Language: Everything an Interpretation
Written over 2 days, and finished at Starbucks in San Jose by my office. Completed with blonde roast coffee and ‘The Killers’ radio station on Pandora blasting in my ears. This essay was written after several news stories appearing over the past week in which certain ideals were put forth; and I thought they needed to be deconstructed.
Everything is interpretation. There is no such thing as a pure understanding of things.
A phantom is ghost, apparition, or spirit. It may seem like ‘something’ is there, but it’s an illusion. Many ideals that we hold tightly, are simply that: phantoms. If you are like me, though, you like having security with language pointing to something ‘out there’. If the news reporter speaks on ‘American culture’, I assume that she is pointing directly to the essence and a pure meaning of ‘American culture’ that’s in my mind. This however, is a false security. Like Jacques Derrida’s famous postmodern claim states, “there is nothing outside the text.” For Derrida, it is a naïve assumption to think we can get to the author’s intent because we can’t get ‘behind’ or ‘past’ texts; we never get beyond the realm of interpretation to some kind of kingdom of pure reading. We are never able to step out of our skins. Texts and language are not something that we get through to a world without language or a state of nature where interpretation is not necessary. Rather, interpretation is an inescapable part of being human and experiencing the world. In fact, that’s all we have: interpretations.
Humans have a penchant for solidifying language into nice and tidy definitions in order to properly communicate. This is why a dictionary is so useful, it provides a point of reference to meaning. If I want to know the definition of ‘flag’, I simply open the dictionary and I am directed to a handful of definitions that will help me communicate properly the meaning of flag. Similarly, we all have worldviews, ideals and values that shape who we are. All of which, rest on definitions, history, and origins. Ideals about justice, virtue, democracy shape how we view the world and respond to social issues. We blithely say, “Americans live in a democracy,” but do we really? Does the majority get to vote on all governmental policies that impact the country? No. Stances on democracy, liberty and freedom are based on concepts that appear fixed and stable. But are these words really fixed and stable? Perhaps definitions, concepts and ideals are illusions. This is an important topic because we commonly elevate phantom ideals without realizing how they can subjugate, oppress, and marginalize. Let me, however, start with a simple concept, before going to heavier terminology.
A cat may seem to represent an animate being, a four-legged animal now laying down on my bed. But if we consult the dictionary, we will be directed to other meanings, and from those will be similarly re-directed. My dictionary tells me that a cat is a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractable claws. It thereby defers the definition, directing me to further consult the meanings of domesticated, carnivorous, and mammal. Moreover, my dictionary tells me of many ideas with which cat is associated: a malicious woman, or large wild [undomesticated] animal like a panther or tiger. It gives me a list of colloquial expressions such as ‘has the cat got your tongue’ or ‘let the cat out of the bag’. It reminds me of a catfish, or a jazz musician who’s a ‘cool cat’. Come to think of it, ‘cat’ is an engineering term short for catalytic convertor. As you can see, the meaning of cat is suspended differentially across such associations, and never quite settles. The essence of ‘cat’ is a mystery. What seems obvious is a phantom.
Meaning is never fully, or finally, present. With signs like ‘c-a-t’, we discover not ideas given in advance but values emanating from a [linguistic] system. The value is different, say, for the culture in Columbia who thinks lowly of cats, or with the catty woman gossiping with girlfriends. These concepts are purely differential, not positively defined by their content but negatively defined by their relations with other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristic is that they are what the others are not. In other words, the value of ‘cat’ is seemingly established by what it is not. The meaning of cat is an endless play between associated alternatives.
So, what is cat? It is ‘not’ exactly some other cat-ideas it might have been – Persian, kitten, or feral. Not exactly the other pets it might have been – a dog or bird. It’s not exactly other sounds it might have been – a ‘rat’ or a ‘mat’. It is not exactly other non-literal usages it might have been – the hangover cure, the sleeping trouble we choose to ignore. Its meaning is produced through an infinite differentiation from possible alternatives. The meaning of the sign ‘cat’ is never definitely present. Instead its meaning arises in the connections between the associations and imagined substitutions of countless kinds – that is, sounds, different pets, breeds, and metaphors.
A sign (i.e. ‘cat’) is not autonomous of the network of alternative and combinatory elements from which it is derived. It is a false abstraction to lift a term ‘cat’ out of a system, and think that its meaning can be dissociated from the latter. Instead, the meaning of cat is a relational play with many absent possibilities that ghost the meaning in question. Let’s move on to some common terminology that becomes more complicated.
