Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Prepositions and Meaning

In his Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time (1995) with Bruno Latour, Michel Serres suggests that prepositions mean almost nothing or almost anything, which turns out to be about the same thing. In my last post, I considered how the preposition into in the Rhizo14 collaborative auto-ethnography (CAE) linked a wide range of entities and actions to create an incredibly rich, self-organizing, auto-poietic system, and in this post I want to explore if into really means almost nothing or anything.

I start with a list of definitions of into from my Mac's online dictionary:
  1. expressing movement or action with the result that someone or something becomes enclosed or surrounded by something else: cover the bowl and put it into the fridge | Sara got into her car and shut the door | figurative : he walked into a trap sprung by the opposition. 
  2. expressing movement or action with the result that someone or something makes physical contact with something else: he crashed into a parked car.
  3. indicating a route by which someone or something may arrive at a particular destination: the narrow road that led down into the village.
  4. indicating the direction toward which someone or something is turned when confronting something else: with the wind blowing into your face | sobbing into her skirt.
  5. indicating an object of attention or interest: a clearer insight into what is involved | an inquiry into the squad's practices.
  6. expressing a change of state: a peaceful protest which turned into a violent confrontation | the fruit can be made into jam.
  7. expressing the result of an action: they forced the club into a humiliating and expensive special general meeting.
  8. expressing division: three into twelve equals four.
  9. informal (of a person) taking a lively and active interest in (something): he's into surfing.
This is a somewhat confusing situation, especially if you are looking for some common denominator, some core meaning, from which all these different meanings reasonably emerge. It's possible that the creators of this dictionary have listed the meanings in some order of primacy, thus suggesting that physical movement resulting in enclosure is the first or privileged meaning of into.

But how does one get from physical enclosure [Meaning 1] to division [Meaning 8] or a change of state [Meaning 6]? Perhaps close study of the history of into could suggest some pathways among all these meanings, but polysemy, or different meanings of a single word, is still problematic. This many different meanings challenges our conventional sense of meaning as a defining, essential characteristic of a given word. In the past, scholars seem to have assumed a single, privileged, core meaning for each word with other meanings branching from this one meaning. This strikes me as a symptom of a reductionist mindset that obscures the complex realities of language.

I have only the abstract of a 2008 presentation by Dagmara Dowbor entitled "The case of over revisited: Results from a corpus-linguistic analysis and further proposals", but Dowbor states much better than I the problem I see with past studies of polysemy: the belief in a core, context-independent meaning that forms the essential characteristic and proper usage of a given word. Dowbor writes:
The multiply studied and discussed word over has been known to be associated with a number of related yet distinct meanings or senses, such as ‘higher than’, ‘across’, ‘more than’, ‘covering’, and many others. Previous studies (e.g. Brugman (1981), Lakoff (1987), Kreitzer (1997), Tyler and Evans (2001)) have described and discussed the different senses of over, which have been claimed to form a radial network of interrelated senses, with the core sense at the center. The extended senses are said to be motivated by our spatiotemporal experience, and a number of those distinct senses have to be learned and stored in long-term memory, while many others are variants of those and can be inferred. Different criteria have been proposed for what counts as a distinct sense: it has been claimed, for instance, that there must be instances of the sense that are context-independent (e.g. Tyler and Evans 2001).
Dowbor argues that the meaning of words, especially polysemous prepositions, is always context dependent:
The major claim of the current study is that over has one single lexical meaning denoting a schematic spatial configuration and thus provides a structuring device or source concept that can be exploited for a great variety of purposes, which makes it polyfunctional and yields, through the application in different contexts, its meaning extensions. The present study demonstrates the results of a thorough corpus-linguistic investigation, which confirms that none of the different usages of over are context- independent, as claimed by previous studies, but that instead, it is the context that establishes those meaning extensions by adding different kinds of specifications and thus gives substance to the single schematic meaning of over, giving rise to complex conceptualizations.
I do not have more of Dowbor's work, but what I quote here points me in the direction I want to go: the meaning of a preposition is not context-independent; rather, meaning emerges from the dynamic context of substantives, verbals, and connector words along their various trajectories in the conversation at hand. This dynamic interaction unpacks the meaning of each word—the substantives and verbals as well as the connector words such as into. Meaning, then, always depends upon how a word unpacks itself within a conversation. I am not suggesting that a word, into for instance, does not bring some meaning to a conversation. It does, but this given meaning is something like the word's DNA: its history of shared usage which increases its chances of being used similarly in a similar conversation. A word, then, is predisposed to certain kinds of usages in certain kinds of situations, and we cannot ignore that predisposition, that DNA, when examining the word or when choosing to use it in conversation.

