Intent and Meaning (Part 3)

Photo Credit: caterpiya via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: caterpiya via Compfight cc

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2

There wasn’t supposed to be a part 3 for this series, but one of my readers sent a strongly-worded reaction that meant either he was misreading what I wrote or that I didn’t do a good enough job of explaining it. In any case, I thought it would be a good idea to publish his response alongside my own reactions to his response in order to clarify my point, and so other readers who have similar reactions can also read what I have to say on the matter.

I will be publishing the reader’s comments plus my reaction in dialogue form, so you can immediately see my response to the current point being made.

Comment: These arguments are always a loaded mess. Through manipulation, all you are really saying is the only meaning that really counts is what someone wants to accept. A nugget of truth wrapped around a buttload of lies.

Me: The first sentence is a faulty generalization made to make people think that I am deliberately confusing them — as evidenced also by the last sentence in that paragraph accusing me of wrapping truth “around a buttload of lies.” I want to ask though, what arguments are you referring to when you say “these arguments?” I’m not aware of any other arguments currently in the discussion. Are they “always” a “loaded mess?” Always? That’s a pretty sweeping statement you’re making. It makes you seem knowledgeable though, as if you’ve gone through many similar arguments as mine and have come to conclude that ALL of them are a mess.

But that is an unestablished claim and I would like a list of what other sort of arguments you’re referring to that are ALWAYS a mess.

Comment: The world tolerate used to MEAN that you accepted the person and treated them like a human being. Through manipulation, it has now come to mean that the other person’s views are true, whether or not it really even could be.

Me: I’m not aware of using the word “tolerate” in my article, and not in the fashion that you say it has come to mean,  so I don’t know where this is coming from. If you are just making an independent point though, let me say that I disagree with your statement. To tolerate someone else’s views doesn’t mean that the other person’s views are true or that you affirm them to be true.

In fact, tolerance is not about truth at all but about acceptance of differences. It means that even though I don’t see eye-to-eye with someone else on the matter, I will grant his right to have his own opinion on the matter, and I will treat him with dignity and respect as a human being, however wrong I think his views may be.

Comment: A famous story this reminds me of goes like this:

“Hillary, an amateur genealogical researcher, discovered that her great-great uncle, Remus Rodham, a fellow lacking in character, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Montana in 1889. The only known photograph of Remus shows him standing on the gallows.

On the back of the picture is this inscription: “Remus Rodham; horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889.”

In Hillary’s Family History, her staff of professional image consultants cropped Remus’s picture, scanned it, enlarged the image, and edited it with image processing software so that all that’s seen is a head shot.

The accompanying biographical sketch is as follows:

“Remus Rodham was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”

In the end, a lot of words were used. The truth was the same, but the meaning was manipulated. Remus was still a horse thief.

Me: This shows that you missed the point of the entire article. Your story is a perfect example of an assertion I did NOT make. Determining the meaning of a text is not about manipulating it to get it to mean what you want. In fact, I wrote about this explicitly in part 1 when I said: “Is meaning then determined by the reader? Can the reader then take any piece of literature and then make it mean whatever she wants it to mean? The answer is of course, no, because if you could make anything mean whatever you want, then that would render any text irrelevant. Anyone’s opinion on what a text means could be just as valid as anyone else’s, no matter how absurd…And that in itself is absurd.”

My point was simply that if you want to say the text means this or the text means that, then you have to base your arguments on the text itself, and NOT on an appeal to what the author really meant (for reasons already mentioned in the previous articles).

In fact, I said in part 2 that if someone were to present a weak argument, then I would “dissect his arguments, showing from the text how his interpretation was off the mark, or why his arguments were weak…I would show where his analogies break down, and why [my] interpretation is more on target because paragraph so-and-so supports it, and so on.”

If you notice also, that is exactly what I am doing here. I am quoting from my own text to support my arguments against your comments. I do not simply say, “Well this is what I really meant.” I use the text that I have already “released” to make my case.

If you notice also, I made no effort to manipulate or change your comments. I copied and pasted them as is (except to correct a couple of obvious typos). So what I did and what Hillary’s image consultants did in your example are worlds apart.

