Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Challenging the Literal

This post, if you haven't guessed, will be about Daniel Chandler’s Chapter on "Challenging the Literal", where he does exactly that in a very eloquent manner.

I could honestly say, regrets undetectable, that reading this Chapter was exceedingly difficult. I'm not an idiot--I took some pretty advanced classes in reading and comprehension. When an entire chapter mulls on from sentence to sentence with the same complexity in every other phrase as its predecessor, you find yourself double-taking the same sentence about five times before you think you might be on to something. Don't get me wrong, I got the general idea. I even learned a few things, other than the definitions of semiotics and syntagm {by the way, right now even the spell checker doesn't recognize 'syntagm' as a word}. But what this article goes on about is something that even I was starting to grasp on my very own. What you might find to be the most literal definition of something can be debunked by some chum in some other culture/time/upbringing. A cat in the Western world is something different to those in another part of the world. Here, a cat is "A small carnivorous mammal (Felis catus or F. domesticus) domesticated since early times as a catcher of rats and mice and as a pet and existing in several distinctive breeds and varieties." Somewhere else, cats are not kept as pets but are probably seen as either pests or a viable food source. You can be as descriptive as possible in hopes that you will cover everyone and their senses of interpretation, but chances are you will miss one point of view.

Semiotics, by the way, is the study of sign processes. Just think about a man who has never seen a cat before in his life, and comes across a cat for the first time. No one tells him what this animal is, and so based on what he knows, how he feels about it, what experience he has with it, and so on, he will eventually come up with a name for it. That entails the process of taking something and creating a definition for it. In this process, which we have undergone and continue to undergo ever since the day man could comprehend and communicate, we start to find that different people in different places with different experiences and cultures will have different definitions. The man mentioned before might have been lonely, otherwise satisfied with his living conditions, and yet allergic to animal hair. So what might he make of the beast in comparison to a woman living in the slums with children to feed had she come across the same animal for the first time?

Even in one culture where we feel we know pretty much all we need to know, we start to think that our definitions of what things literally are happen to be indisputable. For this, the author explores several devices in rhetoric to analyze this idea. He analyzes metaphor, revealing that there is more to metaphor than the obvious. For instance, there are phrases that have been so involved in our culture that we start to forget that they are actually metaphors and take them on a lightly literal scale. There was talk about metonymy, which in my opinion is the same thing as synecdoche. Though both seem to use the 'part-representing-the-whole' idea, apparently they're different because in synecdoche it is supposedly harder to detach the part from the whole. I just consider them both the same. There's irony, which is a rhetorical device that I would have to admit to finding the most fun. It's pretty much sarcasm...in a nutshell. Denotation {which is the way we feel we're literally describing something} and Connotation {which is more like the suggested meaning of a word rather than the actual meaning} are brought up. Then I learned that myth doesn't just have to be fairy tale, but it still functions an awful lot like one.

I'm not entirely sure what sort of questions to ask about this reading, aside from WHY THE HELL IS IT SO HARD FOR ME TO READ THIS? It's this sort of read that makes me cringe at non-fiction. There is a way to write all of what I just learned in an interesting, gripping, and simpler manner. The chapter just seems too authorative and well-learned on the subject to challenge. I agree with the guy; the idea of being 'literal' is purely subjective, like just about anything else. You can try, and you might succeed in a large part of the world with certain signs, but not all of them. I can see how this all applies to art, so I can't question that--you'd want to keep in mind that your work may not mean the same to other people as it does to you, even if you reduce it to the most simple and literal levels.

Why weren't there more examples? No. This was just a pet peeve, just like the sort of language I had to deal with reading this. I really can't come up with any questions. I understood the general idea, and if I didn't, then I guess the final question that remains is "What was it all about then?"

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