Monday 17 December 2018

The Gift of Misunderstanding

Posted by Tessa den Uyl
In Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Alice speaks to a tiger lily—and is quite astonished when it speaks back to her. She remarks that she has never heard flowers speak before—upon which the tiger lily explains that the flowerbeds are made too soft, which keeps them always asleep. 
Metaphorically, when you are embedded in a language, you have become acquainted to the connotations of that language alone—and usually when you are in it, you will not be in a position to see it. Each of us is born within a pre-existent conceptual scheme, and each of us develops a language of a specific kind.  The way we see the world depends on how we are endorsed by this language.

What happens to Alice in her encounters in Wonderland is that she is forced to wonder about the appropriateness of her way of thinking—and this comes about, to a large extent, through miscommunication.

The language which each of us holds, upholds within itself the truth of itself—there is an explanatory force which is implicit in the language we know—but it is not therefore more true.  When a misunderstanding occurs, it may well represent, not an isolated linguistic niggle, but a difference between our signifying schemes, in which my premeditation of meaning cannot be confirmed.  Something is added to my habitual use of language.  And then, I may react like Alice:
‘How am I to get in?’ asked Alice again in a louder tone. ‘Are you to get in at all?’ said the Foot-man. ‘That’s the first question, you know.’  ‘Oh, there’s no use in talking to him,’ said Alice desperately: ‘he’s perfectly idiotic!’ And she opened the door and went in.*
What we believe as true, is always internal to a conceptualized signifying scheme.  Thus when we correct misunderstandings, we admit to cohere to a subjective scheme. With 7.53 billion people living, to think that understanding is something in which we find only isolated linguistic niggles, creates a fairly fragile support for understanding.  For where comprehension lacks is not that obvious, if we do not question where the boundaries for our intentionality of meaning have been put within our own conceptualising scheme.

Miscommunication thus highlights the confusion that is created within our understanding when the demand is to understand differently.  As soon as these connotations are questioned, not the language we use is put at stake but how we know life, and then we ourselves are put at stake! When you are embedded in a preferred language, you also admit to live a preferred reality.

But is not our language controlled by an external reality?  In fact as soon as we name our reality, we only secure the reality of a phenomenon with language, but not the phenomenon itself.  With language we cut life into pieces, and afterwards think that that reality is made out of different worlds, a real one and an unreal one.  But no, the word something, either indicating something real or unreal is only determined in psycho-linguistic terms.
'But I'm not a serpent, I tell you!' said Alice. 'I'm a — I'm a — 'Well! What are you?' said the Pigeon. 'I can see you're trying to invent something!'  'I — I'm a little girl,' said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day.**
This is how we are able to understand stories—the adventures of Alice being one example.  In fiction we can accept the ‘unreal’, while in daily life we uphold an idea of what it means to conform to ‘the real’.  We think then that this is altogether quite sensible.  But language is enclosed within itself.  Language is uniquely language.  So we can fall asleep, as it were, in the flowerbed of a story.

Both miscommunication and ‘unreal’ stories share this in common: when we deconstruct their linguistic norms, we can see that neither is as fictive or erroneous as we would like to believe. Nor do stories pertain to some mysterious other language or other world. When we recognise how we are entangled in language, we can also recognise how both stories and miscommunication have a hard time affirming their reality, or reason its own unreality. 

But there is in all this a hidden serendipity.  Once we understand how our comprehension works—above all that misunderstanding requires a shift in our entire conceptual scheme, we may see it as a precious gift, enabling us truly to step back from a fixed pattern of thinking, and to recognise our own subjectivity:
‘Visit either you like, they’re both mad,’ [said the Cat].  ‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.  ‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here.  I’m mad.  You’re mad.’  ‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.  ‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’***


*Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.


Keith said...

I think, too, Tessa that natural languages, and our individual and collective perceptions of reality, are subjectively bound by culture, which itself persists in an irresistible state of flux. The relationship between language/reality and culture is reciprocal: each respectively influences, reflects, and shapes the other, caught up in an unending feedback loop that enriches both. Which is one way, perhaps, to interpret your trenchant observation that ‘we admit to cohere to a subjective scheme’. By which, I would argue, this (imperfect) reciprocating dynamic often deepens understanding, while on other occasions leads to the ‘fragile support for understanding’ you refer to.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you Tessa. Wrapped up in your special style, I think we have a groundbreaking perspective here. Our language is not merely a tool. It is everything we are. It absorbs our every thought and experience. When therefore it fails, we are confronted with our very selves. We ourselves are 'put at stake', as you put it. I hope that that would be a fair interpretation.

