Sunday, 14 March 2021

What did we know by March 14 2020?


Over the next few months we should expect people in prominent places to tell us things like 'we did all we could', 'nothing else could have been done'. There will be people in non-prominent places supporting this view by agreeing and shrugging: che sera sera and all that. 

I've been looking back at my twitter feed day by day through March. 

As I've posted before, on March 12 2020,  Robert Peston told us that 'herd immunity' would be 'vital' for defeating Covid. On March 13 2020, three government scientists told us that 'herd immunity' was the only way in which the virus could be defeated and journalists seemed incapable of interrogating them with knowledge available to anyone who had done A-level biology.

Here is an assembly of my tweets on this day, March 14, 2020 a year ago today:

TWEETS
MARCH 14 2020

The chances are that no health system in the world will be able to cope without emergency measures. So the question is not 'if' but 'what' ones should our govt have put in place?


The issue wasn't 'prevent spread from China'. The issue always was, 'what should we do when cases start happening here?’

The spread of flu each year is known. We could all see a) the outbreak in China and b) what measures were being taken and c) the inevitability of when it would reach the UK. The 'now' decisions could have been made in Jan.

Any attempt to control the distribution of human types across a population is eugenicist. If, e.g. a regime decided that everyone over 60 should be killed, that would be in order to benefit the productivity and reproductive powers of the rest of the population.

Just remember that it only took weeks to assemble a huge military force and to invade and occupy Iraq with all the logistics, supply lines, and vast info-tech required to keep it all going. And there are people saying, 'Oh but it would be difficult to....' etc etc.

1/ Part of herd immunity and survival in the wild is produced when enough breeding individuals produce antibodies which destroy the virus or bacterium. Vaccines are artificial ways to produce that immunity. "Herds' can't mass produce antibodies and inject them.

2/ Another way that 'herds' get immunity is when a mutation in individual members' DNA provides immunity genetically and so the members without that mutation might die and the ones with it will live and reproduce. To use such terms in this instance horrify me.

So, they've had two months to prepare. Nothing about the potency and lethality of the virus was unknown by the beginning of January. It was predictable that what happened in China would happen here.

Just remember that it only took weeks to assemble a huge military force and to invade and occupy Iraq with all the logistics, supply lines, and vast info-tech required to keep it all going. And there are people saying, 'Oh but it would be difficult to....' etc etc.


Don't want to cause alarm, but I am coughing.

Friday, 26 February 2021

What is stylistics? How can it help us interpret a text?

Stylistics is a broad term to cover the 'how' texts are put together. Into this 'bag' we can put any of the following and others you might think of:

how is the text 'told' or 'narrated'. There are of course many different ways to narrate a text, some of which pretend that it's not narrated at all, some where the narration seems to have a clear narrator, the 'I' of the narrative (or poem) (sometimes called the 'persona') or the 'I' of the third person narration as with some of Roald Dahl's books. Sometimes the narrator can 'see' everything going on, sometimes the narrator can 'see' into people's minds, sometimes into just one person's mind. This matter of point of view (pov) is very important in stories because we as readers accompany the pov. It's what we as readers 'see'. This is part of what is called 'focalisation' is created. Texts at a given moment usually have a 'focaliser', the point of view of the significant protagonist at a given point. In some texts, inanimate objects or settings can be focalisers of sorts. We see the main character say, through the eyes of the landscape rather than vice versa. Thomas Hardy writes like this sometimes. (Debatable point!)

how a story is narrated also matters when it comes to time. Stories ca be 'now', can loop back in time, loop forwards and do other things with time - talk about things habitually in a certain way (ie continuous time), even adjectives about a character - a 'morose' person, is continuous time, she reacted angrily is present time. Stories and poems are made 'thicker' or 'deeper' by creating different time-frames. 

how thought is depicted varies enormously: she thought, she said to herself, or writers can dispense with these tags altogether and just go from dialogue into a narration as with 'What should he do next?' 

how texts sound ('prosody') is part of the 'how' of a text. Sentences, paragraphs, chapters and whole books set up rhythms, repetitions, patterns.

