Tag Archives: artists

Imprecision, culture, and Nick Kroll


I’m reading In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent.  My nephew is inventing a language and I’m trying to make myself useful.  (I can tell he’ll be absolutely astonished if I’m any help at all.)

Sometimes the motive for a new language is clarity.  Inventors want to eliminate the uncertainties contained in a sentence like “I spoke to a man on the boat.”  (Was he on the boat?  Was I on the boat?  Were we on the boat?)

It turns out to be tough to make a language that’s perfectly clear, and one of the pleasures of In the Land of Invented Languages is observing the linguistic and other conniptions that result from this quest for clarity.

Finally, though, Okrent wonders whether the quest isn’t wrong-headed.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think.  Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision.  Language needs its “flaws” in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.  (p. 258)

This will come as good news to the blogging community.  Personally, I intend to use Okrent’s discovery as license for the several places in this blog where you may be asking yourself ok, what’s he saying that isn’t really all that clear to you the reader as a meaning co-creator in so many different ways?

But the larger “take away” is “don’t look down.”  Our lives depend on architectures of meanings, as those come to us from language and from culture.  And these architectures are sometimes a little underspecified.  They are a little more like the “building concept” drawings than the actual blue prints.

Normally, the seams don’t show.  (Make that the “seems don’t show.”) We take for granted that the architecture of meaning can bear our weight.  Furthermore, a certain kind of story teller, entertainer and brander reassures us that we occupy a deep, resonant, redundant, completely seamless world.  (Other artists like to take us to the edge of the built world and invite us to look over the edge.)

Over the last couple of weeks here, I’ve been looking at the possibility that popular culture is improving, that it’s becoming more like culture.  But this, the imperfections and insecurities of meaning, may be the one place that popular culture will never go.  Well, let’s watch and see.  If and when popular culture does take us to the edge, this can be a measure of how much it has thrown off its “popular” mandate, conditions, and constraints.

And on this note, I’ve been watching The Kroll Show and Inside Amy Shumer on Comedy Central.  There are moments when it’s good (and wicked clever) fun, but there are moments when you are  being asked to stare into the abyss.  (Thanks, Nick!  Thanks, Amy!)  This might be evidence.

Jump Ship Rat and other great moments in metaphor

I’m reading a book called Cultural Hijack: Rethinking Intervention and on page 282 I found this poem in which a group of artists compare their organization to the rat. 

I reproduce it here without permission. Because it is so very, very brilliant, and your introduction to Jump Ship Rat, their work, and the book in question.

Jump Ship Rat
ability to move in any direction
with speed and agility
and fit through the narrowest of entrance/exit points
or to make them appear
ability to recognize when the ship you’re on is in trouble
to survive
to be held in wildly different regard
to be vilified
to be used to understand the human condition
to be able to startle human senses
to be open to misinterpretation
to be clearly recognized and understood
to have power and strength in numbers
to make a distinctive noise
to be heard
to be part of the night
daytime appearances to be committed to memory
public consciousness to be affected
to become immune to poison
to survive many efforts to be eradicated
to be mythologized
and exaggerated
made folklore
warning to society
pied piper is Santa Claus
occupation of disused spaces
unswerving pursuit of life
celebrating what others disregard
living in slums and palaces
the underground home
great fucking tunes
social shifts
cultural exchange
time changes
mean time
jump ship rat

For more on this group, see their website here.  

To order the book (and you should), see the Amazon page for same here.