TOK Interlude

Beetles in a Box

“Language is a wild thing. It is vague and anarchic. Style, meaning, and usage are continually on the move. Throughout history, for every mutation, idiosyncrasy, and ubiquitous mistake, there have been countervailing rules, pronouncements and systems making some attempt to bring language to heel.”

Lane Green, Talk on the Wild Side, 2018
If you’re wondering what ‘beetles in a box’ has to do with anything, watch this mind-bending explainer produced by Crash Course and discover how even simple words like ‘game’ are almost impossible to define – and why that doesn’t matter!

Are words simply tools that we use to communicate meaning, or do the words contain meaning themselves? We have a book dedicated to the meaning of words – the dictionary.  It outlines in unambiguous terms the meaning of each word. But what happens when a word changes its meaning? This happens more often than you might think as time passes and words migrate to new settings: ‘cool’, ‘mouse’ and ‘nice’ are all words which mean very different things now than they did one hundred years ago. So, if meaning is not securely ‘fixed’ to the words themselves, where does the meaning of words reside?

If you’ve watched the explainer above, you’ll have met the phrase ‘beetles in a box’. Wittgenstein’ s analogy points out our difficulties when sharing private experiences with others. For one thing, what do we actually mean by ‘regret’ or ‘anticipation’ or ‘hurt’? My ‘own’ words that label my personal mental and emotional states may not equal your experiences of ‘regret’, ‘anticipation’ or ‘hurt’. In other words, our own private language, like a beetle in a box, remains a mystery to everyone else.

Reading a small selection of these articles will help you understand this idea more clearly; begin with The Meaning of Words Should be Fixed and go from there:

Class Activity

Create a mind-map (or other kind of visual explainer) of the issues presented in this section of your course. Include as many of the esoteric ideas about words and meaning as you can. Present your ideas by teaching these concepts to a classmate or a small group of students from another class using your visual aid.

Learner Portfolio

Now you’ve read, watched and discussed – try writing your own answer to the question: where does the meaning of words reside? You could follow this suggested structure if you like:

  1. Introduce by explaining Wittgenstein’s ‘beetles in a box’ theory;
  2. Present your thoughts as to whether ‘meaning’ lies in the head of the language producer, the language receiver, or somewhere else.
  3. Present your thoughts as to whether a word can have a fixed meaning (such as that recorded in a dictionary) or whether ‘meaning’ lies somewhere else. What external factors can influence the ‘meaning’ of a word?

Body of Work: HSBC Advertising Campaigns

This series of HSBC video averts are collectively known as the ‘Local Knowledge’ campaign.

Cultures are increasingly mingling with each other, swapping ideas, concepts, words and mixing cultural practices such as cuisine, fashion – and even language. For a case study in the impact of globalisation on culture, you need look no further than this famous series of adverts produced by HSBC (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation). Indeed, if you are a frequent flyer, you may even have seen these adverts lining the gangways of airplane boarding gates. As a global brand in an increasingly intertwined world, HSBC want to make a point about how they understand and respect different cultures, and these adverts are the result of this thinking.

In a famous campaign called ‘Different Points of View‘, created by JWT for HSBC in 2008, gangways of boarding lanes at airports around the world (perhaps because passengers are a captive audience?) were lined with images and words in various patterns. Included in this collection are three variations: three different images and one word; or three different words and same image;  a third version shows two images and two keywords, each with opposite meanings. Through these juxtapositions, HSBC implies that it understands different markets, and customers can trust the bank to take this into account when operating in different cultural contexts. In combination with the video adverts above, and others you might like to research (such as ‘Together We Thrive’ or ‘Local Knowledge’) these adverts constitute a Body of Work.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

“Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions, and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Selected HSBC adverts from many different campaigns could be used in this assessed activity. The named author would be ‘HSBC’ or the ad agency commissioned to produce a specific campaign. HSBC ads could be used to conduct an investigation in the Field of Inquiry of Culture, Identity and Community, and a pertinent Global Issue might be ‘globalisation’. As countries and cultures draw closer together and become more intertwined, it becomes increasingly important to understand and respect the way other people view the world. HSBC adverts certainly deliver a pro-globalisation message; but in these terms, are the adverts a genuine attempt to surmount cultural barriers, or do you see them as a cynical exercise in marketing?

You could pair these adverts with any literary work that explores issues connected to globalisation, such as cross-cultural exchange, culture-clash, misunderstandings, alternate perspectives on an issue, similar or different values, and so on. Speak to your teacher about your ideas, or consult the list below for a starting point:

  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – partway through Kadare’s story, two outsiders visit the Albanian High Plateau. Educated and modern, Diana is appalled at the medieval traditions and beliefs practiced in this remote part of the world. An extract featuring Diana’s reaction to the Kanun would make a perfect counterpoint to this body of work.
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – set in the years after the industrial revolution has made the world smaller, Shaw’s play features all kinds of misunderstandings and conflicts caused by a rapidly changing society. Look closely at Pickering’s values and beliefs: he may have travelled to India, but does he really represent a globalised man of the world?
  • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare – half of the action of this play takes place in the rarefied and exclusive world of Belmont, a place out of fairy tale and seemingly trapped in time. The other half takes place on the Venetian rialto, a public place buzzing with vendors from all corners of the world. Closely examine the attitudes of various people who inhabit these places to discover various ideas about globalisation and cross-cultural exchange.
  • The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy – this poetry collection crosses oceans and continents – and even spans centuries of time – to reveal how our interconnected world is controlled by those in power who happen to be (mostly) men. This pairing may be a little more difficult, but a careful selection of points from different poems could make it work.
  • Border Town by Shen Congwen – in the opening few chapters of this novel, Congwen describes an idyllic rural paradise. The largest town in the area is Chadong, nestled at the foot of the mountains. But even in this remote place, life is not immune to the forces of globalism. For example, American Oil is for sale, and the river is an important trading conduit.
  • The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami – a persistent theme in this story collection is the failing of modern society to meet people’s spiritual and emotional needs. To what extent does Murakami imply that globalism is one of the causes of this malaise?

Towards Assessment: HL Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 Marks).

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions, and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

These HSBC adverts would make a good case study for an extended written task. Beginning in 2002 when HSBC positioned itself as the World’s Local Bank, the (mostly) successful campaigns have evolved and developed over the years, and even changed direction entirely when the social and business landscape changed. Therefore, these campaigns demonstrate how a text changes in response to social and economic developments. For example, the ‘local bank’ strategy was abandoned after the financial crash of 2011.

You might therefore like to investigate how HSBC developed and changed its advertising over time. Your essay would include a range of campaigns, with a focus on exemplar adverts. You should make sure to include analysis of both visual and written elements in your work. There is a wealth of material for you to research, including the recent ‘Thrive Together’ campaign reaction, which was not received as uniformly positively as you might have expected given the success of previous campaigns. Alternatively, you might have found some of the images used in various HSBC adverts, while promoting an inclusive or global message, actually fall back on stereotypes. This might be a productive angle for you to investigate.

Questions you might ask therefore include, but are not limited to:

  • Explore the ways in which the values presented in HSBC advertising campaigns have developed over time.
  • Evaluate the methods used by HSBC advertising campaigns to engage with an international audience.
  • To what extent does an analysis of HSBC’s advertising reveal the presentation of cultural or national stereotypes?
  • Explore the use of symbolism in adverts by HSBC.
  • In what ways does HSBC address the idea of ‘other’ in its advertising campaigns?
  • To what extent is language the crucial element of HSBC’s famous gangway advertising campaigns?

Categories:TOK Interlude

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