snubnosed in alpha

Christian reflections on the way the world is and ways the world might be

Monday, May 28, 2007

the locus of textual meaning

I'm trying to get a bead on what constitutes the locus of textual meaning. What determines what a text means or doesn't mean? E.D. Hirsch wants to say that a text means whatever an author intended it to mean, plain and simple. Stanley Fish, if I remember correctly, thinks that the meaning of a text is whatever it does to a careful and competent reader. There are, of course, various and sundry other views of which I have only a sketchy, second-hand knowledge.
Now, I've never inclined much towards views that want to do away with what the author intended to communicate when speaking about meanings of texts. That the author's intention for her text is a (if not the) determiner of text's meaning has always struck me as just common sense.
But it's more complicated than Hirsch thinks. Whatever Alanis Morisette may have intended for the lyrics of "Ironic," none of them were instances of irony (at least not for the reasons Morisette thought).
Perhaps a better example would be a radio operator frantically trying to signal 'SOS' but repeatedly typing "...----..". Whatever he intends, the radio operator is saying to the world "SOD" over and over again. His intention does not seem sufficient to make "...----.." mean 'SOS' and certainly not sufficient to get him rescued.
But why? The reason "...----.." doesn't mean 'SOS' even though that's what the radio operator intends to communicate is not because of some sort of autonomy of the signal. It is, rather, because the signal is constrained by the rules or conventions of morse code. Given the rules of morse code, "...----.." can only mean 'SOD'. So it would seem that the meaning of the signal depends not just on the intention of the operator but on the operator's successfully encoding his intention into the signal.
If we think of a language as basically being a very complex (and transient!) code (a model which Umberto Eco seems to think is helpful), then may we say that the meaning of a bit of writing or speech depends upon the speaker or writer successfully encoding her intended message into the writing or speech, with success being determined by the (sometimes flexible, unspoken, and/or informal) rules of that language's grammar, literary conventions, idioms, etc. (i.e., the rules of that language's "code")?
Thoughts? Feelings? Snide remarks, anyone?

10 Comments:

Blogger A Sojourner said...

ok, so even though you never mention Biblical texts, I assume that's what your alluding to. so my snide remark would be that I should hope the original authors had a better command of their language than Alanis Morrisette has of English, at least to be able to use the vocab cogently and correctly. maybe that's a naive hope!

secondly (as we were briefly discussing earlier), meaning should never be boiled down to just one source in my opinion. using the Trinity as a paradigm applicable to language, meaning is best extracted when all three aspects are accounted for - Speaker (God), Discourse (Christ), Audience (Holy Spirit). Taking any one of these in isolation may lead to a correct perception of meaning, but more often this lends itself to misinterpretation because it doesn't have the safeguards of the other 2 aspects of communication.

Of course, as Christians we have the complicated task of factoring in the divine (infallible) nature of very human (and therefore fallible) language. But that digresses from your conversation. So you've alluded to meaning as a product of the interaction between the speaker and the discourse, but But I think your point may be getting confused in the examples. For example, SOS being tapped out incorrectly to yield SOD truly is a case of not communicating what was intended, but it's not the same mistake as Alanis Morrisette. For the analogy to hold it would equate to Alanis saying something like "Isn't it iconic" instead of "ironic". So the miscommunication in the SOS example amounts to a typographical error while the Alanis example is one of erroneous defintion. Does that make sense? Of course both examples do contribute to the notion that whatever the author writes, what is intended and what actually gets communicated depends on all the things you listed as well as what the reader brings to the table. When considering the reader, I would say "success" isn't bound by the grammar/idioms/etc. of the speaker, because we must also consider the reader who may be bringing different cultural, historical and sociological presupps to the table. And while that might automatically imply misinterpretation to some, I have to concede that often times in my life God has allowed me to "misinterpret" passages to teach me truths embedded in the "misinterpretation". So as fluid as language is (and while I am still a proponent of structured hermeneutics), I'd say we have to be careful to not automatically deny the interpretation of a laypeople when it seems like a drastic misinterpretation. It may be, but if it isn't sacrilige, "SOD" may be exactly what God wants to communicate to that person!

sorry for the length and i know i got off topic, but this is where my thoughts went. take it for what it's worth!

1:55 AM  
Blogger J. Byas said...

