Sometimes, we get frustrated trying to express ourselves. We can’t find the right words. We end up sounding like we’re pissed off when we’re not. Misunderstandings lead to all sorts of problems with lovers, mothers, co-workers, children.
We imagine communication as a linear process in which meaning loses its valence as it makes its way from me to you. It goes something like this: Me > Meaning > Words > You. This model assumes an awful lot:
- That there is a me — some singular, unified Me that has something called intention;
- That meaning is singular — as if I have one thing to say;
- That meaning is the goal of communication — and not, say, feelings or mood;
- That words’ job is to carry meaning — and this container, we assume, doesn’t suffice;
- That you are a you — and, anyway, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.
Alas, I don’t assume any of these things. I assume:
- That there is no one me — I am many forces, most of which exceed me;
- That meaning is always multiple — we mean many things at once;
- That there are aspects to communication other than meaning — affect carries the day;
- That words don’t carry meaning — words are themselves powerful bodies with histories;
- And you are a lot more than you — I hope.
Let me explain.
When I speak or write or gesture, a veritable chorus of forces, voices, tics, memories, and ghosts have their say in the same breath. This is to say, when I speak, there is no singular, intentional being thoroughly in control. No, I am a node within a vast network of personal, cultural, historical, and cosmic forces that flow through me, a swirl of desires that exceed me and speak through me.
This is not to say that there is no intention. Clearly, there is something we call intention. But this intention is only one component within an event that far exceeds anything I intend to say. In Annie Hall, Annie says to Alvy, “Well, she [a shrink] said that I should probably come five times a week. And you know something? I don’t think I mind analysis at all. The only question is, Will it change my wife?” This is a so-called Freudian slip. Which, I ask, is Annie’s intention — wife or life? Or both? Forces within us, and which we are not aware of, have their intentions, too.
Now, usually, we mean a lot of things simultaneously. When a spouse curtly utters, Fine, what does he or she mean? Well, lots of things including it’s fine and it’s not fine.
We communicate much more than meaning. We convey mood, attitude, belief, affect. When we converse, we inundate and are inundated with information — with meaning, with so-called sub-texts, with sensations and fears and feelings. Communication expresses more than meaning: it expresses a relationship to meaning.
There is a lot going on in any communication — a TV ad, a stranger’s glance, a conversation with your mother — other than the conveyance of meaning. Just consider irony, sarcasm, sincerity or, my favorite, phatic expression, those ums, ahs, and what was I gonna says? that keep communication open without uttering any meaning at all. Communication is not as much the conveyance of meaning as it is the inflection of meaning.
And what about those pesky words? Well, words are not neutral containers of meaning. Words are excessive, brimming with histories and etymologies, with connotations and denotations, with a prism of senses. Junk sick dawn, uttered by William Burroughs, means one thing. Junk sick dawnuttered by your truly, means something else entirely. Rather than read this as a lack, we can read this a fecundity: one word, one phrase, births multiple worlds.
Now, as for you hearing and understanding what I say, well, you’re a complex of forces and desires just as this so-called I am.
This leaves us with a very different image, a different model, of communication. Communication doesn’t move from point A to point B, as if I were an archer trying to hit his bullseye. Communication is a moving network, a miasma, a cooperative and disjointed event in which something that is me, something that is you, and everything that is language, culture, history all conspire to make this event which will never have been one. Communication breeds multiplicity. It’s not a matter of planting my feet in order to hit my target. It’s a matter of leaping — or tiptoeing, shuffling, cannon balling — into the fray.
Sure, this sometimes makes living amongst other people difficult — I try to say something nice but she reads it as being aloof. But if we all remember that communication is not linear, that I am not me and you are not you, that there is so much between us and that this in-between is fecund, overflowing with information and wonder, then perhaps we can be less frustrated, less judgmental, and most importantly, more aware of the incredible richness of communication. Perhaps then we can embrace this glorious mess.