“It’s time to build a word. Let’s build it. Let’s build it now.”
So incant the various animals-made-of-letters-that-spell-out-the-English-word-that-names-the-animal in the PBS animated show “Word World,” and upon that incantation, familiar-looking 3-D sans serif letters morph into the new shape of the thing the letters spell. In the clip below, the letters P,I, and E form a pie.
So, OK, I can accept the operating principle of this fictional world, even if it has some metaphysical problems (see “Notes” below). What concerns and interests me philosophically is the problem of plurals.
When there is one pie, it can be accurately labeled pie. However, Pig needs multiple pies. Ant advises, “when you add the letter ‘S’ to the end of a word, it makes more than one,” which is sorta backwards as to how we use the language, but OK, I’ll play along. So Pig adds an “S”:
And the transmogrification happens and results in this monstrosity,which can never be. This is a lie. There is clearly one pie here, not multiple pies.
Here’s the thing: any plural is an abstraction. It is a grouping together of things that of the same category. Declaring a plural is drawing an invisible tether around several things and labeling that grouping.
For example, on a bookshelf, there are many elements of the set named “books.” But each physical book may have different title and text and size, etc. And even if there are two copies of the same title, these are unique, particular entities: one book may have underlining or tears that the other doesn’t. So we can call all these objects together “books” only by ignoring their particularities.
And this is what we do when we label 20 students in a classroom “a class.” There is no class, I tell my students. There are 20 individual people, each with their own minds and concepts, and I can teach them all as a class by, more or less, ignoring their individual differences and teaching to what I imagine as some abstract “average student” — or teaching to particular students in class and hoping that if they understand, others do, too. Of course, we teachers are often told to “differentiate instruction” to every particular student, a lovely idea but a practical impossibility in a classroom setting.
(Of course, there’s a further issue with identifying and labeling any given entity by comparing the given particular thing against one’s abstract concepts, and so there may not be any particular necessary term for anything: For instance, what is a chair? How define it? At the edges of the definition, we will likely be judging, essentially arbitrarily, what is and what isn’t a chair.)
And perhaps this is the biggest misconception we teachers see in the entire endeavor of having a common curriculum and standardized testing. We work with individual students as best we can, and we see the frustration of asking every student to be able to do the same exact skills as every other student. We know that not all students have the same interests, abilities, motivations, etc. It may be admirable to suggest that every student can achieve great things, but surely not every high school senior needs to write narratives with “multiple plot lines, to develop experiences.”
(There are those who have said that the standards movement should have been implemented as individual goals set for each particular student rather than universal dictates for all, but there was never enough time to make the former happen, and the latter is way too convenient to those who wish to make all the students standardized so the entire function of education can be quantified. This urge to quantify, and teach only what can be quantified, is a problem, as Stanley Fish recently pointed out.)
By the way, after Pig makes the singularity of the “pies” pie, the instability of the situation leads to a modest explosion into individual pies
and we viewers are left to group each individual pie into “pies” — which is what we abstract thinkers do to our physical reality all the time.
Notes on metaphysical ambiguities of “Word World”:
There would seem to be three categories of physical reality in “Word World.” One, there are characters and objects made of letters that approximate the shape of the entity named. The character Pig has ears and a snouted face sticking out of a puffily drawn “P,” and the “I” and “G” follow as the thorax and hindquarters, respectively. But these letters spell “PIG” only if Pig is viewed from its left side — from the right, it’s one letter short of playing for Notre Dame.
Two, there are three-dimensional letters, such as “S” in the video clip and image above, which can transform into something that absorbs the qualities of the word it spells. (And in some other episodes, the objects will break apart, returning the letters to initial sans-serif form, and the object’s physical properties (like the ability of Duck’s “BAT” to confer momentum on a ball) are gone. Thus, somehow the complete spelling of a word makes the letters more than just letters, more than the sum of their parts, like adding the magician’s hat to Frosty turns him alive. In this way, correct spelling is a way of conjuring, or perhaps even giving life. One wonders what would happen to the physical incarnation of things spelled incorrectly — would terrible things be given existence — as when Bart Simpson created the creature who said his every moment of existence is torture (here)?
Third, not all objects are made from letters. In the video above, the window frame isn’t made out of “window frame,” nor is glass “glass,” nor is the table “table.” This suggests some kind of horrifying arbitrariness to the whole physical realm. Are only important things spelled out, so that if I awoke in that realm and found out that I was not spelled out, I would know that I was not a Main Character, not one of the Chosen Ones? Such a world would make the picking of leaders laughably easy, but then such a world would imply the existence of an involved, caretaking Creator, no? And so the characters in “Word World” turn out to not have free will — as we who are aware of the show AS a show know that they do not? Thus, it’s perhaps not possible to watch “Word World” as a show, but only as a meta-show?
So perhaps an animated, metaphysically ornate show about spelling reveals something foundational about the nature of representation?
UPDATE: See also this post.
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