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What's Your Sign?

January 11, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Let’s listen with our eyes and not just our ears. That would be the ideal.” -Christine Sun Kim

Early exposure to language seems to be the key in all languages. The key to what? Success in that language, or with language in general? Or in society? What is the bar for success and how is it measured? With today’s blog, I want to better understand how language expresses thought, particularly through the lens of sign language.

Most of us have some experience with a young, non-verbal child (your own, someone else’s, or even through movies, etc) in which the child wishes to communicate. Think of the crabby one or two year old demanding something by screaming or crying, body language and/or facial expressions. Also, think of the parents’ joy at their child’s first word. It really is amazing to have these tiny humans mimic words at such a young age. This seems to be proof of an innate desire to communicate with others. Even if it is mimicry at this stage, they come to grasp the idea of language and communication, which still leaves me wondering how far language is learned versus innate. The child simply sees adults talking, or perhaps older siblings, and they want to join. Spoken language has existed for over 60,000 years, making it difficult to differentiate natural from learned behaviors. However, a lot of superb scholarship is currently coming out of sign language due to two facts: a) it is a relatively new language and b) sign language is not linked with verbal language. These differences offer some key insights into how languages act.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), sign language relies upon visual cues alone. It creates language with bodies and space. Though there is an alphabet, it is used mainly for spelling new words or names. While there are a number of popular sign languages, today’s blog focuses mostly on American Sign Language (ASL).

First, let’s start with fingerspelling. This is the process of spelling a new word, such as the name of a person or organization. But it could also be some new piece of information. According to this lesson plan on ASLU, many flowers lack specific signs in ASL. Therefore if you want to say daisy, you would fingerspell D-A-I-S-Y. In further explanation of the utility of fingerspelling, the instructor continues: “How about food? While there are quite a few signs for various food items, there are thousands of types of foods that have no established sign. Hold on to your chair when I tell you this - there isn't even a widely accepted sign for burrito. (As opposed to a burro, which is a small donkey. We do have a sign for "donkey," but try showing a picture of a both a donkey AND a mule to 10 different Deaf people and watch 'em tell you ‘mule is spelled.’) And a mule is a relatively common animal -- don't even get me started on ‘ring-tailed lemurs!’”

Another use of fingerspelling is when you have a common name like John or Bob, you can fingerspell the name, but refer to a particular space in front of you which will equal “Bob” for the rest of the conversation. So, as a shortcut, you can point to that space to indicate Bob, rather than fingerspelling the name each time. There are some instances, however, in which a name does have a particular sign. Think of names like Dawn or Penny. These are somewhat common names which also have a corresponding sign. In this case, you would fingerspell the name to explain that you mean to designate a proper noun and not the concept of dawn, for example.

In fact, names offer such a rich area of study in terms of sign language. There is an entire culture dedicated to naming things in sign language. Names often depend upon a person’s characteristics as decided by the Deaf community. This short video from My Smart Hands gives a little more understanding into how names are assigned.

SignSavvy.com (among others) explains:

“Fingerspelling your name can seem a bit impersonal, especially among friends. So, members of the Deaf community often give each other sign names. Your sign name is often related to something about you (a characteristic). For example, if you have curly hair, your sign name may be a combination of the first letter of your name and the sign for curly hair. Culturally, it is not appropriate to pick your own sign name and only Deaf people assign sign names. When you first use a sign name in a conversation, you would fingerspell the name and then show the sign name. Once the people know who you are talking about, the sign name makes it easier and more personal to refer to the person during the conversation.”

Many cultures have not been able to control their own language due to outside oppression and/or language mixing. While French sign language and ASL do share a common history, today they are distinct languages. Due to the unique nature of the Deaf community, it is not clear (to me, at least) to what extent an outside force could actually affect or alter a particular sign language. (For more on this, check out Nicaraguan Sign Language or the fascinating Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language.) It makes sense that the Deaf community prefers to assign their own signs for names, since much of sign language relies upon a cultural understanding of how to use space, body language and gesture itself. In the same way that typing in all capital letters looks like shouting, some subtle body change (such as pointing, shaking your hand, or raising an eyebrow) may greatly affect the nature of the word that you mean. The artist Christine Sun Kim explains that “In deaf culture, movement contains sound.” (She explains the concept of full-body language in this TedTalk.) Signs can express irony, sarcasm, anger, humor, etc. just as capably as voiced speech. Understanding humor or sarcasm in a second language, however, is one of the greatest challenges of learning a new language.

