Archive for grammar

‘In the Vault’: Seinfeld and the Language Game of ‘Nothing’

Posted in criticism, literature, philosophy, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2013 by drayfish


IMAGE: Seinfeld (Castle Rock Entertainment; NBC)

I have been sinking back into some older television of late – classic Simpsons (to ameliorate the collective scar tissue of the last decade of that seemingly un-killable show), Law and Order (McCoy!  I love you, McCoy!), and Larry Sanders (how exactly can Jeffrey Tambor play despicable, pathetic and adorable at the same time?!  …What, is he, a witch?)  But the show that has leapt out at me most profoundly, that I have been able to view on a whole new level in this welcome return, is Seinfeld.

Widely considered to be the greatest sitcom ever made, Seinfeld has spawned a parade of imitators that have sought (and frequently failed) to emulate its deceptively simple chemical composition.  Following on from Seinfeld’s template, but injecting a little more saccharine romance, Friends similarly concerned itself with the lives of young adults surviving New York in a state of arrested development; and it likewise revolved around a group that meets to yammer about their day at the local coffee shop, frequently getting distracted by the particulars of dating and relationships.  Shows like How I Met Your Mother have drawn inspiration from Seinfeld’s playful vocabulary, trying to engineer terminology like ‘suit up’ and the dating ‘Lemon Law’ and the many governing strictures of ‘The Bro Code’.  Always Sunny in Philadelphia has proudly declared itself ‘Seinfeld on crack’, steering characters already skewed toward selfishness straight into the abyss of a destructive, deluded chaos.

But to me, Seinfeld at its best has always worked under a wholly different dynamic than the rote summaries people sometimes use to encapsulate it would suggest.  It rather operates at a level of discourse and play articulated best in the discussions of the language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was …okay, to be honest, not such a funny guy.

The cliché is to describe Seinfeld as a show about nothing.  Indeed, it is a description that the show itself mischievously encouraged in its fourth season, when George and Jerry conceive of the sitcom pilot Jerry (a show-within-a-show that, ironically, came to be geared around by a zany sitcom plot about a court-ordered butler).  They refer to their invented program, itself inspired by their ‘real’ life in the fiction of the sitcom, literally, as, ‘A show about nothing’; as George explains to the baffled NBC executives:

‘But nothing happens on the show.  You see, it’s just like life.  You know, you eat, you go shopping, you read, you eat, you read, you go shopping…’

Often considered ‘anti-television’, Seinfeld seemed to subvert all the sitcom conventions of character and narrative.  Revolving around four rather narcissistic people, figures locked together in a strange interdependence that would, according to show creator Larry David, contain ‘no hugging’ and ‘no learning’, it observed the moments in-between the usual sitcom ‘moments’.  In Seinfeld, no one’s boss was coming over to dinner; no one delivered a baby in an elevator; no one had a zany wedding, and needed to be talked out of their cold feet with a syrupy ‘awwwww…’ from the audience.  (Indeed, one gets the sense that had the audience said ‘awwwww…‘ to anything that was depicted on that soundstage David would have had them forcibly removed from the studio and hurled into a ditch.*)

Instead, its episodes frequently revolved around scenarios in which (at least superficially), the plot appeared to be happening elsewhere, and this quartet are left distracted by the little stuff: waiting for a table at a Chinese restaurant; trying to find a lost car in a garage; taking a subway ride; bickering over the size of a salad; trying to get the hell out of Florida while arguing about a gift pen; trying to make it to a dinner party with a marble rye.  It was the show that concentrated on the ‘nothing’ going on behind the conventional television ‘somethings’ that had grown tediously stale.

