Month: April 2015

Representing Jews on Campus

Spoiler alert: This post will not discuss the ins-and-outs of divestment, BDS, the merits of the Students Out of Occupied Palestine resolution, the Coalition for Peace petition, nor will it, in any meaningful way, talk about Israel or Palestine. It will, however, talk about the politics of representing Jews on the Stanford campus, and how claims to represent populations easily… Read more →

Social context, private meaning

In the Introduction to What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Gee sets out a theory of the social organization of language.  He argues that language cannot exist without a social context and that the productive achievements of language are arrived at in the realm of social interaction, as a fully embodied product of human relationships.

Gee’s theory is a potent contrast to Cartesian approaches that abide by a duality between body and mind and the present day reification of mind-body duality in formalist theories of cognition (such as the generative linguistics of Chomsky). Gee espouses an embodied model for understanding language acquisition and thinking. The social context, interpersonal dynamics and physical experiences of the body in its environment are all weighted as being essential elements that interact and together allow individuals to learn and think.

While I greatly appreciate Gee’s writings on sociolinguistic questions, a central lynchpin of his premise stuck out as problematic for me. Gee writes,

“you cannot read or think outside of any group whatsoever. You cannot assign asocial and private meanings to texts and things, meanings that only you are privy to and that you cannot even be sure you remember correctly from occasion to occasion as you read or think about the same thing, since as a social isolate (at least in regard to meaning) you cannot, in fact, check your memory with anyone else.” (p. 2)

Even if there is no such thing as an absolute “private meaning,” there are increasingly discreet units of privacy that relate to the phenomenon of creativity. Perhaps in the moment of actual engendering, the mind approaches the absolute zero of a private language.

In relationship to the idea of “private meaning” I am thinking of outsider artist Henry Darger. Darger worked on his literary and mixed media visual art works in isolation, showing his work to no one. His artworks were only seen after his death. His life story approximates the stylized image of the creative artist acting in solitude, hemmed in to a private world. Darger’s creative privacy was very nearly complete not only in that he lived in great isolation, but also in as much as he lacked basic intercourse with normative realms of meaning.  For instance, there is an anecdote about Darger claiming to have been raped by a woman who looked at him while walking down the street. His ignorance about general norms of shared knowledge was apparent in his belief that males and females shared the same genitalia. These examples, while betraying a childlike divorce from adult awareness, are relevant in trying to ascertain what kind of community of thought Darger could be said to belong to. Darger generated layers of meaning in his artwork that reflect his experience of American culture. However, his articulation of meaning was deeply embedded, enshrouded, in a circular and private world of his own thought.

The Zohar and the mythology around its inception is another example that comes to mind of a self-contained world of thought. According to orthodox kabbalistic tradition, the Zohar existed as a hidden text for over a thousand years before being revealed to the world.  In what realm of “public” thought did this text exist during its thousand years of solitude? What realm of shared discourse can an esoteric literary tradition like that of the Zohar, be said to occupy? When a body of thought eludes ready understanding and seems to approach human consciousness with the goal of undermining its usual modalities, what discursive community can it be said to represent?

The question emerges more clearly: Does the idea of “private meaning” depend on a mind-body duality in order to make any sense? Or is there a way to reconcile embodied cognition with the image of the hermetic generation of a new idea? Gee’s idea’s about the social nature of language need to be expanded to make room for the inner spaces of creativity and the embodied experience of isolation.  This is an important area to look at in trying to attain a sensitive portrayal of the role social cognition plays in the creative experience.


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