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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Monday, July 25, 2005

Near Theory II (Bits and Pieces)

Posted by John Holbo on 07/25/05 at 01:23 AM

This is the conclusion to "Near Theory (My creation, is it real?)", see above. It has been separated off for the convenience of those who like their punchlines without a lot of joke by way of lead-in. Well, really I suppose it contains the second punch-line. To get the joke you need to read just a little bit of the above post, but then you can quit in boredom and read this instead.

And now, let us return to my mad lib. The obvious suggestion, as noted, will be that even if there is no author, you must posit an 'as if' author. I don't think so. Let me start my adapting a term that I got (uncoincidentally) from a chess book: fantasy position. When you are trying to come up with a plan, you do not calculate aimlessly, hence endlessly. Nor do you attempt just to figure out what your opponent is thinking. What you do is look at your position and imagine some desirable position a few moves down the road - something not too far from where you are now, so it just might be possible to get there, although you don't yet know for sure. Then try to find some way to thread the needle of possibilities to ensure the realization of your dream. (Nightmare positions would be the opposite. Figure out the worst your opponent could do by mentally constructing a really bad situation not too far from what you've got, then see whether it is a real possibility.) Clear enough? And clear enough that undertaking this hermeneutic exercise is not going to be a matter of exploring sentence meaning or author meaning?

Isn't it plausible that something similar is not just possibly true of poetry, but actually true? Take our mad lib.

An ashtray did my spirit seal;
I rode no human shoes;
She seemed a vase that could not feel
The tent of earthly news. 
No anthill has she now, no horse;
She neither knits nor toasts. 
Rolled round in earth’s bejeweléd course,
With frogs, and blots, and ghosts.

How does one set about interpreting? Well, what about this? The first line suggests an anti-smoking message. How do we get that? Ashtrays are associated with cigarettes. Cigarettes kill. A spirit is a life force. If a thing that kills 'seals' a life force, then 'sealing' may here mean trap - kill. I don't need to posit any specific author behind the scenes to manage such a trivial set of associations. I'm just working with common knowledge about cancer risks plus a few connotations and a couple mild semantic stretches to, as it were, seal the deal. So now we have a preliminary 'fantasy position'. The significance of our poem will be minatory, in a surgeon generalish sort of general way. (It seems rather trite to write a poem to do the work of an anti-smoking campaign, but we may have to settle for trite. Not all fantasies are wild.) Note that we do not have an interpretation yet, only a place we are trying to get to. "I rode no human shoes." Several possible images: really big shoe with someone in it riding, like a bumper car (no, too silly; and doesn't fit with the anti-smoking scheme, although if that doesn't work out we may go for silly and then a big silly car-shoe may work.) Someone gliding along elegantly, like they aren't even in their own shoes, i.e. aren't earth-bound. (Possible metaphoric line. File away for future reference.) Barefoot. (Possible.) Lying on your back but with your shoes still on. Bingo! In your coffin. Dead from smoking. (Our fantasy position is one step closer to reality.)

Are we reading an author's mind here? Are we positing an 'as if' author? I don't think so. We are trying to find a way to get from the formal semantic possibilities of a linguistic position to a certain significance - an anti-smoking message. Neither the starting point nor the end point is 'intentional' except in the wrong sort of senses (i.e. not authorial intentions, per our earlier distinctions.) Why should we only be able to get from the start to the end by passing through a hypothetical mind? Consider the shoes. We are toying not with some hypothetical authorial consciousness, in transforming the shoes and rotating them around an axis of shoe possibilities and associations and implications; we are toying with shoes themselves. Making them bigger, putting someone elegant in them. This is imagining situations, not someone's thoughts. (It's like designing a set.) Of course you can say that all we are doing is entertaining 'thoughts', not working with real props, like giant shoes. But we could just as well say 'propositions' as eliminate the psychologistic overtones. (Is there some sort of epistemological horror in a phrase like 'shoes themselves'. Am I implying some sort of impossible ding an sich intimacy? Nope. Don't get so worked up about philosophy. We're doing literary criticism here. If the shoe fits, wear it.)