But while ‘nothing’ is a snappy summation – one that hints at the inimitable tone of its plots – it belies the genius of the real subject matter into which the show delved: the connective tissue at the heart of every episode.  Because in actuality, the whole of Seinfeld , and the wellspring from which it draws its masterful comic sensibility, is about grammar – about testing the application of language amongst a circle of like-minded language users.  George, Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer each play out the normative social influence of behavioural and ideological concepts.  They test words and play out their meanings.  They perform, in a very real sense, comical versions of the language-games proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein, a philosopher concerned throughout his life with the way in which language functioned, came to see human communication as an endlessly expanding, continuously fluctuating organism governed by use – by grammar.  In his second major work, Philosophical Investigations, he described language like a city, constantly expanding, being built upon, renovated and remade:

‘Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.’**

Whenever new terminologies are introduced (scientific and medical terms, new forms of technology, slang and definitions) our language – like a city – grows and adapts to make room for these words, and their new applications.  But we have to know these terms and their meaning; see them applied, to learn the grammar of their usage.

Otherwise, as Wittgenstein notes, we are so alienated from this grammar that we will fail to understand what is being said.  As he observes later in the book in one of his most famous statements:

‘If I lion could talk, we could not understand him.’***

What Wittgenstein is essentially saying here – using the example of a beast given the power of speech – is that language requires more than just knowing the definitions of a list of words.  It’s about being attuned to their context, to the subtleties of their use.  In the case of the lion – magically granted the power of human speech or not – his grammar, his frames of reference (or in Wittgenstein’s terms, his ‘forms of life’), would nonetheless remain so alien, so divorced from our own experience, that we would still be unable to comprehend one another anyway.

It would, on a much smaller scale, be like getting dropped into the middle of a Seinfeld episode, suddenly witness, with no establishing perspective, to a bunch of people jabbering about ‘Mimbos’, ‘shrinkage’ and being ‘anti-dentite.’  Without the necessary back story, we would, like the lion, suddenly have no idea what these words meant – recognising their sounds, but oblivious to their unnatural applications, seemingly locked behind an abstracted code.

Wittgenstein therefore came to argue that the only means to explore the way in which language makes meaning was to examine its grammar – to look at how language is being applied at the very moment of its use, in localised examinations of speech that he called ‘language-games’.  One such example of these games was an examination of various uses of the word ‘blue’.  After all, the word ‘blue’ could be an adjective, a noun; it could be one of (or all of) a series of colours; even a state of mind:

‘Is this blue the same as the blue over there?   Do you see any difference?’–

You are mixing paint and you say ‘It’s hard to get the blue out of this sky.’

‘It’s turning fine, you can already see blue sky again.’

‘Look at what different effects these two blues have.’

‘Do you see the blue book over there?  Bring it here.’

‘This blue signal-light means . . . .’

‘What’s this blue called? – Is it “indigo”?’****

‘Blue’, Wittgenstein reveals, is not simply a label applied to a physical or conceptual object.  It can have a myriad of meanings in a multitude of circumstances, all defined by its grammar and discerned by language-users familiar with these uses effortlessly in the moment of its utterance.

And it is precisely these kinds of explorations of language that are undertaken in every episode of Seinfeld, as each week we watch these characters explore – through the myriad potential for meaning that they can engender in their discussions – their own linguistic suburb in the city of language.

Indeed, it helps explain why the show has created such a wide and ubiquitous lexicon.  From ‘Yadda-yadda-yadda’, to putting something ‘in the vault’, to ‘re-gifting’, to ‘close-talkers’, ‘high-talkers’, and ‘low-talkers’, Seinfeld has arguably contributed more definitions and turns of phrase to the English language than anyone since Shakespeare.

And the reason that these definitions catch on – when other programs that try to mimic this style fail – is because Seinfeld scripts do not simply label some social phenomenon and expect the viewer to look on with a distanced, wry smile – they play it out, exhibit how applicable it is for its given circumstance.  The show’s stories build their momentum by rolling around a premise and allowing its validity or otherwise be tested through application.  The characters tease out its possibilities, with the viewer themself drawn into this conceptual exploration, invited to participate in the interrogation of social norms and pondering the foibles of human behaviour.

