Polysemic text, context and objective meaning
Posted on 14:16, July 11th, 2009 by Lew
The basic critique I and others have made about the s59 referendum question is that it only makes sense if you accept the implicit assertions with which it is loaded. Linguistic or semiotic texts don’t have wholly objective meanings – their meaning is partially subjective to the interpreter, and meaning approaches objectivity only to the extent to which people can (or will) agree on the interpretation of a text. What we call ‘objective’ meaning in a text really describes a particularly strong agreement on interpretation within a notional audience, and frequently what we call an absence of understanding or comprehension of a text really just describes an absence of agreement on the interpretation between one part of a notional audience and another. It’s easy to overstate this: usually within a given audience there is a reasonable degree of agreement on interpretation, and this is particularly true with regard to ordinary or mundane language or imagery. Some texts are more complex than others, and some are more controversial and will tend to divide the agreement of an audience more than others, but this is not a pure subjectivist or hyper-relativist argument that there is no useful meaning in anything or that definitions or the understanding of common referents are irrelevant or somehow unattainable. Just to say that meaning is not strictly encoded in a text but is as much a function of interpretation. Texts with more than one reasonable reading for a given notional audience (such that ordinary people within an audience group can reasonably differ on interpretation) are called ‘polysemic’, which is just a fancy technical way to say they have multiple meanings.
Broadly speaking the task of a propaganda campaign, or of political speech in general, is to pose a monosemic question or scenario – one which a reasonable person from within the target audience group can only read or answer in one way. This often relies on loading one’s text with as much implicit context as possible so as to avoid the possibility of part (or all) of your audience misreading it; shipping with instructions, as it were. In a strategic sense, it is not the text itself which is the payload – the frame and its implied norms enable the propagandist to construct (manufacture) the audience’s consent for their preferred reading of the wider text.
Returning to the s59 referendum question, it is a fair and credible attempt at freighting a question with an implicit value judgement which renders the answer obvious if the question is read naïvely. But it goes too far; reasonable people don’t need to try very hard to see the payload, which is the implication that (a) a smack can be part of good parental correction and (b) such a smack is a criminal offence. In a successful propaganda campaign of this nature, the textual agenda is more obvious and the contextual agenda less so, and the referendum’s supporters have been working very hard to try to shut down contrary readings of their campaign in order to de-emphasise the frame and context, and emphasise the naïve text. They’ve failed in this, but it is instructive nevertheless, and that isn’t to say they haven’t achieved any of their objectives. The problem is that the referendum question and campaign is essentially preaching to the choir – it makes sense to a conservative segment of the population who care a lot about this issue and are riled up by the constraint on their “freedom” to smack, and it speaks to them because they already accept its premises. But it isn’t much use as a polemic device because, for those who don’t accept its premises, it just looks like a stupid question. This is the problem with developing political strategy in an echo-chamber – just because you believe your own hype doesn’t mean everyone does. To pervert Schneier’s Law: anyone can design a political campaign so clever that he or she can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t agree with it. This feeds back into my ongoing critique of the state of Labour politics: toward the end they believed their own hype, in much the same way as the AAS lobby believes theirs.
Campaigns which employ symbolic or propaganda methods, whether for beneficial purposes or not, are ultimately about social control. A society which responds uniformly and predictably is, all else equal, easier to control than a diverse society, so a great deal of effort is put into the crafting of messages, delivery systems, textual and contextual input to a society which will generate predictable output. Public campaigns, to be successful, require their audience to share strong agreement about interpretation and common understanding of context for their payload to be effective. Robbed of context and freighted assumptions, even something as apparently intuitive, important and uncontroversial as a FEMA public readiness campaign can be highly puzzling and confusing if read naïvely.
Edit: And sometimes, when the context seems obvious, it’s not: