A Station Eight Fan Web Site
Displaying 1 record.
Hey Greg! Hope that you're doing well, and that the holiday season is treating/did treat (depending on when you read this) your family happily.
What follows is a paper I recently submitted to my Contemporary Political Theory class at Pomona College, interrelating several of the concepts from the book we discussed that week ("You Are Not a Gadget" by Jaron Lanier) with the notion of namelessness in traditional gargoyle culture.
My professor (unfamiliar with the show, but very intrigued when I explained it to her) really got a kick out of the piece, and I earned a more-or-less "A-" equivalent for it. But as long as I've got it sitting around, I figured you might enjoy giving it a read as well.
[NOTE: You may want to review this post you made on Ask Greg in 2004 beforehand, as it is cited frequently: http://www.s8.org/gargoyles/askgreg/search.php?rid=387].
Now, without further ado, the essay. It has been edited from the submitted version only by rearranging paragraph breaks...
The 1994 animated television series Gargoyles posits a highly intelligent species which dominated the Earth prior to human genesis and ascendance.
These gargoyles possess a unique culture which predates humanity's by a significant period, but the first on-screen depiction of the gargoyle species takes place in the 10th century, after millions of years of convergent evolution between the two cultures.
Indeed, the pilot episodes depict the essential death of one lingering component of gargoyle culture, at least for the series protagonists: that gargoyles lack personal names. This idea is first discussed in a conversation between two gargoyles and a human boy:
TOM: I'm Tom. What's your name?
GARGOYLE #1: Except for Goliath, we don't have names.
TOM: How do you tell each other apart?
GARGOYLE #1: We look different.
TOM: But what do you call each other?
GARGOYLE #2: (shrugs) Friend.
For context, "Goliath" is the leader of the clan of gargoyles to which the protagonists belong, and their liaison to the humans with whom they share an uneasy alliance; those humans felt incapable of dealing with a nameless entity, and Goliath did not bother to reject the name they selected for him.
Still, he does not use the name in communicating with his own clan until a betrayal by their human allies and a magical curse cause the protagonists to sleep as statues and then reawaken in 20th century Manhattan.
Here they meet and befriend Elisa Maza, a police detective who is both confused by and - for reasons she has trouble articulating - uncomfortable with this traditional lack of names. The following exchange takes place between Elisa and the clan's elderly mentor:
ELISA: Are you coming on the tour…uh, what do I call you, anyway?
GARGOYLE: Must you humans name everything? Nothing's real to you till you've named it, given it limits!
ELISA: It's not like that! It's just that…well, uh…things need names.
GARGOYLE: Does the sky need a name? Does the river?
ELISA: The river's called the Hudson.
GARGOYLE: (sighs) Fine, lass…then I will be 'the Hudson' as well.
ELISA: Great! Hudson it is.
From that point onward, that particular gargoyle is known as Hudson, and only Hudson.
The younger gargoyles who survived the centuries follow suit; the two who conversed with Tom become Lexington and Brooklyn, for example. And Goliath more-or-less fully accepts the moniker afforded him by the Dark Age humans.
As Gargoyles creator Greg Weisman points out, "naming is clearly addictive," and once they are established the convenience they offer makes doing away with them virtually impossible. Thus, for the Manhattan Clan of gargoyles, namelessness largely remains a thing of the past for the remainder of the series.
In "You Are Not a Gadget," Jaron Lanier describes the phenomenon experienced by these gargoyles using the term "lock-in."
As Lanier puts it, "lock-in…removes design options based on what is easiest to program, what is politically feasible, what is fashionable, or what is created by chance." Furthermore, the process "also reduces or narrows the ideas it immortalizes, by cutting away the unfathomable penumbra of meaning."
Despite originally referring to programming language, this is a perfect description of the process that "Hudson" has been subjected to in the previous scene.
Names are a method of defining identity, which necessarily must involve "giving it limits." But in traditional gargoyle culture, identity has greater meaning than that; it is amorphous, and changes with the circumstances.
The gargoyle who first made a compact with the humans at Castle Wyvern is the same gargoyle who mated three times and produced three progeny; he is the same gargoyle who fought the evil Archmage and received a wound that blinded him in one eye; he is the same gargoyle who slept for centuries and once awakened, found himself fascinated with the television show "Celebrity Hockey."
Does one name - Hudson - really encapsulate all of these aspects of his identity?
In-and-of-itself, all it signifies is that the place Hudson awoke in was modern-day New York (a cut line from the episode's script even has Elisa commenting, "Good thing we weren't facing Queens," emphasizing with humor how off-hand and esoteric the choice was).
That name was "locked-in" as the full and entire representation of the character from that point onward, solely because it was politically feasible (it makes dealing with Elisa and later human allies far more expedient), it was fashionable (every other intelligent being in 1994 New York has a name, so why not the gargoyles?), and it was created by chance (quite literally in this case, as the "Queens" quote illustrates).
And the result is that the very meaning of his identity is narrowed. He is no longer capable of being someone at a particular moment, and someone else in the next.
He is always Hudson.
There is an even greater story here, however, which Weisman's later musings have helped to illuminate. As he once observed, "Gargoyles don't seem to have a native language. They acquire human language, perhaps much the same way that they acquire names…And language, in many ways, is just sophisticated naming."
This is a compelling point. As he later notes, a different and arguably much more persuasive response that Elisa could have offered is that the river is called "the river."
Languages are systems for describing objects, concepts, actions, etc. using strict and uniform definitions, confining them to names that society calls words.
