Sample 'A' Paper

Below is a paper written by a student in Spring 2003.

Things to note (in order of importance):

1) The student never rests at paraprase but always seeks to interpret the descriptions s/he provides. What you have here is an argument that enlightens the work not a mere rehashing of plot. The student is also offerring up a fascinating application of theoretical work by Jacques Lacan.

2) The student has used a good deal of evidence from the work s/he examines to support his/her case. S/he also provides insight into these passages and incorporates her quotations well.

3) Rather than making numerous points briefly, the student has chosen to concentrate on a specific topic so that s/he can provide an in-depth and extensive interpretation of the work at hand.

4) The paper has a clearly articulated thesis in the introduction, one that is developed in different ways in each of the paragraphs of the paper.

5) The paper proceeds logically from sentence to sentence, from point to point, from paragraph to paragraph.

6) The paper has almost no grammatical and stylistic problems.


Language's Lost Connection with Truth

[my comments are in this color]

The art of language is often perceived as the underlying structure upon which society functions. All theories, concepts, and inventions are transmitted through the use of this complex linguistic system, and it is also this system which distinguishes the human race from other creatures. From the moment an infant arrives into the world, he or she is exposed to a particular language; these combinations of sounds will soon constitute the child’s means of orientation and communication with the outside world, and also of self-identification. Yet upon considering the fundamental aspects of language, the realization that language is completely arbitrary becomes quite clear. Modern cultural theorist Jacques Lacan bases many of his theories upon this assumption. Madan Sarup, analyst of Lacanian theory, writes, “this arbitrariness entails that there can be no natural, automatic or self-evident transition from signifier to signified, from language to meaning, or from human behavior to its psychological significance” (48). Exemplification of the arbitrary nature of language can be found in the language sample of a patient suffering from Wernicke’s aphasia. Although the patient speaks fluently, the sample offers no meaning: “I called my mother on the television and did not understand the door. It was not for breakfast but she came from far. My romer is tomorrow morning” (Gazzaniga 387). Lacan questions how the reality of the human experience can be determined since the human race itself revolves around this arbitrary system. How can truth be established amidst this arbitrariness?

The modern television series The X-Files often explores these complex theoretical issues. One of the show’s main slogans is “The truth is out there.” This subject of truth is thoroughly explored in the episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space,” where author Jose Chung struggles to determine the “truth” of what actually occurred during a supposed alien abduction. Through multiple interviews, Chung begins to piece together the framework of a plausible explanation for that night’s traumatic events for his novel The Truth about Aliens [it's actually a non-fiction science fiction]. However, as the episode progresses, both the audience and Chung begin to realize that there is no absolute truth. Rather, the multiple narratives create distortions and discrepancies in the story, and finally indicate the impossibility of truthful description of the night’s events. Using Lacanian analyses, it can be observed why language inhibits the discovery of the truth in this X-Files episode.

The underlying method Chung utilizes to explore the so-called “alien abduction” is the interview, or, in other words, the personal narrative. His sole method of determining the truth is through the arbitrary function of language. Chung quickly realizes language’s inadequacy and complains to agent Dana Scully of his inability to reveal the truth: “I’ve spent three months in Klass County, and everyone there has a different version of what ‘truly’ happened. Truth is as subjective as reality.” Through this statement, Chung voices Lacan’s assumption that both reality and truth are illusions in man’s linguistic world. Lacan proposes a number of theories as to why language inhibits truth. His primary belief is that language is completely metaphorical since objects and ideas are signified by words, or an analogical structure. Since a metaphor contains an implied connotation, an infinite amount of meanings can potentially be derived by the receiver. As Lacan points out, “Behind what discourse says, there is what it means (wants to say), and behind what it wants to say there is another meaning and this process will never be exhausted” (Sarup 52).

The discourse in the different narratives of Chung’s interviewees illustrates Lacan’s point exactly. At one critical point in the episode, a frame narrative is created, where multiple narratives are being told at one time. Chung is interviewing Scully, who is recounting Mulder’s oral reading of interviewee Roky’s screenplay, which recounts his own narrative of the abduction. Language is layered upon language, which reveals why both the audience and characters within the episode find themselves confused about the reality of the narrative. Truth, in essence, has been lost.

Another dimension of language can be explored through the examination of the hypnosis session of victim Chrissy Giorgio. Lacan argues that because language has become so engrained into human existence, the species has fallen into the “Symbolic Order,” or the condition of losing touch with what Lacan terms as [delete "as"] the “Real.” The “Real” can be described as those conditions whose meanings fall beyond the boundaries of language, such as death. Hypnosis, since it relies primarily upon language, is just one example of this loss of connection with the “Real.” Both the hypnotic procedure and hypnotic dialogue itself are reliant upon language. Chung recognizes this dependence as he tells Scully, “As a storyteller, I am fascinated how a person’s sense of consciousness can be so transformed by nothing more magical than listening to words, mere words.” Chrissy’s account of the traumatic events varies from her first hypnotic session to the second, demonstrating that through the use of language, even unconscious thoughts can be retold inaccurately since they are in the form of a narrative. Lacan suggests that “hypnotic rememoration is doubtless a reproduction of the past, but it is above all a spoken representation – and as such implies all sorts of presences” (Lacan 17). So once again, the truth of the night’s events is evaded because of the inaccurate verbal recount [recounting] of those events during a hypnotic session.

