A Possibility for Artistic “Meaning”

Interested in literary or artistic “meaning” as the sum of all infinite interrelationships between a work of art/literature and the equally infinite set of all data points which exist both inside the work and out in the world. These data points include, but are not limited to, the composition of society in its entirety, both at the time of the work’s creation and every time before or since; the position of the artist/author within society during every moment of his lifetime and also before/since; all facts and biographies about audiences/readers both real and hypothetical; every included word’s complete etymological history and complete history of usage (also, important in their negation, the histories of excluded words as well); and all physical facts about the universe.

Consequences and implications of such an understanding of artistic meaning include:

“Readings” or “interpretations” as we know them are merely the products of one’s knowledge or limited consideration of an enormously small set of positioning. We might limit ourselves to a school instrumentally (formalist or new critical, reader response experimental or actual, comparative or historical) but to believe this approach is anything other than an infinitely limited and further self-limiting understanding is to chase delusion. From a perspective of “utilitarian” criticism, it may be best to include those sets of data points or interrelationships which maximize reader or audience return on a work (be it an audience one is writing for, as a critic/scholar, or even for oneself as audience):

…the Return Maximization approach interests me as an “out” where consequentialism replaces deontology in deciding critical or interpretative methods. If contextualizing information adds to a text’s perceived richness or value, it is worthy of inclusion. Return Maximization implicitly rests on the belief that arguments about “correctness” or “truth” are only relevant with respect to human beings as an end, especially where human-defined concepts like “quality” and “meaning” are concerned. 

(Though of course, contrary to the above excerpt, I am in this post defining “meaning” as something objective and unconcerned with human ends. Interpretation, meanwhile is the process of including those elements of meaning which pertain to optimizing with respect to said ends.)

If it is tomorrow that a new fact of gravity, protons, or planetary positions is discovered, with it every literary and artistic work’s “true meaning” has been altered, or at least our understanding of its meaning — perhaps this meaning has always existed, this interrelationship between works and some physical reality which adds irony or depth or surrealism, and we only “discover” it as a society with our knew scientific understanding. At the very least, the fact of our new knowledge or understanding is an update, since our knowing and understanding itself is seven billion instant data points, and then ripples through the world, lightly reshuffling opinions and behaviors and secondary understandings. This shift in meaning can be significant — a midcentury science fiction work describing how extraordinarily large extraterrestrials on Pluto refer to humans as “dwarves” may suddenly take on added irony given our own Earthly “dwarfing” of Pluto. Or the shift can appear minor — the lack of a conversation arising which concerns Pluto, as characters gaze at the constellations in the night sky, has been made either more or less expected/typical/cliched (which in turn says something about the characters, and the author’s commentary on the times, and… ad nauseum) by Pluto’s recent dwarfdom. But always the shift in meaning, whether we detect or ever think about it, has occurred.

When people argue about the impossibility of perfect translation, their central argument is that the situating of the original work within the entire set of data points and resultant interrelationships is inherently and literally unique, untranslatable. The specific mesh or “fitness” the work has, both of its constituent parts and with the entire outside world, cannot be translated losslessly, change even when the smallest alteration is made, and some of the inherent characteristics of a translated work which will differ from the original include “lang=” and “translated=yes.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: