Tag Archives: ambiguity

The Uses of Ambiguity

The usual response is to worry over any lack of clarity.  But it’s worth turning over this ordinary condition to see what the other side offers.

We often assume that language works best when it is stipulative: when words mean one thing and one thing only. This is the way mathematics functions. Ambiguity has been wrung out of most calculations and computer codes. In the not-so-distant past, the promise of mathematical precision was the firm hope of some linguists.  We usually have the same hope in mind when we attempt to “explain” a fact or attitude to another. We want to see our words as duplicates, more or less, of what is in our’s and others’ heads.

There is nothing wrong with this impulse.  An Alice-in-Wonderland world is not what most of us imagine as a functional environment.  We depend on predictable responses from others.  If a person says they are “feeling well,” we assume we know what they mean.

Slippery meanings have their functions.

Even so, meaning is almost never a matter of a one-to-one conversion.  We know this only too well when apparent certainties give way to the vicissitudes of real life. “I think she is coming,” “It’s not too spicy,” and “The computer glitch is fixed” are all statements from a very deep well of expressions that should come with a permanent asterisk of doubt. What we hear and what has been affirmed are almost never the same thing.

And yet, slippery meanings have many functions. Consider just a few of many:

A certain vagueness can trigger new insights. Breakthroughs in thinking sometimes happen by accident, or the near-accidents triggered by the use of analogies, poor word choice, metaphors, and on-the-fly comparisons.  These sideways glances into a problem can yield surprising new understandings.

Astrobiologist Caleb A. Scharf notes that “the simple truth is that scientists themselves constantly make use of analogies, metaphorical devices, and similes. Sometimes it’s the only way to build an intuition for a problem, by relating it to something else. Richard Feynman was perhaps one of the greatest players of this game, turning spinning plates into cutting-edge quantum physics and Nobel prizes.”  Notably, all of these rhetorical forms are significantly ambiguous.  Push them far enough and they break down into non-sequiturs.

A key advantage of ambiguity is perhaps what the poet John Keats meant in his often quoted letter to his brother in 1817. He said he admired Shakespeare for his “negative capability,” meaning that The Bard was “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  Literature and narratives open up to multiple perspectives, making them knowable only in the serendipitous ways they create rainbows of associations within us.

Ambiguity preserves options. We depend on a certain degree of verbal skill to protect ourselves and allow for generous reinterpretation. The calculated spaciousness of a statement gives us room to adjust as a situation requires. It’s an old joke that a politician’s favorite color is plaid. But we often exercise the same kind of linguistic sleight of hand.  The response “I’d love to come to the party if I can” preserves a range of options later on.  “I’m not sure I understand what you mean” uses a non-committal response to perhaps fend off an overt statement one disagrees with. It’s almost as good as “Maybe.”

Advertisements are strategically ambiguous about what they are selling.  An audience member often finds their own way to a message.  And a certain indirection can help.  A McDonald’s-France ad featuring a closeted gay youth sharing a meal with his dead ends with the tagline, “Come as you are.”  A second look suggests that the message is a bit hypocritical.  Why can’t the youth be out to the rest of his family? Perhaps a casual viewer only sees the ad’s pitch for inclusivity.

Ambiguity lets us in. Music, poetry, and unresolved third acts leave room for audiences to hear or see what they need. Music carries the possibilities of multiple meanings even further. What did Dmitri Shostakovich mean by the crude and blunt marches embedded in the First Movement of his Fifth Symphony? Just a modernist impulse?  A taunt to authorities who wanted a more “Soviet” style from him?  A garish state of his own bouts of despair?  Who knows?  Or try to identify the emotional thread in a A Chorus Line’s big anthem, “What I Did for Love.”  Is the Hamlisch/Kleban song a simple expression of commitment to the precarious life of a Broadway dancer?  A “no regrets” act of defiance over a committed relationship that failed?  Or a defiant affirmation of same sex love, when it carried a heavier social stigma?  We hear what we need to hear.

Music can be partly understood in terms of the mathematics of tonality. But the emotional results of it and all the arts take us in a totally different direction:  to myriad evocations of feeling made possible by their welcome ambiguities.

Meaning is Less Transferable Than We Think

Lexington Books
Source: Lexington Books

We speak. We write.  We create works of art. All the while, we try to have confidence that the effects we intended will register with audiences.  If it were only so.

In theory, communication looks so straightforward.  When we address others we pass on what we assume are clear ideas with unambiguous meanings.  We want to have confidence that the effects we intended will actually register.

Its not so easy.  Shared meaning as a requisite of clear understanding is harder to achieve than we imagine.  It turns out that we aren’t very good at transferring even simple information or individual preferences to others.  Consider a simple case.  A Huffington Post reporter noted that a Spanish language version of the President’s recent State of the Union Address missed a lot.  In one case, where Obama used the phrase “I couldn’t be prouder of them,” the Spanish translation was, more or less, “I couldn’t feel masses proud of it.”  It was a simple mistake, but anyone converting one language to another knows that perfect equivalency is illusive.  All communication is translation.  Even when the language remains the same, there is always an interpretive function which requires that the words pass through the filter of our experiences.

This doesn’t mean that we are always in a solipsistic fog.  Some statements are relatively obvious and can produce a quick consensus.  “Turn right” is not a vague command, but it can be ambiguous if the sender and receiver are facing each other.  Similarly, statements like “He failed algebra in high school” or “She dislikes liver and onions” are mostly concrete and stipulative: two features shared with most kinds of mathematical statements. In math, common agreement about basic terms leaves little room for confusion. Yet, even moving to the slightly more complex task of naming simple objects can be problematic, especially if it’s the case that my idea of a “camera” is one that uses film and yours is the digital device in your phone.

These simple challenges with individual words are heightened when we scale up to the meanings of cultural products like a speeches, songs or movies.  At this level the hope for uniformity of meaning pretty much goes out the window.  For example, ask someone what songs on their music player, and you will get a list of favorites that are likely to be more personal than communal. What means so much to one enthusiast is often unlistenable to another.  Young adults are especially tuned to hit the scorn button when they hear the favorites of older family members. I can still see my parents brace themselves for the inevitable taunt if I passed nearby when they were listening to completely uncool music.  Similarly, in the presence of my favorites our children return the favor with polite silence.  (Who could not love jazz played on steel drums?)

Finding widespread agreement on the significance of films is even harder.  Many of us  find it difficult to predict what a friend or family member will like. What seems so insightful to us can make no sense to others. Seeing someone’s growing puzzlement as you rhapsodize about a terrific performance can make the idea of “shared meaning” seem like an oxymoron.

The villain here is not just the tricky business of producing concurrent meaning. There is also an additional problem in the specific word that we often use when someone surprises us by their unexpected reaction to an apparently clear message.  We often say that they didn’t get it: that they “misunderstood.”  But notice what “misunderstood” implies about perspective.  It suggests that the initial communicator gets to be the arbiter in deciding the authentic translation of an idea or thought.  That sometimes makes sense.  After all, it usually is their thought.  But as an idea with a pretense to truth-testing, the judgment embedded in the word converts what is often a simple difference into an error.  “Misunderstood” gives one side a free pass by putting the burden of a “mistake” on  the other.

All of this should serve as simple reminder that meaning is naturally variable.  Thankfully, dictionaries usually don’t get to have the last word.  We are entitled to apply our experience to what we know and like. That we can’t predict with certainty how a person will receive our rhetoric is evidence that we have sensibilities which are  different, but not necessarily deficient.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu