Meaning by Association

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Meaning by Association (Quotes and Notes)

by Katie Randall


Table of Contents:


Section 1: The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories

Section 2: Meanings/ Connotations/ Connections

Section 3: Intentional Fallacy and Speciation

Section 4: Loopy Biology

Section 5: Analogies

Section 6: Great Books Carrying Over

Section 7: Choice

Section 8: Selection of the Shocking

Section 9: Certain on Paper

Section 10: Science and Writing

Section 11: Censored

Section 12: Tying it Together

Note: This paper consists of excerpts from my work in The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, in other earlier classes, and outside of class. Material written specifically for this assignment is in italics.


Section 1: The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories

“We will experiment, in this course, with two interrelated and reciprocal inquiries: whether the biological concept of evolution is a useful one in understanding the phenomena of literature (in particular: the generation of new stories), and whether literature contributes to a deeper understanding of evolution.”

-from the course homepage on Serendip


I decided to take Evolution of Stories because I wanted something different. I wanted an English class, but had also enjoyed my dabbling in Intro Bio last term. I'd been taught to believe the theory of evolution in school, without being taught much about it. This seemed wrong. I liked the idea of an interdisciplinary course, something that didn't exist in high school. When I inquired among friends, I got mainly good reviews of the professors, and no warnings to cut and run (which I always heed). So, why not?

I started Evolution of Stories, and realized I had gotten something different. No grades, which made me happy. But more than that, a syllabus with blanks to be filled in by the students. A class that was nearly equally lecture and discussion, science and English, with room to change as it went along. A frustrating class in some ways: a purposeful lack of foundation, a purposeful questioning of all the things we'd been taught before, a mandatory blog that turned into something more like an assignment than a conversation.

It was a class with grandiose themes instead of managable subtopics: evolution (of course) but also science, religion, art, language, culture, and literature. It left room for personal topics. I discovered in retrospect that the one I'd been pursuing all semester (among the tangents) was meaning.


for more on Evolution of Stories:

-See Section 2

-See Section 3

-See Section 4

-See Section 5: forum post

-See Section 6: notes

-See Section 7

-See Section 8: final notes

-See Section 11: notes

-See Section 12


for more on meaning:

-See Section 2

-See Section 11: first notes

-See Section 12



Section 2: Meanings /Connotations/ Connections

Excerpt from “Evolution and Conservation of Meaning,” my second paper for the Evolution of Stories course:

“That partly explains how words evolve, and which words evolve, but not why. If we had wanted to, we could easily have come up with brand new words...Why recycle old terms to express changing ideas? These shifts in meaning align with Dennett's ideas about evolution in one more way. They allow us to preserve the old words and the design work that went into them in the first place, rather than coming up with something completely new. This is less work for the thinkers, and has an advantage in that the old connotations of a word (like the unused traits of a species) do not disappear overnight. If, later, we want to resurrect one of Dennett's ideas about skyhooks, it will be easy to do so. Nothing is thrown away.”

In “Evolution and Conservation of Meaning” I looked at the evolving meanings of words: here, I am trying (in a limited way) to look at the meanings we give to academic ideas, books, authors. I am quoting from my own work in this and other classes, and outside of classes, to try and show the connections I have made between different works, different subjects, and different ideas. What does this have to do with meaning?

The basic premise of this collection, though not one I can prove, is that these connections are meaning. We create meaning by connecting the pieces of what we learn. And the stronger or more numerous these associations, the more meaning each piece has. That's what I'm trying to show through this paper-- my own personal associations, and what they've added to each part of the puzzle.


for more on Evolution of Stories:

-See section 1

-See Section 3

-See Section 4

-See Section 5: forum post

-See Section 6: notes

-See Section 7

-See Section 8: final notes

-See Section 11: notes

-See Section 12


for more on meaning though connections:

-See Section 1: last paragraph

-See Section 11: first notes

-See Section 12

Section 3: Intentional Fallacy and Speciation

Interestingly, my first paper for evolution of stories also dealt with meaning, approaching from the side what Professor Dalke mentioned in class as the “intentional fallacy.” What did the author mean? I'd been often annoyed in classes with students who got sidetracked too long on this topic, but had never before heard it termed a fallacy. On the contrary, I'd had teachers encourage me to nypothesize on this very dilemma, or even presume to answer it for me.

