Friday, December 12, 2014
“While there seems to be a danger in taking corridors as metaphors for literary communication, the status of metaphor within language as a device of transport between signifiers implies that the figure and the space fulfill the same function, and have similarly attendant problems.”
~Kate Marshall, Corridor
“A writing that is not structurally readable – iterable – beyond the death of the addressee would not be writing.”
~Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context”
In a recent episode of The Newsroom Leona Lansing gives a short, but great, speech on the ambiguity of the word “literally”; a word that, following its definition, shouldn’t really be all that ambiguous…
I like Leona Lansing almost as much as I like language. Literally.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites the primary definition of the word “literally” as follows: “In a literal manner of sense.” This primary definition is followed by subsidiary definitions, of which the first elaborates on the primary definition: “a. In a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.” The second subsidiary definition falls in line with the first: “b. Used to indicate that the following word or phrase must be taken in its literal sense, usu. to add emphasis.” In both senses, the word “literally” signifies something like a strict adherence to a kind of materiality or tactility; in other words, and at the risk of falling into tautology, “literally” means that something is what it is. If something is literally transcribed, then its transcription matches the original; if someone literally went to pick up groceries, then that person is physically in the process of going to get groceries.
At this point, many readers have probably guessed where I’m headed. The final subsidiary definition of this primary definition departs from the traditional sense of the word:
c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’.
*Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).
I would be shocked to discover someone unfamiliar with this tertiary sense of the word “literally”; many of us hear it every day, and likely as many of us use it every day. The OED cites the Herald-Times in Bloomington for an example of the controversy over this use of the word: “2008, Herald-Times (Bloomington, Indiana) 22 Oct. a8/1: ‘OMG, I literally died when I found out!’ No, you figuratively died. Otherwise, you would not be around to relay your pointless anecdote.” In this final sense, the word “literally” has literally come to mean its exact opposite; it now may be used in two different (antithetical) senses. “Literally” can literally mean “not literally.”
As a phenomenon of language, “literally” provokes some necessary questions of meaning. Although impossible to pinpoint, the literally phenomenon plausibly may be said to have originated as a jocular form between friends, or as an instance of social irony; in either of these cases, its use may very well have been intentionally inaccurate: “Try this beer, it is literally the best beer ever made.”[i] The speaker would likely acknowledge, if pressed, that her use of “literally” is ironic, and was intended as such; unless she has tried every single beer and can recall the taste of each one on command, it would seem unlikely that she can affirm a single beer as the best. Even if we grant her the benefit of the doubt and suggest that she meant it was the best beer she has ever had, the problems of memory and the recollection of taste still arise.
After these early instances, the idiom began to catch on and, upon achieving a degree of regular usage, the speakers no longer necessarily intended their utterances as ironic, or were even aware of the etymologic reversal of the word. However, despite the almost automatic inclusion of the word (“It was literally the funniest thing ever,” “I am literally going to punch you,” etc.), few people protested or admitted confusion. Instead, the word slipped casually into our ordinary conversation and assumed its apparently rightful place as a functional idiom of the English language. Some grizzled curmudgeons might growl and shake their heads before eagerly rushing into a heated diatribe of the deplorable status of spoken English; but I can’t help but smile at this perplexing phenomenon of “literally.”
It’s literally amazing.
Now, am I being literal; or am I being literal…?
Despite the pleasure it gives me to let this word dance circles around us, I would like to try and understand it more. Perhaps the best way to start is to ask us if any other words can be (or have been) used this way, and what the quality of such uses is (i.e. what exactly is happening when we use them).
