Word and World: “Goose, Goose! I Can’t Reach the Ejection Handle! You’ve Gotta Punch Us Out!”

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Have you ever tried to say a phrase exactly the way you heard it in a movie from your childhood? My example: I say, “Good morning!” just like Han Solo did when he responds to the snow speeder pilot’s hail in Empire Strikes Back. This turned me to thinking about how my friends and I communicate, essentially, through movie quotes. And when we use a movie quote, we’re replacing another statement with a phrase as a way to convey a sense of what we mean.  

Example: “If I woke up tomorrow morning with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn't be more surprised than I am right now.”

Translation: I can’t believe this happened. This is absolutely and utterly ridiculous but in some strange sort of way I also like it. Sort of not really but sort of yes. 

This classic line comes from Christmas Vacation and references Clark’s surprise when Cousin Eddie shows up at his house for Christmas. I’ve added 11 more examples of this pattern of thinking below. But to get there, I want to investigate how we learn language.

Several of these 1980s movie quotes are deeply embedded in my psyche. I suppose, though, that this remains true for books and poems too. I can’t use the word “comportment” without thinking of Charles Dickens and Bleak House; I can’t hear the phrase “he screwed his head up” without seeing it in Tolstoy’s War and Peace; I can’t handle the Buzzfeed articles that begin with “What we talk about when we talk about [topic]” without thinking of Ray Carver. The list is endless.

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It occurs to me that what I say and how I say it is shaped by more than the environment in which I grew up. I learned language by more than mere observation. Or did I?  Augustine famously said he learned language from observing his parents: They pointed at something, named it, and moved toward it. Philosophers refer to this as ostensive teaching. Locke thought words were linked to the contents of a mental world—they carried the contents of this world to others through speech acts. Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigation, writes that “a great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense” (PI 257). Understanding, therefore, happens before effective communication occurs. And understanding implies collective agreement. Ostensively teaching, then, is part of language. Then again, Wittgenstein considered language its own life form.

Agreement in language becomes agreement in judgement. And agreement in judgement becomes “not an agreement in opinions, but rather in a form of life” (PI  241). Understanding language is a “shared human behavior”, which allows us to interpret the world (PI 206). While Augustine gets tied up in the ostensible connection between word and world, Wittgenstein emphasizes how users of language reach agreement.

To continue, the concept of agreement draws my attention to movie quotes from the 80s. Princeton philosopher Gilbert Harman famously investigates our “inner language, which one thinks in” as “distinct from one’s outer language, which one speaks in” (Harman 33). He supposes we have an internal language that we decode into an external language. Shifting the inner language to the outer language is something Wittgenstein addresses, too, in the form of sensory understanding; namely, he supposes we replace sensations with words. Wittgenstein describes the replacement process through how we experience pain. When I feel pain, I’m in pain; by saying I’m in pain, I replace the feeling of pain with the statement that I’m in pain

The encoded, private language of expression is decoded and translated into a public language—and while I cannot speak for all members of Generation X, I can say that my friends and I decode our inner language into an outer language through 1980’s movie quotes.

Before we get to my examples, another way to think about this is through the rise of .gifs (graphic interchange formats). Why use them? These animated images, which allow the image to reference its own palate, have come to convey the sense of a feeling as a response to a situation. They say with pictures what users cannot describe through language. I think .gifs work like 1980s movie quotes work. (Truthfully, it should work in the opposite: oratory performance has been replaced by textual flourish which has, of late, been replaced by .gifs. And, further, the fact that for animated .gifs to operate requires them to recurrently reference their own content offers a layered parallel to how, say, the user of a movie quote references their own knowledge of and response to a situation—essentially, we, ourselves, are walking and talking and replacing .gifs.)

Let’s look at famous 1980s movies quotes to see what their inner and outer languages say.

[Remember, now, that I’m not a trained philosopher. I’m only a hobbyist. So if you are a classically trained philosopher, and you think I’ve gotten these fellows wrong, please let me know.]

(1) Star Wars: Obvious answer. A space opera refined as an American mythos in the form of a contemporary Odyssey where the realm of the spirit overcomes technology. I can’t hear the HBO theme song without hoping the movie to follow will be Star Wars.

Internal language: Obviously, you know exactly what I’m talking about because everybody who’s anybody should know what I’m talking about.

External language: “You know of the rebellion against the Empire?”

(2) Empire Strikes Back: The sequel to Star Wars, this film steps into a world where the physical and spiritual commingle.

Internal language: Get it done. There’s no excuse not to get it done. Quit whining.

External Language: “Do or do not; there is no try.” 

(3) Iron Eagle: Who doesn’t love a flick about Air Force brats who steal an F-16, fly it to attack an unidentified Middle Eastern country, and rescue one the kids’ captive fathers. (It’s important to note here that the teenager who steals the F-16, Doug Masters, can only fly if he’s listening to a Walkman affixed to his leg in the cockpit.)

Internal language: Oh hell, things have gone deathly wrong, and I’m unsure you’re going to proceed successfully without my help; yet, I cannot offer you anymore help.

External language: “Fly high like I toldja! Something must’ve gone wrong if you’re listening to this tape".”