Yet here I was in my first paper of the semester, trying to understand why Darwin had written one section of On the Origin of Species as he had. In other words, trying to understand what it meant.

“However, I noticed when most of the way through Darwin's argument that in a book titled On the Origin of Species he had not even touched on the origin of life-- on how the first species had come into existence, or even whether there were one or several. When he briefly addressed this subject in the final chapter it was in a hesitant, contradictory way. I set out to determine exactly what Darwin had included about the origin of the first species, and why he had concluded so little.”

-excerpt from “The Origin of One or Several Species.”


At the time I hadn't seen this paper as a paper about meaning-- that broad theme which I've assigned to my work in this class only emerged in retrospect. This reminds me of one of Darwin's points, emphasized for us in a lecture by Grobstien-- that a speciation event can only be classified after the fact. There is no knowing until later when a new species is born.

This connection makes me wonder: how many things on earth are only visible, only realized long afterward? History seems to work like that, and art. Great artists are generally “discovered” long after their impoverished deaths.


for more on Evolution of Stories:

-See Section 1

-See Section 2

-See Section 4

-See Section 5: forum post

-See Section 6: notes

-See Section 7

-See Section 8: final notes

-See Section 11: notes

-See Section 12


for more on Darwin and Evolution:

-See Section 1 (course website)

-See Section 7 (poem)

-See Section 8 (notes)



Section 4: Loopy Biology

One of the first ideas we were introduced to in Evolution of Stories was the idea of “Loopy Science.” Professor Grobstien contrasted the traditional view of science, the one we had all been taught, with a different take on the process. Here is the schematic he gave us:

Many students (especially science majors) were unsettled by where we next took this new view of science-- the role of subjectivity (in the form of “the crack”) in the development of hypotheses. The lack of anything completely “proven,” since new observations could always invalidate a previous summary. The general lack of any endpoint, any fixed conclusion. I was less unsettled, and more able to follow these strange new ideas-- not, I think, because I was smarter or more adpatable than the others, but because this idea wasn't completely new. I'd heard of “Loopy Science” before.

I fist encountered the idea of “Loopy Science” in my introductory biology class last term, illustrated by the same diagram that Paul Grobstien showed us in Evolution of Stories.

So in our class discussion this term, I had an easier time than some people adjusting to this individualistic, unfinished approach to science. I had been exposed to the idea before, and in a different type of class-- in a fact-oriented, detail-oriented, traditionally structured beginner biology class. In other words, I knew already that this new approach did not necessarily mean the abandonment of traditional science, or the negation of everything we had been taught in high school. Because of my lab teacher's enthusiasm, I saw it as a freeing, fascinating way to look at a subject that had often left me cold before. Because of his insistence on following exact procedures and thinking critically about results, I also knew it didn't let me off the hook. Practicing Loopy Science was in some respects exactly the same as the old linear version.


for more on Evolution of Stories:

-See Section 1

-See Section 2

-See Section 3

-See Section 5: forum post

-See Section 6: notes

-See Section 7

-See Section 8: final notes

-See Section 11: notes

-See Section 12


for more on Biology:

-See Section 5

-See Section 9

-See Section 10



Section 5: Analogies

That same introductory biology class ended up connected in my mind with another, seemingly unrelated subject. Interestingly, I took both of the classes for similar reasons-- not for any potential major, not even really for the requirement, but because the subject interested me, and-- why not?

This term my “why not?” class was “Form of the City.” Despite the misleading 100-level listing it was one of the most rigorous courses I've taken. Even so, I found time to jot down a random epiphany during a lecture on the Mesopotamian City that was in no way related to the exam.


Cities are Like Eukaryotic Cells:

both have specialized sections that perform specific functions (organelles or neighborhoods)

both have a center

both include diverse (intracellular or intra-city) environments

both contain an infrastructure

both are more efficient than what came before them


Reading it again now, this analogy reminds me of another author we read in Evolution of Stories-- Daniel Dennett and his Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. We as a class spent a lot of time on Dennett's analogies, one of his prime modes of explanation and illustration. At the beginning I found them helpful, but then I began to have second thoughts:


“We've talked a lot about the many analogies that Dennet uses to describe different scientific theories for us, but how reliable are those analogies? He lets us know that he is writing a story, not a formal argument, but can I really allow myself to be convinced of a scientific theory by a book with so little science in it? The analogies may make scientific concepts more accessible, but I'm afraid that too much is being lost in the extra layer between the ideas themselves, Dennet's descriptions of them, and my own understanding of those descriptions.”

