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The Habit of Meaning

Earlier this week I posted some impressions from my trip to Las Vegas.  Among the more positive experiences I mentioned was a couple of hours spent listening to Ira Glass discuss the premises and techniques he brings to the structure of the material broadcast on his NPR program “This American Life”.

I won’t attempt to recap his discussion.  He is far and away more seasoned and eloquent a spokesperson for his art than I can ever hope to be.  I will just say that among the humor and pathos he shared with us, three things stood out for me.

The first was his explanation of what he called the “engine” of storytelling.

The second was based on the first point; it was his explanation of the structure of an interview, and how it can be made to draw in the listener (I hope to share more on both of these ideas in future).

The third point supplied the context for the first two; it was his introduction of the discipline of semiotics, and his application of that science to the communication of ideas in an effective and compelling way.  I realized in that moment that much of what I have done in my adult life (and even a bit n childhood) had been a search for just the very principles he was describing.

So, here is a little introduction to the topic from two highly respected thinkers; followed by a few words of my own.


“Semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used “to tell” at all.”
Umberto Eco

“Language disguises thought.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein


The Habit of Meaning


The habit of meaning
inhabits the space
between the senses and
the experience of sensation.

Being and, in reflection,
being within being
itches the cortex,
disturbing its equilibrium.

The mind favors indifference
when confronted with sensation;
resorting to words to establish meaning
sacrificing experience for comfort;
obscuring sensation in the instant of identification.

And, in that instant,
the thing in its purity,
uniquely itself,
fluid and complex,
rich in associations,
a community of existence,
is safely hidden within the label.


The patterns perceived from trees;

the experience of a unique tree in time and space
the rattle of wind in leaves;
the shape etched against the sky;
spicy scent of growth and decay;
birds, insects, color, motion, height,
life in all its complex play of context,

is reduced in the mind to the sound of the label “tree”

And the unique being fades into the ordered view.
This tree becomes a symbol of a tree,
a universal child’s drawing of a tree,
not this tree at all.


Meaning is a mirror ensuring that we see
only what we have already seen,
transforming all we perceive into
a reflection of ourselves,
a confirmation of our prejudices.

Experience narrows to indifference
in the moment of categorization.

In the instant of contact
the connection is broken.





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