completing meaning ◆ constructing texts from code
— Terms —
- Mentioned and should now be familiar (review if necessary):
— Chapter Abstract —
This chapter offers examples of some of the key elements of perception and the mind’s attribution of meaning including what we use to make meaning, our constant interest in generating meaning, how we fill in gaps with regard to incoming data, and that narratives are the result of the interpretation of code. This final point is the key point of the chapter: given how we arrive at meaning, if “texts” are first code that is converted to meaning by us, then the interpretations at which we arrive are open to the conundrums of the process of perception in general. Thus, it is clear that how we decide meaning of texts relies on already-known data and motivation, and thus is open to cultural influence. Beginning with the following chapter, these elements and others will be considered in more detail.
— Chapter Outline —
- 4.1. Signs and cafes
- 4.2. Selective vision and “That it is there”
- 4.3. Filling in the gaps and discomfort of the unknown
- 4.4. Process of perception / process of constructing narrative
- 4.4.1. “The brain’s relentless obsession with extracting meaning”
- 4.4.2. Completing meaning across a haiku gap: of bush clovers and performers
- 4.4.3. Where are narratives (texts)?
4.1. Signs and cafes
I would like to venture a guess that you are able to identify the sign in the middle of the below photograph. I think it is likely that your mind will complete the partial information through lightning-fast cognitive pathways that bring to bear visual memories (shape and color) and knowledge (what happens at intersections, what red lights on the back of a car mean, the title of this section of the textbook and that titles are meant to connect relevantly with content, and possible words that begin with capital “S”). The deductive process is quick, natural, and hardly noticed. While this particular sign is on my commute to work so my perception process is different—I already know what this sign is several blocks before I even see it—and although you may not have not seen exactly this sign, that causes no problem: I will still guess that you infer, with what is for all practical purposes one-hundred percent confidence, what sign this is. Many cognitive neurologists think Bayseian logic that disambiguates situations based on probabilities is the process the mind uses to represent a perception conclusion (an interpretation) to our conscious awareness.
However, now consider the next picture. The percent of data that is visible of the total object is considerably more than in the case of the first photograph but now we lack both visual memories (unless we have walked past this actual business) and appropriate knowledge (vocabulary of possible words). We can guess that perhaps the name of the business is a non-typical English word because café is spelled with two “f”s. But, for me at least, this is not enough information to determine the language, so even if I am fully confident that the first letter is “s” and reasonably confident that the second letter is “t” and am willing to consider “r” as at least a possibility for the third letter, that simply is not enough. I do not even know the length of the word, which would definitely help me get closer to a range of possible words. Here, Bayesian logic—at least in my case—cannot offer any word or even set of words that has enough probability to complete the interpretation. In common parlance we will just say, “I don’t know enough to make a good guess.”
With the first photograph, we conclude very rapidly that it is a stop sign, and for most of us, we will have a high level of confidence and comfort about the correctness of our interpretation. In the second, we might have some options but we probably conclude that we cannot be sure. The interpretive projects that we do in this course work between these two end points by asking us to be more cautious about those interpretations of which we are sure and extend our knowledge so that some highly ambiguous situations become solvable.
4.2. Selective vision and “That it is there”
If you have not already done this is a class somewhere, this visual test illustrates well the principle. Navigate to the below link. The YouTube link is probably fairly permanent: checking just now it has been watched 19,627,050 times and dates from 1999; however, if the link is broken, search “selective attention test basketball.” Watch carefully the white team and how many times the team members pass the basketball. The correct number is in the footnote. The last time I gave this test in class only one of seven groups had the correct answer although two were within one point, and, at the “meta-level” everyone failed the test. (Usually groups do better than this.)
The answer is in the footnote to this sentence.
