Ambiguity vs. Specificity, in the Great Smackdown, Part I


Yep, I got some free time today, so more words. I may even have a third long post today, because if I’ve got free time, it’s only logical that you do also. (The images will have some caption info at the end for contextual purposes.)

So I’ve had this discussion in various forms over the last few weeks and months, and I’m sure I will continue to. My thoughts are not fully formed on this subject, so it’s a work in progress. If you’ve got some insight, great, please share.

I’m developing a greater problem with words as an expressive medium. This is somewhat humorous as this blog was originally created to help me develop a better written style, one with more of a voice, more of my voice. And I feel it’s doing that quite well thank you very much.

But I still don’t trust words.

Originally it was because words are too easy to lie with. You want to spread falsehoods, you just state them. But I don’t think that’s entirely it. I think it may that words are just inherently inaccurate, and of all the bs statements, inaccurate in their specificity.

Sure words are accurate for creating bridges, killing elephants, and pointing out how it’s your partner’s turn to do the dishes, though throwing a dish at them is a more fun second option. (FYI – I’m not the thrower, I’m the target. I dodge well, better than you’d think.)

And well those uses are very necessary, for expressing the human condition, the soul, emotions, words are sorely lacking.

I have an internal dialog, I suspect most of us do. My mind is in continuous conversation with me. Hmmm…how did I react to that? Why did I say that? Hold on, she did this, and this, and this, shit, she was flirting with me, why didn’t I notice, again? This is what happens when you spend large quantities of time in the car, or that’s what I’m going to tell myself.

But if I say, this person is my friend, I’m feeling happy, I want dinner, none of these statements get across the real feeling. This person may be my friend, yes, but I also admire them this much, respect them in this way this much, want to emulate them in this way, want to help them in this way, laugh with them and at them like this. The statement , “this is my friend” is so empty of context, of depth of the richness of my feelings.

Sometimes, just sometimes, someone will put into words a feeling, something you can touch, hold and know in your heart. Usually it’s in poetry or song, and in song there are so many additional layers I don’t know if it’s fair to call it the words, but I’ll use that example right now because I recently heard a lyric on one of my favorite songs that really gets to the point of a feeling.

Jeff Buckley (What? You don’t own any Jeff Buckley? What’s your problem Willis? Get Grace), from the song Lover, You Should Have Come Over, “my kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder”. It’s one line amongst many beautiful lines in the song, and gets across that feeling of yearning, that soft simple act of love, so well. I have no doubt it works so well because Buckley’s voice is perfect for the feeling also. Some words are perfect, like Buckley’s in how I feel them, most are okay, many are total failures. C’est la vie.

By not using the words specifically though, by describing the act, the moment, the feeling is created better than by stating the feeling directly. Words provide too clear a road, too clean a road. The roads of emotions are unclean, cluttered, messy, wrought with the detritus of our histories. By stating what is meant, the statement is stale of life, by stating something else, it becomes alive.

I didn’t intend to argue that words had any emotive value, so I’m a bit confused at this point. Did I mention, “not a fully formed idea” yet?

The beauty of many of the arts, and this includes that line, is that well it reaches to us, the listener, the viewer, the consumer of the art, we have to reach to it also. We have to bring our life experiences to the art work. By bringing our own understanding, we make sure the “love” is not love, it’s love, it’s lust, it’s yearning, it’s pain, it’s loneliness, it’s the messiness that we are, that our lives are. The word itself, on it’s own, is sterile, our lives are anything but.

In the world of photography I send unclear messages all day. Their is no written, clearly defined lexicon of meanings. Sure, certain views imply certain things, there is actually a quite humorous, for me, and quite accurate analysis of sports jubilation and dejection photos which classifies almost all those images into about 4 or 5 categories. The runner with his arms stretched high, what does that mean? Besides boring, of course.

So yeah, there are some common tools, but not like in words, not an attempt to mean one thing for everybody. And it’s that ability to not mean one thing that the emotive impact is born from. I may take a photo that says attraction, but it may also have all those other little bits, lust and admiration, curiosity and desire, fear and loneliness, that make the attraction so much more nuanced and powerful than attraction.

Also the image comes without the loaded gun effect that words have. A word like attraction imposes a certain pressure on many parties. Yet feeling that feeling, doesn’t mean that pressure need exist, but the statement of it’s existence forces certain responses, responsibilities, on people.

I know for me the removal of that loaded gun allows greater freedom of expression. I can sit around all day and think about what I feel, welcome to what you do in the woods by yourself for 4 days, but the words I think in are never as clear and revealing as the image is. If I want to know how I feel, I think about it, but I also look for it. Before how I feel is clear in my head, it is clear in my images. My images are able to say what I am as of yet unwilling to say, unable to say, or too unaware to say. And when the statements are in that form, I’m comfortable with them, at peace, un-rushed, unhindered by their existence.

