The Meaning of Stuff
Manufacturing (meaningless) meaning
What do you see? An iceberg? A hip? A flat surface with different shades of blue and green?
Our brains are extremely well adapted for forming meaning, so much so that it finds it even where there is none to be had. The most striking example is the Face. Neurologists have localised an area of the brain which does nothing but recognise if what we are looking at is a face. Therefore we see faces everywhere. On Mars, on the moon, in a leaf on a beach. 1
It is therefore tempting to believe that this ability to recognise certain types of patterns is instinctive, something we have from birth. But that is not quite true. While we certainly have an instinct to recognise faces, there is nothing innate in us about which faces we recognise. It would be hard to argue that we are born with an ability to recognise the face of Adolf Hitler. Yet some see his face in everything, from teapots, to cats and buildings.
So there is definitely an element of cultural upbringing in which shapes we ascribe meaning to. The Face is a good starting point, since there is such a well-defined region in the brain that recognises it. But every item we see, we have learnt to recognise as something symbolic. Nature has a roundabout way to go about its business, we don’t eat because we need to fuel our metabolism at regular intervals, we eat because we are hungry, and we get extra rewards if what we eat is delectable and leaves us with a satisfied feeling. Similarly we don’t directly recognise each other, instead we have been equipped with an ability to recognise patterns that look like Face, and since faces is often attached to human beings, we attach meaning to the pattern of Face, whether it belongs to another person or not. We don’t look for meaning in things because there is a meaning there, we look for patterns which with some luck could be meaningful. And then we ascribe meaning to things where there is none to be had.
Question: What is the meaning of the word ‘meaning’? Used in a sentence: what is the ‘meaning’ of spoon?
Imagine a skilled craftsman has a block of wood and carving tools. She sets out to carve a wooden spoon. And she carves, and she carves. At what point in the process does the wood stop being a nondescript lump, when does it become a spoon? How spoony does it have to be for us to agree that it is a spoon? And if the wood carver keeps carving the wood even after the spoon has been crafted, how long will it remain a spoon? The concept of a spoon is not something we are born with, it is something we learn to recognise. And in our brains, a category for spoon is born. We decide that the wood carver is done at the point in the process when the shape of the wood fits neatly with our learnt notion of spooniness. 2
But which spoon is it? Is the absent-minded carver that never stops carving, turning something spoony into something splintery? Is she depriving the wood of its spooniness? Or is she breaking a spoon? We can imagine and anticipate a spoon in the block, and miss the spoon lost to splinters. There is a difference in the anticipation of the category of spoon inside the block, and the specific spoon object broken into splinters.
Imagine you are in an extremely exotic town (to you), and what you see and hear does not make any sense to you; the streets seem cluttered with stuff where you don’t know where one item ends and the next begins, people interact in seemingly bizarre ways, traffic is chaotic, etc. You like the town so much that you decide to stay for a long time; you grow accustomed to the local customs and culture. You learn what is what. When you later look back and read your journal of how you described the town, you can’t believe it’s the same place! What you saw as a complete jumble of stuff and chaos before now seems like a perfectly ordered collection of useful items and sensible conduct.
What changed, the town or you? Your impression of the objects and categories are now different. By learning the meaning of stuff, by learning the categories, we enable communication over the border of what is me and what is you. When my internal notion of spooniness corresponds to yours, and we can confirm this by agreeing on the spooniness of a piece of wood, we have a connection. We assume that an inner intimate experience is shared over the abyss of sensation between us. By learning what the items are in a previously exotic place, I can connect with other people there. Is that then not also what the most basic of categories–the Face–is: an inherent reflex to connect with another person by recognising Stuff as Face?
There is a man named John3, who suffered a blood clot in the brain which resulted in him losing the ability to differentiate objects. In the garden he could trim the hedges effortlessly, but not tell the difference between flowers and weeds. He could pick up a cup of coffee from an empty table, but if the table was cluttered, he was not able to discern the cup from whatever else was on the table. He had lost the ability to tell things apart. He could describe details of objects, but not see the objects as a whole. He could copy the objects down with a pen on paper, but he could not make sense of them. To John, all shops are exotic; to John, there will never be a spoon, no matter how the block of wood is carved. His world also lacks faces, including those of his wife and his own. One may say that John sees things as they really are. Some may even say that John inadvertently found oneness with creation. And it is a highly debilitating state.