Visual perception—from the arrival of light stimulus on the corneal surface all the way to the end-point of deciding what an object is—is a highly complex process. So complex, in fact, that “seeing” lags behind our audio stimulus and even more in the case of touch stimulus. In this way, stimuli require “back-dating” to synchronize what the ears and other senses of tell us. This is why, in track and field, races begin with a sound, not a visual stimulus. Our visual “perception” of (not reaction to, which is of course longer) even a simple event like the flash of a light is at least 80 milliseconds after the event has occurred. The reason, when observing someone reacting to something (such as a punch thrown unexpectedly) that we have an impression that the reaction is slower than it would be in our own case is because two different perspectives are involved: in the case of the person at the receiving end of the stimulus that person must interpret the incoming information (and we take as our standard memories of our own reaction, which are from the same perspective) but in the case of the third-party observer, both the event and the individual’s reaction are seen at the same time, that is, are both being interpreted at the same time. That sense of “Hmm, that reaction seems a bit slow” is the interpretive moment for the person receiving the stimulus, one that seems nearly instantaneous to the individual because of cognitive back-dating of the external stimulus. The more complex or ambiguous the stimulus, the longer that moment is likely to be and, of course, if it requires decision-making before a response, the time will be still longer. On the other hand, dangerous events, such as when one accidently touches a hot object, skip the usual cognitive pathways to the brain and instead go directly to the spinal cord in a reflexive arc that leads directly back to the muscle needed for the protective action. In martial arts, speed comes not just from mind and muscle being trained to react quickly and decisively but the ability to anticipate the opponent’s act before it happens. Reacting to an event, once initiated, may not be fast enough. Soccer penalty kicks require a similar moment of anticipation. It is too late to decide which area to defend after the ball is kicked—thus the interesting mental game between the kicker and his or her faints, on the one hand, and the goalie and his or her best guess as to where the kicker willsend the ball, on the other.
An image begins as a tiny, upside-down, two-dimensional phenomenon that we convert into a three-dimensional world full of understanding of the objects within our visual range. However, the processing of this enormous amount of data (the first filter could be said to be the optic nerve from the retina to regions of the brain itself: the retinal cells transform data into a packet of about 100MB but the nerve can carry only 1MB of data) requires a mental trick: we process visual information from only a narrow area of the world at any given time. The rest is generated by our brains as abstract representations of predicted objects and movements, and is represented only that it is there. We “know” a certain person is sitting at a certain place and can actually have what we think is a visual memory of that person but, when asked, we cannot say even what color of clothes that individual is wearing. There was the “placeholder” of the person in our constructed “visual” world, not the actual person.
4.3. Filling in the gaps and discomfort of the unknown
In this way, we engage the world, necessarily, with selective attention—attending to and interpreting some things while letting large swaths of the world be taken care of more automatically by our perceptive mind. This works just fine most of the time. However, the cognitive drive to fill in the gaps is exceptionally powerful. This can populate our world with things that are not there and transform unfamiliar objects into more familiar ones that only represent with partial accuracy the actual object. Yet the cognitive mind is a pattern-seeking organ. When it cannot organize information, it releases stress hormones, so patterns it will find.
When Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was first performed in May 1913, after just a few minutes of the performance, the audience rebelled, rioted, even striking one another. Here are sound clips of two musical passages that challenge the reader by departing from expected norms of ballet music of the time and scramble tonal patterns through dissonance. (A pair of YouTubes dramatically animate the music with abstract graphics that are remarkably helpful in drawing out the score’s impressive complexities. See: Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, Animated Graphical Score, 1/2 and Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring, Animated Graphical Score, 2/2.)
40-second segment from Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Part 1 – Procession of the Wise Elder:
50-second segment from Stravinsky, Rite of Spring, Part 2 – Mystic Circles of the Young Girls:
One can argue that there was legitimate anger among the listeners as they listened while centuries of music tradition were trod upon or that the dissonant nature of the music was, in itself, drawing out the primal nature of the listeners. However, it is also true that when the electrical impulse sent to our brain via the aural never cells are regular, we perceive that as, emotionally speaking, a pleasant sound whereas when the impulses are irregular, we might perceive that as an unpleasant sound. It is theorized that there is a cluster of neurons in the auditory cortex (which is responsible for high-order processing of sounds such as speech and music) that are dedicated to finding patterns in sounds never before heard and that when these neurons fail repeatedly at that task, they release excessive quantities of the neurotransmitter dopamine. While dopamine creates a subjective sense of pleasure in small quantities, either too much dopamine or a hyper-sensitivity to dopamine has been implicated as part of the chemical environment of the schizophrenic mind (and other mental disorders) and certainly is capable of causing subjective feelings of discomfort and stress.