how texts 'evoke' is important - this is what we might call the 'being there' trick of writing. Broadly speaking, writers can use the senses of narrators, characters of even objects to 'get us there', ie using  what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched. We can chart these seeing what kind of text it is- a mostly seeing text? Or a mostly hearing text? And so on.

all texts use previously used words, phrases, scenes, 'motifs', archetypes, plot lines, rhetorical forms (eg 'bathos', 'hyperbole' etc), allusions to other texts...all this comes under the heading of 'intertextuality'. 

most texts use the method of 'reveal-conceal'- there are many parts to this ie how a text appears to be 'telling' but as it does so, it invokes the possibility that not all has been told, that there is more to come, that what's coming might be mysterious, dangerous, funny, etc. The first pages of stories, plays, the first lines of poems are very interesting for this. See also the last lines of chapters. Writers are constantly filling texts up with 'hooks' that invite us to speculate what's going on, what's going to happen next, what this really means etc. Reveal-conceal is one of the most powerful 'motors' of writing and yet it is one of the least talked about. 

some texts draw attention to themselves. This has been called 'writerliness'. If the text says, 'I am telling you this...' or even a phrase like 'Later he would come to regret...' it signals that this text is a text. 

all texts involve choices to do with the 'register' of the language. In daily life we refer to these registers all the time: being eg 'slangy', or 'posh', or sounding like a lawyer, or though the use of words like 'jargon' or 'in-group lingo' and so on. We are all aware of people's different 'voices' but also how we ourselves each choose to speak one way in one situation and another way in another. These all involve 'switching'. Texts are full of these voices. We might want to categorise these 'voices' and see how texts change. Dickens is famous for one moment being 'highfaluting' and the next very down to earth. He used the highfaluting tone sometimes to mock the protagonist. 

many texts 'do' dialogue. These are stylised forms of conversation. The study of conversation is called 'pragmatics'. We can apply pragmatics to the dialogue of texts. This enables us to see for example speakers' tactics in negotiating with each other in ways that writers deliberately leave us to figure out. There is a scale for how much writers interpret the dialogue for us - a lot, a bit, not at all. This is also all part of the 'how' of a text.

another way texts 'tell' is that they create 'lexical fields'. They do this by a) usual a word (!) b) by repeating that word (repetition is a crucial part of the feel of a text, especially poetry) c) through using similar words or phrases with similar meanings. If we list these rather like Roget's Thesaurus does, we start to get a feel of what is this text's 'preoccupation'. What is it most interested in? What is it focusing on? The lexical field method also helps us summarise eg what is the lexical field for that character or that setting. It helps us 'typify' what the writer is doing to create the text. We can think of these as 'key words' or as important 'signifiers' in a text. How the lexical field is created is also important and when in the text. Are the words returned to again and again?etc. 

texts are 'stuck together' through 'cohesion'. There are many ways in which one word, one phrase, one sentence, one paragraph links to another eg through use of pronouns, through the use of 'the' (!) as opposed to 'a', use of 'this', 'that', 'there', 'here', 'his', 'her'' through repetition of sounds, images, feelings, through the contrast of images and feelings, through the juxtaposition of images, through the repeated but changed use of motifs, symbols, descriptions. These are the cohesive patterns of a text. We can find these by using my 'secret strings' method. Draw actual or imaginary lines between any part of a text that links to any other part of a text whether that be by sound, feeling, image, language, grammar, prosody - any reason at all.  This will 'unpack' the stylistics of a text. It will show how a text has been patterned in order to pass on meaning in other ways other than the fact that language 'refers' to things/feelings/ideas etc. This is the how! 

text is of course language in use. Language has thousands of different ways of referring, describing, intervening and so on. Language-users are making choices all the time about how to do this. I've referred to quite a few above, but there are other criteria or 'parameters' at work too. For example, how about looking at 'referring'. A writer's narration can refer very specifically, very plainly, very metaphorically, very vaguely..and so on. Consider for a moment the continuum of being very specific...through to very vague. In the picture book 'Where the Wild Things' are we find this operating very clearly. 

