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Another glass?

For reasons that will likely be clear to Gentle Readers, the following passage just leapt off the screen at Your Humble Blogger from an article otherwise of only minimal interest:

"English writers for the most part try to follow Orwell's dictum that prose should be a pane of clear glass through which you look," he [John Banville] said. "But Irish writers think of prose style as a distorting lens. We love that ambiguity; we love that a word can have three or four meanings at the same time."
His Love of Words Rivals His Contempt for Critics
Yes, said I to myself, said I, a distorting lens, rather than clear glass. Or, at any rate, tinted glass, and—most importantly—with a nice frame around it. And possibly one of those polarized filters so if you don’t look at it just right, it’s completely opaque.

Well, and yes, and no, but the metaphor is interesting on another level as well. It presents prose as something through which the audience looks at—what? The author? The world? The author’s view of the world? When I, as a reader, look at and through the prose, what am I looking for? In the case of a novel, well, I can do whatever the hell I want, and the author can get stuffed, or the author can try to trick me into doing what the author wants me to do, or I can go into trying to see what the author wants me to see, or I can go into it determined to see something different. I can, perhaps, try to hang the author’s frame and glass over my own view of the world. I can attempt to collaborate with the author, or I can try to subvert her intentions, or I can ignore the intentions. After all, it’s just me and my reading experience, and as long as I don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses, I can please myself.

But there is another kind of writing, and another kind of reading.

Antonin Scalia recently wrote an article called The Language of Law, which discusses, among other things, the responsibilities of a reader to the text and to the author or authors thereof. Mr. Justice Scalia, Gentle Readers will be all too aware, is the primary apologist for a judicial philosophy called textualism, which is a sort of strict constructionism that differs from originalism in that it eschews the intent of the Founders to concentrate on the text itself, limiting judicial goals and achievements to explication of texts. This leads him to state categorically that the Constitution does not allow the Federal Judiciary to rule on state regulations of abortion, sex discrimination, or euthanasia. “The federal Constitution says nothing on these subjects, which are therefore left to be governed by state law,” says Justice Scalia. Not that I believe Justice Scalia to rule consistently in keeping with this modesty, but there it is. A short, easy passage, written for laymen, that makes it clear what Justice Scalia believes his philosophy to entail.

But I am not writing about the law at the moment. Well, and I am, but I want to come around to it by a more roundabout route. We’re in no hurry, are we? There’s tea in the pot.

The article is a review of a book by Steven D. Smith called Law’s Quandary. I have not read the book in question or (I think) any of Prof. Smith’s work, so please, please Gentle Reader, do not mistake my musings for his arguments. Just saying. When I respond to Justice Scalia’s response to Prof. Smith’s work, I feel somewhat responsible to them both, and am aware that you, Gentle Reader, view my own writing through my distorted lens, and within my frame, and when I attempt hang that frame over Justice Scalia’s lens and frame over ... well, Gentle Reader, you’d better squint.

Justice Scalia quotes Prof. Smith as saying it is a “basic ontological proposition that persons, not objects, have the property of being able to mean.” Justice Scalia does not agree. “What is needed for a symbol to convey meaning is not an intelligent author, but a conventional understanding on the part of the readers or hearers that certain signs or certain sounds represent certain concepts.” That is, meaning exists in things, not in people, and that the reader stops with the thing. Or, to quote Mark Liberman on Scalia on the meaning of meaning: “Scalia's specific arguments that meaning is something that (people perceive that) texts have, not something that people do (for the purpose of affecting other people)...” Mr. Justice Scalia gives several dopey examples of texts (or events, or symbols) that have meaning as divorced from an author, or at least an author’s intent, the most troubling of which is that “The bridegroom who says ‘I do,’ intending by that expression to mean ‘I do not,’ has not succeeded in communicating his intent; but what he has said unquestionably means that he consents to marriage.” Emphasis, most emphatically, Justice Scalia’s. You won’t catch me emphasizing his words. Hoo boy. Well, and perhaps I will later. Later? Aren’t I nearly done?

I find Prof. Smith’s basic ontological proposition philosophically interesting, and Gentle Readers will be aware that by philosophically interesting I mean something like potentially useful in renovating the frameworks on which I construct machines for pattern-matching and decision-making. What are my responsibilities as a reader? How do those change with what I know about the authors and the intended audience? Justice Scalia says that the responsible reader considers “a conventional understanding on the part of the readers or hearers”. While Gentle Readers have by now put up with a good deal of my attempts to discern the understanding of the Declaration of Independence on the part of its hearers, as an exculsive practice it seems to me logically unsustainable. The readers or hearers are a part of the intention of the author. If we ignore the author, we have to invent the reader ourselves. It’s a topsy-turvy deconstruction, which privileges the conventional reader and assumes that all glass is clear and without distortion.

Now, I do understand the reluctance to take the authors at their words, particularly in a text with multiple authors with different declared intent, or with political interests in disguising or denying united intent. That doesn’t let the reader off the hook of intentionality. I understand that, ultimately, a text says what it says, and doesn’t say what it doesn’t say. I’m not convinced that those categories are so easy to differentiate, and I think there are a lot of things that any text neither ignores nor states. We can argue from principle, we can argue from context, we can argue from form.

