„Please hold your leg below the knee”, trips up many beginner students in Somatic Movement lessons. Whose fault is it? The student’s? The teacher’s? Or may we blame language itself?
The famous psycholinguist Frank Smith said, „Nothing is neutral; there is no room for free or idiosyncratic variation. With language every difference makes a difference.” The longer I ponder and play with this statement, the more I can relate to it.
„Last night I saw an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.”, Groucho Marx’s classic joke, a prime example of syntactic ambiguity. „When the alarm sounded, I saw her duck. How her red-billed teal duck got into our house we’ll never know.”, to expand on Richard Nordquist’s textbook example. He said, „I know a little Greek”, while he watched her paint with enthusiasm.
Ambiguity can be used for laughs; and it needs to be precisely put in this regard. We can only truly laugh at a joke when we understand it.
„She opposes rules which hinder personal growth”, does that mean she opposes all rules in general? „She opposes those roles which hinder personal growth” would make it more specific. Was the ambiguity simply an oversight? Or on purpose? An omission in favour of brevity? We need to know, what is she up to?
The Devil’s representative in Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles, is especially fond of ambiguity, and uses it often. Martha: „Speak frankly, sir, none is there you have met? Has your heart ne’er attach’d itself as yet?”, Mephistopheles: „One’s own fire-side and a good wife are gold and pearls of price, so says the proverb old.” Trying to get a straight answer from Mephistopheles is a hopeless endeavour.
This was a long excursion.
Which knee is it now? The left knee or the right one? And which hand? And where is „below the knee”? How far below? Provided that „behind” and „below” are two different locations. Behind and in front, above and below. As they are so well aware in the business of Real Estate: „location, location.”
These differences do make big differences. Not just physically, but also culturally. People take such things very seriously. Think of the difference between writing with either the left hand or the right hand. In his 1914 textbook, The Hygiene of the School Child, Stanford University psychologist Lewis M. Terman concluded that up to half of all stuttering among school children resulted from attempts to transform left-handed children into right-handers. It’s outrageous.
Sometimes there’s ambiguity in my movement classes simply because I made a mistake. But if I use ambiguity on purpose I would, for example, do it for such reasons:
- to drive students to keep the context in mind, or
- to provide a wide variety of options, spur creativity, leave things in the open, maybe in order to drive them towards self-proficiency, improving their process of self-inquiry, and ultimately, opening a road towards mastery
It’s like giving students paper, colours and a topic, „let’s draw raindrops on a lake”, and let them explore, find, try, learn, have an interesting time. And also let them decide if and how they want to critique their movements and movement qualities. I will observe how they calibrate, or not, before I provide more specifics towards the achievements and objectives I had in mind.