02 December 2022

On the Meaning of Meaning

…or, perhaps, on the meaning of On the Meaning of Meaning given that to the undereducated (specifically including too damned much of the judiciary), that's an indeterminate referent.

  • So They — it's always Them, nobody ever asks me — have determined that the Color of the Year for 2023 will be Viva Magenta. I think they're wrong, but then the fashion industry is involved so they don't care what I think. (They don't care about actual function — witness the essential disappearance of the chest pocket on shirts as the need to carry masks arose.) I'll just stick with my Ultimate Grey dorsal fin, two years out of date; somehow, a Viva Magenta dorsal fin circling around, and around, and around the lifeboat would seem a bit cartoonish…
  • Arguing about "official colors" seems less important than about "places to live," whether Over Here or Over There. Lurking underneath are questions about "entitlement to above-market-rate profit" on the part of landowners/developers, and seldom-engaged-in inquiries into the context of how they became the landowners/developers. Somehow, though, I think few council-house doors will be repainted Viva Magenta this year, whether in Elstree or Norris Green (for entirely different reasons).
  • One of the frustrating aspects of coming to law from another academic field has long been law's arrogant, and often ignorant, claim to universal applicability of specific interpretive methods. Law is stuck a century ago during the heyday of philology. Legal interpretation need not follow every misbegotten trend in literary interpretation, but ardently refuses to learn anything from other methods of interpretation — in particular, refusing to consider the implications of baggage carried in from outside the text. It's one thing entirely to accept that one's "writings" include digital images on a laptop inconceivable to the Founders; it's another entirely to extend the general principals of the Fourth Amendment to stored voicemails on a cellphone unless one brings in non-public-meaning "baggage" from the quarter of a century prior to adoption of the Fourth Amendment, and looks to the next chapter in the "book". But this explicitly violates multiple "canons of interpretation" that have ossified in the law, rather treating advocates of non-privileged-public meanings as other persons. Oops, there's some more baggage… I'd call "original public meaning" intellectually dishonest in its definition of "public" (and restriction of sources to determine "meaning"), except that's giving it too much credit for even masquerading as "honest."

    This problem does not confine itself to weighty questions of Constitutional law, either. Consider the meaning of "book" in a publishing contract from 1936, purporting to last for the entire period of copyright (that is, under current law until not earlier than 01 Jan 2032), given both electronic books and audiobooks, not to mention podcast adaptations. (Of course I have a specific instance in mind.) Who has the right — right now — to authorize (or block!), and profit from as the "rightsholder," a streaming audio presentation of the work in question if the contract's language entirely concerned "book" except the single carve-out of "dramatic adaptation"? Bluntly, no "originalist" interpretive method that does not account or the differing subjective interpretations of both the parties to the agreement and of distinctly-less-than-the-"public" context of their respective subcommunities is neutrally defensible — it is at best a party-favoring, outcome-determinative method, largely reduced to "whose lawyers cost more?"

  • At least original public meaning need not concern itself with celebrities. (Would Ben Franklin have been an appropriate "celebrity" for interview? How about Abraham Woodhull?) Of course, the "original public meaning" here will no doubt be blamed on "cancel culture" when it's much more complex than that… specifically including, for this particular individual, the meaning of "culture." Weirdos! Or maybe it's just that all of those years studying both literature and really crappy government writings have given me a slightly different perspective on the relationship of the writer and the writing, and the meaning one can legitimately draw from both or either.