Ghostbusters, “linguistics,” and “anthropology”

Recently I read an article by Leah Velleman on Slate’s language blog Lexicon Valley, which analyzes a scene from the film Ghostbusters through linguistic perspectives on how conversations work. The analysis centers on this exchange (there’s a video as part of the Slate article):

Dr Ray Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here.

Walter Peck: They caused an explosion!

Mayor: Is this true?

Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes, it’s true.

[pause]

Dr. Peter Venkman: This man has no dick.

Walter: Jeez! [charges at Venkman]

I was struck by the piece not only because I love illustrating issues of language through media, but also because it reminded me of all the things I am drawn to in “anthropological” perspectives on language rather than “linguistic” perspectives on language. There has been plenty of ink spilled (but almost no blood, I think) about distinctions between these ways of studying language. While I won’t describe those distinctions exhaustively here, I do want to use the Ghostbusters scene and Velleman’s account in order to show some of the strengths of an anthropological outlook on language. While Velleman certainly gives a great explanation of how a particular thread of linguistic theory would apply to this scene, in my view this theory gives an incomplete account of the interaction. Mainly, the linguistic account doesn’t really capture the phenomenon of “hidden rules of conversation,” and it ignores the ways meanings are situated in context.

Are there “rules” of conversation?

The rules-of-conversation-focused account that Velleman gives says that these rules are at the heart of why Peter’s behavior is obnoxious to Walter and funny to us. But there are huge questions left unanswered by the “conversational rules” thesis, both as treated by Velleman for a popular audience and as described in linguistic scholarship. Among these questions: If Peter “knows” that he was supposed to answer the question by treating it as about the explosion, not Walter’s penis, how did he know that? If there are really regularities to our conversational behaviors, as suggested in linguistic accounts of interaction, how are these regularities established? And what does it even mean to “share” a model of how conversations should go?

These few questions focus on some of the cultural background to the issues raised by Velleman, but going even further in this direction leads to new issues entirely. This is because the scene is not only evidence or example of learning “rules” to conversations, it is also evidence of learning effects of breaking these “rules,” effects which everyone seems to have learned including Winston, the Ghostbuster who we see rolling his eyes just before Walter charges Peter.

But what exactly is the effect? Is Peter portraying himself as silly, portraying himself as not taking the conversation seriously, showing he has little respect for Walter (via ideologies of gender, discussed below), portraying himself as misunderstanding the mayor’s question, taking the conversational focus off the explosion, or even trying to lighten the mood (for everyone but Walter)? His statement could potentially accomplish many effects, but we need to consider how it was actually interpreted in further interaction in order to be at all clear about what ultimately happened. We can notice that after the brief scuffle, Peter says “Well, that’s what I heard!” and not “Oh, sorry, I was just joking” or “Whatever, while we’re standing around fighting, Zuul is on the loose!” so we do have evidence that he was satisfied with Walter’s interpretation that the comment was meant to be an insult. But simply answering a question in a weird way isn’t insulting in itself. Why did Walter think he was being insulted?

Situated meaning: Gender and the body

This scene from Ghostbusters is a great example of ideologically situated meaning, but such meaning is not usually part of a linguistic account of language use. Consider some alternate paths the conversation could have taken:

Dr Ray Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here.

Walter Peck: They caused an explosion!

Mayor: Is this true?

Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes, it’s true.

[pause]

Dr. Peter Venkman: Our system works great as long as the power isn’t shut off.

Or

Dr Ray Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by this jackass here.

Walter Peck: They caused an explosion!

Mayor: Is this true?

Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes, it’s true.

[pause]

Dr. Peter Venkman: This man is a jackass.

In the both cases, Peter wouldn’t seem to be participating in the conversation in a way that the characters expect him to in the mayor’s office. According to the linguistic account of this scene, he would still be breaking the hidden rules of conversation and messing around with at-issue and not at-issue propositions. But would Walter still charge? Would the insult still be as serious? A linguistic account of this conversation has difficulty answering these questions, and it may not ever even raise them. From an anthropological perspective, however, we have to see that the meaning of Dr. Venkman’s statement being interpreted as an insult, or at least worthy of responding to with a physical attack, is dependent on (and expressive of) ideologies of gender and the body.

