February 3, 2013

Strategic Ambiguity in Composition

(Evoking Reader Knowledge, Detecting Authorial Implications)

This post introduces my working theory and tentative methodology for interpreting rhetorical narrative. It is here mainly for self reference, but also in the vain hope of receiving critical feedback. Surely, it ain't perfect yet. At any rate, this post is waaaaay too long for most anyone who will stumble upon it. Nevertheless, message in bottle, here it will float. If you care to pop off this cork, then feel more than free to float me one back, or enjoy, or just ponder away...

Strategic Ambiguity in Composition: Evoking Reader Knowledge, Detecting Authorial Implications

Understanding that readers react to ambiguity by engaging a text more intensely, writers can attempt to actively raise or lower the readers' level of engagement by deliberately composing with strategic ambiguity. There are many ways of doing this, both poetic and referential, from omitting explanations, to blatant sarcasm, to various ironies, to highly sophisticated literary tropes. In all cases, the basic goal of the writer is to communicate more efficiently, transmitting the full meaning intended with fewer words than might otherwise be required.

Writers seek such efficiency for various reasons, and it's important to note that saving ink is not necessarily a less worthy motive than avoiding political trouble by going 'over their heads'... or than skirting taboo by leaving the banned language implicit... or than building community by leaving the full message exclusive to those "in the know"... or than any other motivation for (what is called) irony, or dissimulation, or allusions, or figurative speech, or (etc).

Technically, all communicative efficiency is strategic, and all unexplained references are ambiguous to someone. If a writer says so much as "quiche", she is consciously or unconsciously expecting the uninformed readers to look it up. (Technically, the same goes for "water", "music" and "hot", and even "the"; but perhaps that's approaching absurdity!) Now, obviously, the linguistic conventions of established societies provide countless shortcuts for transmitting recognized meanings, but ambiguity is still relative. On the other hand, one's own uncertain inferences are only engaging for oneself. It's most often the spectacularly ambiguous things that tend to be most provocative, even if (or especially if) people don't agree on what something's supposed to provoke.

For a non-literary example: If Elvis Presley had gone onstage thrusting his hips straightforwardly like a dog in heat, he would have disgusted his fans and been locked up for public lewdness. It was only by gyrating suggestively that he was able to express sexuality without causing direct offense. But skirting taboo wasn't really what made it so exciting. It was that, plus the efficiency and the cleverness, just the very fun game of it. It was getting the audience more fully engaged by imagining something in their minds that he wasn't actually doing.

Back to literature: something like the audacity of Elvis' pelvis can be what writers seek to accomplish by composing with strategic ambiguity. At other times, ambiguity merely conserves paper and ink, or (in the digital age) helps trim the word count.

Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo were not great conservators of brevity, in offering descriptions and back stories and explanations of seemingly everything (in their bygone eras of England and France, respectively) but Dickens and Hugo engineered a different type of reader engagement, by gradually unfolding a fully realized paracosm. (Look it up!) J.K. Rowling also did this masterfully on a children's level as she laid out the elaborate intricacies of her wizardly world. (Rowling and Hugo also impress critics with their consistently thematic illustrations of human pathos, but Dickens gets less praise, probably because as a serialized novelist he was often just filling his column. Sorry, but Oliver can't hold a candle to the regenerative power of Les Mis, and that's hardly due to Cameron Mackintosh!)

Not coincidentally, these three writers also rely far more on straightforward realism than on figurative [evocative] technique. However, when one does not have endless time to engage the reader with a fully realized paracosm, one must evoke the pre-existing world of the readers' experience. Thus, the efficiency of ambiguity is an evocative strategy. Doing more with less can be as necessary as it can be powerful.

Now, without further ado, to the pertinent questions:

How precisely does a writer attempt to solicit particular inferences and interpretations?


How do readers & critics detect when the game is afoot?