Due to the way that sign language involves full body language, I find that it is an extremely emotive language. While the Syntopicon does an adequate job of outlining topics related to Language, I find fault that there is not a cross-reference for Language in terms of Emotion. I believe there is much development to be made between the cognitive associations of language making, language preferences, language learning, memory recall and emotion. Since memory and emotion are both contained in the limbic system of our brains , it would make sense to pair language recall with memory and/or emotion. (To Adler’s credit, he does suggest a link between Memory and Imagination). There is room though, I believe, for exploration regarding emotion as it relates to language cognition, use, and development. One other area of great interest to me is the bridge between Language and Art (which Adler does address in the Syntopicon). (For more about the deaf experience in the world of art (and sound), check out artist Christine Sun Kim’s exploration of noise.)

I also wish that there was a cross-reference between Language and Nature. Is language natural? In what way(s) does the early language-learner express a natural tendency to communicate? If the young child desires to communicate, is this concrete evidence that natural language exists, that language is natural to humans? What does it mean to say that language is natural? And finally, what can a developing language such as sign language tell us about language itself?

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Celebrate the Old and New

January 4, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Some members in my family celebrate New Year’s Eve with lutefisk or sauerkraut. Some people celebrate with both. I, however, draw the line at lutefisk. I just cannot stomach it. What seems to me to be a petty difference of taste really bothers others, though. They fear bad karma (or something) when I disrespect the tradition. We turn this into a joke at the dinner table, but in reality, traditions run much of our lives and so I thought it might be worthwhile to better understand what they are and how they function in society.

While tradition is not in the Great Books anthologies per se, Custom and Convention is listed as one of the great ideas. In it, Mortimer Adler offers the following definition convention. He explains:

“In the tradition of the great books, the word ‘convention’ has at least two meanings, in only one of which is it synonomous with ‘custom.’ When ‘convention’ is used to signify habitual social practices, it is, for the most part, interchangeable with ‘custom.’ In this significance, the notion of convention, like that of custom, is an extension of the idea of habit. What habit is in the behavior of the individual, customary or conventional conduct is in the behavior of the social group.

“The other meaning of ‘convention does not connote the habitual social behavior but stresses rather the voluntary as opposed to the instinctive origin of social institutions, arrangements, or practices. … Whatever is conventional about social institutions might have been otherwise, if men had seen fit to invent and adopt different schemes for the organization of their social life. This indicates the connection between the two senses of the word ‘convention,’ for all customs are conventional in origin, and all conventions become customary when perpetuated.”

Obviously, this relates to the idea of New Year’s Eve lutefisk (and all traditions) – in that we celebrate what we find worthwhile in our lives and cultures. What we find worthwhile, however, may arrive through instruction, precedent, example, practice, or law. During the transition into a new year, many lists are compiled such as the greatest music, literature, or entertainment from the previous year. Do these lists merely reflect person opinion, or is it more complicated than that? Adler continues:

“The most familiar of all of the sophistic sayings – the remark attributed to Protagoras that ‘man is the measure of all things’ - is interpreted by both Plato and Aristotle to mean that what men wish to think or do determines for them what is true or right. Man’s will governs his reason, and convention, or the agreement of individual wills, decides what is acceptable to the group.”

In other words, convention drives personal opinion, perhaps even in undetected ways. It may be through trends and media that we receive hints about the health of our daily habits. These sources, though, represent, according to Adler, “an agreement of individual wills.” The line between individual and group, however, is extremely difficult to determine. How large does the group have to be before it becomes a group? What constitutes a fad? Is the mainstream synonymous with either the popular or traditional? Claude Lévi-Strauss adds that:

“Among the most primitive peoples it is not very difficult to obtain a moral justification or a rational explanation for any custom or institution … Even in our own society, table manners, social etiquette, fashions of dress, and many of our moral, political, and religious attitudes are scrupulously observed by everyone, although their real origin and function are not often critically examined.”

