For years after the success of Pygmalion, his play later adapted into the more famous musical My Fair Lady, George Bernard Shaw spilled a lot of ink arguing that Eliza would not marry Higgins. But he never edited the script to make this explicit within the play itself. Yet he wrote the play, so presumably he knew his own intentions—surely his take on the matter is authoritative?
This is wrong. The meaning of a text, or a play, or a film, or a song, is not subjective. Nor is it objective. It is conjective; Deirdre McCloskey’s word for what John Searle refers to as an “institutional fact” (or even more of a mouthful, “ontologically subjective but epistemologically objective”). Shaw could only write the play at all because he was educated and gained experience within a particular storytelling tradition at a particular place and a particular period of history. Certainly a great deal of subjective thoughts, feelings, intuitions and understandings played a role in the process of writing the play.
But the meaning exists in the space between the play and the audience, not in any one person’s head. So despite Shaw’s protests, the interpretation that, having now fully become a lady, Eliza would not settle for anything less than marriage, has a lot of strength given the culture the play is supposed to take place in. Certainly that’s how audiences have largely interpreted it for as long as it or its musical adaptation have been shown.
There are some strange implications to this point, once you accept it. If text takes on a life of its own once you’ve put it out there, what about text with a less artistic intent? Say…a tweet?
Consider this telling statement from indie game developer Tim Schafer:
Game-fame, he says, is a tool. It is not to be taken personally and certainly not to be taken seriously. But there is always a price.
“If you’re going to create a high-profile media version of yourself, you have to accept that person is sometimes going to be a magnet for animosity. But early on, I always realized there was a difference between me the person and me the media creation who was generated to help me get games funded.
“Some people get driven kind of crazy by confusing the two things.”
Does this mean that the person who is presented to the public is a complete fake, a phony, a hypocrite? No, nor need he be.
The point is that every statement has an implied author, and that the character of this implied person is not the subjective vision you have of yourself. No, the implications are conjective; your audience will piece together that character from the context they have available to them.
Rhetoric is much maligned in our authenticity obsessed era, but it is nothing more than than the art of wrestling with how you will be interpreted. To see why rhetoric is so important, look no further than Suey Park, one of many who found her life turned upside down by a few tweets that went viral:
She grew uncomfortable when I asked why conflict on Twitter had once ensnared her to such an extent. “You don’t have a PR person telling you what to say. Sometimes I feel like a child celebrity, defined by some things said and done in immaturity forever.”
Public Relations, being a subset of rhetoric, is another thing that people look down their noses at these days. Yet Suey Park clearly wishes she could have had some of its insights in mind before this incident occurred.
An important part of communicating the meaning you intended to, and representing the implied author you had in mind, is to consider your implied audience. Sometimes the enterprising rhetorician will create this implied audience where it did not previous exist—McCloskey’s example is Robert Fogel creating an audience of economically literate historians. But most of the time this is just a recipe for not getting your intended meaning across.
We live in a difficult time. It has grown harder to control what your audience will be.
For most of history, a speech, a newspaper, or a magazine all had fairly clear audiences. Now, anything you say anywhere can suddenly go viral. This includes private conversations, given how trivially easy it is to record audio or make a video on a smartphone. Donald Sterling certainly didn’t think he was announcing his racist attitudes to the world.
Given that meaning depends on context, the fact that a statement can instantly jump contexts is troubling. But that does not mean that we should give up hope. We need to channel Tim Schafer’s detachment from the implied author we present to the world, and to take our rhetoric more seriously. The fact that meaning can be more easily snatched away from us than ever is all the more reason why we need to prepare ourselves to contest hostile interpretations, if we wish to have any influence at all.
Three cheers for PR, public personas, and rhetoric. We would all do well to take persuasion as seriously as the ancients our medieval ancestors.