Before I jump into the topic of this week's blog, it gives me great pleasure to acknowledge a reader who pointed out a wonderfully comic blunder in my last week's post. A reader from Reddit (an online social discussion website that is divided into distinct communities dedicated to talking over practically every subject you can imagine) pointed out that the basic premise of last week's essay on The Wizard of Oz was centered around the meaning of something that never actually happened. In last week's essay, I humorously tried to explain the rhetorical motivations The Wicked Witch of The West may have had in asking Dorothy if she were a good witch or a bad witch; TheThinkologist (the Reddit reader's username) rightly observed that in the movie, The Wicked Witch never asked this question – it was Glinda (The Good) who asked this question. So thank you, TheThinkologist! I guess the next time I base a post on a single line from a film, I should take the time to rewatch the movie. And now, as they say in The Biz, on with the show . . .
In 1941, a hunter by the name of Georges de Mestral came home from a good days hunting with his dog in the Swiss Alps. De Mestral, who happened to also be an engineer, wondered what caused those annoying and awful burrs to stick to his pants as he traipsed through the woods. After looking at the burrs under a microscope and seeing thousands of tiny hooks on the burrs, de Mestral had an epiphany. It then took the Swiss engineer ten years to perfect a manufacturing process that could replicate the way burrs stick to clothing. He called his invention “Velcro” as a combination of the two French words for “velvet” and “crochet hook.” His invention made De Mestral millions, and he died in 1990 leaving the world a little better off than he had found it. De Mestral once gave his executives at Velcro some good advice; he told them, “If any of your employees ask for a two-week holiday to go hunting, say yes.”
Just as burrs stick to the pants of hunters, meanings stick to words. I like this metaphor because the impression I want to suggest is that meanings are not irrevocably cemented to words; they hang to words like velcro. They can easily be pulled apart, and other meanings can attach themselves as well. Because of this, reading is as much a creative act as writing. As a writer, I connect ideas in my head to words, and as a reader, you pull them loose and stick them to the ideas that are already floating around in your head. Meanings stick differently in the minds of different readers depending upon the ideas that are already there for the messages to attach themselves to. This is why two people can read the same text and derive entirely different meanings. The sentence “I never said she took my money,” for instance, can be interpreted in at least seven different ways depending on which word your internal narrator emphasizes as you read it.
Unlike the random burrs that stick to our clothes when we wander through the weeds, however, there's a bit of Darwin in the way alternative meanings must compete with each other to find space in our consciousness. Whenever you are reading a text, competing notions of “the right” meaning vie for dominance in the mental space of your mind. Imagine “good” interpretations of what you have read slugging it out with “bad” interpretations. For the philosopher and the rhetorician, competing ideas concerning the relationship between truth and meaning enter this psychic arena from two distinct and separate entrances. Of course, there are far more than two portals in to The Psychic Arena of Truth (theologians and politicians, for example, also manage their own doors), but for now, let us stick to observing the individual and interesting openings provided by philosophers and rhetoricians.
For the philosopher's entrance (such as constructed by Plato who dedicated himself to peering beyond the illusions of this life to seeing into a higher, perfect, and eternal reality ), the concept of “Being” marks the way for meaning to move into consciousness and find its rightful place according to a preexisting Cosmic organization. Thus, from the philosopher's entranceway, the meanings we derive from readings are true only to the extent that they correspond to the place where Nature (with a capital N – which may or may not have a mind of its own) has reserved for them to go. This is to say, that from the philosopher's entrance, what is “right” connects with what is “true” at a location that exists in Being regardless of human interference. If the human race were collectively all to draw one final breath and die in some universal apocalypse, Truth in the ontological space of Being would continue to float unobserved (perhaps grateful to at last be left in peace from the voyeuristic gawking of mortals).
Diametrically across from the philosopher’s doorway, “The Portal of Context” labels the rhetorician's entrance for Meaning in your mind's Area of Truth. For the rhetorician, this doorway for meaning was first constructed in Ancient Greece by a collective group of itinerant teachers of public speaking who were known collectively as “The Sophists.” A key insight of the sophists was that given the enormity of Truth and the finite capacity for human intelligence to comprehend it, every declaration of Truth should come with an asterisk that goes to a footnote that cautions readers that “since knowing everything is impossible, all understanding should be regarded as incomplete.” From the rhetorician's “Portal of Context”, whenever you read something, Meaning comes into the Arena of Truth, looks around to see who else is watching, takes note of what time it is and what day of the week it is, considers what it had for breakfast and if it needs a snack, and then proceeds to bump some other Competing Notions out of their chairs on its way to finding some place to sit down. For the rhetorician, Meaning is never entirely satisfied with its seat and is always hoping some other Idea will get up to go to the restroom in order to snag a chair that is better than the truth it is already sitting in.
Reading, then, is a creative act of interpretation. Whether you believe that Meaning has a spot reserved for it through the philosopher's Door of Being or that Meaning has to elbow its way to find a place to stay in your understanding through the rhetorician's Portal of Context, it is important to recognize that the Psychic Arena of Truth in the mind of the writer is not an identical duplicate to the Arena in the mind of the reader. The best writers are those who remain well aware that the Meanings in their heads will never appear as indistinguishable clones in the minds of their readers and, thus, labor to create detailed explanations for the environments in which their Meanings exist so to give their Meanings the best chance of finding a good home in the headspace of others. The best readers are those who are well-practiced in imagining the circumstances the writer originally intended for her Meanings. There have been long and ongoing arguments among literary theorists regarding whether writers have a better claim to the Meanings in their texts or whether readers have a better claim for their own Meanings whenever interpreting a text. Some theorists would argue that once the text leaves its author, it is like a child leaving home to live on its own, and the author should give up telling a text how to live.
For teachers, the ramifications of the understanding that readers do not find identical meanings to each other in texts (let alone their original “intended” meanings as sent forth by the writer) is huge. Ideally, students should be encouraged to pursue their own interpretation of texts and then challenged to explain the validity of their interpretations. Unfortunately, political policies are driving teachers to abandon this type of instruction. More and more, teachers are being judged by their students ability to perform on standardized tests; in Ohio, for example, state law now decrees that at least half of every teacher's evaluation be based on an interpretation of the data generated through their students' test scores. The standardized test industry in this country represents one of the most affluent and powerful lobbies, and money continues to hypnotize legislators into believing that testing companies have the wherewithal to create tests that can write questions that students can only legitimately answer one way. In other words, the ability to teach students to think critically is being sacrificed at the Alter of The One Right Answer.
For many teachers, then, offering instruction to students in the critical ability to read and interpret texts in alternative ways is both a subversive and dangerous act of rebellion that will ultimately get them fired. In our increasingly complex world in which we should be honoring a wide variety of diverse thinking, the cement of money is proving to be a stronger adhesive to the comprehension of legislators than the velcro of academic legitimacy. Let's not worry that in the meantime, literally millions of school children are having their financial futures destroyed because they are incapable of predicting how state-sanctioned testing companies want their questions interpreted.
Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.