Still, the DNA of previous usage does not sufficiently explain the meaning of a preposition, or any other word, in a conversation. Consider, for instance, the first occurrence of into in the CAE:
If you would like to remain completely anonymous, you would need to work without logging into your Google Account.
Which of the nine definitions listed above precisely and completely captures the meaning of into in this case? I don't think any of them completely captures what into in this sentence means, and at the same time almost all of the nine definitions can resonate in this sentence, especially if we enlarge the context to include the entire CAE or the entire Rhizo14 event rather than merely this one sentence. Let's see if we can unpack the meaning of into in this sentence.

In this sentence, into does express avoiding an action that would result in a person being enclosed figuratively within Google [1], though I think the more accurate meaning is attached to rather than enclosed in. Not a precise match, but close enough, especially given that almost all who read this sentence glossed the word into and did not scrutinize it as closely as I am doing here. The use in this sentence also expresses avoiding a figurative movement that results in a figurative connection to Google [2]. This shift from the physical to the figurative is common with prepositions, and most of them have a long history of such figurative usages. Meaning [3], a route to a particular destination, is plausible if we stretch the figurative: if one wants to avoid being identified, then one should avoid the Google route to the CAE as that pathway is too public and leaves too many breadcrumbs. Meaning [4] indicating the direction one is turned toward when confronting something else also works in this figurative way: if you don't want to be identified, then don't turn your face this way when working in the CAE.

Meaning [5] indicating an object of interest still resonates in this sentence, though perhaps more faintly: if you are interested in CAE but want to remain anonymous, then don't log into your Google account. Meaning [6] indicating a change of state is perhaps fainter still, but not completely absent: if you want to remain anonymous and still participate in the CAE, then don't change from without Google to within Google. Meaning [7] expressing the result of an action, or in this sentence the result of an inaction, resonates well with me: don't log into Google, and your work in the CAE will remain anonymous. I have trouble with meaning [8] indicating a process of division; though even here, I can stretch it into something like if you divide yourself or parse yourself into your Google identity, then others will know who you are. If you want to remain anonymous, then don't divide into your Google self and present it to others. A stretch? Yes, but the vibes are still there if I look for them. Finally, meaning [9] as taking a lively and active interest in something resonates much better. If you are into CAE and into Google, but you want to remain anonymous, then disengage your interest in Google.

So what is the point here? For me, the point is that meaning is not reducible to a single, discrete packet that gets transferred from one person to another through a given word. I think Maha wrote this sentence on Feb 19, 2014, interestingly enough as an anonymous contributor (if she didn't, I apologize for the inference, but what I want to say does not absolutely depend on who the author is). When Maha wrote: "If you would like to remain completely anonymous, you would need to work without logging into your Google Account", she likely chose the word into out of her own language habits and the social convention of talking about logging into network accounts. I could argue that the social convention of saying logging into is the given meaning provided in this sentence and that the meaning doesn't somehow emerge in Maha's use of the existing phrase with its existing meaning in this new sentence, but I don't think this captures meaning. While the word into brings a history of usage (it brings its DNA) to the sentence, that does not capture the meaning. Rather, the meaning emerges as into unpacks itself within the context of the sentence, the list of instructions, the CAE, and Rhizo14, and beyond. Just as we cannot reduce the meaning of a person to their DNA (skin color, height, gender, etc.), we cannot reduce the meaning of a word to its DNA. We cannot understand a person or a word without understanding their respective DNAs, but that understanding is not sufficient. Rather, we must also understand how the DNA unpacks itself in complex interaction with its environment. The meaning of the word or the person emerges from the beginning configuration of DNA and the unpacking of that DNA over time and through usage.

