Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Boy and the Whale: At the Edge of Hermeneutics

What does this mean?

Below is a picture of a young boy urinating. From his urine a cartoon whale is keeping an old man aloft on its spout. This much I know for sure. It's just everything else confuses me.
This was one of the first strange, photo-worthy things I discovered when I moved to Korea but trust me, there have been a lot. Every time you walk into a supermarket the shelves are full of amusing interpretations and translations of the English we take for granted. Those pictures you see online of ridiculous Asian signs? I see them every day and after awhile the joke loses a lot of novelty. It's entertaining to read the English slogans on the side of products, but so does marketing hype and business jargon when viewed with the right level of irony. What really makes you laugh is always the same stuff – unintended, overlooked, fortuitous or coincidental sexual innuendo. Also cocks. Cocks are HILARIOUS.
But there is no misinterpreted English in this poster – furthermore, as a Westerner searching for contextual meaning we are taunted by the slipperiness of its signified. Without decipherable text, what does this picture mean? What possible message is being conveyed? This poster is an example of how language fails us. Of how utterly strange and different the world is. Here is a picture that defies my Western expectations of – everything. Of propriety, visual logic, interpretation, of universality. What is this a poster of? What the hell is going on here?

No really. What does this mean?

But we're educated, well-to-do English speakers right? We're intelligent, forward-thinking, culturally-sensitive, open-minded meatbags – we should be able to figure this out. We should be able to unpack what this means.
1.The boy is urinating.
This is unassailable. The boy's pants have slipped below his buttocks, his underpants are clearly down as well, his hands are holding something in front of his genitals that must be his genitals. This is not some kind of gushing blue energy shooting from the boy.
But is he urinating normally? Is this intended to visually represent a normal urinary experience? Does this boy's experience with his phallus fall into the normative category?
2.The boy is not unhappy.
There is an overall cheekiness to the boy's disposition – this supports the urine theory by showing a kind of bashful glee to his public display of his privates. If this is a poster about some sort of public health concern, or has a negative message one would assume the boy would seem ashamed to be caught in this licentious act of micturation. IF he had HAD urinary tract problems and they were now GONE perhaps the the rest of the picture represents his new-found health? (The blueness of the urine withstanding)
3.The whale is born aloft on the boy's urine and also happy.
So if the whale is happy (not bashful like the boy but simply glad) what is his connection to the picture? Did the boy produce the whale or was the whale present before the boy came along? Has the whale been inside this boy, or did the boy espy him from afar and deliberately (wilfully!) pee onto it? Does the boy even know it is there? (One might imagine the boy turning back to his stream with a slow confused horror, an O forming on his trembling lips.) Does the whale signify health? Exuberance? Is there a Korean expression whose translation is roughly 'spout like a whale' that portends to male fertility? Look into this whale's eyes. What you read there is what is writ large on the black walls of your soul.

4.The old man is born aloft on the whale's spout and is unhappy.
Unhappy is putting it mildly. He seems genuinely afraid for his well-being. He is balding (not bald), overweight (a drunk?) and wearing a Sunday cardigan and beige loafers (probably going out). To all intensive purposes, a normal old man. But he finds himself on a whale's spout. A whale born aloft by a young boy urinating. The question would then seem to be – who are these miscreants to assault this old man? Is the old man the bad guy? Has he done something wrong? If so we can rule out the theory of some kind of urinary disease – I simply refuse to believe there is any possible signifier connecting the health of one's plumbing to a ruddy faced old man. No culture yet has been so naively depraved. It is about here where the poster begins to fall apart for me. A boy pees and a whale comes out, sure. A whale sprays an angry old man with his spout, why not? But a whale comes out of a boy who in turn sprays an angry old man with his spout, I'm completely lost.
5.The stare of the boy and of the whale are towards the audience, the old man's is toward the ground.
If one follows the old man's eyes he seems to be turned towards the earth, flailing for purchase in the air itself. The boy and the whale see you. They have their eyes turned, looking to see if you can see. If you are watching. And they are pleased to see you, pleased by the old man's fear.

More evidence of a senseless universe

In all aspects of human endeavour it is true that the further you delve, the deeper the mysteries go. This is not idle metaphysics, it is verifiable fact and pragmatic generalisation – nothing is completely known and therefore the more you know the closer you get to where the mysteries begin. But the mystery extends as far back as you have travelled, extending towards your origin. The damn thing reaches for you – that is the creepy part.
On the poster, below the phone numbers and the logo are pictures of two children. The quality of the photos and the nature of the shots seem amateurish (familiar) and completely out of place on an advertisement in a train station. Next to these photos are details which I'm assuming are names (the letters in bold) and dates of birth below. There is something ominous about these details too – why include them on a poster at all if they are not warnings? True life testimonials of the damage urea-whales can cause in young children, or the health problem the urea-whales represent?

Conclusion: Wherein the problem is depicted as systematic

The answer to this whole problem is obvious – translate the sign. But the visual signifiers of this sign are completely indecipherable when seen without their textual referent. Unusual? Not really. You ever have that experience where you're watching ads at a bar and they seem senseless without the sound? That what you are seeing is so much broken fury, a cavalcade of colours and shapes? I guess this is similar to the experience of living in a country where you do not have access to every written sign. Where the information that flashes on the subway remains a cluster of sound you must laboriously puzzle together. It makes the act of interpreting completely absurd.
I'm a regular visitor to the ICanHazCheezburger Network because I have a lot of free time at work. I had a very odd experience recently when I saw a posted photo of a sign that I see every day in my elevator. The post was on 'Engrish', a page which I don't regularly go to (as I've said before, the joke gets old) but the strangeness came from recognising the photo on the site but realising the text beneath the picture was in Chinese. Meaning this picture that I had found vaguely amusing in my own building was being seen and commonly misinterpreted by other English speakers in other countries. That it was just another sign, commonly understood by native speakers. It turned my confusion into a common language of confusion. A re-contextualising of something not fully understood in the first place. Would this photo be strange if the text were in English?
To conclude this article is a picture of something I would consider sending to 'Engrish' if I was one of those degenerates that posted on that site. I hope it stands as further proof of the uniqueness of the sign above – that despite all this talk of complete incomprehension there are still simple misunderstandings. It happens in speech and text all the time. But to see the language hanging bare, to be unable to read something despite it being completely in the public eye? It is the strangest thing I know – or more rightly, the strangest thing that I cannot know.


East is a cool wind which sometimes blows before a storm breaks.

No comments:

Post a Comment