Tuesday, October 8, 2019

On Meaning

This is a slightly convoluted tale.

I spend too much time reading awful atheists, and thereby ran across a video in which some fellow was debunking Sam Harris. Now, I don't know who Sam Harris is, but I think he's some dolt who makes a nice living bloviating, which irritates me because I am also a dolt who bloviates, but nobody seems to be offering me a nice living for it.

Anyways, the point is that Sam made some remark that something or other is 80% determined by genetics and our heroic debunker launched in to his fell work by declaring that Sam must be referring to the scientific concept of heritability and that, see, Sam is wrong because that's not how heritability works. Sam, obviously, was talking about no such thing.

The hero's claim, more carefully unpicked, is that Sam was either making a meaningless noise, or was talking about heritability. Our hero is quite wrong, here, because he doesn't know what meaning is.

Consider this statement: compact topological spaces are continuous. Take my word for it, it is meaningless. It is meaningless for very precise reasons: if you attempt to translate the apparently mathematical statement into the formal language of mathematics you will find that you cannot in fact form a syntactically correct statement in that language. Meaningful statements of mathematics are precisely those which can be so expressed. The reason here is solid: if you can express your idea in that language, then there are more or less mechanical logical operations that can be applied, the machinery of deductive logic, to determine things about your statement.

The point is that the relevant system of cognition, the formal logic of math, does not contain a translation of my sentence.

It is worth pointing out at this point that meaning in this sense has nothing whatever to do with truth. Truth is a completely independent concept. One can say perfectly meaningful things that are wrong all cats are lizards certainly means something, but isn't true.

Consider this statement: Loving him was Red. This is, it happens a Taylor Swift lyric. I have daughters, shut up. It is obviously a poetic statement. It cannot be interpreted literally, and it does not translate into a system of cognition in which deductive reasoning works. This is emotional, poetic.

Swift's little bundle of words lands in our poetic mind and evokes some sort of response. A mishmash of emotions, ideas, memories. It might start some sort of loose chain of thought, ping-ponging from one thing to another.

One more little point: when you translate a meaningful mathematical statement to the formal language of math, you always get the same statement out. It doesn't matter if I do it, if you do it, if someone from Spain translates it. Similarly, the Swift lyric probably translates into loosely similar idea clouds for you, for me, and for other more or less Western-influenced people.

This is in contrast to nonsense. Red cat house bicycle might land in your poetic mind and generate an idea cloud, but it's not likely to be that similar to the way it operates on my mind. One need be careful here, some nonsense verse is very well made and seems to "mean" much the same thing to each of us (for example, Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky")

Anyways, the point is that the meaning of something seems to boil down to something like the way it translates into some sort of system of thought, and something can be considered to be meaningful if it translates to pretty similar things no matter who's doing it. It's something like communication although there need not be an author, there need not be someone trying to communicate something.

What does this have to do with photography?

Well, there are two ideas that pop up, which are somewhat intermingled.

The first one is that, naturally, a photograph or a grouping of photographs has meaning in much the same way. The pictures land in your mind and generate clouds of ideas, emotions, memories, which may or may not cascade into others. That initial cloud of material, ideally, looks pretty similar between this viewer and that one. That's literally how photographs work, when they are working.

The second idea is that our preconceptions and desires can profoundly limit the ways this process works.

If we are convinced that Sam Harris must be destroyed, and have a nerdy science-y bent, we're liking to decide that his remark means that something has a heritability index of 0.80 even though this is pretty obviously not what Harris means. If we have a conspiracy theory that Taylor Swift is the kept love-slave of Donald Trump, we might decide that loving him was red means something fairly bizarre.

We see this pretty often in the Photography Academy. They will frequently perceive meaning where there is only nonsense, because they are in fact translating some sort of preconception or personal relationship with the artist into something or other. The idea cloud that pops into their head has nothing to do with the book or the portfolio, and everything to do with themselves, their knowledge of the artist, and so on. The pictures are a nearly irrelevant trigger.

Similarly, they will see the wrong meaning. Again, the idea cloud produced by the Art, whatever it is, has little to do with the Art itself.

Now, Art is always embedded within a culture. When I read "Jabberwocky," I get an collection of indistinct visuals out, because of the ways the words sound and so on. You and I likely get similar things, not because of the poem in and of itself, but because of the way it fits into the language which we share. The point here, though, is that we generally share that which is necessary to make sense of "Jabberwocky."

When some academic perceives some meaning in a book of photos, as often as not they are reading it based on material that we do not share. Their understanding is personal, private, based on secret knowledge.

And there lies the road to better understanding. We're all probably a bit wak-a-doodle about some stuff, hew to a few crazy ideas and theories, that's OK. They key to understanding Taylor Swift is to recognize that our Donald Trump sex-slave theory is not actually that broadly held. Using our power empathy, therefore, we imagine what someone with a more normal understanding of Taylor Swift's place in the world is, and are thus able to make better sense of her lyric.

Similarly, we recognize that Sam Harris is not using the language of a genetic scientist, and he is speaking to people who will not use such language to interpret his remarks. Therefore we ought seek a different meaning to his remark, one based on the understanding of the commoner, not the of geneticist.

And lastly, we set aside our personal, private, knowledge of the artist, and imagine what a normally educated person might get out of a piece of Art.

It's a bit of a messy game, because we are surely not entirely aware of where our kookier ideas end, and where the gestalt knowledge of our local culture truly begins, and indeed the line it not a sharp one. But, the general shape of the strategy is clear.

In judging work, we place ourselves as best we can in the shoes of the commoner, the ordinary viewer of this work (whoever it might be) and examine the work from that position of empathy.

Of course we may also consider authorial intent (the author might be a kook too) and we're perfectly allowed to mention our own kooky theories, but we should mark them as kooky theories and not as the one true interpretation of the whatever-it-is.

If you want to be of any use whatever to the commoner, here, you have to put on the shoes of the commoner and walk a while in them.


  1. I finally realized you are the Ludwig Wittgenstein of photo bloggers. (Easier to read than the old Austrian, mind you.)

  2. Never mind compact topological spaces are continuous: colorless green ideas sleep furiously. OTOH, it's said that time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.

    But, either way, that's show-biz!