Suppose our anti-smoking message doesn't pan out. We try a different tack. What line do you like? (In chess, sometimes there's one piece that looks good, so you make it the centerpiece of your fantasy.) I like: "The tent of earthly news." I am seeing a newspaper blowing along, momentarily tent-shaped with the fold as the top. I also like the vaguely Elizabethan overtones of 'tent'. It could be intent. What the news is trying to do or tell me. It could be 'tent' in the archaic sense of a probe for a wound or infection. That's what the news is like. Always poking into the bad stuff. Also, the idea of the 'tent of the earth' - wounds of the earth. Yep. That's the news all over. Am I hereby positing an author? No. I'm thinking about how the badness of the news could be a significant theme. I'm also using Elizabethan English. It is worth noting that Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida has lots of wounds and tents and some significant play on this. Am I therefore imagining that Shakespeare wrote this poem? No. His gambit inspired me to try variations. I might not have thought to try this line of interpretation if I hadn't read Troilus and Cressida. (If I copy someone else's opening in chess it isn't like I am imagining they they are playing my game. I am just taking good stuff where I find it.)

So it goes. It may not work out too well. I may not be able to offer a satisfactory, unified interpretation of the poem, for example. But that is not to say there is anything wrong with the general interpretative approach I just sketched. An author may not have a unified conception of a poem. It may be a bad poem, in which case no interpetation will be able to make much of interest out of it. (Some positions in chess just don't lend themselves to fulfilled fantasy. There isn't always a possible strong combination.)

What is my approach? What did I just describe myself doing, in interpreting? I start with something like sentence meaning and, possibly, a hint of a posit of an 'as if' author. (No need to deny that one way to try to organize one's thoughts is by thinking: why would anyone put these things together? But this posit is not strictly necessary.) I quickly move on to thinking about the things the lines of the poem conjure - shoes, vases, newspapers, wounds. I think about what those things imply, that is to say, what properties they have. I am not reasoning about language any more but modeling things themselves. I am also aiming at significance - that is, interest; thematic worthiness, nothing semantic or intentional. (You can say that nothing is valuable but intentionality makes it so. That's a possible theory. But the point still stands.) In terms of my earlier fourfold division of types of meaning [see part I]: I am mostly concerned with sentence meaning, implication and significance, although I wouldn't forbid myself a pinch of 'as if' authorial intention, in a pinch. Knapp and Michaels say it is a necessary truth that I am concerned only with authorial intention.

So Knapp and Michaels are wrong about the philosophy of language and wrong about the nature of practical literary criticism. I think that's enough for now.


John, what you call the “fantasy position” is sometimes known as the implied author in narratology.  The model looks something like:

author->implied author->narrator<-narratee<-implied reader<-reader

This seemingly unpragmatic model is actually quite useful.  The point being that the “real” reader can’t be known by the text (unlike in, say, the communication model), but a sort of conventional reader can be implied by a text.  For example, if a text displays signs of foreshadowing, this implies a reader familiar with the convention of foreshadowing. 

Likewise, the “real” author is unknowable.  We could have an example of misattribution, pseudonyms, and so on.  Furthermore, we can never know intentions anyway (to go back to Michaels and Knapp), so if reading meaning is a form of mind-reading, we’re screwed from the get-go.  All we’re left with is the construction of possible intentions from possible meanings we’ve unpacked from a text.  So what we’ve done is really created an implied author, who we always want to keep separate from the “real” author, who is, like God, unknowable. 

Basically, I see the issue of author’s intention as theological.  If the world was created by God, who cares?  We can never know God, we can never know his intentions, so why argue over them?  Why not argue over our own ideas *about* the world?  Likewise, we can never know a poem’s intention, so why even phrase meaning as identical to intention?  We should be arguing about *our* ideas about the poem, not whether they correspond to some unknowable author’s ideas about it.

Because the saddest thing would be to find out that, say, the only intention behind *The Odyssey* was Homer’s attempt to win a drunken bet that he couldn’t string together 1000s of lines of poetry while doing a body shot off the waitress’s belly after every reference to wine.

By on 07/25/05 at 10:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, doesn’t your statement assume that there is no such thing as a living author?  They do exist, you know.

By on 07/25/05 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

After posting my comment above, I realized how little attention I had paid to your “Mad Libs” example.  I did so, in part, because I thought that the set-up did not really affect the pay-off in interesting ways.  I think that the beginning scenario does have interesting implications for the topic of authorial intention because of how it “splits up” intention and the creative act – somewhat like an exquisite corpse. 

Earlier respondents to Knapp and Michaels raised similar points, asking (for instance) about the “author” of apparently group-efforts, such as the staging of plays.  Is the performance the utterance?  If so, how do the intentions of the playwright, director, and actors affect the meaning of that utterance?