-excerpt from my forum post, Week 5

Rereading that post makes me have second thoughts also about my cells and cities analogy, which otherwise I might not. Is it a helpful way to look at the two, or just an accidental resemblance? Maybe it's only a product of my boredom, not really necessary or useful for this paper. But I like it, so I'll keep thinking about it.


for more on Evolution of Stories:

See Section 1

-See Section 2

-See Section 3

-See Section 4

-See Section 6: notes

-See Section 7

-See Section 8: final notes

-See Section 11: notes

-See Section 12


for more on Biology:

-See Section 4

-See Section 9

-See Section 10


for more on resemblance and analogies:

-See section 1

-See Section 4

-See section 11

Section 6: Great Books Carrying Over

Great Books was the name of an English class I took last year, my senior year of high school. It was taught by Mr. Grossman and Ms. Moore, each of whom led a section. This may sound familiar to anyone who had taken Evolution of Stories. Although the first connection I made between the classes was based on their two-teacher, two-section structure, further connections that gave me my first ideas for this web of associations. Some general similarities were the general, choose-your-own-adventure assignments and the fluid discussion topics.

What effect did these similarities have? First of all, I was predisposed to enjoy Evolution of Stories because I had enjoyed Great Books. I wasn't as taken off guard by the openness and tangential nature of our conversations as some students were--- I had seen this format (or lack of format) before.

On the other hand, I champed at the bit throughout C-Sem. Because of the academic freedom I'd had in Great Books, the narrowly defined assignments and endless rewriting made me feel that I'd been sent back to middle school. The topics and readings were interesting, but the format of the class-- with its short, predetermined discussions-- bored me. I understood the necessity of the class, and did learn, but I didn't like it. Would I have been as frustrated if English my senior year had resembled more traditional high school classes? Probably not.

Guide to Great Books Assignments:

(I'm including this to provide some context for my later excerpts-- because in some ways this whole paper is about context and its importance)

All the King's Men paper: Written in response to Robert Penn Warren's novel, our second of the year. This assignment allows students to mix academic analysis with creative nonfiction, and includes both original writing and quotes from the book (which can be separated or integrated into the story)


Pale Pale Fire: Written in response to Pale Fire by Nabokov, as well as the other books we'd read that year. We were to quote lines and phrases from the poem “Pale Fire,” and then (like the character Kinbote) “interpret” them in order to tell our own thoughts and lives. The more I look back, the more I realize that I understood the importance of associative thinking before taking Evolution of Stories. I learned it last year.


Senior Portrait: This was the final assignment of the year. The title comes from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. We were to write about ourselves-- how we write and think about the world, and what has influenced our lives and our thoughts. Does this sound familiar? What I wrote a year ago was less focused on the class, and very different from what I write today, but the concept is one I borrowed (without fully realizing it until now). The major difference here is the cross-referencing I've included, playing up the idea of interconnectedness which I've borrowed from Darwin and Whitman.


for more on Great Books:

-See Section 1 (notes)

-See Section 8 (Senior Portrait)

-See Section 10 (Pale Pale Fire)

-See Section 11 (Rebuilding, notes)


for more on Evolution of Stories:

-See Section 1

-See Section 2

-See Section 3

-See Section 4

-See Section 5: forum post

-See Section 7

-See Section 8: final notes

-See Section 11: notes

-See Section 12



Section 7: Choice

Have you worked so hard to be original? Have you pushed away awareness of your own precursors?

What you create is new... the combination is new and no one else could have made it and no other time could have made it

And what you create is old... its components are old and they are gathered in you from your parents and from all experience,

And what you create is linked to all other creations in an indivisible mesh of connections past and present,

There is no getting away from this web... and no need to,

The links can be of emulation or rebellion...both are strong.

We can trace parts of the pattern but never the whole,

Or ignore it completely... each part still exists and the system still exists,

more subtle and varied than our subtle and varied brains can encompass,

and it grows as the grass grows... everywhere.

-Excerpt from “Old and New” my third assignment for Evolution of Stories.


