Voices that give meaning to meaning as society takes meaning away.
Today’s most powerful voice in the wilderness may belong to Umair Haque, who in a recent column highlighted the moot question of the meaning of meaning. Reflecting on the dominant cultural trends of “materialism, rationalism, individualism” that have produced an economy fueled by “Greed, brutality, cunning, competition,” he focuses on the role of meaning in our lives: “[A]ssigning, giving, and deriving meaning … is the signal test of intelligence. Human beings are failing spectacularly it today. The world is engulfed in stupid, which is a way to say: nothing means anything, precisely because the only kind of power we desire anymore is the power to take meaning away from things, not give meaning to them.” Dollar value has largely replaced traditional meaning and the media simply repeat, without analyzing, the stupidities (aka tweets) of celebrities, whether they’re politicians or entertainers.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The official definition of words found in dictionaries, scientific glossaries and laws, dispensing the speakers of a language from thinking about the significance not only of the phenomena words refer to, including events, institutions, concepts and the values people are expected to absorb without reflection
Our civilization has delegated the task of creating meaning to the anonymous compilers of dictionaries. They don’t create anything, just register what other people appear to have tacitly agreed upon. They reflect the two values that mark this age: social conformity and the enshrinement of the lowest common denominator as the basis of all truth.
Meaning can be created only when we recognize the flexibility of language. In an article on William Empson, the literary critic and author of Seven Types of Ambiguity, Professor David Hawkes reminds us that Empson’s great contribution to our intellectual heritage was the recognition that language does not fix meaning, but liberates it. It functions as the vehicle on which creators of meaning — writers and thinkers — develop, share and permit to evolve original ideas. It makes us think and keeps us on our toes.
The technocratic world we live in, on the contrary, has banished ambiguity and established “logocentrism” as the norm. Following its inventor, the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, Hawkes defines it “as the tendency of Western thought to organize itself around a single source of meaning or logos.”
When we accept the dictates of logocentrism, we create the conditions in which the utter and essential meaninglessness of the consumer society can thrive. We deprive ourselves of the tools that allow us to control our own culture.
Haque offers his own creative attribution of meaning to the word totalitarianism— the “absolute and total lack of meaning” when he concludes: “A world of self-interested pleasure-maximizing robots in human flesh will happily watch everything burn for another hit of greed, envy, power, and hate. And that level of stupid, that absolute and total lack of meaning, which is what totalitarianism really is, is what must begin with changing if we are to come back to our senses again.”
Just as the meaning of the notion of understanding can float between the processing of facts and empathic feeling, meaning itself can be understood as either synonymy (meat means flesh), categorical inclusion or similarity (wine is an alcohol beverage) or perception, analysis and feeling shared by a group of people (the meaning of democracy). It will always be a cultural construct because language itself is a cultural construct, which produces zones of “agreed meaning” on most of its vocabulary but also many items, especially concepts, that have no agreed meaning (consciousness, for example, even amongst specialized philosophers and neurologists).
Haque complains that today’s culture is more apt to “take meaning away” — to impoverish the common store of cultural capital by reducing everything to pragmatic function and refusing moral reflection — than to create meaning, which we can now confide to machines.
“But it is we ourselves who chose all this. This meaninglessness. This futility, emptiness, hollowness. We chose it by saying nothing mattered at all, except winning, conquest, cruelty, possession. Nothing mattered except having the power to make nothing matter.
Although Haque puts his finger on the actual practices he calls empty and hollow, other voices have made a similar point in the past. In 1925, T.S. Eliot offered us this:
“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar”
Four years later the Great Depression began. Fourteen years later World War II broke out. Umair Haque, in his writings offers us today, ten years after the Great Recession, the nearly lost meaning of the phrase, “a voice in the wilderness.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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