|The following is a working draft of an article which the author has submitted for publication. It reflects her experience teaching in the English Department and involvement in the Working Group on Emergence at Bryn Mawr College,and is made available on Serendip as a contribution to on-going discussions about the emergence of new meanings. Your reactions and comments are welcome.|
And then she asks (what they always ask): What did you hear? What effect did the reading have on you? (Worse:) What does it mean? And how does it achieve that meaning? The sense of inadequacy (as a reader, as a student, as a thinker, as a human being) is even worse if the text was assigned beforehand, if you've been expected to come to class knowing how to read what you read. Knowing what matters, what you should be paying attention to.
Anyone who's ever sat in a literature
class has likely had an experience like this one, arising from the fear of all
that space on the page around a poem (not knowing how to fill it), the fear of
all you don't know about the context of a novel (not knowing how to learn it),
the fear of all you need to know--don't know--generally, in order to offer a worthwhile response.
My own moment occurred during the first semester of my freshman college writing
course. We were reading a Hemingway
short story; the professor criticized the staccato dialogue between husband and
wife. When I defended it, as appropriate to this exchange, Professor Fehrenbach
Hemingway's characters talk that way." And the world opened up for me, into a maze of texts. I realized that, to speak with
authority about this one story, I needed to read them all. And so I become an English major, and
begin to read, sort of conversationally, sort of systematically, as each text
led me into the others that inform it (Dalke 119).
The realization of all I was expected to know, in order to read well, motivated decades of work, and resulted in my career as a professional literary critic. For others, such moments may lead instead to paralysis, or to a general dislike of reading (or at least to reading-under-instruction). You are not interested in playing a game that seems to be about reading the teacher's mind, guessing what you should notice, if you were adequately trained to see what is to be seen--that is, the "right" answer.
Such moments of fear have been addressed (if also exacerbated) by a well-known methodology in literary studies known as reader-response theory (see Jane Tompkins' collection for a good overview). Meaning comes into existence not when the text is written, but when it is read and responded to. Reader-response theory focuses on the transaction readers make with texts, in the ways they actualize them in their own experience (cf. Waldspurger). And meaning is persistently revised as readers compare and collate their readings with one another, searching for patterns common among them, recognizing when the patterns break down, where new stories are needed.
Reader-response theory is generally traced to Louise Rosenblatt's influential 1938 Literature As Exploration, which distinguished between what happens when you read a text primarily to extract information from it, and the "lived through" experience of the text, with what happens "during the actual reading event" (Hall). It is the claim of this essay that enjoying--actually exploiting--what readers do, the variety of life experiences and activities that they put to use in their reading of texts, makes great good sense in terms of emergence. Reader-response theory has elaborated at length on how to do this; emergence offers a framework for understanding why it works.
As the single literary scholar in our Working Group on Emergence, I have often found myself groping to understand the terminology of physics and philosophy, of biology and computer science. I have also found, in my repeated requests for definitions and answers to my questions, a newly refigured disciplinary tool box of my own: a means of understanding that helps me make sense of the way literary study operates within the complexities of the larger world. I have found some ways of expanding my understanding of how literature and literary theory evolves. So what I want to talk about here is my own disciplinary angle on--and application of--this thing called emergence: how an English professor has made sense of the process whereby words emerge from words, stories from stories, interpretations from interpretations, meaning from them all--and further meanings out of those.
Here's the main thing: emergence creates a problem for the nature of knowing. Because of the complexity of the interactions that produce emergent effects, it is difficult both to predict such effects and to reliably trace particular effects back to particular causes. This unpredictability of the future and irreducibility of the present--results of the emergent nature of the universe--lead (among many, many other things) to those remarkable constructions we call language and literature. Indeterminacy prods us to make up stories that explain how we got from what was to what is, from what is to what will be. Literature--and, building on that, literary theory--are what we name the places where this meaning-making occurs. They are two of our ways (among many others) of acknowledging and responding to the unknowability that emergence creates. They are also ways of generating further uncertainty.