Another point for me is that a word such as into resonates with all these meanings drawn both from its history of usage and its usage within a given conversation. Words do have a certain kind of homeorhesis, a tendency of complex systems to return to a trajectory, that makes them just stable enough, long enough, to be useful in a given conversation, but they are seldom a single, discrete line through history. Rather, they are a more or less coherent tangle of threads that more or less follow a given trajectory, a kind of chreod, a best pathway through a landscape, like a mountain stream finding its way down to the valley. The stream can branch, or fork, twist and turn, even double-back, as it works its way through whatever configuration space it finds itself. The history and meaning of words is like this to my mind: a long strand through culture—sometimes tightly woven, sometimes fraying—and my use of that word adds to its trajectory, either reinforcing its current trajectory or bumping it it in a new direction. Shakespeare bumped lots of words from their current trajectories in Sixteenth Century England, and as the landscape of culture changes, words twist and turn into new paths to make their way through.

This polysemy of prepositions is both their weakness and their power. It's a weakness because prepositions are one of the most difficult aspects of English for foreign speakers, and even native speakers usually don't understand the logic, if any, of how they use prepositions. However, polysemy points to several features that make prepositions so powerful and useful in language.

First, prepositions are the premier connectors, or couplers, in language. For instance, into connects most any I to any other entity or action. Want to engage a learning space such as Rhizo14? Into is into that: "I came into the space with no understanding of Rhizomatic Learning".  Want to connect to a class of first-year Education students? Into is into that as well: "My project – if you can call it that – for Rhizo14 has been to bring as much of this busy fizzy messy stuff as possible into my first year #becomingeducational module and see what it sparks in first year students who in the end want to become educationalists." Want to connect to Paulo Friere or not connect to your colleagues? Into can do it: "I have had an insight into what Paulo Freire advocates in Education and Change." and "Being in a small town I frequently run into those I worked with and it’s awkward and unpleasant." Prepositions are promiscuous, agnostic, heterogenous couplers that will connect most anything to most anything else. This is very powerful.

Then, prepositions are pre-eminently stainable. They take on the hue and flavor of whatever they connect, easily managing the flow of energy, matter, and information from one entity to another. Prepositions are the organic vehicles for decalcomania, the process that Deleuze and Guattari mention as one of the six characteristics of the rhizome. Consider the phrase "the desires of prepositions". the preposition of means almost nothing by itself, but in this phrase it takes stains both with desires and with prepositions to enable the flow of information from desires to prepositions and back again. Thus, desires informs the meaning of prepositions, and vice versa. Of is the coupler that enables this connection and exchange of information which creates new information, new knowledge. As an aside: I just googled the phrase "the desires of prepositions" and I find only references to my own writing in this blog. Perhaps this is a completely new construction. That's powerful, and prepositions make it possible.

What's the point for the Rhizo14 CAE? For me, this demonstrates that if meaning is emergent for something so small and insignificant as the preposition into, then the meaning of Maha, Sarah, Simon, Clarissa, or Terry is even more a complex process of emergence that cannot be captured in a core statement, a core bit of DNA. Here is one of the primary benefits of ethnography, including auto-ethnography: ethnography allows us to explore the emergence of meaning in any group or individual. Unlike traditional analysis which tries to identify the core characteristics, the DNA, of a group or individual, ethnography starts inside and pushes outward following the paths of unpacking DNA (marked grammatically by prepositions in the CAE, by the way). Traditional analysis looks for the single, reproducible mechanism that got people into Rhizo14 and kept them there so that, for instance, Rhizo14 can be reproduce in Rhizo15, but I've looked back over the CAE, and I see a hundred different pathways (multiple trajectories for each CAE author) that led to Rhizo14 and a thousand pathways leading out of Rhizo14 (someone should do a study of all the scholarly documents produced out of Rhizo14, never mind the trajectories through other classes and departments and online discussions).

While we cannot trace all the pathways through even a rhizome so small and contained as Rhizo14, we should expect and look for the couplers that make those pathways possible. What are the prepositions that connect people to people, ideas, and structures? Are those couplers (Twitter, for instance) as malleable, stainable, and as promiscuous as prepositions? What are the ethical implications of couplers that can create both beneficial and damaging connections? Lots of questions here.

Finally, I've heard some discussion in Rhizo14 about not being able to speak for others, about not being all-inclusive in regards to the Rhizo14 experience. This is a genuine and valid concern, and of course, we should try to include as much as possible, but we should not allow incomplete knowledge to silence us. We always speak from positions of relative ignorance with incomplete knowledge. We can hardly capture all the shades of meaning of the preposition into, so how can we hope to capture the meaning of all the participants in Rhizo14? We can't. Rather, our task as scholars is to speak as well as we can given the incomplete patterns that we can construct. And to say no more than that.

For now, I'll say no more than this.

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