Try this experiment: go through the book, noting down 'very specific'  (vs) words or phrases, and 'very vague' (vv) ones. So from the beginning we get: 'The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of...' is vs, but then we read 'of one kind and another' which is vv. 'Wild' is vs but 'thing' is vv. 'sent to bed' is vs so is 'without eating'  but 'anything' is vv. 'That very night' is vs and so is the next passage. Then we get to some strange disjuncts with time and space: 'sailed through night and day and in and out of weeks' (how do you sail 'out of a week?!) and then 'to where the wild things are'. (where is that? pretty vague!) . Then we come to the repeat of the word 'terrible' which at first is very specific but somehow the more it is repeated the less specific it becomes! 

Following this we have quite a lot specific writing about taming the wild things and Max being made king and then we come to one of the most curious passages of all:

'And Max the king of all wild things [we know that is by now] was lonely (sufficiently vs for a story that's like fairy story] 'and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.'

Where is this? 

This invites us to wonder or interpret where this might be. We have two resources to help us - at least! One is the story so far. The other is ourselves. We can ask, where would I go to find someone who loved me best of all?' And we can ask, do I know of any other stories, songs, poems, films TV programmes ('texts') where people who were lonely went to find someone who  loved them? So there are the resources of the text, the resources of life, and the resources of other texts to help us interpret the very vague! It's a great example of reveal-conceal. 

Some might say it's obvious who the text means. Is it? Do we 'see' that person? No other human is visible in the pictures and the carer in the books 'the mother' acts in an angry way and the only thing we see her doing (so far) is to 'detach' from Max - send him to his room, and withdrawing affection from him by not giving him anything to eat. Hmmm, we might wonder, Max may well want to be where someone loved him best of all, but does he really think his mother does love him best of all? Does Max think he's getting that love? The vagueness of the text gives us room to wonder about this. (There's no definitive answer and people can argue forever about it. The interesting thing here is that it brings up issues for people of any age about 'detachment-attachment in how we bring up (or are being brought up, or were brought up) when children are perceived to be 'naughty'.) The vagueness gets right to the heart of this.

Following this crux to the story, the story goes into reverse mode, heads back home, repeating the patterns of language, till Max gets home 'where he found his supper waiting for him and it was still hot'. 

I've heard people explain how this is redemption. Max has resolves his anger issues (as it were) and so he is forgiven, happily ever after. Full  stop. 

But really?

'Supper' is specific but the structure of the sentence doesn't tell us who made the summer, it 'is waiting' and 'is..hot' so these are characteristics it possesses. There is no 'agent' putting it there. And no agent, giving Max a cuddle. No one visible. The supper may well be a symbol of affection but there is a gap or a vagueness for us to wonder about who brought it, why it's still hot and, why this person isn't there. Is this more 'detachment'? Is this at the heart of what this book is about?

So with this reading, the surface text is, yes, all about a boy resolving his anger and being forgiven for being beastly but that there is a sub-text about a boy not getting the attachment he wants whether he's angry or whether he's resolved his anger. And if we want to zoom out even further from this reading, we might find that in a way this 'explains' his anger. After all, what else explains his anger? The clue from the text is indeed that he doesn't see or touch his mother and the only act we are sure that she does is send him to bed without anything to eat, though,  yes, she may well have made sure he had something to eat in the end.

One reading 'shows' that 'time-out' and 'detachment' works in bringing a child to his senses (!), but another says that actually nothing has been really solves by this, because the underlying situation still prevails.

Our route to this is to look at the 'how' of the telling anyhow it veers between being very specific and very vague, giving us huge leeway with which to interpret the story. Hurrah for that. 

How to think about the structure of stories?

Stories have structures. 

We are used to talking about stories having settings, characters, plots and themes. Slightly to one side of these or incorporating these are structures. How should we describe these or study them so that young people can get hold of them easily?

One way that is ok (not perfect) is to use a metaphor: 'cogs'. Cogs as we know are the wheel-like things in gears that 'engage' and then 'disengage'. When they engage, they affect other cogs. When they're disengaged they're sitting there not being used for the time being. 

