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  • Communication without Coding: Cybernetics, Meaning and Language (How Language, Becoming a System, Betrays Itself)
  • Ranulph Glanville (bio)

For my friend and mentor, Gordon Pask, without whom none of this would have happened, with thanks and love.

Personal Foreword

When I was invited to write this essay and submit it for this issue, I was both surprised and flattered. I had no idea, at the time, that I had anything to say about language. But the editor insisted I had, and so I looked back at older work and found he was right. I had, indeed, written quite a lot in this area. With my memory jolted, I rethought my research threads for a research seminar at the University of Portsmouth and came to the surprising conclusion that representation and communication were central themes. (This should not have surprised me, for I had just rediscovered that my old work was deeply imbedded in these concerns.) Writing this essay, then, seemed a natural development, and I was glad of the opportunity to refocus my concerns.

Yet I am no linguist, and do not pretend to be one, nor am I concerned with literary criticism. I know only what a layman might know, and not a very well-informed layman at that. So it is with some trepidation that I present this work. However, I am (again) fortified by the editor. He told me my job was to write about cybernetics (systems theory) and language, and that the job of finding it useful, of making the connections, was to be left to the (informed) [End Page 441] reader. With that rider (and excuse!) in mind, I venture to present this essay.


It may be that this essay is misnamed. To a linguist, it may not be about language at all, I leave that to the reader to decide.

What it is about is that most cybernetic of matters: how it might be that we may communicate. It assumes that we do, that our experience is to be trusted, and it sets out a scheme in which communication is possible (based on certain presumptions), then pursues various consequences of this model. If this has a validity that linguists and critics recognize, so much the better.

The purpose of this essay, then, is, using cybernetics, to build an account of a means for communication to take place, without coding and without the need for meanings to be in the utterances of representation.

Presumptions/Premises/Assumptions: Meaning

It is taken as given that meaning does not lie in utterances, pictures, behaviour, or any other such devices of communication, or in representation or the units of representation (whatever they may be, but including behaviours), or even in objects or entities (and behaviours), but is constructed by each individual involved in an act of communication. In this, the insight of de Saussure is seen as fundamental. 1 Thus, in acts of communication, it is not the meanings that are communicated: meanings are not transferred, translated, or encoded (the usual means ascribed to the transference of meanings).

The act of communication, nevertheless, is assumed to have constituents which may usefully be named here. These are:

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[End Page 442]

The representer establishes, in the (sometimes virtual) presence of the representee, the relationship (or temporary equality/identity) between the represented and the representing that somehow captures the meaning he has in mind, such that the representee, being faced with the represented and the representing, may construct his own meaning from the representation (the pair represented/representing.) 2 The roles representer and representee are, of course, relative: they switch. Thus, if there is to be communication between A and B, and A is representer at first to representee B, then, naturally enough, when B replies, B is the representer to representee A. Equally, represented and representing are roles: there is no reason why they should not change. While we often use a word (representing) to refer to an object (represented), when we do not know the meaning of a word we will often use some object, for instance, to help us create our own meanings (e.g., ostensive definition). The word “tree” may be...

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pp. 441-462
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