Rather than offer solely cultural reasons for the audience’s remarkable reaction, which was indeed extreme (Stravinsky retreated to backstage), perhaps we should not put the cart before the horse. Perhaps the sense of indignity and the negative reactions that ensued were born of neurochemical stress rather than a cognitive appraisal of the music—”This is not music!”—leading to further neurochemical reactions. This alternative explanation is relevant to our course topic but nearly impossible to pursue. It is relevant because it raises the possibility that we uphold principles embraced by our cultural group less from a cognitive appreciation of the value of the ethical principle but rather that we choose to embrace it driven by a hardly perceptible chemically induced fear that is generated by anticipating the anger of the group or being dispelled from the group. In other words, are ethics upheld because of their content or simply because we understand that membership in the group is strengthened when they are upheld? How much of cultural complicity is grounded in avoidance of discomfort and negotiation of perceived threats?
4.4. Process of perception / process of constructingnarrative
4.4.1. “The brain’s relentless obsession with extracting meaning”
When confronted with partial information, like the stop sign example above, consciously or unconsciously we complete it or establish meaning to some level. The information-puzzle is solved by our interpretive brain even if we have no immediate need for the information because the brain is in a constant state of motivated interpretation—situating us in the world and monitoring the changes in that world.
When examining a healthy sample of human minds using techniques such as brain imaging and EEG, the brain’s relentless obsession with extracting meaning from everything has been found in all kinds of people regardless of status, education, or location.
Take words, for instance, those mesmerizing language units that package meaning with phenomenal density. When you show a word to someone who can read it, they not only retrieve the meaning of it, but all the meanings that this person has ever seen associated with it.
The drive of humans to understand is not limited to just language, however. Our species appears to be guided by this profound and inexorable impulse to understand the world in every aspect of our lives. In other words, the goal of our existence ultimately seems to be achieving a full understanding of this same existence, a kind of kaleidoscopic infinity loop in which our mind is trapped, from the emergence of proto-consciousness in the womb, all the way to our deathbed.
However, when the new or partial information demands greater cognitive energy to unpuzzle, motivation begins to strike a balance between the possible pleasure or need of the interpretation as measured against the difficulty or arriving at an interpretation. For example, some of us love abstract painting and will ponder its possible meanings. Others will first give it a quick evaluation, then decide it is fine to just pass it over. In either case, it is likely that the painting has begun to be given meaning by associating it with language.
Motivated reasoning such as “there is something I want or need to know in that” or “there is something that will give me pleasure if I know that or go through the process of unpuzzling it” or “knowing that might help protect me in some way” comes up against interpretive resistance (the level of difficult of attributing meaning). We solve the formula either by creating a sufficient interpretation (general or detailed, partial or essentially complete) or simply setting aside the stimulus as not worth understanding.
4.4.2. Completing meaning across a haiku gap: of bush clovers and performers
The below is a Japanese haiku written in the 1690s by Matsuo Basho:
Under one roof
pleasure-girls sleep, too—
Bush clover and moon.
Perhaps this poem attracts your attention. Perhaps it does not. In the world of the history of Japanese poetry it is famous, and those who participate in the world will be motivated to think long about it. People who have discovered the brilliance of Basho’s work will be even more motivated because they know that there are rewards for time spent digging down into the meanings of his poems.
I have selected this poem (which is one of my favorites) as an example of information completion for two reasons.
The first is that, as presented here—in translation and therefore disconnected from almost all context, including its own language’s networks of meaning—the interpretive energy required to get farther than “Well, that is sort of a poem and has something to do with pleasure-girls and some sort of symbolism associated with bush clovers (whatever they might be) and the moon” will seem to many of you, I am guessing, not worth the cost of time and energy required. You will spend only a moment with it and move on. So, this poem serves as an example of the relationship of motivation to interpretive result.
