Sunday, November 20, 2011

Language/Society Influence Paradox

(I want to set the scene, so I'll be dramatic.)

When walking home this afternoon between Ballantine and the Chemistry building, I heard a muffle of bird-calls and the flutter of wings. I looked up towards the knotty limbs to see a murder of charcoal crows. I was alone. They outnumbered me, taunted me with "caws". Their presence high above me was ominous and intimidating. In a quick recollection of "The Birds", I imagined them ascending downwards and, out of some evil spite, viciously pecking my eyes out and. I mean, it was a possibility. And then I thought, how clever of Alfred Hitchcock, to market on a so obviously dark and oppressive image, to put to film the morbid symbolism of the looming crow murder.

And suddenly I was struck, though not by the birds, but rather a question of fleeting agency. Why did I think this mass of black birds in a tree was ominous, grim, oppressive? Was this symbolism so "obvious" or inherent? Or rather was it the act of watching the film itself that set conjured this later symbolism? And yes, it is most definitely a question of agency. Did I get to freely decide the negative significance of these crows? Or did Hitchcock decide for me when I watched "The Birds" for years ago?

This is also a question of influence. As Bakhtin states in "Discourse in the Novel", language (and this would include film) is a "social phenomenon", and the text of a work like "The Birds" is shaped by certain cultural codes at that historical time. This would mean that Alfred Hitchcock's decisions to make the film, what its themes or symbols will be, etc. are based of off societal modes, as he is a member of society and is of course effected by what's around him. And so "The Birds" as a film, and specifically the ominous symbol of a murder of crows, is not the single and authorial creative idea of Hitchcock (this echoes the Barthes and Foucault ideas of no "Author", but rather a society created work). It is the echo of the cultural codes of the present time and what has come before it (maybe Hitchcock was inspired by a Poe poem or what not). The language and symbolism of "The Birds" was influenced by society.

And then my realization proved to me a paradox. If Hitchcock's symbols incepted in me the idea of some dark avian horror image, then wasn't I influenced by his work, by his language? Put in a larger sense then, is society further influenced by language (by symbols, themes, and stigmas in pre-existing books, films, photos, etc.)? Thus language and symbols are simultaneously influencee and influencer, creating an ongoing chain: society influences language, which influences society, which influences language, and on.

If so than who really has agency? As symbol-usage progresses and grows more complex do we (as members of society) lose agency? Put more simply, if everything already stands for something, then how can we create, make things signify other things outside of the realm of past signification-influences? With this dynamic, the paradox of influence, it would seem that we are in a continuos cycle of symbol-usage, diluting agency and creativity, blending together "influencing" and "being influenced" to the point where nothing is completely "new" (and eventually not even relatively new).

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