>response to James

>James and I have been having a little discussion about interpretation and differing viewpoints at his blog. I thought I’d repost my last comment I made here as it says a little bit about my undergrad thesis I mentioned in my last post.

This is partly why I say that everything leads back to comics. Because the art– or the language– of comics hinges upon presenting people with signs that do not exactly reproduce your thoughts, and then trying to lead them back to what you’re trying to say.

And then again maybe, just maybe, the art and language of comics (or music, or mathematics, or even language itself) can sometimes perfectly reproduce our thoughts. I’d rather look at all of this as a continuum of meaning(s) where sometimes there really aren’t any ambiguities in what’s being said or expressed. I don’t think it’s at all a contradiction to say something is “unambigously ambiguous” for example. Seems like the latter gets (implicitly) said all the time.

But of course, those signs have to make it through the walls of the reader’s box in one piece, and then back out. They never do.

Maybe they do and maybe they don’t. I don’t generally like to look at things so essentially (part of the “liking to jump from box to box” idea I suppose). One of the foci of my undergraduate thesis happened to deal with how we view and interpret texts in relation to the contexts we bring to them. Since my degree was in music, though, the texts with which I was concerned happened to be musical rather than linguistic.

My thesis became a sort of manifesto of “classical music” apostacy of mine and outlined some of the reasons why I didn’t continue in music at the grad level.

Some of the things I focused on were statements made about pieces of music. Since my thesis adviser was also my cello professor I used Dvořák’s Cello Concerto as the example.

See, often you’ll hear both students and virtuosi claim that Dvořák’s concerto is difficult. Sometimes you’ll hear statements of comparisons between Dvořák’s concerto and other works–that the “Dvořák” (metonyms where the composer’s name stand in place of the work in question are very frequent in a “classical music” context) is more or less difficult than, say, the Lutoslawski [cello concerto].

But sometimes you’ll hear students say that the Dvořák is too difficult.

All of this interested me because the discourse about the identity of the composition seemed to be unstable; seemed to be in flux; seemed to be just another instance of that plurality pomo likes to make a big deal about. And yet, there’s this sense that the identity of the piece and what it means has been relatively stable over the century or so that it’s existed (all issues relating to Jacobsonian and Peircian iconicity aside due to differing published editions of the work).

What seemed to be going on (and please keep in mind it was about 12 years ago I wrote this) was that, the Dvořák was relatively stable in its meaning and it was actually the relation between the reader of the piece and the work itself that was unstable; in flux; pluralistic. What people seemed to be saying were things along the lines of:

“The Dvořák is [too] difficult,” with an implicit “to me” left unsaid.

What this could “translate” to is something along the lines of “I don’t have the necessary skills to perform the Dvořák.” These were the types of implicit interpretations of musical works I was concerned with because of how those attitudes affect our ability to see ourselves in a different relation to the musical text. It became a claim about the piece’s identity that shifts focus away from the lack of skill of the reader and led to conclusions such as the following statements (which are often heard in the “classical music” environment):

“I can’t play that piece.” (implying that “I don’t have the skill to play that piece and I’ll be arsed if I am going to spend the time to get that skill.”)


“That piece is too difficult.” (implying that “The composer wrote the piece in a manner that makes it too difficult to read and perform.”)

The onus shifts to the work itself, or the composer of the work, because obviously the reader can’t be to blame.

There are certainly a number of cellists that do end up putting in the work to learn the Dvořák, but that initial interpretation is so difficult to let go of that you’ll still hear professional cellists, who can play the piece with relative ease or little effort, claim that the concerto is difficult to play to other musicians or to their students.

I guess I don’t find it at all strange that people tend to stick to one box when interpreting something that’s “actually” unstable; in flux; or pluralistic such as a [human] terrorist (who might likely be moving from box to box) when it’s so difficult for some people to jump boxes in relation to things that can’t move (from box to box) such as a text.

Could Spiegelman’s book be both idiosyncratic and incomplete? What happens in the gap between them?

Sure–why not? One of my favorite analogies to use in similar contexts is gravity. Is gravity a force or merely the curvature of spacetime? Depends on whether the box you’re in is classical mechanics or Einsteinian Relativity.

We could also say that gravity is the interaction of elementary particles (i.e. “gravitons”) if we wanted to look at it from a Quantum Mechanical box. If you know the box you’re in–as well as the thing that the box was designed to interpret–then the gaps are just us jumping from box to box. Or, to use the more mundane metaphor that the “jumping boxes” metaphor is replacing, the gaps are just us shifting perspectives/viewpoints.

The gap is that nether region that we seem to be intuitively afraid of crossing lest we lose some sense of identity. While we’re in a box, we don’t have to look at how relatively stable our perspective is and we can go on saying “the terrorists have already won” because we know precisely what the terrorist is and don’t want to take the time learn that the Dvořák is actually not all that difficult to play in the end.

Something that seems so definite and precise to us as scientific theories and mathematical theorems can be full of wonderful ambiguities and vaguaries that have nothing to do with the actual thing being explained but with how the box shunts our interpretation of the thing.

What do the signs say when they run up against each other like that? That’s what I find fascinating about the form.

I think that when those signs run up against each other like that is where different boxes start to overlap or where the boundaries of the boxes dissipate to reveal a much larger box.


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