The second reason I have selected this poem for consideration is because haiku, in their brevity, have special solutions for generating rich meaning with limited *code. Two of those are particularly relevant to our project of sharpening our ability to interpret love narratives not of our own culture.
The first of these special solutions has to do with the mutual understanding, an unspoken but very important contract, between the writer and reader that the words the writer will use are connected with networks of meanings of words that the reader can similarly deploy. In short, the writer will not be insensible—difficult to understand perhaps, but working with shared networks of word meanings. When this contract is broken, the object the writer has created makes little sense to the reader, and seems irrelevant (of another world, one not of apparent value to the reader). Those who wrote haiku in Japan in the 1690s had, as part of writer-reader contract, that they shared the highly complex network of certain poetic words that had been used in other poems across the world of the day’s haiku and back into the centuries, too. Thus, the key words in a Japanese haiku are not just interesting words with simple meanings but words with long and rich histories that embrace a range of meanings. (In this particular case, “roof,” “pleasure-girls,” “bush clover,” and “moon” are all such words.)
The second of these special solutions as that those who compose haiku, relying on the reader’s natural drive to try to complete meaning, provide space for that construction by their very brevity. Further, most haiku have in them a conceptual gap between the first portion of the poem and the concluding portion. In English we see this translated as “!” or “.” or “—” or “:” or some sort of indentation or other formatting choice. The logical gap in this poem is clearly: What is the relationship between the descriptive statement that pleasure-girls sleep here too and the flat presentation of two objects: bush clover and the moon. It is not easy to say—a familiar dilemma when reading Basho.
While the way “in” for this poem—even after learning the history of the various words the makeup the poem—is to bridge the gap between the two phrases. Haiku push for a completion of interpretation, but do not provide enough information to finalize an interpretation—leaving that delightful work to belong to the poetic mind of the reader. A cognitive space rich in meaning hangs between the writer and the interpreting reader, with full cognitive-affective existence for the interpreting reader. Further—and not so unusual for Basho—while we might bridge the gap by equating the bush clover with the pleasure-girls, and the moon with the poet, Basho, in the richness of his mind offers a gap within the gap, inviting us into the depths of the poem with yet another relationship nearly impossible to parse: why are these two (a flower and the moon) placed side-by-side, in equality and without further explanation?
Here is another of Basho’s poems where the gap is mysterious and—for me at least—breathtakingly so. I feel something very important is there, but I cannot say what. Written just shortly before he died, at a time when he knew he was dying:
How is it that I have
aged so this autumn?
— Bird at cloud.
A haiku becomes more “haiku-like” when we encounter the gap. For example, if I simply write:
I count on my hands:
One, two, three.
The gap that should be created by the “:” and formatting is mostly erased by the obvious logical connection to the next line. We might think, “This is a poem, there must be more” and perhaps try to create a new mystery to solve. But the poem is not very helpful toward that end. However, I invite you to complete in your mind this:
One, two, three:
A beloved baby’s hands.
Those who have raised children might recall, when they read this, how their baby, on her or his back in bed, just before falling gently to sleep, holds her or his hands in front of the face, playing with the fingers, learning what a hand is, what it does, learning while drifting into dream-worlds. It is a peaceful, charming, rare moment—definitely one of the pleasures of parenthood. If the reader arrives at this interpretation, we have shared a text. If the reader goes in another direction, we have shared the *code but our texts are different. Some writers expect a shared text (and in premodern times this was especially so); others are less concerned about this. Literary criticism, too, can have more or less concern about whether a text is shared. However, in this course, our goal is to create a shared text as much as is possible, given our limited understanding of the context of the *code.
Part of our work in this course, therefore, is to be motivated to not ignore the stimulus. To worry over it. To try to unpuzzle it. But, on the other hand, it is also to not relieve the pressure of its unknown status by just finding a solution that provides the satisfaction of an “answer” but, instead, work towards an answer that is well-matched to the networks of meanings belonging to the world of which the stimulus is a part. In other words, we should try not to allow our natural drive to complete information to lead us to hasty interpretations.
