Critical Realism in Literary Theory, pt 1.5: Transcendent Semiosis

This model I've been putting forth raises some questions. I can imagine someone accusing me of trying to bring about the death of meaning. This would be at once an overstatement and a misunderstanding. I thought of another analogy the other day which I find helpful. Think of a computer. It is designed by its "author" to perform a function, but that function is not realized until someone plugs it in, boots it up, and uses it. No one would point at a calculator and say "that plastic case contains calculation." Instead, you would say "that calculator can be used to calculate."

But why insist on such a subtle distinction? As I said earlier, the various moments which comprise the act of reading require various disciplines to fully determine the [most efficient] function of a text. But I think there's an even more important payoff. Think of Biblical hermeneuticists, who devote time and energy into interpreting a text because they believe what God intends for humanity is encoded into this collection of words. By thinking in terms of semiosis rather than inherent meaning, they are forced to acknowledge that this decoding will always be ongoing. At least until people unplug the computer, or stop reading the Bible.

Consider what Umberto Eco says about hermeneutics:
The problem with the actual world is that, since the dawn of time, humans have been wondering whether there is a message and, if so, whether this message makes sense. With fictional universes, we know without a doubt that they do have a message and that an authorial entity stands behind them as creator, as well as within them as a set of reading instructions.

Thus, our quest for the model author is an Ersatz for that other quest, in the course of which the Image of the Father fades into the Fog of the Infinity, and we never stop wondering why there is something rather than nothing.
So, if for Eco interpreting a text is an Ersatz for interpreting life itself, according to this model the meaning-making we engage in when we read a text is, in my opinion, more than just a substitution for the meaning-making we engage in as societies. Through semiosis, we as communities of readers cultivate our own ecology of meaning--something that is living rather than just in flux, something much more like the electrons pulsing through a computer than just the hard drive itself.


Greg McKinzie said...

For my own clarification: is what you are proposing genre-specific? Does it apply to your post, for example, or my comment? In other words, does your proposal here "contain inherent meaning" or does it merely mean whatever your community of readers decode it to mean?

For those benefitted by nonverbals, I'm smiling good-naturedly as I type. Or . . . =)

Bryan Tarpley said...

of the two options you've given me, the latter is the most accurate. you're glossing over the fact, however, that to the extent that i share social fabric with a specific community of readers, the affect i've attempted to have on my readers will be more likely to occur.

you and i, for instance, share a lot of social fabric. if i were to tell you "i pretend i'm a tree," only a very select group of people would experience the affect i'm trying to have (because of a shared D&D experience). in other words, all language is jargon, and the less social fabric you share with an author, the less you're likely to experience the affect she is trying to have on you. the attempt to recreate meaning-events in an ancient text is essentially an attempt to understand an ancient people sociologically. so the question becomes, how important is it to recreate meaning-events contemporary to the author? in the case of a biblical text, i can imagine the answer so be "it depends." if you are attempting to solve a textual riddle (what a particular idiom means, for instance), it would be very important to attempt the recreation of meaning-events. if you are reading the text for meditative or spiritual ends, it probably wouldn't matter as much, and to the extent that you believe in a living god and a holy spirit, there is in fact that possibility of a living text that catalyzes new, perfectly valid meaning-events.

Greg McKinzie said...

That's a helpful clarification. I know that your concerns here are wider than biblical hermeneutics, and you know that biblical hermeneutics is where my interest lies. Given that caveat, I'll dive through the door you've opened for me, with the conviction that the smaller province of biblical studies has something to contribute to the wider discussion without assuming that my comments will be right on target for all kinds of texts. I suppose that tips my hand a bit--I don't think that all texts work the same way. But diversity rather than a single homogenizing or absolutizing theory should jive well with our postmodern concerns, right? =) More to come when I've got some time to type.

Greg McKinzie said...

As a biblical theologian, I come at the ideas you've presented with very particular concerns. I am interested in an ancient text that, by virtue of my religious convictions, is *assumed* to function cross-culturally. No few pages of biblical hermeneutics and missiology have been penned in search of how exactly that might be achieved, but all of it is done with the conviction that there is a how to be found, due to the nature of the biblical text's relationship to "reality," "truth," "God," "the metanarrative," etc. Some of the assumptions inherent in critical realism, as a post-postmodern phenomenon, are therefore at odds with my own assumptions right out of the gate. That is, social fabric may well be irrelevant if the objectivity the text deals with is accessible to all social constructs. While critical realists are self-designated advocates of the existence of such "reality" or common humanity or whatever, I'm as yet unconvinced that they are willing to state the implications plainly for fear of losing the postmodern audience they are most interested in coaxing back from the precipice of relativist oblivion. So, in terms of our previous comments, you are in fact attempting to have an effect. The question then is not whether you share social fabric with your readers but whether your readers are willing to try to understand you. They may, therefore, seek clarification about your silly, ambiguous tree theatrics and come to understand them regardless of social fabric or shared experience--though it would require some work and a good deal of kind-hearted empathy. Of course, if it is the "affect" of an inside joke you're seeking as an author, then shared experience is everything. But that is precisely why I believe genre is vitally important. For if we're talking about a text that is attempting not simply to have an affect but to convey meaning--and I don't mean merely propositional content, but also a metanarrative about reality--then the recreative act does far less damage to the intended affect. Insofar as both your inside joke and my metanarrative "mean" something, my point hinges on the meaning of "meaning" (and now we know we are well entrenched in a philosophical discussion). =) But that is merely a semantical point that a few definitional caveats can clarify. To sum up, even if meaning events are chemical reactions, the reader can be the chemist if she chooses, and seek a particular reaction that is not natural for her social location. So I agree with you completely that *the* question is: How important is it to recreate meaning events? If the author is trying to convey what I will call *actual meaning*--conceptual stock, cognitive framework, paradigm, etc.--and the reader *cares* to let the author speak, then the recreative event is imperative, and going on about my own subjectivity is of marginal importance.

Greg McKinzie said...

In the case of the biblical text, which is especially given to subjectivity because of teachings about inspiration and the Holy Spirit, the question of genre is no less important. But I find it more helpful to speak in terms of function rather than genre. If the text functions to convey a given meaning, that is one thing; if the text functions to be a focal point for my own meaning-generating spirituality, that is another. If the latter, I would contend that we are no longer talking about the way a text qua text works--a literary theory--but instead we're talking about the function of a spiritual talisman or a piece of religious art. That is not to say that a text may not serve more than one function at a time. But such duality should not obfuscate the communicative function humans *intend* language to serve. More to the point, the dispute about the degree to which what the biblical text "means to me" should correspond to what it "meant" has a venerable history. But that dispute is, at root, about an starting point, an assumption. Does the text, in that it does contain a meaning that I might recreate and understand, serve to bound or guide subsequent meaning generation in different social locations or not. The question is not whether it *can,* for it surely can if we care enough to recreate that meaning and believe it matters; the question is whether that is the function the text is intended (by God, the authors, the early church, or whoever gets the credit) to serve.

Courtneyism said...

This is OT. I stopped by to tell you I appreciated your comments on Northernness from a long ago post.

Bryan Tarpley said...

Thanks Courtney! Those Inklings put their finger on many fascinating things, Northerness probably being my favorite.