The meaning of life is a topic salubrious to spicy conversations at a shady beach, the sort of anyone-may-apply-for genius-status topic that renders we would-be AU academics illiterate or pedantic or both. Why ask about life’s meaning, a stern scientist might answer, when such a question is naturally relative to one’s personal opinion and worldview? Why not ask about the meaning of life, an artistic hipster type might reply, when the world is replete with joyful potential for meaning and creation and all manner of joy, if only we seek what we most desire? The question remains, though, if a person can express their personal meaning of life to another, would it be understood?
Language is adept at communicating much but it often stops short of conveying the feeling of a moment or idea. Think of the difference between a shriek of excitement, the pathos of fear or jubilation—or both—that that primate sound conveys and the rote dullness of a sentence claiming to explain the same event: I jumped off the pier, and it was fun. Likewise, to express our learning process at AU is not as easy as stating the fact that we are distance education students. Much is lost by communicating mere facts and feelings with words, yet educational prowess is based on being able to write and speak about what we learn. Maybe the key is to find common ground about something as universal as life, and meaning requires us to be artful with language, recalling that, at its best, “art with its power of illusion, its capacity for negating reality, for setting up an ‘other scene’ in opposition to reality, where things obey a higher set of rules…is an urgent process of seduction” (Baudrillard, 15). Words can be intuitively powerful when used properly, just as can any work of creativity.
A full thirty years ago Jean Baudrillard testified academically that we live in depauperate times where communication is concerned. This is because there are so many facts floating around in the cultural ether that seem to carry meaning and, taken together, induce a lump sum of self-satisfaction among their consumers. If you’ve researched a topic, you ought to be able to say some things with certainty. Yet the facts of any matter are the facts that those with power have said matter. Baudrillard stood this notion on its head by noting that circulating ideas in their epistemological soup only gave a simulation of true meaning. Facts are relevant, after all based on who you ask. The concept, for instance, of a return on investment (ROI) means one thing for the monetary-minded speculator and quite another for someone who sets an alarm for 3AM to see some shooting stars.
Baudrillard concluded that even as we seem to be awash in knowledge and the ability to communicate it, we are increasingly divorced from meaning in a substantial way. Pondering, rather than reacting, is key to thought and, despite what communication therapists might imply, conversation itself may often amount to little more than banter within the rigid confines of preconceptions. “Communication ‘occurs’ by means of a sole instantaneous circuit, and for it to be ‘good’ communication it must take place fast – there is no time for silence. Silence is banished from our screens, it has no place in communication” (14). Recall the heightened anticipation in an internet conversation when you can see the three little dots indicating they’re typing.
It’s as though we crave being responded to as much as we desire to express ourselves; thus communication fetishes itself and repeats the game of back and forth without the emergence of anything particularly new. Yet, to truly say something authentic is to first engage in a process of reflection. “Silence is exactly that—a blip in the circuitry, that minor catastrophe, that slip which, on television for instance, becomes highly meaningful.” (14).
Sometimes when we say what we think we mean, we internally feel something different from the words as we speak them. Those are the moments of which epiphanies are made. In social science classrooms, for instance, we may realize how out of step with our peers we are regarding a particular topic only by engaging in discourse. At AU, happily, the same experience may apply but we have the additional pleasure of pausing to consider what we really think and feel about a topic without the added pressure of having to perpetually discuss our thoughts with others. Dialogue and reflection are both crucial to learning and to authenticity. Mere debate is closer to propaganda than true discussion, suggests Baudrillard: “The point in advertising and propaganda is not to believe but to make people believe” (51).
Brave New Meanings
For Baudrillard, meaning is most important when it illustrates new possible worlds where life is more abundant and the experience of creating happiness comes more naturally. A true utopia, recalling its etymological root that shows that the word utopia literally means nowhere would be virtually unspeakable using the normal terms and rules of daily communication. “To conceive of a utopian society based on communication is an impossibility, because communication results, precisely, from a society’s inability to transcend itself as a function of new aims.” (14) This may explain how AU allows us to think new thoughts based on our course material and interaction with tutors while, alas, we may at times find ourselves more distanced from understanding our peers and their worldviews. To translate our newfound scholastic reality into communicable terms requires engaging with new meanings rather than old methods.
To this end, and following in 1918 on the heels of the catastrophic Great War that badly damaged the economies, self-image, and ascendancy of the richest nations on Earth, a group called the Dadaists sought to shake up meaning and language in a way that would allow new ideas and feelings to be expressed. The manifesto was a cacophony of words that challenged typical meaning based language: “To put out a manifesto you must want: ABC, to fulminate against 1, 2, 3 to fly into a rage and sharpen your wings to conquer and disseminate little abcs and big abcs, to sign, shout, swear, to organize prose into a form of absolute and irrefutable evidence, … Everybody does it in the form of crystalbluffmadonna, monetary system, pharmaceutical product, or a bare leg advertising the ardent sterile spring. The love of novelty is the cross of sympathy, demonstrates a naive je m’enfoutisme, it is a transitory, positive sign without a cause.”
This love of novelty, of meaningful difference from normality, may be a common denominator to many AU students. Education is about finding new meanings and modes of expression that touch us deeply and better our beings and our life paths. So next time you ponder the meaning of life maybe consider that your studies are leading you there, wherever that may be. Language, far from a mere barrier to meaning as some who decry the value of university schooling say, may be the crucible by which exciting new realities emerge.
Baudrillard, J. (1990). The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. London: Verso, New Left Books.
Tzara. T. (1918). ‘Dada Manifesto 1918’. University of Pennsylvania. https://writing.upenn.edu/library/Tzara_Dada-Manifesto_1918.pdf