So no, sir, I am not talking about manipulation nor am I condoning it. In my arguments and examples there is a presumption of regularity and honesty in one’s search for meaning.

I hope this sheds more light on the matter.

 

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Intent and Meaning (Part 2)

Photo Credit: sjrankin via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: sjrankin via Compfight cc

Click here to read part 1.

I began this article last week by asking the question, how do we determine the meaning of a text? Is it dependent on what the author really wants to say, in other words, his intention? Or is meaning up to the reader to interpret as she sees fit?

I then gave three reasons why authorial intent cannot be taken as the absolute source of meaning:

  1. The author could be lying when he explains the text;
  2. One’s intent does not always translate to clarity of execution. In other words, I may intend one thing but the execution, the actual writing, may be so faulty that it is difficult to determine what I really mean;
  3. The author could be dead and so be unable to explain his intent.

You can look at it this way, that once an author releases the text, it is akin to giving birth. The child takes on a life of its own apart from the parent, and sometimes it takes a completely different and unexpected personality.

My longtime reader, Charlie5, wrote to me about this saying,

“In college, I got put into advanced placement English, and they wanted me to read 500 pages a week of English literature I wasn’t interested in, and write papers, so I thought I’d make it interesting, and come up with a unique and rather psychotic interpretation that I was sure was unique and out of left field, and write that up as my paper, but when the teacher read it he said, “No, that’s not how you are supposed to interpret it, we told you in class how to interpret it, rewrite the paper and interpret it the way we taught you to.” This led to me dropping out of college, looking it as a dangerous ‘thought prison’… I learned a colorful phrase from 19th century Germany writings, ‘a flung stone is the devil’s’, meaning once you compose your speech and have your say, you have no more control over how it’s going to be interpreted, it’s just out there for anyone to use in any way they see fit, unless you’re in ‘thought prison.’”

He then makes an interesting analogy:

“Writing, I think, is like a cook making stew, (or a witch her broth), putting the elements into the pot according to a grand mystical scheme, confident it’ll be good but having no way of knowing exactly how it’ll taste to each eater.”

So is meaning then fully dependent on how the reader wants to interpret the text? Is it a purely subjective affair? Last week, I said no, but the more accurate answer is yes and no. When a reader approaches a text, she always does so in the context of her own experiences and outlook in life. That is the subjective part. But the objective part, which keeps the exercise of interpretation from turning into a free-for-all, is the text itself.

To use Charlie’s cooking example, if I throw in ingredients such as chili peppers, lemon and garlic into my stew, different eaters may vary in opinion as to how spicy it is or how sour it is. They may argue about what kind of pepper or how much lemon was used. However, if someone says the stew tastes very sweet, like pure honey, then you know either that person is lying or something is wrong with his taste buds. One can refute his claims by showing the ingredients list, or getting a chemical breakdown of the stew, and showing that none of the ingredients can produce a “sweet as honey” taste, and so on.

So there is range of interpretation (our teacher used the phrase “field of meaning”) that is acceptable and defensible and one can make arguments based on the text itself. If I were the teacher in Charlie’s story, I wouldn’t tell him “No, you don’t interpret it that way.”

I would instead try to dissect his arguments, showing from the text how his interpretation was off the mark, or why his arguments were weak (I am assuming, for the sake of this example, that they were weak as Charlie himself admitted he deliberately gave a far-out interpretation). I would show where his analogies break down, and why the more “conventional” interpretation is more on target because paragraph so-and-so supports it, and so on.

In other words, interpreting a text is akin to a lawyer defending her position in court. She needs to show evidence and produce witnesses to make her case. The stronger the evidence, the better her case looks. But what if the opposing side uses the same evidence and yet comes up with a different interpretation? Well that’s where the fun begins and each side has to try their best to win the jury over with their arguments. So that is where we see the delectable tension between subjectivity and objectivity — the field of meaning from which we can draw our conclusions or argue about them.

Works that are considered classics, such as those of Shakespeare, Byron, Machiavelli, Dante, and so on, are such because they have stood the test of time and continue to be meaningful even though the context and environment have changed drastically from the time they were written. They still provide useful insight into the human condition with people finding interpretations beyond what the authors intended, but still valid nonetheless.

