Monday, March 17, 2014

Understanding understanding

According to French philosopher, Jaques Derrida, words do not have inherent meaning.  Instead, meaning is derived from use, from what an object is versus what it isn’t.  Essentially, we shape the meaning of language in the way in which we use words.  Based on the observations of literary critics Irving and Harriet Deer, this is exactly the viewpoint perpetuated by Kurt Vonnegut in his novel, Slaughterhouse Five.  Thus, the language of war and peace is not so much bound by fact or fiction, but by interpretation and imagination, allowing the reader to construct their own realities instead of accepting presupposed doctrine.   

In their essay, Satire as a Rhetorical Play, Irving and Harriet Deer claim that, “we see the world as a fiction we project on it” (717).  The way in which Derrida claims that words do not have inherent meanings, is the same way in which Vonnegut wants us to see that historical “facts” are merely stories.  It is our diehard subscription to these stories that have given them meaning over time.  Vonnegut wants to point out that our belief in these stories is not more bizarre than Billy Pilgrim’s belief in the existence of the Tralfamadorians.  This is not to say that Vonnegut is calling for an abandonment of belief.  Instead I think it’s safe to say that he’d rather us question and examine what we believe and why we believe it.  If we can do this, then Vonnegut’s satirical novel becomes more of a rhetorical meta-analysis of society; enlightening readers because it highlights man’s ability to play even in the face of a meaningless universe” (718).  

This meta-analysis can be transferred to Mary Rose O’Reilley’s essay, The Peaceable Classroom.  In this essay, O’Reilley asserts that if students are allowed to find their own meanings in literature, instead of relying on pre-constructed themes, then they will be able to make connections within their own lives and perhaps piece together why they think in the ways they do.  By taking a step back and analyzing the basis of their worldview, students can not only better understand themselves, but grow to accept and understand the viewpoints of others.   

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