Sunday, February 7, 2016

An Apology for Meaning



The social constructionists murdered Meaning long ago, but she persists to move us, na├»ve as we are.  And, lo, we understand each other, more or less, despite cultural crisis and alienation, despite the treachery of concepts and the mis-pris(i)on house of language! They warn us that our every impulse has been constructed randomly out of nothing, or, at best, out of the machinations of the people in power who have managed over centuries to control our minds, our behaviors, our hearts with the deceitful seductions of fairy tales, myths, art, religion, and philosophy.  In  exchange, then, for putting away these beloved artifacts of the “ages of ignorance,” they offer us their scoffing analysis, which uncovers the fact (which sages of all ages already knew) that concepts and words are inaccurate delimitations of the multifarious irreducible variety of reality, and that humans tend to form habits which keep them from re-evaluating their values. That humans can be lazy and conformist, and that words only approximate the things and experiences that they describe, are not good enough reasons to throw over all of the attempts made by our less than lazy fellow humans over the ages to understand and celebrate and lament and re-imagine our shared existence.  Only a theorist lacking in aesthetic sense, lacking in love, in human emotion could deny that human beings speak to each other across time and cultures through stories and symbols that carry meanings, albeit imperfectly understood. That the translation is imprecise is not a good reason to give up on the fraught but difficult  challenge of communication from person to person, language to language, culture to culture, past to present to future. Yes, much of what we believe, much of our behavior, has been socially constructed, but this construction has been and continues to be our own work as humans. Nietzsche called us “creative subjects,” and our role, should we awaken from our “wretched contentment” into agency and joyful wisdom, is to continually co-create new ways of being in the world out of the dirty and living roots of our shared human experience. The artist, as the “creative subject” par excellence, re-vivifies stale images and ossified words, dissolving the fixed relations and drawn boundaries around entities and forging new meaningful connections between materiality and imagination, individual particularity and archetypal abstraction. But we all must participate in this process of backward and forward and eastern and western-seeing, engaging in the concerns and delights of our ancestors and our neighbors and continually considering which still serve us and which would best be re-imagined.  We must take up the iconoclastic axes—not to smash the divine artifacts of the past, but —to chisel new forms out of old mountains.

 Consider a paved path in a city. Sometimes, even though the powers that be have paved a sidewalk and expected the citizens to conform to its guidelines, someone feels that there is a better way to get from here to there, and enough people feel their feet drawn to this alternate way, that the people begin to tread a new path through an area that was intended to be grass. There are desire lines stronger than social constructs, and these desire lines insist on new arrangements of the world even though (or perhaps precisely because) the old ones have been established by asphalt. The new paths, which were once rebellious and eccentric become, in time, established, sanctioned, and limiting, and new people may find that there are better ways to get from here to there.  If language has tendencies to close down against thought, language users also have tendencies to disrupt these patterns. If people in power attempt to coerce and control, less powerful people also have always subverted these attempts. Consider how pilgrims in early Christianity resisted the Church’s injunctions against idol worship and the kissing and fondling of relics. Consider the Copernican revolution, Relativity, &c. No path is made without the desire of some person, without the choice of some person or for some reason (however good or bad). The path may be made because of beauty or utility or for sentimental reasons, for access to a view, because it is private, because there are no obstacles underneath or adjacent to it, because there are special features along the route, or because there are no other options left. But any path will revert to wildness in time if no one walks upon it.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Correspondence and Difference



In the Egyptian Museum in Torino I am astonished by the way the ancient Egyptians had an instinct for symmetry, for placing each depicted object or vignette centrally within a frame, for aligning each hieroglyph in a uniform square of space, for leaving the most graceful and harmonious negative space between the hand of the man holding a slaughtered bird by its neck and the fronds of the plant in a vase by his side. A sense of what is beautiful, evidently, is at least somewhat natural and universal. And the works of art or ritual made with this sense of what is beautiful still resonate with a mysterious significance, even if we today cannot fully understand or believe in the things that were sacred to the people who made them.  Translation across time and cultures is needed for a more approximate comprehension of the objects, but something very powerful, something powerfully familiar is present even without a struggle. What we want is to maintain the strangeness, while approaching a comprehension.  What we must avoid is to diminish difference in the interest of a complete and total correspondence. 

I am operating in a language I barely know, but I do make myself understood, more or less, with the few Italian words I mispronounce and the few I manage to understand.  Sometimes we communicate better with someone who does not speak our language or who lived in another era or lives in another continent than we do with a coeval compatriot. But a good part of the pleasure of communication is in the frisson of partial misunderstanding, in the incommensurable distance between one mind and another struggling to approximate a shared vision. Translation is necessary even without a language barrier, and we all do our best to reveal and conceal our meanings from each other. Yes, conceal also. Indeed, as Steiner explained in After Babel, the differences between languages may be a result of a human need to differentiate a group from another, to keep secrets, to individuate from what may be a basically universal commonality.  There are twin drives to compare and contrast, to find analogies, metaphors, likenesses, and to insist on differences, incompatibilities, untranslatables.  While Steiner acknowledges that much of communication is miscommunication, and that translation appropriates and distorts the original language or meaning, he concludes that the misprision ultimately adds something to the original and that without the admittedly imperfect mechanism of language (which itself is a translation from inner to outer), we would have no culture, no community at all.  Translation or solipsism. Most of the people who deny language its ability to communicate are still talking and writing. They have failed to follow up their assertions with their ultimate conclusions, and have therefore led us astray. The same can be said about the way we are told we should operate when it comes to differences and correspondences. We are to ignore differences and deny correspondences. Leaving us precisely where?

Today our basic assumptions about correspondence and difference are paradoxical. On the one hand, we insist that everyone is equal, the same, indistinguishable (or that they should be, were we to look beyond superficial and erroneous external, physical differences). On the other hand, we insist that it is impossible to understand the other, that there are no universals and there is no shared sense of value, and that language barely helps us to communicate with each other since it is so very distant from the things it claims to signify as to be actually treacherous.  Both of these assumptions depend on a denial of the reality or the importance of the physical world, on a denial of any meaningful relationship between nature and cultural norms, between the physical world and the language that describes it, the human brain and its sensory apparatus, and, finally, between one human brain and another.  At once we are trying to strip away differences that might cause conflict, justify hierarchies or discriminations (resulting in a neutering and neutralizing homogeneity) and to deny that these  newly neutralized beings will be able to understand each other despite the pervasive removal of the characteristics that seem to have caused all the trouble in the first place. Perhaps the unspoken hope is that the neutralization and leveling, the moral rejection of the physical world (beauty, ugliness, pain, pleasure, differences) will eventually really result in a homogeneity so complete that, even if we no longer have anything interesting to say or any unique artistic expressions to make, we will at least make no more war, at least harbor no resentment or hate against the “other” anymore—because there will be no more other. And no differential qualities whatsoever to get in the way of perfect passive niceness.