The literal meaning of language, told by images

Bodil Marie Thomsen

Background story
Save the Children is a tiny but highly significant part of the film Folk Flest Bor I Kinat (Most People Live in China) by director Terje Rangnes and scriptwriter Erlend Loe. Its subject is contemporary political rhetoric in Norway, which would seem an almost impossible theme for two hours of entertainment. The task is nevertheless performed with elegance and considerable humour. The usual political sarcasm or satire is absent, having been replaced by a charming and light affirmation of the often outdated slogans that figure on posters before any election day.

The different parts of the film visualize the founding utopias or rhetoric of the different parties as if they could be actualized in real, modern life. These visualizations all revolve round a gas station, whose daily manager, the anonymous and practical Lasse, slowly develops to become the main character. By the end of the film we consider him as the typical voter who tries in vain to comprehend or de-crypt the meaning of the different political slogans. Instead of gaining mental insight he progressively loses his physical sight and finds himself turned into a dummy, unable to orient himself in the world he has known since childhood. The ending shows him flying away in the airplane he built himself, Born-to-be-free, with his new female companion..

Save the Children is just about in the middle of the film. In a positive yet tongue-in-cheek manner it illustrates the slogans of Fremskridtspartiet. Starting in Denmark in the 1970s as a right-wing liberal party defending the individual against the state system, especially the burden of taxes, the political history of Fremskridtspartiet in the Scandinavian countries is very short. The "little man's rights" became coloured by populistic claims about national privileges through the 1980s and 1990s, when refugees and immigrants had to be supported economically by the wealthy Scandinavian states. By the beginning of the new century the marginal status of Fremskridtspartiet changed. Its political power has been strengthened by the support of voters who traditionally would have voted for the Social Democrats. One of the key subjects that really attracted voters during the last elections was the idea that the Scandinavian countries should fortify their borders against immigrants. The new power of the party has resulted in a broader acceptance of its values. Nevertheless throughout the years the rhetoric of Fremskridtspartiet has been seen as similar to that of the German National Socialist Party, which was able to bring Hitler to power in the 1930s by way of a special cocktail: nationalism or nostalgia for yesterday's world, populism or "the little man's rights" and the expulsion of so-called enemies of these views.

This - and the fact that the left-wing in the 1930s did not understand the power of this new movement and therefore chose political satire (cf. Heartfield and others) to ridicule its ambitions - must be seen as the very complex historical background for this part of the film. The German philosopher of the everyday world of modernity, Walter Benjamin, wanted his contemporaries to apply humour and fantasy instead of irony and sarcasm against the agitation of the Nazis. How to accomplish a fertile relationship between aesthetics and politics has been a challenge to every political movement among the political left all over the world. The light(ness) of democratic modernization, which succeeded in its ambitions after 1945, has faded since the 1980s, when it became evident that its power could only be obtained and sustained in cultures dominated by the Western white male's way of thinking. The inclusion foreigners - the immigrants and the Muslims - is the biggest challenge to Western culture since the Second World War, as can be seen in the art world of today (cf. Documenta in Kassel 2003).

Tarald and Eli
The dialogue in the sequence illustrates what we could call literal speech. Illustrative, figurative or metaphorical images are in general use in newspapers and in the television news. The topic here - whether the blind girl and her brother should send the money they collected to blind children in Africa - acquires a literal meaning. Metaphorical qualities (or more precisely figural; see below) for interpreting the images are erased and replaced with pragmatic knowledge and a sense for facts in real life. The children's argument against sending the money, which was their explicit excuse for the lottery, is that "Det er visst bare rot der nede. Ikke sant Tarald?" (Africa's a mess. Right Tarald?), and therefore the money would "just disappear" (de forsvinner bare). As for the needs of blind children in Africa - who did not choose where to be born, as the humanistic morals of Lasse go - Eli is ready with an answer:

Det er ikke min feil at jeg er født i Norge heller, og jeg er like blind som dem. Og hva tror du hjelper om vi sender firehundreogfemtitre kroner dit. Det er jo ingenting. Det er sikkert millionervis av barn der nede. Firehundreogfemtitre delt på millioner, du kan jo regne på det selv.

(It isn't my fault I was born here. And I'm as blind as they are. And what good would it do to send 453 kroner down to millions of kids? 453 divided by millions...You do the math).

Facts of math and facts of governmental organization are obstacles for doing good. Fact is a hindrance for idealism. For that reason the children have no difficulty in spending the money on candy that can be consumed right away. They also find money to buy a small birthday present for their father. Here it is significant that the apparent luxury ("something for his car") turns out not to be one. Gas will do. The superfluous but obvious competes with the imperative but distant. Reference to something beyond the needs of the individual is absent in the children's arguments. They have lost (or never learned) to value community, solidarity, and the state as caretaker. They have to take care of themselves, and they do not care about needs other than their own.