I'll illustrate this process by working my way through three levels: looking first at the generation of words (in puns and etymologies), then at the production of stories we call literature, and finally at the interpretation of their meanings which is literary criticism and theory. The space I traverse is the gap between the sounds of words and what they mean, the places where we take what is not yet known, or not understood, and apply to it logic, form, and the rules of symbol manipulation--and then step back again to see what else might arise in this new configuration. The movement is a "loopy" (and endless) one: from disorder--what we do not comprehend; into order--the meaning we make of it; back to disorder--what cannot be incorporated into the story we tell; back to order--revising the story (cf. Dalke and Grobstein).
We see that process, paradigmatically, in the playful constructions we call puns. There is a moment of puzzlement, followed by a solution ("Oh, I get it!"), followed by more puzzlement ("Isn't that curious; what is the logic of the resemblance?"), followed by another answer, a recognition of how shallow--or how deep--the resonance is. When we "get" a "perfect" pun ("Why couldn't the pony talk? He was a little horse/hoarse"), we are seeing simultaneously--or perhaps in such rapid oscillation that it seems simultaneous--two alternative meanings of the same word, or two alternative spellings of the same sound. What constitutes the peculiar pleasure of punning is the ability to switch rapidly back and forth, to hold two meanings in mind at (nearly) the same time ("What do you get when you drop a piano down a mine shaft? A-flat minor/a flat miner"). Writing the puns out, as I have here, can ruin the fun, because it breaks apart what is the key to the game: the delight of doubling. But, once its logic is recognized, such doubling can also produce further play ("What do you get when you drop a piano onto a military base? A-flat major/a flat major").
Imperfect puns work quite similarly, although the delight here is in the near misses, the not-quite-exact identity of two closely sounding words. What operates in an imperfect pun is the perception that what appears momentarily as the same is actually different. What pleases here, as in perfect puns, is the perception of distinction emerging out of identity:
The literary critic Jonathan Culler argues that this action of puns, providing "the surprising coupling of different meanings," is akin to that of etymologies, which "show us what puns might be if taken seriously." In the elaborately constructed histories we call etymologies, what gives pleasure is our ability to identify connections between two words--or two meanings of a word--that puns refuse to make explicit. Etymologies "give us respectable puns" by laboriously articulating such connections, consciously ordering the playful associations that are generated by the unconscious, or emerge serendipitously over time. Etymologies function as "a structural, connecting device," offering the mind "a sense and an experience of an order" (Culler, On Puns, 1-6).
Not surprisingly, the accuracy of such word-histories constitutes an ongoing debate among literary scholars. Renaissance writers, for instance, were always constructing faux-etymologies. They also took puns seriously as etymologies (as when Edmund Spenser suggested in Book VI of The Faerie Queene that "coward" was derived from "cowherd"). George Herbert shared a similar understanding of the resemblances among words. His poem "The Flower" observes, for example, that such resonances are not accidental, but bear the weight of cosmic meaning: "Thy word is all, if we could spell." That is, the shape and sound of words are God's doing, and--could we but read them--expressive of the natural order (Hedley).
But contemporary linguists, whose business is to identify the underlying structures that guide language use, are not entirely comfortable with the disequilibrium which can result from punning. Linnea Lagerquist observes that "puns make it clear that the boundaries" of the performance of competence, the knowledge of language and the knowledge of the world "are both highly mutable and indefinite." Catherine Bates expresses considerable discomfiture over what she calls "pun's perfidious status as an aberrant element within the linguistic structure"
My claim here, however, is that the fundamental "uncontainability" of puns--as well as of those etymologies that surprise, that seem to us like "stretchers"--is important both as an exemplar of the unpredictability of language use, and of our insistent response: ordering what seems to us "aberrant." We make meaning out of the interaction of a set of rules for the use of words, a history of their relations, and the insistently random action of generating, then editing and elaborating, connections between them and new experiences. From our three years¹ worth of early morning conversations about complex systems, I have come to see that this activity is an extension of the process we call emergence, that the back story to this way of understanding the relationship between words and their meanings is the irreversibility and unknown potentiality of evolution. As described in a fall 2004 "Report on Our Progress,"
When applied to literary studies, this means that every story falls short, needing to be extended and exceeded by its interpretation. We make "meaning" as we try to bridge the gap between what we know and what we do not understand, between past and present, between present and future: our stories are the explanations we "make up" to explain how we got from A to B, how we might have gotten to B from A. The task here is neither discovering the past or dictating the future, but rather making use of the past to create something for the future. Following the logic of emergence, students need not worry when confronted with a poem they don't "understand," since their task is not to "get it right," but rather to contribute to this process of exploration (Grobstein, Science).
