I would like to say that midway through the article you're about to read, I realized that it was falling apart on me.
Unfortunately, that moment of realization actually came as I stared at the blank page in front of me. The blinking cursor had become a symbol whose meaning was all too clear: I couldn't find the words to express what I wanted to say.
All of which is fitting. You see, this is an article about the Tower of Babel.
Well, that's not quite true. Really, this is an article about some of the major structural problems with TV Tropes, the repository of narrative terminology. But we're going to get there by way of Babel, because, well, why walk in a straight line when you can wander all over the map?
I'm bringing up Babel because of a very specific bit of cultural history illuminated by Umberto Eco. Basically, in Judeo-Christian mythology, humankind originally spoke the same tongue--the language of Eden, a perfect language with perfect correspondences between object and word. From a semiotic perspective, we would say that the Signifier (the word uttered or written) has a perfect relationship to the Signified (what that utterance represents)--it is not arbitrary or subject to ambiguity like normal language.
Now, humans, as they do, decided they wanted to reach the Heavens and become gods themselves. To do so, they came from all around the world to construct a massive tower--the Tower of Babel.
If you're familiar at all with the Abrahamaic God you can probably see where this is going.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the old sourpuss in the sky decided that he didn't particularly appreciate the humans building their Sumerian Space Elevator and, like a kindergartener affronted by another child's sandcastle, kicked that shit over. But, more importantly, God realized that if humans were able to communicate perfectly, they could basically do whatever the hell they wanted to. (This is another of those places where the Gnostic idea of a God bent on keeping humans from achieving their true potential starts to make a whole lot more sense, incidentally). So, he used his confuse ray and the humans forgot how to talk to one another. The languages split apart into countless fragmentary tongues, now arbitrary in nature, and the tower was abandoned.
Now, fast forward to the Renaissance and the dawn of the Age of Reason. This idea of Babel is still firmly in the minds of the great thinkers of this period. After all, it is a time of many language-based upheavals: there is the invention of new mathematical languages for interpreting the universe, there is the unification of formerly scattered towns under the banner of single nations, there is a growing interest in dead languages, and so on. All of this occurred (although not necessarily in that order) within a few centuries.
In the midst of this upheaval, scholars hit on an intriguing possibility:
What if they could reclaim the language of Eden, the perfect language before Babel?
What if our discourse was so perfect that we could determine Truth simply by laying out language like a calculation, and leave the table convinced of the divine perfection of our conclusions?
What if we could revolutionize language, clean it up, perfect it, make it better?
Why, is there anything we could not achieve?
This quest is, of course, impossible. We know now that language is a construct, and words have meaning that derives arbitrarily from their context within a system of utterances. And, what's more, there are some really problematic concepts inherent in this quest, but we'll get to that a bit later.
The important idea here is that TV Tropes, like its ancestor Wikipedia, and arguably all encyclopedias and dictionaries, is an iteration of this attempt to reclaim the Edenic language--to get back to before Babel.
Think about it. You've got a project that is trying to be the full, encyclopedic, comprehensive list of all tropes in fiction. It is attempting to set down in print a perfect set of categories that can, when assembled properly, can construct any and all fiction. This is no different, fundamentally, from Leibniz's dream of a language that would operate like mathematics, a language that could be used to calculate Truth itself. And, like Leibniz's dream, it's a utopian fantasy, to be sure, but Leibniz ended up inventing Formal Logic, and TV Tropes has similarly helped to spread and popularize a whole bunch of important terms.
But, any quest like this has the possibility of going horribly, horribly wrong. There is, after all, one other cautionary tale of top-down Perfect Language creation... but again, let's let that rest for the moment. First, I want to start talking about where TV Tropes is starting to run off the rails. In particular, I want to talk about the recent scandal where every trope that included the word "rape" in the name was removed from the site.
It was pretty bad.
After all, language helps to enable thought, right? This is actually something we can demonstrate with psychological science: things like whether or not a civilization has access to number words drastically and dramatically alter whether they can perform tasks of spacial rearrangement that we would find simple, for example. I ran into this problem when I was working with my collaborator Ian McDevitt on a large analysis of Hypercomics--we had to invent a whole series of terms before we could effectively discuss the techniques we were analyzing. Oh, and the difference between "mankind" and "humankind?" Yeah, that's another good example of this sort of thing--it's easier to think of men as the default and women as the deviation in part because the continued use, in English, of male-specific words to represent all of humanity.
So, when we remove all the terms dealing with rape from one of the most important cultural repositories on the web, we are essentially hamstringing our ability to discuss the issue of rape. In a culture of silence and victim-shaming, that is catastrophic.
