Tuesday, May 30, 2006

On meaning

Various and sundry people have commented on Jeff Goldstein's confusion over who created the Mona Lisa and whether meaning in (written) texts is determined by how the type is set versus the text itself. The broader argument is about whether meaning in a text derives from the reader's interpretation or the author's intention.

I'm generally down with Lindsay's argument about the silliness of intentionalism, but there's one comment I want to pick at. Lindsay assents to the disputed footnote's premise by saying that:
the meaning of "The cat is on the mat." doesn't change if I reset it in Helvetica or Times New Roman. I can write it in red, double the point size, or sculpt the letters out of clay without changing the meaning of the sentence. It's still about some cat on some mat. Arguably, you can even translate that sentence into a different language without changing the meaning. "Le chat est sur le tapis."="The cat is on the mat." (These are all philosophically loaded assertions, but they're hardly implausible or unusual among philosophers or lay people.)
Anyone who's read Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language by Douglas R. Hofstadter knows how fluid meaning is in translations, even in attempting to render an English text in a different form in that same language. Different aspects of meaning are emphasized or de-emphasized, new meaning must be inserted, and in rendering Shakespearian language into a modern form, we have no clue what Shakespeare's intentions were.

My beef is that typesetting matters. This is a relatively trivial example, but consider these two passages, one from a quotation in Walt Brown's creationist textbook "In the Beginning",

these specimens [of Archaeopteryx] are not particularly like modern birds at all.
the other from "The Origin of Birds" by John Ostrom (1975):

these specimens are not particularly like modern birds at all.
Modulo the clarifying addition, the text of the two is identical. But Ostrom emphasized that Archaeopteryx is unlike modern birds in order to clarify that he thinks they are like ancestral birds, which is what would be predicted in any case. Brown wants to show that the fossils of Archaeopteryx are all hoaxes, so he omits the emphasis so that he can justify his claim that "If Archaeopteryx did not have a few perfectly formed, modern feathers, clearly visible on two of the six known specimens, Archaeopteryx would be considered Compsognathus." That point is quite contrary to Ostrom's, and the difference is not in the text, but in the setting of the text.

The problem is easy to generalize. Goldstein asked whether "MacBeth, printed in The Riverside Shakespeare, is a different text from MacBeth printed in a Penguin edition?" Setting aside the different editorial decisions about the treatment of differences among the existing Shakespearian folios and the critical commentary, etc. which publishers use to distinguish their versions of Shakespeare, the same text from different publishers does carry different meanings. The fact that the Swift Boat liars published their book at Regnery rather than a respected publisher tells us something about that book.

This would tend to back the intentionalist claim, but let's consider non-intentional meanings. Printed books have fixed line terminators. An author can chose where a line ends, what word begins a page, etc. In the quotations above, if one printed the text such that "modern" and "bird" happened to be separated by a linebreak, that too would de-emphasize the fact that the modernity of the bird is at issue, not the birdness. A version which put "modern bird" at the beginning of a line would help emphasize that phrase more than other aspects of the sentence.

One version of Shakespeare will begin each scene on a new page, another will run them together. One emphasizes the theatrical aspect of the play, the other emphasizes the poetic flow of the work. My AP English teacher claims that he had to regularly remind himself that the plays were meant to be performed, not just as poetry, and you understand the text differently when you remember that actors have to deliver the lines.

Another example comes to us from the great Borges. In "PIerre Menard, Author of the Quixote," Borges envisioned a 20th century author who had the intention of "produc[ing] a number of pages which coincided – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes." He rejects the path of turning himself into Cervantes by forgetting the interceding 400 years, fighting Moors in southern Spain, converting to Catholicism, etc., as too easy among the impossible paths available. He preferred to "continu[e] to be Pierre Menard and com[e] to the Quixote through teh experiences of Piere Menard."

Borges writes "Shall I confess that I often imagine that he did complete it, and that I read the Quixote – the entire Quixote [which we know Menard did not attempt] – as if Menard had conceived it?" Borge goes on to compare the Cervantes Quixote with Menard's version, finding the Menard version more subtle. Menard chose to avoid the flashy world of Carmen and the auto da fé, but to set his novel in the humble provinces of Spain, while Cervantes' choice is didactic in the contrast it establishes between romantic delusions and the pverty or rural life.

The comparisons abound, the point remaining that Menard's rendering of Cervantes' exact words carry a different meaning, and I would find a version of Don Quixote published after 1939 to be richer in meaning by virtue of its resonance with Borges' description of Menard's fictional recreation of the text. A version from before 1939 could only be Cervantes,' a later text might actually be Menard's, or at least influenced by it.

Different versions of the text mean different things. Authorial and editorial intent matters a great deal. But the reader's context matters, too. My AP English teacher above demonstrated that. Reading Othello in English class would lead to different readings and understandings than when we read it to design sets for our school's performance. A more immediate case where intent alone is insufficient comes from the 60 Minutes report on George Bush's military records. Documents were produced which a witness declared were identical in content (and therefore in original intent) to documents actually signed by a deceased commanding officer. But the question of the authenticity of the documents actually presented became the only thing that mattered. George Bush may have intended to pull a fast one, the commanding officers may have intended to do a favor for a child of political player. But the intentions of Dan Rather and others became more relevant than the intentions of the players in the story those people told.

Similarly, the millions of people who attended rallies opposing an invasion of Iraq did not intend to back ANSWER's Stalinist agenda, its backing of North Korea and opposition to invading Afghanistan. But that didn't stop people who attended such rallies from being branded bin Laden-lovers by their political enemies, nor from silly "laws" being announced to remind people that "What you’re protesting is at least as important as who’s organizing the protests." If intention alone mattered, who organized the protests would not matter at all.