Deconstructing “Our History”
With the recent clash in parts of the country, especially Charlottesville, VA., there is heated debate concerning Confederate statues erected in many U.S. cities. The debate centers around ‘our history’. President Trump even lamented in a tweet how the removal of Confederate statues tears apart “the history and culture of our great country.”
But, who is encompassed in the “our”? Trump, is not the only one who speaks in these terms. Many of us fall into the sticky web of messy words like ‘my country’, ‘American culture’, or we set expectations that immigrants learn ‘our [English] language’. My contention is that we are using phantom ideals when speaking like this. It’s a phantom because we cannot pin down a fixed definition of ‘our history’ or ‘American culture’.
We are all in some way unstable in our possession of culture and citizenship. What does it even mean to say, “American culture”? Is American culture simply baseball, apple pie, and iPhones? And whose culture is ‘more American’ when comparing the rural parts of Kentucky with urbanized Los Angeles? Culture is imposed upon us as children because we are born into culture, territories, laws and identities which we eventually identify as ‘ours.’ We find ourselves born in a nation, implicated in its history, and immersed in the language that we acquire. Culture is an ever-evolving amorphous human construction that is relative to the place, time, and family one is born into. ‘American culture’ cannot be fixed into a definition, rather, it is simply the articulation of the experience in ‘American culture’ of the speaker.
We find similar phantom ideals when we come to the English language and how it relates to identity. Even though I was born in this country, language and culture is nevertheless something I acquire. Even the acquisition is messy. No one speaks English perfectly. Americans, for instance, go on vacation, while Brits go on holidays, or hols. Both are English, yet both are foreign to the other culture. New Yorkers live in apartments; Londoners live in flats. If I use flat in rural Kentucky, I will confuse most people. Moreover, language is always in transition, involving a perpetual redefinition by experts and non-experts alike of its proper usage. The word ‘nice’ meant ‘idiot’ in the 15th century, but is an endearing term today. In 2014, ‘duck face’ (person who purses their lips) was admitted into the Oxford dictionary. It stands to reason, then, using ‘duck face’ a year prior in 2013 was, I guess, bad English. Think about it though, has anyone ever had a perfect command of what we call ‘English’? If not, are we being honest when we say it’s “our language”, and then demand immigrants to learn English?
All of these terms are in constant flux and cannot be fixed. It is a short-cut and lazy thinking to elevate these ideals as if they are intrinsically real. Therefore, when Trump says, “our history”, is this the history of blacks, native Americans and Mexicans? Or is ‘our history’ the type of history that the present conveniently chooses to remember about the past? And when you say, “my country”, what exactly do you mean? Perhaps ‘American culture’ and ‘my country’ are phantoms whose definition can never be settled.
Language is a poetic construction that creates worlds, not a mirror that reflects ‘reality’, and there are no presuppositionless or neutral truths that evade the contingencies of historically shaped selfhood. Language can only provide us with a ‘description’ of the world that is thoroughly historical and contingent in nature. Whether we are talking about ‘American culture’ or ‘cat’, there is an infinitesimal array of interpretations built on a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms.
What matters, then, with language? What matters are the results, and if actions bring greater freedom then the theoretical perspectives informing them are ‘justified’. From this perspective, theoretical discourse is seen not so much as ‘correct,’ or ‘true’, but ‘efficacious’, as producing positive effects. What matters is the emancipatory possibilities with language. It’s a striving to release the possibilities when we speak of justice, liberty and virtue; while being cognizant that these ideals are nevertheless timebound and local. What matters is showing how language can be used to subjugate, marginalize and oppress as it points to a fictitious ‘real’. Thus, when we hear ‘our history’ and ‘my culture’ we become attuned to the implications and consequences of the potential power structures at play.
This essay may spawn this relevant question: if there is no essence or ‘real-ness’ to language, then isn’t this a form of relativism? Not at all. Relativism says that any belief is just as good as another. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, language can free us from the restraints we create. Contra to relativism, I am saying that we should push for some descriptions that celebrate contingency, irony, solidarity, and liberal values – over others.
There is no structure to language that gets us to the ‘real’. By recognizing this, we can begin to spot the tensions and contradictions when people elevate ideals. We can view language from a deconstructive lens that spots the power plays when people say, “Women are more emotional than men,” or “Blacks are not good at math and science,” or “traditional marriage is between opposite sex couples,” or “We need to preserve our history.” Anytime language demarcates borders and frontiers, we can then call into question the essence, origin and nature of the phantom ideal. We do this because essence, origin and nature are phantom ideals that are tossed around in an ocean of interpretation.
~ Wes Fornes