What is communication? Can one communicate without langauge? What would that look like? In other words, can one communicate meaning without a language? I would like to argue that this is not (always) the case.
Here’s an example (which triggered this thought process in me)…Imagine a person who is born deaf and never learns a structured language (i.e. sign language, written language, etc). To this person, letters, words, and phrases do not correspond with what one would expect. This is no different than one who encounters an unknown language. Our example person is also an artist. Must his art convey meaning? In a recent seminar I attended, some people contended that all art must convey meaning. However, I disagree. Meaning is a product of language because meaning can only be conveyed by appealing to a common language. For instance, the meaning of this post is predicated upon a commonality of language between myself and you, the reader. When there is no commonality, the meaning I am conveying (if any) is lost; for example, if this post was written in Swahili, the current readership would not be able to understand it. It is in this sense that meaning is a product of language.
Now, back to our deaf artist. Sure, he could have been communicating something, but we, as foreigners to his world of language, are unable to discern that meaning. Any understanding we interpret from his artwork is what we have imposed on the art. If instead of art, he wrote a text in an unknown language (so unknown that his writing is the only existing sample), we’d have no linguistic context to properly frame it. We have no Rosetta Stone which we could use to decipher his language.
Furthermore, we have no guarantee that our deaf artist was even trying to communicate something. For all we know, he was doodling (quite extensively, but doodling nevertheless) without any intent of communication. He could have been drawing what he saw through a lens of what he felt–in other words, a private language (and I hope my allusion to Wittgenstein is not lost). We are trying to find meaning where it is possible no meaning exists.
Another example, possibly more concrete, is the recent film Burn After Reading. Brad Pitt’s character comes across some documents which he suspects are highly classified CIA information. In reality, these are just notes from a relatively low ranking, retired CIA agent played by John Malkovich. The movie is interspersed with a running conversation between two higher-ranking CIA officials trying to figure out what is happening. As the discourse between Pitt and Malkovich continues with attempts to blackmail, extort, and include foreign agencies (the Russians for instance), the two CIA officials are at a complete loss. The entire movie is based on three separate language games: Pitt’s belief that he has valuable information, Malkovich’s discovery that his personal notes have been stolen, and the CIA’s attempt to reconcile those to their understanding that the information is not valuable at all. In the end, Malkovich and Pitt are removed from the plot and the CIA’s response is on the lines of “whatever happened, it wasn’t important, but we’ll cover it up just to be sure.” In other words, the CIA never discovers the hidden discourses and continues on with normal life because those discourses did not matter in the first place. The hidden languages that Pitt and Malkovich operated within had no value in the economy that the CIA was interested–they were meaningless.
So what is the point of all of this meandering? Only to say that meaning is a product of language and is not always necessary or guaranteed. Or, to recycle Freud: “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”