That is a testament to the depth and richness of the text.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Intent and Meaning (Part 1)

meaning

In my article “Gestalt” which came out two weeks ago, I mentioned that there were two college lectures I remembered from a course in Literary Theory that I remember and still draw lessons from to this day. I only had space and time to cover one that week, and instead of continuing that train of thought last week, I wrote about something else.

My good friend Jon-jon then tells me he’s still waiting for the other lecture, and was disappointed it didn’t come out last week. Well, I hate to disappoint you, Jon-jon, so this one’s for you.

The second lecture dealt with the meaning of a text and who determines it. Is it the author who determines the meaning or is it the reader? If the author intended one meaning but the reader got another meaning out of it, who is correct? Or is there even such a thing as a “correct” meaning? Both could be equally valid, after all.

To answer this question, our teacher told a story of another literature teacher whose doctoral dissertation was about a novel by this Filipino author. A major part of that dissertation was devoted to analyzing why the author used a certain name, and then delved on its meaning and symbolism and how that was crucial to properly framing and understanding the entire story.

A short time after getting her Ph.D., this teacher happened to meet the author at a party and they had a casual conversation about that particular story. The teacher related to the author her admiration for how he weaved the symbol and meaning of the name into the story. After hearing her out, the author smiled and said, “You know, your theory is very interesting but to tell you the truth, I only used that name because that was the name of my aunt who always dropped by our house and I remembered her when I was writing the story.”

Now, does that fact totally destroy the teacher’s brilliant analysis? After all, we have it straight from the author’s mouth that there was no intentional symbolism on his part. Should the teacher’s dissertation then be thrown into the wastebasket, as its major point had been invalidated by the author’s revelation? Is the meaning of a text then determined solely by authorial intent?

Not necessarily.

One, the author could simply be lying, for whatever reason.

Two, as we have experienced in life, intent is not always evident in actual action. How many times have we heard the phrase, “But that is not what I meant” or “That is not what I intended?” If you say some things that hurt your friend, even if you did not intend to, that does not invalidate the hurt she feels. If you tell a driver to “turn right” (when you really wanted him to turn left), and he turns right and meets an accident because that happened a one-way street, is your intention really a valid interpretation of “turn right?”

Intentions are often misread and misunderstood. That is where a lot of arguments and quarrels begin.

Three, the author may be unavailable to give his opinion on the matter, or worse he may be long dead. So, unless he left some notes discussing why he wrote or said certain things (which is not often the case), it would be virtually impossible to determine his original intention.

For these reasons, we cannot simply say that the meaning of the text is determined by what the author says she intended. Then what place does the author’s voice have in determining meaning? What a lot of literary experts suggest is that the author is also a reader — although with a slightly privileged status — much like the parents of an adult. You do not hold the parents accountable for everything their adult son or daughter does, but they can give you valuable insight into understanding their character.

In the same way, author’s intention should not be taken as the be-all and end-all of meaning, but should be taken as an insight on how the text is supposed to be read. But whether or not it achieves its goal of communicating that meaning clearly is another matter.

Is meaning then determined by the reader? Can the reader then take any piece of literature and then make it mean whatever she wants it to mean? The answer is of course, no, because if you could make anything mean whatever you want, then that would render any text irrelevant. Anyone’s opinion on what a text means could be just as valid as anyone else’s, no matter how absurd.

And that in itself is absurd.

So if meaning does not reside with the author, nor is it determined by the reader, where then can it be found? How can it be determined? And is there a definitive authority who can say what that meaning really is?

The answers to these…next week. Enough nosebleed for today.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Forgiven and Free

Photo Credit: jeronimoooooooo via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: jeronimoooooooo via Compfight cc

I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Forgiven and Free.” In that phrase lies the appeal of Christianity that has survived throughout the centuries.

As a young child, I had already been indoctrinated with the idea that I was a sinful being worthy of being roasted in the fires of hell. This was all because of Adam’s sin, I was told. I was quite upset with that and thought it rather unfair that I should suffer for his stupidity.