We can only make sense of this conversation in light of widely circulating ideas about male supremacy and a strict relationship between your gender and your anatomy. In other words, understanding the insult depends on understanding the idea “Men need to prove they are men and not women, because it’s bad to be a woman. It would be bad for a man not to have a penis because it implies he’s like a woman.” We (and Walter) certainly don’t need to agree with this idea in order to guess that Venkman is trying to be insulting. We just need to recognize when it’s being used. The “meaning” of their conversation is rooted in these ideologies and not just in the grammar and words of the conversation. That’s situated meaning–something seen in an anthropological perspective as a basic characteristic of language but not really included in linguistic descriptions.

~~~

This post is just the beginning of a more complete account of this interaction. The notion that conversations have rules may be something that individuals describe, but it would not be something we assume to be true as part of our analysis. Instead, we would look at how certain effects are accomplished by particular uses of language. Maybe we would do this in order to describe characteristics of interaction in some context or among some group of people (e.g., paranormal exterminators and government regulators in New York City circa 1985).  Such a study might reveal regularities that we are tempted to call rules, but from an anthropological perspective this term isn’t appropriate. These regularities or recurrent practices are part of the context of speaking that people can flexibly use in order to communicate, but the choices we can make with respect to these regularities are far more numerous and complex than “breaking” or “following.” Meanwhile, anthropologists would always be looking at situated meaning and the context of language use. There’s nothing special about this conversation that makes Venkman’s meanings situated. All meaning in language is situated in social, political, and historical contexts of its use. Exactly how people figure out, specify, or support particular connections between meaning and contexts is a primary concern for anthropological views on language (especially the field of discourse analysis).

Linguistic anthropology can have its flaws, but it does have some powerful tools for pointing out how people do all the complex stuff we do with language. Even when those people are Ghostbusters.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Miranda Weinberg and Jeff Gauthier for helpful comments on an earlier draft. In particular, they thought of using alternative versions of the conversation to illustrate some of these points.

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8 thoughts on “Ghostbusters, “linguistics,” and “anthropology”

  1. Does anyone talk about ‘language governmentality’? I.e. governmentality as a framework for normativity in language? Just thinking, if ‘rules’ is too strong a word, but there are emerging social norms, locally-situated / produced forms of control, governmentality might be an interesting perspective.
    Also, wouldn’t an ideology of ‘incompleteness/ lack’ or ‘non-male-ness’ be sufficient for your purposes? Why the ‘being female is bad’ aspect? For instance calling someone a breast-less woman would not necessarily be an insult due to likening her to a man, but rather an implied inability to do what women (‘s breasts) are supposed to do (nurse babies, attract men). The ideology certainly exists– If they called him a ‘sissy’ or ‘girl’ (2 insults I have heard in use) then that would support your analysis, but in this particular case I see no evidence that there is negativity associated with being female.

  2. I’ll leave the language governmentality point for someone else, though the short answer is: Pennycook, 2002; Nelson Flores, several; and a couple recent WPEL articles).

    Since I pushed Mark on the gender ideologies point, I’ll stand up for it: I think you can test this out on the conversation and see that the joke just doesn’t work the same way without using this gender ideology. The first way you can test this is through a non-gendered lack:

    Dr Ray Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by fingerless here.

    Walter Peck: They caused an explosion!

    Mayor: Is this true?

    Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes, it’s true.

    [pause]

    Dr. Peter Venkman: This man has no fingers.

    Which is certainly odd, but not particularly funny. Why isn’t if funny? For one thing, you’d be able to see this for yourself if it were true. Second, not having fingers would be kind of sad, not funny, I think because it would impede functioning in a world that expects people to have fingers, while not having a dick is important largely in matters of sex. So, let’s try your version, where rather than Walter Peck we’re working with a woman – we’ll call her Wallis.

    Dr Ray Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by breast-less here.

    Wallis Peck: They caused an explosion!

    Mayor: Is this true?

    Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes, it’s true.

    [pause]

    Dr. Peter Venkman: This woman has no breasts.

    I think we are getting closer to the way the original joke works. We still have the problem of visibility from the finger example, but to a lesser extent (and we could solve this by replacing breast with vagina for a more direct parallel to the original joke). It still doesn’t seem to work the same way that the original joke did. It does work on the level that Velleman discussed on the original Slate piece, by going against the maxim of relevance. But without the emasculating implications, I don’t think the joke can be replicated.