The choice of letting two children perform the rhetoric of Fremskridtspartiet is brilliant. The blind Eli and her little brother Tarald seem at once innocent and coarse, fragile and brutal. The brutality lies in the speech act. The children's speech lacks consistency in the sense that action does not follow from statement. It is the other way around: statement legitimates action. They proclaim humanistic ideals, but they have no ambition to realize them. They use language as a means of simple persuasion rather than as arguments in a democratic discussion. Fremskridtspartiet is aligned with children who have not yet learned to pay respect to the community, to weaker persons, or even to postpone their demands. The shortcuts between doing and saying can be charming in a child. Action is superior to language when a small child grows. Language is considered ornamental to the brute facts of life: the survival of the fittest.

Although still a child, the blind Eli is not the least bit charming. But Tarald is. Eli manipulatively uses her handicap and Tarald too to create sympathy so that people feel obliged to contribute to the lottery. Lasse's mild attempts to persuade the children to deliver their money to blind children in Africa are mocked as extremely abstract. His verbal defeat leads to his visual defeat as he starts losing his sight while watching the children leave with their booty at the end of this section. We will return to Lasse's loss of sight after taking a closer look at his verbal defeat.

Feeling cheated by their fraud, Lasse tries to appeal to the children's sense of justice. The children offer to give him his money back and he argues that this is not the point; the point is that "Folk flest liker ikke å bli lurt på den måten" (most people don't like being tricked). The highly surprising response to this is that "Folk flest bor i Kina, det pleier alltid pappa og si. Ikke sant Tarald?" (Most people live in China. Right, Tarald?). This is where humour takes over. Lasse and Eli are talking at cross-purposes, speaking nonsense. The relation between "most people" and "China" is idiomatic and random yet is understandable if you are sympathetic with the views of Fremskridtspartiet. As Lasse takes issue with "most people", he appeals to democracy and the rights of the majority. But Eli's answer relates to the literal sense of majority: "most people live in China", and one could proceed: "Since we live in Norway we should not take their opinion in consideration". It would be as hopeless as sending 453 kroner to Africa.

Lasse runs out of arguments in the dialogue. His: "Jeg vet ikke hva jeg skal si jeg" (I don't know what to say) is met by Eli's request that he simply refrain from talking: "Trenger du og si noe da? Kan du ikke bare gjøre jobben din?" (Why don't you just do your job). Although Eli's distrust in language is not translated, this is the point here. But it is not funny - Lasse is humiliated.

As he agrees to be reduced to a simple job function, exchanging money for candy, he becomes involved in the fraud. He gets infected by the act of the children and gradually loses his sight. This is shown to us at the end of the section as he stares through the shop windows looking at the children leaving. His one eye suddenly gets blurred by a white substance similar to the substance in Eli's eyes. The cause for Lasse's fate is never explained throughout the film. The physical explanation could be that he rubbed his gasoline covered fingers into his own eye by accident. But we could also understand it more metaphorically: as his failure to comprehend the minds and motives of the children. After this incident he is marked as someone deserving the title of "the little man", losing his sight and his rights - someone unable to speak on behalf of the humanistic Western white male. He becomes isolated as he withdraws from the arguments of language. The children's final act - to donate their change (3 kroner) to the shop's collection box for Redd Barna (Save the Children) - has the effect of a slap in the face - Lasse's and ours. Eli's "Er du fornøyd nå?" (Happy now?) directly comments on our need to fulfil the moral obligation to do good. This final humiliation underlines the idea that the need to do good can be reduced to saying that you do good. This is the problem with so many of the humanistic ideals: they are not necessarily followed by action. And this is the explanation the film offers us to the question of how Fremskridtspartiet could attract so many voters. The answer is: they act. They do not respond to idealistic expectations and they are indifferent about doing good.

Action and speech
Action becomes superior to speech, and speech loses its metaphorical or figural quality. Speech becomes literal, and the literal meaning of the state of things empties the space of interpretation that Eric Auerbach has named figural.[1] This figural background for interpretation is very much a result of Christianity and humanity. Auerbach shows this in his analysis of Abraham's conversation with God in the Bible when Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. In Folk Flest Bor I Kinat the literal meaning is shown in both language and images, thus reducing language to the illustrative and superfluous role usually played by images on television.