The simplest answers to these two questions are reflexive in content. The very basic way a writer signals that readers need to contribute more thoughtfulness is by introducing ambiguity. Likewise, the very basic way that readers (or critics) recognize when to infer subtlety or incorporate previous knowledge, is by noticing the writer's use of ambiguity. Repeating the introductory sentence at top, "Understanding that readers react to ambiguity by engaging a text more intensely, writers can attempt to actively raise or lower the readers' level of engagement by deliberately composing with strategic ambiguity."

That is, the method by which a writer invites reader collaboration in the process of meaning-making is not by allowing vagueness to persist or by leaving "obvious gaps" to be filled in by the reader. To the contrary, the writer does not clue in readers by what is left unsaid. The writer works by writing. The clues are entirely present, albeit hidden to some, within some of the words that are included. By definition, the method isn't based on invisible words, but invisible meanings.

The best trick, for the reader, is recognizing which words contain clues that evoke reader contribution.

The only trick, for the perceptive critic tragically unfamiliar with those clues, is to categorically sweep the writer's entire corpus for any patterns regarding how, when and where certain terms are left (1) unexplained, (2) under-explained, or (3) oddly-explained.

Historically, when critics have attempted to detect "irony" and "double entendre", the investigation often and quickly begins wrangling with subjectivity, and eventually hopelessness. There seems no way to be aware that one has failed to recognize a "hidden meaning" if one simply remains sadly uninformed in that case.

By shifting the focus from "irony" (a la definition du jour) to this newly coined and broader concept of "ambiguity", this new theory and method recognizes a greater fundamental reality, that the writer is always in control of her word selection, even at times when an ambiguous word choice may be nothing but sloppy work or poor awareness on her part. Such moments nevertheless *must* qualify as moments when the writer assumed her readers would fill out whatever meaning intended at that point. In other words, there is ambiguity by design, and there is ambiguity by default, but both types cause the reader to engage more thoughtfully, with or without eventually producing results.

By definition, upon declaring a composition to be finished, then a writer has said (and meant) all she intended to say (and to mean). Whether each case of ambiguity was conscious or unconscious, deliberate or sloppy, the writer has de facto proclaimed her expectation that the intended readers should be capable of successfully inferring the appropriate implications. Again, this obviously includes plenty of cases where the writer has miscalculated (or failed to calculate at all) in some communicative decisions, and nothing may prevent cases of readers and critics remaining hopelessly in the dark in such an event. In the larger perspective, however, by working from this much broader concept of ambiguity, the reader/critic has a better chance to at least recognize when such moments do and do not occur.

Again, this new view of things obviously cannot prevent occasions when the writer communicates ineffectively and the reader/critic is simply doomed to remain in the dark. However, by employing this new concepts and method, the reader/critic should hopefully recognize that this has in fact taken place. At least, that's the plan. Much experiment remains, but the proposal here stands on objectively based footings, to a certain extent.

The hunt is not for ethereal ghosts, but for fat bodies, or dead bodies. The hunt is not for invisible meanings, but for pregnant words, or impotent words.

Oh. But the perennial trap is wondering if we know all the possible meanings of words... and suddenly we are back at hermeneutical square one.

Or are we?

Somewhere near the top, about when things barely veered away from absurdity, the following statement was made: "the linguistic conventions of established societies provide countless shortcuts for transmitting recognized meanings, but ambiguity is still relative." Implicit in that statement is another concept, that ambiguity can be recognized relative to how clearly it does or doesn't transmit one or more recognized meanings from a particular society. Or, instead of a given society at large, perhaps a writer intentionally worked to evoke the particular awareness of a specific sub-culture.

For instance, if a particular double-entendre only communicates to the fans of a particular sci-fi franchise, such as Firefly, then a clueless critic would have to scour the communications of such fans, or the archives of the franchise, looking to get clued in on additional meanings. But of course, the clueless critic might not even know which sub-culture to study, unless a particular text was known to be, or was overtly forward about being, intended for some-such precise audience. In these clueless cases, a seemingly plain reference would need to appear odd in some way for the researcher to suspect hidden meaning. That is, the reference would have to appear somehow unusual when compared to the rest of the writer's pattern of making similar references.

