Of course we don’t talk as glowingly about its illegitimate children….
(This is a brief meditation on how some words work and what the difference between a name and a description is.)
I recently read an article that suggested that saying “best” is the worst thing you can do to end an email/letter. This seemed a pretentious bit of fascism, and it got me thinking about ways in which we use words other than by literally ‘meaning’ them. The article is here, and my response below:
I use ‘cheers!’ hoping to end cheerfully. I think some Brit used it in an email to me and I liked it enough to copy and don’t feel weird using it. The article does make it sound as if you are supposed to say something you ‘mean’ or not say anthing at all, which is a limited view on the way that words function. Sign-offs are a cultural practice in the same way that shaking hands serves in greeting. It doesn’t mean anything in particular beyond simply being what we do. And what we do doesn’t always need to make some sort of ‘extra’ sense……
Another article I read close after described how the arts field is getting more comfortable using “creative expression” for the word “art”. You can read the article here, my response is below:
Part of the issue seems to be our expectation for the word ‘art’. Does it describe something or is it a name? I like the use of ‘creative expression’ for its unabashed descriptive function, but the problem I see with the word ‘art’ is that we often expect it to be similarly descriptive, and yet it is no more descriptive than my name is. The entire argument that if anything can be art then nothing is art relies on the confusion that we are actually describing something. Rather, ‘art’ is a convention of naming, and we can name anything ‘art’ if we want to….
For too long it has been assumed that ‘art’ describes some essential quality that some things have and others do not. Perhaps criteria are more easily found the more specific we get with particular ‘arts’, but the truth is that no one common thread runs through all the various things called ‘art’. Nor should we expect them to have some essential descriptive uniformity. ‘Art’ doesn’t MEAN something specific, it names a collection of practices that through convention have come to be organized and thought of in a certain way. The contingency of this collection is evident in how contestable the use of the word ‘art’ is and how negotiable the borders evidently are.
Perhaps you can see why my two responses are related. We use words not always to mean something specific but because convention dictates that using it in such and such circumstances is appropriate. And we get hung up by names more often than with most other types of word…. But why?
What does a name mean? What does your name mean? What is the connection between a name and the thing named? Does the name contain some secret about the thing? Does it describe it? Always? Necessarily? Can you look into a name and read all you need to know? A short hand? Merely an arbitrary label? Is a name a sort of mental pointing to the thing named? Is it a specific mental pointing or is it blurry around the edges? Is the pointing itself arbitrary and the ways we actually use the word in daily life instead more illuminating? (Cue Wittgenstein if you want to go much further down this road with me)
Names seem to have this power over us that we often feel we are looking into the essence of things by learning their names. And sometimes names do give us access to something specific or peculiar to the thing so named. Sometimes names are based on descriptions or qualities of the thing named (If they had named me ‘Carter Gillies’ back in the day I would have been some guy driving a cart who also held the door open in the Scottish Parliament).
But every name is NOT always a description. And telling the difference between how these words are actually used will likely clear up a few confusions that we tend to get mired in. Is ‘art’ what we say it is, the many disparate things collectively, or is it something specific standing objectively behind the word? That and other similar confusions are why this question matters…..
Something to think about, at least.
Question on this historic day:
Is ‘marriage’ a name that describes something specific, that it only applies to heterosexual couples, or is it a name that discriminates less on its own and instead gets applied by convention?
The argument that “If anything can be art nothing is art” hopelessly confuses how language is used and how meaning is manifest. You can see why the idea makes a certain sense, that you sometimes need an opposite to define what you are talking about (if everyone is unwaveringly ‘good’ then good doesn’t really mean much because nothing counts as bad), but this isn’t what folks are saying when they broaden the use of the word ‘art’. Its not a logical distinction as much as its a dispute over the application of the word itself. In other words, its less an issue of what they word means independently and more about its actual use. Which is why I made the point in the post that ‘art’ isn’t so much of a description of artful things as much as it points to a practice of naming them.
Take one of Wittgenstein’s famous examples, the word ‘game’. Does ‘game’ describe anything about what things are called ‘games’? There are card games and there are ‘sports’. There are also make believe games. Some have winners and losers and others are only meant to entertain us, like playing in a sand box or running through the woods. Some are single person and others have multiple teams. Some are based on strategy and others on luck. Some are purely imaginative. And the truth is that while all these things may be grouped together as games, there is no one single way in which they are all related (read Wittgenstein to see this argument fleshed out). Some are related, but not in the same ways to all other examples of games. Instead, they share what Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’ where the overlapping points of interest are enough to justify our use. But the idea is that our use signals what things count and what things do no, but not in any necessarily consistent sort of way. Its not an issue for logic, and meaning is not a description in this case.
And ‘art’ is the same for the same reasons.
I don’t see anything wrong in ending a letter with “best.” I feel like it’s shorthand for “all the best” or “best wishes.” If that author wants to start a crusade to change our writing habits let her work on the incorrect use of “so.” When speaking people use it to replace “um” while they gather their thoughts. It has become commonplace to start off something written with “So…” It does nothing for the credibly of the writer. Ending a letter by sending someone your best wishes is a lot better in my opinion.
Art may mean different things to different people but that’s okay. I’m not against the author’s idea of using “creative expression” I can see where both words have their place. Of course on Twitter I’ll use “art.”
Marriage is a word that holds a lot of meaning. I have a committed union with my partner without having that word attached to it. We plan for this commitment to be a strong part of our lives for the remainder of our lives with or without the word marriage. Being married does give couples certain rights that being unmarried does not (like being able to visit someone in the hospital when the patient’s condition is serious). It’s also something that people have used as a powerful tool of hate by denying it to people of color, couples of mixed race, and the gay community. Maybe one day it will be exclusively a word used for love and commitment. We are now a step closer to that day.
Nicely said! 🙂
Writing quite selfishly:
Folks will always celebrate my birthday, June 26, now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!