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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

‘The College’ and its supply of hammers

Here’s to you, dear reader, and all of your excellences, whims, and deeply≠felt affirmations. Whatever you dance to in your most divine moments, I like your enjoyment. Let’s all moment≠dance a bit more.

In my last column, I noted a few individually felt, collectively≠experienced everyday moments at Grinnell which seem to be entry points for a discussion of an overwhelming question: ‘what are we doing here? In Grinnell, in our twenties?’ My goal with this column is to transform and weave these quotidian moments, such as our loggia glances and loggia-non-glances, into elaborations on a set of benefits of this place.

Enough cushion; mold grows. I hold this question: how do we use the word “Grinnell” in our everyday speech—and how does it differ from other uses of the proper noun? Spoiler: this is not a piece on community/college ‘integration’; this is a piece on language.

Clearly, ‘where do you go to school?’ begets an answer of ‘Grinnell’ (unless you have the wonderful habit of toying with the assumption-saturated question), as does ‘I’ll be in Grinnell in a week!’ The obvious commonality between these two usages of ‘Grinnell’ is their reference to ‘Grinnell College’ (with albeit varying circumferences). And have you ever heard a member of the town of Grinnell refer to what we call ‘Grinnell’? She/he typically refers to our ‘Grinnell’ as ‘the College,’ ‘Grinnell’ being reserved for the town as a whole.

So what? So we use ‘Grinnell’ to signify ‘Grinnell College’; town-members do not do so. Clearly, and vitally, we do this for simple and practical reasons: our forms and habits of living within this town are largely on campus, and this is simply not true for most year round residents.

Let’s quickly disclose what genres of experiences, habits, modes of living might be behind the words ‘Grinnell’ and ‘the College’(two different signs for roughly the same physical setting): ‘Grinnell’ might stand in for a individualized assortment of ARH; Burling; JRC; dorms; beer-related and beer-experienced thoughts and moments; relationships, bodies, etc. And ‘The College’ might perhaps stand in for a varying degree of apartness or distance from our campus; or perhaps an event or two attended; or perhaps interactions with surprising people. The point is not the specific content of each word but rather something more fundamental, more everyday.

If both ‘Grinnell’ and ‘the College’ refer to the same physical setting, then what is language here? Each of us, as college students, privately ‘experiences’ ‘Grinnell’ and yet we agree on our metonymy of ‘Grinnell’; likewise, many individuals experience ‘the college’ privately, and yet still share the label of ‘the College.’ For the same physical setting two different word-signs have behind them vague but meaningful and revealing assortments of shared meanings. Language, then, seems to be a complex representation of inner modes of thinking, shared experiences, associations; our very choice to label our college as Grinnell has buried below it a particular, contingent experience and relationship to our campus.

My point: every day, in our inner dialogues, in our most simple interactions, our language reveals itself to be an outer expression of a complex assortment of shared modes and forms of experience and being alive, which are of course, inevitably, privately felt. This background on top of which our words lie is profound, oft≠forgotten, and has very, very real effects. Our words are not just words, but perhaps more like game show doors behind which we do not know what lies; and in order to determine what lies behind them we must knock down Bob Barker and put some clothes on the on-stage bodies. Vitally: we must try hard to knock down our word-doors. We must sweat and strive and inconvenience and trouble ourselves to break them open. Words forcefully resist their necessary intervention; words are falsely simple.

And thus the ‘post’ problem: the self is not a distant treasure chest, but (also, I would maintain, also) a partially preformed mold of clay which we must chisel and remold into a more desirable artistic expression. Grinnell, I think, can help you hold the hammer and the paintbrush.

-Eric Ritter ’12

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