Photocopiers and the Failure to Agree on Meaning

Brett Weiner at The New York Times has put together an amusing Op-Doc titled “Verbatim: What is a photocopier“? As  Weiner describes the provenance of the piece:

In a deposition in Ohio, a lawyer became embroiled in an absurd argument about the definition of a photocopier….The dialogue was so sharp, inane and fully realized that I assumed it was fiction. I traced the deposition back to the Ohio Supreme Court and downloaded hundreds of pages of legal documents from the case. To my pleasant surprise, it was as strange as it was true.

In this short film, I sought to creatively reinterpret the original events….My primary rule was the performance had to be verbatim — no words could be modified or changed from the original legal transcripts. Nor did I internally edit the document to compress time. What you see is, word for word, an excerpt from what the record shows to have actually unfolded.

Wiener’s short film is entertaining enough; the conversation is exasperatingly funny.  My first  response to viewing it–on a friend’s Facebook pages–expressed the suspicion that The New York Times‘ readers might rest content with snickering at just legal conversations:

I hope people don’t think – as the New York Times seems to want them to – that this captures some conversational dysfunction unique to the legal profession or to its discourse.

The New York Times, of course,  seems to think it is on to a good thing when it comes to showing us how dysfunctional it thinks legal discourse can be:

This marks the debut of a new series, presented by Op-Docs, that transforms verbatim…legal transcripts into dramatic, and often comedic, performances. Here you will find re-creations of actual events from the halls of law and government.

But the dysfunction on display in Weiner’s short film is far more ubiquitous and widespread – it is not confined to the legal sphere. This should be evident from the fact that the conversational interlocutors cannot and will not agree on the meaning of a widely used term; such disagreements are not unknown elsewhere, precisely so many conversations between humans are adversarial (like that between the lawyer and his unfortunate witness). In these settings, the acknowledgment of a shared meaning can  all too often entail the concession of a debating point, a rhetorical disadvantage that may seem unbearable enough to seek refuge in obfuscation. At those moments the failure to agree on meaning is a tactic to retain conversational advantage; it allows for the creation of an ambiguity where definite resolution would lead to unfavorable outcomes. (The witness in the video above is clearly worried he might concede too much by agreeing on a meaning of the term ‘photocopier’).

The most common and painful instance of this occurs in arguments between couples headed for a break-up: as the relationship disintegrates and falls apart, so do the conversations between the former lovers. (Our literature is replete with these; the mastery of a novelist is often displayed in his or her recreation of these agonizing moments.) These become increasingly conflicted and intractable; the shortest, simplest resolutions cannot be arrived at. All too suddenly, a pair of humans who had once imagined their significant other could actually intuit their inner feelings and sensibilities, find themselves unable to make their simplest pleas and requests comprehended and heard. Failures of memory are a well-established trope of these conversations, of course–“You hurt me when you did X?” “But I didn’t do X, so I have no idea what you are talking about”  – but so are failures of commonly understood meanings. We find out that our former lover ascribes meanings to “respect” or “commitment” or “listening” or “fidelity” that we don’t; our best attempts to point out we once shared meanings flounder. My examples are all of terms that are quite complex but as folks engaged in break-ups find out soon enough, you can’t agree about the meaning of just about anything as things get worse.

Failure to agree on meanings is more common than we imagine; it is how we indicate to our interlocutors we are not full, or even partial, participants in our conversation; it is how we indicate that our ends are different and will be achieved in our own distinctive ways.

2 thoughts on “Photocopiers and the Failure to Agree on Meaning

  1. This is a different venue, but I’ve had students take on internships in large companies for which their job was to create a dictionary/glossary of terms so that sales and marketing people would use the same vocabulary as the product development teams and the technical documentation and customer support people.

    If the same product/part/process has three different names, or if one area of the company consistently uses the wrong term in their reports or brochures or emails to customers, things can go wrong very fast in terms of legal liability, customer dissatisfaction, and internal knowledge management.

    1. Katherine,

      Very good point. I always tell students in my philosophy class that they shouldn’t fall into the trap of imagining that philosophical disputes about definitions is “just semantics” – agreement on meanings is very important!

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