4.4.3. Where are narratives (texts)?
That we are driven to “complete” information—which really means to construct and provide meaning—lies at the very heart of narratives’ success in occupying central places in human culture. Since the inception of language, “stories” have been important. Narratives, whether spoken or written, generate cognitive-affective worlds in which there are settings, actors, and events—environments with just a few symbolic elements that are then completed by us in our “that it is there” modality, people that we model and thus they become three dimensional or at least not just two dimensional, and chains of actions that we anticipate or not, with, then, temporality adding the excitement, regret, suspense, anticipation and many others elements.
We make the narratives we read in ways that include processes similar to the interpretations we generate during the various aspects of perception, that is, the hermeneutic evolutions of motivated selection, organization, and attribution of meanings (interpretation). Confronted with *code (letters on a page) we rapidly provide meaning through selective attention and organization of the information, basing our interpretations on specific memories (vocabulary knowledge, for example), schema (small and large such as grammar rules or how we think the world words), and logical inference. We generate fictional characters and their worlds, as well as sequences of actions both in the narrative past, present, and future.
This constructed narrative, this constructed text, is nowhere on paper or in film. It exists as an *emergent phenomenon in the “ether” of the triangle of writers who become authors once the reader’s act of interpretation begins, *code, and readers both real and imagined. (In other words, when we read, we enter into “reading mode” and that reader is real to us, in a sense. However, we also imagine other readers and how they might be interpreting the text. Those other readers may be actual individuals with statements about interpretation or merely modeled, imagined readers.)
The text is derived from a building out of ideas and emotions more or less within the constraints and promptings of the *code that a writer produced through pen or keyboard or voice. The *code used (the words of a language on their own and in patterned presentation) derives meaning from its networked epistemological status, as Derrida convincingly has argued, drawing its meanings in a fundamental way from the language in its larger sense). So, while it would be neatly simple to say that the *code is only the mediator between the meeting of two minds — writer and reader — in fact, the *code must be treated as an independent entity with its own force and claims in the process of interpretation. That is, what the writer has written, once released, becomes part of a community of other writings and establishes its own independent existence, capable of suggesting meanings not intended by the writer.
What is most relevant to the work we do in this course is that readers have no powerful obligation to a large part of the constraints of *code or even the interpretations of it by others. In practice, it is often true — most especially in reading across cultural boundaries — that we may be entirely ignorant of portions, even large portions, of the promptings of the *code, and there is, anyway, much in the way of information left for us to fill in. And this we do. And a text arises in our mind, related to but not entirely beholden to the *code that the writer created.
To what degree our constructed text overlaps with the text the writer imagines we will likely build depends on many things, not the least of which is the cultural world of the writer and how much it resembles the cultural world of the reader. The “model reader” is what the writer imagines, predicting interpretations, modulating the *code to achieve certain results, or perhaps simply to provide the space for a range of possible results. The writer-text-reader contract invites us to lean towards the author’s world because authorial intention is a powerful guideline for interpretation, but it does not require it. Thus, the *code provides direction and limitations but we may or may not be aware of those directions and limitations and, anyway, are not obligated to conform to them. It should be added, the text that we have once created in our readerly minds is far from stable. We recreate it, we later remember it, we rethink it, we alter it. The story of something once read but now only remembered, even if remembered dearly and frequently, is not the same story. Relevant to our course is our urge to nativize the unfamiliar, and so to some extent uncomfortable, knowledge: a text that was freshly challenging to our way of thinking at the time of reading may, with the passing of days or months or years, reformulate into something much less “different.”
Oe Kenzaburo’s 1989 novel Relatives in Life (Jinsei no shinseki, Relatives in Life with an English translation title of An Echo of Heaven) is built around the theme of the difficulty of understanding another person. The narrator-protagonist has told of us all sorts of interpretations of the story’s central female character, Marie Kuroki. Someone important to him. Someone he loved and lost. We watch as he, and many others, try to understand the life of this remarkable woman, feeling all along that somehow they have not understood her—that is, not interpreted her actions and words—well enough. In the last line of the novel, the author-narrator-protagonist (because the narrator clearly represents Oe himself) admits to the challenge and the problem of understanding:
“They got together to fight back against someone far stronger than themselves. Have you ever done something like that?” a gentle voice might ask. And I would be obliged to say: “I have already written a novel about Marie’s life, as ‘my own story, one acceptable to me’. . . .”
