We are the Meaning Makers

If I were Jason Kuznicki, I’d be irritated.

Here’s Jim’s explanation of his “puzzle”: It’s all about trying to find a pattern that isn’t real–when pathological, the condition is called apophenia–by relying on human design intuitions. All of the strategies are possible, even probable, modes of uncovering the structure of the puzzle–if the design is in fact designed.

It was, and it wasn’t. In the vague, meaningless sense of “design,” one often trumpeted by Salvador Cordova, an intelligent agent crafted the pseudopuzzle, first by noticing an instance of a possible pattern, then by combining words with similar endings, finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible. But the design was essentially random. Words were chosen using associations in memory (for all the -eese words, of which “Edwin Meese” is my favorite) and from a list of -ary words found here. There was no leitmotif other than “hmm, this word sounds nifty.”

In other words, if I understand him, Jim created a puzzle with the appearance of design that was, in fact, “essentially random,” leaving Jason to discern an order that wasn’t really there. Jim’s point is, as always, provocative: Pope Benedict XVI, soon to head a debate on the theological importance of intelligent design, has said, “We are not the accidental product, without meaning, of evolution.” Indeed, for even if evolution is an accident, it has birthed creatures that are meaning-makers, able to fashion order out of randomness, for better or worse. This requires tentativeness and skepticism, for we see meaning everywhere, even where it isn’t.

The notion that we can create meaning where it isn’t is itself fascinating. It demonstrates, I think, the connection between evolutionary theory and the agression of reader-response hermeneutics. After all, there is no meaning in Jim’s puzzle–it’s up to the reader to determine the meaning for himself. Which, thankfully, we’re hardwired to do.
But if that’s the case, then Kuznicki is right and Jim is wrong. If Jim is right, then he has unfortunately ceded his authority as author to determine the meaning of his own puzzle. He has given over the right to say that it has no meaning, since it is the brute facts of the world and Kuznicki is the meaning maker. The fact that Kuznicki failed to find meaning doesn’t matter at all–perhaps a greater genius (if there were such a thing) could have found a coherent meaning. Or a trivial meaning. If we are meaning makers, what does it matter?

But Jim’s puzzle still rests, if I may, on a theistic view of the world. Jim is the author, and he has intentionally created his puzzle to confuse. It is, then, a text with a meaning, but not the meaning Jim led us all to believe it had. As an author, Jim has played the Cartesian demon, “finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible.” The puzzle itself rests upon a theology that demands a malevolent God out to trick the reader.

In sum, Jim is caught in a contradiction. He tells us we are meaning makers (a la Kuznicki) but then rejects the meaning we might make out of this particular nonsense in favor of his authorial intent.
The post certainly teaches a lesson, but ironically not the lesson Jim wants.

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  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    Have I mentioned that it’s good to have you back?

    To catch me in a contradiction, you subtly rework what I wrote. I said we are meaning-makers, or, in other words, we can make meaning “even where it isn’t,” seeing the Virgin Mary in a glob of chocolate. I did not say that we make all meaning, or that we are the meaning makers.

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Andrew McKnight Selby

    So you beg the question, Jim: what is the criteria for distinguishing when we make the meaning and when we are accurately perceiving “objective” meaning (or meaning that is really there)?

    Once we have established this criteria, we can apply it to the cases advocates for Intelligent Design adduce to prove their theory. If they don’t meet the criteria, you will have proven the theory invalid.

    Coming up with the criteria is, of course, the hard thing and the bummer of holding to mild skepticism as you do.

    Best.

  • http://decorabilia.blogspot.com Jim Anderson

    Andrew,

    I’d say the scientific approach is the best we’ve found so far–testing hypotheses, junking them when new data are found. Falsifiability is a starting point. But I’m not a fan of scientism, that science is the only route to whatever truth is out there. Whether patterns are real or illusory is one of the fundamental problems of knowledge. No one ever said epistemology was going to be easy.

    As far as ID goes, trying to find patterns of intelligence via an eliminative process has been an utter failure. Actual design-finding is an inductive, not a deductive, process. Further, our inability to know the mind of a putative Designer presents a formidable barrier to figuring out any design principles, as the analogy demonstrates.

  • makelovehappen

    Objective “meaning” … ?

    Like something that is meaningful without necessarily being meaningful to someone (that is to say, meaningful to a subject)?

    Because that sounds like sin to me.

  • http://www.positiveliberty.com Jason Kuznicki

    A few interventions, if I may…

    First, I think it strains the definition of the word “theology” to say that, because Jim created a puzzle, he has therefore played God in a sort of theology.

    Were we to accept this definition of theology, then the authors of entirely mundane texts (grocery lists, users’ manuals, articles in _People_ magazine) would all be Gods, and each would be creators of a new Creation. (And, by similar argument, all bona fide theologians would be guilty of heresy, for they would be placing themselves as equals to their Subject.)

    In short, I don’t see the need to posit a “malevolent God” at work in Jim’s non-puzzle puzzle. It’s just a simple — but very interesting — misunderstanding.

    The notion that we can create meaning where it isn’t is itself fascinating. It demonstrates, I think, the connection between evolutionary theory and the agression of reader-response hermeneutics. After all, there is no meaning in Jim’s puzzle–it’s up to the reader to determine the meaning for himself. Which, thankfully, we’re hardwired to do.
    But if that’s the case, then Kuznicki is right and Jim is wrong. If Jim is right, then he has unfortunately ceded his authority as author to determine the meaning of his own puzzle.