When is it appropriate to pee?  Only in the bathroom, or in the shower of the YMCA?  (And indeed, do pipes all go to the same places?)  Can ‘You are sooooooo good-looking’ be used in lieu of ‘God bless you’ when someone sneezes?  Exactly how far does one have to penetrate the nostril before a scratch becomes a pick?  Are you in a ‘relationship’ if you have an implied date, daily phone calls, and there is Tampax in your house?  What are the rules of ‘double-dipping a chip’?

And on the wider scale – comically evoking the contextual conflict in Wittgenstein’s lion example – we can witness the way in which the rules of one group of language-users rub up against with the rules of another, resulting in a case of ‘Worlds Collide’.  When George is dating Susan, and she seemingly befriends the group without him, ‘Independent George’ suddenly threatens to be subsumed by the social expectations of ‘Relationship George’:

‘You have no idea of the magnitude of this thing.  If she is allowed to infiltrate this world, then George Costanza as you know him ceases to exist.  You see, right now I have “Relationship George”.  But there is also “Independent George”.  That’s the George you know.  The George you grew up with.  Movie George.  Coffee shop George.  Liar George.  Bawdy George.  …. And he’s dying Jerry!  If “Relationship George” walks through this door he will kill “Independent George”.  A George divided against itself cannot stand!’

Indeed, it is when Susan starts using the language of ‘Independent George’ – declaring that she will put something in ‘The Vault’ – that George specifically begins to see the walls between his behavioural selves crumbling.*****

Perhaps the best example of this kind of language-game play, however, comes in the episode ‘The Alternate Side’, in which Kramer gets a bit role in the project of another loquacious New Yorker, Woody Allen.  Having impressed the filmmaker with an act of unintentional slapstick, Kramer is offered a tiny speaking part (literally elevated from extraneous onlooker to language-user), and is asked to deliver the line,

‘These pretzels are making me thirsty.’

When Kramer returns to Jerry’s apartment to relay this news, he shares with the others the line he is tasked with delivering.  George, Jerry and Elaine each offer suggestions on how best to convey the phrase’s meaning.  Elaine screws up her face, smacking her lips as though trying to banish the salt from her palate, seemingly surprised to discover, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty…’  Jerry meanwhile, dismissing her effort, declares, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty,’ over-earnestly slicing the air with his hand.  George, offering an overwrought interpretation, bores a hole in the table with his stare as he burbles, ‘These pretzels… are making me thirsty!‘ in a tone of barely contained rising-crisis.  Kramer is unsatisfied with them all, and although vowing to work on the line further, to continue trying to find its most suitable inflection, seems resolved to embrace his own vaudevillian delivery, all but winking into the camera as he grins, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty!’

No consensus is reached, and each character goes their own way, each chasing down their individual plotlines.  However, at the end of every one of these excursions, George, Jerry, Elaine and Kramer return to the line, this time investing it with genuine and contextual meaning.  Kramer continues to roll the line around in his mind, mystified that he cannot seem to invest the statement with feeling: ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty?’  George, unhinged by the stress of failing to repark an increasingly complex Tetris game of cars, screams the line as a displaced non sequitur out of the apartment window, ‘THESE PRETZELS ARE MAKING ME THIRSTY!’  Elaine, choked with discomfort at trying to break up with her boyfriend – who has just suffered an incapacitating medical scare – squirms, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty…’ through awkward laughter.  And Jerry, seething with contempt at a rental car employee who has just informed him he will be responsible for paying the damages, despite his having bought the insurance, spits, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty!‘  Just as Wittgenstein displayed in his examples of the word ‘blue’, in each of these instances, the phrase takes on dramatically new and singular meaning dependent upon the context of its use.

When George and Jerry conceive of the premise for their show-within-a-show – the mise en abyme that reflects upon the fiction’s larger structure – their description of ‘Nothing’, and a ‘show about nothing’, is not meant to indicate that it will be boring, about depicting emptiness, or the negation of purpose; instead it is about minutiae, about the ineffable strings of usage that govern behaviour, that dictate meaning, and that consequentially allow us to function as a community.  As George would elsewhere poignantly shout:

We’re living in a community here!

