The Elephant of It and the Flea of Me

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Literary criticism: 1) A kind of thong worn by the intellectually obese; and 2) The morbid compulsion to floss dentures. See, Exhibitionism, Sublimated Versions of.

So we have these three pound brains capable (according to some estimates) of performing some 38,000 trillion operations per second and possessing around 3,600 terabytes of memory. At this very moment, the most complicated system known to humanity is humming behind your eyes, and the eyes of billions of others—billions—each of them ‘programmed’ by a unique set of circumstances.

Which brings me to the puny string of code we like to call ‘language.’

Somehow, using only the reed-thin bandwidths of oral and visual signalling, these supercomplicated systems are able to coordinate, assimilate, and compete. Posed in these terms, it almost seems a miracle that language works at all. In a sense, it’s like stirring the ocean with a swizel-stick, except that this particular ocean consists of information: everything the system takes up will have systematic consequences—potentially drastic ones. Love. Murder. This ocean has evolved to be stirred by next to nothing at all. So the question is, what will any given brain make of any given string of linguistic code.

The question is interpretation.

The urge here is to go formal. The complexities are such that it seems necessary to push abstraction to the limit to say much of anything at all. Each brain will make what it will of any given linguistic instance—each reading will be unique. But what we want is to generalize over a plurality of readings, and to arbitrate between them. So let’s say the ‘meaning’ of any linguistic communication is simply the overall state of the interpreting system. Since every system is unique (and since the complexity of the system dwarfs that of the communication), you can say that for any piece of code, there will be as many meanings as there are readers. To the degree that every system resembles every other system, you can predict that these meanings will converge, cluster about points of interpretative agreement.

At least two interpretative axes can be distinguished:

1)     Communicative: where a given response generally accords with the sender’s ‘intention.’

 2)     Generative: where a given response generally diverges with the sender’s ‘intention.’ In this case, the receiving system generates a reading more or less incompatible with what the sender was ‘hoping to convey.’ Generative readings can be either be normative or idiosyncratic. Normative generative readings are those interpretations that are common, even though the sender never ‘intended’ them. Idiosyncratic generative readings are those interpretations that are rare. They in turn can be either infective, which is to say, convincing to others, or morbid.

Straightforward enough, so far. The lurking problem here is hinted at in the scare-quotes around ‘intention.’ You see, the difficulty isn’t simply the relative information density of the brain versus the paucity of language, it’s also the question of where we—that is, the conscious portions of our brain—fit into all of this. Language amounts to throwing pennies at the GDP of nations as it is, and yet only a fraction of its effects are accessible to consciousness. Words just comes to us. Poof! there they are, attributions of value and all.

We, the conscious writer and the conscious reader, are literally a bottleneck in a bottleneck. Language comes to us, and we formulate our comprehension of it in—guess what?—more language. Only encapsulation gives us the illusion that we control, let alone fathom, what our brains are doing. You could say our readings own us far more than otherwise.

Who can say what they ‘really intended’ while writing? Who can say that they ‘truly gave the benefit of the doubt’ to what they were reading? Not only does our ill-will have a habit of slipping between the cracks of our attention, it tends to be excised from the ’official record’ as well. And the list of possible ‘skews’ goes on. We’re just a whitehead on a pimple on the big fat ass of our brain.

So, the question: Are we really just stranded with rank guesswork when it comes to issues of meaning? Does anyone know what the fuck they’re talking about? Are there any criteria that can rescue interpretation?