    One easy way to see this is the availability of “dickless” as an insult. While it’s not part of my everyday vocabulary, it is a word that I recognize immediately as an insult, while fingerless and breastless are interpretable because of their morphology but don’t have the same pragmatic connotations. Many English insults work this way – as you point out, sissy but also bitch, pussy, and worse (not just my intuition: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2008/07/18/woman-as-an-insult/)

    Of course, the caveat to this whole discussion is that I’m relying on native speaker intuitions, which Mark rightly points out aren’t enough to really understand how that works. Unfortunately, our ethnographic data about the Ghostbusters speech community is limited.

    Eager to hear your continued thoughts!

  3. Thanks for the governmentality refs (:
    So I didn’t mean to say that gender isn’t an integral part of this, I do agree it’s about gender– where I disagree is that there seems to be a fusion of emasculation [-male] with enfemination [+female], and I don’t think that’s warranted. He’s lacking a central male quality, fine he’s [-male] and that’s a bad thing to be, do to gender ideologies. This could make him a neuter or non-animate object, which are also possible forms of insult (clod, block-head, airhead, chicken, fruitcake, scum, pest, asshole). I still see nothing to imply that that he is [+feminine].

    BTW I think the joke could work well with ‘brainless’, which would meet your non-visibilty requirement, and also the general ‘lack’ idea.

  4. Hmmm…. Certainly there is a gender binary circulating through Western society. So, to not be male often would seem to imply female, probably more so in 1984 than now.

    Dr Ray Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was
    shut off by dickless here.

    Wallis Peck: They caused an explosion!

    Mayor: Is this true?

    Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes, it’s true.

    [pause]

    Dr. Peter Venkman: This man is in fact a woman [Or: is very feminine].

    Hmmm, as funny? Is this the equivalent of “this man has no dick”? (Must it in our cultural configuration)? Was there an alternative non-binary gender ideology circulating in 1984 such that no penis does not necessarily *mean* women (and thereby suggest lesser person)? I don’t know, I was three.

    Possibly. If it’s in the realm of possibility, following Mark, “we need to consider how it was actually interpreted in further interaction in order to be at all clear about what ultimately happened.” There’s nothing in the subsequent interaction to suggest Peck (right!?) was insulted because the connotation was that he’s a woman.

    Alternatively (how do you get those cut away boxes btw? Semiotic resources are unequally distributed for this techno-fumbler):

    Dr Ray Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was
    shut off by dickless here.

    Wallis Peck: They caused an explosion!

    Mayor: Is this true?

    Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes, it’s true.

    [pause]

    Dr. Peter Venkman: This man is in fact a eunuch.

    Hmmm, this would be more “correct” but still less biting. Gender ideologies are probably always at play when “dick jokes” are uttered but I’m also wary of calling in ideological explanations too quickly. In this case, I’m not fully convinced gender ideologies (one way or the other) fully explain the joke (or maybe I have an over inflated sense of Bill Murray’s comedic genius).

    Why didn’t Peck (lol–sorry) jump Stantz when the initial insult was uttered? Certainly “dickless” denotes the same thing as “no dick” (and so carries the same gender implications given the prevailing gender ideology). Why does “no dick” carry the punch that “dickless” doesn’t? I have no doubt that the writers are playing on a perception emasculation is bad but there seems to be something more going on as well: why does “no dick” dig where where “woman” and “eunuch” don’t?

    If it’s too “under-contextualized” to identify the bite of the joke simply in Venkman’s flouting of “what’s at issue” as in the original post, there is still nevertheless something like an “interaction order” at play in the scene to which Venkman is considerably contemptuous. And in his contempt he manages to pull off quite a number of things. He’s not only asked to attend to what’s at issue, he’s asked to give an account of himself. And by being asked to give an account of himself he’s being dragged into a subordinate role which he dismisses. Although he gives the impression of cooperation, it’s a ruse! He flouts the implied threat of punishment, and he refuses the subjectivization which attend to giving accounts of oneself (as some have argued). He also links back up to the original “dickless” and makes explicit what “dickless” denotes but no longer “means”, that “dickless” is not just a generic insult (insults expected at confrontations) but that it’s referent is the absence of a penis. Not only does he show contempt to the judge (and Peck thereby), and not only does he, in a little bit of smart alec mastery, give us a lesson in semiotics, he also draws attention to Peck’s pecker (sorry, that’s juvenile, but surely that’s part of the joke) another serious violation of Western public interactional norms.

    The problem (it seems to me) is that there’s no way to find an alternative that could ever do the work of the original. Transcription here might be the very problem rather than the solution. Venkman (but really Murray) delicately holds the entire scene in his two lines. Emasculation (however you cut it up (sorry again)) is an aspect of the joke (and for that I think we can rightfully be concerned about its broader social implications) but it’s certainly not sufficient for explaining the genius of Ghostbusters. Whenever ideologies are invoked, they must at the same time be actualized, that’s what makes Murray (in my mind) so funny.

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