Has he, when all is said and done, interpreted her or just himself through her? And, when he ends with “‘One acceptable to me …’,” he lays out clearly the ultimate challenge of interpretation.
- Although the correct answer is 13, this is not the point. Did you see the gorilla? See, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, the invisible gorilla, accessed August 24, 2018, http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/videos.html ↵
- George Musser, "Time on the Brain: How You Are Always Living In the Past, and Other Quirks of Perception," Scientific American Blog Network, September 15, 2011, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/time-on-the-brain-how-you-are-always-living-in-the-past-and-other-quirks-of-perception/ ↵
- Fredo Durand and Julie Dorsey, "The Art and Science of Depiction: Introduction to Visual Perception," MIT Lab for Computer Science, accessed August 25, 2018, http://people.csail.mit.edu/fredo/Depiction/4_Perception/perception6.pdf ↵
- "Musical Language," Radiolab (WNYC Studios), September 23, 2007, accessed August 30, 2018), https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/91512-musical-language/. ↵
- "Musical Language," Radiolab (WNYC Studios), September 23, 2007, accessed August 30, 2018, https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/91512-musical-language/. The discussion begins around 28:12. ↵
- "Chapter 13, The Auditory System," in Neuroscience, eds. Dale Purves, George J. Augustine, David Fitzpatrick, Lawrence C. Katz, Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, James O. McNamara, and S. Mark Williams (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2001), accessed August 30, 2018 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10900/. ↵
- Philip Seeman and Shitij Kapur, "Schizophrenia: More dopamine, more D2receptors," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 97, no. 14 (July 5, 2000): 7673–7675, accessed August 30, 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC33999/. ↵
- Philip Seeman, "Dopamine and schizophrenia," Scholarpedia 2, no. 10 (2007):3634, accessed August 30, 2018, http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Dopamine_and_schizophrenia#The_dopamine_hypothesis_of_schizophrenia. ↵
- Dopamine irregularities are implicated in ADHD, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, depression, bipolar disorders, binge eating, addiction, gambling, and schizophrenia. Emily Deans, "Dopamine Primer: How dopamine makes us human," Psychology Today, blog post (May 13, 2011), accessed August 30, 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201105/dopamine-primer ↵
- Guillaume Thierry, “Life’s Purpose Rests in Our Mind’s Spectacular Drive to Extract Meaning from the World,” The Conversation (blog), September 4, 2018, https://theconversation.com/lifes-purpose-rests-in-our-minds-spectacular-drive-to-extract-meaning-from-the-world-96665. ↵
- "Recently, we have been able to show that even an abstract picture – one that cannot easily be taken as a depiction of a particular concept – connects to words in the mind in a way that can be predicted. It does not seem to matter how seemingly void of meaning an image, a sound, or a smell may be, the human brain will project meaning onto it. And it will do so automatically in a subconscious (albeit predictable) way, presumably because the bulk of us extract meaning in a somewhat comparable fashion, since we have many experiences of the world in common. Guillaume Thierry, “Life’s Purpose Rests in Our Mind’s Spectacular Drive to Extract Meaning from the World,” The Conversation (blog), September 8, 2018, https://theconversation.com/lifes-purpose-rests-in-our-minds-spectacular-drive-to-extract-meaning-from-the-world-96665. ↵
- See, for example, Christine Murasaki Millett, "'Bush Clover and Moon': A Relational Reading of Oku no Hosomichi," Monumenta Nipponica 52, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997): 327-356, accessed November 19, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2385632. ↵
- Oe Kenzaburo, An Echo of Heaven, trans. Margaret Mitsutani (Kodansha International, 1996), 204. ↵