(4) Top Gun: This is as obvious as Star Wars. The film has so many quotable lines it has evolved into its own subculture, at least among my friends, as a reference point to clarify the tenor of a situation.

Internal language: What were you thinking? You shouldn’t have done that! (Absolutely you should have done that, and I respect you for it.)

External language: “You took it! And broke a major rule of engagement!”

(5) Rocky IV: This is where Rocky fights the Russian. I need not elaborate.

Internal language: This has been a hard-fought battle, but I see now that you’re making serious headway; you might even come out ahead.

Eternal language: “THE RUSSIAN IS CUT!”

(6) Vacation: Like Star Wars and Top Gun, Chevy Chase lines in Vacation have become cultural identifiers for my set of friends. If, for example, you can’t understand any reference to “Russ” or “Cousin Eddie”, I’m not sure how we’re going to continue as friends. It’s nothing personal, of course, these reference points are just sort of the gravity that pulls us together.

Internal language: You’ve got to be kidding me. Is this even real?

External language: “Real tomato ketchup Eddie?”

(7) Caddyshack: I’m about to commit sacrilege by saying this, but I’m not as big of a fan of Caddyshack as most of my pals. It’s a hilarious movie, but I can’t watch it over and over the same way I can many of the others. But my repetitious watching has eked its way into my adult self. I have friends that can cite their movie in their sleep.

Internal language: I’m in a mess of a disaster. I can’t even imagine how I’m going to find my way out of this nonsense. 

External language: “Soooo, I’ve got that goin for me.” 

(8) Aliens: This is an interesting choice. I remember when my friend’s dad let his son, Nick, see this movie. My dad said I wasn’t ready. In time, not only did I watch it; I consumed it. The film itself has taken on a rather interesting life as an object of academic and scholarly fascination. There are several essays about the “synthetic human” Bishop, his installation of Asimov’s Three Laws, and his placement of human life above his own. None of this interested me as a kid. I liked the hyper-masculine Colonial Marines and their swagger—also, today, a point of academic interest. Scholars analyze the Colonial Marines within the lens of America’s war in Vietnam. I just liked Hudson.

Internal language: Well, not only did that not go as expected, but it went worse, way worse, than I couldn’t possible anticipated.

External language: “Hey man, I don’t want to rain on your parade but we just got our asses kicked pal. We’re [insert list of Hudson-style expletive]!”

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(9) Red Dawn: If you grew up in College Hill in the 80s then at some point you heard either me or my tribe yell “Wolverines” on any given eye-blue Saturday. Red Dawn was an anthem. Russia joins with Cuba to invade the United States. A group of rugged high schoolers flee into the mountains, where they adopt the name of their school mascot as a warrior cry to conduct guerilla warfare.

Internal language: You’re right we did that. We did it and we crushed it. This is our time, our mark, our season of greatness. 

External language: “WOLVERINES!” 

(10) Pretty in Pink. Growing up in the 80s meant no DVRs, no streaming, and just barely the introduction of VHS (unless your parents, like mine, chose Betamax). And we didn’t have 500 digital cable channels; we had three. Then four. If you had siblings, and your sibling was of the opposite gender, this meant sharing. My sister got 30 minutes of Barbie; I got 30 minutes of G.I. Joe. We reached consensus on Tom and Jerry. The point here is that we shared. So for every watch of Red Dawn came the watching of Pretty in Pink, Mystic Pizza, Sixteen Candles, etc.

Internal language: I can’t believe you betrayed me like this. 

External language: “YOU SH!T ON MY HOUSE! YOU SH!T ON MY ******* HOUSE!” 

 (11) Karate Kid: I admit I didn’t have this on my original list, but when I was talking it over with Landon, my trainer, he suggested I add it; and he’s right. In a universe where Daniel-san can swing a relationship with Elizabeth Shue, anything can happen. 

Internal language: Put the nail in the coffin.  

External language: “Sweep the leg! Put him in a body bag yeah!” 

[Confession: For the Karate Kid, I actually struggled to describe the internal language without referencing the external language, which might make this the best reference replacement of them all.]

When I read back through the list I find a common denominator: 6 of 11 quotes reference moments in time when things go wrongly. This leads me to conclude that, for me, I turn to 1980s movie quotes to avoid saying how I feel in difficult situations. And here, Wittgenstein fits, for I replace an outcry of feeling with a different statement about feeling. So too does Harman—my inner language of how to address a difficult situation decodes into an outer language that communicates to my pals what I want to say without directly saying it. Which, in turn, refers back to Wittgenstein in that in order for replacement theory to work, my friends and I must first have “a great deal of stage-setting”, or agreement, for this mode of communication to succeed. And that stage setting, that common reference or language knowledge base, arrives in the form of 1980s movie quotes. Isn’t that something? Notice how these philosophical theories, as well as the assumptions they inspire, refer back on themselves? Does it not operate exactly the way our newfound mode of communication through .gifs operate? To succeed, they repeatedly return to their palate or “stage setting”.

.gifs have presented a whole new topic idea for another post (along with their forefathers: the emojis). For now, it’s time to move on: “Goose, Goose! I can’t reach the ejection handle! You’ve gotta punch us out! You’ve gotta punch us out!” Rest in peace, Goose.

Parker McConachieComment