On Language, Symbolism and Connection

Recently, I took my first trip to the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery, as a part of the In My Backyard team. The entire building is currently reserved for a single show: Ann Hamilton: the common SENSE. Hamilton’s exhibits center on the IMG_0431theme of ‘touch’ particularly as that touch is represented through language and text. She explores the ways in which we ‘touch’ or connect with one another, with our surroundings in the world, and (through text excerpts), with people whom we have never met, and probably never will. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show is its interactive nature. Interspersed throughout the gallery are copies of selected passages from written works, with the common theme being connections, physical or otherwise. Visitors are encouraged to take with them copies of the passages that speak most strongly to them, or with which they feel the strongest connections; they create a “commonplace book” of their own, thereby perpetuating the connection with the show, even after having left the physical building.

Upon entering the gallery and learning about the show, I think I actually felt a little giddy inside. Language is a fascinating topic to me, and I have grown to love books and textual communications in various forms. Communication through language, be it written or oral, is ubiquitous in every society, but rarely do we stop to think about just how truly remarkable it really is. We don’t think twice about the fact that, in a basic conversation, each participant manipulates his/her mouth and throat in such a way as to make what amounts essentially to arbitrary noise, and the listeners receive these noises and understand instantly what was said and what those words mean. It seems simple because it comes naturally to us; we do it on a daily basis without even having to think. Really, though, one could almost say it’s miraculous. Humanity has evolved perhaps one of the most complex communicative systems in history, and it is perpetually amazing how we can keep track of such an expansive vocabulary and grammatical structure, and use it to better our lives.

The same idea holds true for writing. When we read something that has been written down, we don’t stop and think about the fact that everything we perceive consists of arbitrary lines on a piece of paper. Our language has evolved such that it consists of twenty-six standard letters—these are the ones that we learn as children, and combine to form the words and IMG_20141106_143359374sentences that are the basis of our lives. I read an interesting factoid on the internet recently, that every book you have ever read is just a different combination of the same twenty-six letters. That fact is simply mind-boggling. Think about everything you’ve ever read, ever could read, or ever will be written. Ever. All of it draws from the same pool of twenty-six letters. Our language knows no bounds. Our letters and words can be combined in infinite ways to create infinite stories. Another relatively common internet saying is that if you give a million monkeys a million typewriters and put them in a room for a million years, one will eventually type out Hamlet. While this is exaggerated for comedic effect, the basic principle still stands. Given enough time, any particular combination of words and letters will be formed. Considering the vast endlessness of possibility when it comes to composing written work, it seems unlikely that The Great Gatsby, Huck Finn, or your book of choice would ever come into existence. At the risk of over-using the word miraculous, in some sense, it really is.

On a related note, one of my favorite books when I was a child pertained to this very topic of language and meaning: Frindle by Andrew Clements. I actually still love this book to this day. (Just because it is a children’s book does not in fact mean that it cannot be enjoyable and/or instructive for adults as well, but that is a discussion for another time.) The basic plot is that a grade-school student decides that there is no reason why the word ‘frindle’ can’t be used to refer to the item we now call a pen, so he starts a school-wide campaign to get the word officially changed. He is vehemently opposed by the seemingly-Draconian English teacher, but it is later revealed that she was in favor of the idea the whole time, utilizing reverse-psychology tactics to encourage him. This concept of the dissociation between words and what they are meant to describe has come up on multiple occasions in the two-plus years I have been studying at college, and I find myself thinking of Frindle each time it does. At first, I was surprised that I could relate such a large percentage of what I was learning to a children’s book, but the more it came up, the more I came to realize how important and universal the concept is; it is always in the background of our lives. Clements is actually quite smart to have written a book for children on this topic, as it gets them thinking about words and the arbitrariness of their meanings.

Similarly, the French artist René Magritte produced a famous painting, The Treachery of Images, which is deeply concerned with the symbolic nature of language. It features a painting of a pipe with the caption underneath “Ceci n’est pas300px-MagrittePipe une pipe” (translation: this is not a pipe). On the surface, this statement seems ridiculous. “Of course it’s a pipe,” an observer might say. “It looks just like one. It has all the characteristics of pipe-ness.” What we are supposed to realize, though, is that a representation of a thing is fundamentally different from the thing itself. The Treachery of Images, therefore, features a PICTURE of a pipe, as opposed to an actual pipe. While we are inclined to conflate the two ideas, they ought to be kept distinctly separate, which is a point Magritte was arguing in his painting.

While much of Hamilton’s show focuses on language and the nature of communication via text, there is also a large overlapping section that is concerned with connections. Language and textual communication is certainly one way to connect with others, but it is not the only way. Non-verbal connections are just as valid, and though they may be more complicated or complex to analyze, this does not mean we shouldn’t try. One of the excerpts available to take from the exhibit reads thusly:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes-something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-inch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view (Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac).

There was no spoken or written communication taking place in the scenario described by the author here, but, as Hamilton is attempting to showcase, that does not mean that there was no connection. Sometimes all it takes is being in the wild and seeing the look in an animal’s eyes. University of Washington psychology professor Peter Kahn has dedicated a portion of his research to human-nature interactions. The phrase that he would use to describe the passage above is “recognizing and being recognized by a non-human other.” We get some sort of thrill from looking into an animal’s eyes, and seeing it peering back into ours. There is a connection that is formed in that moment, however fleeting, which we want to savor, and though it might be terrifying at that instant, there is also something alluring about it, drawing us out to experience it again and again. These are the connections that are non-verbal and non-textual in nature, but are still vitally important in our lives, and still ought to be considered when evaluating how we communicate in our lives. Interestingly, Leopold connects with us in a textual (and therefore inherently physical) manner to communicate an instance of a non-lingual connection.

In the basement level of the gallery, there were a series of display tables, each with an article of animal-skin or animal-fur clothing encased in glass. Ordinarily, there would be nothing unusual about this type of set-up in a museum setting. The interesting and unique thing about these display tables was that each one had posts rising vertically from the corners, and a set of curtains surrounding the viewing surface, so that the viewer had to stick his/her head into the curtain to view the artifact on that particular table. This is an interesting way to consider connections. Not only do these curtains foster individual interaction with the displays, they necessitate it. In this manner, each viewer establishes a personal relationship with the item being viewed, one that is untainted by other museum visitors. Though the mechanism is extremely simple, these curtained exhibits encourage an intimate connection between visitor and artifact, one that is absolutely germane to the overall theme of Hamilton’s show.

Our lives are defined by the connections we make, whether with other people, animals, or the natural world. Often times, these connections are made via language, which in itself is a fascinating topic that leads to endless questions about the nature of our communications. Written language transcends time, making it possible for authors who lived hundreds of years ago to connect directly with us as readers in the present day. Other connections are not based in language; these are often more difficult to characterize, and are inherently more personal. Only one who experiences a particular non-lingual connection will know what it feels like. If he/she wants to share this connection with others (thereby making a new connection as well), that part must be done in a more physical manner, generally either orally or textually, though it could be pictorial as well. Oral communication and these non-lingual connections are instantaneous and (to some extent) unrepeatable. Once an idea, an experience or a concept is written down, it acquires some level of permanence. Ann Hamilton’s show the common SENSE started me thinking about the nature of language, its ubiquity in contemporary society, and how we utilize it in our connections with others. Life as we know it would be fundamentally different without language to facilitate communication, which is a concept we do not normally consider, but Hamilton’s work forces us to do so.

Chris, In My Backyard intern

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