As I am slowly rearranging my old Russian poems, they keep surprising me with how some things about me changed while others did not, no matter how many years have passed. For example, the poem below is about loneliness that results from our inability to put into words how we really feel, what we really experience. Coincidentally, the next entry that I am planning to write for my online experimental book Me, Looking for Meaning is supposed to be titled: "Why is language so unhelpful?". I love languages, and I know a few (which does not make me a linguistic expert, or course), yet I am continually amazed by how difficult it is to explain ourselves through words.
I am convinced that many misunderstandings, big and small, stem from our assumption that language is a simple and transparent tool. Abandoning it would be stupid, of course. Is there a solution? Blindly relying on words can make us feel desperate and lonely, the way I am describing it in my poem below. By acknowledging the imperfections of language without rejecting it, we may be able to find a place beyond words where a truer connection is possible.
What do you see in this picture? For me, this is a question about meaning, at least in one sense of this word.
In this first sense, "meaning(s)" can be defined as ideas, thoughts, associations, interpretations and assumptions attached to an object in the mind of an individual.
For the purpose of this conversation, an "object" can be anything that our senses perceive by seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing or touching it. This can be an aspect of the world outside of us (we see a cloud, we smell a perfume), but also our inner sensations (e.g., emotions, physical pain). In addition, each one of us is an object for ourselves, as we attach meanings to our own body and identity. By the same token, other people are objects to us and we need to interpret them in order to live our everyday lives. (Side note: this is not the same as objectification).
Most of the time we do not think about meanings of objects we experience. Instead, we take them for granted. This allows us to go about our lives without giving routine actions much thought. Our days are filled with things that make sense. The routine is disrupted when we encounter something unfamiliar (e.g., a strange sound, smell, bodily sensation, person). In this case, our brains start working extra hard to attach meanings to this new object. In other words, we try to understand it.
Imagine that you are sitting on the train and a person dressed in a particular uniform enters the car. You know that the conductor is here to collect your ticket - or maybe make a tiny hole in it and give it back to you, or do something else to make sure that you are not travelling for free, and that you are not going to travel twice using the same payment. You "simply" know what this situation is about, and what is required from you (I put "simply" in quotation marks because the cognitive processes behind this knowing are far from simple). Because you understand the situation and it makes sense, you are relaxed (or perhaps bored) - unless there is something else on your mind that requires your attention, of course. In contrast, if you are sitting on the train and a naked person walks in, shouting some strange words and pulling tickets out of passengers' hands, you will be not bored or relaxed at all. Instead, you will be struggling to attach meanings to this situation and all the objects involved in order to determine how to react.
The second sense of the word "meaning" is exemplified by the phrase: "This ring has a special meaning for me." What is implied here is importance, as want to say: "This ring is of special importance for me." Upon a closer examination, however, we will notice that the first and the second senses are connected. We are still talking about ideas, thoughts, associations, interpretations and assumptions attached to the object in question. The ring is important for me because of experiences associated with it in my mind (e.g., my wedding, my relationship, etc.).
Finally, there is the third sense of the word "meaning" worth mentioning. It is similar to "goal" or "purpose": think about the phrase "the meaning of life". This third sense is distinct, yet it is intrinsically connected with the previous two. The purpose of anything depends on ideas, thoughts, associations, interpretations and assumptions attached to this object in people's minds. The purpose is related to the object's importance. For example, we want our life to have meaning, because we hope that our existence will have some significance in the grand scheme of things. Otherwise, "What's the point?".
Meanings have been studied within a variety of disciplines in social sciences and humanities, although often indirectly. As part of the postmodern worldview, semiotics and symbolic interactionism point out that it would be a mistake to think that meanings are just there, waiting to be found. Although we may feel that we are looking for pre-existing meanings, we actually create them as part of communication processes that underlie social coexistence. Meanings we attach to objects are not natural or absolute, yet they can be very difficult to change. It is easier to conclude that certain things just "are what they are" than to explore where their meanings come from - to say nothing of challenging these meanings. Because ideas attached to objects are not universal, we can say that different people belong to different meaning communities that can engage in meaning wars about assumptions and interpretations shared within these groups.
So what is in the picture above? It is actually a rusty side of a mail collection box that I saw in West Hartford, where I lived between 2015 and 2018. I took this picture because the pattern reminded me of an animal. My memories and some interpretations are unique, so they produce individual meanings of the object in question. At the same time, my readers can understand what I am talking about because we have shared meanings. Many people know what a mail collection box is and how rust appears; some have been to West Hartford; and a few would recognize the animal that I was noticed. These shared meanings allow us to understand each other - to a certain extent, at least.
This is an entry "Meaning" from my online experimental book Me, Looking for Meaning. This entry contains a lot of terms that are yet to be explained in other parts of this project.
On August 16, I will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of my move to the United States. When I arrived in Philadelphia back then to start my PhD program at Temple University, for a first few weeks I had the strangest feeling. It seemed like I was in a movie, a character living on the screen. Everything was unusual - faces, voices, tastes, smells, and even temperatures - but not unfamiliar. As if I have experienced all of that somehow, somewhere...
A few friends of mine who visited the United States or immigrated here described their sensations using the same "like in a movie" comparison. How come? An explanation seems to lie on the surface. Even though I had never been to the US prior to my arrival in 2011, I experienced many aspects of its life by watching films and TV shows imported to Russia. Representations are far from perfect, but sometimes they can have this strange power to influence our perceptions and emotions.
When I still lived in Russia and could not even imagine moving to the US one day, I wrote two poems about a person stranded in a far-away land. I shared one of them on my blog a few months ago. Today I want to show you the second one. It was not about me back then, and it's not really about me now, although I did become a kind of wanderer myself. I do not feel as lonely and lost as the narrator. But I can relate to his description of the "strange looking-glass resemblance" between our present and our past - between stories we were told, dreams we dreamt and roads we are walking now.
I have started going though old versions of my recently published book Media Is Us. Let me tell you, most of them are pretty bad. But here and there (usually closer to the end of the writing process) I can see some interesting parts. It would be a pity to just delete them. So I am going to use these snippets for my blog! See the first fragment below.
When the gruesome Black Dahlia murder was committed in 1947, a media frenzy immediately followed. The story about a severed body of a beautiful waitress and aspiring actress Elizabeth Short discovered in a vacant lot in Los Angeles was on front pages for days. Wild rumors about the victim, the crime, and possible suspects captured the public imagination, leading to the emergence of increasingly sensationalized and often inaccurate stories. The journalists’ role in this affair was not pretty. They harassed Short’s family, confused the general public, and interfered with the investigation. Some even say that the Black Dahlia mystery has remained unsolved due to the meddling by the media professionals.
On the other hand, there is the famous journalistic investigation by The Boston Globe in 2002 that revealed to the world the rampant child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. What first appeared as several disconnected cases, turned out to be a network of conspiracies. Although accusations against many different priests were made for years, Catholic bishops kept these crimes secret and moved the accused to other positions where they continued abusing youth. Thousands of victims came forward thanks to journalists of the special Spotlight Team, who had spent months investigating the cover-ups and connecting the dots. The story they broke eventually led to the international scandal and the global crisis of the Catholic Church.
One can think of many examples when people communicating through technology hurt each other, and when they do good. Social networks are used for vicious harassment campaigns or to raise money for important causes. Books can increase our awareness about social problems that we have not personally experienced; alternatively, we can use the printed word to justify acts of cruelty and deception. One can uplift a friend in need by sending her text messages, or cause a serious car accident by texting and driving.
Despite this ambiguity, blaming media remains a popular activity. Search op-eds, blog posts, books, and articles that cover the state of the modern culture, and you will find plenty warning their readers about negative effects of different media texts, practices, and spaces. Violent video games are responsible for rising crime rates. Too much time with smartphones leads to depression. Stereotypical representations of darker-skinned people do not allow otherwise developed countries to eliminate racism. Early pregnancies, drug abuse, unfettered consumerism, sexual harassment, child abduction, low self-esteem, desensitization to suffering of others, gender pay gap, obesity – it seems like whatever problems society has, they all have at one time or the other been blamed on media’s harmful influence.
As we have established earlier, people constantly influence each other in direct and indirect ways. This is what society is all about. By communicating, we can help but also hurt those around us. And if we define media as people negotiating meanings through technology, it is logical to conclude that media influence is not necessarily benign. Yet, exactly because media is us, achieving a deeper understanding of the problems we associate with it is not going to happen through aggressive finger-pointing. A more nuanced approach is necessary.
As a form of self-care, I am going to celebrate my first milestone in the process of writing the experimental online book Me, Looking for Meaning. I have completed the first 10 pages! You can find a list here. (There is also the start page, so there are technically 11 entries altogether).
The completed pages can still change over time, although not dramatically. If my thinking evolves, I will add a note about it and link to new pages with additional ideas.
