Through the Mud and Slush of Opinion

I know I generate almost negative traffic here, but read Pure_Sophist_Monster's recent post on meaning-making.

He reiterates very clearly a point I've heard made time and again--a point that's always sparked what feels like a "next thought" in me. Well actually, let me just quote who he quotes, Ed Hutchins, who says:
The illusion of meaning in the message is a hard-won social and cultural accomplishment.
I don't have a problem with that. I feel like maybe I'm supposed to, as a literature professor? But I'm okay with that. But what I've always struggled to understand--and always been fascinated by--is how, given our culturally contextufied situatedness (ahem), we are able to wriggle our heads up through the sludge of comfortably calcified "meaning," to critique that culture (that meaning) within which we discover ourselves to be situated. The easiest example is something like slavery, which required a whole web of social meaning to support it: how does one minister in the 18th century finally snap himself out of it and say, "Wait a minute!--that's wrong!" What I'm asking is, from what perspective is he thinking? He seems not to be distracted by the "illusion" of meaning. But what/where else is there?

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d'appui, below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp=post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer.
The Sophists would have it that there is no such reality. But then as I said, how/from-where are we able to critique this set of meanings we've accumulated? Where does the needle on your Justice-magnet point?--what attracts it?


pure_sophist_monster said...

You write, "He seems not to be distracted by the "illusion" of meaning." First, both Hutchins and I are fine with illusions. As I mentioned in my post, this word is not used pejoratively.

Second, you still seem to assume there is always only one meaning operating (i.e., one culture=one meaning). But you know (and you lament) that any one geographical/political unit contains multitudes. The abolitionist "simply" had another hard one meaning, which can be attributed to any number of social/cultural aspects. Of course, tracing this attributions is damned difficult. Burke remarked the attributing motive is a damned messy business. I would refer also to Rickert's work in rhetoric and psychoanalysis. But the difficulty of tracing an illusion's source doesn't then, by default, prove an absolute truth lurking somewhere.

Casey said...

Hmmm. Well, I tried not to use "illusion" pejoratively either -- only to ask how it is that the first abolitionist caught a glimpse of that vision.

It seemed to me to require imagining a new illusion out of thin air.

But you're saying, "No, it's never out of thin air--there's always an elemental source, a seed of other illusions within every illusion. It may be difficult or impossible to pinpoint, but it's there." Is that fair?

That's... well, hard to argue with.

So like, now, right?: we're all living within certain sets of overlapping illusions. And I can definitely see that--I can see how I might be in a "conservative" illusion while someone else is in a "progressive" illusion, and from there I can see how either one of us could switch illusions, or convert. But how do we altogether escape that set of illusions? Where does the third way come from?

But okay, I hear you. Hmmmmmm.

pure_sophist_monster said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pure_sophist_monster said...

A third or forth or fifth or sixth way might come from the overlap or that each individual's set of illusions (and there might be several that any one person or society holds at once.) overlap just a degree or two differently than someone else's. And from each set of unique overlaps a multiplicity of new illusions can emerge. So, for instance, your conservative illusion, which isn't identical to all other conservative illusions, emerges from all your other "illusions" or what-nots: your race, your gender, your sibling placement, your parent's illusions, your friends' illusions and counter-illusions, ad infinitum. The same is true of society's: for instance, America and the overlap of our republican democracy and free-market economy creates an interesting mix of illusions from which competing illusions might very well emerge.

You really should read John Muckelbauer's _The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change_. He there points out that change (or invention) is a function of tradition reproducing itself, but like any act (think biologically) of reproduction, the reproduced is produce with a difference. Children are reproductions but they are never exactly like either one of their parents. Genetic ambiguity guarantees mutation.

And I would say that semantic ambiguity guarantees the mutation of "illusions" overtime. This mutation, combined with the multiplicity of overlapping illusions goes a long way to explain difference (and resistance) in the absence of Truth.

Casey said...

Sorry to keep responding. I just keep feeling something ineffable and restless in me in response to this line of thought... still wondering. Still suspecting that, in our consciousness of these nets-of-meaning as illusions, we are admitting that we have an intuition of something un-illusory.

You're like the fish who keeps reminding everyone "we're wet!" -- but is there such a fish? Or could there be, unless there was an experience of dryness to which wetness might be compared? Even if it's just an abstraction... ?