But does a name like "the sky" really fully encapsulate the meaning inherent within the depths that humans observe from below? Does it even begin to provoke a holistic understanding of its astronomical, religious, chemical, or poetic contexts?
And even more to the point, what of metaphysical concepts like "justice"? Can a single clear definition even exist for such a weighty and nebulous notion - and if not, does sticking the name "justice" to it not necessarily limit it?
Lanier certainly appears to believe so. As he conceives it, the system of symbology under which all current human languages operate is itself a lock-in; at best, a "middleman" between intent and "directly creating shared experience" that he wants to work to cut out.
His method for doing so is improvements on virtual reality, until researchers develop "the ability to morph at will, as fast as we can think."
Lanier envisions a world where the rather simplistic words "I'm hungry" will not be the only way to communicate the sensation which has brought them on - instead, he sees potential in the power of virtual reality technology to place us in the bodies of others, as a way to intimate the sensation itself.
Humanity would no longer have to be limited to extracting some piece of the concept it calls "hunger," giving it that name, and using it as code so that others who know the symbology of the English language will understand some approximation of that concept.
The concept would simply be understood, and communication would be a straightforward matter of imparting that understanding.
But perhaps there is an even better solution than this - although one that is, unfortunately, largely forgotten.
Presented with the puzzle that gargoyles are highly gregarious and intelligent by nature and yet appear to lack any notion of their own language, Weisman has mused that perhaps, long before human language evolved and became the locked-in method for communication, the gargoyle species possessed "mild psychic abilities that left them with no need to create language."
While emphasizing that he was only asserting a possibility, the communication he imagines - where it was not "words that they intuited (or transmitted or read or whatever) but emotions, maybe images or sensations" - sounds exceedingly similar to what Lanier hopes to achieve through virtual reality.
Such communication would be consistent with what audience knows about pre-human gargoyle culture, where definition and identity are situational as opposed to consistently codified.
But if that is the case, it leads to a rather lamentable conclusion. As Weisman puts it, "perhaps the very language skills that gargoyles learned from the human race dampened their psychic intuitiveness;" in other words, lock-in of a very particular method of communication (symbology) "locked-out" another method that presented communicative possibilities human technology can currently only dream of.
The initial insistence on not using personal names, then, can be considered a lingering hold-out of a bygone era where every concept was considered unlimited, and every sensation intimated in their full depth.
In dealing with nascent human cultures, gargoyles must have gradually accepted the limiting of concepts like "sky" or "river" because this made interspecies congress significantly more efficient, but they resisted the longest on the limiting of the very depths of the self.
But with the permanent instatement of "Hudson" and the rest, there does not appear to be room to return to the possibilities an unlimited identity presents. Human language has killed them.
Of course, both the gargoyle race and their culture are fantastical constructions, but that does not necessarily mean that humans cannot learn from their fictional example.
While humans do not seem to share these "mild psychic abilities" (although there are some who would vehemently disagree with that statement) that Weisman hypothesizes, that there are methods of sensation and communication which precede language skills is clearly documented.
As with gargoyles, members of the species Homo sapiens did exist well before the development of the earliest known language, and while current understanding of those early cultures is limited at best, there is also a much more immediate example to turn to.
Newborns spend a few years before they learn to define the world around them in the code of words - the sun is an experience to them long before the strictly defined, limiting name of "the sun" is ever applied to it.
The depths of what could be learned from observing children raised without learning language skills, interpreting sensations and intimating them to others via methods of their own device, are boundless; of course, the enormous ethical travesty presented by such experiments means they are not a viable avenue for inquiry.
So instead, humans turn to fiction - attempting to realize through others what that they have long since lost, and yearn to find again.
Greg Weisman has often described gargoyle culture, and pre-human gargoyle culture specifically, as something of a wish fulfillment for him. "I'm such a human," he laments with a written-out sigh, "But I aspire to gargoylosity."
Well, if the virtual reality morphing that so excites Jaron Lanier can indeed allow humans to experience sensation as a pre-human gargoyle (or a pre-language human, or a baby, or even a cephalopod) did/does - if it has the potential to turn the clock back as well as forward, and show what it is like for things simply to be, without the cumbersome and restrictive middleman of naming them - then perhaps that is an aspiration that more humans should share.
At first, when you mentioned 'You Are Not a Gadget', I couldn't help thinking the follow-up statement would be 'You Are a Chip, a Dale or a Monterey Jack'. Talk about lock-in.
Anyway, is it immodest to say that your essay warmed my heart? I enjoyed reading it. And I found it quite insightful. I do believe my own thinking has evolved since I wrote that ramble on gargoyles' latent psychic abilities. My thinking now is less psychic and more intuitive based on sensory clues.
But it doesn't change my positive response to your thesis. And it also speaks to one of my goals - perhaps even needs (NEEDS) - as a writer. Using words, multiple, multiple words, in an attempt to reach beyond the lock-in that comes with words like river or sun or Hudson or, most especially, Greg. The original version of Hudson's line was something like: 'Nothing is real to you until you've named it, defined it, given it limits.' More words to more fully illustrate the concept. And often in my writing I find myself trying to paint pictures with more and more words in an almost poetic sense. That verbosity is often counterproductive when writing dialogue. But I LIKE to think it lends - even when cut back and cut down - a certain depth to the dialogue. But it's a constant push and pull in my writing between trying to find just the one right word and using many, many to paint that fuller picture.