    I incline toward the view that meaning is negotiated between author, reader, and the general reading community. Consider some examples:

    1. I tried and failed to find a convincing hidden meaning. Jim declared that there wasn’t a hidden meaning. So we both agreed — at the end of our negotiation — on a uniform interpretation of the text.
    This was what happened in real life.

    2. Suppose I tried and succeeded at finding a convincing hidden meaning. By invoking gemmatria, or astrology, or the I Ching, or whatever, I came up a uniform way of producing every item on the list. Jim now has two options:

    2a. Jim may accept my new meaning for his text. He may declare that it is a genuine improvement on his own interpretation of the thing he created. We now have a new negotiated meaning that arose through our text-centered interactions.

    2b. Jim may reject my new meaning. He may say “no, you’re wrong, because I am ignorant of gemmatria/astrology/I Ching, and I could not possibly have used these systems to devise any other meanings. Please, Jason, I beg you to return to the original meaning, which was simply a list of words chosen at random.”

    Here the negotiation may take one of two paths:

    2b(i) Jason accepts Jim’s protest: “Wow, Jim, that’s a heck of a coincidence. But if you say so, then I guess I was wrong. Forget what I said, and we’ll just go back to your original interpretation, ok?” We have once again reached accord on what the text really means.

    2b(ii) Jason rejects Jim’s protest: “Jim, I know this sounds conceited of me, but I do think I have found a better meaning for your text than you yourself have devised. It is very clearly explicable by reference to astrology. Please, reconsider your rejection, because my data are quite solid.”

    In 2b(ii), no accord is yet reached, but it could still be in the future, if either party changes their mind. It is conceivable that, in the negotiation of meaning, Jim and I could both agree to some test outside ourselves, the results of which we would both find to be definitive. If this were the case, and if we conducted this external test, we could then return to a uniformity of interpretation.

    So… While we certainly create meanings for the signifiers around us, this process does not happen in a vacuum, and it does not proceed through arbitrary inference or some unilateral Nietzschean imposition of value upon the world. It happens through reasoning, and dispute, and testing — a process that encompasses conflict itself, but which is not inherently self-contradictory.

  • http://www.positiveliberty.com Jason Kuznicki

    I can’t seem to post anything in the comments. What’s up?

  • MatthewLee

    Jim,

    It’s good to be back. I’ll see if my response to Jason clears up my thoughts at all.

    Jason,

    Welcome–sorry about the comments. I have to approve the first comments (to avoid spam), but you should be able to post freely now.

    Your description of the process is extremely helpful, and quite persuasive. Suppose 2b(ii) occurs and Jim eventually relents: it seems like what has gone on is that both people have noticed that a meaning inheres in the text that wasn’t noticed before–but the meaning inheres in the text and isn’t a product of the audience. In that way, we aren’t meaning makers of creation, but meaning noticers(?) In this case, the author would notice a new pattern that he hadn’t planned on, but the meaning is the pattern, not the audience or author’s noticing of it. In other words, the epistemology and metaphysics of meaning should be separate.

    The question at hand seems to be (if I may theologize for a minute) similar to the question of Divine Command Theory and Natural Law theory. As I tend more towards traditional natural law theory, I’m beginning to see (along with you, I think) that meaning is IN the text, not IN the author. So rather than saying “we create meanings for the signifiers around us,” I would say “we discover meanings in the signifiers around us.”

    As for the analogy between author and God, I think it holds. Authors of texts do create new creations (form on to matter), and those creations have meanings (even the grocery list). If I were a Divine Command Theorist, (which I could be three days of the week) with respect to texts, I would think that what governs the “right interpretation” is the dictates of the author.

    Mostly this is because I think literary interpretation is a moral issue–it’s a matter of rightness and wrongness, and as I think rightness and wrongness to be closely connected to theologies or atheologies, I think that the analogy is correct.

    Hermeneutics is about the act of understanding (Gadamer, I believe) and as such it isn’t limited to just texts, but the whole world. Our (a)theology should affect our literary theory and vice-versa.

    Have I just asserted that I am right? I’m not sure. : )

  • http://www.positiveliberty.com Jason Kuznicki

    MatthewLee —

    I think we are substantially in agreement, then, and the confusion has disappeared. But this process…

    Suppose 2b(ii) occurs and Jim eventually relents: it seems like what has gone on is that both people have noticed that a meaning inheres in the text that wasn’t noticed before–but the meaning inheres in the text and isn’t a product of the audience. In that way, we aren’t meaning makers of creation, but meaning noticers(?) In this case, the author would notice a new pattern that he hadn’t planned on, but the meaning is the pattern, not the audience or author’s noticing of it. In other words, the epistemology and metaphysics of meaning should be separate.

    …is most of what I would term “science.” Since we are not talking about personal, emotional, or sentimental “meanings” here, but rather about what set of explanations best accounts for a set of data, the conundrum between Jim and I actually recapitulated much of the scientific method, in some ways. (Although, because Jim was the (c)reator of the puzzle as well as one of the arbiters of meaning, he had a somewhat more powerful role in the later epistemological tangle. If we had together discovered this puzzle in an abandoned notebook on a park bench, then possibly we would have negotiated different meanings.)

  • MatthewLee

    Jason,

    I agree. As for Jim’s role, I think you are also right. A phrase a friend just gave me for the author is “privileged interpreter” of the text, which I think is appropriate.

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