Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Frankenstein and The Power of Language

Since Shelley's classic "Frankenstein" became a movie in 1931 it has become a familiar reminder of the dangers of unchecked scientific ambition. The creature takes on a life of its own, which has unintended results and consequences, and it finally ends up turning against its creator. Although we do not have the same abilities or ambitions, we all bring actions and words into this world, and thereby participate in the universal drama and discourse that continually shapes the world we live in. These words and actions can, just as Frankenstein's monster, take on a life of their own; with ripple effects that may go well beyond what the author ever intended or even imagined.

Kenneth Burke described a three-step process of how language can take on a life of its own. Words start by expression; there is something we want to express or emit from ourselves. These impulses are translated through the medium of communication, such as language, in order to engage with an audience. Then comes the stage of consummation, where the words can transcend both the original message the author intended and the meaning the reader originally perceives, and take on a life of their own. This is possible because words never leave a person without that person infusing the words with tendencies, tones, and what Burke called attitudes or incipient actions. They arouse expectations in all who hear and read them; expectations we want to have fulfilled. According to Burke words are like seeds, and they carry within them the potential for action. It is this process that can make reading a book such a thrilling experience. And good authors know how to arouse those expectations in us. For example, take a look at this passage from Shakespear, where prince Hamlet is planning to avenge his father's murder:

"Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on."

The stage is set for the final tragic confrontation between Hamlet and his uncle. Yet Shakespear leaves us in this suspence for several other acts, where we are fearing and desiring the final resolution to the conflict which has already been prepared by these few lines.

Kenneth Burke's point was that the same dynamics of expectation and consummation play out in our daily lives. Not that this dynamic is necessarily bad in nature. Just imagine the mutual expressions and communications of love and admiration which are consummated in a happy marriage. However, if we are not careful, we might find ourselves caught up in a destructive discourse which has run out of control; seeking a consummation that will be bad for all the participants. Imagine a married couple who are caught in a destructive discourse of hurt and recrimination. Its final consummation may be to destroy their love and relationship, something neither of them intended as their dispute started. Many people are now questioning whether the Arizona shootings were in any way caused or influenced by the loaded war-rhetoric discourse which has flared up recently. Burke himself mentions the nuclear arms race of the Cold War as an example of this:

"The various scientific specialties are to be viewed as carrying out the implications of their terminologies, and thereby seeking technological consummation for its own sake, however deceptively their efforts might be justified. For instance, whether or not it is possible to develop 'clean' thermonuclear bombs, some men might well want to go on experimenting with these dismal weapons. For they have brought their calculations to the point where further experimental steps are in order, steps suggested by the present state of their terminologies. And the 'principle of consummatory self-consistency' would provide an incentive, or almost a compulsion, to continue in this same direction. . .”

In many ways the Cold War could be seen as a discourse of deterrence which ran out of control. If it had been allowed to reach its final destination, the result could have been a total annihilation of the human race. "Dr. Strangelove" envisions a situation where systems of deterrence have run out of control. In the film, a unstoppable Doomsday Machine has been activated, which will make the entire planet uninhabitable for human kind.

Even now, mankind is engaging in several discourses which are out of control. One example is the discourse of technological progress. People may question the wisdom of moving forward with communication technologies and what impact they have on our societies, but the discourse has now gained such a magnitude and momentum that it is close to impossible to halt it. The frameworks and conditions have been set, and any future invention that meets those conditions is almost destined to become a worldwide phenomenon within a year from the time it has been introduced.

So what final end or consummation are we headed towards? Is the drama of the human race going to be a comedy, a fairytale, or a tragedy? The entire discourse of human interaction is I believe too vast and complicated to be able to get a clear picture of it. But we can look at individual discourses that are driving forces in our society, and see if we can spot the final fruits of the seeds they are sowing (I will come back to exactly how we can detect the potential of a text in a later post). Think, the next time you are observing or participating in a discourse, what attitudes and emotions that discourse is driving. What is the ultimate good in this discourse? What is the ultimate evil? I think we can all profit from stopping up sometimes, both as individuals and societies, and ask: "Where are we headed?"