Clarity – something to work towards

Aw, the sun is shining, I’m cosy on my little boat, and I’m having a leisurely study day, perfect… Well, half leisurely, what I’m really meant to be doing today is tidying up. I’ve made a start, it’s fine. Hoping to pop North to see mama and Ben next weekend, why are trains so expensive though! 

Am thinking about language, history and causality today. Perhaps because of the way the news is recently, I just keep wondering about the small understandings that are built on top of other small understandings, that ultimately can shape the direction a meaning or culture/craft/whatever takes. If those understandings are slightly squiffy, you can end up in some strange places. The “new normal” can be a long way away from where it all began. 

In horse world, I know an instructor who encourages us to ride “up to the bridle”, which I like. So today I thought I’d read a bit more about where the terminology all comes from. Spoiler alert: “on the bit” didn’t even exist until flawed translations in the 1920s/30s. 

There are lots of phrases that can be easily misunderstood. Which in a way is kind of enjoyable for me (much as it is frustrating also) as I care about communication and like having something to research, something to try to understand.

Corsets compress the body, but if the community talks about them being “tight” that will have different subconscious connotations then when we talk about them being “like a firm embrace.” They are tight. But that’s not the best way to explain them. “On the bit” can mean all the right things, but “on” has a subconscious sense of downwardness (the opposite of what we want for the forehand of the horse), and “the bit” focuses your attention there, on your hands, when perhaps the attention would be better focused in a more diffuse sense ( across the whole horse/human interaction (Mary Wanless describes it as the “seeking reflexes”, but even she has to use “on the bit” in her advertising materials to get people’s attention, such is our cultural presumption of its importance: “Up to the bridle” lifts you forwards from behind and creates a sense of contact that is less localised. In French Classical, they talk of the hands being fixed (“le main fixe”). My understanding of this is that they mean connected to the waist/back and thus the seat, not fixed rigidly with forever unyielding fingers, but you could easily interpret it that way if working in that tradition without guidance. We talk of horses “stretching” over their topline, but when they adopt that posture they aren’t actively stretching their bodies, they’re letting the ligaments and muscles engage by “reaching” forwards and engaging the hind end. We can talk about a “shortened frame” for more collected work, and as I understand it this is more of a vertical compression than a horizontal one. But it could easily be mistaken for a shortened neck where the base of the neck drops. Back to corsets, I can talk about my corsets being quite “structured and solid” because I use a lot of steel, but those words could easily give the wrong impression that they are firm and that you almost have to pour your body uncomfortably into a solid mold whereas the reality is that they flex more than you might expect for something full of metal. 

Language matters, and a lot of the conventions we have (in every subject area) are ever so slightly inaccurate. Such phrases are all short-hand for swift communication, and that is a necessity. The danger is they presuppose global understanding. If I use the wrong language in my website copy, I could easily put off potential customers who aren’t very familiar with corsetry. To be concise matters, but it matters more to be crystal clear. 

I remember an essay we were set at university, to pick apart something cultural using Foucault. I found an advert for a little black car (it might even have been a cute Ford Ka, I can’t remember, but it was something like that), in which the vehicle was lined up alongside three little black dresses on white mannequins, presented in a white gallery-like space. No points for guessing who the advertisers were targeting. But you can go deeper and deeper and deeper into analysing the connotations of those little black dresses. I didn’t achieve a truly thorough and significant breakdown of what every stitch and material choice might signify within culture, obviously, but I began to get a sense of how inferred meaning, the connotations around the words or visuals, are everything.

This is where my knowledge gets muddy, but our language is largely dichotomous and works by referral to sameness and otherness. A cat is a cat because it is not a dog or a child or a fish. You place something on a table, but you can also pick the same thing up from it. The phrases that seem the most simple are, possibly, the most loaded with connotation and presumed understanding. Some people struggle with accepting others’ gender identity because one is either a man or a woman, there is nothing inbetween without bringing in other qualifying terms. The simplicity of that dichotomy, man/woman, makes it seem like a biological fact. Which then makes it far too easy for us to understand all the subsequent vocabulary too simply, possibly inaccurately. If we’ve accepted man/woman, we then risk reducing everything to simplified biology, accepting masculine/feminine, strong/soft, straight/gay, and so on. Even if I try to imagine these opposing terms on a continuum rather than as clearly defined pairs, that continuum is still visualised as a sliding scale from one extreme to the other and thus still largely dichotomous. My language is so fundamental to how I conceptualise the world that I can’t even begin to picture a structure that would illustrate the truth of things. And different languages do this with different structures and connotations, thus the difficulty of translating without a full knowledge of both the language and the particular culture the language is describing (eg: equestrianism, as per the first link above). 

I suppose I’m feeling like the way we understand the world through language is quite clumsy. We just do the best we can. Which starts with not presuming to have always fully grasped anothers’ meaning, especially when it seems simple. Perhaps we only have a few truly shining moments of clarity throughout our entire lives. 

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