Dragonrend: The Power Of Language is the Expression of Ideas

Language is a difficult and important thing. It is the bridge between two minds. Skyrim subtly poses a question about what happens when those two minds are phenomenological incompatible (experience reality in different ways).

     I recently finished the main storyline in Skyrim (I’m usually not very fast at finishing videogames). I was quite pleased with the story’s depth and writing quality. My favorite part, by far, was the idea of the Dragonrend shout. For those who haven’t played Skyrim, “Shouts” are a sort of magical spell the player can employ in the game. The story holds that the famous fire-breath associated with mythical dragons is actually the ability of the dragon to speak (or shout) in a way that its voice commands  and becomes a force in itself. This interpretation of the dragon allows for great writing opportunities, as the very concept of “words” and “speech” have a rich history in human (especially Western) civilization and history.

     In gameplay, the Dragonrend shout has the effect of temporarily weakening a dragon, forcing it to rest on the ground (rather than fly overhead), thereby making it easier to attack with a sword (or even an easier target for arrows). It is extremely helpful in defeating dragons (especially if you have specialized in melee weapons).

     The Dragonrend shout is enormously philosophically interesting for a few reasons. Some of these reasons have to do with what the shout is, what it refers to, what it represents for humanity, and what it implies about language and experience. Language is sometimes discussed as technology, and this makes Dragonrend interesting because it was invented by humans, not passed on from dragons. While it is spoken in the Dragon language, it is not entirely comprehensible to dragons. As far as I can tell, it exposes the dragon to the concept of morality, temporality, and the finite. The implications of this are delightful.  Is this shout an interpretation of Nietzsche’s famous “Abyss” or the “Despair” spoken of by so many nihilists and existentialists? Does the shout summarize Being and Nothingness, thereby weakening the dragon’s will to go on? Is the struggle of a Dragon to comprehend the finite analagous to the struggle of a human to comprehend the infinite? If so, is the effect of Dragonrend similar to Kant’s account of the mathematical sublime, in which we experience an aesthetic awe when presented with sheer vastness (such as the stars in the sky or tremendous landscapes)? Is Dragonrend a blend of aesthetic pleasure and agonizing despair?

     More interesting than “what” the shout is, is the question of “why” it works. Can language bring us to perceive what we cannot phenomenologically experience? What is the relationship between the phenomena we experience (or may possibly experience) and the language that describes it? The effect of the Dragonrend shout seems connected to the question of how our experience relates to the language we employ to describe our experience. How can words expose our minds to what we cannot comprehend or experience? (For that matter, what is the connection between comprehension and experience?) This is what I loved about the concept of Dragonrend in the game Skyrim. This device synthesized gameplay and story in a way that opened up speculation both in the gameworld and in the real world.

     More generally,  this is an example of where I think most good videogames are right now: Games don’t often directly educate, but I think they often provide a great deal of material that is ripe for teaching. Skyrim doesn’t quite posit philosophical questions of language as explicitly as Deus Ex poses questions of humanism, cyborg theory, or post-humanism. But for those who are curious, interactive simulations of stories are tremendous resources for exploring any issue the game designers choose to present.

The Need for Linguistics in Law

A Supreme Court justice wrote an essay on the subject of constitutional interpretation. In response, a noted philosophy professor wrote with some surprise that he managed to write an entire essay about the interpretation of text without any mention of any philosopher of language, linguist, linguistic theory, or theory of interpretation. While I was disappointed, I was not surprised: despite the fact that language and culture underpin the law in the United States, most law schools (none of which I am aware, which isn’t saying much) deal with these subjects head-on (or hardly at all).

Interpretation of language is at the heart of the study and practice of law. The subject of debate in law is over the meaning and application of the language in a statute, contract, court order, or some other legally binding document or sworn testimony. Huge sums of money or even incarceration can hang in the balance of how some phrase is understood in (or out) of the context of surrounding phrases or circumstances. Considering the importance of language in law, I am shocked that law schools do not offer instruction in philosophy of language or linguistics.

Two examples of how words and grammar matter:

“The budget has $500,000 for each of the next two years of this program,” vs. “The budget has $500,000 for the next two years of this program.” Will next year have $250,000 or $500,000?

“Mr. Adams will sue Tim, Tom, Tammy, and Edward,” vs. “Mr. Adams will sue Tim, Tom, Tammy and Edward.” Are there 4 defendant parties or 3 (“Tammy and Edward” could be sued as one party under US law)?

If my friend tells me something that I don’t understand, how can I come to understand it? One theory of how we communicate through confusion holds that the two parties iterate  against each other until they are satisfied that they understand one another. This theory accepts that we clarify our statements with other statements that either try to say the same thing or try to say what the first statement did not mean (understanding by process of elimination).

People frequently accuse lawyers of twisting words- and all too often, that’s a fair an accurate accusation. However, the task of lawyers and judges is often to look at language and untwist the words of sloppy, daily language. I have no idea why they think this task can be reasonably undertaken without any training in linguistics, philosophy of language, logic, cultural or linguistic anthropology, or any other serious approach to communication, meaning, and language.

Misunderstanding Irony and Satire Leads to New Culture

People argue a lot over the meaning of the word “irony.” It is one of the key words or terms to describe a great portion of my generation, and yet we seem very lost as to its meaning. Some would say that the combination of the overwhelming importance of understanding the meaning and the widespread disagreement as to its meaning might constitute a sort of irony. I won’t attempt a perfect definition here, but I will point out that irony, as a device, often requires a (sharp) contrast between metamessage and message (or prima facie message or face message).

Irony requires bouncing or reflecting something off of a current idea, more, or status quo. If the audience does not recognize the original idea that is the subject of the irony or satire, the audience may think the ironic image is the actual image, either embracing or hating it while missing the point being made about the intended subject of irony. Interpretation, readership, authorship, and communication theories bear on this.

But who would miss commonly known social mores and ideas or fail to notice references that are core currency of cultural thought, much less fail to completely grasp the subject before them that is the present component of the irony? Children and adolescents are prime candidates for being just such misinterpreters, and are also all the more likely to mimic and adopt what they perceive as the outlook, view, approach, conception, interpretation, etc. that is being “promoted.” I recall when The Colbert Report was new to television: many conservative teens blogged about their new hero. They failed to grasp the satire and irony at work (at least initially).  This is one way a culture can evolve: older generations reference notions that are well known to them but not the younger generation, using advanced or complex mechanisms unfamiliar to the younger generation, and a misunderstanding or misinterpretation is adopted.

This can also hold back social progress. Suppose I make satirical or ironic comments about racism or patriarchy. I may be seeking to undermine the authority of these ideas or institutions, but an audience without the same background as myself might misunderstand my statements by taking them at a literal face-value and interpret them as promotions of what I seek to undermine. In this case, those who share my actual sentiments might denounce me as their opposition as my arguments against a thing are seen as arguments in favor of it.

Artists (poets, writers, painters, film makers, critics, etc.) often use tools beyond the on-the-face-message to emphasize their points.  Audiences often neglect to examine the less obvious parts of a text presented to them -the overall structure, the timing, what is absent- and consider how those impact the surface of the text’s message. We don’t miss some non-essential, fun, bonus feature when we don’t critically examine a text- sometimes, we read the text backwards and upside down and take exactly the opposite meaning away. Perhaps that doesn’t always have to be bad, but it’s worth being aware of it when it happens.