“It’s not like that,” my teacher said. “We’re not paying for something he has done. Rather, his fallen nature has transferred to his descendants. We are therefore paying for our own sins. I mean, you’ve committed some sins, haven’t you? You’ve lied, or disobeyed your parents, or fought with your classmates? We can’t help it because no matter how much we try to be good, our fallen nature pulls us down.”

I thought about that for a moment. It seemed to make some sense. So I nodded my head.

“That is why,” the teacher continued, “God showed his love for us by sending his only son Jesus, to die for our sins. Can you imagine that? That is why the Bible says that ‘whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.’”

At that time, I didn’t think about how God could have had a son when he didn’t have a wife, and if he did, why wasn’t she a Goddess ruling beside him? I didn’t think about the irony of God’s son being himself and the self-imposed sacrifice he penalized himself with for a situation he could have prevented easily by not putting that godforsaken tree in the middle of the garden. I didn’t think about how hollow such a sacrifice was. I mean, even I would go through 3 days of hell if I knew at the end of it that I would be resurrected and raised to the highest throne above all creation. Excruciating pain and suffering for a few hours and death for 3 days in exchange for an eternity of glory and all of creation worshipping me? Where do I sign up?

But like I said, I didn’t think about any of that. I just thought, “Yeah, he’s right. I’m a turd worthy of being flushed down into the fiery abyss, but thank you Lord for saving me.”

This is the doctrine of depravity — that we are born depraved, broken, shameful, enslaved and condemned — and out of all the religions that play this game, Christianity has played it very well. First, it convinces us that depravity is a fact. As illustrated by my Sunday School example above, it often starts at childhood when adult Christians show children that they are inherently sinful because they cannot control their undesirable impulses and actions. And then, contrary to other religions where you need to work yourself out of that situation (by doing good works, thinking good thoughts, constantly improving yourself, etc.), Christianity offers a relatively easy way out — have faith in Jesus and you are already saved.

But doesn’t make one free to do evil things after one has believed in Jesus’ redemptory sacrifice? Not at all, because now they say that you “prove” your belief is real by your actions. If your actions are contrary to Christian teachings, then that only shows your belief is simply lip service and God will not be fooled that easily.

Finally, it puts the fulfillment of salvation just beyond your reach — after death — where no one can  demonstrably verify the truth of its claims about heaven or hell, of being united again with your departed loved ones, or of mansions and rewards and meeting Jesus face-to-face. So one goes through life constantly nurturing this hope, afraid to doubt and let go of belief because the cost of that is too high — one might lose the golden ticket and be turned away at the pearly gates for lack of faith.

It is a stroke of genius, really. It is easy to get in the door, yet hard to leave because the perceived rewards are too great to give up, or the perceived punishment for doing so is too gruesome to contemplate. That is why a preacher remarked that if he cannot get a person interested in the beauty of heaven, then the next strategy was to put the fear of hell into him.

Yet it all hinges on one accepting that initial premise — that one is broken and depraved and the only solution to that is Jesus.

It is a worldview I no longer accept. Humans aren’t broken. We simply go through stages in life, learning along the way, making mistakes as we grow and adapt to our environment. This is true all throughout nature. Seeds become seedlings, then saplings, before becoming full-grown trees. There is no talk of seeds being imperfect trees, or tadpoles being imperfect frogs.

Yes, it is the nature of children to be rude, selfish and petty, but that is not due to the inborn stain of original sin — as if it was a manufacturing defect — that is simply how children are. Then we learn how to become social beings. We learn how to act unselfishly and relate to others in a friendly manner. We learn how to forgive others and ourselves. We learn how to love others and ourselves.

Loving and forgiving ourselves is actually more difficult than it sounds. If there is anything that children are burdened with, it is the illusory guilt of not being good enough, of not knowing enough, of being “just” kids. We grow up with this guilt and feeling of inadequacy, and this is where Christianity’s vast appeal comes in. It is our nature to value other people’s approval and validation, and what could be more appealing than having the approval and acceptance of the creator of the universe, the ultimate father figure?

