Monday, August 15, 2011

The meaning of what we make

Staphorst, the Netherlands: typical farm house

When interpreters analyse a text, they tend to see more in it than the author originally had put into it: they often think to find a meaning behind the text that the writer was unaware of. This textual interpretation, which originally goes back to the exegesis of the Bible, led later – under the influence of Dilthey – to the thought that other forms of human life could be considered as texts as well. So, the idea developed that also actions can be interpreted as texts. A recent form of this, which I have discussed in other blogs, is the view that an action can have different descriptions, which actually is the same as the idea that it can have different interpretations. For instance, opening the door of your house can be interpreted as it is, but sometimes it can also be described as warning the thief who is upstairs, because he hears the noise. Interpreting human life need not be limited to human activities as such, like actions, but can also be extended to the material products of what men do: the tools they make, the houses they build, their art, and much more. These human products get often a symbolic meaning that exceeds by far what the makers of these products had laid in it when they made it.
A recent critic of the symbolic interpretation of material culture is Nicole Boivin, especially in her Material cultures, material minds. Boivin does not deny that material cultural expressions can have symbolic meanings, but what is problematic in this approach in cultural anthropology and archaeology is according to her that the symbolic meanings are often so much seen as the only correct interpretation of these material expressions that plain interpretations are rejected, even when both types of interpretations could be equally true or the plain interpretation may be better. Boivin uses an example of her own, but take this. In the Dutch villages Staphorst and Rouveen, traditionally the window frames and doors have the colours green, white and blue; green symbolizing young life in nature, white symbolizing purity and blue being used because it averts calamities. But need it really be so that a modern farmer painting his farm, or a city-dweller who has bought a farm there as a second house give these meanings to the colours? Of course not. When we ask the city-dweller, for instance, why she paints her farmhouse with these colours, there is a good chance that she knows nothing about their original meanings. Probably she’ll answer that she wants to maintain the traditional view of the village; that she wants to have the appearance of her house in agreement with the neighbouring farms; or simply that she likes the colours. Or maybe it is so that the local acts prescribe these colours. In other words, it is quite well possible that there is no symbolic meaning behind the present material expression of the painting; that the original meaning of the colours has been lost; and that nowadays the colours are used for quite banal reasons.
This makes me think of the explanation of the Japanese tea ceremony which I once received during the “Japanese week” in the town where I live. The woman performing the tea ceremony told about its religious meaning and the special feelings it arouses in the participants. I did not doubt it, but I had a good pen friend in Japan that performed the tea ceremony now and then, so I asked her what she thought of it. Well, she said, I’ll not deny this explanation and it is true that some tea ceremony performers get a special feeling by doing it, but for many Japanese it is simply a thing they sometimes do and for me it is just a hobby…

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