Now, all of this came about because Google suddenly pulled their ads--which TV Tropes depends upon for survival--from the whole site due to complaints about the rape tropes. So, to some extent, this isn't the fault of TV Tropes, per se--but it is evidence of a fault running through the site's structure.
Still, I think a lot of commentary on this, while good, (there's been plenty of criticism of the totally botched handling of the whole crisis by TV Tropes--you can see some of the boneheaded decisions in the article linked to above, and I don't feel like digging into those issues too deeply here) has missed what I think is that deeper faultline I mentioned, a fault running through the endeavors of what promises to be the most important source of media discourse in the beginning of our century.
Let's dig into some of the executive decisions over there and what their implications are, shall we?
TV Tropes Is A Perfect Language Model
I've already described why this is true--TV Tropes is attempting to put together a set of words that are more perfect in their descriptive power, and that are of an almost scientific value--they can be used to construct narratives as we use the symbols of chemistry to form compounds or the symbols of mathematics to form new theorems.
There are some problematic implications of this when taken to the extreme, however. After all, a perfect language has to be as close to exact as possible, right? Well, TV Tropes has, relatively recently, been embarking on a campaign of generalization and simplification. That's perfectly in keeping with the quest for a perfect language--it's actually probably inevitable. The problem with this is that each time the terminology is better changed to reflect a more perfect form--a task that, as I've already pointed out, is an ultimately hopeless quest--a greater level of confusion is introduced into the system. It's not that different from the French revolutionary calendar, which attempted to create a decimal system of minutes, hours, and weeks, or the unified Italian that originated with Dante and eventually became the common language of the nation. Both of these methods--one assuredly more successful than the other--ultimately were not completely adopted by the common people. They represented an external order imposed upon the native tongues--the native system of symbols--and were thus never fully accepted as true language.
So, this is one of the more misguided aspects of TV Tropes. But it's not quite as problematic as some of the other decisions, on the face of it. Shall we explore further?
A Perfect Language Allows No Ambiguity
Is a trope subjective? Well, better put it in its own separate page on the site, because subjectivity spurs debate.
Is a particular instance of a trope or an example debatable? Well, now we've got an Analysis page for that, because we don't want "Natter" on the main page.
Ambiguity is Scary.
Now we're starting to get into the more problematic aspects of how TV Tropes is run. See, if TV Tropes is going to be a perfect language, it can't allow debate. Now, the moderators have largely claimed that they want a clean set of pages that don't include "natter"--i.e. endless back and forth debates about a particular entry. The result of this, though, is a quashing of discourse. For a site that claims to not be a "stuffy encyclopedic wiki" (remember when this actually just said "Wikipedia?") this is a surprising suppression of conversation.
This is where we start to see the contradictory nature of the quest for a perfect language. It is prompted, after all, by a desire for improved communication. But to establish its nature as a PERFECT language, it can't allow for the complex ambiguities of discourse that naturally arise from interpretation and the arbitrary nature of signs.
Wait, let me put it in a way that has less Theory.
TV Tropes wants to help us communicate, but ONLY ON ITS TERMS.
Now, if you're starting to get a vague sense of deja vu, I won't be surprised. If language controls thought, language can be actively used to control thought. But again, let's let this go for a moment and move on to the next stage in our analysis.
The Perfect Language Is Ideologically Compromised
And here we get into why the google ads scandal was not just possible, not just probable, but inevitable. See, the Perfect Language is a reflection of reality, right? But some aspects of reality have been deemed Unspeakable--explicit sex, nonconsentual sex, paedophilia, and so on. This is not just a problem with TV Tropes, of course--it is a simple result of Google's attempt to control language. And it is a decidedly Orwellian control.
Yes, this is what I've been driving at. We've made our way from the perfect language of Babel to the perfect language of INGSOC. We have catapulted through conceptual time from 2000 years after the creation of Adam to 1984.
If language is constricted according to what is "appropriate," it functions as a means of control. This is the purpose of the new language of Orwell's 1984: the goal is to simplify language so much that it becomes impossible to discuss potentially revolutionary ideas. Here, Google and TV Tropes have worked in concert, however accidentally, to achieve what even the Victorians (if you believe Foucault) weren't able to accomplish: they've answered the incitement to discourse about sexuality with a responding total ban. Wow. It's actually staggeringly ambitious, if sickening. It's its own sort of Tower of Babel--an impossible task of godlike control.
And it's not just because of Google's ad interventions, either:
The Perfect Language Is A Beautiful Language
The language of birds. The language of God. The language of Adam from before the Fall. The quest for the Perfect Language has always been one of beauty. And TV Tropes has followed suit by transforming itself from a site that once was capable of critically analyzing art, to one that now can only celebrate art.
TV Tropes has become the gaggle of seraphim that float around God's throne singing "Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!"