Many would argue that traditions arrive from nature or necessity, such as in the form of cleanliness, or human morality, or social preservation. Convention and tradition make for interesting discussions, but as for lutefisk, I am still not sold. In an effort to incorporate new traditions (aka my own) with old, I compromise with rice pudding. However, since it is an attempt to honor the idea of tradition, but is not actually traditional, perhaps I do more harm than good.

To read more about Resolutions, visit: hmu.edu.

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Mrs. Maisel's Emotions

October 5, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Spoiler alert: if you are midway through The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, maybe you should bookmark this post because I am going to talk about her character development throughout the first season. If you are not yet familiar with this show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about a young Jewish woman whose husband leaves her for his secretary. From a wealthy family, she is well-educated, witty, beautiful and well-dressed. After separating from her husband, she moves back in with her parents. Due to the unexpected shame and frustration of her situation, Miriam Maisel (“Midge,” played by Rachel Brosnahan) stumbles into performing an improv act in which she questions who she is and what to do with her new situation. Standing in the front of a room of strangers and disparaging yourself seems like an odd way to deal with her emotions, and yet it is what she does. Why does Midge resort to comedy? Was it a rational decision, or an emotional one? Must it be one or the other? Is a comedic representation of painful events some sort of emotional release?

In the Syntopicon, Emotion is listed as one of the great ideas of Western Civilization. The discussion of it is always extremely rational. Looking at emotion through the lens of reason may be the best way to understand it. However, to me, it seems like this idea would really benefit from a more broadened world view. After reading the discussion of Emotion, I have many lingering questions. Is it an activity that requires thought, or is devoid of thought? Also, why did Kant introduce the idea of emotion in the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, but wait another hundred pages to actually discuss it? As another example, Spinoza generated a long list of emotions (all of which stem from either desire, joy or sorrow). His list includes things like over-estimation, audacity and drunkenness. (Maybe Midge’s drunken state is to blame for her first stand-up routine?) While I don’t believe that Spinoza defined drunkenness as inebriation, there is a real lack of understanding about what emotion encompasses. Being emotional is often portrayed as messy, loud, aggressive, or overwrought, but it can also be none of those things. To that point, Spinoza’s list also includes benevolence, despondency and confidence. I am struggling to understand emotion as a state of being, versus emotion as an action, versus emotion as reaction, versus emotion as a form of knowledge.

In the show, Midge is not really messy or overwrought. Instead, she’s funny. Therefore, I wonder if comedy might complement the path of reason as a means towards understanding emotion. Midge’s first two on-stage experiences were successful. (Do note that she was tipsy for both, however.) When she realized that people reacted favorably to her rambles, she decided to go on stage in earnest. Midge prepared for this experience with notes and contemplation of things she found humorous. Only, this time, she was not funny. This third performance was a rational choice, whereas the previous two seemed to be accidental. Did reason interfere with comedy? Does comedy require a level of emotional ownership, a personal connection to the humor? Why are Midge’s self-deprecating stand-up routines funny, but not the bits of human inanity? After bombing on-stage, Midge’s manager Susie (played by Alex Borstein), explained that improv works until it doesn’t work, and then you have to work at understanding what makes a thing funny. So, Midge began to prepare her shows until she worked up to a successful 10 minute stand-up routine. Sometimes, comedy seems to be an instinctual art. The ability to gauge when something is funny or not seems instinctual, but really, it requires a great deal of emotional education. Many of the jokes throughout this series stem from painful events. She mines these experiences to find humorous nuggets in them, but she is also painfully aware of the double meaning hidden under each joke. A comedian must find this very specific balance between boring or tired details and overly abstract narration.

In the Syntopicon, Adler states, “Like desire, emotion is neither knowledge nor action, but something intermediate between the one and the other” (328B). I wonder, however, can we definitively state that emotion is not knowledge? In seeking out comedy, Midge is not choosing bad behavior, but rather solving an emotional dilemma. Perhaps these comedy acts demonstrate a level of irrationality. Is this a demonstration of the Aristotelean idea that when emotions rule, we lack reason? Adler summarizes this point: “That a man may act either emotionally or rationally, Aristotle thinks, explains how, under strong emotional influences, a man can do the very opposite of what his reason would tell him is right or good. The point is that, while the emotions dominate his mind and action, he does not listen to reason” (331B). In the case of Midge, I argue against that notion, however, because while her improv does carry emotional content, they are not unstructured. Construction requires logic.

