Tag Archives: Interpretation

Recontextualizing Meaning

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 tells of a near-future society where books are banned and “firemen” search out and burn literary contraband. Books are deemed a social menace, spreading ideas, broadening worldviews, feeding imaginations, and triggering emotions. For decades, this perennial classroom classic has been understood as a moral tome against censorship. However, in 2007, the book’s then eighty-seven-year-old author claimed he meant it as a warning about the dangers of technology. He pointed out that denizens of the bleak futurescape surround themselves with giant televisions, and prefer mindless screen time to interpersonal interaction. According to Bradbury, the novel was written at the dawn of the age of television, and predicted a downward spiral into technology dependence.

Presumably, Bradbury found a new message in his old book, or elevated a secondary theme into a central one. In the fifty-plus years that passed, McCarthyism had given way to the Patriot Act, smart phones, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and other modern horrors. Just as his fans had always done, Bradbury probably read current events into the plot line. Sam Weller, Bradbury’s close friend and biographer, wrote as much in an article titled “Ray Bradbury’s 180 on Fahrenheit 451”: “I was well acquainted with his proclivity to contradict himself and his penchant for subtle revisionist history. More than one of Bradbury’s stories morphed over the years, taking on new life, becoming mythical versions of his own reality…. Bradbury’s letters at the time he wrote Fahrenheit 451, even an article he wrote for The Nation on May 2, 1953, clearly show that censorship was at the forefront of his mind when he wrote his classic novel.”

Fundamentally, interpretation involves recontextualizing meaning. Each exposure is, in a sense, a new event, suffused with accumulated experiences, thoughts, and feelings. As the Bradbury case illustrates, this can be as true for the creator as it is for the audience.

An example from the world of songwriting underscores the point. Bruce Springsteen released “Born to Run” in 1975 on a hit record of the same name. In a lengthy introduction during a London concert in 1988, he explained how the song’s meaning had changed for him:

“When I first wrote it, I figured I was writing about this guy and this girl that wanted to get in the car, drive, keep on driving and never come back….But as I got older, I realized I’d put all these people in all these cars and I was gonna have to figure someplace for them to go. I was gonna be able to figure someplace where I belonged, so as I sang this song through the years, I realized that guy and that girl were out there looking for some connection, trying to find some sense of community, some sense of meaning beyond their own individual freedom and someplace maybe that they could call home. And I realized that home wasn’t out there over the next hill or around the corner but that it was buried deep down inside of me, and that if I had the guts I might be able to get a little piece of it.”

Countless other examples could sit alongside these snapshots. In each instance, interpretations are not mutually exclusive: the expansion of themes does not negate prior meanings or variant meanings between people. A work of art that outlives its genesis invariably does so by acquiring new resonances with new places and times. Longevity depends on the adaptability of meaning from person to person, community to community, setting to setting, and now-self to later-self.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Listener as Context

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Reading and writing were not generally accessible until Gutenberg unveiled the printing press around 1440. Fewer than six centuries have passed since then—a blip in the 200,000-year existence of anatomically modern Homo sapiens. When written languages emerged in antiquity, they were the province of elites. In Iron Age Israel (c. 1200-500 BCE), for example, roughly one percent of the population was literate, and most of them were merely “functionally literate”: they knew just enough to manage daily living and employment tasks. The complex poetry and prose in the Hebrew Bible were unintelligible to all but the most privileged classes. Only in the last twenty generations has “literacy for all” become a human possibility.

The rise of literate societies introduced new ways of sharing and digesting information. With texts in hand, people could spend time interpreting, pondering, analyzing, comparing, re-reading, and questioning. Philosophers and storytellers could externalize, revise, and catalogue their thoughts. Authors and readers could communicate without interacting face-to-face. Ideas and information could be technical and logically argued.

For all of its benefits, literacy could not capture or replicate the intimacy of orality. Whereas oral cultures foster immediacy and social connections, written communication tends to be impersonal and removed. Oral traditions are experiential and spontaneous, while written forms are passive and fixed. Spoken words are colored by mannerisms and inflections; written words are static and comparatively emotionless. There are exceptions: love letters and poems can approach the vividness of an interpersonal exchange. But, as a rule, writing lacks presence.

Fortunately, no society is (or really can be) exclusively literate. We cannot evolve beyond the need or propensity for oral expression, which is encoded in our genes. Speaking and listening are innate; writing and reading are add-on abilities. Thus, as print-saturated as our society is, it remains cemented in an oral foundation.

Among other things, this has ensured the persistence of the original meaning-making context: the individual. The listener’s role is crucial in an oral culture. Without ears to hear, information cannot be received or spread. As noted, this mode of communication is far more immersive and immediate than the written word. Interpretation is likewise instantaneous: meaning is extracted from the largely unconscious workings of memory, conditioning, feelings, education, experience, and the like. There is no need to pore over a detached text. Meaning manifests inside the person.

This is amply demonstrated in musical listening. As an auditory medium, music cannot be understood—or even really exist—without listening. Hints of music can be written in notation or other visual symbols, but these are, ultimately, abstractions. Words are written in letters, objects are photographed, images are drawn, but music evades visualization. It requires the type of information exchange characteristic of oral societies.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

The Role of the Listener

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979), Umberto Eco carefully elucidates “the cooperative role of the addressee in interpreting messages.” When processing a text, the reader derives meaning(s) based on his or her linguistic and cultural competencies. Eco explains that the text itself is never a finished or enclosed product. Its essence is incomplete until it meets the readers’ eyes. And each time it does so, it assumes a new and person-specific character.

This observation fits into Eco’s wider theory of interpretative semiotics, in which words and other signs do not disclose a full range of meaning, but invite readers to construct signification from them. As Eco writes elsewhere, “Every text, after all, is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work. What a problem it would be if a text were to say everything the receiver is to understand—it would never end” (Six Walks in Fictional Woods, 1994). Among the types of signs open to individualized interpretation are natural languages, secret codes, formalized languages, aesthetic codes, olfactory signs, cultural codes, tactile communication and visual input.

Eco distinguishes these systems from music (or “musical codes”), which he considers to be resolutely indeterminate. In his view, there is no depth to the semantic levels produced by musical syntax. A musical line, even when conventional, reveals no real baseline or essential undercurrent for the interpretive process. Virtually everything we extract from the listening experience is culturally conditioned and subjectively filtered. To be sure, this issue is less indicative of song, which is actually a species of text, or “music with a message.”

The abstractness of music is evident whenever an instrumental piece is performed. Take, for example, Vivaldi’s “Spring.” Though it is programmatic—linked by title to a seasonal theme—its Baroque pleasantries can inspire an endless slew of associations, even for listeners familiar with the intended subject matter. It can conjure images of horseback riding, a morning cup of coffee, aristocratic tea parties, falling snowflakes, frolicking dinosaurs, a tray of cupcakes, a journey to Mars. Along with these representations are companion feelings, such as relaxation, invigoration, exhilaration and boredom. The possibilities are as numerous as the individuals who hear it. And, because music is a living and continuously unfolding art, any future listening can evoke an assortment of different connotations.

The vagaries of music make the listener’s role even more crucial than that of the reader (or the receiver of other semiotic stimuli). Not only is musical meaning absent without someone to derive it, but music’s very existence depends on ears to detect it. Operating in the amorphous medium of sound and traveling through the invisible element of air, it needs sensory organs to hear it, bodies to feel it and imaginations to engage it. It has no material form; it takes shape inside the listener. And it is in that materialization that meaning is born.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.