Wednesday, October 10, 2012


NOTE:  This is not a commercial blog meant to accumulate popularity or income.  I’m getting mild complaints from people who say they can’t understand what I’m talking about.  It’s not my problem.  This is “thought jazz.”  Sorry if it’s not your thing.

The conclusion I am coming to in my pondering of liturgy for the manuscript I call “The Bone Chalice” is that the real importance is in the structure: the shifting into the state of mind that is liminal and then back to the ordinary.  The necessity is to cross the threshold, but what will take the specific person across might be quite different from one to another.

Most of the writing about liturgy I’ve seen has been about the content and because most of the liturgies are “scripted,” that is the norm.  Some people find it hard to step outside of words to the language of bodily expression.  In fact, whole cultures ignore bodily expression.  Maybe it was the influence of religious “books” or maybe it is the influence of science with its emphasis on reasoning in papers.  Recently both have been guiding a return to non-verbal communication -- not just away from the spoken word, but away from all words.  Today’s religious books include “Centering” or “Be Here Now” or “Focusing.”  Today’s science is neuroscience about things like phantom limbs or memory.

In the acting books I’m reading (Krause as notes, Press as Ph.D. thesis, Downs, Benedetti, Mason) there is attention to structure, esp. idea structure which is UNDER/BEHIND words, and also a recurring distinction between denotation and connotation.  Denotation is what the word is according to the dictionary.  Connotation is what the word is according to the artist.

I say “horse.”  You know the animal I mean and probably have a mental picture come to mind.  That’s denotation.  Then, in a great looming cloud around that animal in your mind, arises a host of meanings, emotions, depictions, memories, depending on what horse means to you.  That’s connotation.

The management of those connotations into a clear structure of meaning is what the artist does, whether it is Deborah Butterfield welding up bits of scrap or the marvelous play featuring a horse puppet or the news story of the fine race horse that had to be destroyed.  I saved the following story:

Simon Pope, What Cannot Be Turned Aside, 2012 © the artist. WAKEFIELD.- 
A new film by artist Simon Pope opened at Yorkshire Sculpture Park/ What Cannot Be Turned Aside is an exploration of how we negotiate access to land and the strong impulses at play during this process. The work features a horse and rider from West Bretton walking together across an open field near the former gallops on Longside, which once staged an annual horse fair. Visiting artist in 2010/11, Pope’s practice often involves walking, the act of being together, the spoken word, and the subjective notion of memory. 

The categories of denotation/connotation are not separate -- they co-exist as two interwoven dimensions.  Denotation has a specific content.  Connotation does not and will vary among individuals and cultures.  Denotation is controlled, specific, defined by someone, but connotation is “emergent.”  It comes by itself and though it can be guided, it cannot be very narrowly controlled.  Each has its advantages if used properly.  An excess of either can diminish meaning.

People who cannot perceive connotations (and there are more than you think, because they copy the reactions of those around them to avoid detection) are often baffled by arts and humanities.  One might think they are “Apollonian” and just want more structure and cleaner thought, but that’s not the case.  People without connotation perception are flat, more like zombies.  They are not like crazy people, who are FULL of connotations, but more like people who have suffered the kind of forehead trauma which cancels empathy.  My brain-damaged brother could sit by the hour reading encyclopedias and old anthro texts.  But he could not tell how anyone was feeling when they were right in front of him.  He could not “see” as much in other people as my cat could.  (Of course, the cat didn’t much care, but then -- neither did he.)  

One of the difficulties I struggle with in this project is that every denotative religious word is loaded with connotations.  The purpose of most of the relevant words IS to carry connotations that will evoke emotion and allegiance. (God, love, hope.)  Many of the words I need to denote specific defined aspects of the creation of liturgy simply don’t exist EITHER as connotations or denotations. The concepts barely exist.  Scientific terms as well are having to be invented as factors are teased out.  Some of them are medical terms, which are very much defined, while others are provisional terms for hypothetical brain functions, as yet unproven.  

There was great excitement about the idea of the two halves of the brain being “assigned” the emotional/creative versus the analytical/factual.   Many book titles ensued.   It would be easy to assign the denotation/connotation paradigm to the two sides, but it would be inaccurate -- not least because the interactions of the parts of the brain turn out to be MUCH more complex.  There are a lot more things to consider than right-half versus left-half -- for instance a whole vertical sequence.  What a neuroscientist might mean would be molecular and electrical changes that record in some mysterious fashion the sensory circumstances of any given moment.   Memory in ordinary living is suffused with connotation: scents and sounds, beloved faces.  An entirely different vocabulary. 

Memory is necessary for both denotation and connotation but in different ways.  For instance, ambiguity is the friend of connotation because it leaves so much room for the individual to add meaning.  But denotation needs to be bright, crisp, sharp.   Laws are denotations and when they do not meet this standard, that makes trouble.  Poetry is connotative and rests comfortably in print or spoken words that might have double meanings.

Religion can be either one.  I’m thinking maybe liturgical structure should be denoted in print and action, but content should be connoted, meant to be evocative.   Structure holds content.   For the congregation to take some action, like rising, action needs to be denoted clearly to avoid confusion.  "All rise." "Those who are able may rise."  What rising might mean is connotative.  It could be an act of respect, obedience, solidarity, wishing to be counted, “rising to a point of order.”  When I go to the Town Council meeting and the mayor calls for the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, I know what is expected of me.  If I did not rise, it would have connotative meaning.  But if I go to Catholic mass, not rising with the members of the congregation could be interpreted as respect for the boundary between the members and the nonmembers of the congregation.  I am NOT expected to do what the members do.  I may NOT take Communion.  Context matters in connotation.

If “God” is defined too closely or even depicted, it can be a denotation that courts idolatry and projection -- connotations.  The danger of denotation is that it can be legalized, set limits, even though both the meanings of the actual word and the connotations of whatever is meant can change over the years.  Stigma is a connotation.  Pointing to it is a denotation.  We play little games with the differences, both in and out of the religious context.  But they are often games unrecognized, crude and damaging.  We should stop horsing around.

1 comment:

Ron Scheer said...

You're way over my head most of the time, but that beats 90% of everything else out there. Keep up the good work. Every once in a while, you stretch my old head around a new idea.