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I didn't say that, or did I?

Owl's picture

       In our dictionary exercise, one of the definitions that I found particularly interesting, was the OED definition of reality: The quality or state of being real. What I found to be most interesting was how the words used by the OED to define reality could themselves be defined in multiple ways. I found this aspect of definitions to illustrate how it is that language is limiting in that one words cannot fully explain or describe something. Quality as pointed out by one of our class members, can have multiple meanings depending on the context. For instance, “quality”, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, can be defined as the “degree of excellence”. Therefore, reality, as stated in the OED,  is grounded on who or what determines the degree to which something can be considered to be real. This definition caught my eye, because it was one that did not come to the same conclusion as that of which we had been discussing in our class. As a class we kept reiterating that reality and truth is that which pertains to the individual, but according to this definition in order for it to be fact [which is what truth and reality add up to], a considerable amount of people have to agree upon it’s realness. But what does this have to say about the way society runs. For instance, does this definition justify the “violent act" [ Robert Scholes, “The Left Hand of Difference”) we commit in concealing the "real” that is the individual experiences that are not considered by the majority to be real? 

Let’s take a step back, to why the dictionary exercise was so important to my conclusion. As I started thinking about the way language is constructed, coupled with the OED definition of reality, I wondered whether it is language itself that perpetuates what is thought to be real. 

It is often argued that what is reiterated often is what comes to be considered as real, because as humans we tend to internalize what is often thrown at us over and over again. In so far as our own society, it is clear that this statement has legitimacy in it’s claim, seeing for example, how there is a clear distinction between mainstream lifestyles and subcultural lifestyles. Robert Scholes, an American literary critic and theorists, argues that language itself is limited to a “binary opposition” (the sense of the word as explained by structuralists). He argues that language itself is built around an “oppositional binary”  which creates words into pairs of opposites. 

In addition, he also goes on to describe how it is that “power and privilege are often surreptitiously mapped onto apparent neutral oppositions,” therefore illustrating how it is that language is used to not only to conceal things but to perpetuate a hierarchal society, in which one thing is considered to have a better “degree of excellence” than another. In other words, language according to Scholes,  “..divides the world into classes of things...,” but in doing so, “. ..differentiates by an act of violence...,” that act of violence being that of which words are used to conceal rather than reveal. It maintains a one-sided perspective on the world and tries to categorize around that very perspective, therefore alienating perspectives that do not agree with the majority belief. 

Therefore, in the case of definitions and in trying to define reality, language works to confine people to one reality, a reality that some feel they need to conform to in order to feel accepted. 

One’s sexuality and their imposed gender, for instance, are such definitions that leave no room for difference. “A basic cultural binary the difference between male and female. The distinction between male and female is especially important because it seems to be one of those instances where language merely names a difference that is already therein nature...but nature is itself a culturally determined category, held in place by culture in the binary opposition:nature/culture. We do not consider everything that is produced by nature natural. The linguistic categories male and female are not only..absolute..they are also loaded with cultural baggage...” (Scholes). The language used to describe sexuality and gender, is one that people internalize despite it’s constricted characteristic and its’ inability to fully encompass variety. We do so so much that we cannot steer away from characterizing individuals as either belonging to one group or another. This is true for how lesbian, gay, transgender, and etc. individuals are perceived by the general population. 

Here's a funny video about the limitations of language: 


Sources Cited: 
Scholes, Robert. "The Left Hand of Difference".





Anne Dalke's picture

On the limitations of language

That dictionary exercise was so productive for our class!...and I'm very glad to see you continue to chew on its implications here. The direction your thinking has taken you not only connects back to your earlier project, questioning the "unquestionable fact" of gender , but also leads you forward into a meditation on the limitations of language more generally, and to its binarizing/ hierarchizing/ concealing/ confining/ conforming functions more particularly. Quite the philosophical paper for someone who doesn't like abstractions!

Your thinking about the "quality of being real" puts me in mind of a cluster of works that you might find of particular interest: Jennie Livingston's 1992 film, Paris Is Burning; and then commentary on the film (which is all about "performing realness") by Judith Butler, "Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion." Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge, 1993. 121-140; and also by bell hooks, "Is Paris Burning?" Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End, 1992. 145-156. Watching the film, and reading what these critics have to say about it, might bring back together, in a productive way, some of your questions about both the performance of gender and the limitations of words.

A second important point you make is that a "considerable amount of people have to agree" upon the realness of something, for it to be real; "what is reiterated," in other words, "often is what comes to be considered as real." So what works, as non-fiction, or true, or real, is based on how many votes you can get for your concept? On an increasingly large shared subjectivity? Are you challenging or accepting that formulation? (The alternative--of individual realities, as platano's paper suggests--is not very appealing, either!)