Even while I was writing this poem, I was keeping in mind the way that it related to what we had been reading and discussing in class. In my afterward I wrote that “this poem is in a style emulating Walt Whitman, but with some key differences rising from its subject matter” and that “the ideas in this poem are linked to those of Whitman, Sontag and Darwin through association, not necessarily agreement or disagreement.” This is true as far as it goes. The association with Whitman was deliberate: I set out to emulate Whitman's style, partly because it seemed a good form for my ideas and partly simply to see if I could.

What someone reading the poem could not know was that I had had to write several “emulation poems” before, starting in middle school, and that in middle school I had hated the idea. Why should I have to imitate someone else's style in an assignment? In high school I was less offended. The difference was that in middle school we were given three or four poets to choose from, while in high school the choice was open. I found that what I had resented, with thirteen-year-old righteous anger, was not having to copy a style. It was having to copy a particular style that we had already analyzed to death. The choice made all the difference.

Seeing that now, I also realize that my decision to submit a poem as my third assignment has little to do with the reasons I gave. Those came after. The real reason was that I was sick of writing papers. I wanted to see what I could get away with. I wanted to see how many choices Evolution of Stories gave me.


for more on Whitman:

-See Section 9


for more on poetry:

-See Section 9

-See Section 10

Section 8: Selection of the Shocking

This is a note that I wrote on the back of an Anthropology article, related to a trend that's been bothering me for a long time:

In the news, in history, in lectures and documentaries, catastrophes are uncovered. The bad, the awfulness catches everyone's attention because it's interesting, sensational. It's right that these things should be remembered instead of ignored-- but I don't understand. It gets hopeless, paralyzing, and no one even notices the successes. Aren't those what we should focus on? What worked, and why, so it can happen again.

The note and the concern didn't come out of nowhere-- in this particular case it's written ancestor was very easy for me to trace.

“If you really think about it, world news is depressing. I don’t mean sad, scary, frustrating, though it is all of those. I mean the kind of depressing that keeps you from getting out of bed in the morning, the kind of depressing that makes you forget to breathe, and even forget that you’ve forgotten to breathe, that makes you close the paper and change the channel from sheer self- preservation. Or at least, it is for me.

I have a hard time with statistics, with dry facts. I have too much imagination, or too much experience. If I brought my whole mind to bear on just one of those articles, I would have to realize that these people dying are real people...But no one’s mind is made for that much reality, and distance blurs faces beyond human recognition”

-excerpt from Senior Portrait, Great Books


This reminded me later of Darwin's theory of natural selection, or Dennett's extension of it to “memes,” idea-units. Except that in this case the ideas/ images that survive are the shocking, numbing ones, which still strikes me as fundamentally wrong.

Our class looked at biological evolution, literary evolution, and a hodgepodge of other areas that might be lumped under “cultural” evolution, but we were necessarily limited by time. So the idea to apply evolution to the media and what it shows us is an extension, something new coming out of something old. What use is the new frame of reference?

Well, in more traditional evolution it is natural selection that determines what continues and what becomes extinct-- so the clearest answer here is to change the selective environment. Change what people want to watch, or will watch. I don't know if that brings me any closer to changing what bothers me, but it's a start.


for more on Darwin and Evolution:

-See Section 1 (course website)

-See Section 7 (poem)

Section 9 : Certain on Paper

Something

There is something here

older than old,

vital and singing the sap through the trees

and the worms through the earth

and the clouds through the sky--

calling down the lightning with the thunder behind.

It was born with the sunrise

rose from the waves

fell flaming through the shell of the atmosphere.

It sprouted with the mushrooms

and believe me, believe,

it spins the earth around the sun

and spreads the distant galaxies.

It is nameless, however many names

we give it.

It is greater than the sum of its parts

and its parts are infinite.

If I look sideways, then I see

its shadow

its shadow is the universe.

And if I listen, then I know

it is the silence after the wind

and the heartbeat I heard in the womb.


I wrote this poem maybe three years ago, outside of class, though I later shared it in class. After reading Whitman (again) this year, I see again a lot of similarities: the certainty of tone, the optimism, the importance of the natural world, the details. But because I am the author, I also happen to the know that the certainty is a sham-- or at least, impermanent. In the few minutes I spent scribbling the first draft, I did believe what I was writing. Now-- now, I like the idea, I like the certainty in the lines, but I don't feel it the way I did in that moment. Not at all.

