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.