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[this is in reply to the comment of a very good (and bright) friend — who also has a ferret!]

My argument is that every act-of-expression can only complement previous texts. Therefore, it is impossible to convey an idea that is more than a modification of ideas that the interlocutor had before.

To be more precise: whenever a listener receives a message, he doesn’t receive it alone but together with every other stimuli he ever received in his entire life.

And that is BAD for communication for 3 reasons:

  • if a sign is part of a bigger text, it’s meaning will be determined by the rest of the text. The idea that the receiver will have after receiving the message will not be a consequence of the senders expression, but rather a consequence of other things. A meaning will only be correctly transmitted if the sender has complete control over the receiver, but this is a power relation instead of communication.<\li>
  • If a given stimuli is interpreted by two different social agents as having the same meaning, that would be because both already shared the concept. So a message cannot convey an idea that the receiver didn’t have previously. That means that ideas are not transmitted, and this means that there is no communication! To be dramatic, it would be like saying that every word we say is no more than mere parroting!
  • Even if this barrier can be bent in order to achieve some measure of agreeing behavior — like when i say water and you give me water — it will be increasingly difficult to do so as the message gets less banal. That is, the more meaningful an idea is, the more impossible it will be to convey. I can force you to give me water every time you hear the sound of the word “water”, but i cannot force you to feel the same emotion i feel when i say “love” or “longing”.

Maybe those points still deserve more work, but for now let me examine what is, at first sight, the perfect counterexample of my hypothesis: the mighty wikipedia.

Let’s picture an wiki article: there are not only one sender and one receiver, but a gigantic set of social actors who are at the same time senders and receivers, and they are acting directly upon the same medium of expression.

Battles are being fought all the time at the wikispace over the definitions of words. That would seem to confirm my idea that people do not really communicate their ideas, but the hard data shows that, most of the time, in most of the words, it is reasonably possible to achieve definitions that are consensually accepted.

Not only that, but wikipedia also provides explanations to a wide variety of topics of great complexity — which contradicts my idea that the more a concept is meaningful the less possible it is to transmit.

Wikipedia also illustrates that the structure of language is self-referential. That is, words point to other words who point to still more words ad infinitum.

Words have their own rules and techniques. Having rules is not enough to be able to mean anything. My writings obeying correct grammar is not enough to make them significant. Badly used, rules can be merely red-tape.

The rules are also power relations. A rule does not communicate anything, it does not transmit any meaning. A rule enforces a certain behavior.

Behavior negotiation can produce awesome results! I can make you bring me water. I can negotiate edition policies in the wiki that avoid using it for ideological propaganda.

In the long term, i can even negotiate behaviors that will produce the “scientific method” as we know it, which supposedly made our occidental Europeic civilization more “knowledgeable” than any other in the world. But this is, still, only behavior.

There is no Absolute Truth in science, nor in the wikipedia, nor in a expression medium that is shared by both sides of a discourse.

Consensus is not the sharing of an idea. It is merely the absence of disagreement.

Curiously, assuming that there is no shared meaning in communication leads to more consensus, and not less. To accept that nothing we say can be perfectly understood, that the other will never comprehend ourselves the way we do (or want), accepting this leads us to pay more attention to the negotiation that there is in the communication. It makes us more flexible to negotiate.

In reality, the medium of expression is always shared. When i speak, for example, the sound-waves of my voice go through the same air that you breathe. Even if my voice is being transmitted through the radio, you can still interact with it — you might not reach me, but you will reach whomever is around you.

The difference of reach of a newspaper over the reader is not the monopoly over the medium — the reader can (and does) paint over the paper, write his own comments on the margins, or use the newspaper to clean his dog’s poop. The difference of power is not in the medium, but in the economic power that is needed to print 30 thousand pages each day.

That is, the difference is not that writing a paper i can put my own ideas into the heads of millions — i can’t, just as i couldn’t if i was speaking with yourself all alone.

The difference that exists when there is an “unequal access to the expressive medium” is one of power. Of being able to change the world in a desired way. Of being able to change the circumstance of the life of the other person (that is, the receiver).

And that brings me back to my original point: someone that receives a message (be it shout or a wikipage) is merely dealing with the world-circumstances around him. He is not receiving any meaning. There is no content being fed directly into his brain. He is only reacting to whatever is around him.

And that is a big, big problem if you want to transmit a concept, that is, if you want to establish communication.

So, no, i do not think that this fundamental problem of communication is “restrict to some models of communication where the ’social actors’ do not interact with the medium of transmission”. Just on the contrary.

I think that this interaction with the medium is a mechanism available to the social actors to deal with the Fundamental Problem. I think this interaction is needed exactly because the fundamental problem is so strongly present.

(As a side note: if, on the other hand, we suppose that both sender and receiver can in their heads connect a given expression-form to the same idea without having been previously controlled into doing so, we are accepting that communication is based on chance, in coincidences in the minds of the communicators that can be exploited. Therefore, we still have the problem that the communication is based in things that are outside the sender’s control.)


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