Which makes me wonder: did Whitman? Was his optimism, his all-encompassing self, permanent? Or did it come and go? The poems won't give us the answer, so probably nothing will. I also included this poem because of some of its details. in trying (successfully?) to steer clear of too many poetic cliches, I turned to science metaphors. “Fell flaming through the shell of the atmosphere,” “Sprouted with the mushrooms,” “spreads the distant galaxies.” Very unscientific in their application, they remind me of part of Leaves of Grass where Whitman describes his progression through the universe with reference to scientific concepts.

When writing “Something” and when reading that section, I wondered the same thing. Did the pulling- in of scientific concepts enrich the poem? Was it a good use, or a misuse? Was it original, or only window- dressing? I don't have an answer.


for more on poetry:

-See Section 7

-See Section 10


for more on Whitman:

-See Section 7

Section 10: Science and Writing

Why I Take Science Classes

When I told new friends last term that I was taking Bio 101, they often asked “Are you pre-med?” or “Oh, are you thinking of majoring in it?” I always answered with a forceful no. This lead to puzzlement. “Well, what about a minor?” Still no. I explained that I was much more interested in the humanities and social sciences. More puzzlement. The implied question: I might be required to take a lab science, but why that one? Why not something easier, something popularly designated “science for English majors?”

I love the humanities. I enjoy reading, writing, debating. I graduated from high school with six and a half years of English credit-- if we'd been allowed to major, there's no doubt what mine would have been. I'm going to be an author.

At the same time, I look at creative writing and the arts, and I see something too often missing. In school publications, and even professional magazines, I see a cliché forming. There's something narrow in the field. It isn't widely read, isn't always for everyone: there's a sense of exclusivity (maybe undeserved) that keeps “ordinary” people away. In our third lecture, “What Happened to the Versus?” there was a quote from a professor watching Obama's Inaguration and the tributes afterward: "It's poetry; you can leave now." I'm not trying to badmouth the writers or the editors, because there's a lot of good writing and a lot of interesting writing going on. I still want to be part of that group, part of that little world. But I never want to think it's the whole world.

So what to do? Taking science classes, and social science classes, isn't the answer, but it might be part of an answer. I don't want to take science for English majors-- not because I wouldn't learn, but because then I'd only meet English majors. The point of a liberal arts education is its openness, and so I don't want to rush through or circumvent the requirements. I want to fulfill them.

And then again, there's always the ever-present reason (or excuse) for a writer: that everything Is raw material for writing. The more, and the more varied, the better.

“I don’t write because I’m good at it. If I want good writing I can go to the library. I love to read for what it gives me, I love to write because of what it takes from me. It takes everything. To write it how it has to be takes everything, total focus, and I don‘t stop until I get it right-- even if the end result is still awful”

-excerpt from “The Sound and the Sense,” Pale Pale Fire paper, Great Books

It makes sense to me that most things in my life can be linked back to writing, even though I don't write nearly as much or as often as I should. Mental laziness, and the difficulty of managing my own time to fit in what only I think is essential. It makes sense because it's my method of making sense of things, even though I've slipped up this year.


for more on science:

-See Section 1

-See Section 5

-See Section 7

-See Section 8

-See Section 9

-See Section 10


for more on writing:

-See Section 1

-See Section 7

-See Section 11

-See Section 12



Section 11 : Censored

This section does not appear in the online version of “Meaning by Association,” though the connections I drew between “Rebuilding,” All the King's Men, and our class this year were what first prompted me to write this paper. Maybe the strongest connections are always the most personal, and the hardest to share.



Section 12: Tying it Together

This assignment turned out differently than I envisioned it. Ideally I could have included more links of association, but I was trying to keep the web somewhat focused on my thoughts regarding a few classes and topics. Otherwise, it would have had no boundaries whatsoever. I tried to explain what the various links meant to me, and how they shaped my thoughts about ideas I encountered later. To do this, I also put the web into a more chronological structure than I had first anticipated. Although various related sections are cited after each topic, the piece can be read linearly, and probably makes most sense that way. It can also be read from link to link, or backwards, and hopefully will spark different connections and reaction in the reader whichever way it is read.


for more on connections:

-See All

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