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The manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning

in Ark Review/Essays by

I would like to talk here about the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.

Before I proceed, a short explanation is due. The phrase ‘[…] the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning’ is not of my own coinage. It is a formulation I take from a 1969 essay by Michel Foucault entitled What is an Author? To be precise – as the use of “[…]” implies – it is a fragment of a longer statement. In full, the original sentence reads: ‘The author is therefore the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.’

Why this fragment, why not a whole? A-theoretically: I note a certain appeal in the fragment, akin, perhaps, to that experienced by a photographer or a painter, who, on a beautiful day, takes a walk down a country alley. The world around—the sun, the trees, the dust of the path—is a delight as a whole. Now and then, however, certain parts of the landscape stand out, saying: ‘take heed of me, am I not something you cannot just pass by? Wouldn’t I make a great picture?’ This is the call of a fragment, the arrest of one’s attention.

Theoretically: a disengagement of the phrase from the particular issue of the author frees the sentence to universality. Suddenly, it becomes a twofold juxtaposition: the manner we fear – the proliferation of meaning. A likely pair? An unlikely one? By all means: a telling combination.

What follows is concerned with the particular issue of text. The meaning I have in mind is the meaning conveyed by text. The corresponding fear is the fear born of the encounter with a meaning of a text.

The proliferation of meaning

Imagine the simplest of disagreements between the readers; over a novel, an article, a poem. The sheer multitude of possible approaches, angles, readings and claims—in short, the multitude of possible ways of interacting with any given text that results in (or rather: which immediately always is) what we call the ‘meaning’ of a text. This simple image shall suffice to illustrate the point, provided it needs an illustration at all—the fact that meaning proliferates is simply, phenomenally, a fact of our life. The idea that to each piece of text there always correspond a fixed, rigid and finite meaning—i.e. that a text is a puzzle in need of solving—is quickly and effortlessly undermined by the quotidian experience of  life itself. Although fixed and static (as a material object), the text always is simultaneously a locus of a dynamic meaning.

How does this proliferation of meaning come about? The multitude of elements contributing to the fluid nature of the seemingly fixed text is far too great to present here. Inevitably then, a simplification: meaning as the occurrence between the text and the reader may be characterized by two broad aspects: the eclectic and the idiosyncratic.

Any text is a certain condensation of a particular life it is rooted in. It comes with its own history, as does its author. Never in void, it is always embedded in the manifold of contexts: some of them seen as significantly affecting the meaning—society, culture, politics, tradition—others seen as being of lesser importance. Furthermore, each text is always a text among other texts. If not first and foremost a monad, a point reflecting the whole world, then each texts is always possibly one: no aspect could be a priori and in principle excluded from potentially affecting or altering the meaning of a text. Everything can become a piece in the colorful mosaic of meaning. This is what could be called the eclectic aspect of the meaning of text: although fixed in itself—always a static point in time and space—its facets are manifold, mysterious and fluid.

However carefully one tries to fix meaning and make sure it remains what one would like it to be, unaltered and ossified, it stubbornly refuses the procedure. It overpowers by its excess.

This eclecticism comes about, however, only when and only because there is a reader of a text. And readers never come alone: people, not merely a person, are the readers. When I read a book, the happening of reading is always only one among many. At least in one important sense then the proliferation of meaning is brought about through the fact of human plurality.

You, me, everyone else: in our own particular and unique existence, we all bear within ourselves a possibility of a unique meaning discovery and its formulation. In the very fact of human plurality (here: the plurality of readers) one can discover what could be labelled the idiosyncratic aspect of the meaning of the text. The meaning I discover is always necessarily only one unique meaning among many.

Through my own existence, I come to the text with a unique set of assumptions, aware of them or not. As such, in our uniqueness, we have the capacity to make the texts the eclectic monads reflecting the world, each time making them into something they have not been before. No decision on the side of the reader as to how to engage with the text, deliberate or not, can be discarded.

In meaning then, the eclectic and the idiosyncratic come into play, mutually testing and supporting each other. I discover my idiosyncratic reading thanks to the text, as much as it reveals its eclectic, possible meaning thanks to my inherently unique reading. An example? As I work on this text my idiosyncrasy meets the potential of this lines of Buber: ‘We do not find meaning lying in things nor do we put it into things, but between us and things it can happen.‘

The manner we fear

This twofold dynamic of meaning seems to provide us with a clue to address the problem of the manner in which we fear its proliferation. Although each time one grasps a meaning of the text it is by necessity only one possibility among others and as such each time one grasps a meaning of a text this in no way affects the text’s potential to produce endless others, this very situation is the one we seem to fear. The technical and positivistic paradigm of language and communication we function in tends to see the clarity and rigidity of meaning as the ideal – the noise becomes the unwanted disturbance, the exception to the rule.

It seems that this very paradigm is a result, if not exclusively, then at least largely, of fear. No matter how many clues may point to the contrary, the tendency remains to see the eclectic in the text and the idiosyncratic in each reader rather as hurdles on the way to the ideal meaning, rather than as the necessary attributes of the text and the reader that make them what they are. The logic of such approach takes, it seems to me, the primary to be the secondary and vice versa. But this reversal does not abolish the nature of meaning: it remains, incessantly and obstinately, fluid. However carefully one tries to fix meaning and make sure it remains what one would like it to be, unaltered and ossified, it stubbornly refuses the procedure. It overpowers by its excess. And often this is more than enough to invoke fear.

Clearly, a text, by virtue of its meaning, condenses the world into the fixed form of the words. Each text is unique and static in this sense, but only in this. Because what is condensed is in itself fluid and manifold, those characteristics do not magically disappear when turned into words: rather, they are taken with, smuggled in. Now we can see that the eclecticism of the meaning of the text is nothing else but the eclecticism of the world itself transferred into the text. But if one takes meaning to be ideally fixed, each encounter with the manifold that refuses to be suppressed must be welcomed with suspicion.

Hence the notions, it seems, of a correct interpretation, the universally accepted rules, of the structures and paradigms that, implicit or explicit‚ ‘help‘ us tame the manifold. And those structures, in turn, only too easily, take over us, as readers. Suddenly they provide us with an element, which is impossible to discover in the texts themselves: this of a standard. The correct, the true, the right ect. against which one ‘measures‘ the interpretation and ‘assesses‘ the meaning are not essentially parts of meaning itself, but become artificially introduced as a reaction against the fear the meaning awakes in us as the one always escaping us. We are free to accept them as parts of our own idiosyncrasies. And often we do.

The problem, it seems, is not that they become introduced: as I tried to point out earlier, no element can be a priori excluded from possibility of influencing the meaning, and neither can they. The problem arises when, because of their presence, one loses the sight of the fact that they are not ‘the universal‘ measure and takes them to dictate the one and only possible meaning, when they become apodictic, beyond the dispute. When what is only a possibility becomes the inevitable.

What happens then? The fear turns the idiosyncrasy of our encounters with the texts into our folly or vice – the eclectic nature of the meaning into a distortion or a nuisance. And here is where a paradox lies: if all idiosyncrasies are equally acceptable, then so is the one of succumbing to fear. But no matter how many may choose to do so, it always remains just what is has always been: one manner among many, just one among many.

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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