Without Words

Quadriga “Inference” is a tricky category. We can think of plenty of instances for which we can specify precise criteria for successful inference, but these are swamped by the plenitude of situations in which successful inference from circumstances can be judged only on a rough-and-ready, close-enough sort of way. I can infer the time of day from the illumination filtering through my bedroom curtains, and that is ordinarily a satisfactory guide; but some mornings are exceptionally cloudy, or unexpectedly bright, and that pattern of inference really only works during the transition from night to day (it’s harder to distinguish 10:00 from 11:00 than 5:30 from 6:30 this time of year), some of us are better-attuned to morning light than are others, and of course some days the government instructs us to change our clocks by an hour. And even under the optimal circumstances, most of us can determine “It’s time to get up” but not “It’s exactly 6:47.” We do well enough (relative to particular expectations) almost all the time (but not absolutely always) by inferring time from bedroom-illumination; yet illumination-inference differs profoundly from consulting a radio-controlled digital timepiece.

Similarly, when Margaret and I need not to speak — when our infant children were sleeping, or when we’re observing an interval of silence, if we’re at a concert or in a gallery, or even if we’re playing Charades or Pictionary — we know one another well enough that we can often communicate effectively by gestures and facial expressions. Similarly, particular musical compositions generally evoke predictable sentiments among listeners. Colours apparently tend to cue particular physiological and behavioural responses. Scents, textures, noises, ambient temperatures, architectural and decorative spaces (awkward phrasing, can be improved), provide the basis for inferred responses. Some of these are highly predictable, some are more idiosyncratic, and the more aware we are of the degree to which a particular sensuous expression can be relied upon to evoke a particular response, the more successfully we negotiate the semiotic environment.


No Licence No Cross

So this is the story: St Stephen’s House had been planning, for months, to enact an open-air Passion Play in our East Oxford neighbourhood. We’d been planning, rehearsing, arranging, for months (led by my dear friend and colleague Fr Damian, and our student Alice). Everything seemed to be set — as I understand it, everything had been handled just as it was last time, only even more carefully — but the Oxford Council seemed to need one more for filled out, which form it was in fact too late to submit by the time we were asked for it.

As a result, the Passion Play was cancelled, and we thought that was the end of it (as far as I know, everyone at SSH was keeping quiet about it). Until we saw the cover of this morning’s Oxford Mail:

Now there are stories in that paragon of journalistic reserve the Daily Mail, BBC Oxford’s Twitter account (the BBC itself hasn’t picked it up as yet), and who knows what will be follow.

As my former co-worker Bernard observed, “So with the right permits in place crucifixion is OK? I would like to see those forms please. Or is this an English thing?”

Jeely Piece O’ My Heart

Quadriga Now, this is the pivotal dimension of my first premise: all interpretive activity involves inference as its key element. Whether I’m interpreting cloud formations, or the quality of light in my bedroom, or gestures, or spoken words (the interpretation of speech, especially in an unfamiliar language or accent, is a big clue here), or words on a page — all of these entail a practice of inferential reasoning. “It seems awfully bright — I may have slept late.” “Those clouds look heavy and dark — I should wear my macintosh.” “Her hand brushed mine — maybe she likes me!” “Ye cannae fling yer pieces oot a twenty story flat.” I notice; I ponder; I infer from what I perceive; I’ve attained an interpretation.

Contra approaches to interpretation that posit an intrinsic meaning which the interpreter endeavours to discover, the process of inference I’m describing here asks the question “Why does this look that way?” or “What accounts for these sounds in this sequence?” When an interpreter sets out to answer the question “What’s going on here?”, the range of appropriate responses may very sensibly include alternatives other than “the intrinsic meaning of this phenomenon — clouds, smell, light, pitch, tone, glyphs, touch, whatever — is X.” Where the phenomenon in question appears to involve an intentional agent, some interpreters will want to determine the likeliest intent that came to expression in the phenomenon. That’s not the only legitimate, only “normal,” only regulative, only ethical approach to take, however. Sometimes interpreters have a particular interest in considerations other than those that the intentional agent considered paramount. Sometimes the self-conscious intent in question differs from other dimensions of the expression (think of the small child, weeping, red-faced, loudly asserting “I’m not upset!”). Interpretation of phenomena comprises a great deal more than ascertaining the meanings of words and paraphrasing the combination of the words used.