If you try reading the book, you will discover that each completed page has multiple links that lead... basically, nowhere. This is my way to create notes for myself for ideas I still want to develop. I understand that potential readers may find this frustrating, so I recommend using the list of completed pages instead of links on each page for now.
The book is clearly still in its earliest stages. There is a lot of uncertainty. For example, how many pages will it have? If it gets to one hundred, how will I navigate all the links? I can tell you that it's already getting confusing on my end, even though I do my best to keep the book easy to use for others. The slow pace is frustrating, but I cannot go any faster, because this project is as "side" as it gets.
On the positive note, after a few months of watching it grow, I can say that this growth will continue. Perhaps very slowly, but it will. And the book has already given me some good food for thought, as I was struggling to formulate my thoughts for myself and others. In short, the book is serving is purpose... some purpose, and I am happy about that!
I used to not like postmodern philosophy. Back in the early 2000's, some of my professors at St. Petersburg State University raved about Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and such. I found these thinkers somewhat interesting but also unnecessarily confusing. Over time, their ideas started making much more sense.
I am definitely not an expert on this school of thought, but I do know a thing or two about it. In my interpretation, this brand of philosophy is part of a larger postmodern worldview, supported by scholars within a variety of disciplines. I find this worldview tremendously important for my personal quest for meaning, and that's why I want to talk about postmodern philosophy here.
What I offer below is a huge simplification and my subjective take on the subject. I focus on four concepts (divided into two pairs) that I find especially intriguing and useful for my own thinking. Although I talk about "postmodern philosophers" in general, specific thinkers united by this title have had unique ideas and differed from each other in many important ways.
1) Truth and reality
Our logic dictates that all people share the same reality. When misunderstandings and conflicts happen, it is often assumed that the best way to solve them is to find out who is right. Being right is usually interpreted as understanding the objective reality, which is the same as knowing the truth. Postmodern philosophers cast doubt on these common assumptions. They argue that, while the physical world we live in is probably the same for everybody, the truth about it may be unknowable for individual human beings. This claim may seem outrageous, but it actually relates to what other scholars (e.g., some sociologists and cognitive psychologists) in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries came to believe.
Indeed, it is widely accepted that human beings can only access the world through their senses and brains. We know now that our senses and brains are not perfect. For the sake of effectiveness, they allow us to do some things but not others. For instance, brains are filled with numerous cognitive biases, and senses can register only a limited range of details (e.g., we cannot hear sounds that bats perceive, we cannot "see" heat the way some snakes do, etc.). On top of that, senses can be affected by biases in our brains. To complicate the matter even further, individual interpretations of any aspect of the world depend on each person's previous experiences, backgrounds and preferences. The bottom line is that, although worldviews of different individuals can and do overlap, a shared understanding of the objective reality may be an ideal rather than a reasonable goal. According to postmodern philosophy, access to the big-T Truth about the world is restricted for each one of us due to our inherent subjectivity.
2) Binaries and paradox
The way our perception and cognition work can be described as an evolutionary accomplishment and at the same time a limitation. Our bodies (brains included) are programmed to help us interact with the world in the most effective way. The universe we live in is often unpredictable and chaotic. However, our senses and brains are able to simplify this chaos in order to help us survive. Ingenious mechanisms that allow us to accomplish this task have important limitations. For instance, by focusing on patterns, we miss potentially important nuances. While behavioral scholars and cognitive psychologists explore such things as biases, categorization or "fast and slow" thinking, postmodernist philosophers have approached this topic by talking about binaries.
Binary is an opposition of two elements that appear to be mutually exclusive. Throughout the history of the humankind, people have relied on a variety of binaries to understand their environment, themselves, and each others. Here are some examples, in no particular order: left and right, up and down, South and North, right and wrong, wise and stupid, rich and poor, man and woman, heaven and hell, alive and dead, love and hate, black and white, friend and enemy, problem and solution, real and fake, same and different, whole and part, subjectivity and objectivity, meaningful and meaningless, fact and opinion, healthy and sick, inside and outside, have and lack, clean and dirty, us and them. Postmodern philosophers specifically point out that these and other binaries are essential for the "Western" kind of thinking. In other words, it is hard for a person who grew up in a "Western" culture to imagine a combination of both elements of any particular binary. How can somebody be at the same time wise and stupid, right and wrong? How can something be simultaneously real and fake, black and white?
