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08 February 2011

Another Phrase I've Been Misinterpreting!

Yesterday, I mentioned that I had been misinterpreting Korzybsky's famous catch-phrase "The map is not the territory" all along.  Well, maybe not misinterpreting, but not interpreting to its fullest extent.  I realized that part of what it means is that the abstraction and the thing it represents are ontologically distinct - a map of DC is not just a representation of DC but also a completely different entity with a life and trajectory all its own. 

Today, I realized that there is another phrase that I've been only partially understanding for a long time now: McLuhan's catch-phrase "the medium is the message."  The point that I've missed is that there is no such thing as a tabula rasa - a blank slate.  Even a blank slate is a slate, and a message inscribed on a slate will carry a different meaning from the same message, the same words, inscribed here on my blog.  I think this relates somehow to the map-territory relationship and Hacking's interactive kinds, but I'm not quite sure how yet. 

With regard to Chichén Itzá, the site we've been discussing in my Theories of the Past course (as a result of reading Casteñeda's In the Museum of Maya Culture), it means that anthropologists aren't inscribing Mayan Civilization on a blank slate (or mystical wax tablet, to use Casteñeda's metaphor).  Instead, the ruins themselves are a medium, and therefore also part of the message... This gets us back to the agency of the thing being represented, and the relationship between the abstraction and the thing itself.


michael- said...

does being able to know the ruins as a message help us get beyond relativism, by being in orbit with the things themselves? Is there a 'level playing field' that allows all assemblages to meet each other directly, while also being partially obscured by interpretations of them?

Jeremy Trombley said...

I think so, Michael. We can never really discount the interpretation of the site, but the interpretation is never fully encompassing - never totalizing - and the ruins themselves can convey a message of their own in spite of the interpretation that it inscribed upon them.
I actually like Casteñeda's mystical wax tablet metaphor, but not the way he uses it. The interpretation is inscribed on the surface, but only temporarily - each interpretation can be erased and new interpretations put in their place. However, each successive interpretation is captured on the wax tablet underneath - in this case, the ruins themselves - so that the ruins are remade physically each time, but every new interpretation has to start with what's left over from before... The slate is never truly blank, in other words.

michael- said...

I completely agree; and I also think this jives with Jane Bennett's notion of the 'force of things', or ANT's framing of the agency of non-human things. The Real, in this sense, penetrates our representations, imaginings is a more or less direct way; ways that ‘limit’ our constructions while also making them possible in the first place, as requisite backdrops to our creative translations. We humans (researchers), like all other assemblages/objects, never too far from home (the real).

Thanks for the post and the reference to Casteñeda – I have never read him, but I really like that metaphor…

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