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Polysemic text, context and objective meaning

datePosted on 14:16, July 11th, 2009 by Lew

If a door is closed, karate chop it open.

If a door is closed, karate chop it open.

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:

Get the context at BAGnewsNotes or YouTube. If you read the video right, he’s being a gent, not a cad.

L

categoryPosted in Language, Propaganda | printPrint

17 Responses to “Polysemic text, context and objective meaning”

  1. SPC on July 11th, 2009 at 21:27

    At the very least Obama has impressed Sarkozy with his strategic thinking – which is one way to realise renewed confidence in American leadership.

  2. jcuknz on July 12th, 2009 at 09:13

    It is amazing how brainy folk can get so tied up over a simple question and burble on. I am glad I am naive, life is so much simpler and from raising a lad with the occasional smack to become a very creditable member of our society I know the law is an ass, neither has it protected around a dozen children from abuse and death. My own experience of one speeding ticket and five parking fines in sixty years of driving suggests it didn’t do too much harm to me to be repeatedly wholloped with a gym shoe, caned a couple of times, and smacked on the hand with a ruler when my guardian was dying of cancer. All that was incidental to the good example my guardians demonstrated to me through my youth.

  3. jcuknz on July 12th, 2009 at 09:22

    As my boss said, we worked in an industry infamous for the casting couch, “It is like money in the bank, look at it but don’t touch”

    edited …. ‘infamous’ is a better description

  4. Lew on July 12th, 2009 at 10:24

    jcuknz,

    You’re mixing up the issues. I’m not talking about the merits or otherwise of the law; I’m talking about the campaign. Do you have anything to say about that?

    L

  5. reid on July 12th, 2009 at 11:07

    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.

    I predict Lew that you’ll discover when the results are in that it’s a rather large “segment” who don’t like the law.

    Campaigns which employ symbolic or propaganda methods, whether for beneficial purposes or not, are ultimately about social control.

    Whereas the original amendment wasn’t about that? I’d say the campaign is actually about taking back control.

  6. Lew on July 12th, 2009 at 11:25

    reid,

    I predict Lew that you’ll discover when the results are in that it’s a rather large “segment” who don’t like the law.

    Perhaps so. But purely from a propaganda theory standpoint, I’m arguing that if the question hadn’t been so heavily loaded, I expect that segment would have been larger, and support more clear-cut, because plenty of people will simply be turned off by the question.

    Whereas the original amendment wasn’t about that? I’d say the campaign is actually about taking back control.

    The point (again) isn’t about the merits of the law – it’s about the campaign. The original campaign (for the repeal) was certainly about social control, but this campaign against the repeal is also about social control; anyone who tells you something different is trying to sell you on their side. Prior to the repeal children were not protected from assault to the same extent as adults. That’s a form of social control; just because you happen to approve of it or consider it to be the natural order of things doesn’t make it somehow exempt. Framing the issue as ‘taking back’ control is part of the sales pitch.

    L

  7. Ag on July 12th, 2009 at 12:49

    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.

    I don’t think this can be right. It’s not clear how you are entitled to a robust notion of “agreement” on this theory. What is it that people are agreeing about if meaning is subjective?

    In any case, I make make an utterance, and forget what I meant by it, and a group of us might agree later on about what it means and still be wrong.

  8. Lew on July 12th, 2009 at 14:52

    Ag,

    What is it that people are agreeing about if meaning is subjective?

    That’s the point – if a given group agrees completely on a thing’s meaning then, for them, it is as close to objective as possible. Obviously, the larger or more diverse a group is (than a mimimum of 1, where understanding is presumably unanimous) the less likely this becomes.

    In any case, I make make an utterance, and forget what I meant by it, and a group of us might agree later on about what it means and still be wrong.

