Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Semantic transparency"

Some time ago, over Thanksgiving, I met a friend of my son (Piotr, from Poland) who had an avid interest in poetry and was enthusiastic about the poet Zbigniew Herbert. One of the poems he shared with us that evening was “Report from the Besieged City” – a remarkable poem, even in translation.

Later, I read the Wikipedia article on Herbert and came across a quote that stuck in the back of my head:

"So not having pretensions to infallibility, but stating only my predilections, I would like to say that in contemporary poetry the poems that appeal to me the most are those in which I discern something I would call a quality of semantic transparency (a term borrowed from Husserl's logic). This semantic transparency is the characteristic of a sign consisting in this: that during the time when the sign is used, attention is directed towards the object denoted, and the sign itself does not hold the attention. The word is a window onto reality."

As a concept, this seems to fit right in with Paul Fry’s reasoning about “the ostensive moment,” in which he states that ostension “"is that indicative gesture toward reality which precedes and underlies the construction of meaning. It is ... the deferral of knowledge by the disclosure, as a possibility, that existence can be meaning free."

At the time I read the Herbert quote, my reaction was somewhat skeptical – I don’t entirely believe in the concept of “semantic transparency.” Why? Because there are so many unconscious layers of socialized meanings that infiltrate every word and image we encounter. Still, I get the drift of what he is saying and don't entirely disagree either.

In terms of poetry, Herbert is basically talking about an aesthetic choice to let the words mean what they say while eschewing historicized (and esoteric) modes of symbolic intent as a method of creating meaningful poetry. But it’s only a matter of emphasis:

we look in the face of hunger the face of fire face of death
worst of all - the face of betrayal
and only our dreams have not been humiliated

In Herbert’s case, as exemplified by this final stanza of the poem referred to earlier, historic events are inferred through a contextualization of signs that emphasizes human experience as being more meaningful than the events themselves. This practice does not seek the “universal truths” of romanticized philosophy (and ideology) but rather focuses on forms of experience endemic to the human condition.

How does this relate to my discussion of Paul Fry and literary ostension? According to Herbert, “The word is a window onto reality,” while according to Fry, ostension is an “indicative gesture toward reality which precedes and underlies the construction of meaning.” In other words, they are both saying the same thing: by denoting real objects in a context that refuses to layer second order significations onto the sign, a poet attempts to create a text which draws its force of meaning from objective reality.

I don’t necessarily disagree, but in paraphrasing these thoughts, I can’t help but think of possible objections. For instance, “poetry” is in itself a meaning-laden context that acts on the signs of its own creation. Further, the subjective position of a poet, in choosing both sign and context, also plays a significant role in the unacknowledged creation of connotative meaning. Further yet, the subjective position of poets can never be entirely free from their own inherited position within a society, i.e. this is an issue of habitus: an ingrained, socialized disposition toward ideas and beliefs about reality.

None of this, however, delegitimizes ideas about ostension or “semantic transparency”  at least not in my mind. As argued by Paul Fry and exemplified by Zbigniew Herbert (and others) in the practice of poetry, words may indeed be used in a contextualized, denotative manner that allows human experience to be simulated in a significant way via language. And, further, the apprehension of these contextualized words allows us, as readers, to construct meaning in a manner similar to everyday experience, i.e. the poem demonstrates what it signifies: human experience.

When Fry writes about “the ostensive moment,” I believe he is speaking of an effect of poetry that gives us pause. We "feel" (or perceive) something that is not fully conveyed by words alone. The particular way in which a poet solves the aesthetic problem of creating verbal images  and how this solution is expressed  works to sublimate the utterance in which the image is signified, i.e. the words add up to more than the sum of their denotations. They create an experience.

Personally, I believe this "experience" is due more to the intricacies of context than it is to the supposedly non-connotative use of words, but I can't deny that the practice of ostension plays a significant role in the development of an effective structure that spawns "the ostensive moment" of Fry's "preconceptual" experience.

Frequently, we take experiences of language for granted. What both Fry and Herbert seem to indicate is that the discernible experience generated from imagistic poetry is not confined to language or concept, but instead  through a play of human consciousness, perhaps?  it moves beyond these confines into a near-objective experience of the world that is only instigated by language.

Interesting thoughts, to say the least. But I can't help but have some reservations.

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