Strikingly, the process is facilitated by the inexactness with which we hear one another's accounts. Recognizing the productivity of our in ability to hear exactly what one another says constitutes a fundamental revision of one of our primary myths about what is needed to facilitate human interaction. In the Genesis story of the building of the Tower of Babel,
But emergence offers a contemporary counter-story and alternative explanation: lacking a common language, people have a means of discovering things they didn't know. Their gap in understanding is itself productive of new meaning:
The use-value of literary criticism, of the literature it interprets, and of language more generally, emerges in these transitional moments or interstitial places where negotiation is necessary--and where (therefore) meanings need to be constructed. We see this in the evolution of new words, new literary forms, new literary interpretations, and in re-making the meaning of old ones of each of these. Each time a new story is told, at each of these levels, it identifies--in ways that are unpredictable beforehand--other tales not yet articulated.
New stories get generated in an emergent process, as interactions in the environment leave traces (in literature) that are continuously picked up (in literary theory) and re-combined in new configurations. Literary analysis makes new stories out of the stories we have preserved; the most useful of those are continuously generative of that which surprises. There is no general theory of this activity, only multiple individual practices of criticism, in which the work a reader does while reading becomes the meaning of a literary work (Dasenbrock).
Reader-response theory is the application, in an academic context, of this notion that every story leads to the making of new ones. Encouraging students to recognize and articulate their own responses to a story is not only "legitimate," but an expression of--and essential in furthering--the process of emergence. Rather than trying to "guess the right answer," what is useful here is students' relying on their own sense of what is happening in, as well as missing from, a story. Stories fill gaps, and in doing so create new ones. Readers fill those gaps--and thereby make new ones. Making meaning unsettles meaning--and so generates new meanings.
Examples of such practices are many. For instance: in 1899, Joseph Conrad published Heart of Darkness. In the late 1950's, Chinua Achebe critiqued the novel as "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." He then created a new work of fiction, the novel Things Fall Apart, to give life and flesh to the sorts of figures Conrad had objectified in his novel. In 1979, the appearance of Buchi Emecheta's The Joys of Motherhood called attention, in turn, to the peripheral role women had played in Achebe's novel. In this sequence a story was repeatedly re-worked--first in criticism, then in fiction--in order to bring into the foreground the sorts of characters whose lives had been neglected in earlier fiction. In each case, the attempt to fill one gap unexpectedly created another one.-
Something quite similar happened with Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel Jane Eyre. Like Achebe's essay, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's 1988 discussion of "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism" made problematic the fictional use of people of color as representations of the tortured psyches of Europeans. Spivak's analysis helps explain the generation of Jean Rhys's 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, in which Bertha Rochester takes center stage (in Bronte's novel, she had been confined to the attic as a madwoman, a figure of Jane Eyre's unexpressed rage).
Similarly, Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite, first printed in 1838 and reprinted with commentary by Michel Foucault in 1980, gave rise in 2002 to Jeffrey Eugenides's novel Middlesex. As Eugenides said in an interview, he found
But Eugenides' fiction ended up, as he went on to say, not being about "a hermaphrodite at all....it's about reinventing your identity on different levels, be that Greek to American, female to male....Reinvention of self is an enduring theme in American literature in general." Setting out to fill in information about someone with a "genetic mutation there's no escaping of," Eugenides instead found himself writing a tale in which
The evolution I'm tracing here is more complicated than the interrelations among literary texts described, for example, by T.S. Eliot in Tradition and the Individual Talent. Literature emerges out of earlier literature, certainly, but does so in a process that is as much unpredictable as predictable, as much random as it is directed. In accord with the undirected play that is emergence, no "naive reductionism" is possible: the properties of the novels described above are not simply explicable in terms of their original motivations; in each case, the story far exceeds its ostensible "cause" (cf. Grobstein, Emerging).
