Feb. 3rd, 2016

andalus: (silence)

Grice's On Meaning shows that there are two definitions for "means." 1) The natural: "X means P," where P is a natural consequence of X. 2) the non-natural (meansnn): "A meansnn something by X". Meansnn has to do with the interpretation of intentions, and is cancelable. Grice's example is "The three rings on the bell mean the bus is full," which can be cancelled by then saying "But it isn't in fact full." Natural "means" by contrast is not cancelable. You cannot follow "Those bumps mean measles" with "but he hasn't got measels."

In terms of literary studies, writers often use the two versions of means interchangably, or, worse, argue from one to the other. One can argue, for example, that a Marxist or a Freudian reading of a text is looking for natural meaning: "X means P by virtue of class struggle, or sexual repression, etc." This says nothing, however, about the text as a speech act.

Meansnn is about representation or communication (depending on whether you're reading Searle or Grice). Let's say an ecocritic argues that Moby Dick has a meaning of industrial capitalism as a good or a bad. Does this also say that Moby Dick meansnn to disseminate the notion of industrial capitalism good/bad? Does this say that Melville as author is concerned with industrial capitalism good/bad? Does this mean that a reader of Moby Dick must engage with industrial capitalism good/bad? These are all things of interpretation/representation, which have to do with intention, which is not the domain of natural meaning.

Then again, Meansnn simply brings the uncertainty of other minds into the sentence-level structure of language. Is Moby Dick a thing towards which we should have speaker uncertainty, or, instead, a vast yet theoretically understandable complexity? Is it the speech act of a person or instead a cultural object, within which and out of which proceed myriad strains of meanings and intendings?

Then again again, treating the text as a cultural object tosses aside everything art about art, the fact that it is made, by a human, in an act of representation/communication. The difference between Moby DIck and a tree or the MTA Transit System, is that in Moby Dick, to mis-apply Searle, the illocutionary act is achieved by getting the audience to recognize that it is the author's purported intention to perform that illocutionary act. While the MTA may have meaning, the representation/communication (meaningnn) of Moby Dick is a function of how much we believe that the author believed that we would believe it to be an act of representation/communication. This same would also apply if, say, an artist (a discrete speaker) put an MTA subway map in an art gallery.

Then again again again, is this just inventing a discrete author-actor when what is more interesting to talk about is an assemblage of actors, including but not confined to psychological pressures, cultural mores, generic considerations, audience expectations, the nonhuman, etc? What makes a single human mind more interesting to talk about, given the uncertainty involved and the remove at which the mind is from us? Human agency is fascinating, but how does it escape being seen, in the end, as a weak illusion in the face of the world-world?

I've been arguing for a rhetorical interpretation of the lyric, which presupposes communication which presupposes a communicating actor. The trouble is largely that I know many people will already disagree, and many will already agree, and I want to know what the difference between them is.

March 2017

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