Meanings, Mirrors, and Modernism (a fragment)
Meaning, as distinct from information, is an entirely human creation. It does not exist ‘out there’. It is an emergent property of human existence, of animals which have consciousness, which is itself a system of reflections of reflections. The essence of conscious human awareness is the experience of looking at something or someone, and knowing that you are looking at them, and thus looking at your own looking. It is the awareness of a hall of mirrors inside your head. And then one becomes aware of the returned look of the other, and the implied hall of mirrors inside their heads. And then one imagines their mirrors mirroring your mirrors. Their infinite regression amplifies your own. And it is this multiplicity of reflections, and of reflections of reflections, that ignites the quest for meaning.
There is something in the very act of looking that entails or demands interpretation. The eye delegates a great deal of the task of looking and seeing to areas far further back inside the head. The interpretation of this inherently incomprehensible chaos of multiplying reflections is going to bring about an attempt at finding meaning, or at least a feeling that meaning must be possible, and that it must be findable, and thus also that the failure to find it represents a tragedy or an injustice. Or the idea that meaning does exist ‘out there’ or ‘up there’, but that it is beyond us.
We see so many things around us. They are “snapshots of processes”, as Lewontin and Levins said, but this is hard for us to believe in our guts, even if we understand it. The things we see are inherently symbolic to us because that’s just how we think. We could hardly do otherwise: all thought is symbolic. We see meaning thus endlessly and omnipresently implied by everything around us. And then we realise, or feel, that our very awareness of such things is based on interpretation, and interpretation that can never be settled because it is all and always based on endlessly recursive series of reflections. And thus, once again, we become certain that meaning exists; that it exists ‘out there’; that the symbols which make up the world must ‘mean something’; but that we are incapable of grasping those meanings. The ultimate meaning, or meaning repository, must be. And it must be somewhere where we can’t see it. And it must be greater than us.
We then give ourselves permission to fall into a great chain of suppositions, all underwritten by the great conscious meaning that must be out there. Even if we call it something other than ‘god’, it doesn’t matter. And, of course, there is always a temptation to start using this ineffable and unknown underwriter as a prop. The symbol becomes the thing (the essence of magical thinking… which shows how grounded magical thinking can be, if used correctly). The absence of an explanation, the gap where we put the question of meaning (as if on the eternal back burner), becomes itself the explanation. But when the answer is a tautology, that’s only to be expected. And I strongly suspect that the answers to some of our biggest questions, to the extent that there are answers, are tautologies.
There is something in the essence of modernism that wants to peer into those chains of reflections, and those symbols reflected in them, and concentrate not on what we see in the mirrors but rather the mirrors themselves, and the process of reflection, and the fact of the hall of mirrors itself. This is a healthy enough impulse and, like many aspects of modernism, is both a resurrection of older methods of thought (long suppressed by the early part of the bourgeois epoch) and also an anticipation of preoccupations of the postmodern… to the point where what is called the postmodern (especially in art of all kinds) is usually nothing more than the continuation (with faux-claims to novelty) of modernism.
It’s important to note that modernism effects all those who write in the modernist era, even those who are not themselves modernists. Lovecraft famously creates The Call of Cthulu in the manner of modernist textual fracture, uncertainty, collage, pastiche, etc, even as he excoriates modernism. Similarly, Borges is not consciously a modernist, and yet his fiction is unthinkable (literally, we cannot think it) outside the frame of reference of modernism (which is why he is often called a precursor of the postmodern).
Like many of the great modernists – or crypto-modernists, which strikes me as a good way of describing him – Borges is engaging with the liminal and numinous through his engagement with a resurrected antiquity, specifically a textual antiquity. He does this via the familiar technique of the author’s believability bluff. Like Kafka, Borges allows us to see (and be dazzled by) the process whereby he uses the mirrors to reflect each other… which is an apt metaphor when talking about him, fascinated and terrified as he was of mirrors. His mirrors are texts (far more than Kafka’s) and an essential part of his art is an awareness that the mirrors/texts are made things.
The point I want to stress is that he creates false story of fake text after fake story of false text, and impishly presents them to us as real (he once boasted that one of his colleagues on Sur spoke of having read better pieces on Pierre Menard than his). Of course, he is not an actual practical joker (though Eco, who was very much influenced by him, was himself influential in the rise of ‘culture jamming’ and other such disruption techniques with his semiotics). But Borges wants us to believe in his invented texts as he tells us about them. Again, we must trust the author, even as the author deliberately destabilises the whole process of trusting a text. We have to, or the destabilisation would hardly work!
Borges wrote that “it is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books – setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.” Which is precisely what he does in many of his fictions. And, you’ll note, it is also what Iain M. Banks does with games. It is also what many people do all the time with so much of what they – by which I mean ‘me’, because I include myself in this – take to be the meanings of things.
Right, I’m off to make myself a sandwich.
October 20, 2016 @ 9:29 am
I know modernism is a contestable concept (especially in the arts), but surely Borges is a paradigm modernist?
October 20, 2016 @ 11:14 am
Yes, paradoxically precisely because he doesn’t fit easily into the category.
October 20, 2016 @ 4:49 pm
Jane is feeling awful materialist this week
October 20, 2016 @ 5:00 pm
Wait, wait, wait…. what sandwich did you end up having?
October 21, 2016 @ 7:44 am
Marmite and Ready Salted Crisp.
October 21, 2016 @ 3:10 am
What’s a good place to start with Eco?
October 21, 2016 @ 7:43 am
The Name of the Rose.