Maybe Midge has encountered a version of Heidegger’s idea of Dread, and it is this powerful fear which actually draws her on stage. Or is comedy a path that analyzes the gap between something like Freud’s id and ego? Adler summarizes Freud’s belief in saying that he “sometimes goes to the extreme of insisting that all apparently rational processes – both of thought and decision – are themselves emotionally determined; and that most, or all, reasoning is nothing but the rationalization of emotionally fixed prejudices and beliefs” (332B). This idea might help explain Midge’s attraction to improv. She explicates the obvious in a funny and universal way that connects to a broader audience. Near the end of the first season, Susie invites some bigwigs and reporters to see Midge’s solid routine. Only, when Midge arrives on stage, she impulsively decides not to make fun of her family for once. Instead, she pokes fun at a local icon whose hypocrisy bothers Midge. Though the routine was funny, innovative and personal, Midge is ostracized. What behavior explains this irrationality? Is it emotional response? Or is Midge asking questions through humor that would sound absurd through reason?

In the final episode of Season One, Midge discovers her true self on stage. Throughout this series, she has struggled to create a name or find an identity. But at the end of her final set (which the audience assumes was largely improv built upon the past 24 hours of her life), she defines herself as Mrs. Maisel. She charts her own path through personal experience which she then turns into universal experience. Her confidence stems from her comedic abilities.

As a final thought, it is important to mention that only three female voices find their way into Adler’s history of Emotion: George Eliot, Jane Austen and Willa Cather. I feel very strongly that we could broaden this category by looking into other resources. The Syntopicon includes Freud, but what about the poet H.D. who was Freud’s longtime patient? Or why not include Arjuna’s struggles on the battlefield of the Bhagavad-Gita? Translation studies may also assist by helping us to understand how different languages categorize emotions. To me, it seems clear that more work must be done on the category of Emotion.

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Betty Crocker Culture

July 27, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Food is often thought of in terms of comfort, enjoyment, family gatherings, and parties. We have barbecues in summer and stews in winter. Messy finger foods accompany sporting events and polite finger foods accompany baby showers. These things are linked by their participation in custom. Custom (or convention), as discussed in the Syntopicon, stems from public opinion. Adler claims, “Opinion normally suggests relativity to the individual, custom or convention relativity to the social group” (210B). Therefore, a focus on Betty Crocker’s popularity may enlighten commonalities or trends among American lifestyles.

Custom is often founded upon opinion. However, people often assume that custom stems from natural rules. Since customs become so deeply ingrained, it may be difficult to tell whether the belief is driven by nature or by opinion. Either way, once established, beliefs are incredibly difficult to change. They often lead to areas of taste, preference and judgement. A widely accepted social custom allows the majority to pass judgement on those who do not follow the accepted ritual. Montaigne goes so far as to assert that all moral judgements are matters of opinion. He says that “the taste of good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we have of them” (211B). Adler adds, “As may be seen in the chapter on Beauty, Montaigne assembles an abundance of evidence to show that standards of beauty vary with different peoples. The tastes or preferences of one group are as unaccountable as they are frequently revolting to another” (211B). This statement is never so true than when applied to food. Certainly individuals have individual likes and dislikes, but so too does society. And as noted before, once societal norms are established, they become very difficult to break. They may bend, each region may interpret the norm slightly differently, but custom, once in place, tends to hold.

Laura Shapiro’s 2004 book Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America directly addresses changes in food culture from 1930s to 1970s in America. Packaged foods began to arrive in America during the 1940s and 1950s. Every imaginable food product quickly flooded this market. But it turns out that changing people’s association with cooking was not nearly so easy as companies thought. At the time, most popular recipes touted themselves as “quick and easy” or labor-saving, so companies assumed the American woman would rejoice at the introduction of pre-packaged meals and meats and mixes. That turned out not to be the case. In her book, Shapiro investigates what packaged foods succeeded and why. She wanders through the many twists and turns of the packaged food industry which directly intersects with popular culture.

