Practical Ontologies

matrix.jpgSegment 14:

The Author’s Obligation in Refabrication

Part of me feels bad for making up another new word, but only for a moment and then that moment is gone. The idea behind refabrication is unique enough to merit a new word, so I decide to forestall my own misgivings about the pretentiousness of what I’m doing and just mine this shaft for whatever it is worth.

First let us recall what has already slipped out about this new word. You will remember that the idea came to me while thinking about the “prefabricated chunks” of story that authors sometimes use as shortcuts. [In a previous discussion, I used the example of delusions of maggots being a shortcut to implying mental instability about a character.] An author knows that if she uses the prefabricated chunk known as “delusions of maggots”, everyone in the audience is going to interpret it as “mental instability”. These two things do not have to go together as signifier and signified. They have been forced together at some point previous to this one in the history of stories and now they exist in the classical semiotic relationship of signifier and signified.

Simplified as much as possible I am maintaining that signifiers can come in larger sizes than traditional semiotics allows. There doesn’t have to be an atomic correspondence between a single sign and a particular meaning. I am saying that information comes in prefabricated chunks which exist to facilitate communication. The goal of writing [or speaking] in the prefabricated chunks is not to accumulate meaning, but to accumulate communication. In this way the purpose of language is self-reinforcing. We write [or say] more and more but mean less and less. Language does not care how shallow the pools of meaning become, because language exists to be written [or spoken].

Language best fulfills its function when it borders on uninterrupted.

If you look at what I have just written closely, you can’t help but think that there is a “meaning” which attaches to the words I’ve written which implies that we are not the masters of language. I believe this is true. Our language masters us. It approximates a meaning, it facilitates actions, but it does not allow us to think clearly. How can we? The next word is always pressing on our vocal cord waiting to be spoken. Think of the difficulty of keeping up a conversation about a difficult subject like, say, the difference between a Rawlsian ethics and a Kantian ethics.

A discussion of this minutiae requires a mastery of specific prefabricated chunks like [for instance] the difference between the difference principle and the categorical imperative—all of which one would be wanting to compare and contrast to the golden rule. It requires an intense mastery of gobbledygook. (120) Am I saying that the categorical imperative doesn’t mean anything? Of course not. What I am saying is that the signifier “categorical imperative” which is a single signifier, has a very large size when compared to other single signifiers like [for instance] oak tree. (121) You cannot talk about the categorical imperative at all unless you have the massive [prefabricated] philosophical context in which to frame it.

Creative Writing, therefore, is the process by which prefabricated chunks of language-as-facilitation are cracked open to reveal actual meaning. (122)

We also will recall that the point of manipulating these prefabricated chunks is to produce resonance in the audience. The reason we want to produce this resonance in the audience is because we count it as an empirical answer to the ancient philosophical problem of… Other Minds. Thinking of this using the words from our earlier discussion we could say:

The name of the wormhole that Art opens between minds is… Certain Knowledge of Another’s Existence.

If you read what I write and it makes you cry, or laugh, or fear, then not only have I cracked the prefabricated chunks for a morsel of real truth, I have also answered the skeptical challenge of proving to you that I exist. In other words:

You feel, therefore I am.

Your existence as a thinking thing grants my existence as a thing which made you feel. (123) Philosophers from Plato to David Lewis have been trying to find conclusive empirical proof of our existence in a shared community to no avail. They should have been able to see that Homer had the right idea from the start. (124) [I don’t, by the way, think it a coincidence that fiction predates philosophy and organized science by a few years.]

If all of this is true, then writers have a social obligation that exceeds anything Marx could dream up. We are here to crack the prefabricated veneer off language and let pure meaning bloom from the carcass. We do this in order to see ourselves as a community of humans equal in our humanity.

We Writers are here on this earth in order to refabricate ourselves in the minds of the Audience.

Whenever we let the prefabricated chunks rule our sentences, we have failed in our obligation, we have hardened the veneer, we have added to the power our language wields over our thoughts. (125)


120  I hope no one interprets that as a condemnation of either Rawls or Kant. I have a fair amount of respect for the first and the second is my intellectual hero.

121  There are those who will probably say that oak tree is exactly as big a signifier as categorical imperative. To these I reply: Hume took that line of thinking to its logical conclusion centuries ago. Besides, I am interested in a practical ontology.

122  I think this statement would be equally true for all other types of “writing”. I don’t think the philosopher or the physicist is doing anything different process-wise from the screenwriter.

123  Unlike Descartes, I will not leave the missing premise unproved. It is true that if I conspire to make you feel something and then you feel it that, necessarily, I am a thinking thing also. My existence is granted as a post-condition of your existence with the feeling that I wanted you to have.

124  I use Western examples only because I am familiar with them. This is a limitation of my knowledge, and not [I hope] the theory.

125  I have failed at this many more times than I would like to admit… just during the course of the writing of this essay.


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