OK, here, bear with me, because I think this next link is also related. “Linguists now have an agreed-upon standard for writing this sound [ the labiodental flap] when doing phonetic transcription—a very practical outcome of [Kenneth S.] Olson’s research.” This is from a press release announcing a new IPA symbol, a matter of interest to phoneticians and purveyors of frridze magnets. Now, get me for a moment—Dr. Olson spends years and years studying African languages, and the practical outcome is a v with a hook on the right arm. When I read about the practical outcome of research, I’m thinking about blowing shit up. I’m thinking about skyscrapers that stay up in earthquakes. I’m thinking about powdered orange juice. You know, practical stuff. Now, this right hook ‘v’ is practical, in that it will help people write about a thing that was difficult to write about previously, and to compare things that were previously somewhat difficult to compare, which activities are the common practice of certain linguists. There are different readers, here, who look for different meanings, and find them. My job, when I’m reading a press release from the Summer Institute of Linguistics, is to pay attention to the context, and what the authors are intending to convey, as well as what they are actually conveying. When they say a thing is practical, they mean, well, what they mean. And, of course, they’re right. What is more practical than talking? The symbol, here, is being invented, is being created, and it has not only an authorial intention but an intended audience, and if I found a right hook ‘v’ carved into a tree, I’d need to put some effort whether it really meant a labiodental flap.

And I’m just a guy with a blog. Look, I can’t and don’t particularly want to give a definitive answer on where meaning resides. What I do want to say is that when we look at the framework on which Mr. Justice Scalia builds his decision-making machinery, it states emphatically that meaning resides in things, not in people. He reads that way. He interprets that way. His instincts, his priorities, his conclusions are all products of that machinery, built to that framework. And even if he’s right, I’d rather have somebody sitting on that particular bench who incorrectly thinks that meaning resides in people than somebody who correctly thinks it does not. More important still, I’d like a Justice to acknowledge that the text is the (warped) glass through which the world is visible, and that it is the world, ultimately, that the Justice is looking at, however darkly.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


i would say the most important difference between binding language and non-binding language is that people who are not party to an original agreement, even by proxy, may still be bound by it, so clear and conventional wording is necessary. the argument that intent should then be weighed less heavily moves me because of this - ultimately those who are constructing agreements, whether honest by intent or by process, are responsible for assembling language that can be read and applied by strangers under completely different circumstances.

this also moves me against weighing meaning more heavily, because omniscience is not humanly possible. the intent of the original parties of the agreement matters because one should always expect, in any small group, some common inability to construct an agreement that is a good fit beyond the boundaries of the group's social, economic, and political experience.

this is not to say that a contract binds only its original authors, and certainly not saying that a contract is invalid if signed in an incomplete state - in other words somewhere between fraud and haste. at issue i think is how a document should be viewed when uneven resources cause a severe imbalance in its application. i guess this line of thinking throws a flaming object at the concept of equality before the law - one is entitled to a jury of peers but apparently not to laws written by peers.

Mr. Justice Scalia, is, of course, talking nonsense, as the Constitution, for example, is not nearly detailed and specific enough to be taken at word-for-word meaning. Trivial examples from the Constitution:

the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy. Does that mean he can't command the Air Force or the Marines?

Congress can secure Authors the exclusive Right to their Writings. Does that mean that copyright doesn't apply to artists and their drawings, or songwriters and their songs?

No person can, for the same offense, be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb. Does that mean it's OK to cut off their ear or their nose?

In some cases, Mr. Justice Scalia's argument is circular: the "conventional understanding", if such there be, of certain phrases (such as "unreasonable search and seizure", or "advice and consent") has come about because of how they were used in laws and interpreted according to the known intent of those laws.

"conventional" has a lot of meanings, doesn't it? cute phrase.

As Vardibidian has presented Scalia's argument to us, his unconsidered reliance on "conventional understanding" creates a giant, gaping, unpatchable hole in his argument.

Conventions change with time and vary from group to group. Good readers know this, of course, and they are aware of a variety of different conventions that might be applicable to a given text. As soon as they begin to consider what set of conventions to apply in interpretation, consideration of a writer's intention ineluctably makes its way back into the interpretative context.

Scalia's stricture that "what is needed for a symbol to convey meaning is not an intelligent author, but a conventional understanding on the part of the readers or hearers that certain signs or certain sounds represent certain concepts" is true, but his stricture makes no provision for distinguishing correct or even valid interpretations of meaning from incorrect or invalid ones.

It also overlooks the force of "ontological" in Smith's statement, which is a fancy (perhaps too fancy for Scalia to grasp) way of saying that symbols exist (have being) because people inscribe them for the purpose of communicating. A symbol therefore implies an inscriptor of sufficient intelligence to know and to make the sign. To ignore the purpose for which the symbol exists when interpreting the symbol is both (Smith would say) a philosophical error and (I would argue) a failure of "conventional understanding" on the part of Scalia.

E.D. Hirsch, _Validity in Interpretation_ is good on the role of authorial intention in interpretation.

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