But by the end of your post, you are trying to interpret the meaning of the “Mad Lib” poem, the “blanks” of which may well have been filled in my a computer.  And you certainly seem to be able to find meaning – to create interpretations that “unify” the poem and find connecting “themes.”

But so what?  You say that you add in just a pinch of “as if” authorship.  (What might an author have meant had he or she uttered such-and-such a poem?) But, in my eyes, that pinch is enough.  Without that pinch, there’d be nothing worth doing?  And to the extent that this is a randomly generated poem, the act of interpreting it really does seem pointless, doesn’t it?  The whole thing is an “as if” game.  (Consider, once again, the Bible Code predictions I find hidden in the New Testament or Moby-Dick.)

I wonder, in the end, if Searle’s own work presents another vision of the same outcome.  Think of the Chinese Room Experiment.  The man inside the box clearly is able to produce sentences that look like Chinese – can be read by literate Chinese speakers, can be looked up in Chinese dictionaries, can be translated into other languages, etc.  None of that is under contention.

But do we still want to say that the Chinese utterances made by the man in the box have the meanings that the people outside the box are ascribing to them?  He writes squiggle-squiggle-squoggle – marks that usually mean, “I understand Chinese” or “Help, I’m trapped in a box” or “I want a pillow.” But do we want to say that these utterances are meaningful in this “standard” (as if) way?

After all, he doesn’t understand Chinese.  And did not even intend to lie about that fact.  In fact, he didn’t intend to communicate any meaning when he made those squiggly marks.  If the people outside the box interpret those marks to mean that the man inside the box understands Chinese, then they are mistaken.  Understandably mistaken—but mistaken, nonetheless.

(The question of “Is it Chinese or does it only resemble Chinese?” seems a small side issue, even if some in this debate would disagree.  My son and I can create meaningful sentences that contain words that exist in no “language.” See Davidson on this point.)

As Searle argues, physical marks and even syntax is separable from semantics.  And semantics are all that matter in this instance.  I believe that Knapp and Michaels and Fish would concur.

But perhaps I have misunderstood them.

By on 07/25/05 at 10:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, all.  My comment above refers to an ealier comment—one that I attached to “Near Theory I.” I had inteded (!) to place it there.

By on 07/25/05 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The culinary paleoarchaeological literature reveals no evidence for such a practice, Luther. Body shots were invented by the Prussians.

By Jonathan on 07/25/05 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich—I think the point is that a real author is not necessary to the interpretation of the text. And anyway, even if the author is identified, is living, and accessible, the author’s statements about the intended meaning of the text aren’t necessarily reliable.

By David Moles on 07/25/05 at 02:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s not actually what Luther wrote, David.  He wrote, among other things: “Basically, I see the issue of author’s intention as theological.  If the world was created by God, who cares?  We can never know God, we can never know his intentions, so why argue over them?  Why not argue over our own ideas *about* the world?  Likewise, we can never know a poem’s intention, so why even phrase meaning as identical to intention?  We should be arguing about *our* ideas about the poem, not whether they correspond to some unknowable author’s ideas about it.”

Which is highly overstated.  There may be every reason to insist that a poem’s meaning is not its concious intention, for all sorts of well-known reasons: the author may have had unconcious intentions; an alternate reading that the author didn’t think of may seem better than the author’s planned reading; the author may have used ambiguity to purposefully permit many readings; the meanings of the words used may have changed; the words used always have some degree of inherent ambiguity; the author may not be able to see how his or her work is controlled by the author’s social setting; the reader may have associations that cause them to give the work a different meaning.  But its concious intention is, if there is a living author, knowable.

Getting to the question of reliability, I fail to see why this is very important.  I think that everyone in this discussion accepts that authorial intention does not equal meaning.  That being the case, a lack of complete reliability in an understanding of authorial intention doesn’t drop its usefulness to zero.  I think that it is very useful to understand the authorial strategy that shaped a text, and to be able to judge how well the text succeeds in doing what the author says it was intended to do.

And I agree that it is possible to find a meaning in Mad Libs, and that you do not necessarily need to imagine an author for them in order to do so.  I assume that this is a necessary argument in John Holbo’s refutation of someone or other (I dutifully skipped out when he said it would become boring).  This may be important to philosophy of language; I don’t know.  But it is a very unusual circumstance when studying actual texts.