    Meaning is partially encoded in a text by the author, and partly decoded by the interpreter. In your example, it could be ‘wrong’ in the sense that the understanding differs from the initial meaning encoded by you, but that’s not the only legitimate meaning. If it was, I could say ‘pink’ and claim to mean ‘blue’ and you’d have no right to call me on the fact that ‘pink’ has an accepted meaning already.

    L

  9. jcuknz on July 12th, 2009 at 19:55

    The Campaign … in their desparate effort to counter common sense the ‘Yes’ people, apparently they do understand the question despite saying it is stupid, are dredging all sorts of irrelevant aspects which are obviously abuse as opposed to sensible discipline by loving parents. So as I see it the ‘Yes’ lobby are running a very dirty campaign of mis-information.

  10. Anita on July 12th, 2009 at 20:00

    jcuknz,

    What misinformation do you think the “yes” lobby are spreading?

  11. Lew on July 12th, 2009 at 20:22

    jc,

    People saying the question is stupid are, by and large, saying ‘I know what they think they mean, but it’s not what the question asks’.

    L

  12. Ag on July 12th, 2009 at 20:57

    That’s the point – if a given group agrees completely on a thing’s meaning then, for them, it is as close to objective as possible. Obviously, the larger or more diverse a group is (than a mimimum of 1, where understanding is presumably unanimous) the less likely this becomes.

    This cannot be correct. For example, the public at large can be in broad agreement about the meanings of technical terms, but still be incorrect, since the meaning of those terms is fixed by the community of experts. Hence, there is no straightforward inference from mere agreement to correctness.

    Secondly, it is impossible for one person to have a language. Language is a rule governed activity, and as Ludwig Wittgenstein argued, it is impossible to have any meaningful conception of a one person language that operates according to rules.

    Meaning is partially encoded in a text by the author, and partly decoded by the interpreter. In your example, it could be ‘wrong’ in the sense that the understanding differs from the initial meaning encoded by you, but that’s not the only legitimate meaning.

    This confuses “meaning” with “interpretation”. Meaning is wholly the property of the author, if anyone (unless you are someone like Donald Davidson, who has a slightly more complicated view about how interpretation works). That’s because, if anything, the author’s intention is the final word in disambiguation. The question of what a word means is (unless one is some sort of crude anti-realist) independent of the epistemological question of how we can know what something means.

    The idea that interpretation is somehow privileged is the province of those who follow French philosophy. Interestingly, these people are regarded as almost wholly irrelevant among people who do philosophy of language.

    In any case, understanding and interpreting are two different activities. In our daily life we simply respond to what other people mean, without really thinking about it. Questions of interpretation arise in cases where ambiguity is a practical matter, but most cases aren’t like that. It’s really a misuse of the term “interpretation” to apply it in its ordinary sense to all linguistic understanding.

    If it was, I could say ‘pink’ and claim to mean ‘blue’ and you’d have no right to call me on the fact that ‘pink’ has an accepted meaning already.

    I don’t see how this is supposed to follow.

  13. Lew on July 12th, 2009 at 21:26

    Ag,

    This cannot be correct. For example, the public at large can be in broad agreement about the meanings of technical terms, but still be incorrect, since the meaning of those terms is fixed by the community of experts.

    A couple of problems with this analogy. First, I’m expressly talking about political speech, which technical terminology isn’t usually (and when it is, what people think it means matters, regardless of how that differs from actual meaning). Second, what people think something means can often become what it means in ordinary usage, in spite of those experts who want to control its usage. This is why the reference is to a notional audience – for instance, once you include some people who’ve studied logic in a discussion among others of what ‘begging the question’ means, you’ll have a very hard time gaining agreement unless one group convinces the other to adopt their position. Keep those two groups separate and you have less trouble. Third, I use the term ‘approaches objectivity’ purposefully – I recognise that it’s a tricky business nailing things like this down, and that a ‘best guess’ at objectivity is all that’s possible for texts beyond a certain degree of complexity. Simple texts could well be the subject of near-perfect agreement.

