A few weeks ago Nic and Jonathan and I had one of our occasional drinks at the Crown and Greyhound and ended up in a very politely heated debate on ‘meaning’, which we are planning to jointly thrash out here and over at Haunted Geographies (though not sure exactly when he’ll be posting).
It had started innocently enough. Nic asked how Sigur Ros was, and I mentioned my thoughts about music being somehow ‘beyond language’. He argued that without language there can be no meaning. And I want to try to explore why I disagree with that, and why I think that disagreement is important, rather than totally academic – which I’ll probably get to in the next post. So bear with us.
In moments that we might call ‘epiphanies’ we touch something that simply cannot be properly expressed in words, and I think that historically music has been the tool that has given us access to these moments most often. What I would agree with is that language is the only means we have to share meaning, and I’ve sketched out my idea of this here.
As two people dialogue – just as Nic and I were doing – they are attempting to communicate what they actually mean. But the only way they can do this, the only way they can put their meaning into public space, is through language. Language is the public space by which we attempt to share meaning, it is an imperfect construct for doing so. So arriving at meaning by dialogue is inevitably a process of negotiation – hence the ‘half equation’ arrows between.
In this sense I agree with the postmodern idea of, for example, the meaning of a text being a negotiation between reader and writer. But I only agree with that in the sense that the process by which sharing meaning has to happen is imperfect. What I disagree with is that there is no original meaning behind language.
In the conversation we had, Nic raised the example of a “cat”. Or “chat” in French, or “gatto” in Italian. I use the quotation marks deliberately, because when we use a word – cat for example – we are actually only using it in the sense that we a) understand some shared meaning, and b) may have some particular nuances of meaning for that word based on our experiences of cats up to this point. “So” “in” “some” “ways” “all” “our” “words” “should” “be” “in” “quotes”. Because when we talk we are negotiating some shared meaning with a background of private experiences.
However, I would want to argue that in a world which happened to have no word for cat, cats would still have meaning. In other words, they would still exist, just as before my son had formed language, things still existed for him in a meaningful way. According to popular postmodern argument, without language for it, things simply don’t mean anything, and therefore don’t exist.
Now this may appear to be basically academic: what the hell difference does it make? But, as we discovered as we continued our discussion, what this boils down to is the question of existence outside of ourselves. If there is no original meaning which language is trying to (imperfectly) communicate, then there is no absolute truth. And it’s that question that I want to address in the next post.