By on 07/25/05 at 04:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think my example depends on the livingness or deadness of the author, any more than a theological discussion of what “the world means” is dependent on whether God-the-Creator is alive or dead (that is, “God is dead” is different than “There is no God").  My silly example remains as true for a living as a dead author.  If Pynchon came out tomorrow and said the true intention behind all his work was to make us all Scientologists, and that was the *only* thing in his mind while he wrote, it wouldn’t change a damned thing about the meanings of his novels.  The meanings could be said to construct an implied author, different from the real author, to whom any meaning we can locate the prove can be attributed.  But that narratological solution just seems to draw on intention as a necessary fiction. 

My point was that the way Michaels distinguishes himself from the critique of the Intentional Fallacy is to say that linking meaning to intention is more than simply beginning any interpretation with the notion that what one is interpreting has been made by an intending subject.  I see Michaels distinction between his position and Wimsatt and Beardsley’s is a difference that ultimately makes no difference. 

Why? Because, unlike what Rich argues, I don’t think we ever have access to “intention.” We only have access to meanings, from which we induce an author’s intention.  First off, if intention and meaning are identical, we can get rid of one or the other word.  But I don’t think this is so, because meanings *do* go beyond intention for all the reasons Derrida describes in his excellent lecture, “Differance.” Meaning is spaced out and differed, while intention is timeless and placeless, and where I’m from, Jesus is the only temporal and spatial thing that was also timeless and placeless. 

Another way of saying this is that intention is nothing more than the signs on the page—not the marks, the signs.  But the way signifieds and signifiers defer meaning through a system of difference is meaning, and what I wanted to do as an author when I sat down to author something is exceeded by what I ultimately do when I start putting words together. 

More importantly, we have no access to intention beyond the work on the page.  Unless we can read someone’s mind, we can never know intention.  An author could tell us his intention, but this too is simply another interpretation.  Why? Because an author doesn’t simply write, she reads as well, and the process of composition involves a series of writings and readings.  But never can the author achieve full presence of self in her writing or reading.

For Michaels, the equation of meaning with intention turns hermeneutics into what I’ve called mind reading, or the relationship of one consciousness with another, mediated only by a set of signs that somehow are supposed to unproblematically and perfectly transfer consciousness from one mind all the way over to another.  Last I heard, this sounds a lot like idealism.  This makes me think of the introduction to Hegel’s *Phenomenology of Spirit*.  You want a quotation from Hegel?  Is that what I’m reduced to?  Fine, Hegel it is.  And this also bears on Michaels attempt to separate completely meaning from experience, for in Hegel, the relation between consciousness and itself is at once an experience and a knowing:

“Consciousness applies its criterion in its own self, and in view of this the investigation of its truth will be a comparison of itself with itself, for the discrimination taking place devolves squarely on consciousness.  There is in consciousness one thing for-one-other; that is, consciousness has in itself completely the determination of the moment of ‘knowing’; at the same time the ‘other’ in this case is not only for-consciousness but exists also outside of the relationship of knowledge; that is, the ‘other’ is in-itself, the Moment of truth.  And thus, with that which consciousness elucidates as the in-itself, or the true, we have the criterion, which is established by consciousness itself for the assessment of its own knowledge” (para 84).

For Hegel, we can achieve truth by uniting the object in-itself with the subject’s idea of the object for-consciousness; that is, we can achieve truth by knowing our own knowing of something: self-consciousness becomes truth.  In Michaels, we have two consciousnesses with the ability to know one another via signs, which essentially means they share one consciousness.  So rather than a hermeneutics of textuality, what we really need is a phenomenology of reading—and we’re back to an equation between experience and meaning.  Meaning is then at once the author’s experience of his own intentions and the reader’s experience of the author’s consciousness. 

I’m not philosophically saavy, though, so I should just shut up now.  I tend to just tie myself up in knots when I get into these sorts of discussions.

By on 07/25/05 at 04:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think I understand the difference you describe, Trickster, but I’m not sure I feel its force. 

On the one hand, it seems that you are presenting two different decisions that we make about intention, based on assumptions that we readers have about the author and the utterances in question.  Do we think the author (Joyce or not) is intending to be clear and straightforward and predictable?  Or do we feel that the author (Joyce or not) is intending to be allusive, elusive, ironic, figurative, punning, sarcastic, and so on?  We can make these decisions based on our past experience with said author and the way he or she tends to say things.  Or we can look for clues in the words.  Or we can explore the genre in question and its literary history.  But it’s still just a shot at intention.

