If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Friday 2 November 2012
Read gnomica 1-150 here!
Nothing is ever the same as they said it was.
Diane Arbus (14 Mar 1923 – 26 Jul 1971)
She left behind an oeuvre of black and white photographs, many revealing a great interest on her part in surreal or ‘noirish’ aspects of the portraiture of people who are a bit off-kilter as it were – I think of some of her pieces as making up a kind of ‘gallery of grotesques’, interesting for precisely that reason (some criticism of her work here).
I was taken by the statement above – at first sight it seemed so full of insight, not inappropriately so for the fact that sight is so quintessential an aspect of any interaction with her work. But then, thinking a bit more about it, I started to wonder. And I first wondered about the precise sense in which she was using the two words ‘nothing’ and ‘same’. That query may seem like one of those ‘starters’ in a Platonic dialogue, as in the Euthyphro (399 BCE): “Tell me, Euthyphro what is piety?” – and off we go!
But very twenty-first century, it seems to me, is the question of who “they” are. I mean, how often do we hear (both others and ourselves) making statements like, “They did this!” or “Why should I trust them?” or “They just don’t understand her situation!” and so forth. As for me, these (including Arbus’ non-contextualized ‘they’) are all instances of what I have come to think of as “the generalizing ‘they’ of cryptic causality” that we all deploy in the illusive hope that we (when intensely irritated at some outrage visited on us by telephone trees at the end of an 800 ‘help’ number or government bureaucrats of one ilk or another) may thus somehow affix blame on some idiot(s) out there when there is little chance of knowing which idiot(s) to charge!
And before we came to the problem of ‘they’ there is the problem of ‘same’ as predicate to ‘nothing’. As we all instinctively feel, the adjective ranges far and wide on the semantic savanna in restless search of suitable prey – until it finds this elusive ‘nothing’. Is – whoever ‘they’ may be – the statement then merely a kind of tautology of the blindingly obvious (formally, since at least the time of Heraclitus!)? Or was my initial impulse to take the words as deeply consequential the correct one?
Am I merely being an annoying if not actually infuriating pettifogger? indulging in a ludic and linguistic intellectualism? Well, I obviously don’t think obviously so! Given that the ‘they’ of the comment is highly ambiguous and that its ‘same’ is open-ended (i.e., ‘same’ in what way, for any one of an almost infinite number of possibilities – in appearance, in essence, in wealth, in popularity, in availability, in excellence, etc. applied to an almost infinite number of ‘(no)things’.
Still — however those issue are to be resolved — there is a final difficulty here: the sentence is a syntactic chameleon — an amphiboly. (1) Does ‘as’ function closely with ‘same’, thus generating a sense that everything has changed, is different from what it used to be? [Grammatical function of ‘as’: (comparative) adverb.] (2) Or does ‘as’ function closely with ‘Nothing is ever the same’, thus generating a sense that although ‘they’ claimed “Everything has changed”, in fact they were wrong, because it did not. [Grammatical function of ‘as’: (comparative) conjunction.]
(1) Nothing is ever [the same as they said it was].
(2) [Nothing is ever the same] as [they said it was (i.e., always the same)].
Think about that.
Now imagine a sentence like this cropping up in a legal contract – volià : a full-employment guarantee for trial lawyers! Perhaps, then. when all is said and done, I am in fact not merely being an annoying if not actually infuriating pettifogger indulging in a ludic and linguistic intellectualism. Take note, all you L-Ones out there!
I am no photography critic, but it appears to me that a photograph could disambiguate the syntax quite simply by visual juxtapositions of objects or people and thus be capable of making the point without the mushy indeterminacy that inheres for me in the verbal juxtapositions of this text.
And photography was of course where Arbus very, very good.