Tag Archives: perception

100th Post: Not to Despair, But We Are Islands

Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, Wikipedia.org
                Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, Wikipedia.org

We our own islands of consciousness, forever separated from others.  We may share the substrate of a common culture and lineage, and we can build bridges to each other, but we can never fully inhabit another’s unique psychological space.

Climate scientists warn that it will be just decades until areas of South Florida will become a watery archipelago. The level of the sea rises about one inch a year in Miami Beach, inundating streets that some residents continue to believe are flooded by water main breaks.  Even in denial, they must sense that a chain of islands makes continuous connection with the rest of the community an insurmountable problem.

Interestingly, in the last six years communication scholar John Durham Peters has eloquently made the same observation about human communication (Speaking Into the Air, 1999).  We are, he says, our own islands of consciousness, forever separated from others.  We may share the same substrate of a common culture and lineage, and we can build bridges to each other, but we can never fully occupy the adjoining person’s world.  His analysis turns the iconic lines of John Donne’s prose poem literally and figuratively on its ear.

All of this is Peters’ way of reminding us that we have oversold our abilities to make things right through communication.  He notes that problems of connecting with others are “fundamentally intractable.”  The goal of doing so creates a “registry of modern longings” that can never be fully satisfied.  Disappointment is a natural part of the effort.

Our sensations and feelings are, physiologically speaking, uniquely our own.  My nerve endings terminate in my own brain, not yours.  No central exchange exists where I can patch my sensory inputs into yours, nor is there any “wireless” contact through which to transmit my experience of the world to you. . . .  In this view, humans are hardwired by the privacy of experience to have communication problems.

Of course the theme of humans physically together and psychologically apart is universal, reflected in everything from Edward Hopper’s lone figures in the painting, Nighthawks (1942),  to virtually any film or play that treats individuals and relationships in all of their complexities.  The tensions inherent in coupling and adapting are shot through the work of film directors, ranging from Woody Allen to Ang Lee.

This perspective only seems pessimistic if we believe in a kind of communication that is so stipulative or stripped of complexity as to be uninteresting. I can say with great accuracy that the Ketchup in our household is in the refrigerator, and know I can be understood.  But who cares?  The things that usually matter–feelings, values, aspirations and needs–all feed into making each individual their own special case.  Could it be otherwise when we engage with other living souls with different life histories, memories, fears and hopes?

Another part of our common over-optimism about communication is that we have sold ourselves on the belief that advances in technologies are themselves reasons to mitigate communication confusion. Our devices make it possible to talk or text through every waking hour.  But, if anything, opportunities for sending and receiving messages only increase the chances to see the differences between us that remain.

The trick here is to accept the challenges that human complexity produces without decending into a solipsistic view that the outside world is mostly a mental mirage. To fall into that trap is to deny the ecstasies that are still possible when words, images and music make sometimes durable bridges to others.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu


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