The infrastructure of the episode’s dialogue itself reveals other aspects which indicate the arbitrary nature of language. The first example is the repetition of key phrases such as “You’re a dead man”, “How the hell should I know”, and “This is not happening.” All three of these phrases were spoken repetitively, each time by a different character in a different narrative. These repetitions demonstrate several aspects about language. Jean-Paul Sartre discusses one aspect in his autobiography The Words: “You borrow whole sentences from grown-ups, you string them together and repeat them without understanding them. In short, I pronounce true oracles, and each adult interprets them as he wishes” (31). As Sartre suggests, the characters understand little about what they are actually saying; rather, they are repeating key phrases in an exemplification of the human tendency to use the same trite phrases, without considering their meanings. This tendency further reflects Lacan’s notion of human inability to grasp the “Real.” A more concrete example of a trite phrase occurs when witness Blaine Faulkner narrates how he was hoping to “stumble across” an alien and then physically stumbles and falls. As Sarup points out, “Anonymous clichés and catchwords prevent us from using language thoughtfully, and by skimming over the surface of things we contrive to suppress the fundamental question of our rootedness in Being” – and, in essence, connection with the “Real.”

The dialogue also contains two examples which directly point to the complete arbitrariness of language. First, Chung asks Scully whether she prefers the term ‘abductee’ or ‘experiencer’, when referring to one abducted by aliens. His question demonstrates how humanity becomes lost in the Symbolic Order of language. Both words entail the same meaning, but Scully and Chung differ in their word preference, hinting that they have become entangled in the meaningless threads of the Symbolic Order. A second example occurs when Scully is narrating the words of a fellow agent, but uses the words “bleep” and “bleeping” instead of what Chung terms as “colorful phraseology” (profanity). She uses a different combination of phonetic sounds, but the audience knows perfectly well exactly what the actual words should be. This example pokes fun at the fact that humanity has designated certain combinations of phonemes as profane, even if the implementation of a different set of phonemes can portray the same meaning to the receiver. This occurrence directly points to the completely arbitrary nature of language.

The final Lacanian principle exhibited in this episode of the X-Files is the relation between images and words, or the signifier and signified. Different scenes within the episode portray how humanity has formed a false sense of reality by struggling to define perception through language. All input from the senses becomes defined through the Symbolic Order, to the extent that one begins to questions [question] reality itself. The man in black directly addresses this notion as he says, “Your scientists have yet to discover how neural networks create self-consciousness, let alone how the human brain processes two-dimensional retinal images into [the] 3-D phenomenon known as perception. Yet you somehow declare that seeing is believing.” Because human perception has become defined by the Symbolic Order, the “Real” has become completely out of reach of the human grasp, and any hope of discovering “truth” is lost. As Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, another Lacanian analyst, suggests, “Truth is opposed to reality insofar as it arises only in the discourse through which the subject speaks himself by negating or ‘nihilating’ the ‘Real’” (107).

Another scene which illustrates this lost sense of reality is during Mulder’s interrogation of Air Force Lieutenant Jack Sheaffer. Sheaffer admits his fear of this lost connection to Mulder: “I can’t be sure of anything anymore. I’m not sure we’re even having this conversation. I don’t know if these mashed potatoes are really here. I don’t know if you even exist.” Sheaffer’s point illustrates the manner in which the Symbolic Order defines our perception of reality. The brain immediately identifies visual images through the system of language. Yet as Lacan suggests, the link between the word and this image is arbitrary, revealing why Sheaffer begins to question the reality of the potatoes themselves. He even goes as far as to question the existence of himself and Mulder. These scenes further indicate the hopelessness of trying to establish any sense of truth or reality, since the Symbolic Order is so deeply embedded in human experience.

The X-Files episode “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” thoroughly explores the Lacanian theories of how the Symbolic Order and language have contrived a false sense of reality and self-identification in the human experience. Although the agents and Chung struggle throughout the entire episode to discover the truth of the alien abduction, the primary use of language prohibits the finding of this truth. In fact, the domains of both truth and reality have been broken down by the conclusion of the episode, in a demonstration of how language can only distort the truth. “I always speak the truth; not the whole truth, because there’s no way to say it all,” Lacan confesses. “Saying all the truth is literally impossible: words fail” (Leupin i). The episode also reflects the broader theme that the entire human experience is perhaps a false reality. Humans define themselves and their world through linguistic thought process and communication with others, both of which fall within the Symbolic Order, which ultimately prevents connection with the “Real.” Chung’s final statement “In our own separate ways on this planet, we are all alone,” reflects the Lacanian theory that human communication through [the] arbitrary function of language has failed and only prevents mankind from any hopes of discovering truth and a connection with the “Real”.

Sources Cited

Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel. Lacan: The Absolute Master. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Gazzaniga, M., Ivry, R., Mangun, G. Cognitive Neuroscience: the Biology of the Mind. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002.

Lacan, Jacques. The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968.

Leupin, Alexandre. Lacan & the Human Sciences. United States: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Words. New York: Random House, Inc., 1964.

Sarup, Madan. Jacques Lacan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press Inc., 1992.


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