In a sense, the notion of any object, be it a rock or a spoon, is a social construct, given meaning by us. And the meaning we give objects lies on a scale between the mundane and the extraordinary. A spoon may be found on one end of the scale, a bomb on the other. Objects which are not mundane are so because they have been given an emotional attachment within us. They are given salience.
Vilayanur Ramachandran: ”When a person looks at the world, she is confronted with a potentially bewildering sensory overload. […] Information about the world is first discriminated in the brain‘s sensory areas and then relayed to the amygdala. As the gateway to the emotional core of your brain, the amygdala performs an emotional surveillance of the world you inhabit, gauges the emotional significance of everything you see, and decides whether it is trivial and humdrum or something worth getting emotional over. If the latter, the amygdala tells the hypothalamus to activate the autonomic nervous system in proportion to the arousal worthiness of the triggering sight—it could be anything from mildly interesting to downright terrifying. Thus the amygdala is able to create a salience landscape of your world, with hills and valleys corresponding to high and low salience.”4
The shape of the salience landscape, the emotional attachment we give objects and categories, is largely determined socially, it is constructed within each person within each culture. A commonly agreed upon salience landscape could even be said to be one building block of what constitutes a culture. What is a fork, a spoon, or a chopstick? Who is white, who is black? Who is rich or poor? Who has social standing and who does not? All these categories are not only constructed by us, learnt by us, but also filled with meaning by us. When entering a new culture (e.g. by virtue of being born), these are the things one would need to figure out in order to become part of the new culture (if that is what one desires); one would need to adopt a new salience landscape.
Emotional categories feel just as natural5 to us as the category of a wooden spoon. Categories which differentiate people socially are of the emotional kind, these may constitute identifiers such as gender, ethnicity, race, age, religion, nationality, sexuality, class, caste, etc. All these categories constitute bumps and dips in the salience landscape. There is little, if any, difference between a salient category and a prejudice.
And the landscape can change, even the most mundane of objects can be charged with emotions. They can be made seemingly imperative for our own and others’ identity. Movies, TV, literature and art may be the most efficient forms of manufacturing meaning. If there already is a cultural category in our minds, this category can be charged further through cultural expressions. Say a group of people are clearly defined as a category in our culture, and this group is always depicted as violent criminals on TV. If the TV-shows are well made, they can elicit emotions in the viewers, and after repeated exposure we cannot help but emotionally connect this category with criminality and danger. Imagine there is another clearly defined category of people in our culture which are always depicted as righteous, powerful and intelligent. Then this becomes the emotional connection with their category.
So here’s an irony: while artistic cultural expressions no doubt have the ability to be subversive, questioning our cultural norms and agreed upon emotional attachments for objects and categories, they can also do the opposite. The better the TV show, movie or novel are made, the better they are at evoking emotions in us, the more efficient they may also be at manufacturing meaning within us. Does it matter if I tell myself it is just a prejudice, that it is not the truth about a person? That people within a category differ much more than people from different categories do? And if I find myself surrounded by people I’ve learnt to emotionally view as dangerous, I am nervous whether I know it is irrational or not. I have become prejudiced at a subconscious emotional level.
Apart from all the entertainment and culture, there is a global $500 billion industry whose sole purpose it is to charge mundane objects with emotions within us, such that the category of their specific object becomes imperative for building our cultural identities. This industry is producing prejudice towards mundane objects. Are you a soda or a soft-drink person? At face value each soda is the same, just another flavoured syrup mixed with sparkling water, but in our cultural minds, it is much more than that. They are manipulating the mechanism by which we make sense of the world, and distorting it. And salience, once created, is hard to unlearn, since we have a propensity to discard that which does not confirm what we have already learnt. 6We get blinded by the categories by which we perceive the world.