For example, one large stumbling block against packaged food was a cultural sense of duty. Women, by and large, felt that they must show effort in the kitchen. To question this effort was to question a woman’s duty, love, respect and morals. In fact, cake mixes were market-tested many times with marginal success. Pillsbury and General Mills (owner of the Betty Crocker brand) led the research and sales for cake mixes. When the companies made the recipes a bit more involved and asked women to add eggs, cake mix sales improved. The small effort of mixing, combined with a lot of advertising, helped the cook feel both involved and successful.

Shapiro writes: “Dichter rightly perceived the overwhelming weight of the moral and emotional imperative to bake cakes from scratch. His research spurred countless ads and magazine articles aimed at persuading women to differentiate between the plain cake layers - ‘merely step number one,’ according to Living – the finished masterpiece. ‘Now, success in cakemaking is packaged right along with the precision ingredients,’ Myrna Johnston assured readers of Better Homes & Gardens in 1953. ‘You can put your effort into glorifying your cake with frosting, dreaming up an exciting trim that puts your own label on it.’ For modern women, these authorities proclaimed, the real art of baking began after the cake emerged from the oven” (77). Shapiro also acknowledges, though, that in addition to demanding more effort, real eggs improved the cake’s flavor and texture. As these packaged foods became more accessible and widely tested, the marketing also ramped up. Company-sponsored baking contests, radio programs, and advertisements kept packaged food in the public eye.

This passage interests me not simply because of the eggs. I am also fascinated by the extreme changes in cake-making itself. About 50 years earlier, cakes would have taken a day to make, unfrosted. Now, the introduction of a cake-mix affords the baker enough time to decorate with flair. Instead of making a delicious cake, the company emphasizes a beautiful cake, one in which the baker adds their own signature on top – in the artistry of the frosting. The cake is notable more for how it looks than how it tastes. This change arrives in tandem with beautifully designed and illustrated cookbooks, such as Betty Crocker’s.

Betty Crocker’s ageless appeal is partially due to the fact that she is not real. Instead, Washburn-Crosby (maker of Gold Medal Flour, now a part of General Mills) invented her in 1921. Betty Crocker was voiced by a number of people on radio programs throughout the 20s and 30s. She had her first official portrait painted in 1936. The brand’s success capitalized upon common American trends. They polled the everyday chef, listened to the advice of housewives and complimented their work. They advertised and wrote trend-setting cookbooks. In short, Betty Crocker cookbooks address popular frustrations and desires. In the section on “Kitchen Know-How”, the Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cookbook from 1961 advises: “Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup and a dash of cologne. Does wonders for your morale and the family’s, too! Think pleasant thoughts while working and a chore will become a ‘labor of love.’” This cookbook touts itself as a book that is “charming, practical and fun to use.” Though Betty Crocker was not a real person, people reacted strongly to her sense of style, clarity, ease, ambition, ability to incorporate flavor, and lively spirit.

In the Epilogue of Something from the Oven, Shapiro claims, “In the end, it took both a cook and a feminist to liberate the American kitchen. By liberation I don’t mean freedom from cooking, though the women’s movement is often construed in those terms. I mean that the cooking itself has been freed, or at least notably loosened, from the grip of the food industry and the constraints of gender” (249). While I am not sure about her claim that women have been freed from kitchen labor, I do see how cooking has been liberated. In accepting cake mixes, shortcuts and time-saving equipment, it is possible to spend much less time in the kitchen.

In the Syntopicon, Adler writes, “Art involves voluntary making. Custom involves voluntary doing” (208A). This interests me as I think about changes in our association with food, not simply family meals, but elegant events and children’s parties. American food has definitely evolved since the introduction of processed foods. Yet, since cooking interacts so closely with culture, I am still left with many questions that a text like Shapiro’s begins to address. For example: How does food interact with progress? How does it restrict progress? What is considered “progress” in the kitchen? Can we consider a type of food liberating? For example, are microwaveable meals or Lunchables liberating? On the other hand, are foods made from homegrown gardens liberating? In short, what does our food say about culture today?

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