Meaning and Pointing

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

A cognitive phenomenon that can happen to you (if you are unlucky, perhaps) is known as depersonalization or derealization. It is a mild relative of the symptom recognized in psychology as disassociation, a component of many mental disorders.

Derealization is the loss of the felt sense of the world as real, as an unchanging and solid world differentiable from the mock world perceived in dream states. It can cause significant anxiety. It is a condition often articulated in art, for instance in our own time in the movie Waking Life by Richard Linklater.

As with many abnormal psychological phenomena, the existence of derealization points to its absence in the normal world: the negative phenomenon of the loss of the sense of the average-everyday orientation points to the positive phenomenon of constructing the sense of the real. We can ask how people experiencing derealization can snap out of it and begin to experience life as ordinary and meaningful again. But more importantly, we can ask how people not experiencing derealization come to construct a meaningful, solid, ordinary world out of their stream of experiences. In this essay I will explore a cartographic metaphor for the ways people create meaning and navigate the complex systems of meaning they create, based on pointing, reference, and maps.

The Complexity of Pointing

The apparently simple act of pointing (indicating an object with an outstretched finger or a nod of the head) is in fact a complex phenomenon. Many animal species engage in pointing, as in the famous “waggle dance” of honey bees: bees use flight patterns to indicate the direction and distance of resources in the environment to other bees, such as flowers or new nesting sites. But in humans, the phenomenon of pointing has been elaborated to extreme versatility and subtlety. We possess adaptations that facilitate pointing, such as the crescent shape of our sclerae (the whites of our eyes), allowing conspecifics (and our evolution partners, dogs) to easily perceive the direction of our gaze. In a sense, if our eyes are open, we are always pointing (at something) to any observer who cares to look.

But an intentional and directed act of pointing is a special case. The anthropologist Charles Goodwin (in Pointing as situated practice) investigates a single act of pointing in detail, revealing the hidden complexity of the act. An archeology student is working on a dig site. He first catches the attention of his supervisor, calling her by name. He waits until he has her attention, then points to a feature on a detailed map of the site (using his trowel). At the same time, he says “I think I’ve found this feature.” After pointing at the map with his trowel, a substitute finger, he also points to the archaeological feature he thinks corresponds to the one on the map in the landscape with a nod of his head. Meanwhile, his supervisor attends to the place on the map where he is pointing with his trowel, and then changes her gaze to follow his second indication. The student then changes his gaze to look at his supervisor, to make sure she has understood.

Goodwin refers to the “hierarchy of displays being performed by the body” of the pointer: not only the “dual point” (at the map and then at the feature, with trowel and head, respectively), but also picking up the map and gazing at it in the first place, indicating a “domain of scrutiny” (the map) with his postural orientation as well as a target (the feature on the map) within the domain. And the participation of the receiver of the point is just as important: the student doesn’t point right away, but attracts the attention of the receiver and waits until her position, posture, and gaze are appropriate to receive it. He also watches her behavior to make sure she has understood the complex point.

There is a third “point” accomplished invisibly: the student has not only indicated the target on the map and the feature in the field, but has indicated a correspondence between the two. The target on the map points to the feature in the field; he has pointed to a point!

Pointing, Goodwin says, is not “a simple way of indicating some prelinguistic ‘thing’ in the surround,” but a complex act of communication that utilizes mutual mental modeling and often language. He goes on to describe how a person with aphasia and only a three-word vocabulary is able to communicate a vast amount of information using pointing, indicating not just locations but significance. A point is not a grunt; it is eloquent.

The Double Meaning of Meaning

The word “meaning” in English is itself a polyseme, a word with multiple meanings. In one sense, “meaning” refers to the referent of a word, its dictionary meaning or a particular contextual sense. In a broader sense, “meaning” refers to value, purpose, and more cosmic significance (as in “the meaning of life”). Many of the synonyms for “meaning” in English also have this property; the word I have used for the second type of meaning, significance, suggest that one thing signifies (or means) something else. While not a linguistic universal, it is very common in other languages for the word for semantic, dictionary “meaning” to also be used to indicate a deeper sense of purpose or significance.

The semantic sense of “meaning” is a pointing relationship, and a pointing relationship, as we have seen above, requires both a pointer and a party receiving the point. Sometimes the pointer is understood to be a person, as when a person “means” something by a particular use of language: he is pointing to something in the world. But often the meaning is understood to be possessed by the language itself: a word “means” something as if by its own agency.

“Semantic contamination” is the linguistic phenomenon by which the meanings of polysemous words (and even homophones) become intermingled in the minds of language users. When a word is used in once sense, it tends to drag with it all of its other senses, even if only subconsciously. There is a chicken-egg problem here, because when a word is used in a new sense (for instance, metaphorically), it is because the new meaning is in some way similar to or reminiscent of the old meaning. As words acquire new meanings, they form a tangle of mutual pointing.

“Meaning” in the sense of “meaning of life” carries with it from the semantic sense of “meaning” the expectation of a pointing relationship. What is the purpose of life, or love, or getting up in the morning? What does it signify? As with the semantic meaning of words, there may be an external entity doing the pointing (such as a deity), or the things and acts themselves, like words, can be understood to convey meaning all by themselves, to “point.”

The meanings of "meaning" as pointing relationships

The meanings of “meaning” as pointing relationships

Pointing in Life Meanings

Roy Baumeister (Meanings of Life, 1991) proposes that humans have four basic needs for meaning: a need for an ultimate value base, a need for personal purpose, a need for self-worth or status, and a need for efficacy or control.