Perhaps, to borrow terms liberally from Nelson Goodman, we sometimes decide that certain authors, genres, and/or utterances are more intentionally and semantically “dense” than others.  Perhaps we decide that, with certain authors and utterances, every difference—in words, the number of syllables, the spelling, the sounds, the symbolic connotations—potentially makes a difference.  (Joyce, for example, seemed to worry about every thing, every mark.) With other authors and utterances, we decide that the message is less dense and more “disjunct” or “attenuated”: every difference does not, we decide, make as much of a difference.  Still, if we’re shooting at meaning, these are decisions about intention and what the author was trying to “do” with the marks she or he produced.  (Even Joyce probably wrote shopping and to-do lists, as Gary Larsen has pointed out.)

One the other hand, you also talk about two different “goals” in interpretation –- one direct and simple, the other playful and open-ended.  When we are talking to the IRS or our life partners, for example, we are usually worried about interpreting their meaning correctly.  These things matter.  Our livelihood rides on getting it “right.” But when we’re just talking about literature –- upon which very little money and happiness depends –- we have the freedom to just goof around, playing with words and ideas at hand, searching for something emotionally and intellectually satisfying.  That certainly is a different goal, and maybe a different type of “reading.” I’m not certain.

I am not trying to make your ideas seem odd, Trickster.  Perhaps this is exactly what we do; we’re paid to play.  But I’m not sure I’d give any of my students a good grade for doing it.

Sorry to type so much, everyone.  I’ll bow out now.

By on 07/25/05 at 04:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t it two completely different things to assume a knowable, communicable, specific intention, or on the other hand to simply posit intention as a sort of first cause, by definition irrecoverable and unknowable? 

& Did I just (badly) answer my own question?

What happens when a text has multiple authors?

By on 07/25/05 at 09:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I know that I probably should read over John Holbo’s description of the different types of intention, but I’m using the term to mean “what the author intended the text to communicate”, what might be called the signal in communication theory.  Communication is the basic purpose of language, after all, and a theory of texts that says that no communication takes place between author and reader would be rather odd.

It’s true that artistic texts are often a good deal more ambiguous than other texts.  But if you have a cooperative living author, they can (in principle) explain what they were trying to do in ordinary language.  If ordinary language can not be used to communicate more or less effectively, then there’s no point in writing anything.

If you have multiple authors, then they must have generally agreed amongst each other to produce a text for a particular purpose—otherwise you’re going to have a very disjointed text.  And of course you can produce a text by Mad Lib or other means that is fully grammatical noise with no signal.  I don’t see how this is very important, except for its use as a thought experiment.

Luther Blissett said that the meaning of Pynchon’s novels would not change if he said that “the true intention behind all his work was to make us all Scientologists”.  If you treat “meaning” as “the meaning perceived by the reader”, then of course the meaning of his novels would change, just as people read his novels differently now if they know of Pynchon’s reputation for mysterious reclusiveness than they would if they didn’t.  The stated intention of the author becomes part of your knowledge about the text, and can’t help but influence how you read it.

By on 07/26/05 at 12:34 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, according to WBM, “meaning as perceived by the reader” is simply experience, not meaning, because meaning must be up for debate and experience cannot be debated.  So for Michaels, the way a fact might change my experience of reading doesn’t change the meaning.  I personally don’t want to locate the meaning in the author or the reader, but in the complex interactions between author, implied author, narrator, discourse, narratee, implied reader, and reader.  I might even go as far as to say that I’d get rid of the author and reader entirely and side with Gadamer that art’s meaning is *to be experienced*, because art itself is a response to experience (at every level: author, implied author, narrator).  Insofar as art doesn’t correspond to reality but effectively changes and adds to reality, its own meanings cannot be mistaken for propositions: even its more discursive effects are there *to be experienced*.  The only “thing” making debatable propositions here is not the author, not the art-object, but rather the critic (not even the reader).  The critic is the only person “making meaning” in the sense of intending to express beliefs that are open for debate.  And we cannot mistake these meanings for the “meaning of art,” or else the two would be interchangeable.

My other problem with this is that if, for WBM, meaning = intention, this would assume that, for meanings to be debatable assertions, intention would have to take the form of debatable assertions.  And last I checked, the wackiness of the mind doesn’t take the form of assertions.  Sean doesn’t think WBM means that meaning/intention has to be discursive propositions, but I don’t see how non-discursive propositions can be debated or refuted. 

