Say What You Mean?

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Say What You Mean?

Kat McCormick

Throughout the class discussion of evolution, one area of particular interest to me has been the relative precision or imprecision of various methods of human communication. From the connotations of particular words to the emotion incited by a distinct music phrase, it is often surprising which human forms of expression are ambiguous and which seem to be universal. When considering this phenomenon, it is perhaps useful to construct a method for discussing the relative accuracy of communicating exactly what we mean when we use various ways to say it.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it is relevant to our discussion to ask whether meaning(thought) pushed language into existence, or whether it was language that originated meaning. If the first is true, then mediums such as art and music are truly a product of our desire to communicate meaning in a direct sense. The meaning to be communicated first forms itself in the creator's head in some wordless nebula, and then consequently find release directly onto the painter's canvas, or the musical phrase. Hence, once the creation is added to the realm of world attention, and observers begin to interact with the creation, the meaning of the piece will undergo another translation into words as observers start to describe and recount their interaction. Only after the original meaning has traveled from the artist's mind, into a creation, and into the observer's mind, will it have it's first confrontation with language.

However, if language itself created meaning, then we must understand art to be an interpretation of spoken or unspoken language; a second generation product of the human desire to communicate with self or others. This is the viewpoint endorsed by Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, as he states: "the 'language organ' must indeed have evolved many of its most interesting properties as adaptations" (391), leaving meaning to follow our origination of language. Assuming this conclusion does not necessarily mean that the artist or creator thought first of a meaning for their creation in words, and then translated that worded meaning into a piece, but that anything that the artist was currently experiencing internally, thoughts or emotions, must necessarily be precluded by her language. As such, anything that the creator creates is also a product of her meaning only through that language which gives voice to it. If this is truly the case, one must wonder why people bother to translate worded meaning into some other form if the only goal is to accurately transmit specific meaning from one person to another. The original meaning must necessarily lose something in each translation. Or why people bother to write poetry, full of empty space and ambiguities, when they could come right out and say it more precisely in a nice block of prose? This inherent ambiguity of poetry is best expressed by Culler in Literary Theory:

If you take the sentence as a poem, the question isn't quite the same: not what does the speaker or author mean but what does the poem mean? How does this language work? What does this sentence do? (24)

Here Culler points out an interesting decentralization of original meaning. In an "ambiguous" form of transmitting meaning (such as art, music, or poetry), the creation seems to take on a life of it's own, a meaning of its own, separate from the meaning intended by the creator.

This line of realization leads to the proposition that people often do not want to accurately communicate a fixed meaning. Could it be that humans find some value in what meaning is lost (or found!) in each translation from human to creation, then back into human mind? The value in this is reminiscent to me of Derrida's conclusions on the nature of the original- that "the idea of the original is created by the copies, and that the original is always deferred never to be grasped." (Culler 12). This theory can be (and was originally) applied to one of the modes of human communication that is considered to be among the most precise written language. But does this theory mean that we as humans have no hope of ever communicating exactly what it is we mean to another? Perhaps there is no hope of this, and that is why, in some more ambiguous forms of our communication, we have ceased to hope for it and admitted defeat on that front: but in doing so, we found a new realm of significance in the variety of interpretation.

Works Cited

1)Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford
University Press. New York, NY, 1997.

2)Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Touchstone: New York, NY,

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