The literally phenomenon occurs when “literally” is used in an antithetical sense to its traditional meaning; or, in other words, when we say “literally” but we actually mean “figuratively.” Another word for “figurative” would be “metaphoric” or “allegoric,” and the OED specifies this; the first subsidiary definition states that “literally,” in its traditional sense, means “not figuratively, allegorically, etc.” There is thus a distinctly literary sense to the word’s opposite meaning; if something isn’t literal, then it is metaphorical, or allegorical, or figurative – it appeals to language in a way that relates between words, rather than making a direct reference between words and something that is actually happening.[ii]
Other words operate similarly. “Sick” has mutated to mean something along the lines of “exciting” or “impressive” (e.g. “That song is sick!”). The words “up” and “down,” traditionally opposites, have evolved to share the same meaning when appealed to in response to whether or not one wants to do something: “I’m up for that,” or “I’m down for that.” In these cases, the meaning of the general sentiment trumps the meaning of the individual words. “Up” and “down” appear to mean the same thing, and “sick” appears to mean something good or enjoyable as opposed to something traditionally considered bad and lamentable. Both of these cases exhibit the phenomenon in which opposites conflate, or in which opposite words come to mean the same thing. However, “literally” stands out from the crowd for one important reason: it is the word that we use to describe the very situations we’re dealing with. In other words, someone who isn’t privy to the alternative meaning of “sick” might be forced to ask how the word is being used: “Are you using ‘sick’ literally?” “Literally” is what we might call a meta-linguistic term; it is a word we use to talk about the meaning of words.
Ultimately, all language functions this way. The only way we can talk about language is by using language, and this is one of the pesky difficulties surrounding the production of meaning. But we can still appreciate the singularity of “literally”; it is a word whose mutation has effectively exploded our ability to talk about it: “Do you mean ‘literally’ literally?” But how can I ask this if the meaning of the word itself is ambiguous? How can I be sure that my “literally” will be understood in the traditional sense? While admitting that a certain level of normative, or ordinary, linguistic operations ensures that such a question achieves its desired meaning – that of whether an ambiguous use of “literally” is being used in the traditional sense or not – we must still acknowledge that such a conversation becomes, for all intents and purposes, nonsensical. It loses its internal relativity. When the word “literally” is opposed to itself, how can we explain the success of our expressions?
In order to understand what is going on here, we have to turn our attention away from the words themselves and to the phenomenon of meaning. In an essay, “What Nonsense Might Be,” Cora Diamond addresses the titular problem through an example posed by G.E. Moore: “Scott kept a runcible at Abbotsford,” in which “runcible” appears as “nonsense word” (5). Diamond goes on to explain that what makes the statement nonsensical “is not the meaning of the word ‘runcible’ but its absence of meaning. It is clear that if we defined ‘runcible’ in a suitable way, we could turn the sentence from nonsense to sense” (7). Diamond argues that this understanding of nonsense reflects Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory that there can be no “positive nonsense,” or “nonsense that is nonsense on account of what it would have to mean, given the meanings already fixed for the terms it contains” (16). This negativity of nonsense, in other words, derives from the fact that a term must fall outside of a language game entirely; not that it might mean something inappropriate due to its placement in a different language game, but that it fails to function in any language game. “Runcible” is, simply speaking, not a word. Had we replaced runcible with even the most inappropriate word – for instance, “disease” – we might still comprehend some vague impression of meaning.
“Scott kept a disease at Abbotsford.”
Well, this is certainly an odd statement. – How does one keep a disease? – Does he have a disease in a petri dish? – But Scott’s a librarian. – Can’t librarians keep diseases in petri dishes? – Can we come off it? – Oh! I know. He must be talking about his wife. – She is a disease. – Ha! Well, that solves that.
As unlikely (or offensive) as this chain of logic might seem, we can imagine how it may materialize as the meaning of the phrase; and this brings us back to the centrality of “literally.” While it may be that Scott perhaps kept an actual disease at Abbotsford, meaning also develops by comprehending the word in a figurative sense. The meaning effect, the production of meaning out of seemingly inappropriate words, turns on the ambiguity between literality and figurativeness. Even the most ludicrous statement effects meaning if it is comprised of conventional words:
“The crabapple sprung a yellow of shortage soap.”
