Thursday, 30 April 2009

Michael Scott; A Horrible Player: The Office Through the Lens of Wittgenstein

The show is an artful composition of awkwardness, each line vacant of a laugh track drips with irony and embarrassment. NBC’s The Office is a comic portrayal of how language plays its part in society, bringing the audience into moments of pure, unadulterated tension and keeping them there. In order to create this tension they write characters that are totally incapable of assimilating into generally accepted socio-linguistic patterns. In the later works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, he shatters his previous assertion that meaning is reference. Instead, the Wittgenstein of Philosophical Investigations claims that meaning is use. This essay will argue that the reason Michael Scott and the rest of the cast of The Office is awkward is due to their inability to properly participate in the language games that make up “proper behavior.” In their breaking of these systems the audience deems “normal” or “common sense” the show creates hilarity. Thus it is necessary to explore the components of language that give it meaning within the late Wittgensteinian framework.
In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein lays out a new way to understand meaning distinct from his previous ideas in the Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus. In this earlier work Wittgenstein describes philosophy as elucidation. In a manner, he is building a bridge with language to what is real, or true. This takes the form of his logical atomism by using the idealized language. From this, what we can say we can say clearly; what we can’t say we show- namely the relation between things. It is this seeking of the discrete that pares language down to a one to one relation between the reference and its corresponding label. Quine calls this one to one relation the “Myth of the Museum.” It describes an exhibit that is labeled by a plaque or sign. In this “myth” the entire meaning of a word on the sign corresponds to the reference, that which is being exhibited.
Learning a language then is the matching of objects with the assigned, static word, which denotes that object. This process could be done with through ostension, a wonderful example of this is a flash card. The picture portrays the object or action which is labeled by the word on the other side of the card. The learner thus connects the image with the word.
If meaning is thus affixed, the clarity of language should be achievable. Words will set out certain relations between proposition that make up the complexities of the world, and because those words are of a concrete nature both parties who speak that language will therefore be capable of comprehending those complexities. This, however, is not the case and The Office is a prime example of the critique Wittgenstein has of his own earlier framework.
Michael Scott is the epicenter of the drama in the show because he tries to say things (and subsequently do things) that are beyond his comprehension. Even in situations where he is able to decipher the dictionary definitions, he is often unable to understand the specific utilization of those words as they are being used within the particular context. Nuances are lost to him because words do not have a one to one concrete correlation, but as Wittgenstein describes in Philosophical Investigations, are parts of webs of relation that construct meaning via use. Wittgenstein asserts, “One will point to places and things- but in this case the pointing occurs in the use of the words too and not merely in learning the use.“
Wittgenstein explains that language acts as webs and systems of tensive symbols, each use set within the context of each other use. These are called language games and each one of these different games are not set apart by distinctly articulated rules, but rather are held in cohesion with rules that are ambiguous and yet intuited. Wittgenstein describes the rules of these games as follows: “ But we say that it is played according to such and such rules because an observer can read these off from the practice of the game- like a natural law governing the play.” In order to find the meaning then, it is necessary to find its use, not its flashcard. One does this by entering into the game and watching those who play by its “rules.” If one were to watch a game of women’s Lacrosse, it is clear that there are a great number of rules, which are enforced. Seemingly every two minutes a whistle blows and the field resets, the girls get into a different formation and the game starts back up again. It would not be simple to learn the rules of Lacrosse simply by being told them. Once one watches for long enough the game starts to look familiar and one can start to recognize movements against the common flow and layout of the play. This is precisely how one is able to learn language, “Don’t think, but look!” Language however does not have a referee that runs out and blows a whistle (even if grammar wishes to do so.) It is not the whistle that then signifies a miscalculated throw, or a misused word. “ But then the use of a word is unregulated, the ‘game’ we play with it is unregulated- it is not everywhere circumscribed by rules…” Wittgenstein also talks about these language games in terms of a picture that is blurred. Even in such a photo the shape and form of the person is apparent. He asks, “Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need?” Not only is the indistinctness of language game parameters apparent, it is necessary in order to provide a language, which can contain the possibility of communication. The various nuances of language are given to us by the various uses of words, not by their fixedness but rather by their mobility.
