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.