Let's apply this to stories. We might think of a character, a setting, a group of characters, a couple, as cogs. Perhaps others aspects of a story. If we take a seemingly simple story like 'Little Red Riding Hood', there first two cogs are LRR and her mother. The mother invokes two other cogs - granny and the wolf and perhaps we might  say, the cog of the forest.  LRR disengages from her mother and engages with the setting of the forest. Depending on what telling of the story, the forest either prefigures the cog of the wolf through LRR looking out for it, or the wolf cog actually engages for some threatening dialogue. Then at granny's house the wolf engages with granny and eliminates that cog and it's where we think LRR engages with the granny cog (already mentioned), she is in fact engaging with the wolf cog. Then depending on how the story is told, either a brand new cog turns up to save the say, the woodcutter, or LRR herself deals with it all, (elimination of wolf cog), LRR is reunited with granny cog and then all three reunite when mother cog turns up.

So we can see how these cogs engage, disengage, disappear or re-engage. 

Because it's a fairy story, there aren't complex cogs from before the story starts (flasbacks), or sub-plots where we go off to another gear box, as it were. 

Cogs are inanimate objects but they are moved by eg a driver. So this gives us an idea of authorship: someone who moves cogs. And when the driver moves one cog, it moves another. It's also possible for more than two cogs to be engage with each other. 

The snag with the cog metaphor is that it's not very good for describing characters' minds, ('interiority' so called). And most stories have some sense of that. Many stories are more about that than anything else. The cog metaphor is not very good for describing that.

People who write film scripts and make movies are very sensitive to something else going on: how you structure feeling through a story. They have various formulae and graphs to do with building emotion, building jeopardy, causing false alarms, creating expectations, disappointing those expectations, prefiguring the end point with mini-versions of that end point, creating sub-plots that invoke parallels with the main plot, creating 'depth' or 'thickness' to character through flashbacks, using the settings as 'harbingers' or as 'pathetic fallacy' by way of commentary on the emotion of the scene(s) and so on. 

A more useful metaphor for a lot of this are graphs. The horizontal axis is the time of the story. The vertical axis is 'amplitude' or 'volume' or 'amount'. A line on the graph might be 'sadness'. Another might be 'tension'. Another might be 'conflict'. You decide. As the story unfolds and the amount of that emotion that is 'going on' either in the story or in  yourself as the audience can be charted on the graph. It's amazing to follow the peaks and troughs. Even more amazing to see how these lines cross over: tension goes up as sadness recedes. Humour suddenly appears and then goes. And so on.

This is how 'drivers' (authors) try to structure feelings through a story. Hollywood does this by formula too. That's why we sometimes groan when we feel a good tense story is spoiled with too much sentimentality in the last ten minutes. The drivers have injected what they think is the right amount of that feeling into the feelings structure. 

Using the word 'injection' makes me think of another engine metaphor...or perhaps it's a print machine, Printing machines use colour. Depending on how they've been programmed, colour comes out of them at the moment of printing to give the printed sheet the 'right' colours. 

Perhaps we can use this for our feelings graph. The printer (driver/author) injects emotion/feeling colours into the text, as the story unfolds. 

Once we've identified that this is what's going on, we can ask how? This is less to do with structure and more to do with content and style. It's a matter of how the cogs engage. The cog metaphor is stuck with fast, medium and slow.  As we know, the driver has many more methods at their disposal than speed. Broadly speaking they have the tools of stylistics, motifs, symbolism etc. 

More on that next time. 

One way to talk about language - and research it

 Anyone reading this will have gone to a dictionary at some time another to 'get the meaning' of a word. It's what we do, and it's what dictionaries were invented for: to help us with words. So far so good. But what if this helping function has slipped into the idea that dictionaries aren't just there to help us but to tell us what is the meaning, what should be the meaning and that any other meanings are wrong? No one who puts dictionaries together really thinks this. At least I don't think so. It's just that I see people talking about dictionaries as if that's what they do: tell us what meanings should be. This is to give dictionaries a special power over us. But what is the truth of the matter?