Except that they accept any throne as the throne of God. Because the perfect language is the language of the celebration of beauty.
Which of course all makes sense on a metaphorical level. I'm sure the surface level reasons simply involve the mods being unwilling to sort out criticism--which is interesting in and of itself, since you would think that a wiki would be self correcting. I would even suggest that this is evidence either of an unreasonable obsession with control, or evidence that the concept of the Wiki is inherently, irreparably flawed. I'll let you chew over that on your own, though.
What particularly grates about this state of being is the fact that this was NOT the way TV Tropes used to be. In fact, the front page originally read:
We are not Wikipedia. We're a buttload more informal. There Is No Such Thing As Notability, and no citations are needed. If your entry cannot gather any evidence by the Wiki Magic, it will just wither and die. Until then, though, it will be available through the Main Tropes Index. We encourage breezy language and original thought (and won't object to the occasional snarky comment, either).
By 2011, the front page sported this line:
"We are also not a wiki for bashing things. Once again, we're about celebrating fiction, not showing off how snide and sarcastic we can be."
The site has since done its damnedest to bury this snarky past. The Perfect Language cannot allow for the disputes that emerge from real critical thought.
Only Perfect Things Can Be Described By The Perfect Language
This is the culmination of all of the principles described above, and basically explains why TV Tropes is on a collision course with obsoletion.
See, if the Perfect Language is a language of Beauty, if it cannot allow ambiguity, if it allows for the existence only of that which is acceptable socially, the Perfect Language inevitably must purge itself of entries from the Devil's Dictionary:
Unlike Wikipedia, we have a policy of non-negativity and non-notability, which if left unchecked enables the writing of articles about obscure, offensive works, which gives them publicity. Since listing criticisms of the works we trope is both negative and off-mission, we are unable to present a truly neutral perspective on these works, which creates the impression that we endorse them. This is not a problem Wikipedia has to concern itself with.
That disgusting passage was from the announcement that the site would be purged of works that a specialized council of moderators decided was pornographic. Here we have, plain to see, the INGSOC project in its infancy. Look at the way this author describes things as being "off-mission," as though TV Tropes is a political party that must maintain a unified message so as to sway the voting public. Let me be frank. This makes me furious. This passage takes a bunch of premises that are already shot through with rot, accepts them as fundamental to the project, and then, rather than abandoning them when they cease to work, establishes further stillborn statutes in order to effect ever greater control!
TV Tropes is on the path toward an impoverishment rather than an enrichment of language, make no mistake. These incidents will continue, and perhaps even increase, and more and more of the site will inevitably be bowdlerized until what is deemed "fiction" is reduced to a highly problematic fraction of what that word can and should encompass. Hell, on a personal level, as someone that has already argued for the storytelling power of pornography, this is an affront to everything I believe.
And it is infuriating, above all, because it leads to the inevitable final death sentence of a conclusion:
The Perfect Language Is Perfectly Useless
I already touched on this a bit when I described how the project fundamentally contradicts itself in its aims, due to its attempts to both promote and stifle discourse simultaneously, but it's worth describing in greater detail. As long as TV Tropes continues to go down the path of censorship, restriction, removal of discussion, and suppression of ambiguity, it will continue to diminish its usefulness, because it will become increasingly archaic and artificial. It will support particular sociopolitical goals without being able to reflect upon its own intrinsic support.
It will become ossified, the lifegiving fertile mud transformed into a hard, unyielding brick, all in the service of a tower that elevates a select set of texts to the level of Godhood. No Such Thing As Notability, huh? I would say it is ironic, but irony is a concept that TV Tropes is doing its best to remove from its ranks.
Isn't it amazing how all the bricks fall into place?
I can see only one solution here to this ossification. The Tower has to fall. The Perfect Language has to be rescattered. here are, of course, multiple ways of going about such a confusing of tongues. There could be a radical change in the moderation of the site--this is, perhaps, the best method. But, if there isn't a change in how they run things, there has to be an alternative, a counter tongue that helps to confuse the discourse. A rival wiki? Perhaps. Perhaps simply the regular storming of the Tower of TV Tropes with the goal of changing and fucking with as much as possible is called for.
But as much as it pains me to say it, we can no longer rely on TV Tropes for our language.
Because (Beacuase?) this site, always unabashedly anti-academic to the point of being obnoxious about its window-smashing rebelliousness, has become another Ivory Tower, and if we aren't careful, our discourse is going to start to become as whited-out, as barren, as its snowy slopes--as blank as a page with a single cursor blinking within, no words available to articulate the author's designs.
I would like to thank Pinnacle Whipped Vodka for making this article possible. Heaven knows I wasn't getting through this without being a little bit buzzed. You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.