[I have the feeling that these two paragraphs my be moving too fast. I may need to step back and go over the reasoning more carefully anon.]

Justifying Means

Quadriga I’d like to pause here for a moment to distinguish several usages of the verb “mean.” In the first, we say “I mean” in the sense of “I intend”; in a second, we say “That [word] means” in a lexical/semantic sense (“This word means ‘insubstantial’”); in a third, we say “That means” in the sense of an implication or entailment (“That means Heather is Robbie’s aunt!”). When we talk about “meaning,” it’s easy to slide from making claims about intentions to making claims about semantics, or to implications — and although I don’t suppose I’ve thought through enough possible examples to say that these should always be distinguishable, I certainly have seen cases in which an entailment has been used to warrant claims about an intrinsic semantic property. Likewise (to resume the example from last time), if we say “Red sky at night means good weather tomorrow,” the most fitting usage regards this as an inference from observation of weather patterns, not as a semantic property of red skies or as a celestial intention.

So we don’t need to succumb to the vapours if somebody (such as I) who opposes the notion of subsistent meaning uses the formulation “X means Y.” They might be using the phrase as an alternative to “X implies Y” (the option “X intends Y” won’t often come up as an intelligible possibility, I think). Or they may be using “X means Y” as a reasonable shorthand for “I can show numerous instances in which X is used synonymously, or ‘with the force of,’ Y.” The Greek word cheir (sorry, I haven’t bothered to change the DB_CHARSET setting in my wp-config.php file yet) means “hand.” Although I try to avoid this construction, Introductory Greek classes usually just want to know glosses, not semantic theory. Once you get beyond the very most simple glosses, though, the casual use of “means” tends to fund confusion about how languages and translation work. People can mean (intend) and circumstances can mean (imply) and words, glyphs, sigla, et cetera can “mean” (signify). In this last case, though, attributions of “meaning” always imply particular bounds, particular qualifications, and they never attain to simplicity or transcendence — we can’t appeal to “it just means X” or “it really means Y.”


[A more dense two paragraphs than I’d have liked, but I’d like to be able to use the word “mean” hereafter, so I’m covering the semantics of “meaning” here.]

Ref Log

Hoopoecare (financially) about the Web, such information equals power equals cash. But I’d like to leave a little marker here pointing back to times when you could find out a great deal of what you might want to know from an elementary scan of your logs. If (as it seems to me) those days are gone, it’s another way that commercialisation corrodes the Web.

Forward Into The Past

I might be photographing my Sheaffer pens today if I weren’t trying to imagine a short sermon for Monday. As I am in fact trying to dream up a Monday sermon, I will note in passing that some dear friends of ours from Olden Times on the internet (more than ten years ago, little ones!) joined Margaret and me for a Google Hangout yesterday afternoon, and Jeneane Sessum, Halley Suitt, Elaine Frankonis, Gary Turner, Frank Paynter, Kevin Marks, Dean Landsman, and even the mysterious Chris Locke laughed ourselves silly for more than an hour. Too bad the internet makes us antisocial, or we might have had a reply good time.

Doc wasn’t on board for that romp, but a few days ago he blogged about his practice of photo-sharing. “Hardly a week goes by that a shot of mine doesn’t find its way from Flickr or Wikimedia Commons into a newspaper, a magazine or a blog post somewhere,” says Doc, and he’s not vain nor greedy (all Creative Commons licensed, free to use with attribution). The joy of putting images and ideas into play for others to use, the delight in hanging out with friends with whom we’ve been in touch for more than a decade now, these are integral parts of the internet that we’ve built: good friends, good craic, and lots of sharing. That’s what I’m writing about when I commend the Web and its future (not “massive profits for Facebook”). Those are worth preserving; I hope that our governments can, for a moment, see past the pounds and dollars and preserve the common goods that attend an open Web — not abstract principles and lofty ideals, but real people doing worthwhile things.

