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 10:56:34 AM

—Beginning with the question, is it ordinary? How is it not?

This is a way of calibrating, orienting us with respect to the phenomenon. It starts us back a step. Instead of talking straight off about e.g. art (morality, etc.), as if what we shall say is sure to touch its essence or our relation to it, we try to attune ourselves to the specific ways in which the phenomenon, in not being exactly ordinary, poses a challenge for any consideration of it which aims to be expressed in ordinary language. We try to acknowledge the fact that we are likely to be at a loss for words, that our words will be, at first, far from adequate or faithful to the phenomenon.

We also try to acknowledge, and be cautious about, the fact that our ‘ordinary’ talk about art is often not that satisfying. Confusing, muddled; with it we can sometimes end up seeing less and sharing less because it keeps us from listening to each other and permits us to misrepresent our own lives with art—even to ourselves.

1 Jul '13 10:48:11 AM

One thing you learn is when work stops; and how it never stops.

1 Jul '13 10:42:47 AM

Work is among the most ordinary of things. It's a fact of life, for most people, for most of their lives. But how is it (§415 again) 'a fact that no one has doubted, which has escaped notice only because it's always before our eyes'?

1 Jul '13 10:38:42 AM

One reason to ask whether art is ordinary is to try to place it in 'the natural history of human beings' (PI §415, §25).

1 Jul '13 10:14:43 AM

(Stories about people being represented—about the people.)

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…'