For a start, the meaning of words lies with us. We own language, use language, share it, and we make meanings out of it through the way we use words. Meanings are held in our collective use of language. Further, language is always in use and in context: any word, phrase, sentence or longer chunk of language has the context of who has spoken or written it, who is hearing or reading it; it has the context of its subject matter; it has the context of its 'kind' or 'genre'. These contexts are not outside of language or merely influencing language, they are part of language. Every time we say 'Yes' (or any of the many variations of it) we reveal that we are saying it because of context: it may be an answer to a question, it maybe an exhortation to oneself (Yes!), it maybe part of a song or poem, 'Yes, I remember Adlestrop...', it may be on an ad as part of convincing us that we should buy what's on offer and so on. All this is not just 'in' the word 'Yes' however it is defined. We get 'yes' to work for us in context using the context to give it meaning, using 'yes' to give more meaning to the context. Even the way we say it, 'Yeah', or 'Yay' etc will depend on minute calculations we make about who I am, who am I with, who am I speaking to. We make judgements about appropriateness (or deliberate inappropriateness, (think teenagers)). So the meaning of 'yes' can be found in a dictionary and yet the actual full meanings are 'held' in the place and time of us saying it and with the people hearing it. 

This idea of language embedded in the people using it is a far cry from the way people talk about 'grammar' as directed by the National Curriculum and the like. This matter of social, interpersonal, contextual situation is of virtually no interest. And yet, this is why and how we use language! How absurd: the very reason why we humans have devised language and use language is put out the door while we study language! There's something wrong there.

Now back to 'definitions'. Let's say, we do want to have a go at defining a word. We don't have to leave it to dictionaries and this is a great fun and interesting thing to do with young people. It brings up the question of what do we mean by 'meaning'! What are the ingredients we might need for a definition?


In no particular order:

examples or 'illustrations' giving the occasion and situation for the example. 

what we think of as 'essential' to say about the word, its ingredients, perhaps?

we might ask ourselves are these essential aspects of the meaning, it's 'necessary' conditions or its 'sufficient' conditions or both? So are its essential aspects, pertaining to this object alone, do they 'define' this object and no other? Are these essential aspects enough to define it, or what do we need to add to make it enough? Are we sure that we've included the key thing(s) without which this object would not be defined? 

we might want to consider what type of word it is in its different uses.Words can be used by us in very different ways depending on where, when, with whom, what kind of social or 'genre' context. We might want to include these.

we might want to think of the limits of the word. That is, what it can't do. What situations that are near or related that this word is not useful or appropriate in? Why would that be?

we might want to write a bit about who uses the word and who is unlikely to use the word. Why is that? (This will take us into the area of register, code, slang etc)

we might want to talk about what we know of the history of the word and its uses. Does this history tell us anything important? 

words become classified as slang, colloquial, informal while others are given contextual tags like 'legal' or 'sport'. What tags might we want to attach to this word? These tags are not the same in kind. Some are about perceived layers of usage. Some are more about usage connected to professions or fields of interest. Even so they are interesting areas to discuss. 

dictionaries always use words that mean things that are 'like' the word in question. Roget's Thesaurus can help us do this. The idea of 'lexical field' is interesting here. In any passage of writing or speech, we use words that are to do with that 'field' or that 'subject matter'. They are linked, not identical but they all help each other as we try to make ourselves clear or produce imaginative writing that has different aspects of the same thing. Our definitions might be helped with additions from the 'lexical field'. (Strictly speaking, lexical field is a useful term for analysing texts - ie what words or expressions might we find in this passage that are related in the same lexical field? But the term can be adapted to fit this job too. Perhaps? 

one interesting problem: some words seem not really to have 'meaning' as with, say, 'table' or 'anger' but seem just to do stuff in sentences, words like 'to' or 'the' or even 'am'. And some words have meaning in some sentences and others seem more like the non-meaning words. A word like 'do' is like this. It can have a lot of meaning if I say, 'I did my homework' and not so much when I say, 'Do you watch TV?' 

these non-meaning words are important but very hard to 'define'. They seem to be 'operational' in that they help sentences hang together. But then all words to that to.  On the other hand they don't 'refer' as other words do. So 'table' refers to a thing (or actually several very different things!) but 'to' doesn't seem to refer to anything. It's like mortar between bricks: holding the wall together. You can have fun trying to define these or looking to see how dictionaries try to do it. 


If everyone in a group (a class) chooses a different word to define, and these words come from very different areas of use, then we will have at the end of this a mini-dictionary, a snapshot of attitudes to language from this group of people at this particular time and place. 

Of course, it's great to use dictionaries, Roget's Thesaurus, online dictionaries, to help do this. OED is available online for free through your local library. 


