Modern and Postmodern Perspectives

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Interaction and Dialogic Meaning

Rovelli writes that “reality is only interaction” (20). For Mikhail Bakhtin, interaction is a creative force of new and unreproducible meaning, as new contexts emerge dialogically with all utterances (1224). Bakhtin also claims that “meaning, in essence, means nothing; it only possesses potentiality—the possibility of having a meaning within a concrete theme" (1225-6). This statement about the potentiality of meaning parallels the insight in physics that some particles may only exist when we interact with them—without us, they have potentiality, but in the moment of mutual experience, the potentiality becomes actuality (Rovelli 20). 

Just as continuous interaction affects meanings that shift continually, so too does the interdependence of physical forces affect the shape of the physical world: “All things are continually interacting with one another, and in doing so each bears the traces of that with which it has interacted” (Rovelli 70).  Again, Bakhtin's point develops on a similar track: meaning arises interdependently with utterances and contexts (1226). He writes, "meaning belongs to a word in its position between speakers . . . Meaning is the effect of interaction between speaker and listener" (Bakhtin 1226, emphasis in original). Between the weaver (speaker) and the woven (spoken): threads. Between infinite points: nets, webs.

Linguistic Excursion: Meaning

"Mean" also has a mathematical meaning of the average, a figured-out figure in the medial space between quantitative data, which functions as an analogy to the idea of "meaning" occupying a space between speakers (Bakhtin 1226).

Destiny and the Production of Truth

Although Bakhtin writes about language as always dialogic, this thinking departed from the Western tradition, which had clung to truth for thousands of years (1226). Michel Foucault notes that even in Greece in the sixth century BCE, the ruling class and its rituals controlled the discourse, defining meaning, reality, and destiny (1462).  In discussing how the concept of the true/false opposition enforces a "system of exclusion," Foucault notes that in ancient Greece, 

“the true discourse . . . to which one had to submit because it ruled, was the one . . . which dispensed justice and gave everyone his share; the discourse which in prophesying the future not only announced what was going to happen but also helped make it happen, carrying men’s minds along with it and thus weaving itself into the fabric of destiny” (1462).

Foucault critiques the desire for truth and states that the dichotomy of true/false is itself false, and excludes information from the discourse—but the information that is organized by the discipline becomes part of the “fabric of destiny” (1462). Foucault's image of the discourse that "dispensed justice and gave everyone his share" and foretold the future likely refers to the Greek Moirai: the three Fates who apportioned and control individuals' destinies (Foucault 1462; Atsma, "Moirai" n. pag).  Foucault links the Moirai allotting destiny to the production of knowledge (1462).

Potentiality and Witness

Postmodern philosophers of language such as Bakhtin and Jacques Derrida have focused on how polysemy dislocates meaning from words, leaving "truth" (if it can exist) to linger as a potentiality, or what Bakhtin calls a "theme"; and defers meaning beyond the present (Bakhtin 1225; Derrida 1479). This idea of a plurality of truths meshes with a key concept of modern physics, wave-particle duality, which states that light can behave as a particle and a wave simultaneously, becoming one or the other only when observed, only in the moment of interaction: “quantum mechanics describes a reality in which things sometimes hover in a haze of being partly one way and partly another. Things become definite only when a suitable observation forces them to relinquish quantum possibilities and settle on a specific outcome” (Greene 11).  A thread may be woven in infinite directions; potentiality and possibility await, until it is woven into the "fabric of destiny" (Foucault 1462).


An Untruth, Woven

Stephen Hawking opened A Brief History of Time with a story of a scientist giving a lecture and being told by someone that actually, the world is "a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise" and below that, it's "'turtles all the way down" (1). Queue the infinite recursion.


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