October 21, 2007

Natural Events as representative of ...something?

I am struck by the ability of representations to capture concepts that may not necessarily have direct physical existences. Concepts like purity, corruption, good, evil, and other things referred to as ideas do not have direct correlates in physical world. Language is tricky like that, and although the Inuit may have many, many words for types of snow, each of those words is a slicing up of reality in a specific way (as Burke would say, it is an application of terministic screens). Hall relates this to a clustering of meanings. He writes "We have called this a 'system of representation.' That is because it consists, not of individual concepts, but of different ways of organizing, clustering, arranging and classifying concepts, and of establishing complex relations between them" (p. 17). The above photograph ties to this concept pretty well, in that is represents (stands in for) the Greek legendary figures of the three fates. However, the three fates are conceptual, as far as we know, there were never three females, one a maiden, one a mother, and one a crone, who weaved the lives of heroes and average people, ending their lives by cutting the life thread.
Representation, it seems, has a difficult side as well. Take for instance, the very geeky reference I am about to make. In the online video game World of Warcraft, a virtual plague was accidentally spread throughout the virtual world, decimating entire imaginary cities and emptying villages. This random event has caught the attention of some epidemiologists who want to explore what this means for actual spreading of real diseases. These individuals want to use online games as a an example of what would happen in the real world should a large-scale plague actually occur. However, interpreting random events as representations of something strikes me as dangerous--it opens up all kinds of epistemological issues, at the very least. Through the representative powers of language, we can conceptually lay claim to the invisible and possibly non-existent (by that I mean those things that possibly exist only in our minds and at the level of language and symbol) but I would like to wager that more problems are created when we make realist connections between the objects-in-the-world with the concepts-in-our-head. Of course, there are those who argue that these concepts are ontological in nature (Kenneth Burke is one of them, and he made a career out of exploring the rhetorical qualities of language as ontological).

Article referencing the online plague for those interested.

1 comment:

Through A Retina Darkly said...

This probably has nothing to do with representation.... But on Facebook, I have been watching what sorts of content appear on my "Home" page (not profile). And I think I am seeing a greater level of marketting. Waht is more, I suspect it is tied to someone's ability to access the information contained in people's profiles. I suspect this is accomplished through the creation of "free" applications. When someone installs the stickie application, you are asked to send a message to all your friends, inviting them to add it to. In adding it, you click a button that gives the developing firm access to your full profile. Now they know what books you read, what shows you watch, what music you listen to, what causes or groups you join, etc. And when your friends add the application, it can compare, contrast, correlate between your profile information and theirs.

It is just a matter of time before something funky like the plague happens in FB - isn't the vampire and werewolf thing already a plague - and people begin to pay more attention to these media. But maybe these aren't representations of real plagues. Maybe they are plagues of a new kind, info-plagues...