13 Mar 2019
Orange monarch butterfly on red flower

As a prelude to his public lecture on 26 March, Professor Alec Charles, Dean of Arts at the University of Winchester, considers the value we might find in the meaningless phenomena which fill our lives.

There’s a fine line between madness and civilisation, the line which divides paranoia from genius. To see patterns where others see chaos is the domain of astrology, numerology, conspiracy theory and homeopathy – and of Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes. Shakespeare recognised a special providence in the fall of a sparrow; Newton might have envisaged the gravitic motion of the planets at the moment an apple dropped from a tree; and Darwin saw the entire mechanism of biological evolution in a finch’s beak.

Chaos theorist Edward Lorenz suggested that the movement of a butterfly’s wings could eventually catalyse a tornado on the other side of the world. Mathematician Blaise Pascal observed that if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter the course of history would have been changed. Robert Jenkins’s ear mattered little to anyone (other than Captain Jenkins himself) until its removal sparked a decade-long conflict between Britain and Spain. And, as physicist Erwin Schrödinger acknowledged, the ambiguous status of even a sub-atomic particle can prove a matter of life or death (at least for a cat).

Significance is relative. The size of the universe makes a supernova seem vanishingly small. Proximity makes all the difference. New worlds of meaning are revealed when we examine things close up, when we attempt to reclaim sense from the maelstrom of insignificant minutiae. We may find worth and wonder in this.

This may explain why, for example, one of cinema’s early hits was Urban and Duncan’s microscopic portrait of the lives of cheese mites. It’s why we revel in the extraordinarily trivial and the trivially extraordinary. Today, the elaboration of the microcosmic into the macrocosm is one of the allures of social media. As the philosopher Louis Althusser might have suggested, social media’s concentric focuses hail and draw us in, conferring substance upon our existential emptiness. Sometimes, after all, it’s the little things that mean the most.

The knowledge economy

Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon said that knowledge was power; but the modern historian Michel Foucault understood that power lies in the authority to designate subjective belief as truth. What we call knowledge is situational. As Galileo learned, one person’s fact is another’s heresy. Thirty years ago, the queer vegan and the xenophobic isolationist were marginal figures. Today, for better or for worse (respectively), they are the mainstream.

We in academia are fortunate that, with the full force of our positions and titles behind us, our ideas tend to bear the authority of our assumed expertise – at least as regards peer-reviewed publications or broadcasts on Radio 4. Our ability to see patterns, however unlikely, in convergences of phenomena, however obscure, is simultaneously applauded and derided. (But it’s generally praised by the kind of papers we like to read. Which is why we like to read them.)

The literary theorist Stanley Fish proposed that critical readings are legitimised by their capacity to follow the rules of their academic contexts: ‘the literary institution at any one time will authorize only a finite number of interpretative strategies’. Our interpretative authority is in these terms institutionalized; but this entrenched position is increasingly disrupted by contemporary technology’s capacity to destabilize or even (possibly) to democratize knowledge.

Know what I mean?

Meaning takes place not in intention but in interpretation. It’s generated not by the speaker but by the audience. The philosopher Roland Barthes supposed that the refutation of the authority of the author (and, we might add, of the academy) was the key to interpretative empowerment: ‘the birth of the reader must come at the cost of the death of the author’.

There’s an unbridgeable distance between authorial intention and audience interpretation. Every interpretation is therefore a misinterpretation. Meaning occurs through its own failures to mean. Its disjunctions or contradictions aren’t necessarily unproductive, and may allow us to discover significance in the ostensibly insignificant by seeing beneath explicit meanings, by reversing our submission to received notions of coherent, authoritative texts.

Barthes and Fish represent a tradition of radical and counterintuitive analysis which developed to address the burgeoning complexities and challenges of western art during the twentieth century. Today, the interpretative strategies (simultaneously rigorous and risky) which evolved in response to the works of such avant-garde artists as Picasso, Eisenstein, Schoenberg and Joyce might usefully be applied to a broad range of contemporary texts – from soft news stories in the popular press to populist politicians’ inflammatory tweets.

The Twitterati

Now more than ever, in the era of post-truth politics and fake news, an unprecedented degree of forensic scrutiny seems essential and is practised with increasing degrees of ingenuity and influence by online cohorts of citizen scrutineers. The art of critical deconstruction, once the closely guarded province of academic theory, has been adopted by these self-appointed armchair auditors.

The sedate stormtroopers of this volunteer army have, in recent years, exposed a Tory campaign image of ‘the road to a stronger economy’ as a road in Germany, Chinese military film of a fighter plane as containing footage from Top Gun, an Iranian photo of a similar jet as a model superimposed against a stock shot of a mountain, and a North Korean picture of a military beach landing as having been photoshopped to exaggerate the extent of Kim Jong-un’s arsenal of amphibious craft. They’ve exposed hoaxes perpetuated by the press as to the low IQs of users of Internet Explorer and the giant rat of Hackney (‘the size of a small child’). They’ve even denounced Russian claims that the Vladimir Putin calendar sold out in Britain overnight.

They’ve taken apart a Daesh threat to toss gay Italians off a ‘leaning tower of pizza’ and dissected UKIP politicians’ beefs with scientists about scientific facts and with historians about the facts of history. They’ve wittily dismantled The Sun newspaper’s claims that one in five British Muslims support jihadis, and a former Foreign Secretary’s claims that women in burqas resemble post boxes.

The internet has called out the American President’s declaration of an imagined terror attack in Sweden and his confounding interest in ‘covfefe’. It’s shown him how American Muslims serve their nation as soldiers, doctors and law enforcement officers. And, as it once mocked a British Prime Minister’s porcine indiscretion, it has trolled Trump for his alleged involvement in one of Moscow’s more insalubrious honey traps.

Social media users have, in this way, demonstrated how the agglomeration of individual instances of apparent insignificance can generate meaningful impacts in the wider world. And isn’t that, after all, what democracy’s all about?

Alec Charles’s public lecture Insignificance takes place at 6pm on Tuesday 26 March in the University of Winchester’s Stripe lecture theatre. Attendance is free. Book your place here.

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