Claudia vs. the Queen

While travelling this week I’ve been reading The Language Instinct and Semiotics: The Basics, the latter being an ‘accessible’ recommended course text. While they don’t focus on exactly the same topics there’s plenty of overlap, and it’s been like going to a dinner party and being seated between Claudia Winkleman and the Queen.

It’s not surprising to be initially attracted by the obvious physical charms of Ms Winkleman, but you quickly discover she’s also fast, witty and quirky – a pleasure to spend time with. But you can’t ignore the Queen, who is obviously renowned and popular; it’s just that once you start chatting you find that she’s going batty in her old age. Everything takes ten times more words than necessary, and is endlessly repeated. So occasionally you slip back to the increasingly endearing Claudia for some unpatronising conversation, but after a while feel guilty about leaving the Queen on her own so start engaging her once more.

And the more you chat, the more things start to get a bit weird. You’ll be having a reasonable if somewhat circumspect conversation about squirrels in the forest, and she’ll all of a sudden tell you about the invisible unicorns that live in the same area. You ask her to repeat, but it still makes no sense. Ah well, this is clearly a hiccup and is forgiveable – the Queen is a complex and interesting person, everyone says so, and it would be unreasonable to let one thing reduce your opinion of her. So after a quick Claudia fix you persevere. And she says this:

Psychoanalytic theory also contributed to the revaluation of the signifier – in Freudian dream theory the sound of the signifier could be regarded as a better guide to its possibly signified than any conventional ‘decoding’ might have suggested (Freud 1938, 319). For instance, Freud reported that the dream of a young woman engaged to be married featured flowers – including lilies-of-the-valley and violets. Popular symbolism suggested that the lilies were a symbol of chastity and the woman agreed that she associated them with purity. However, Freud was surprised to discover that she associated the word ‘violet’ phonetically with the English word ‘violate’, suggesting her fear of the violence of ‘defloration’ (another word alluding to flowers) (Freud 1938, 382-3). As the psychoanalytic theoriest Jacques Lacan emphasized (originally in 1957), the Freudian concepts of condensation and displacement illustrate the determination of the signified by the signifier in dreams (Lacan 1977, 159ff). In condensation, several thoughts are condensed into one symbol, while in displacement unconscious desire is displaced into an apparently trivial symbol (to avoid dream censorship).

And you’re thinking ‘I’m not a psychologist and have no expertise, but my bullshit-o-meter just exploded’. Checking that it is 2007, you gaze adoringly into Claudia’s eyes for a while and regain some optimism. Lots of people like the Queen. There must be something to her conversation. There must be. And shortly afterwards she says:

Clearly, the extent to which a text may be perceived as real depends in part on the medium employed. Writing, for instance, generally has a lower modality than film and television. However, no rigid ranking of media modalities is possible.

Phew. Doesn’t sound too unreasonable. She continues:

John Kennedy showed children a simple line drawing featuring a group of children sitting in a circle with a gap in their midst (Kennedy 1974). He asked them to add to this gap a drawing of their own, and when they concentrated on the central region of the drawing, many of them tried to pick up the pencil which was depicted in the same style in the top right-hand corner of the drawing! Being absorbed in the task led them to accept unconsciously the terms in which reality was constructed within the medium.

You can’t take much more, and catch Claudia in the middle of a related topic which seems suggests that the Queen is outdated. A bit of surreptitious mobile googling suggests that Claudia’s topics of conversation are widely considered to stand in complete contrast to the Queen’s. So you’re in a bit of dilemma.

On the one hand you have the ridiculously-attractive-in-every-way Claudia, who seems to make perfect sense, and on the other you have the Queen, who everyone is telling you is very deep and very clever, but just isn’t coherent. You want to make sure you’re not being won over by Claudia’s overall beauty and clarity – and, to be fair, you’ve been watching her on tv for years and perhaps have a bias for this reason – and perhaps it’s just that the Queen is very subtle and clever, just rubbish at explaining herself. But without any kind of expertise, there’s no informed way to decide which is the case. But, still, the skeptical brain can’t help but lean towards Claudia. We’ll see.