I Didn’t Know You Cared

Quadriga Let’s start with waking up in the morning. My bedroom is lighter than it was several hours ago, perhaps even admitting a beam of light or two. I infer that it’s time to get out of bed, or at least to look at the clock. Where is the “meaning” in the ambient light? Or if it’s dark, grey, and cloudy, I expect rain; is there “meaning” in the clouds? In the lack-of-brightness?

We who are able to, we identify cues that experience has taught us to associate with situations — and to respond on the basis of that experience. Where (as in these examples) the cues to which we respond are not (typically) associated with intentional agency, we do not need to divine someone’s thoughts in order to ascribe some sort of “meaning” to sunshine, or clouds, or chilly winds, or long tracts of muddy field, or whatever. To this extent, we understand well enough the syntax of “meaning” in situations apart from [human] intentional agency. “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’”


[I do not mean here to open the canned worms of “pre-linguistic experience,” though that’s manifestly relevant. The pattern of inference from visual stimuli — and as I will argue later, from other sorts of sensuous perception — doesn’t depend on linguistic mediation, however much those phenomena may be saturated with linguistic associations.

People seemed a lot more interested in yesterday’s paragraphs than I expected. Being the sort of academic character who I am, I will endeavour to gratify that attention by expatiating on the topic — but I’ll continue at a two-paragraph pace, both to save wear and tear on my brain and to oblige myself to be conscious of what I want to say and how it might hang together.]

On Interpretation

QuadrigaA great many hermeneutical conundrums fall away if one gives up the initial premise that words and language constitute the paradigmatic instance of meaning, expression, and communication. If one begins by recognising that words/language are the least typical instance of the domain constituted by modes of meaning, the way language works follows fairly simply.

This alternate premise will always be unpopular, because most people do not want to understand meaning so much as they want to control interpretation. The myth of subsistent meaning sustains that libido dominandi by positing a point of reference, a Sache, a kernel/pearl/nugget/“real meaning” to which the interpreter can lay claim. Neither “liberal” nor “conservative” scholars will yield on the (non-)existence of subsistent meaning, because all hope that they can deploy it to prove their case against the other.


Researchers Say

“Researchers say” is roughly equivalent to “inspired by a true story,” or (of musicians) “classically trained” or (of people with academic pretensions) “studied at.” You can almost always find some research that suggests counterintuitive or bizarre things — whether that research convinces other scientists, or holds up to testing, that is another matter. You could say I’m “classically trained” as a vocalist, because I had a handful of voice lessons when I was preparing for ministry. I’ve “studied at” lots of places — apart from where I earned my actual degrees, I’ve “studied at” Harvard, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Edinburgh, King’s College London, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, pretty much anyplace they let me sit still with a book for a few minutes.

If press releases aren’t willing to be more specific about the scale and scope and weight of the research results, they might as well say “These characters guess that…” (or “Me mum made me take piano lessons” or “I’ve been to their campus”).

None of this, of course, diminishes the significance of real research results that stand up to testing, nor of real musical training in the classical tradition, nor of the approbation of academic study at a prestigious institution. Quite the contrary — the inflationary rhetoric of vagueness is the culprit that devalues the accomplishments toward which the vague expressions deceptively point.

Parker Presence

Although I mostly attend to Sheaffer fountain pens — that is, among the sorts of pen I can afford, Sheaffer pens interest me most — they’re relatively less common here in England than they were in the US, and Parker pens are more common, so if I encounter a pen in the wild (or browse generally on ebay), I’m more likely to see a Parker. Parker manufactured fine writing instruments — Sheaffer just produced pens that, on the whole, I appreciate more, and appear on the English market less often.

So a couple of months ago, I stopped in at a local vintage clothing shop and scanned their counter full of antique odds and ends, and saw there a handsome Parker 61 with the Rainbow Gold cap.

New Arrivals

I usually prefer to buy pens from non-specialists only if the price is low enough that I can rationalise the risk; one can never be quite sure what has happened inside a pen over long years. This pen sold for a price close to (but still below) its specialist value, and I hadn’t had a treat in a while, so Margaret and I agreed that this would be a reasonable special occasion.

