josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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1 Jul '13 10:12:11 AM

The voiceover in the opening sequence sounds like it is explaining the title to you: that the show is about law and order. As if it is adding weight to each of those ideas for you so that you appreciate that these are jobs that involve people. But that’s not what the voiceover says. It starts by saying that in the criminal justice system, the people are represented…. And it thereby leaves an ambiguity in the tail-end of the voiceover: ‘these are their stories’. Whose stories? The police and the district attorneys, ‘separate but equally important groups’? Or the people represented by these groups?

On this reading the content of a typical episode should seem less clear, because the most obvious candidates for whose stories are being told (‘told?’) are either the police, the district attorneys, or the criminals and their victims.

It is barely the victims. Typically, they first appear as corpses, discovered by someone else. The discovery is often made by a gratuitously ordinary party: people on a date, people doing their business, family or friends. Commonly the ones who discover the body disappear from the story after the police take over. That’s the sense in which they can be truly gratuitous to the story: who they are, what type they serve to put onscreen, is almost completely free of the other constraints of the story. It is an opportunity for us to be shown some ordinary people, or people doing ordinary things, living ordinary lives (regardless of who they are).

In this sense their discovery of the body is itself a brief glimpse of the fact that ordinary people are not wholly private people. They have responsibilities, feel obligations, may be relatively good or bad citizens (criminals will not as often report the bodies, and not everyone is very eager to explain what they were doing in the place the corpse was found). But they call the police; they tell someone else (someone ‘in charge’? someone in or with ‘authority’?); and then they become, momentarily, part of that wider world, having to do with ‘the people’, with the public system of justice in or through which the people deal with crimes.

The victims do, of course, go on to feature prominently in the stories that are told about their murders. First and foremost, the police investigate the circumstances of their deaths, and thus, investigate their lives. They talk to their family and friends, or talk to the people who saw them most recently before death, or talk to people that, importantly, their family don’t or might not have known so well—so they begin to approach the possibility that the victim’s life might itself be private, or harbor privacy in various ways, which means here that it might be significantly unknown or unfamiliar or concealed from even those with whom it is otherwise shared, held in common, usually or routinely ‘open’, normal, ordinary. The police also read the victim’s belongings, look through them, comb over them—keeping an eye out especially for those that don’t belong (belongings that don’t belong), or belongings that are missing (belongings that should belong), and for those that are out of the ordinary, or known to be connected to crime (guns, money, drugs). They listen, and look, and read—investigate the means by which the victim stayed in touch with and communicated with others, and the means by which his or her life was recorded, put on paper, kept track of—to find discrepancies, hints, clues. On Law & Order, at least, these investigations are rarely forensic but do routinely make use of forensics. They benefit from forensic examinations and tests but almost always by way of the production of further clues, further people to find or question, or a legal pretext for doing so more thoroughly (and thus often with a greater penetration of privacy: thus a search warrant, probable cause).

(‘Forensic’ is etymologically connected to the court, from Latin forensis, ‘in open court, public’, from forum, itself related to fores, ‘(outside) door’. So there is a potentially useful juxtaposition in modern forensic science between investigation for the sake of the public (secondarily, for victims, etc.), and investigation which habitually supposes that expertise and microscopic scrutiny are called for in order to understand the significance of unseen facts and patterns, to glean the true meaning of what may seem ‘obvious’ or obviously mysterious about a given situation or state of affairs. An attempt to use human knowledge and institutions to cause the facts produced by criminal acts to themselves betray the criminals.)

That criminals are rarely nailed by forensic evidence on Law & Order means that investigations remain unclosed all the way through the trial stage, and it remains a live issue whether and how the state will be able to convict. The primary result of this is that people stay in the mix. They stay in the mix even after the point where the police are convinced they’ve found who they’re looking for, because without conclusive evidence (the kind that makes people just give up, especially on other shows), the criminals will resist as much as the criminal justice system enables them to. (And often this is a cause for more extended stories, with their reversals and complexities, and for standard drama, since some resistance against this process is just, as even late in a case the one accused may change, or the theory of the crime may change. Innocent people will resist too!)

Beyond the (potential) evidence noted above, then, the police investigation proceeds by sifting through the victim’s life chiefly by sifting through the people who can be discovered to be involved in it. So who or what do they look for? People who have a reason to lie, people who have something to hide, people who are hiding something; people who profit from the victim’s death, people with a reason to want the victim dead. These people are almost never—let’s call them—massively concealed sociopaths, so generally the idea is that the police are looking for people who have shared secrets with the victim, people whose privacies intersect in some way with the victim. But in many cases these are not secrets per se; they are the kinds of ordinary privacies which are constituted by encounter and shared context of activity, open to knowledge to some degree by the others nearby, but ‘officially’ private, not under the eye of the state or the public—until the suspect has committed a crime, at which time he will (if he is reasonably aware, smart) try to hide and obscure the fact of his relationship to and history with the victim: lie about it, misrepresent it (is there a connection between the people’s being ‘represented’ and between ‘misrepresentation’?).

1 Jul '13 03:58:19 AM

Is art ordinary? Ordinary in the same way that ordinary language is ordinary, or that a day can be ordinary, or ordinary in the same way that the events, activities, scenes, people, encounters, of everyday life can be ordinary? Ordinary like work is, for most people, ordinary?

