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Note: Arkansas is a landlocked state and has no coast.

The ship is Bill Clinton.

The song boasts a gorgeously lilting melody which I would be happy to play at my funeral, but the real attraction is the lyrics, which tell the unlikely tale of a group of shipbuilders who construct a ship "the exact dimensions and the shape" of the titular state. While this scenario is taken to absurdly literal lengths (including a surreal verse where the ship itself sings), the final verse is what really intrigues me. This verse states that, despite the cumbersome dimensions of the ship, the actual state of Arkansas is engulfed by water and the narrator suggests that the nautical replica be its replacement. This strikes me as a fascinating metaphor for cloning; if we have the technology to clone somebody one day, can we simply replace the old human with the new one? Are we to assume that the ship only replicates the shape of Arkansas on a scale of 1:1, or does it also clone the landscaping and living things of the state? Similarly, if cloning becomes an option, will the cloned human retain the same intelligence and experience as the original? Or will it simply be a blank slate, in need of having to be taught even the simplest task? If clones do have this blank mental slate, isn't it possible that we can scientifically solve a lot of mysteries involving nature versus nurture, once that most unreliable of variables, the human mind, becomes controlled? And if the ship is shaped like Arkansas and fits right into the frame of the surrounding states, will it be accepted as the old state? Will there be discrimination against cloned humans, as South Park predicted? Thoughts such as these are why They Might Be Giants fans are stereotyped as having very few friends. - Charlie

Ship of State[edit]

I think this is almost certainly a punning nod to Longfellow's poem "O Ship of State":

Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O UNION, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
’T is of the wave and not the rock;
’T is but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by the gale!
In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee,
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o’er our fears,
Are all with thee,—are all with thee!

Arkansas may also be an allusion to Noah's Ark.

-- Wm Jas


This stunningly beautiful song gives a whole new meaning to the term "ship-shape"! --MisterMe 21:17, 12 April 2012 (EDT)

Borges & Baudrillard[edit]

This song always makes me think of this very short story by Jorge Luis Borges titled "On Exactitude in Science". I see it as Linnell's re-telling of the story.

The story is so short that I can paste the whole thing right here:

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography

The french philosopher Jean Baudrillard responds to Borges' story in the first few paragraphs of his book Simulacra and Simulation:

If we were able to take as the finest allegory of simulation the Borges tale where the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory (but where, with the decline of the Empire this map becomes frayed and finally ruined, a few shreds still discernible in the deserts... Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory.

Now, I don't pretend to understsand the intricacies of Borges' or Baudrillard's work. However, in the original Borges story, a copy is so perfect that it competes with the original.In the end, the original kinda 'wins'-- the map deteriorates and there is a clear distinction between the false 'map' and real 'territory.' Even before the deterioration, there is little doubt which is 'real' came first. Baudrillard, however, suggests we now live in a world which is so full of duplicates and signifiers that it doesn't really even make sense to talk about originals and copies. In fact, a copy or reference can in fact be more real than the original it refers to, and talking about copies usually hides the fact that there is often no true original. We can see this with celebrities: which is more 'real'-- the fictionalised movie-star Brad Pitt from tabloids and interviews or the flesh and blood man?

Linnell's micro-opera about The Arkansas begins with the tradition of naming US Navy battleships after states, and takes it ultra-literally. Like the Borges story it proposes a copy of a territory where a perfect one-to-one copy of the state of Arkansas is made. Like the Borges story, there is the concern that the perfect copy might compete with, replace or cover over the original. Unlike the Borges story, however (and probably more to Baudrillard's liking) it is not the copy but the original which is likely to deteriorate when the landmass of Arkansas is swallowed by the sea. Then, the narrator supposes, if the USS Arkansas were to replace the state, the ship would cease to really be a copy in any meaningful sense. At that point, it will be more real than the real Arkansas.

But it's also interesting that we get lyrics from the point of view of the USS Arkansas. The ship speaks in old timey nautical terms ('avast me hearties'). Rather than emphasize the perfectness of the copy, this language belies that the ship, being a ship, still speaks the language of the sea. There are, perhaps, no perfect copies after all.

In this section The ship Arkansas seems to be addressing the landmass Arkansas as a comrade (hearties), and asking it to stop or hold still (avast). There's a sadness expressed by both the narrator and by the ship. It seems that no matter how perfect a copy might be, there's still a melancholy we feel when we loose touch with the original.

Anyway, if you like TMBG, I highly recommend the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges-- they've got a similar kind of dense text and sense of wonder to them.

Plandis (talk) 09:24, 14 June 2022 (EDT)

Mississippi River[edit]

Perhaps the "coast of Arkansas" they speak of is the Mississippi River? Jibblies108 (talk) 09:56, 4 April 2023 (EDT)