In my last term before graduating as a library student, I took a course in social media for library professionals, and for this course each of us had to maintain a blog. There is one particular post (link) for that blog which I want to share. (While I am arranging a move, I thought it would be smart to re-run old work.)
A little background, first: One of my classmates, Fiona Hanington, wrote two posts about Twitter (which I linked in the post, if you want to read them, which you should do), considering specifically how context relates to what a particular tweet means. This sort of question was in my wheelhouse, as I had fairly recently been tackling the problem of interpretation on a much broader, more summary scale (see here for a table of contents), so I used that background to reply to Fiona’s more specific questions. That post is as follows:
Twitterary Theory: Meaning, Context, and Responsibility
A few days ago Fiona wrote two posts about Twitter, tweets, and Twitter essays: in the first, she discusses Jeet Heer, who numbers tweets to structure them together into an essay; in the second, she talks about how a person ought to read tweets. In particular, Steven Salaita had an offer for a tenure position withdrawn over a tweet which seemed, on its own, to be incendiary:
Zionists: transforming “anti-semitism” from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.
Salaita claims that, in the context of his overall Twitter career, this tweet isn’t as bad as it looks; it means something different when it is part of a whole. Fiona therefore asks the following question:
How far forward or back in someone’s tweet corpus must we look to be satisfied we have enough context? What are our responsibilities as readers? What are the boundaries of a twitter storm? What is the flock that holds our unmarked sheep?
I want to approach this question—approach, not answer—but first we need to get into some literary theory.
My position regarding the issue of meaning and text is this: a text has a set of meanings inherent in itself, determined by the semantic structure of the text in relation to a wider context of meaning. So, a text can only mean something because a language outside of that text provides a system of correspondences between signs and concepts. However, it’s more than just language that creates those correspondences; context does this, too. (A simple example: the phrase Yes, thanks only means something in relation to other sentences. See also deixis, anaphora, and exophora.) In other words, nothing is a unit of meaning on its own. Whether in a Twitter essay or not, a tweet can only mean something in relation to other tweets—or texts, at least.
Because the context and language are perpetually changing, the meaning of a text is perpetually unstable (Derrida and deconstruction), and that’s a concern, but rather than treat it separately I think I want to clump it together with the fact that, in any text, there is always going to be ambiguity. Words have multiple meanings, and when strung together that ambiguity grows. So it probably makes sense to say a text has a set of possible meanings, some better than others, but none is authoritative. No matter what, the text will mean more than the author desires it to mean; the author’s task is to limit the overflow.
Neither the author’s intentions nor the reader’s interpretation are where we find meaning. Of course a reader is needed to uncover the meaning, and of course an author is needed to create it, but the text means on its own. (A simple example: if someone misspeaks, their intention obviously and by definition differs from the meaning of what they said. If a person misreads clear instructions, their interpretation differs from the meaning of what they read. See the intentional fallacy, for instance.) Thus we have a relationship that looks like this:1
So, when you are composing a text (a tweet, for example), the goal is to get the text to match or represent your intention as closely as possible. Because there’s a gap between your intention and the text’s meanings, there are two things you’re responsible for: your intention and the text’s own meaning. And because there’s a gap between the text’s meaning and the reader’s interpretation, you’re going to have to be careful not to make that gap worse than it will already be. If you don’t number your tweets and signal what context you’re writing in, that gap is likely to get bigger.
And so, when you are reading a text (a tweet, for example), the goal is to get your interpretation to match the text’s meaning as closely as possible. It would be great if you could go directly back to the author’s intention, but you don’t have the author’s intention as evidence; all you have is the text and some of the context. Because there’s a gap between your interpretation and the text’s meaning, you’re responsible for making that gap as small as possible. And because there’s a gap between the text’s meaning and the author’s intention, you’re going to have to consider how much you can hold the author responsible for the text. Perhaps, after all, ze did not mean to say what ze in fact said.
(Of course, not all authors strive for clarity. In poetry and fiction, there are certain advantages to making a reader work for the meaning. Perhaps there are some in non-fiction, too. As an example, a friend of mine does some work in Asian Canadian literature, and she notes that the work of Fred Wah is deliberately alienating as a reflection of the alienation of Asian Canadians in Canada.2 It’s a risk an author might be justified in taking, but they are still responsible for that risk.)
So what I would say to Fiona regarding Salaita is that readers are responsible for trying to find out as much context as reasonable; specifically, the more you intend to act on your interpretation (lay blame, etc.), the more context you are required to consider. But Salaita is also responsible for his tweet’s meaning, and it seems there was a sizable gap between what he intended and what he said: he’s responsible for that gap. He should have numbered his tweets.
I think there are three interesting questions that come out of this.
- Is the author responsible for the reader’s misinterpretations? For instance, John Green intended his novel Paper Towns to be a critique against the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stories of lots of YA novels. But a lot of teenaged boys seem to have missed the critique and instead use Paper Towns to bolster their own problematic attitudes toward women, and a lot of women have found the book a noxious example of the very trope it criticizes. I’ve read the book, and I agree that Paper Townseventually mounts a critique on the MPDG trope, but I can also see that someone could easily misread it, especially someone motivated to misread it. So is John Green responsible for a highly probable misreading? How responsible are we, in general, when our actions have consequences we did not intend but we could have predicted?
- Is an author more responsible for readers’ misinterpretations when the author is representing a larger organization? If I’m a librarian, tweeting on behalf of a library, I’m not just responsible for the meaning of the tweet; I’m now also responsible for the ways that tweet affects the library’s reputation. This can’t change the particular dynamics of interpretation, as discussed above, but it might change what I’m responsible for. Or, as a hiring institution: sure, readers have a responsibility to look at context, but they often don’t, so how do I make hiring decisions based on the fact that some or many readers won’t be as responsible as they maybe should be?
- Is “bending the medium,” as Jeet Heer puts it and Fiona quotes it, necessary for anyone who wants to use Twitter responsibly? Perhaps we need to ask how the affordances or embedded values of a piece of technology prevent us from using it responsibly, and whether we must find other ways to use it.
(Something I didn’t get into, but which I think does play a role here, is the author function. In what ways is the author, or the author’s reputation, a feature of the text? Feel free to look into it.)
2. Chan, Sunny. “To Read Eth(n)ically: Fred Wah’s Alienethnic Poetics as Reading Practice.” West Coat Line 45.3 (2011): 86-91. Print.
I should note that I’m leaning pretty heavily here on other versions of this conversation I’ve had elsewhere; even using Paper Towns as an example is taken from this conversations. All of the writing is original, here, but the argument is not. I’m also sure some readers will take issue with this literary theory. Of course I don’t mean to suggest that neither the reader’s experience of the text nor the author’s intention are relevant; I merely note that the meaning of the text is not dependent on either. I’ll happily field any questions in the comments: this problem is one that’s been debated for decades and certainly there are no pat answers.
The post I mention in the footnote, on which I leaned quite heavily, is this one (link). What I particularly learned replying to Fiona, I think, is that responsibility is the most important concept to come out of all that work I did on a theory of reading. If I were going to try that project again—and, indeed, it was always my intention to keep returning to and refining my understanding of what reading is—I think I would focus a lot more on the different kinds of responsibilities around reading. First, theories of interpretation usually only have stakes when you have to decide between courses of action, and these moments almost always involve the ethical relationships between people or groups; it seems sensible to focus on those particular moments. Second, I had trouble accommodating two phenomena into my general theory of reading: a) the author function and b) resistant or creative reading. I think talking about the kinds of responsibilities a person (writer or reader) has in relation to a text might be ways to bring those phenomena into a general theory of reading.