The methodology suggested here is theoretically exhaustive, although practically inexhaustible, and perhaps impossible to ever follow through completely. Nevertheless, this approach is pragmatically superior to all previous approaches, and here is yet one more reason:

Historically, searches for irony tended to look *anywhere* but seemed to expect irony would reveal itself "obviously", as if a researcher should plan to wander across various texts with a hermeneutical divining rod, waiting for some connection to strike, perhaps somewhat subjectively. In contrast, the search for ambiguity must not simply look *anywhere* but in fact, exhaustively, *everywhere* and it must not seek to detect cleverness or connectedness. The search for ambiguity aims to observe words that are (1) simply not explained, (2) peculiarly under-explained, or (3) explained in an uncharacteristic fashion, and perhaps we should add, (4) unusually employed.

Suitable illustrations of these points will have to wait for the near future. Again, the method requires further refinement through experimentation, and this is a working theory with tentative methodology, but for now the concept appears to be sound.

Detectable or not, if an intentional ambiguity has been constructed effectively by a writer, then that ambiguity will rarely solicit an open ended evocation (unless of course open endedness is was the writer sought to evoke). Most often, the well crafted expression will be minimally ambiguous. After all, the writer is not trying to confuse, but to communicate. The writer's task, therefore, is to employ helpful linguistic cues which are capable of successfully evoking the targeted meaning. The challenges for reader and critic have been stated, above.

The writer introduces ambiguity. The reader recognizes ambiguity. In effective communication, the reader infers successfully, actively guided by the embedded subtleties of evocative ambiguity. Finally, the critic detects ambiguity by distinguishing between consistencies and inconsistencies of composition.

The critic may or may not fully fill out the equivalent meanings as would the writer's intended readers, but the critic can probably isolate patterns in most any composition, by first regarding what is left unexplained, and how much and how often, and second by comparing similar language that is differently explained, or similar types that are differently referenced. And so forth. The critic will not always detect hidden meanings, but the critic should have some ability to know when she knows that she does not know completely.

That much, perhaps, will be progress for many interpreters. It will, at least, be objective analysis.

Computer search may be what ultimately makes this method practically attainable. One possible method of integrating the various commonalities and uniqueness of sub-cultural knowledge may be simple statistics. There were three words used above to illustrate how defining ambiguity could approach absurdity - in the aside just after "quiche". Those three wordrs were "water", "music" and "hot". In fact, those words were not randomly chosen, but were three of the top most significant, specific and non-personal terms in at least one internet list offering the 200 most common words in English. Now - supposing that all English speakers collectively agree on these basic meanings, and perhaps also some alternate meanings, for the first 1,000 words - it might be theoretically possible to begin an idealized search, as described by the method proposed above, just by searching all words in all extant texts (of a given language, at least for starters) and cross checking everything against everything.

In this imaginary and idealistic computing scenario, a given text - say, Harrison Bergeron, by George Orwell - might be scanned, cross-checked, and "measured", word for word, against the statistically most common words in its language of composition, English, perhaps even stratified for decade of publication, or by some other data-sampling adjustment. A researcher could then possibly give more attention to words which were more common, if they had registered multiple meanings, or to words which were less common, if they did not. (By the way, nothing remotely like this to my knowledge has ever been done by me or by anyone else on Harrison Bergeron, or any other literary composition for that matter, but as that is a short story known for its ironic stance on "equality", it could be an interesting test case; surely one of a great many.)

That's enough speculation for now.

This is the basic idea:

Writers use word cues to tell readers when it's time to supply meanings, and readers detect these cues by recognizing deliberate ambiguity on the part of the writer. In cases where this does happen effectively, it may be easier for a well educated researcher to clue herself in on both sides of this collaborative effort, simply by studying the in/consistencies of the writer's explicative manner, and to thereby detect all the meanings - the authorially implicit meanings - of a particular passage of text.

My first experiment with this theory and method will begin soon.

Stay tuned...

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