And so, for a show that purports to be about ‘nothing’, the show reveals itself to concern the most profound and central ‘something’ of all.  Seinfeld, in celebrating the seeming ‘nothingness’ that binds all verbal communication, exposes the centrality of linguistic communion – of the ineffable ties that define all human speech, and the shared experience that invests these applications with meaning.  As Wittgenstein would say, it’s about language-games: who knows them; how they are being employed.

The genius of the Seinfeld program is that each week we get to watch these concepts, these definitions, play out, watch them effortlessly, organically stirred into usage.  Each episode is a language-game, teasing out the implications of these descriptors, validating or disproving their acceptance into the communal parlance.  In Seinfeld we are drawn into that circle.  Made an unseen occupant of that diner booth.  We know the context.  We’ve seen the usage.

We get it.

 seinfeld at monks

IMAGE: Seinfeld (Castle Rock Entertainment; NBC)

* According to his own account on the Seinfeld DVDs, he even despised, and actively discouraged the audience from applauding when Kramer slid into scene.

** Philosophical Investigations #18.

*** Philosophical Investigations, II xi, p.223.

**** Philosophical Investigations #33.

***** And this play with grammar is even true in its last two, far broader (and arguably less satisfying) seasons after Larry David had left as show-runner.  Although the series had turned into something of a weekly comic cryptic crossword – with three or four seemingly disparate narratives that would somehow interweave by the endpoint – the comedy nonetheless came from knowing just how disconnected those through lines were before they were given new agency in the context of the show’s resolution.  Kramer meaninglessly wandering around with a meat slicer suddenly became crucial to Elaine when she had to feed a dog through the crack under a locked door.

Prose Poets

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on November 30, 2012 by drayfish

Complete Poems (Revised Edition)

IMAGE: Ernest Hemingway Complete Poems (Bison Books)

As a frustrated poet myself, I am always intrigued to see when famous writers of prose fiction choose to explore the verse form.  There are, of course, numerous examples of writers who have crossed over with grace.  Thomas Hardy’s hilarious ‘The Ruined Maid’ is a long way from his narrative’s fateful chewing up of the luminous Tess Durbeyfield.  Raymond Carver (who I think I will no doubt return to and rave about one day) offers soulful and elegant verse that is a fine extension of his rich fiction.  And if I’m completely honest, I prefer D.H. Lawrence’s poetry to his prose – I get infinitely more from his ‘Piano’ than his Rainbow (although the flood chapter is impressive).

Perhaps one of the most surprising transitions from one medium to the other is seen in the work of Ernest Hemingway who, although not the most accomplished poet, I find has a unique and bold take on the form.  For anyone interested, there is a nice edition of his collected works edited by Nicholas Gerogiannis (here).  This volume is worth checking out, not only for the fine introduction, but for the inclusion of some of Hemingway’s handwritten manuscripts, which contain hilarious doodles of fat grinning cats and weird bunny-eared creatures in the margins.  For anyone just curious, a small selection of Hemingway’s verse can also be viewed online (here).

Not surprisingly (for a man who used to teach Ezra Pound to box in the hope of toughening him up), Hemmingway proves to be an unsentimental poet.  These works are often satirical or playful harsh.  The poem ‘Lines to Be Read at the Casting of Scott Fitzgerald’s Balls into the Sea from Eden Roc (Antibes, Alpes Maritimes)’ certainly stands out.  Likewise his poem ‘To a Tragic Poetess’ (an attack on Dorothy Parker, who he considered an overly-theatrical pseudo-tragic …and who didn’t return his typewriter) is absolutely vicious, as its epigraph will attest: ‘Nothing in her life became her like her almost leaving of it’.

One of the works I most enjoy however is also one of his earliest, a short humorous piece titled (or not titled) ‘[Blank Verse]’.