This same unpredictable process occurs in the production of literary criticism: critics attempt to explain what has been left out, left unarticulated, often left unrecognized by authors. In the process they produce something they cannot quite control, something that surprises them. The writing of literature and the interpretations of its meanings (the results of the encounter between text and reader, code and de-coder which we call literary criticism and literary theory) generate new accounts. These new stories traverse the gaps between what is and what was, what is and what may be--and in doing so create the unexpected. Filling the gap left by Conrad's treatment of Nigerian men, Achebe created another gap, which Emecheta filled, in turn, by creating a fictional world about the lives of Nigerian women. Rhys' novel brought out of the background a figure created by Bronte, Eugenides's novel highlighted what Barbin could not describe. In each of these cases, new elisions arose, further stories clamored to be told. It is precisely the failure of all stories ever to tell the "whole" story, to reliably fill in all the gaps, that makes them endlessly productive of new ones:
To put it more positively: the concept of emergence helps explain not how "precarious," but rather how useful and generative the act of reading can be. In the absence of clear cause and effect, stories arise to explain the distance between past, present and future (it may even be the stories that create the sense of past, present and future). And it is certainly stories that sketch out possibilities for what lies ahead.
This, then, is a contemporary conception of literary theory and literature, of words in the forms of puns, etymologies and stories. Like biological systems, like artificial intelligence, like history and economics, philosophy and psychology, literature and literary criticism (and their makers) are the products (and the makers) of a process of emergence. Both writer and reader alter and are in turn altered by the shape of literature, and of the world it represents: the world that was, the world that is, the world that is to come.
Let's look again, through the lens of emergence, at the story with which we began. The teacher is reading a poem. It begins with a teacher chastising a student for not being able to distinguish between the meanings of two words. The poem quickly reveals, however, that the student has an experiential understanding (which the teacher lacks) of the objects those words represent. The student is able to share that knowledge with others, by putting his experience into poetic form:
sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmonand precision.
How to choose
persimmons. This is precision....
Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn't ripe or sweet, I didn't eat
but watched the other faces....
Some things never leave a person:...
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.
Anne: In this paper, I see myself building the top floor of a house that we've been working on for years. For me, the primary example of emergence has been evolution, secondary to that, artificial intelligence, and I'm just filling in details on top of that structure. In my bleaker moments, I think that all I'm really doing is recovering reader-response theory and calling it "emergence"--but trying to emphasize the generativity of the unpredictable process in a way reader-response theory doesn't.
Karen: What really struck me was this idea that there is ambiguity in meaning. I started thinking about mathematics as a symbolic language without the potential for that same sort of ambiguity. Is language just inherently ambiguous? And is mathematics an exception?
Wil: Isn't that information theory? That it can't be both complete and...
Karen: But it's a different level of ambiguity than what Anne is talking about.
Wil: You can take the same string of information and make it false by using another set of axioms or assumptions. I think it still applies.
Paul: The thing that is important to understand about math as a language is every effort was made to make math...
Anne:...computer language, too...
Paul:...unambiguous. And in some ways, the greatest discovery of the twentieth century was the realization that something on which one had worked as hard as one could, to make it as unambiguous as possible, was still ambiguous. I think there's an important distinction to be made between math and other instances of language. How come language, as it is normally used, did not evolve to become less ambiguous? Because its very ambiguity serves an important function.
Al: I think that the distinction between mathematics and natural language is a very important point. The originator of a statement has his or her own vocabulary, of course colored by background, culture and so on. There is not usually a one-to-one correspondence between the meanings and the terms used to describe those things. In mathematics, we have tried to make precise what each term means, but in language we cannot have a self-contained system.