I believe this is just a subconscious projection. When we think we have been forgiven by God himself, we are actually giving ourselves permission to forgive ourselves in a way that circumvents the feeling of being self-serving when we just forgive ourselves anyway.

But it is possible to truly love and forgive ourselves. That is all we really need. Because when we learn to see ourselves for who we really are, and learn to accept that, we realize there is nothing to forgive, and we have always been free.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

Gestalt

Photo Credit: oponaut via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: oponaut via Compfight cc

One of the more interesting classes I took in college was Literary Theory. It was not part of my curriculum but I had heard a lot about the teacher, Dr. Edna Zapanta-Manlapaz, and I decided wasn’t about to graduate without taking one or two of her classes. So I asked her permission if I could sit in her class (I found out about it two or three weeks into the semester so it was too late to officially enroll). She was gracious though and granted me permission to be in her class, as long as I complied with the work like any other regular student. I thought that was as good a deal as any so I took it.

There were two lectures from that class that I still draw lessons from up to this day.

In the first one, the teacher came into class and handed out sheets of paper containing a short poem of around 10 lines. She gave us a few minutes to read the poem, then asked someone to read it aloud, then asked us what it meant. The discussion that ensued went this way and that, as it was quite a vague poem. When one student tried to justify his answer with a certain line, the teacher would use another line to counter that argument. When another used a certain word as a symbol or metaphor, the teacher would use another word to show that didn’t quite make sense. The discussion became heated and polarized and soon there were two or three factions in class espousing one idea over another.

When it seemed that the issue was unresolvable, the teacher gave away the secret.

The “poem” was not an actual poem. She had taken the first two lines from one poem, the next two from another, and so on and so forth. What we were reading was actually a mash-up of several poems. It wasn’t any wonder then, why we couldn’t agree on the meaning.

And then she introduced us to the concept of “gestalt” and explained it as the natural inclination of our minds to create or infer meaning from seemingly unrelated pieces of data. It’s like when we are faced with pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, we assume that they will somehow come together and form a coherent picture. In fact, some try very hard to force the pieces together because it just needs to mean something, somehow. It cannot be utterly meaningless.

That is very much how it is with many people in life. When bad things happen, like when one loses a job, then “God must be telling me something” or “when God closes a door, he opens a window.” When a loved one dies in a freak accident, then it’s “God has a plan” or “God must have needed another angel” or “this is punishment for me playing that awful prank on my classmate many years ago.” When good things happen, like a sudden upturn in business or a promotion, then it’s “all things work together for those who love God” or “I must have done something good in my past life.”

Events and circumstances are rarely seen as they are but are always interpreted against the backdrop of what one thinks life’s meaning should be. In our part of the world, that usually means how one fits into the Divine plan, or to one’s place in the karmic wheel. Stella, my editor-in-chief, believes herself as the spoiled brat of the universe and touts that as the reason why her flights often arrive ahead of schedule, or how she can get through Manila traffic in record time.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the New Atheists who claim that there is no God or universal force, that everything happens by chance and that any meaning we derive from life comes from whatever meaning we ourselves put into it. That sounds all well and good at first, but if you think about it, it can also paint a pretty bleak picture because, well, what’s the point of it all then?

While I definitely do not subscribe to the idea that we are chess pieces moved to and fro by some divine hand who has a mysterious plan for us, I also find it disheartening to think that all the energy we expend on living and loving really has no ultimate point at all as humanity hurtles towards oblivion and obliteration.

Perhaps there is something that started this all, that nudges us along in our day-to-day living, that provides us with inspiration to create beauty, to celebrate with friends, or to find joy and peace amidst despair and turmoil. It is not a strict schoolteacher watching your every mistake and looking to give you an F (or sending you to hell). It is instead a loving parent or a wise old friend, gracious and understanding of your shortcomings, always encouraging you to pick up the pieces and move on and move forward.

Or perhaps this is just me trying to force pieces of the puzzle together. Perhaps there is no puzzle after all. Who knows?

(I mentioned two lectures, but only had space for one today. Perhaps I will tackle the other lecture next week. Who knows?)

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

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