Tessa den Uyl said...

The fragility of our understanding is bound to not recognizing our own unreality. We have created a specific story and not another. Afterwards it becomes very difficult to change that ‘ prologue’ . We have to be aware that all exchange is reversed onto that specific subjective story, which doesn’t mean it’s a better one. As long as people believe in their thoughts, as if the realest of the real, there is no true exchange. How can stories, uncomfortable towards specific stories, take place if they have to fit a subjective scheme taken as a rule? While what happens is nothing else than using language differently, and not therefor less true of language itself? Though suddenly people stop to understand, to find things unacceptable, but only because of an unwillingness to step back from their schemes. Though if language created this, language can undo this. If you want to be guided only in what you know, what secures you, it will always be the other who lacks. Once you can see your own ‘fiction’ you do not have to continue to walk on that ‘ secured’ path, and you will not stop living, just that you do not need a subjective scheme to keep your hand any longer, and that acceptance is a place of encounter.

Perhaps every misunderstanding always starts with ourselves...

Keith said...

Your question, Tessa — ‘But is not our language controlled by an external reality?’ — prompts a few thoughts. First off, yes, I agree with the premise implied by your question. That said, might there be even more dimensions to this ‘control’ (shaping) of language? In my opinion, effects on how language is fashioned arguably come from multiple directions and on multiple levels. As you say, for starters, external reality does indeed heavily bear on language — the premise of your question above. At the same time, doesn’t one’s internal reality — that is, the innumerable, complexly individualized states of people’s minds — shape language, also, in uncountable ways? And, might the world’s multiplicity of cultures — the unending change of culture, as well as the ways people perceive and interpret their cultural bearings — likewise influence language? In other words, isn’t the state of play between reality and language reciprocal, so to speak? Also, I wonder to what degree perception and observation (and measurement) not only contribute to internalising external reality, but actually create aspects of that external reality — and thus, by extension, contribute to ‘controlling’ and giving form to language. All of this might contribute to the ‘misunderstanding’ you refer to.

docmartincohen said...

I always like Lewis Carroll, and here is an nice elegant post graced by a fine image, thank you, Tessa! This conversation from Wonderland suggests the misunderstandings are with others, though, doesn't it?

Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’

Tessa den Uyl said...

The other... In this abstract of Alice that you give Martin, yes, dialogue creates the scene though the idea of division about -that other- is undone in a language game. Alice says she might guess the answer to a riddle while she is not giving it, though upholds she means what she says. ( She’ll give an answer without having it). When the Wonderland creatures have given the replies you write above, contrasting Alice’s intention, the Hatter says: ‘ it is the same thing with you.’ To mean what -I- say is the same thing, puts the Meaning of I under a magnifying glass. You sleep when you breath ( an effortless non thinking process, all is bound together) or you are asleep while awake? ( separate yourself). Every answer is no answer. Though Caroll always leaves us with other perspectives, much depends on where we put our mind to imagine his writings.

To me, these stories are an effort to undo the idea that the other is something separate from you. Alice’s convictions appear absurd seen in another light, like vice versa. This way Caroll hands the flexible possibility in how to transform the in-between of phenomena and thought. In this space he hands a creative process. If we presume we are coded, when we put language on language we’re not returning to the original input of a phenomena, it has been named already. Then what is that external reality? If you’re into culture ( one never seems to completely step out of that) there will always be conflict, for the misunderstanding will never be traced back to its principle, the possibility that phenomena hands to us. ( The misunderstanding is within us). When you mention Keith, internalizing and creating aspects of that external reality, I understand that in this way. From where one departs, a full ‘plate’ or the most empty one?

docmartincohen said...

"Alice’s convictions appear absurd seen in another light"

Yes, Alice is a guest at the party, but not truly part of it. Nor are we!

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