Wil: May I propose something a little bit different? A lot of kids in biology think every trait has a specific meaning and a reason that it evolved. But there's much other life that doesn't have language and gets along just fine. We can do most of what we do without it, so it's not necessarily a super-adaptive trait.
Doug: Computer languages are actually a really interesting mix, because they're meant to be unambiguous and they are: they tell the computer to do something very specific. Yet they're created, written and read by humans, and just recently some of them have become ambiguous. For instance, you can't tell what a language called Perl is going to do by looking at it; you have to know what it's operating. That's a really expressive idea. You have to know the rules of the context in order to know what it was referring to. It allows you to be very concise and brief.
Anne: Is it interesting to know why computer languages become more ambiguous?
Doug: Larry Wahl, the guy who developed Perl, is very creative. He's very interested in natural languages and trying to work them into computer languages. Engineers, people who want to make computers do particular things, don't find that very appealing. And it's very hard to maintain such programs. So I don't think the field is moving that way.
Paul: Stay with that earlier example, of having a symbol that refers to something else, so it has a context. That property is true of all communication. Take a section of any program of any typical computer language; without knowing what series of variables have been declared at the beginning of program, you can't tell the context.
Doug: So, for example, you could set x to equal some value, but in Perl you might not even know which variable it is going to be based on. It's a mixing of levels; that's the key. Perl has the ability for the contents of the variables to affect the syntax, so it's a blurring of semantics and syntax.
Paul: The thing that's bothering me slightly, in trying to describe computer languages as having the same kind of ambiguity as natural language, is effectively the "divide by zero" problem. When writing a computer language, because you're interacting with a deterministic machine, you are absolutely prohibited from saying anything which will cause an ambiguous response in the machine. From what you've said, Perl doesn't seem to violate that.
Doug: Yeah, well maybe "ambiguity" is a tricky word in this context. There are rules that disambiguate ambiguation. Perl definitely has laws it has to follow, but there's a mixing of levels. If you set a normal language x=a+b, you could decompose it: take x and put it back up into a and b. But in Perl, there's this mixing of semantics: depending on the context, a "+" will do different things. If you take the string "dog" and "food" and plus those together, you get "dog food." But if you plussed "dog" and "1.4," you'd get "1.4." The computer would say, "That's a number, so I'm going to interpret 'dog' as '0.'" The meaning of "+" is determined by the properties.
Paul: But the bottom line is that you never hit the point at which the instruction is, "That's it, you got five choices: take one of them."
Doug: Right. There's no randomness.
Paul: And a really important part of human language, it can be argued, is that what's input to a human does in fact frequently have the property that the last step of the instruction is, "I can't tell you what to do next. There are five possibilities. You decide." A computer can't do that, only humans using a computer.
Karen: That's the flip side. The original description was that, at the start of any computer language program, you basically define your terms. You could make the argument that there is, at least to some degree, a definition of terms and a description of the rules, vocabulary and syntax in natural language,
Paul: One of the passages that Anne quotes is derived from a book by Norretranders. His argument is that natural language has as its primary function not the conveying of a set of instructions or any particular understanding. It very specifically has as its function stimulating something new out of the other person. To the extent that's true, what's missing from computer language is the step where the instruction effectively say, "Having done a, b, c, and d, there are now a series of possibilities. You pick from among them." That choice makes the use of language a generative process.
Anne: That's a really useful thing for literary studies to be aware of, because we still have this model of mathematical exactness, that you can get the right or the best interpretation, or the original meaning.
Paul: I wouldn't fear that "all you're saying" is that reader-response theory is real. If I'm hearing you correctly, what you're saying is that reader-response theory has a justification in the emergence framework, a rationale which is more clear than that derived from literary studies. I would say, "Hey, the point of this paper is that there's a way of thinking that has developed within the field of literary studies. If you look at it from the perspective of emergence, it makes a hell of lot of sense. Over and above that, it provides an understanding of why literary reader-response theory is an effective approach to literature."