30 Jun '13 09:53:33 AM

'… it is just that even the most commonplace things have their weight.'

30 Jun '13 09:49:17 AM

'These notes devoted to the Paris arcades were begun under an open sky of cloudless blue that arched above the foliage…'

29 Jun '13 07:38:36 AM

'Network research suggested that the laugh track was required in order to brand a single-camera show as a comedy.'

28 Jun '13 09:47:49 AM

Summer—the detestable season.

27 Jun '13 09:14:55 AM

A reviewer's blurb on the back of my copy of Quine's From a Logical Point of View claims that the book's 'chief merit' is 'the heart-searching from which it arose and to which it will give rise'.



27 Jun '13 04:31:08 AM

Several months ago, I was bothered by a phrase I read, ‘philosophical belief’. Cavell was using it to refer to the effect Descartes’ Meditations had, of ‘refining the options for philosophical belief’.

The point seems right enough—that the fact of philosophical writing can often powerfully, perhaps unduly, affect what we take to be possible or permissible for ourselves and from others—but what bothered me about it was that in making it Cavell seemed not to question the idea of philosophical belief.

Though it’s not a phrase he repeats, it seems to sit comfortably with his frequent talk of ‘conviction’ and of other strong forms of belief and adherence. I guess Cavell means this talk sincerely, but it often seems to me as if it’s—also?—meant defensively, as his way of securing himself against the kinds of accusations philosophers who favor Wittgenstein are often subject to, essentially repeating Russell’s jibe that the later Wittgenstein seemed to have given up on serious thought. For what could be more serious than a conviction deeply rooted in oneself and embodied in one’s written performance? And how better to insist on the necessity of serious thought, than to find convincing ways to pit one’s own sense of conviction against the cant of the class of professional thinkers, the managers of ‘our’ convictions, on behalf of something the managers are liable, out of professional deformity, to deny, distort, or neglect, something we all share in called ‘the ordinary’?

I guess I would describe Cavell’s written performances as being meant to show that it is possible to find conviction in the ordinary. But aside from that conviction, exhibited or voiced in performance, what is convincing about his performances is mainly meant to be convincing to his fellow thinkers, ‘serious thinkers’—and that, insofar as the performances try to show that thinking needn’t dissolve the ordinary or relegate it to a lower status, and that finding conviction in the ordinary need never put a stop to further thought.

But note the ‘needn’t’ and ‘need never’ there. They pertain to those serious thinkers—they seem to stem from ‘a serious thinker’s’ conception of the ordinary and of the appropriate, or best possible, relation between thought and the ordinary, between the vita contemplativa and everyday life. It seems to me as if the wish to persuade these serious thinkers, to be endorsed by them or to receive their acknowledgment and thoughtful response, explains many of the difficulties that Cavell’s written performances pose to any reader. At one point (in an addition to his film book, contrasting his ‘procedures’ in his writing there to those of his earlier writing), Cavell describes them:

‘There my hope for conviction from the reader was placed in my ability to motivate assertions, and objections to them, and to voice them in such a form and at such a time that the reader would have the impression that he was himself thinking them, had been about to have said them—not about to have said something generally along their lines, but as it were to find himself thinking those specific words just when and just as they were appearing to him. (Naturally this need not, even when done well, occur on a first perusal. Then what in a first should encourage going back?)’

The main difficulty posed by Cavell’s writing is not stated here, but implied: the massive degree of control he attempts to exert in writing. Shall we call it control over the reader? Cavell’s description here refers to a practice he associates elsewhere with his efforts to say ‘we’ as the ordinary language philosopher does, drawing on his own authority as a speaker of English to recall his readers to community with him by reminding them of what they ought to know as well as he does, what they mean by their words. Voiced in the right form and at the right time, these sorts of claims of ‘what we should say when’ would be ideally suited to be made to a reader who would thereby ‘have the impression that he was himself thinking them’. Cavell and his reader would be of one mind—in agreement.

If I call his effort to achieve this result an exertion of control over the reader, it’s partly because the result seems intended not just intermittently but continuously. I take it that this has something to do with Cavell’s efforts elsewhere, at points in his writing where other than major assertions and objections are being made, to as it were flatten the text, to exclude as much of the apparatus of scholarship as possible and to diminish as much of the scaffolding of scholarly signposting as possible, so that the text as a whole comes to seem, or to approach seeming like, an unbroken performance by a solitary voice, speaking freely from within the confines of the ordinary.

In combination with the wish for perfect unanimity, this results in what I often find to be the characteristically philosophical effect of Cavell’s writing on the reader: the discovery that though you’re sure Cavell doesn’t fully speak for you, he says a great deal you don’t wish to deny, so that you’re unsure how it is your own thoughts have not yet been voiced.

I suppose this is experienced as a difficulty (besides the usual reasons pertaining to the effort it takes to go over the writing, to be controlled by it, to try to piece extremely long pieces of it together when it seems as if Cavell has not deigned to do so) particularly because the conventional modes of response are denied to the reader but the reader feels (quite naturally, as anyone fond of his individuality and over-proud of his capacity to think would) as if he must respond.

24 Jun '13 10:19:40 AM

'… there will simply be facts, facts, and facts but no Ethics.'