This is also where I find WBM’s take on “culture” to be reductive, insofar as he equates it with true or false beliefs.  I’m not sure that what we talk about when we talk about culture can be reduced to propositions.  True, WBM sometimes adds “practices” to beliefs, but he elides practices when he equates culture with ideology and ideology with a contest between true and false beliefs.  A simple example: particular farming practices are a huge part of certain cultures, but these aren’t propositions to be proven true or false.  At most, we can be instrumental and say that for that group, at that time, in that place, those practices were effective (or not).  But WBM insists that beliefs are assertions that are either true or false for all people for all time.  This is why I get bothered when, throughout his discussion of culture in *The Shape of the Signifier*, WBM attacks the idea that one “loses” anything when one changes cultures or assimilates.  What one *could* be losing is one’s adaptive strategies for dealing with a hostile environment (as the PBS presentation of Jared Diamond’s *Guns, Germs, and Steel* tonight reminded me: for example, the rise of Western-style cities and living conditions in tropical Africa and the erasure of “traditional” modes of inhabiting the land led to a return of malaria, and as one economist asserted, the -1% economic growth in Africa over the past half century can be directed attributed to the loss of productivity caused by malaria).

Of course, WBM is right to say that a person’s desire to “return to his culture” makes no sense.  Put truthfully, the person is simply changing, not returning (unless he actually once *did* live in the old style).  But WBM is wrong to say that we lose nothing when cultures disappear.  What we lose are cultural possibilities.  And we don’t value them for being right or wrong.  They might have even been wrong or failures in their time, but we still might value them today as a reservoir, so to speak, for future adaptation.

By on 07/26/05 at 02:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther: ‘This is why I get bothered when…WBM attacks the idea that one “loses” anything when one changes cultures or assimilates.  What one *could* be losing is one’s adaptive strategies for dealing with a hostile environment… WBM is wrong to say that we lose nothing when cultures disappear.  What we lose are cultural possibilities.’


I disagree with most of your reading of Michaels, but I will restrict myself here to this incorrect comment on whether we “lose” things when our culture changes.  I’ll keep it simple and expand later, if needed.

Michaels never says that nothing is ever lost when a person’s or group’s practices and beliefs change.  All he says is that the thing you have lost is not your culture.  This is because you still have “your culture”; it’s simply your new set of practices and beliefs.

Let me paraphrase from one of Michaels’ Critical Inquiry articles (not on hand).  In it, he explicitly states that we would indeed lose something if all Jews/people stopped speaking Hebrew.  We would lose that language – perhaps forever, perhaps temporarily.  And (this is important) to the extent that Hebrew is valuable, we would have lost something of value, something important.  But “Jews” would not have lost “their culture.” Their culture has just changed.

The same claim would apply if we decide to talk about changes in farming practices, reading patterns, dress, medicine, music, or how folks pass the time while on line.  It’s not that things aren’t “lost” (or abandoned or learned or improved or invented); it’s just that one can never lose one’s culture. 

Indeed, the impossibility of “losing one’s culture” holds unless you subscribe to a prescriptivist – and in Michaels’ view, racialist – view of culture.  Such a view makes “your” culture more than just a description of what you happen to believe and do.  It tells you which beliefs and practices are supposed to be yours.

So, to close, we can’t argue that we should do X or Y because it’s part of “our culture”; we can “merely” argue that X or Y is a good or bad thing to do – and should continue or stop.  Of course, we “lose” things all the time.  Just not our culture.


By on 07/26/05 at 08:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"“meaning as perceived by the reader” is simply experience, not meaning, because meaning must be up for debate and experience cannot be debated” seems nonsensical to me.  If two people read a text, then when they talk about it, they each say what the text meant to them.  Because of this conversation, each of them might suddenly see things in the text that they didn’t perceive before, or come to interpret the text in a new way.  And it is commonplace for someone’s experienced meaning to be debated; quite often, someone will agree that they got something wrong about a text when they first read it.

“The only “thing” making debatable propositions here is not the author, not the art-object, but rather the critic (not even the reader).  The critic is the only person “making meaning” in the sense of intending to express beliefs that are open for debate.” Isn’t that quite a good deal for the critic, being the source of all meaning?  I can see its attraction for academics.  Do the people who believe this ever write anything artistic themselves, I wonder?