Karen: I had another question. You spend a lot of time talking about puns, and I like the general argument about the recognition of the unexpected connection. I was wondering at what age children start getting puns. I'm really intrigued at what happens if you put puns in the context of human psychological development. You have to achieve a certain stage of development for the subtleties...
Anne: It's just about knowing context.Doug: My daughter knew there were two words that were different. They sounded the same and it was funny to use them both in the same sentence.
Anne: But couldn't you explain all that by saying meaning is context dependent? You can't say this out loud without ruining the joke. (Writing on the board:) "There are 10 kinds of people in the world." (Those who know binary and those who don't.) If you don't know about binary, you won't get it. So I don't know that it's developmental; it might just be contextual.
Doug: My daughter Stephanie, who is now five, reached a kind of threshold. She could speak and didn't get puns, but then there was a point when she started to laugh because of words used in funny ways, or the juxtaposition of two words that sound alike. I think it happened between the ages of three and four.
Anne: Isn't that just a paradigmatic example of what the bipartite brain does? You have two different meanings and you have to adjudicate between them?
Doug: Well, my daughter's not an ant, so that could be a possible explanation.
Anne: It still feels to me like an important strand here is the loss of innocence. The assumption has always been that we want to make things clear. The argument of this paper is the argument of emergence more largely: not only will we never get it clear, but every story we write will only produce more ambiguity--and that's actually a good thing.
Jason:: People self-consciously try to convey the meaning they have in their heads to other people, but they-re fighting this uphill battle, because language as an entity is fighting back.
Anne: That's why a pun is so pleasurable. But once you see it, and try to write it out, you lose the ambiguity.
Doug: I guess I don't see it as an uphill battle. It's just being aware of more connections. When I say certain phrases or words, they elicit certain responses in your head. I can use that, and play.
Karen: A colleague of ours in the Russian Department wants to write a training module for Russian verbs dealing with motion that have no English equivalent. That's an interesting piece of the storytelling that Anne doesn't really address. It's hard enough to make yourself understood in one language, but when you try to cross between two it becomes that much more complicated.
Anne:But isn't that just an example of the same thing? When I'm talking to you, there's still a translation. The presumption is that because we're both using English, we understand one another. Is that really qualitatively different than if you were speaking Russian and I were speaking English?
Doug: My son is nine and learning Spanish. He was struck by the fact that you can say two different words that sound to him almost the same, and yet they mean something very different. And I said, "Well, Thad, that's also true in English. You could say, 'choose' or 'cheese'; those sound similar. It was funny for him to realize that his own language is that way, although 'choose' and 'cheese' don't sound very close to him.
Jason:: The reason I said it was an uphill battle is that some people are only sometimes trying to be clear and unambiguous. On the other side, there's trying to keep things ambiguous because that's how ideas are spurred, that's the way we generate new stories and be creative for the greater good of mankind.
Paul:: The idea that ambiguity is perhaps deliberate really does turn the whole problem on its head, because we all have the tendency to think that the function of language is to transmit information, and that the task of receivers is to do the best they can to understand the state of the brain that produced that signal. It's a really different idea to say no, the brain is not producing a signal in order to have that signal replicated, but in order to explore another brain. One does have to admit that certain properties of language may in fact derive not from the motivation to replicate a state of a brain, but inquire into the state of another brain.
Anne: That can really help with the reading of poetry. Most students are frightened of reading poetry, because they think they're supposed to figure out the original brain state that produced that series of images. They're scared to death because there's so much whiteness on the page--in contrast to an essay, which lays it all out and gives you a thesis and explains the ideas. The emergence perspective could help students learn to value what they themselves notice in a poem, without worrying so much about what the author intended them to see.
In gratitude to all the members of the Working Group on Emergence at Bryn Mawr College. Thanks in particular to Paul Grobstein, whose ability to break wholes into parts, and recombine them again into surprising new wholes, has been invaluable to my understanding both of my own work and of the world in which it is situated.
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