Language In 3-D

All the rage in the world of video entertainment these days is the phenomenon generally referred to as HD. Whether applied to TV, movies or video games, the notion and experience of “eye candy” has become increasingly important to vendors creating and marketing their visual entertainments, and to the consumers of those products (TV fans, movie mavens, and gamers) as well. Predictable or otherwise subpar plots and mediocre acting is often increasingly tolerable now so long as the physical “wow factor” of the visuals on screen is sufficiently present.

Meanwhile, the audience for our supposedly “two-dimensional” print media—books, newspapers, magazines—continues to shrink. In most places now, book authors and journalists are barely noticed by the much larger, film-drenched public. Gone are the days when Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, or even Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, were cultural superstars. But everyone who has an AOL account knows who Peter Jackson, James Cameron, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg  are.

Why? Because of the depth of their plots or penetrating and unforgettable character studies? Or because of their breakthrough insights into the plight of human civilization or answers to the vital challenges upon which all of our survival currently depends? No. Because each is his own way has learned to become masterful not so much at the craft of storytelling as at the art of visual tricks and “special effects.”

Now, what if we were to postulate that, contrary to the way we’ve always usually thought about it, language—made up of the words we speak, hear, and use to think—is at bottom no less “3-D” than the flashiest, adrenalin-pumping HD disaster movie, or interactive video football game by John Madden? Well, indeed it is: the difference being that, because throughout the millenia language has evolved as a practical tool in helping us interact with each other,  modulating it's more immediate, adrenalin-catalyzing effects to give ourselves time to think before we act has shown itself to be a handy feature for keeping in-group bloodshed to a minimum. Arguably, in fact, we’ve gotten so good at hiding and sublimating the “3D” effects of words that we’ve mostly come to think of language as purely two-dimensional (and thus, a little ironically, relative to the currently-dominant film and video media mentality, boring). Even in the magazine world, which has itself already become somewhat “retro," it’s already regarded a truism that, if you want the publication to sell, putting a blond in a bikini on the cover will greatly enhance your chances.

Still, the point here is that, words are just as  "3-D" as pictures, if only we could slow ourselves down long enough to focus on them in that way. The word “semiotics” derives from the ancient Greek, and it means “sign” in English. As such, a semiotic can be either a word or an image--a word describing a picture, or a picture of a word, etc., in any form. Thus, we human beings are almost constantly matriculating semiotically, whether alone or in company, not only in the visual arts, but in our thoughts, dreams, conversations, various entertainments, responses to traffic signals, window shopping, and so forth. And all of these “semiotically-based” occurrences, at various levels and in various ways, are essentially “3-D” in nature--laden and stored with various depth, texture, and durability; and constituted by movement, physical and emotional pushes and pulls upon various parts of our senses--ranging from the most obvious to the most subtle. That these psychophysiological, semiotic events usually occur too quickly or too habitually for us to take much notice of them doesn't make them any less influential on our behavior. If anything, the fact that they tend to operate subliminally only makes their influence all the more difficult to recognize, much less change, whether we wanted to or not.

And every such "3-D" communication that could potentially spark such a physical, psychological, or emotional response in us is, by definition, “embodied,” in a more or less layered fashion, with the oldest and more critical language and body-memory tapes residing at the deepest and longest-lasting cellular levels. (Think archeological dig here, except the dig site, if one ever cared to excavate it, would be one's own body and body memory.)

 Why is all this important in terms of social change? Because many of the most memorable of these embodied communications—whether because they are associated with some otherwise extremely pleasurable or traumatic event in our lives, or just through sufficiently incessant repetition (a technique long since understood by poets, lyricists, and advertisers), we deal with by actually storing in our bodies, in our “body memory.” We do so quite literally, just as though our body has taken a "three-dimensional," photographic snapshot of the time, place and event, and stored it , often in association with a “sleeping” semiotic trigger that can be set off in the future by the application of enough physical or psychological pressure to the “place,” mental and/or physical, where we’ve stored it.

Now, our bodies are capable of storing these 3-D, semiotically-linked memories for long periods of time,and often without our conscious knowledge (ask any veteran Rolfer). There’s even some evidence that these sorts of memories, and the emotional triggers that often accompany them,  can be passed along, though perhaps in modified or watered-down form, from generation to generation. For example, the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors may have nightmares of Nazis, but probably not in so graphic a way as their grandparents. Over a century ago, Marcel Proust wrote a (then) famous seven-book work of fiction supposedly inspired by the flood of memories triggered by his having eaten, as an adult, a type of cake he had previously encountered as a child.

But, what if we were to postulate that something analogous to the sort of adrenalin-catalyzing, three-dimensional e(a)ffects that tend to make us all cringe when we are watching the ship go down in the movie Titanic or when King Kong scoops up Fay Wray/Naomi Watts could also be connected to the negative predisposition toward Germans in the bodies and minds of present-day Jews--two-generations later and, arguably, though a more deeply stored and lasting organic form. and, far from the doors of any movie theater? Does this seem like too much of a stretch? True, "visuals" would certainly play a vital role in such a process, but so would words.

If you still remain skeptical of such ideas, it’s one of the chief goals of this website, and of the writings, podcasts and videos associated with it, to convince you otherwise. (To listen to me talk about this from a slightly different angle, check out the podcast here.)

Copyright Lee Strauss @ 2015