Binaries can be helpful in some instances, as they simplify the complex reality and allow us to make sense of it. However, they limit our understanding of this very complexity. Postmodern philosophers draw inspiration from "Eastern" schools of thought when they talk about the importance of embracing paradoxes of the universe and of our existence. Paradox is a seemingly absurd contradiction. It is a suggestion that two elements of any given binary do not have to be the opposites. One can be a man and a woman, a friend and an enemy. A fact can be an opinion, and a solution can become a problem. According to postmodern philosophers, it would be more productive to reject binaries and embrace the paradox, however unsettling this process would be for our simplicity-loving brains.
It turns out that publication dates are kind of blurry. My book was indexed by Google Scholar and added to Google Books last week. Today it is finally available for ordering from the publisher's website. So this must be a good time to do some self-promotion. I am honestly not very good at it, but let's give it a try.
Some fun facts about the book:
The sentiment expressed in the last bullet point is not uncommon, as my writer friends have told me. They also warned me that when a book is out, its author does not necessarily feel ecstatically happy. On the contrary, it is scary to think that whatever I wrote is now definitely moving out of my control and into the world, where people will interpret it in some unpredictable ways (if they care at all to read it). All right, so far this has been an exercise of self-reflection rather than self-promotion...
I have created a page about the book on my website. This page contains a very brief summary, a few reviews, and a more detailed preview of some key ideas. It also explains how to get a discount when ordering a copy (hardback or electronic). If you would like to learn more, please visit the link above. Thanks! :)
Since I am writing a hypertext book, let me explain what this genre (or format) is exactly.
In the 1960s, philosopher and sociologist Ted Nelson defined hypertext as "a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper". More specifically, a hypertext can only exist on an electronic device (e.g., a computer). Its special feature is that it contains links. (It's important to clarify that each link or even each page itself cannot not be called a hypertext.)
In this sense, the World Wide Web is a great example of this modern way of sharing and storing information. Of course, the World Wide Web is not one book. Rather, it's a huge depository - very different from a "traditional" library containing multiple linear narratives. So, what is a hypertext book as opposed to a regular book? How would one recognize a hypertext book when she sees it?
To understand this, let's think about the difference between one print book and the whole library. Although each "traditional" book can contain references to some other volumes stored in the same place, a single book is supposed to be self-sufficient. In other words, you should be able to go through this text and learn some ideas that the author wanted to share without having to constantly take other volumes from the shelves of this collection. That said, some print books display more intertextuality than others, and they can be very difficult to read without understanding all the overt and hidden references. One example would be Ulysses by James Joyce. It must be noted, however, that this novel is hardly a traditional book. So, we can safely assume that regular books are supposed to be mostly self-sufficient after all.
Using the criterion of self-sufficiency, we can say that a hypertext book is a narrative (fictional or nonfictional) that is a part of the giant virtual library of the World Wide Web, but a distinct part that can be read separately from the whole. (That said, we can imagine a hypertext that exists on one computer, not online.) Same as a print book can contain references to other print books, a hypertext book can contain links that lead outside of it. At the same time, most of the links will allow the reader to stay within the same text, confirming its self-sufficiency.
A traditional book contains pages that the reader is supposed to go through in a predetermined order. You start on the first page and finish on the last page (unless there are some boring or scary parts you will decide to skip). The reader does not go through pages randomly. Instead, she trusts page numbers. That is what a linear narrative is. A hypertext book also contains pages combined into one self-sufficient whole. However, there is no path going through the narrative that would be predetermined by page numbers. Each reader can use any path they choose by clicking links that every page contains. Even the same reader may not be able to read a particular hypertext book the same way twice. Thus, we can say that the second criterion of this genre is its nonlinearity.
The third essential feature of this electronic genre is its open-endedness. A traditional print book can be considered complete after it's printed. New editions may be created, but that's an exception rather than a rule. In contrast, a hypertext book will keep changing and growing as much as its author(s) will allow it. That said, such a book does not have to be remain open-ended forever. It can be also completed at any point.
Now, let's move to examples. Do hypertext books actually exist? Wikipedia gets close to being one, although most of the links it contains probably lead the reader outside of it. The self-sufficiency criterion is not really met in this case, which is not surprising: Wikipedia is not meant to be read as one text. Speaking of Wikipedia, it actually contains an entry Hypertext fiction, which provides some interesting examples of this genre. One reason why hypertext fiction has not become popular is that it is hard to use a nonlinear narrative structure for telling a story with characters a developing plot.