This was not the capillary-filler style of Parker 61, but the later squeeze filler. The nib looks fine, and the trademark inset arrow of the Parker 61 is still there (I have a Parker 61 Flighter whose arrow has, alas, fallen away).

All in all, it makes a very handsome, highly functional addition to the Parker Wing of my collection.

Granted that I would be more likely to find Parkers than Sheaffers, I had resolved to look out for one of the striking Parker 50 Falcons, one of the pen models with the nib integrated into the body of the pen. The most famous of this sort, the prize example, is the Pilot Myu/Murex; Parker had made a similar pen out of titanium, but the materials costs were too high, and the nibs too brittle (if I recall correctly). The Falcon preserved the intriguing style of the integrated nib with more conventional materials, and Parker manufactured them in four models for several years.

I’d been looking out for a Falcon, and had had my eye on two at £48, which was more than I could afford but a low-ish price, I thought. I mentioned them to a dealer-collector one day, and the next time I looked for them online they were gone (this is probably just a coincidence, but if I meet that gentleman again I may ask him about them). I recently put in a low bid on a Falcon on ebay, though, and to my surprise won the auction.

From the outside, it looks mostly like any other metal-plated fountain pen. It’s a pleasant design, but nothing startling. The integrated nib, though, stands out in the pen-design crowd:

The nib is very firm, but it writes smoothly and agreeably. This pen probably came at a discount because of the friction marks where the cap grips the section, but I don’t mind; I’m mostly a writer-collector anyway, and I’m more curious to experience working with a pen than seeking out a perfect specimen. (Not that I turn perfect specimens away.)

I still feel a stronger attachment to Sheaffers, but these Parkers have impressed me very favourably. The hooded nib of the 61 and the integral nib of the 50 both write very smoothly; the pens are attractive, and they lie comfortably in my hand. If I see another, I may succumb to temptation.

The Sign of Hillman

Margaret brought back with her number of photos (from my sister Holly’s archives), and paintings by my grandmother Isabel, and various other bits and bobs from the storage closet our friends Sarah and Clay so kindly permit us to occupy. Among them was something I had forgotten that I’d ever had — the poster-sign announcing James Hillman’s talk at Yale, on which I based my own recent paper on parables and interpretation (I’m a bit surprised I didn’t post it here, but I guess I wasn’t blogging much back in November).

I delight in her having retrieved this artefact of those golden days at Yale, but not solely for nostalgic reasons. In a footnote to the talk, I noted that ‘The talk appears in the Opus Archive official bibliography of Hillman’s works as “G83c ‘On Dreaming of Pigs: A Jungian View of Interpretation.’ Lecture for Dept. of English, Yale Univ., New Haven, CT, Nov.”’, but added ‘My notes of the talk, and the tenor of the talk itself, both incline toward the subtitle “An Archetypal Approach to Interpretation” — but of course, recollections and notes do not outweigh the evidence of the official bibliography.’ This sign,however, adds corroborative evidence to my recollection and notes. In the long run, it probably doesn’t matter much whether Hillman thought of it as a “Jungian” or an “Archetypal” approach, but my memory falters often enough that it derives some satisfaction from this vindication. Plus, it will make a nice illustration if I give the talk again sometime, perhaps as a slide lecture. Thanks, Margaret!

One For The Books

Margaret’s just back today, so (of course) most of my time has been directed to catching up on what she’s been doing for the last five or six weeks. She took a nap; we unpacked the family art that she brought back from the US; we went to dinner; we’ve been watching intellectually non-threatening TV programming (thank you, Amazon Prime).

But just now, about a half hour ago, we had a power cut. First the lights dimmed for a minute or 90 seconds — then all the power went off, poof! I went out into the street to see what was up, and the lights were on at each of our neighbours’ houses. The fuses were all in the “On” position. We don’t pay the electric bill directly, so although I’m well capable of forgetting to pay, British Gas has no reason to cut us off. Just went off, and then again after about ten or twelve minutes, back on again.

I cannot explain this.

(Did I mention that Margaret’s home?)