an eye shadow named “mildew” (abstract vs concrete language)

For a while I’ve been curious as to how metaphors, similes, sense-oriented details — anything that gives the mind something “concrete” to grasp — work on the reader’s mind. It’s probably just something to do with the fact that we are embodied creatures, and since our physical life gives us, obviously, our most vivid experiences, our minds only want more of the same when reading.

But abstract concepts can be pretty thrilling too, I think. Even when I read about an abstract concept in abstract terms, if it is well described, the idea can affect me just as much as any concrete experience or just as much as an abstract concept expressed in the best Shakespearean-quality sentences.

So what exactly is going on here? I guess the bottom line is I’m interested in the relationship between the abstract and the concrete in the human consciousness. Good luck with that, right?

Well, not that this example (below) helps much but it is pretty interesting. It’s from a blurb I found in Psychology Today (“Name Games: The Dirt on Selling Beauty,” December 2006, p. 22). It gives an example of how using an strong antonym to describe something can actually draw attention to the positive quality of the thing, e.g., “mildew” as the name of an eye shadow color. It goes on to say that “Studies suggest that consumers may be sold on ‘ugly beauty’ because the more time they spend reconciling the inconsistency — a pretty product with a nasty name — the more likely they are to remember and purchase the goods.”

Now, is it just a matter of shock-value? of drawing attention to something? Probably… somewhat, at least. But it probably also just the same old phenomenon: vivid specifics grab the mind’s attention. It’s just that in this case it’s a surprisingly-vivid description, so the word or phrase gets the benefit of both the vividness and the surprise to do its magic.

In one way this whole question of mine is answered simply and obviously: we like vividness because it’s vivid! I know, I know. But I’m still curious. WHY DO abstract concepts / experiences / emotions (how much you love the Rocky Mountains, how a swim in the pool felt after you broke up with your girlfriend, the nature of the divine, or whatever…) get into the reader’s brain easier when we use vivid concrete language? Why doesn’t our brain respond as well to really really really well written abstract prose??

Or, am I just spinning around in my own too-abstract thinking!?


3 thoughts on “an eye shadow named “mildew” (abstract vs concrete language)

  1. Everything that prompts us to learn, communication, observation… It is all but due to the enchantment we feel. It is purely emotional. If we are thus enchanted, we construct these things ad hoc in our own minds. Your whole universe is only in your mind, as mine is only in my mind, and if we can by our communication and observation find a correlation in our separate understandings, it is only due to the enchantment we feel and let run wild in our minds.

    I hope I made sense, but I know, I really should be hoping you were enchanted enough by the symbols on the page, as they made up words, sentences and a single paragraph, that you found something there as your eyes glanced them over all the while thinking your own thoughts, that you found enough enchantment to make a mental construct you found enchanting enough to continue to let your thoughts flow in positive interest, instead of saying to yourself, Who is this creep and what is he yammering on about?

    And, even then there is a chance at communication and observation, if I have communicated or you have observed something I never intended.

    It is still only in your mind.

    You might respond, You’re a jerk. I would hear that, or read it, but, it would not have the meaning you intend. It would say something to me about your attitude, a willingness to exchange, duel, which were I enchanted by it, in a belligerent mood, I might rise to the occasion and we might let our minds run wild with belligerence, attempts at communications, oberservations and learning just how to derive some enchanting satisfaction from what is already in our own minds, but which we might believe needs refinement or expansion, because, again we are enchanted by the process.

    But life is short, as well as it is abstract, so I’ll leave you to decide if you are offended, enchanted or simply too busy to allow any attempt at what we think is communication, observation, or learning, all the while knowing it is again, just in our minds.

    I get all kinds of reactions. Life is good. Children are wonderful, and we are all children running around in this garden.

    If you watch children communicate and observe, you will learn a great deal about how we all communicate and observe, as well as what might be abstract about the concrete we assume to be less abstract.

    Life is good, and children are wonderful. Death will be good too, if children are still wonderful. It’s all so abstract, and yet so concrete too.

    Don Robertson, The American Philosopher
    Limestone, Maine

    An Illustrated Philosophy Primer for Young Readers

  2. Thanks for your response, Don. Wow, I like the emphasis on enchantment as what makes words/ideas either click in our consciousness or not. I guess you being a writer for children would know that particularly well!

    So, hmmm, maybe the reason abstract writing “gets to” me, even when it is not particularly vivid, is because I’m so enchanted with so many abstract concepts (God, goodness, peace, infinity, etc). I don’t NEED vivid writing, because those abstract concepts are already vivid to me, because I’m enchanted with them. Ooooh, that’s fascinating and makes a lot of sense to me, so thanks.

    I’m also curious about you said about observing children to see “what might be abstract about the concrete we assume to be less abstract.” That’s very interesting, too. I guess I’ll have to watch my friends’ kids to observe what you mean.

    Anyway, thanks again for your thoughtful response.

  3. It occured to me that concrete vivid writing works better for us simply because we are embodied, physical, sensuous beings. We are not spirits. Maybe the fact that abstract ideas are better discussed and understood and experienced through concrete language is actually is SIGN of the fact that our essence is both abstract and concrete, and that an disembodied human soul is not fully human, that we are in essence both spiritual and physical. HMMM, and maybe we love the combination of abstract idea and concrete experience BECAUSE it reflects who we are: we are both abstract (spiritual, mental) and concrete (physical).

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