Reading the image is not that clean road map that the word is though. It takes some experience reading that road, hell, even looking for that road to be able to spot it, it’s not well marked, but it is there. It also takes confidence to look at the image, here the back of your head say, this feels like excitement, this feels sadness, this feels whatever, and then trust that feeling, that intuition. Trust that the feeling has a place, a reason for being, and a willingness to step out on the limb, take the shot as to the meaning, and maybe be wrong.

Reading art, whatever art form, takes effort. Just as it takes effort to create the work, it takes effort to read the feeling in the work.


More lyrics to finish up, same song, though really, you should just listen to it.

Sometimes a man gets carried away, when he feels like he should be having his fun And much too blind to see the damage he’s done Sometimes a man must awake to find that really, he has no-one So I’ll wait for you… and I’ll burn Will I ever see your sweet return Oh will I ever learn Oh lover, you should’ve come over cause it’s not too late


1st image – from July of 2002, the week I landed my job as a photojournalist. I was a little excited by life at that point.

2nd image – I needed to show the height, I hate heights, with a passion.

3rd image – from this summer, when I felt (and still do) happier, more alive, more free, more satisfied, more heavenly than I’ve felt in lot of years.

4th image – gets the idea across sure, well done for what it is, but the typical elements.

5th image – from the start of relationship, during that stage when it feels good, the other person is nothing short of incredible, and my heart just went pitter-patter. For more explanation see image 3.

6 Responses to “Ambiguity vs. Specificity, in the Great Smackdown, Part I”

  1. Zeepdoggie & GringO says:

    As a person who finds language fascinating, pure and perfect for the expression of the human experience, I feel like I should defend the word.
    I don’t believe that words fall flat, but the emphasis of the speaker to the statement, and maybe the limit of his/her vocabulary can be hindrances to the expression you seek.
    Also remember that with art, and your photography is a great example of this, to decode what the artist is “saying” with the piece is much more difficult and time-consuming without A LOT of background information and history with the creator. I can look at your stuff and find your mindset concerning the subject and the situation, but I have known you a long fucking time. With words, you don’t have to know someone very long to understand what they mean when they say “I love her more than the stars love the sunset.” And in that quick expression, someone is very, very naked.
    We all desire to save face, and not everyone is comfortable with the idea of expressing how they really, truly feel about anything, and most especially anyone. We play little games linguistically to save face, and we limit our words semi-consciously to avoid embarrassment and weakness.
    Remember Mary? One time, I expressed to a coworker in the Tutoring Center just how I felt about her in a poem I wrote, and my coworker was so shocked by my nakedness that she became embarrassed for me. She told me to cut out all this great stuff that was very personal and very revealing about my love for her. And I remember being embarrassed some months ago when I admitted to you, my very best friend, of how my fear of being shallow led me to hurt someone else’s feelings. I know you well enough to know that saving face has stopped you on more than one occasion from using the real words that would truly express how you felt.

    So try and keep in mind that language can and does express the human experience just as well, and sometimes better, than the art that is created by geniuses like yourself. It’s our social programming that doesn’t allow us to actually get it out there.


  2. Josh Hawkins says:

    You refer to the “word” as pure. This is one of my issues with words, that they are pure, clean. How can anything in this life be described with great accuracy, cleanly? Especially emotions. We live in a messy, messed up, dirty, grimy universe. It is imperfect. Art should reflect that imperfection. That imperfection is what makes the universe interesting. That imperfection is what makes our lives human. Shouldn’t our art work reflect that human experience?

    I’m not arguing that all words fail, just the majority, the straight words. Poetry can do an excellent job of describing the human experience. Prose has a tougher time, but in the hands of master I’m sure can do the job.

    It’s just that in the hands of most of us, words fail, and if it fails, shouldn’t we look at other avenues? Painting, singing, photography, dance, whatever, a way to let it out, let our emotions run free, viscerally. Shouldn’t we look more for that?

    And you hit the nail on the head with your comment about social programming restraining our words. Words sometimes have a weight, that makes them difficult to use. Take the word “alcoholic”. Like it or hate it, laugh at it or despise it, the word has a social weight. It’s a word that can be used humorously, but is still always heavy, filled with implications.

    Take another word, since it seems to be the one everyone, especially the two of us, love to play with, “love”. You can’t say that word in a relationship the first time without great thought, concern. It has a weight. I’m betting you’ve done what I’ve done, what many of us have probably done, avoided using the word in reference to anything when around a significant other that you haven’t used that word towards. No, “I loved doing that with you.” Too many implication there, too much weight. Hence, restraint, your social programming. It’s the escape from this weight that I desire. To say what I feel, when I feel, without…implication? consequence? I don’t know, but to say what I wish, without the weight.

