Friday, March 08, 2013

Some remarks on the use of language


1. If you say that you love me and nothing in your behavior confirms your words, we have a conflict between what I hear and what I see. If you say that you do not love me and your behavior indicates that you love me the same problem arises. 

2. If a person in a position of power uses in his or her written messages to you the most respectful forms of polite language but at the same time threatens you, humiliates you, lies, misinterprets you, etc., we are facing exactly the same problem. What she or he says and what she or he does are contradictory of her or his apparently polite behavior. Only that in this case the contradiction exists in the text itself of his or her messages, independently of his or her other forms of behavior. 

3. Do we tend to believe in words without taking in consideration the circumstances of communication? The circumstances of communication involve time and location, the identity of the people involved in the communication process (who is talking, whom you are talking to, who is listening), and what makes you talk and listen (the reason why you are talking). Body language, gestures, intonation are part of the context of communication. And reliability is always part of the process: how much do you or should you trust (a trust supported by previous knowledge or by your own experience) the person who is talking to you? I don’t think we ignore any of these aspects when we are talking live. But what about written words, partially or totally away from the circumstances of communication? We all know something about the dangers of seeing our words used in a wrong or malicious manner when someone else quotes these words.

4. Despite language’s ambiguity, words are most of the time used with enough clear meaning to be understood. “I love you” or “I hate you” can be uttered ironically or sarcastically, but the context where the communication takes place - the circumstances of communication - are part of the meaning creation process and the misunderstanding should more or less easily be detected, solved or avoided.

5. What we say and the way we say it, what we hear and what we see, everything plays a role in the creation of meaning. But without an interpreter…  words are just noise and behavior means nothing. What implies that in the end I am the only responsible for identifying and putting together some units of sense or of meaning and for concluding, having done it, that you love or do not love me. I will justify my interpretation saying that I learned to interpret words and behavior with other people, I just apply the rules that I see others apply.

6. The fact that many people or most of the people would interpret your words and your behavior the way I do however doesn’t prove anything. You and I can have adapted to a specific type of behavior because living in society made us understand that it’s preferable to avoid conflicts. But you or I can also totally or partially disregard what other people may think of the way you or I behave. The relationship between behavior and meaning of behavior may in consequence be as arbitrary as the relationship between significant and signifier in Saussure's linguistic theory. In any case there is a lot of work to do in order to get into meaning and into the nuances in interpretation. Dictionaries are useful, but they are unable to point to a particular usage or nuance of the meaning of a word in a particular context. They are catalogues of words, nothing else. And I can use words disrespecting the dictionary. In a phrase the meaning of a word can be totally reinvented. 

7. You may want your behavior and your words to be understood as a transparent and clear message to others. But you may also prefer to avoid communicating to others any clear sign of what you think or feel. They don't need to know. We cannot escape communicating. We can never escape meaning either. Can we escape error when interpreting signs? Words and behavior can be a deliberately misleading use of signs. They can also be misleading because of their original and lasting ambiguous nature independently of any malicious intention of the speaker or performer.

8. The problem with literary texts is that all the information about the circumstances of communication is itself a verbal utterance. The narrator is the one who puts together in his words all the details about the context of communication. He may interpret them himself more or less clearly or leave to the reader the responsibility of the interpretation. But even when he leaves to the reader the responsibility of interpreting the character's words and behavior he is the one who selected them and presented them to be interpreted; it's totally different when we are the listeners and observers ourselves.

9. The problem with meaning is always the same: we need first to isolate (this requires vision and talent for selection) what I would call units of sense (equivalent of words and of the notes in music, in some way); then we need to put together what goes in the same direction and separate it from what we can put together going in another or the oposite direction. In other words: we need to look to at least two possibilities of interpretation, one in favor and another questioning some specific conclusion in the situation we are trying to understand. Is a clear conclusion always possible? Certainly not. That's why you still need to ask: do you love me? The answer may or may not confirm the conclusion that your analysis of the situation was suggesting you to consider as being the most correct one.

10. Over-interpretation is always threatening to compromise your identification of the units of sense (you saw as an unit of sense in your constructed system something that did not mean anything there because it did not belong there) and to question the meaning you attributed to these units of sense after you assembled them and interpreted them all and their interaction as one unit of sense. An example: she did not look at you with particular interest when you looked in her eyes, she was just flattered, polite, surprised or trying to understand what was happening there; she did not come to Starbucks because she knew that she woud meet you there, it was just a coincidence, she sometimes happens to go there for a tea or a coffee. So, be careful, don't put together what does not belong to the same unit (here the unit is: it looks like she is in love with me) and don't jump so easily to conclusions: she never looked at you as a potential boy-friend, that idea never crossed her mind; you were just part of the furniture or an insignificant element in the scenario at the places where she met and saw you - or, in the best case scenario, only a (potential) good fiend. But if it is important for you to be sure of what's going on and to put an end to your anxiety...  you may still take the risk of asking: do you really like me, do you think you could love me? or did I get confused misinterpreting in my favor your behavior? There is still a chance of not being disappointed though. Suddenly embarrassed, she may answer you, after some hesitation: yes, hmmmm, I like you...  yes, hmmm, maybe I can love you...  yes.... yes...  well... maybe... but I was not aware of anything in my behavior that would allow you to understand it.

11. And then this: "If the possible uses of a word are before our minds in half-tones as we say or hear it - this goes just for us. But we communicate with other people without knowing wether they have these experiences too." (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, G. E. M. Anscombe translation, revised 4rth edition,  Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, p. 190). If the meaning of a word can be imagined metaphorically as a series of units within a box that contains all its possible meanings including its nuances or half-tones, how much of the meaning of a word are we really sharing with the person we are talking to? Whats is the meaning of the word "love" or of the word "marriage" for me, for example? and for you? Because we need to communicate, because we need to love and to be loved, we may overlook the seriousness of the problem. Love or marriage may not even exist as we imagine them (if that is the case, how do they exist, then?). But it helps so much to believe that we are or can be in love and that we are or can be loved. It helps so much to believe that we are settled in the clearly defined frontiers of a room in the big house of one thousand rooms. Life is about many things; but it is about meaning first of all. 

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