In my opinion, the hypertext format is much more appropriate for nonfiction. In fact, I believe that this format offers unique opportunities for nonfiction authors. Human thinking is nonlinear, so expressing ideas about complex issues is actually easier when one does not have to force them into a sequential structure. And yet, proper hypertext nonfiction books are even harder to come by than hypertext fiction. Why? Probably because writing such a book requires some serious commitment and consistency from the author without much hope of being appreciated by readers. A nonlinear book will not receive an endorsement from a traditional publisher. It cannot be promoted like a regular book. And yet, I believe that unique properties of this format must be used to tackle topics that are especially hard to navigate. That is why, having considered the cons, I decided to write the hypertext book presented here.
I promised to share more of my poems with you, so here you go. This one is kind of strange, I think, and it requires some explanations.
The first person point of view comes from a white wolf, an outcast talking to regular wolves, or maybe to dogs. He describes them as "brown" and as a "dog herd," criticizing their vulgarity or conformity. The white wolf is proud to be different. He is even arrogant, describing his uniqueness and the special relationship he has with the moon: "I sing songs to her pale face//And she pours love to me from the sky." The white wolf is clearly condescending to the ones he is addressing: "I love you the way one loves a child," claiming that they are afraid of his difference: "your gaping fear has sharp teeth."
My favorite verse is the last one, where the white wolf recognizes that he is pathetic and miserable. He opposes those who (supposedly) hate him, yet understands that they are all intrinsically connected as "parts of one eternal whole." This yin and yang kind of relationship is so vital and strange that it hints "at the courage of nonsense." (Nonsense in this context means an oxymoron, a paradox). Although the white wolf acknowledges his misery, with the very last line he still asserts his power over the mundane: "the universe is the shiny pupil of my eye."
The poem was originally written in Russian. The translation lacks the rhythm and rhymes of the original, unfortunately. You can my other poems, most of them still not translated, on this page.
As my regular readers may remember, I am gradually working on an experimental hypertext project Me, Looking for Meaning. Here I will tell you about its background.
Just to clarify: I am certainly not unique in trying to make sense of life, to understand what this is all about, to find the right direction, etc. Many people before me have wondered about the purpose of their existence and proposed different answers through science, religion, and art. Even those who have never explored any existential questions in a systematic way want to be guided by hope that "all of this" is not for nothing. Nobody wants to live a meaningless life. There must be something about the human nature that makes us look for, even long for a meaning.
My personal quest has been that of a scholar. It started with an inkling that different pieces of reality I was navigating had to fit together somehow. Otherwise, what was the point? I am sure that I share this feeling with most, if not all, other people. Yet, over time, a realization emerged that my response to this feeling will come through science. This understanding was shaped by the environment that I grew up in, including my parents' views on education and my love of reading. I don't think I explicitly wanted to be a scholar when I began my studies at the Faculty* of Philosophy in St. Petersburg State University. Like many teens, I did not quite know what I wanted my life to be. Luckily, this was the right move, as I soon started to enjoy (some) theories we were exposed to in our classes and (some) questions we discussed during seminars.
In my late teens and early twenties, I had my share of adolescent angst and turmoil. My studies were not always enjoyable or fun for many reasons. In fact, sometimes I was not exactly sure that this education was good for anything. My faculty* had its quirks for sure, including the curious preoccupation with postmodernist philosophy that many of my professors shared. Yet, over time I realized that the program I completed did give me a great theoretical foundation in a broad range of humanities and social sciences. The postmodernism, for which I started developing a sort of intellectual allergy during my studies, turned out to be very useful in addressing some of the questions I was trying to answer for myself.
This curious intertwining of my scholarship and my personal life has been a trait of my quest for meaning all along. During my eight years in St. Petersburg State University, I started finding tentative answers for my own questions in books I was reading for studies. When I took a break from studying after getting my candidate of sciences degree**, I felt that something was missing. That is how I decided to continue my education by getting the second PhD degree, this time at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA (you can also read about this trajectory in my bio). As time passed, I saw with increasing clarity that I was the happiest when my academic interests and my intuitive attempts to make sense of life were aligned.
For me, looking for meaning equals looking for myself, trying to understand who I am and why I matter (hence, the logo of this project). Continuing on this path, I started to feel less confusion and more hope that there is a solution for challenges in my own life and in the world out there. The biggest problem I could think of was people hurting each other - and themselves in the process, so my goal gradually became to minimize these conflicts by creating more connection. That's how my focus on bridging divides through empathy has emerged. Finding myself suddenly felt possible when I decided to explore ways to enhance lost connections by helping people understand their own search for meaning.
* In Russia, groups of university departments are called "faculties."
**This degree is considered an equivalent of the PhD degree outside of Russia.