    I want to create, to speak freely, without social constraint. I know I can do that visually. Things I’d never say with words, or more accurately, that I’d hesitate on these days. I’m getting better, but I, like most people, still weigh the weight of my words before speaking, to make sure what I imply is what I want people to see. Visually, I don’t need to, I don’t know why. I just believe that in other art forms, art forms with less definition in that forms vernacular, there is less need to worry about hedging what you say. There is less need to worry about people being made uncomfortable. For some reason the statements are less imposing. Well words may be capable of making all the same statements, they’ll never be without that social programming, so why not find, for most but not all people, an expression where you can side step that social programming, and say what you want?


    On other notes:

    I’d disagree that you have to know the artist to be able to interpret visual art work. I think the viewer has to reach to understand. In the case of you viewing my work you do have that background, sure, but it can certainly be done by those with little to no knowledge of me. Humorously enough, as you were probably writing this another friend of mine, but one with a more normal amount of knowledge about me, a more normal amount of knowledge about a friend, was able to look at a small series of images and correctly see my feelings in the images. And it was done quite quickly, a few minutes at most, and probably less than that.

    The idea that you have to have a lot of background knowledge to interpret artwork is, if you ask me, a BS elitist product. One probably promoted and sustained in part by art historians, or wanna be art historians. It’s nice to believe, and have others believe that you are the guards at the gate to the castle of knowledge. Anyone can interpret artwork, and well they may not see what the artist meant, that doesn’t necessarily negate that interpretation, but that’s one of the interesting parts of many arts. It’s not about just the artists world, it not about just the viewers, it’s about the meeting and interaction of those two worlds. I’d argue this is true of words also, but words are so defined as to make this interaction far less interesting, less expressive.

  3. Kitten says:

    It seems to me that, in the context of this discussion, it is not that words fail people, but people fail words.

    I’ll explain. If I understand you correctly, it is not that words do not accurately explain your thoughts and feelings, but rather that it is intimidating to express those thoughts and feelings unequivocally. It is brave to mean what you say.

    Additionally, I think Josh demonstrated the difference between denotation and connotation very well. But I don’t understand what you mean when you write that you want “to say what [you] wish, without the weight.” To me, the connotation lends nuance, if not precision to what I write.

    On the other topic of conversation, I agree that you don’t need to know an artist to interpret his or her work. I have neither the time nor the energy to expound on this, so…what Josh said.

  4. Zeepdoggie & GringO says:

    Okay, good points all around. For me, art is nearly impossible to interpret without any knowledge of the history or of the artist; that is my fault because the first art I learned to appreciate was the art made by people I know intimately: my brother, my uncle, and you, Josh. So my approach is that I cannot know the art well unless I know something about the artist. Personally, I don’t see it as a negative; it gives me an excuse to meet artists. Anything that provides a reason to meet new people is always fun and good.

    Purity of language is meant as a way of saying that, until the word is utilized in a subjective manner, it and its meanings and connotations remain as we as society have derived their sterile, unoffensive, “clean” definition. “Love” is “a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person.” But saying “I love you” to someone while lying in bed all naked and sweaty changes the word just as saying it when you’re walking around a grocery store changes the meaning. I’m not going to get into inflection.

    Art and language also share a common trait in that it is very easy for someone to bring their definition of what you’re expressing, regardless of your intent. It happened to me a few weeks ago, and I am sure it will happen again, where someone brings in their definition of a word or phrase that i didn’t intend and either hate me or praise me for it.
    I’m sure it you meant something in an image that didn’t come out that way to soemone viewing it.

    To not have weight in your words would mean you would use them only in the prescriptive grammar; your words would have no beauty or aenima to them. You would speak without spirit or humanity. You’d sound like a dictionary. It’s the weight of the words that makes the language beautiful; that potential of losing face is what makes those statements artful and potent.

    I find language superior to art in terms of its expression of the human condition in this one way: we all speak a language. We can all sum up our experiences with them, some more artfully than others, but we can all do this. We have an unlimited number of ways to phrase and describe and expound on our remembrances and feelings and it is built right in and is ready to go from a few years after birth until the second before you die. The number of people who can paint, sculpt, draw, or photograph well enough to express the messy, beautiful, terrifying things that make up the human experience is very rare, but we can all talk.

    Some more than others, it seems. Time for me to shut up.

    Bet you’re wishing I decided that earlier, huh?

  5. Josh Hawkins says:

    Kitten, I think that people fail words is a pretty fair way to put it, though I still think words fail people also. In most cases the precise definitions that are words are quite useful, when I want to meet someone at 3pm, we know exactly what I’m talking about. I do believe when you are talking about emotions though that the precise definition that is a word fails to express the emotion accurately. You don’t just “like” a friend, you may also admire them to a certain degree, loath them to another, be respectful of them to some degree, whatever. All emotions are a mixed bag of emotions. That’s what I like about them, it’s also why words fail emotions. As Zippie is trying to state, words are “pure” (I don’t entirely agree but…), but that purity, that cleanliness of meaning, is inherently oppossed to the utter mess that is an emotion. It’s the limits that are placed on words by being defined. They mean exactly what they mean, nothing more, but so often, there is so much more. Denotations are dull, connotation is interesting, it’s just so often the connotations are too weak, to ignored, to something, I’m not sure on this thought, I’m still feeling this one out.

    By weight, I’m talking about a social weight, a personal weight. Let me see if I can explain this through example. If I tell a woman I love her, I’ve now taken the relationship to the “next level.” Well, in the five minutes before that, there wasn’t any real difference in my feelings from the five minutes after I said those words. I felt it both ways, but the statement adds a weight to the situation. You can’t tell some one you “loathe them” without it having a strong effect on the relationship, even if you’ve made that very clear through action previously. The act of stating something outright adds a weight, a tension, to the relationship, to the situation, to whatever, over just expressing those feelings, even very clearly, non-verbally.

  6. Josh Hawkins says:


    You, shut up? Would’ve been nice if you had done it in 85′, but since you didn’t start then you might as well be useful for fleshing out ideas now, which you have been. Thanks.

    I’m a fan of words that are more on the periphery of language, words that people can take many ways. Those are the times when things get fun, when you can start throwing in double and triple meanings and the brain really has to get to work. My all time favorite lyric, from Shake, Rattle and Roll, “I’m like a one-eyed cat peeping in the sea food store”. Nice analogy for desiring something, until you add a little bit of perversion to the statement, then it’s the best, nastiest line in any song ever. (Gangsta Rap you say? Too obvious. Saying it doesn’t make it dirty, it’s how you phrase it that counts.) True masters of the word who can pull off lines like that, I will not hold them to the restrictions of the word as I have been otherwise arguing. They are poets, artisans with the word. But it’s through not stating what they are stating that they bring art to the word. Make sense?

    People all bringing their own definitions is the fun. Having to sculpt word choices to fit the audience is key, and that may be true in everyday talking, poetry, music, whatever, but it’s also true in any art form. If you think I’m not contemplating, at least a little and usually a lot, who my final viewer is going to be, while I’m creating, you just keep thinking that. Communication isn’t about either person, in any form of communication, it’s about the interplay of those two people, however abstract either person may be, even down to just writer and reader, there is still an interplay.

    Spoken words, face to face, I’m more comfortable with, they have much more subtle information in them. In your laying sweaty naked in bed with a lovely young lady example, what is said, is not most of what is communicated. As the common stats go, “Communication is 70% body language and facial expression, 20% voice tone, and 10% what is actually being said.” Welcome to why I hate e-mail, as much as I love e-mail. I so enjoy that interplay of voices, the sarcasm, which always kills me in e-mails and gets me such a good response in person, talk about killing half of my personality, jeez, but the interplay of tones in the voices, eyes, stances and all that good stuff. What tells you more Zippie, the flip of the hair and the slightly tilted head, or what she’s talking about? We all know what the tilted head and hair flip mean, the slight touch on the shoulder (BTW – the innocuous touch, in studies, something like a 30% increase in positive responses to phone number requests. It’s a real bummer dating isn’t a science.)

    As for “we all speak a language”. Yeah, sure, we all speak one of many thousands of languages, and even if we are speaking the same language we may not understand each other. (When will the Brits learn proper English?) Arts reach through languages, they are a universal language unto themselves, with variations across cultures, but not as significant as spoken languages. I can go to Azerbaijan and still use images to communicate, how about your English? (Yeah, take that.) I’d also say you underestimate visual literacy, especially in this day and age, especially going forward in the word. Visual literacy is increasing and will continue to do so, and it won’t matte what spoken languages you speak, you’ll still understand visuals. Though if we really want to talk about universal languages then we need to really add in math, as that, while requiring training, is probably the most universal, as long as your culture has zero, if you don’t have zero, I’m just going to be too frustrated at that point.

    Some day we need to go to an art show. I’m pretty sure you can be broken of your belief that you can’t interpret an artist without knowing them, and I’m pretty sure I can do it in an afternoon or less. You’ve got the skills, you just don’t realize it it sounds like.

    My turn to shut up.

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