“Cohesion” by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming


This was the speech I gave
at the inauguration ceremony of
on 19 February 2014. 

Thank you for allowing me to speak to you today. It is a great honour indeed. I am glad to see that so many of you managed to come tonight and gather together as one group. This is a very fitting metaphor for the theme of tonight’s ceremony, “Cohesion”.

As most of you here are English students, I thought one way to think about cohesion would be in the form of language. In Linguistics, cohesion, which is related to the broader concept of coherence, is the grammatical and lexical linking within a sentence or text that holds it together and gives it meaning so that the text is not merely an arbitrary collection of sentences.

One of the most common, and basic, ways to give cohesion to a sentence or a text is the use of conjunctions. For example, in the sentence ‘Peter went to the talk and so did I’, the coordinating conjunction and connects the two parts of the sentence and brings the two individuals together in time and space.

I think and is a good word to keep in mind when thinking about cohesion among members of the English society and other groups within the university. By always thinking about and as opposed to not or but, you will find your university experience more inclusive and bigger, as opposed to smaller and more restricted. Always expanding your horizons and looking for connections between you and your classmates and among other departments will also give your university experience more meaning.

However, there is another characteristic of and that I think you should also keep in mind. And implies unity on the one hand, but it still signifies separate identities on the other. The goal of cohesion among groups and people should be to create connections and interactions but never to subsume our individuality into a larger group.

Indeed, perfect cohesion among people is impossible – our individual personalities, which we should value and cultivate, will never allow us to fully know, understand or get along with others.

We can think about the impossibility of cohesion through Zeno’s Achilles Paradox. Zeno was a Greek philosopher who lived in the fifth century BCE. This is what he said about the Achilles Paradox:

Achilles cannot overtake a fleeing tortoise because in the interval of time that he takes to get where the tortoise was, it can move away. But even if [the tortoise] should wait for him, Achilles must first reach the halfway mark between them and he cannot do this unless he first reaches the halfway mark to that mark, and so on indefinitely. Against such an infinite conceptual regression, he cannot even make a start, and so motion is impossible. (Zeno, qtd. in Zippin 1962, p. 10).

Another way to explain this paradox is to say that I can never fully cover the distance between myself and another person. This distance can be physical, cultural, or intellectual. Because when I have gone halfway, there is still a quarter of the distance to go, and then there is still an eighth of the distance, and then there is still a sixteenth and so on and so on.

The impossibility of perfect cohesion among individuals thus may seem disillusioning, an infinite series of ands… a never completed journey of half-steps and deferments. I think, however, that we should not despair at this seemingly gloomy view of the impossibility of cohesion but instead be invigorated by it. We may never achieve full cohesion with others. The task may never be complete, but the rewards lie not in the completion, but in the doing and the striving. As Anne Carson writes in Eros the Bittersweet, ‘To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope’. Our individuality may never allow us to become completely unified with another person or group, and that is a good thing… through our half-steps, we can still meet new people and learn new things, influence each other for the better and find new ways of thinking.

I would like to end this little speech with something I recently read. James Wood, the literary critic, remembers his choral lessons that he took when he was young. He writes:

[W]e were up on our feet, and were singing ‘O Nata Lux’ by Thomas Tallis. I knew the piece but hadn’t really listened to it. Now I was struck – assaulted, thrown – by its utter beauty […] the sweet dissonance. […] That dissonance, with its distinctive Tudor sound, is partly produced by a movement known as ‘false relation’, in which the note you expect to hear in harmony of a chord is shadowed by its nearest relation – the same note but a semitone off.

The ‘sweet dissonance’ that James Wood speaks of plays with one’s expectation; we expect that the beauty of a piece of music comes from its unity, harmony, and its ability to meet those expectations, especially since the comfort in knowing what to expect is universal. But for Wood, it is the dissonant, the unexpected note that elevates and completes the piece and makes it ‘utter[ly] beaut[iful]’. This, I think, is also a powerful metaphor for the role of the individual within a group. It is often the person that brings an unexpected idea or a new perspective to a group that provides the most important contribution, that brings a group together and allows it to work at its most effective and creative. It is the person who knows when to say and what about this, not just I agree, who provides surprise and true coherence.

Not all of us can be that provocative, ‘same note but a semitone off’ all the time, but it is good to be the person who is responsible for producing ‘sweet dissonance’ every now and then. When thinking about cohesion, then, don’t think you should always conform, but instead imagine the possibilities of being different. And remember, being different need not undermine the whole.


hlmTammy Ho Lai-Ming is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. She is the editor of Agora. [Click here to read all entries by or about Tammy.]

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