Saturday, January 19, 2013

Image and Meaning

I feel like I'm on the verge or cusp of an insight.

I've been reading a book by Richard Biernacki called Reinventing Evidence, which draws attention to the puzzling status of "the fact of meaning" in the social sciences. Texts and practices are meaningful and the social sciences (especially ethnography) tells us what they mean—what they mean.

They try to describe human activities as underpinned by (the) facts (of their meaning) to be discovered. And this raises the question of method. The social sciences provide us with a "theory of meaning" for social phenomena, a science of their interpretation. So they must have a "method", which gives them access to the "facts".

The humanities, I sometimes argue, don't have theory and method. They have style.

So we have a choice. We can engage stylishly with our culture or we can undertake to know the facts of social life.

The second option forces us to search, not just for "the meaning of life", but for its particular meanings (pl.). The first, by contrast, and which I favor, requires imagination. It says, not that there are meanings that must be brought out from under the phenomenal flux of experience by means of a method, but rather, and trivially, that there are images, that we imagine things, and, somewhat less trivially, that who we are is shaped by this imagery.

On this view, there is no truth about social life until we understand it.

Like I say, I'm only just now leaning into this insight.

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