Exposing the literal sense of language instead of its figural or fictional sense characterizes the method the film uses to generate the fool's laughter (in a positive sense here). The part that illustrates the rural liberal party is hilarious. When a slowly moving cow with four stomachs eats the headset of a mobile phone belonging to a very busy and progressive advertising agent, the confrontation is extended to also include a confrontation between physical and mental time. This part concludes that obedience to physicality, tradition, and the slow manners of rural life has a healing power. Physical time rules over mental time here just as literal meaning rules over figural meaning in Save the Children.

In contemporary literature, art and media we have seen a widespread interest in discussing the definition of factual reality in relation to fiction. The manuscript for the film is representative of this new exploration of realism in modernity as a "reality effect" ("effet de réel"), as proposed by Roland Barthes:

This new vraisemblance is very different from the old, for it is neither a respect for the ›laws of the genre‹, nor even a disguise for them, but arises rather from an intention to alter the tripartite nature of the sign so as to make the descriptive notation a pure encounter between the object and its expression. [2]

The digital revolution in visual media has definitely taken our focus away from seeing the image as a relatively stable representing object and even as an object of vraisemblance. In performative art, in the so-called short shorts, in documentary fiction, in docusoaps or in reality TV of today we are confronted with different media reflections on this new media situation, in which reflexivity and reflectivity, doing and interpretation, reality and fiction, physical and mental, literal and figural are no longer opposed entities belonging to different worlds - the engineer's world of natural science and the artist's world of humanistic disciplines. The ontology of the physical world is no longer opposed to the epistomology of the hermeneutic world. The media between them takes part in their connections. The computer and its user connect by way of the interface, where doing and interpretation interact.

It is refreshing to experience in Most People Live in China how humour can work in this new realistic or meta-media art world of today. The ambition of the avant-garde - to make art social, to make life and art identical, and to make art revolutionary - has not been realized. What has been realized is that the usual reflection on art in aesthetics, where a distance is maintained, has been challenged by the actions we all perform in front of our screens. The interface challenges the space between the aesthetic subject and the aesthetic object. In this highly ambitious Norwegian film we experience the literalness of doing without the figural space for interpretation, and this might - for some of us - create "a pure encounter between the object and its expression" (Barthes, op. cit.). The new condition is that this encounter does not necessarily take place in the art work; it is more likely to take place between the screen and its user, and so the realism of today might better be described as a "performative realism",[3] relating to the theory of performance as a broader cultural phenomenon.

In the theory of performance derived from John L. Austin's work in the use of language (parole), the act of speech can have transformative power. In performative speech, language is is used to change the social world, to create facts rather than to describe facts, testing their true or false nature. The wedding ritual might be the purest example of this: when "I do" is uttered before a priest or other authorized person and other witnesses, the words immediately change the social status of the person who utters them. If we use performative theory to understand the various relations between the individual and the social, we might be able to understand the changes taking place in people and in social institutions as performative changes. Every time we perform a role we also contribute to the (slow or fast) changes of social institutions. Right now, in (post)modern societies where global migration has overruled so many traditional institutions, social performance and media are interrelated in the most challenging ways. Virtual and material reality coalesce in fruitful ways, as explained by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai:

[…] in a world of migration and mass mediation, everybody is living in a world of image flows, such that it's not simply and straightforwardly possible to separate their everyday life from this other set of spaces that they engage with through the media […].[4]

In Folk Flest Bor I Kinat, the traditional content of political speech in the media is tested by another media, and the very amusing result is that traditional Norwegian roles and bodies transform before our eyes in performative acts. The bodies are radically affected as the virtual ideas of political rhetoric become real: they suddenly run, bike, fly, swim, get stuck, and so forth. They change. This literal transformation from word to act by way of the body might be described by the term "fantastic realism". But the opposite is true here: the political abstractions are brought back to reality. Their performative power is tested: words become flesh, utopian abstractions come true. We - the viewers - do not test what we see in the register of truth or lies. Credibility and realistic vraisemblance is not what happens here. We experience the transformative power of words, and in the case of Fremskridtspartiet we are brought to understand how imperative speech can be when acts overrule words.

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1 Auerbach. Erich: Mimesis. Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur, Bern 1946. The latest Scandinavian version: Mimesis: verklighetsframställningen i den västerlandska litteraturen . Stockholm: Bonnier 1998.

2 Barthes, Roland: "The reality effect", in Tzvetan Todorov (ed.): Literary Theory Today . New York and Paris: Cambridge University Press & Editions de la maison des sciences de l'homme, 1982.

3 See the introduction in Britta Timm Knudsen and Bodil Marie Thomsen (eds.): Virkelighedshunger. Nyrealismen i visuel optik . Copenhagen: Tiderne Skifter, 2003.

4 This quote is taken from an announcement for a panel discussion in New York in January 2004, presented by the newsletter from Visual Communications Discussion.

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