When it comes to movies and novels, we have a choice whether we want to be exposed to them or not. With advertisements and commercials, our choice becomes much more limited. It is nigh impossible to shield oneself from emotional manipulation from companies trying to make me attach value to something which has none. They manipulate our propensity to seek patterns instead of meaning; they are manipulating our emotional attachments without our permission and control. As such, advertisement is violent, and it inflicts its violence on our very souls.
Banksy: “Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.”
We do not only ascribe meaning to objects, we also ascribe them purpose. Have a look at this video, how would you describe what is going on here?7
Most people, when seeing this video would describe it in terms of feeling acting beings. The big triangle has been locked in and the small triangle and the circle come and taunt it, etc. Some people (but not all) with autism do not ascribe the figures in the video any agency. This is the description of the video by an autistic child: “The big triangle went into the rectangle. There were a small rectangle and a circle. The big triangle went out. The shapes bounce off each other. The small circle went inside the rectangle. The big triangle was in the box with the circle. The small triangle and the circle went around each other a few times. They were kind of oscillating around each other, maybe because of a magnetic field. After that they go off screen.”
Just like John, this autistic child sees reality with more clarity than most of us. John did not see distinctions between the objects where there were none, and the child does not ascribe geometrical figures emotional content they do not have. Both are clarities which are debilitating, and, more than anything else, socially debilitating.
Recognising patterns and giving them names, and agreeing on the connections between pattern and name is to communicate. To give a category of patterns a salience, does not only connect my categories with yours, but it connects our emotions. My inner felt experience of red, sorrow, spoon and bomb will forever be a mystery to you, and through our language and culturally agreed upon salience we can somewhat bridge this abyss between us. And there is a normalising force, since my social ability to communicate and conform in society is compromised if my salience landscape differs from that of the norm. We refer to our common cultural background when we communicate.
What TV, literature, and other cultural expressions (including advertising) do more than anything else is creating a common salience landscape by which we can connect; popular culture tend to reinforce one already in place, advertisement tend to create one unnecessarily, and art tend to question and modify what we have. This need to bridge the gulf between us may lead to insecurity and conformity. By making cultural references without explanations one perpetuates a notion of normality which is exclusive against those who do not “get” the reference, thus creating a false sense of insecurity, both in those who do not “get” the reference, and also in those who do “get” the reference, since it imbues a sense of self-recognition and achievement where nothing is achieved. Unexplained cultural referencing is thus a form of bullying.
We can use this common ground given by our salience landscape as a way to avoid exploring who we are, satisfied with being able to connect and the sense of belonging it gives us. But it may also lead to the opposite, to meaningful connections between our respective unique personalities. We can explore the differences in our respective salience landscapes, and use cultural references as a means for discovering ourselves and each other, for questioning our own categories and their emotional attachments.
William Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
By naming things we limit what we can express and comprehend, we limit our understanding of the world to the categories we divide it into, and to the emotions we ascribe them. At the same time, without this categorising of the world’s objects and phenomena, our surroundings would no longer make sense to us and we wouldn’t make sense to each other–we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. The knowledge that what we perceive as the real world is but the conformation of our perception to the categories we have learnt, this knowledge should not make us uneasy–it should be liberating, for there is no such thing as a natural8 order. Is that air you’re breathing?9
What do you think? How meaningful is really a human made salience landscape of manufactured meaning?
Here, test your salience landscape, unravel your prejudice, at Project Implicit: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/
“The Crayola Fication of the World” by Aatish Bhatia, describes how naming the colours profoundly changes our perception of the world.
The evolution of the meaning and salience of pink in the USA:
In the “Star Trek: Next Generation” episode “Darmok” (season 5, episode 2), it is exquisitely shown why the idea of a computerised universal translator cannot work, since it does not take into account the need for common cultural references and salience landscape in communication. The episode is available online.
Update: The episode is thoroughly analysed in the Atlantic:
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TT, Thinking of Things, 2014.