As apparently nonsensical as it gets, no? And yet, as soon as we process its superficial alienism, our minds immediately begin to intuit how these words might relate, what qualities they share, or even how they resist each other; and from this automatic process, we find that meaning suddenly begins to spring into existence.
This is because meaning is never a matter of inert matter. Meaning comes from minds, and minds are linguistic and conceptual. Meaning arises from the interaction of ideas, images, and words, spoken and unspoken. Meaning cannot be dissociated from its figurative force. As Roland Barthes has developed in his structural philosophy of language, sentences operate an different levels of meaning: “A sentence, as we know, can be described, linguistically, on several levels (phonetic, phonological, grammatical, contextual); these levels are in a hierarchical relation, for if each has its own units and its own correlations, necessitating for each an independent description, no level can in and of itself produce meaning” (“Structural Analysis” 101). In another essay, Barthes expands his theory of meaning to include what he describes as denotative and connotative messages, which can be simply described as literal and figurative: the denotative message operates at the literal level of the words themselves, while the connotative message calls upon the reader to intuit an unspoken complex of meaning operating between the denotative message and its relation to the signifying field (“Advertising” 174-5).
All of this is a fancy way of saying something rather counterintuitive. We can say something and literally mean something entirely different, or possibly the exact opposite. Meaning works in mysterious ways, and some of those ways exceed our intentions; in other words, there is something strangely inhuman about meaning. The connotative, figurative aspect of language haunts everything we say, threatening every utterance with the potential for misunderstanding. In the case of “literally,” this hauntology (to borrow from Derrida) encounters the supreme moment of its paradox – its presence and absence – since multiple meanings inhabit the same word simultaneously. In fact, an even more intriguing phenomenon emerges when we realize that the literal definition of “literally” resists the etiology of meaning. When someone says, “The mailman left you an envelope,” a literal interpretation involves no interpretation at all; it simply assumes a normative correlation between the words and the purported delivery of an envelope. However, let us imagine that the recipient is expecting a wedding invitation; or perhaps she fears a court summons; or perhaps she expects nothing, and the announcement of a letter inspires some confusion. All of these possibilities encounter the blossoming of meaning, according to Niklas Luhmann: “The function of meaning is the indication of, and control of access to, other possibilities” (Luhmann 48). We have no say in the matter; excess meaning takes over our speech, whether we want it to or not. Meaning works to silence the speaking subject, obscuring and burying the literal and summoning the spirit of the figurative.
In other words, there is a zombie rising from the grave of language.
The zombie is both dead and yet living, the living dead; it is both human and nonhuman, the estranging quality of the inhuman. As a figure of modern fantasy, the zombie occupies an important place in the cultural unconscious: ranging as far back as Poe’s M. Valdemar (taken as factual upon its initial publication), the masses have been fascinated by the figure of the living dead – primarily, I believe, because humanity fears the living dead it perpetuates in its own image. The zombie masses are the popular masses, the zombie drive is the murderous compulsion we all (at some time or another) sense within us; but finally, and most importantly, the zombie registers the same paradox engendered in our discussion of “literally.”
The zombie is, first and foremost, a body; but it is a body that embodies meaning itself. The zombie is that which it is not, both living and dead; just as literally must be that which it is not, both literally and figuratively.
In his book The Parallax View (2006), Slavoj Žižek outlines the importance of the inhuman, as a concept, for his own work. He describes the inhuman as “a terrifying excess which, although it negates what we understand as ‘humanity,’ is inherent to being-human” (22). Does our language exhibit a similar terrifying excess; and if so, how do we describe this excess – this phenomenon of being both literal and figurative, of generating meaning from this relationship between the literal and figurative? And what does “literally” have to tell us about this excess? Science fiction scholar Seo-Young Chu tells us that figurative language “occupies a special place in science fiction. Occurrences of figurative language in SF texts and contexts have an interesting tendency to elicit literal interpretation almost as a matter of course, especially among readers well versed in SF” (10). When we discuss an individual of marginal status – for instance, an antebellum slave – and describe this individual as being treated inhumanely, or as inhuman (to return us to Žižek’s term), we appeal to a figurative use of language in order to make a point; African slaves actually are human, but were treated as though they were not. However, in a science fiction novel such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? we find the inhuman literalized in the figure of the android. Androids are treated as something other-than-human because they are other-than-human. This science-fictional move in fact does not reify what it means to be human, but rather redirects the question of race toward the question of what it means to be human.
