Sunday, February 7, 2016

An Apology for Meaning

The social constructionists murdered Meaning long ago, but she persists to move us, naïve 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.

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