I might be mistaken but I think the comparison between Alanis and "SOD" does hold up but with any analogy, it can't be taken too far. The point of comparison is that what the author 'meant' isn't what was communicated. Therefore, it seems that authorial intent cannot be the sole criterion for meaning. Am I understanding your authorial intent Dave?

2:11 AM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Jared, you have indeed caught my authorial intent.
Mike, kudos all around. However, what I'm trying to get at is primarily the question of what constitutes the meaning of a text...any text. What constitutes the meaning of Moby Dick, or this article from Time, or the label on the back of this Windex bottle, or this letter from my mom? I'm talking about the meaning of texts in the everyday sort of sense. As to how that relates to the Scriptures, well, I suspect that Romans and Jeremiah and so on have meanings in this everyday sense. If there is more to these texts than that, that's another matter. The Scriptures may have more meanings than the everyday sort I'm thinking of, but they probably do not have less.

It is certainly true that God can communicate truths to us via our "misinterpretations" of texts. I thought that that was a very good and pastorally helpful point that Dr. Poythress made in Hermeneutics. (It's also a point that I think Karl Barth might have been very pleased with!)
Now, of course there are lots of things that factor into successful communication. But I'm really trying to get at a definition of textual meaning. Is it mere authorial intention? Is it the successful encoding of authorial intention into a bit of discourse? Is it the reader's/hearer's understanding? Is it some sort of triangulation of author, communicative convention (langue), and reader? Or some other triangulation or dialectic? If it is some sort of triangulation, is there some rigorous, discursive way of defining textual meaning or must we just slap a triangle up on the black-board and leave it at that?

8:10 AM  
Blogger A Sojourner said...

I think in my ramblings in the middle of the night I was kind of just thinking out loud. I see how both analogies contribute, I just wanted to show they weren't showing the same kind of mistaken meaning.

If we're talking about texts in general (which I now know we are), we can avoid the discussion of authorial intent being intimately and truly but imperfectly and incompletely integrated with God's intent which also makes use of the reader's response.

Soooooo, all that to say, the issue of authorial intent and meaning is categorically and qualitatively different for inspired texts than for general ones, the former requiring (in my opinion) the trinitarian approach, while the latter concerns the relationship of author and grammar/idioms/etc. Am I even close to addressing your question?

If I'm reading all this correctly, my intention at this point is to just show the difference in locus of meaning between inspired and non-inspired texts.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Joel said...

When we speak of "authorial intent" what do we mean by an "author"? The concept of an author is itself problematic and historically situated.

3:57 PM  
Blogger J. Byas said...

I might be a heretic here (so let me know if I am) but I think I can both agree and disagree with Mike on a "categorical and qualitative" difference between how to approach meaning in Scripture and those texts outside the canon. Again, I find Schleiermacher helpful. Can it be the case that there is in fact two readings of Scripture, the philological and the dogmatic? So in one instance (maybe seeing the diversity of human authorship) we can read the text just as any text (e.g. the medicine bottle) for meaning but in another instance (maybe seeing the text as being of divine authorhship) we must read the text using a different methodology? The 'philological methodology' undergirding the 'dogmatic' but never having one without the other (dialectic). Haven't thought this through though, just a working idea.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Susan said...

Forgive me for moving this in a slightly different direction. But, what happens with authorial intent, discourse, and reader response in a situation where non-Scriptural writing alludes to Scripture, but the reader is oblivious? In a biblically illiterate society, this is reality. How does one understand Yeats' "Second Coming" without familiarity with Revelation? What about Sandburg's "Losers" without the minor prophets? For these kinds of examples, conveyance of meaning not only requires the three-way convergence, but contextual background. Without knowledge of the appropriate biblical context, the reader can know the meaning of every word of these poems within their sentence structure, yet still fail to grasp what the author was really trying to do.

11:05 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Joel, you bring up a good point. It might be inconsistent of me to be so squeamish about leaning too heavily on the notion of the "autographs" with respect to our doctrine of Scripture while leaning so heavily on the idea of the "author" when defining textual meaning. However, when I think of an "author", I do have a fairly flexible concept in mind. An author can be a person who puts pen to paper, a person who appropriates another person's discourse as his or her own, a redactor, a pseudonymous writer (though, often not his/her namesake), and things like that. But you're absolutely right that I need to precise my idea of "author" a good bit more.