The interplay between literal and figurative governs our reception of these narratives. Our contemporary critical discourse on slave relations suffers no illusion that slaves are somehow less-than-human; we know that blacks are just as human as whites. In a novel such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the similarities are less obvious unless we read the novel at a critical level; while the novel literalizes the concept of an inhuman other (in the form of an android), it also channels the energies of the racial dilemma. Not only can we read Dick’s novel as both literal (i.e. humans and androids) and figurative (i.e. whites and blacks), but we must read the story of slavery and race relations as both literal and figurative. In the original discourses and traditions surrounding race relations from early Atlantic modernity, the logic of Western thought identified blacks as literally other-than-human. The human, which we consider today as far more inclusive, is a historically exclusive and restrictive institution – a constructed institution that emerged specifically through a white, male, Euro-American logic, and was also designed in contrast to that which didn’t conform to its implicit characteristics: white, male, straight, Euro-American, etc.
Once we see this institution as constructed, we can determine the role of linguistic excess. The human, as Žižek tells us, is always something other than itself. As an institution, it labors under the threat of dissolution. This is not because of any actual external threat, but because of the arbitrary nature of our own beliefs about what the human is. Thus, every time we use the word “human,” whether we intend to or not, we use it in a simultaneously literal and figurative sense. When, after making an error, we say “I’m only human,” we mean: a) that we are this literal thing, this body with limbs and a mind, capable of making errors, and b) that being-human connotes imperfection, that “human” stands in metonymically for “flawed.”
The phenomenon of “literally” exposes that which is common to language in general. The blunt truth is that we never mean literally what we say. The very act of speaking, of participating in language, necessitates an interplay of the literal and the figurative, so that there will always be a meaning that exceeds denotative message. This idea makes some people nervous because we do not want to imagine that language works without us; but while it cannot speak itself, it does operate beyond our control. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this idea not only makes people nervous, but absolutely terrifies them; because when you dig down far enough you begin to realize that language is a bit like a zombie. Dead letters, spoken utterances on decommissioned frequencies iterating off into space. It was Jacques Derrida who explained, in his essay “Signature Event Context,” that to “be what it is, all writing must, therefore, be capable of functioning in the radical absence of every empirically determined receiver in general. And this absence is not a continuous modification of presence, it is a rupture in the presence, the ‘death’ or the possibility of the ‘death’ of the receiver inscribed in the structure of the mark” (8). That is, the logic of language entails that it persist beyond the death of the one who uttered it.
Language is literally the living dead.
Barthes, Roland. “The Advertising Message.” The Semiotic Challenge. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. 173-178.
–. “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives.” The Semiotic Challenge. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. 95-135.
Chu, Seo-Young. Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010.
Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” Limited Inc. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988. 1- 23.
Diamond, Cora. “What Nonsense Might Be.” Philosophy 56.215 (1981): 5-22.
“Literally.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. Oed.com.
Luhmann, Niklas. “Meaning as Sociology’s Basic Concept.” Essays on Self-Reference. New York: Columbia UP, 21-79.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.
[i] In fact, the first use in this sense recorded by the OED is shockingly early: “1769, F. Brooke Hist. Emily Montague IV. ccxvii. 83: He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.”
[ii] There are more complexities to this than I have time to treat in this essay. Certain theories of language contend that language is always a play between words, or signifiers, and I do not necessarily refute this; but as far as the meaning, or sense, of “literally” goes, it is useful to speak of it as though it assumes a certain correlation to a non-linguistic, or physical, occurrence.