    Meaning is wholly the property of the author, if anyone (unless you are someone like Donald Davidson, who has a slightly more complicated view about how interpretation works). That’s because, if anything, the author’s intention is the final word in disambiguation.

    Well, or unless you’re someone like Barthes. Addressing your last question next; the problem with this author-centric position in practical language use is that it doesn’t actually describe reality. I tried to salvage the horrible pink/blue illustration, but it was a lost cause, so here’s one which is more concrete and hopefully simpler (though less elemental): At a recent event, John Key introduced John Banks as ‘the super-mayor’. To anyone paying the smallest shred of attention to politics, this was a clear reference to the supercity and an endorsement of Banks’ declared desire to run for the super-mayor. John Key, when pressed on it, stated that he had meant nothing by it, and that he was just describing Banks as a ‘super’ mayor. If we take your assertion, that the author’s word on interpretation is final, then we have no choice but to accept that statement, and ignore any implicit endorsement, despite the fact that everyone present sucked in a gasp of breath, understanding the implication of the statement full well, and even Matthew Hooton was on the wireless a short while later saying it was intended as a statement which could be understood as an endorsement but plausibly denied. It’s plainly idiotic to ignore subtext and context, implication and suggestion just because the author claims it wasn’t intended.

    The idea that interpretation is somehow privileged is the province of those who follow French philosophy. Interestingly, these people are regarded as almost wholly irrelevant among people who do philosophy of language.

    Despite referring to Barthes above, I’m not coming at this from that French philosophical perspective. I’m coming at it from a perspective of practical usage in discourse analysis and symbolic politics; Lasswell, Hall, Edelman, others. Because in political speech, it doesn’t matter what you mean; what matters is what people understand.

    L

  14. Ag on July 13th, 2009 at 14:20

    A couple of problems with this analogy. First, I’m expressly talking about political speech, which technical terminology isn’t usually (and when it is, what people think it means matters, regardless of how that differs from actual meaning). Second, what people think something means can often become what it means in ordinary usage, in spite of those experts who want to control its usage. This is why the reference is to a notional audience – for instance, once you include some people who’ve studied logic in a discussion among others of what ‘begging the question’ means, you’ll have a very hard time gaining agreement unless one group convinces the other to adopt their position.

    If you have a bunch of non-experts talking about elm trees, but none of them could distinguish an elm tree from a larch, it isn’t the case that “elm” and “larch” mean the same thing. Most of us couldn’t tell the difference between an elm and a larch, but that does not mean that we cannot use the words and mean what they mean. There is a “linguistic division of labour” that operates, because the experts do know the difference.

    The point is that meanings are not simply dependent on what people, even groups of people, think. In the case of the logicians, when it comes to the meaning of “begging the question” the logicians are correct and the others are wrong, even though both groups can effectively communicate.

    Well, or unless you’re someone like Barthes. Addressing your last question next; the problem with this author-centric position in practical language use is that it doesn’t actually describe reality. I tried to salvage the horrible pink/blue illustration, but it was a lost cause, so here’s one which is more concrete and hopefully simpler (though less elemental): At a recent event, John Key introduced John Banks as ‘the super-mayor’. To anyone paying the smallest shred of attention to politics, this was a clear reference to the supercity and an endorsement of Banks’ declared desire to run for the super-mayor. John Key, when pressed on it, stated that he had meant nothing by it, and that he was just describing Banks as a ’super’ mayor. If we take your assertion, that the author’s word on interpretation is final, then we have no choice but to accept that statement, and ignore any implicit endorsement, despite the fact that everyone present sucked in a gasp of breath, understanding the implication of the statement full well, and even Matthew Hooton was on the wireless a short while later saying it was intended as a statement which could be understood as an endorsement but plausibly denied. It’s plainly idiotic to ignore subtext and context, implication and suggestion just because the author claims it wasn’t intended.

