Figure-Ground Reference and Indexicals in “The Life Aquatic”
First of all, this is not a critical interpretation of this film, it is not a hermeneutical analysis of the form of this script, I am merely using a snippet of discourse in order to demonstrate that a particular linguistic phenomena (figure-ground as a reference strategy) depends on more than truth and more than just shared attention; it requires a priori shared knowledge of the referent in a general context. Secondly, I don’t even know if this is correct as an analysis, so I am not trying to make any major claims about any theory – I am trying to apply somethings I know about discourse to a piece of discourse, that is all.
Take some time and view the trailer for this film if you are unfamiliar with this scene, the scene is in the trailer and it is worth seeing.
Consider this fragment of discourse between Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) in the script of Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic”:
Steve: Can you hear the jack whales singing?
[fog horn sound in the background]
Ned: Beautiful. I wonder what they’re saying.
Steve: Well that was the sludge tanker over there, but…
[the sound of whales singing in the background]
Steve: There you go!
In the film sequence for this scene there are numerous figure-ground organizations that occur, linguistically, visually, audibly; these converge to make sense out of the scene, and a complete analysis would need to consider this complete picture.
Roberts’ text discusses a similar type of situation in which a speaker directs the attention of a listener to a figure in the scene by selecting descriptions in the predicates of two different sentences. He argues that this direction of attention does not rely upon the truthfulness of the predicate (as a predicate model would assert), but that it relies on other factors in the figure-ground relation, namely, that the figure is given to the hearer in the predicate description which points out the referent against the background (Roberts: 24).
The explanation of the difference in reference must be the different descriptions in the predicates of the two sentences; according to the figure-ground model, each description (a part of the discourse-dependent context) supplies a figure, which directs the hearer to pick out a certain kind of thing from the background…Note that the attention-directing force of these predicate terms is not a matter of their functioning as predicates, because the attention-directing function does not require their truth, whereas their predicative function does.” [Roberts: 24] (bold is mine)
In this context Roberts provides a contrastive pair of sentence which share the exact same discourse context and only vary based on which descriptive term is used to identify the referent. He argues that the speaker’s choice of which descriptive term to use directs the hearer’s attention to a different aspect of the same referent (other researchers in this tradition would have argued that this is a construal operation).
Roberts uses two descriptive sentences that refer to a jet flying overhead and in one sentence the speaker uses a predicate which directs attention to the actual model of the jet, while in the other the speaker uses a predicate which directs attention to the sound which the jet makes. His argument demonstrates that the description contained in the predicate is what directs the hearer’s attention to the referent. Through other examples he demonstrates that the predicate does not need to be true (a tenent of what he calls the predicate model) in order for it to be attention-directing. Description, for Roberts, is what sets the figure against the ground.
The dialogue between Steve and Ned is a bit different Rather than comparing two different sentences to support a description based figure-ground model by showing the inadequacy of the truth-dependent predicate model, this situation demonstrates that 1) a truth-dependent model is inadequate when the figure is not accessible to the hearer, and that 2) a false referent is identified precisely because of this lack of access and the expectation that a signal is the figure-referent.
In Ned Plimpton’s case, he mistakes the sound of a sludge tanker for the sound of jack whales singing; this is because of his ignorance rather than his attentiveness. In fact, Ned inappropriately ascribes truth to a signal which is a figure, but not the figure intended by Steve.
The background noise in the scene is quiet, and immediately after Steve Zissou utters the words, the next noise is the fog horn of the sludge tanker. Obviously (to Ned) this must be the referent since no other sound is competing for attention. The predicate “jack whales singing” becomes the interpretive frame for Ned as he makes sense out of the unfamiliar sounds. The first sound which Ned hears is (indiscriminately) for him the intended referencedfigure against the quiet night ground. Ned assumes that the first sound he hears is the referent of the predicate, without the knowledge of the sounds of the sea his epistemic context does not restrict him from believing that a signal is the data, that some signals are just noise.
To the expert oceanographer Steve Zissou, the truth value for the predicate ‘jack whales singing’ as referring to the sound of a sludge tanker is preposterous. He does not expect Ned to mistake a common sound (what he would actually consider noise, rather than signal) for a specific sound (the actual signal)….The predicate of Steve’s utterance prescribes or directs the hearer to focus on a particular sound. Hearing the jack whales singing depends upon the listener knowing what to listen for. Knowing the referent of the predicate (and thus being able to correctly discern the referent as figure) depends upon listener knowledge; this is not a matter of the truthfulness of the predicate, instead it is a matter of a shared epistemic background space.
Steve and Ned share the exact discourse context for this scene: both are outside, both are standing on a dock on the water, both are looking out into the night’s sky, but their different knowledge anchors the predicate ‘jack whales singing” on different referents.
In attempting to attend to the referent, all that is needed is a figure-ground distinction, but in actually attending to the correct referent in a situation with many possible figures, understanding the referent in a shared discourse-environment requires shared knowledge, not just shared attention.