linda Bow, who spoke of Humpty Dumpty.)

2 thoughts on “Dead Words & Live Ones on Television”

  1. Regarding Shannon’s comment: math/measurement types don’t care that Postmodernists relabel boxes, because we’re used to relabeling. We’re used to thinking of “the thing behind the label” as real, and the label as just a convention. This has nothing to do with thinking in terms of numbers vs. not numbers, and everything to do with thinking in terms of objects vs. labels. What the PoMo crowd does that gives the measurement-driven fits is they tend to relabel several boxes with the same label, and relabel one box with several labels, and generally create these impenetrable walls of so-called narrative behind which the actual has been obscured.

    Ginny, what you say about certain people using numbers to obscure fits right in to the point — some people don’t care about the reality behind the numbers; they use the numbers as convenient language with which to obscure reality. “Three” or “sixty-two percent” are themselves words — labels — that can be misapplied, often directly (saying 3 when the actual is 2) but sometimes indirectly (giving improper context to the number).

  2. One part of the numbers/words philosophical divide is that those involved in hard science and numeric-based professions are invariably some sort of pragmatists. Pragmatism requires that ideas, explanations, and theories are true only as far as they are useful. They must explain the range of known facts. This kind of truth, though, is conditional. Truth must be predictive. When new facts are known, the old theory is tested against them. Things are not true because I believe them, and I do not believe them because they are true, but I believe they are true because they are capable of being disproved and have not been disproved.

    The PoMo attitude that nothing can be known or certain is a cheapening of this, an attempt to remove the rigor of disproof. It goes straight from legitimate skepticism to a poorly-disguised sophomoric nihilism wrapped in a cloud of vaporous words.

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