The Office uses the indistinctness of language to provide a backdrop for humor. The show presupposes the initiation of its audience into certain language games that make up our societal norms. This includes how words are used in certain contexts, and what words, phrases or intonation are inappropriate in a given situation. The audience was rarely given the “rules” to these language games, but have almost by happenstance, been thrust into playing them. After a period of time it becomes so natural that the game is essentially invisible, until someone exhibits a behavior that cuts against the grain of these systems. Wittgenstein points us to the “behavior characteristic of correcting a slip of the tongue. It would be possible to recognize that someone was doing so even without knowing his language.” It is also possible to know that someone ought to be correcting a slip of the tongue, but the characters in The Office do not even know that they have violated anything. The audience is thus left squirming, not for a distinct reason, but rather for an indistinct violation of the intuition. It is not unlike watching a horrible game of soccer played by five year olds. It is clear that the kids who are scrambling about aimlessly are not fully able to participate in that thing we call soccer, and humor arises from this parody of what a match should look like. When I was playing on a local recreational league team in first grade I saw the kid with the ball and full on tackled him. My father had to pull me aside and persuade me that this particular game did not allow for my rather narrow skill set. The problem with Michael Scott is that he is 40 years old and has lost the cuteness factor of the above-mentioned five year olds. Subsequently we laugh at him because he is pitiful and ridiculous.
Setting the show within an office extenuates the audacity of these misuses because language games of the work place require “professionalism.” This professionalism presupposes a certain vocabulary, thus when Michael calls things “gay” he gets himself into problems with the company. Oscar is actually a homosexual and is thus rightfully offended by Michael’s inability to discern how to use language within this professional context. In order to fix the problem Michael forces Oscar to “come out” publically. This results in Oscar calling Michael “Ignorant, insulting and small.” While Michael may be all of these things this situation is brought to a head because Michael is inept at seeing how the language game functions, he does not see the contour of the blurry person, he sees a radically different shape, or what is more likely, is that he is playing an entirely different game all together.
Another example of how Michael Scott is unable to differentiate between language games is in the episode titled “Back from Vacation.” In it Michael gets back from a trip to Sandals, Jamaica, where he learned several phrases and behaviors that he wants to bring back to the office. Here it is appropriate to cite Wittgenstein proposing “Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script and print. For their application is not present to us so clearly.” While here Wittgenstein is speaking about the uniform appearance of a word, it is equally possible to talk about the uniform sound of a word. Even if two people pronounce a word the same way that does not mean that within each other’s language game the word means the same thing. This is precisely Michael’s problem; he tries to get the entire office to say “HEEY MAUN” While this was a word that made overweight and sunburned American tourists happy while on vacation, it is not something that makes sense to say within the context of a work environment. Michael also uses the phrase “island living” while bundled up and shivering in his parking lot in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Michael is here trying to transport meaning as if it was static, but the audience can see that he is mistaken.
While Michael Scott is predominantly the source of comedy because of his inability to play language games there are also moments where Michael starts to make sense. Almost seamlessly Michael will move from being incompetent and embarrassing to being a skilled salesman. This is because sales, and some other skills, are actually games that Michael knows how to play. In one episode Michael takes a client out to dinner, while most of the experience is almost painful to watch, when it comes to the actually sales part of the meeting, he comes roaring to life with tremendous skill. This simply highlights that Michael is not just bad at most socio-normative language games, but is good at games that are foreign and more obscure.
Many of the other characters in The Office are unable to participate in the language game of the audience. In fact the only two who are exceptionally skilled at playing the language games are Jim and Pam, who bait the others into saying and doing things that are obviously ridiculous. This comedy of errors is not unlike the Three Stooges; only instead of physical stupidity, there it is a comedy of verbal errors.
The framework that Ludwig Wittgenstein sets up for understanding meaning as use gives us a lens to see our world differently. Rather than a language that is constrained to a direction denotation of reference we are given a complex web of relations that allows for rich webs of meaning. In The Office, we have seen how these language games are played and governed by “natural laws” that make the audience aware that Michael Scott is unable to participate in these patterns correctly. In describing the show one might describe being anxious or fidgety, these are also symptoms of our own language games regulating what we see as “fair play.” While The Office is seemingly void of academic complexities, it displays a comedy of linguistic miscalculation that might have even made Wittgenstein himself chuckle.


JJ said...

This was a super read.

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