Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A little less meaning: Postscript

Luis Buñuel, L'Age d'Or (1930).
Brooks actually had a point to make in that excursus on the inadequacy of meaningfulness this morning, though he doesn't understand it well enough to make it and would of course have been wrong if he did. It's a left-right point, too, and I'd like to go over it just briefly.

If somebody wants you to tell them what is the meaning of life, the correct answer is that they should rephrase the question: it's a category error. That which has meaning is a sign, and life is not a sign. The word "life" is a sign, so you could ask,  e.g.,

  • What is the meaning of "life"?

but it wouldn't get a very exciting answer, from a philosophical standpoint ("Life" denotes the state or quality of being alive...).

The tiny liberals inside his head who assert that they're being nice because it makes them feel "meaningful" are not being stupid, however. Each individual life, being different from every other individual life, has the capacity to serve as a sign; because that, contrastive opposition, is what signs are made of, or in mathematical terms the source of information value. "Yes" has a meaning because it is in opposition to "no", or /p/ is a sound capable of meaning because it contrasts with /t/ and /k/. Your life can be meaningful, to those who know about it, because it is intentionally different from some other person's life, such as that of David Brooks, say, and it can be meaningful to yourself.

  • What is the meaning of my life?

It signifies your making a difference in the world, in more or less elaborate ways, depending on what you do. There is nothing "flabby" (I think Brooks says "flaccid", but just because he has penises on his mind doesn't mean I have to) about this concept, nothing "emotion-based", and nothing evanescent that must yield after a flash of excitement to "ennui". It's just semiotics.

What the definitional conservative believes is that all the meaning you need should be provided by the tradition within which you live and your status inside it, and it's true that strict observance of a tradition can give a person the requisite sense of contrast, against those "lesser breeds without the law," and that's a kind of meaning, however pinch-lipped and grim, the meaningfulness of Miss Gulch in The Wizard of Oz.

And they don't like calling it "meaning", either, because that sounds so contingent. But that's what it is, and the fact is we all have to make our own meaning the best we can, by hook (their way, drawn in) or by crook (ours, veering off).

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