‘[Blank Verse]’, by Ernest Hemingway (1961)

|          “                                                   ”

|                     !                  :                  ,                 .

|                                   ,                 ,                  ,              .

|                     ,                    ;                             !

|                              ,

What I really like about the poem (aside from the obvious audacity of stripping out the most basic units of any literary work: nouns, verbs, conjunctions), is that the final sentence – if indeed it can be called a sentence – is left hanging open.  The final line contains a comma, but no full stop.  Not only does the work contain no linguistic datum, but in its absence, it only projects further, compounding emptiness forever after in an anti-sentence that can never be concluded.

The Goose with the Golden Grammar

Posted in literature with tags , , , on October 12, 2012 by drayfish

It’s easy to see why the fables attributed to ‘Aesop’ have endured for centuries: the elegance of their metaphors, their tidy, punchy narratives, their peculiar fixation upon a world of animals and inanimate objects that won’t stop mouthing off when they spy a moment of dramatic irony or moral transgression.  (…Aesop’s world is indeed a sanctimonious one: it seems you can’t walk down the street without a lamppost or ladybeetle giving you a piece of their mind.)

These stories have penetrated every avenue of our modern culture and lexicon.  To be a wolf in sheep’s clothing; to be a pot calling a kettle black; to cry wolf; to watch the tortoise and the hair in their perpetual conflict; these images and the principles that they espouse are inextricably embedded in the human psyche.  Children absorb such parables with glee, political leaders nod gravely and wrangle them into clumsy sound bites, and the entire Disney oeuvre can be argued to rest upon Aesop’s fanatical anthropomorphism.

Despite their recognition, however, it is curious to note the multiplicity of readings that can still be drawn from these fables.  I have two copies of Aesop’s tales, both Selected Editions, and where their translations intersect there are often notable divergences in their account of the morals that one should draw from the preceding tales.

One such fable (titled ‘The Dog Invited to Supper’ in one edition and ‘Reckoning Without His Host’ in another), concerns a hungry dog who is invited to dinner by his friend, another dog, whose rich gentleman owner is going to be putting on a feast.  The hungry dog arrives early, excited to see all the food being prepared for a meal that he believes himself welcome to, but when the gentleman owner sees an unfamiliar animal in his kitchen, he seizes him violently and flings him from the house.  (From here the story gets a little strange: the dog, when questioned by passers-by as to how the meal was, claims he drank too much and can’t even remember leaving…)

In one edition of this tale, the moral reads: ‘It is bad policy to trust those who offer to do one a good turn at someone else’s expense’, a succinct warning to be wary of accepting a second-hand kindness.  The second edition suggests: ‘Those who enter through the back door can expect to be shown out through the window’, a Chuck Norris-inspired sentiment that firmly places the blame not upon the gentleman owner’s dog, who extended an offer that was not his to make, but upon the hungry dog, who is depicted as sly, invading the house without justification.  The same story, the same sequence of events, and yet the weight of responsibility and the lesson to be drawn from it do not align.

We tend to assume that these stories, ancient as they are, are static, their meanings fixed in place through generations of recitation, but like all linguistic artefacts they mutate and change – dependent upon their translation, of course, but mostly upon the momentary circumstance of their use.  (In this sense, they are much like their ‘author’ himself, who may or may not have been a slave, may or may not have been flung from a cliff to his death by a horde of angry Delphians, who perhaps never existed, and certainly didn’t write all of the fables attributed to him.)  These are breathing, amorphous narratives that gain new meaning from each application, and it is for this reason that they still seem as fresh today as they did over a millennia ago.

…There is one story, however, that I have yet to see satisfactorily explained, and which I believe defies all rational thought.  It is called ‘The Peach, the Apple, and the Blackberry’, and I include it in its entirety:

The peach and the apple decided to have a context to determine which one was the more beautiful than the other.  However, when tempers flared and the competition appeared to be getting out of hand, a blackberry thrust its head from a nearby bush and cried out, ‘This dispute has gone on long enough.  Let’s all be friends and stop this nonsense!’

This story haunts my dreams.

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