Look, I’ll try to speak from my own experience as a poetry hobbyist.  If you look at the poem I dashed off for Scott Eric Kaufman in the thread The Caterpillar and The Men From Cambridge, I assert that every line has an intended meaning, or at least a reason for being there.  Of course people will find meanings in it that I didn’t intend; that is part of the value of poetic ambiguity.  But that doesn’t mean that I had nothing to communicate when I wrote it.

Now, you might say that this is a bad example because it’s a bad poem.  If that isn’t intended to refer to my skill at writing poetry, but to the proposition that the poem is bad simply because it communicates (it says, and does not simply be) than I disagree that this value system should be the arbiter of poetic value.  Most art does communicate.

By on 07/26/05 at 08:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Peter, insofar as WBM argues against what could be called “the preservation of cultures,” he argues not only that a change of “culture” is simply a change of beliefs and practices but also that there’s nothing intrinsically worth saving in a body of beliefs and practices.  For Michaels, we would only preserve beliefs and practices if we believed they were true beliefs and practices.

But what I want to argue is that there *is* an intrinsic value to preserving culture above and beyond people’s actual practice of these practices and belief in these beliefs.  When we talk about losing culture we *don’t* only mean that someone’s beliefs and practices have changed, but that, insofar as cultural practices have often adapted over many years to help a culture adapt to and survive in a particular environment, “losing culture” means losing one’s ability to survive in that environment.  That’s why there’s a difference between cultural change and losing culture.  This is also why, contra WBM, one can believe in a religion without seeking to convert everyone else across the globe (whereas WBM holds up missionary religions as the only logically consistent attitude toward religious beliefs and practices—see note 3, page 211, *The Shape of the Signifier*).  Yes, the idea that a culture is “yours” beyond the fact that one was raised up in it does tend to draw on racialist foundations.  But, of course, all forms of identity—from personal identity and the proper name to racial identity—involve such a fiction – involve fiction, or narrative, itself, to provide the illusion of continuity.  It’s as much a fiction that “I” is the same thing today “I” was ten years ago as it is that something called “Jews” are the same thing 1000 years ago as they are today.  Fictions are, indeed, ideological, so there I agree with WBM.  To his reduction of culture, I would simply add the very historical component of adaptation to environment to WBM’s “beliefs and practices” in order to have an accurate description of what we talk about when we talk about culture.  “Losing one’s culture” simply means “losing one’s place in the world.” And that’s still serious business.  This is why even assimilation can be anomic (and hence, potentially deadly).  For WBM, assimilation means the (forced or freely chosen) changing of beliefs and practices.  But again, we can’t elide the totally interconnected nature of these beliefs and practices with an environment.  Assimilation can leave a person exposed to one’s environment.  This isn’t to say that the old beliefs are “true” and the new beliefs are “false” – it’s only to say that, in the collection of things we call “culture,” true and false don’t mean, as WBM would have it, “true for all people in all places at all times,” but rather true for some people in some places at some times.  The true cultural relativist doesn’t say “all cultures are equal” but rather that all cultures, to have survived as cultures, have to have adapted well to their environment(s).  WBM seems to operate at times in homogeneous space and time – which *is* the space of logic. 

Have you noticed that in WBM’s work, the only people who *are* logically consistant are zealous religious nuts and turn of the century American racists?  Could it be that such racism *is* the mistaken belief that truths about the social world are truths that are true for all people in all places at all times, rather than truths that serve survival purposes for some people in some places at a certain time?

By on 07/26/05 at 10:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I personally don’t want to locate the meaning in the author or the reader, but in the complex interactions between author, implied author, narrator, discourse, narratee, implied reader, and reader.”

But surely even you can see that insofar as there is something to argue about, it is not where you personally would _like_ to locate meaning, but rather where the meaning actually is located?  Put another way-- by your very formulation here, you are not challenging WBMs taxonomy of critics (sheep interested in their subjective experience of art, goats interested in its meaning)-- you are simply proclaiming your place amongst the sheep with a proud baa. 

“Insofar as art doesn’t correspond to reality but effectively changes and adds to reality, its own meanings cannot be mistaken for propositions: even its more discursive effects are there *to be experienced*.”

This can be translated with no loss (except loss of pathos) into the claim that poems must not mean but be-- a claim that I believe an earlier commenter had suggested was a straw man position no one had ever really inhabited.  And yet here the scarecrow is, walking among us.

By on 07/26/05 at 10:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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