Monday, February 14, 2005

Text and meaning

At GetReligion, tmatt discusses the question of meaning in the text:

...[T]he next step is to figure out what the creator of the signal was actually trying to say. I call this "finding the secular subject." Once you have found this big-button topic, you can move on to applying the teachings of your faith to that same subject.

The problem, of course, is that it is often hard to find out precisely what some of the artists of popular culture are trying to say. Often, it seems that they do not know. I mean, "knowing" is such an old-fashioned concept, you know?...In the end, it is often hard to find interviews with the artists in which they clearly express what they are thinking.

First, applause for taking a look at the semantics of pop culture. That said, why reinvent the wheel? There's tons of literature on this subject (the most famous of which is probably Barthes's Mythologies). At any rate, there's a conceptual asymmetry between the project and its method in the above. If we're looking at a text to find the meaning imparted to its audience, the question of 'intended meaning' is peripheral at best; the vast majority of the audience isn't going to read some obsucure interview and then watch/read the piece in light of the author's intent. Stronger, we could ask if the intentions elicited in an interview actually change the meaning located in the text; it would be a strange kind of meaning that, while located in the film, is altered by words uttered in another context altogether.

At the same time, these pieces are all intertextual to some extent, and refer back to other texts in the same and other genres. So a method adequate to its object will read these texts together to find a common ideology immanent in all of them. The vast body of texts will have particular meanings which will in turn inform the audience's reading of the new text.

That method, then, impliedly answers this concern:
I was amazed at the degree to which some of the writers and artists were...not anxious to address the central question: What were you trying to say?
If the meaning is immanent in the text, we need look no further than the text. To the question "what were you trying to say," the answer is simply "the text." As tmatt acknowledges, the bare text certainly seems to underdetermine the meaning therein: "Also, some artists are not interested in telling potential ticket buyers what the signal is all about." So where is the meaning? It derives from the triangular structure text-audience-ideology; the third term, ideology, mediates the relationship between the audience and the text, and informs the audience's reading. For example, if I'm watching a movie on Lifetime, there are certain signs I look for to tell me what kind of movie I'm watching. Some of these are internal to the text (particular archetypal characters, for examples), while some are extra-textual (the Lifetime logo in the corner of the screen). This assembly of intra- and extra-textual signifiers informs my reading and creates meanings in conjunction with the actual movie I'm watching.

I've often noted that there is a striking similarity between post-modernism and recent Christianity, and this is an occasion on which the latter could probably benefit from the theoretical groundwork established by the latter.