Language


Jackson bookThis evening I attended a lecture given by UB Professor Bruce Jackson titled, “The Story Is True.” The lecture was hosted by the University and is part of their free summer lecture series. I also went to hear Professor David Schmidt in July. Jackson is a consummate storyteller himself and so the experience is more along the lines of having dinner with a really learned and interesting friend than attending a lecture. Stating first that stories are the glue that holds society together, from the familial to the cultural level, he further explained that the stories families have in common are what make them families, rather than common ancestors or blood ties. The telling and retelling of shared stories reinforces those bonds. This goes a long way towards explaining the meaningless prattle that pervades some of the meals I share with my family, but doesn’t necessarily explain what I’ll call the Soprano effect, a value placed upon one’s relations simply because they are part of the family–though that may not be its intent.

The second aspect of Jackson’s lecture focused on the “truth” of stories, and here it got more interesting. Jackson argued the truth in stories comes not from the story that is told, but rather how the story is told. This reminded me of the historical adage, that the history of the past is the politics of the present. There’s truth in every story, just not where you might expect to find it. I love this, but also find it a little scary since it makes it very difficult to put pen to page without incriminating oneself in some way.

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I read a thought-provoking blog on photography this morning over coffee. Errol Morris, writing in a blog for The New York Times, began what promises to be an interesting series on photography. His first post examined the veracity, their truthfulness or falseness, of photographs arguing that a picture alone cannot be true or false, rather the meaning we assign to a photograph resides in the information surrounding the photograph–typically the caption, but also the context in which the photograph is placed. Of course as a student of language I find this fascinating but also because when one considers the meaning typically given to pictures, Morris’ argument casts the subject in an entirely different light. What are we to make of the statement, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” if in fact it is the words that make meaning, not the picture? Or perhaps the truth of that statement lies not in the supposed authenticity that pictures provide, but instead in the fact that one needs literally thousands of (different and contradictory) words to describe them.

09_lusitania_mersey.jpgI’m afraid that without a subscription to The Times‘ Select service, you will be unable to read Morris’ blog–a subject for another post–but I’ve included the picture he discusses to the left. It is, as he explains, a rather mundane image of a passenger ship that only acquires meaning after it has been identified through a caption as the Lusitania. The picture is taken from the following site: www.maritimequest.com.