Jared, yes, you're a heretic. Favorably citing Schleiermacher in the blogosphere? Dude, you're never getting ordained.
I do sympathize with your proposal, though. However, I still lean towards thinking of the philological as being the way into the dogmatic. I'm very wary of letting dogmaticians lord their doctrinal formulations over philological study of the text.

Susan, I understand your concern and biblical illiteracy is definitely the norm in our society. But we probably want to distinguish between a bit of discourse's meaning and a reader/hearer's ability to grasp that meaning. Or, in your terms, a text's meaning and the conveyance of a text's meaning. The meaning of the signal "...---..." is independent of that signal's recipient being able to understand Morse code. It might be that in a Morse code-illiterate society nobody would be able to understand what "...---..." means, but that would not change the fact that it means "SOS" or "Help!" Similarly, the inability of a Biblically illiterate individual or society to pick up on the Scriptural allusions in Yeats or Sandburg (or Paul, for that matter!) does not alter the meaning of those texts. What has altered is the conditions under which those texts will be interpreted, and those conditions may or may not be favorable for understanding the texts.

1:37 AM  
Blogger Susan said...

I see your confusion, so let me try again. You said: "It is, rather, because the signal is constrained by the rules or conventions of morse code. Given the rules of morse code, "...----.." can only mean 'SOD'. So it would seem that the meaning of the signal depends not just on the intention of the operator but on the operator's successfully encoding his intention into the signal." What is involved in sucessful encoding, or the rules or conventions you bring up? Both concepts depend upon a recipient who can properly decode. What does authorial intent matter if no one but the author can decode?

Let me give a real life example. If decoding is irrelevant to meaning, any combination of - say - letters on a page may be said to mean something as long as they were put there by a purposeful author. When a young child starts scribbling and gaining facility with letters and numbers, he writes gibberish. If you simply look at a page he produces, you will never know what it means. If you ask him, however, he will tell you - usually with great delight. But, keep the paper, and ask him a few years later? He'll have no idea. So what is the locus of meaning for that text? Is it the meaning in the moment, never to be revisited? Is it gibberish? To what extent does textual meaning require successful conveyance?

By giving us the Scriptures, God did not simply drop a book filled with - say - the symbols of angelic language (if such symbols exist), nor did he speak to us from heaven using the modality of intertrinitarian communication. Such communication attempts would be filled with meaning, but we would be unable to ever figure it out. But, God did not do that. He condescended to use human beings and human language so that we would have the capacity to receive and understand what was written.

My question is simply an extension of that idea. What really separates contextual knowledge of a literary allusion from the rules of morse code? (In my original post, I specifically spoke of Scriptural allusions, but really, this holds for any literary allusion.) My point is that embedded meaning is only as good as both successful encoding "...---..." and the decoding ability of the recipient, both of which you acknowledge - plus a contextual factor. It's possible that you may be thinking of context as subsumed within the list at the end of your original post - eg, grammar, literary conventions, idioms - but, the cases I mentioned strike me as significant enough examples to highlight. Keeping with my original frame of reference, it's not simply about the loss of biblical literacy (although that is surely an issue), but the accompanying diminunition of textual meaning for those bits of writing which depend upon it.

9:14 AM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Susan,
Thanks for the clarification. But given the (conjectural) definition of meaning I gave in my initial post I think it's safe to say that the gibberish a young child writes is just that: gibberish. The child may have successfully scrawled out letters and numbers on a page but he has not succeeded in encoding a message in accord with the rules/conventions of any existing code. Thus, on my definition of textual meaning, it would seem that the text never had a meaning.
Now, there's certainly a sense in which codes and successful encoding are tied up with the existence of recipients who can decode. Codes are social realities. But codes can fall into disuse and be forgotten. Social realities are temporal and can pass away. So a telegraph sent in Morse code might not be intelligible to anyone in a world where nobody uses Morse code anymore. But the meaning of the telegraph has not changed or diminished on that account. The telegraph was written in a time and culture where Morse code was understood and in use, that is to say, when there were recipients who could decode.
The meaning of the telegraph does not depend upon there being people who can successfully decode it in all times and places. Rather, I would suggest, the meaning of the telegraph depends only on the code being or having been a current social reality at some time or other.
So it seems to me that in the case of our society's dwindling Biblical literacy, what is diminished is not the textual meaning of Yeats' works and the like, but rather our access to that textual meaning. It's the difference between a text's meaning being lost and a text's meaning being lost on us.

10:06 AM  

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