With so-called slang words, it may well be that there are people in the room who know more about its usage than any dictionary. This illustrates very quickly something to do with who 'owns' language, who knows implicitly about who knows about how social life tells us about meaning. 



Alfie Bass and Bernard Bresslaw



Two of the most famous Jewish actors
when I was a boy
were Alfie Bass and Bernard Bresslaw.
Every time they came on TV
my father would talk about them
as if he knew them.
He would nod, and say
'Yiddlech' (little Jewish bloke)
and say how he saw either or both of them
at the Unity Theatre
in 1938.
But then he would tut
as if they had done something terrible.
He was bothered that the two most famous
Jewish actors
in the 1950s
played parts where they were complete
idiots.
Again and again and again.
I was 10
I thought they were funny.
I think I liked to see people who
did sillier things than I did.
I wasn't as much of a nebbish
as they were.
My father was cross about it.
'They're good actors,' he said,
'very good actors,
I saw that Alfie Bass, at the Unity
in 1938.'
'Yes,' Mum said,
'you've said. No need to keep
going on about it.'

Journey into Space (in our flat)

 My brother and I listened to

Journey Into Space
on the wireless.
Each week our heroes went out into space
battled with aliens millions of miles from home.
We were there with them,
out there
facing so many dangers
saving the universe.
We were in close with Lemmy.
Poor old Lemmy
the London lad
who always got the tough stuff to do.
One time he was at the centre
of an asteroid.
Right in the middle of it
but he shouldn’t have been.
He was lost.
And a great echoing voice called out to him,
‘Go back-ack-ack-ack-ack!’
Lemmy, we thought,
get out of there, the aliens will get you.
Go back, Lemmy,
Do as the voice is telling you, Lemmy.
But Lemmy went on.
He didn’t listen,
Lemmy, Lemmy….
Then that episode ended.
And my brother and I went off round the flat
calling out,
‘Lemmy, go back-ack-ack-ack!’
‘Go back-ack-ack-ack-ack!’
We cupped our hands over our mouths
to make the echo:
‘…ack-ack-ack-ack!’
till next week.

Purim - a story of lost foods





My father would look away towards a place
that wasn't with us or near us
and say the names of foods
we had never eaten, never seen.
'Ah,' he'd say, 'my Bubbe made cholent'.
Cholent? What's cholent? We'd say.
'I loved cholent,' he'd say,
this time finding a place outside
to stare at,
out there in the suburb
he hated
as if it was the suburb's fault
that he couldn't have his Bubbe's cholent
as if the suburb had come down
to London's East End
kidnapped him
and brought him to this wicked place
where there was no cholent.
Mum said she wasn't going to stand
by a cooker for 24 hours cooking cholent.
If he wanted cholent
he could cook it himself.
Just because his Bubbe doted on him
didn't mean that she had to be his Bubbe.
'I'm not your Bubbe!' she'd say.
So I never ate cholent
I never saw cholent
I never smelled cholent.
I should say that this was going
to be all about hamantaschen
because it's Purim
and because he said
exactly the same things about
hamantaschen
and we didn't ever see hamantaschen
or eat them either.
He would sit at the table
and make a triangle with his fingers
and talk of poppy seeds
as if they were an exotic fruit
that had by luck and good fortune
landed in front of him and his sister
and poor mother
stuck in a house with
people who didn't love him or them
(apart from his Bubbe and Zeyde
who, it seems, doted on him)
(after all , said his mother's sisters,
talking of my father's mother:
she's the woman
who thought
she was so clever
such a knakke
getting with that political feller
from Poland,
thinking they were too good for us,
going to America
but it didn't last, did it?
She's back here
he's stayed there
and the five of them squashing into this tiny place
and the baby dying, please god
that such a thing should happen
So she's the knakke
and she's off to political meetings
all hours bringing back
such people as can't stop talking
who've never worn a decent suit
in their lives, such shlumps
see them wolfing down our mother's
soup...)
Ah, my father would say,
the cholent,
ah, the hamantaschen,
you know, if there was one festival
we should keep
it's Purim
but...
he looked out the window again,
not here.
Not here.
So we didn't have
hamantaschen.