Information, Meaning, and the Myth of the Text

I’m going to be uncharacteristically thinky in this post. But to get there, I need to explain a bit. About me, about my brain.

I have a degree in science. That doesn’t make me a scientist. It does, however, make me a person interested enough by science to make the effort to understand some of it.

I’m currently doing an MA in creative writing. That doesn’t make me a creative writer; that happened of its own accord, thank you very much. But it does make me someone sufficiently interested by the topic of creative writing to make an effort to understand it in a bit more depth.

Take a step back there. Look carefully. Science on one hand, Arts on the other. Hmm.

Now, I know there are plenty of other people who have crossed those boundaries. And surely, surely some of them read scientific articles and journals for the sake of interest, while also reading literary theory and literary criticism. Surely. So… surely someone else has noticed that the people in these separate fields don’t seem to talk to each other.

And why not? I have no idea. A great deal of good could come of it.

Here’s an example. I’ve been reading all kinds of stuff lately, but one of the more perplexing is Stanley Fish and his work around ‘interpretive communities’. If I were to stick it in a nutshell (I wonder if that phrase is lifted, like so much else, from Shakespeare? Hamlet uses something similar.) I would say that Fish argues that texts (books, etc) carry no meaning. None. At all. Instead, he argues that meaning is generated in the interpretive communities which carry the right knowledge to deal with those texts.

Now, if you happened to be a die-hard Structuralist… or perhaps Jacques Derrida who notoriously said “There is only the text!” you might well take issue with that idea. Texts meaningless? What nonsense! Look! The pages are covered with words! They’re absolutely loaded with meaning!

On the other hand, if you happened to be a mathematician with an interest in information theory, you might yawn, blink, and say something like “No, duh. Hey – why don’t you try telling me the sky is blue?”

Why? Because in mathematics (particularly information theory) there’s a very real distinction between information and meaning. Information is a fact of thermodynamics: a real, measurable phenomenon which we might describe as ‘the degree of organisation within a system’. (Except that words aren’t much good here. But it’ll do.)

Information isn’t meaning. Meaning happens when someone or something with the right set of tools comes along and interprets the information… pretty much exactly as Stan Fish describes, actually.

Questions of ‘meaning’ in a text are (ironically) utterly meaningless without considering who is reading the texts, and how they’re being read.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Hell, I’m a dilettante. I know it, and admit it freely. Here’s a couple of links you can look into. Note that they’re both about information theory and math, not about Structuralism or Jacques Derrida. I’m not a needlessly cruel man, after all.

There’s nothins really special about either of those. They’re just a couple of references I hit via Google – but they neatly illustrate what I’m talking about with regard to information versus meaning.

So – doesn’t this strike you as a bit of a puzzle? On one hand, in the land of Literary Theory, there is much angst as to what the text actually is, and where ‘meaning’ resides, and the idea that texts are intrinsically meaningless is practically heresy for a significant chunk of the folks thinking on the topic. And yet in the land of math and science, the distinction between information and meaning is so fundamental as to be almost trivial. The question of ‘meaning in the text’ would simply never occur to a mathematician because it’s an oxymoron; an impossibility brought into fuzzy existence by the imprecise nature of language.

At this point, those of you with science training are probably nodding, and maybe indulging in a quiet smirk. Take that, you post-modernist posers, eh?

Not so fast. It’s late, and I’m going to bed soon… but next time I post here I’m going to talk about SCIgen. And if you’re a science dink, you’d better get your ‘splainin’ underpants on, because you’re not going to like what I’ve got to say.


  1. Sharon B · · Reply

    Hi D,
    As loathe as I am to go back into this particular pit, it worries me that you are representing a literary stoush from the 60s and ’70s as current thinking. Fish and Reader-response theory were taking on the then established mode of criticism, New Criticism, which elevated the text above all and to some extent did what you seem to accuse Derrida of in his “there is nothing outside the text” (and I’m not sure if you’ve got D’s interpretation of text quite right here). I think your eg of information vs meaning is quite a good one for explaining what is now a conventional literary approach to text–which is not surprising as your first blog quite clear draws on Sassurean semiotics which is also where many current lit theories derive. If you want to go this route, I also think you have to include Barthes’ “Death of the Author”. All this is a bit hoary, however, and if this is thesis material, I would beg you to find a genuine lit theory academic (as opposed to one who is working from her dim recollections of long ago theory classes) and thrash it out properly. If it’s just for your own amusement, ignore everything I just said …

    1. Nah. Not thesis material. Just musing. And as for the ‘death of the author’ — that’s pretty much a given. Once the text is released, any function an author may have had is not only complete, but no longer relevant. Barthes might have got excited about it, but it’s one hundred percent implicit the moment you recognise the difference between information and meaning.

      And while it’s easy to say — from within the infamous Ivory Tower — that this is old thinking, I’d like to point out that while I’m certainly standing in the shadow of that selfsame tower my primary interest has long been declared: I’m a writer. And writers, unfortunately, still get censored and still hear the same old hoary “responsibility of the artist” bullshit when they put pen to paper.

      To be more clear: within the last ten years (around 2004, I believe) I was told in a private forum by an American literary academic with the full gamut of shiny degrees that the “artist had to accept responsibility for the effect of their work.” (We were arguing on the bowdlerisation of Shakespeare by some American institutions.)

      I was pretty blunt with him at the time. But for all that Fish’s stuff is supposed to be established and the New Criticism properly subdued, this stuff is still a problem for those of us who write fiction, poetry, etc.

      (And frankly, I’m not sure ANYONE every gets Derrida’s interpretation of text quite right. Also, I’m fairly sure he intended it that way.)

  2. Vizsla Monologues · · Reply

    Where this is all going to get quite entertaining over the next several years, I suspect, is that there is clearly an enormous economic imperative driving a race to mechanically distill meaning from text. Specifically search engines, but also other behavior-tracking advertising entities. As you’ve neatly summarized, the meaning isn’t in the queries or e-mail, so they must be building working models of our (collectively or individually?) text-interpreters. Our selves. Neat, huh?

    Cheers, A.

    1. And I’m all for that model-building, naturally. I strongly suspect that anything like a genuine AI isn’t going to arise from the expected research. I think if it happens it’ll come out of left field, when somebody does something surprising with something like your working models of text-interpreters.

      …but even if they just make a really canny model, that’ll still be interesting. Certainly, it will extend the old philosophical-zombie problem into new realms!

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