    Where did I say that meaning is fixed by what the author claims? It’s not what Key claimed, but what he intended that, if anything, would fix his meaning (people lie about their intentions). Finding out precisely what he meant is an epistemological, not a semantic problem (because we have to guess his intention, but he doesn’t have to guess it). Even though we have to interpret Key’s statement, we can do this correctly or incorrectly, and so what Key meant in no way depends on us (what we think he meant does, but they are different things).

    Despite referring to Barthes above, I’m not coming at this from that French philosophical perspective. I’m coming at it from a perspective of practical usage in discourse analysis and symbolic politics; Lasswell, Hall, Edelman, others. Because in political speech, it doesn’t matter what you mean; what matters is what people understand.

    I don’t have any problem with that, but the original post seems to be making claims about language and meaning that are much more radical (and odd) than a simple practical analysis of what happens in the interpretation of political speech.

    A

  15. jcuknz on July 13th, 2009 at 17:11

    My exposure to the ‘Yes’ camp is limited, but coupling the fathers attack with a lump of concrete on his daughter’s head is stupid mis-information. Also questioning my humanity and concern for abused children becuase I belong to the ‘No’ group and agree that responsible physical disciplining is part of good parenting is also likewise small minded. There is also the coupling of sweet kids in adverts on this and other sites which is questionable.

  16. Lew on July 13th, 2009 at 20:14

    Ag,

    I accept I probably didn’t ringfence my remarks tightly enough, and it seems that’s what you’re mostly objecting to. I’m not a specialist in the philosophy of language, even if you are; I’m really talking about political communication, not a master analysis of all communication. Though I believe the principles hold, there are a much wider range of caveats once you open it out to all communication, and that’s way beyond the scope of this post.

    Nevertheless, there are a couple of things I can’t les slide :)

    The point is that meanings are not simply dependent on what people, even groups of people, think. In the case of the logicians, when it comes to the meaning of “begging the question” the logicians are correct and the others are wrong, even though both groups can effectively communicate.

    I don’t buy this, it’s infinite regression. Who told the logicians they were right? And it’s not the inventor; then we get back to the fallacy that only the originator’s meaning can be valid. (I accept that people usually should accept the originator’s meaning, but that’s not a question of communication, it’s a question of ownership.)

    Meaning is socially constructed; the semantic link between a given type of tree and the word ‘elm’ isn’t inherent in nature; it’s not like elm trees have the word ‘elm’ inscribed upon them; we make that link out of custom and by (more or less) accepted rules of language. It’s on that basis that a text’s meaning is a function of an audience’s understanding of it – there is no other measure. These meanings and their semantic links to referents didn’t fall from sky on stone tablets – they’re held by the collective understanding of the notional audience of interpreters (who can write them on stone tablets if they choose).

    Where did I say that meaning is fixed by what the author claims? It’s not what Key claimed, but what he intended that, if anything, would fix his meaning (people lie about their intentions). Finding out precisely what he meant is an epistemological, not a semantic problem (because we have to guess his intention, but he doesn’t have to guess it). Even though we have to interpret Key’s statement, we can do this correctly or incorrectly, and so what Key meant in no way depends on us (what we think he meant does, but they are different things).

    A fair point (the claim versus the ‘true’ meaning), but immaterial in the matter of political communication. The ‘true’ meaning is unknowable except by the originator; faced with such, others fall back on interpretation, and interpretation becomes truth. For a notional audience of the originator, it’s all very simple: he meant what he meant. For everyone else, interpretation is necessary to establish a meaning which approaches objectivity to a greater or lesser extent. Again, it’s asymptotic; but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. People don’t simply go through life saying ‘I can’t know what he meant, so I won’t bother trying’ – they approximate and speculate and hedge and guess.

    L

  17. Some Bloggy Links | BK Drinkwater on July 14th, 2009 at 21:35

    Some Bloggy Links…

    KiwiPolitico’s Lew walks us through some of the semiotics relating to the upcoming referendum’s question. It’s an interesting read, at least for me, and the comment-thread is also enlightening….

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