Collaborative Communication

Defined                     -                  Primitive
Tight                         -                  Loose
Narrow                    -                   Wide
Perfect                     -                   Flawed
Definite                   -                   Indefinite
Sharp                       -                   Blurry
Pure                         -                   Contaminated

There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

[Leonard Cohen]

Beneath our words lie our meanings. Words are a way in which we communicate meaning to one another.

I’d like to talk about the difference between ‘defined' and 'undefined' terms. I found these concepts through the work of philosopher Karl Popper, although the meaning I ascribe to them may differ to his. He refers to undefined terms as 'primitive,' so I will too.

The difference between the two is analogous to the difference between iron ore and a steel bicycle frame. Both represent stages in a process of ‘working’ the iron. We could say that the iron has more potentialities in its raw state, as ore, than it does as a bicycle frame, because many things can be made from iron ore, but less things can be made from bicycle frames.

As the iron travels along this process it becomes ever more defined, and purposeful; from the ambiguity of ore, to the specificity of a bicycle frame. Where once it had many potentials - was unsure of itself - now it has few.

When it comes to language, the ore is our primitive term, and the bike frame is our defined term.

Defined terms are those that have, or seem to have, a fixed definition. In other words, they appear to be anchored to something specific, definite, and ‘real,’ and so aren’t as fluid and flexible as primitive terms. Like a tool that has been crafted for a very specific purpose, what they sacrifice in flexibility they make up for in precision.

Primitive terms are generalists. The more primitive a term is, the less definition it has. It could be this, or it could be that. A cat’s miaow, a dog’s bark, or a baby’s cry could all be classed as primitive terms (albeit extreme examples). We must search for their meaning rather than having it spelled out for us.

When it comes to conversation, primitive terms tend to foster collaboration because they require more work from the other person. When your words are ambiguous then their meanings must be searched for, felt out.

In truth, conversation is always collaborative because none of us, no matter how accurate we strive to be, achieve perfection.

In spite of our best efforts, our communcation will always contain holes, tears, flaws, and openings. These are the chinks in our armour, our vulnerable spots. They remind us that, whilst we may gaze at the stars, our feet are still firmly on the ground.

But, significantly, they are also invitations. Our openings let the outside in. They encourage contact; be it a deadly blow, or a tender touch.

In this sense, the more we attempt to define our terms and perfect our communication, the less communal we become. We are like a jigsaw piece, attempting to straighten out its edges in the hope of becoming a square. As a square it can sit side by side with other shapes, but it can no longer penetrate or be penetrated. In chasing perfection - straight edges - it has lost its communal aspect.

As a writer I am like a guide, and I hope to show you, the reader, something; a place that I have been to; a place that I like and that I hope you will also like.

This place doesn't belong to me, I am only familiar with it. The success of my writing - my guidance - is determined by how far I can take you, how near I can get you to it. My English may not be perfect, and I may not always take the most effective route, but I hope that these things won't deter you.

A story.

My dad could be a pedant when it came to words.

He would often halt the flow of a conversation in order to question my usage of a certain term. Sometimes it seemed to me that he knew what I was trying to communicate, but was using my lack of accuracy as a way to not understand me.

He had a habit of setting himself up against me. This was often, it seemed to me, a reflexive action, rather than because he actually disagreed with what I was saying. It sometimes seemed as if it were a game, a form of sparring or battling. I could tell when we’d gone into battle mode: the tone of the conversation would shift, and I suddenly felt more wary, and less free.

In setting himself against me - in saying, "this is a battle, and you are my opposition" - he drew a divide between us. The fact that we were on opposite sides of this divide mean that we were no longer as amenable to each other in the way that we were formerly, during peacetime.

I see my attempts to convey something to him as akin to drawing a picture with my words. What I came up with was pitched somewhere between Monet and Lowry; it conveyed a scene, but, for my dad’s liking it wasn’t realistic enough. There were too many blurred edges and ill defined figures, and he would focus on these.

‘What’s that meant to be?’
‘It’s a person! Can’t you tell?’
‘But it isn’t in proportion! And look, they don’t have a mouth! It’s not like any person I’ve ever seen.’

Although it may not have been entirely true to life, to my mind the picture communicated its scene effectively enough. Whilst they may not have had mouths, you could tell they were people! It seemed that what he wanted was something photo-real; with no room for doubt or ambiguity. Even then, I suspect that he would have found imperfections.

This is because our conversation was antagonistic, rather than synergistic.

What I longed for were conversations in which we were collaborators rather than competitors. I wanted him to look at my picture with a kind eye, with the intent to find meaning rather than obscure it.

‘Is that a person?’
‘Yes, it is!’
‘Ah, I see. And are they holding something? Let me see, it looks like a bag of groceries?
‘Well, its actually a briefcase, but thats near enough …’

What I wanted was for him to ‘cover the gaps’ in my reasoning - in other words, to look for my meaning, in spite of the words I was using to convey it. I wanted him to help me with those places where I was weak - my ambiguities and my blurred edges - rather than seeing them as areas in which to thrust a blow.

This is what we can call synergistic conversation. It is when we collaborate in order to find meaning.

‘I see what you’re trying to do. Do you mind if I add a few dabs of paint? There, what do you think?
‘I like it. That’s a big improvement. It definitely looks like a briefcase now.’

In demanding rigour, my dad ended up stifling the flow of communication. This is because rigour is a paring down, a distilling or purifying. He narrowed my way until I was left with nowhere to go. The conversation dried up, and I left the room.

New Criticism, as espoused by Cleanth Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, T. S. Eliot, and others, argued that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding a work of literature.

Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley argue in their essay "The Intentional Fallacy" that "the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art".

The author, they argue, cannot be reconstructed from a writing—the text is the primary source of meaning, and any details of the author's desires or life are secondary.

Wimsatt and Beardsley argue that even details about the work's composition or the author's intended meaning and purpose that might be found in other documents such as journals or letters are "private or idiosyncratic; not a part of the work as a linguistic fact" and are thus secondary to the trained reader's rigorous engagement with the text itself.

'Authorial intent'

The notion that we must define our terms before we can have a useful discussion is [...] demonstrably incoherent, for every time one defines a term one has to introduce new terms in the definition (otherwise the definition is circular) and one is then required to define the new terms.

So we can never get to the discussion at all, because we can never complete the necessary preliminaries.

Discussion, then, has to make use of undefined terms.

[Bryan Magee]
Popper, p. 49

If the symbols in a system had only one correct and complete meaning, communication would break down if that essence was missed.

In normal, successful communication, we do not have to insist on essences, but rather give each other the benefit of the doubt. This is sometimes known as the 'principle of charity'. All interpretation depends on charity, because 'we always have to discount at least some differences in belief when we interpret.’

[Paul Cilliers]
Complexity and Postmodernism, p.66

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