Monday 28 May 2012

Meaning, Emancipation and Forgiveness

I've been wondering if 'meaning' and 'emancipation' are the same. To consider this, there are obvious first questions:
  1. What do I mean by meaning?
  2. What do I mean by emancipation?
I want to start with the concept that I believe links the two: possibility. I have been arguing for a conception of meaning recently as the 'structuring of expectations'. In day-to-day experience, I would explain this as the sensation one gets when confronted with something that appears meaningful as the 'world opening up in front of us': the  revealing of a wealth of possibilities. This is what happens when we fall in love, when we see a beautiful artwork, walk in an ancient city or gaze at the ceiling of a gothic cathedral. At those moments, constraint which bore down on possibility is lifted, fear is gone, and minds are over-run with fabulous avenues of thought, feeling and action of which it was previously oblivious. In music, these moments of meaningful revelation are characterised by a surprising turn in tonality (Schubert is the master of this). But what matters is the transformation of expectation, rather than necessarily an increase in possibility. This is worth saying because evil things carry meaning as well as good things, and if I am to draw a parallel between meaning and emancipation, the meaningfulness of evil, what we do about it and its negative effect on emancipation is of fundamental importance.

So what about emancipation? Does possibility mean freedom? To answer this, it is perhaps worth considering those aspects of unfreedom: fear and oppression. Fear restricts possible actions from within; oppression restricts possible actions from without, whilst also causing fear and inner restriction. The two forms of freedom described by Isaiah Berlin as "freedom from" and "freedom to" may be seen as "freedom from" oppression and its consequent fear; whereas "freedom to" implies a balance between the individual will and the world which empowers action in fulfilment of individual purpose. There are of course instance where "freedom to" can become oppressive for others, so there is a need for positive and negative liberty to exist in a balance. Seen in this way, and in the context of possibility, Von Foerster's ethical imperative makes an interesting comparison:
"Act always so as to increase the number of choices"

Having said this, the constraint of fear in "freedom to" is not explicitly identified. Therefore, one might believe one is acting to increase one's possibilities, but all the time one is burdened by inner fears, or unrecognised oppressions. Von Foerster might say that his 'imperative' is in fact a heuristic: that increasing the number of choices will ultimately mean overcoming fear or oppression. But with what gauge could you measure it? Over what timescale are one's possibilities to be identified? 

I think there is only one index of possibility: it is the visceral response to something meaningful. It is the climax that we search for, the journey's end which marks the beginning of a new journey. Importantly, however, I think it is not something that can be reached through following a heuristic. Instead, meaningfulness arises at moments of significant restructuring of expectation. Given that expectations are build around a set of relations with the world, such a change of expectation results from a transformed relationship with the world. Here the divestment of old attachments and establishing of new ones, expenditure, profligacy, passion and rejection are all aspects of transforming expectation which are also deeply meaningful.

But given this characterisation, something can be meaningful which leads to rejection or even oppression: massacres are meaningful to the perpetrators. How then can meaning and freedom be the same? 

The key to this question (and it is the most important question) lies in the relationship between fear, oppression, love and hate. Murderers constrain themselves deliberately, because without constraint they would not be able to do what they do. Breivik, for example, told the court that he desensitised himself in order to carry out his horrendous crimes. Breivik wants to be feared; he wants to be the oppressor; he wants to be hated, whilst at the same time celebrated by those sympathetic to his cause (and he believes that one day the world will thank him for his courageous acts). Breivik's callousness is oppressive; he horrifies us, and the fear we experience is meaningful to us; behind that meaningfulness is some 'dreadful recognition' that draws attention to our shared humanity and the possibility of horror. But nevertheless, or because of this, our expectations in the presence of such fear are drastically restructured and what emerges is a frightened and narrow world.

But the narrow and frightened world also frightens us because we see it as something which is forced upon us. It is the result of oppression and fear. Only the conquering of fear can relieve the oppressive forces; only a re-restructuring of expectation that finds new possibilities in a fear-dominated landscape can overcome the oppressive force. This re-restructuring may, I think, be the defining characteristic of forgiveness. Forgiveness is meaningful because it reacts to the meaningfulness of evil in the same way that the evil itself imposed its meaning on us: by transforming expectations.

The need to forgive is borne out of care and transformative praxis. It is transformative because of the power of the meaning it conveys. My question about the relationship between meaning and emancipation is perhaps about 'degrees' of meaning and 'degrees' of emancipation. It may be that the degree of meaning is related to the degree of transformation of expections...

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