Human cognition is characterized by asking “why?” – explicitly as a child, internally as an adult. If an action is difficult or undesirable, it must be justified; more general principles justify specific cases. Stop at intersections because it is part of one’s duty to drive carefully; drive carefully to avoid hitting people; avoid hitting people because injuring others through carelessness is wrong. To avoid infinite regression (and all the cognitive trouble that would go along with it), there must be some end to this process of justification: humans need values that are valuable for their own sake, ultimate values not relying on anything else for justification. A value is an end, as opposed to means to an end, and offers an end to thinking uncomfortable thoughts that have no answer. Ultimate values may be positive (for example, space exploration, or “the show must go on” in theater) or negative (for example, eschewing racism or adultery as purity violations). They are often experienced as sacred – self-evident, not to be traded off against non-sacred values, and perhaps even surrounded by a protective zone of motivated ignorance, as Jonathan Haidt puts it. Sacred values may be lost if not protected, and are difficult to recreate once lost.

The need for purpose is the need for a present idea of something in the future that motivates present action. All the sources of meaning provide ways to spread the self out over time, to consider the past and the future when weighing what to do now. Purposes provide reasons to make costly sacrifices in the present in order to improve the future. Baumeister divides purposes into two types: goals and fulfillments. Goals are short-term future plans that are likely to actually be achieved; once a goal is completed, a new one must be found. Fulfillments, on the other hand, are fantasies about an idealized far future. Eternal life in heaven is an example of a fulfillment, but many fulfillments are not religious in nature. Any goal that seems to offer, in one’s own mind, a permanent state of sustained positive affect, is likely to be a fulfillment rather than a normal goal. These might include fame’s promise of eternal bliss or “making it” in a high-status career, more mundane matters like marrying or having children, or even the fantasy of dropping out and raising organic goat cheese on a farm. In each case, if we cared to look, we would observe that currently famous people, high-status careerists, spouses, parents, and goat farmers are not ecstatically happy all the time: they have goals and fulfillments of their own. In an important way, this is not the point: fulfillments do the job of motivating present behavior as long as they are plausible.

People need to feel that they have control over the world around them, as well as the ability to reach goals or realize values. Efficacy means the capability to help others as well as oneself. Baumeister also found that a greater sense of meaning was associated with doing things for others, even though in many cases happiness was reduced even as meaning was enhanced. The illusion of control, a tendency for people to believe they have more control over events than they actually do, is a healthy and adaptive response to this need for meaning. The phenomenon of “depressive realism” suggests that depressed people do not experience this healthy illusion.

Finally, the need for self-worth is the need to feel that one is valuable, high-quality, and important compared to others. This kind of status is comparative, and is often realized in comparison of the self to those lower in status. Hierarchies provide self-worth of this kind to everyone except those at the very bottom, who must find an alternative basis for self-worth. In societies without clear status hierarchies, there is less certainty about social position, hence more worry.

Each one of these needs for meaning may be understood as a form of pointing. This is especially true in the first case, that of ultimate value; somewhere in the dizzying tangle of pointing and meaning there must be some end, some final thing pointed to that doesn’t point to anything else. Purposes (goals and fulfillments) are pointing to the future, mostly experienced as a pointing relationship from the present and not as an actual sensory experience. Self-worth, being comparative, points between the self and others. Efficacy is the self pointing to the world.

Whether by semantic contamination or natural extension of meaning, the pointing/reference sense of semantic meaning is preserved in personal or cosmic meaning. In literature, pointing by allusion is a way of elaborating meaning. Listening to The Doors’ song “The End” after reading Zhang Xianzhong’s Seven Kill Stele, I noticed that the word “kill” is repeated seven times at the end of each, and wondered if Jim Morrison had been alluding to the latter piece. Brief investigation suggested that it was a mere coincidence: not a pointing relationship, hence not, in this sense, meaningful. Coincidences themselves, however, may be experienced as meaningful when they seem to “point,” even if their point can’t be discovered: they create an illusion of missing causality, of hidden significance. What does it mean?

Lost and Found in Information Space

If, as I have tried to motivate above, meaning is pointing, then in order to perform the essential human functions of experiencing meaning and feeling at home in the world – in order not to get lost in derealization or depersonalization – we must navigate complexity using comfortable mental maps that point to our shared social world of information.

In my previous post, I described Kevin Lynch’s five-part structure of how people form mental maps and navigate the geographic space of cities. Lynch’s research suggested that people form mental maps with five basic features in order to navigate: boundaries (such as water lines, freeways, and walls); regions (such as neighborhoods); paths; landmarks (highly visible and reliable components of the landscape that don’t change or change in a predictable manner, such as mountains, buildings, or the sun); and nodes (the places people go and enter into, such as home, work, shopping, churches, restaurants, and parks, and also the transitional areas between forms of transportation, such as train stations).

Mental maps for geographic navigation may help us feel at home, creating a “meaningful” pointing relationship between what is in our minds and the world around us, but most of our time is spent not in geographic space, but in the information spaces created by language, technology, and culture. And we must have mental maps for these as well. Extending Lynch’s cartographic analysis into an information space metaphor, how do we map and navigate information space is a manner that doesn’t leave us lost and disassociated?

Boundaries in information space can be formed by conflict. Metaphorical boundaries of dress, ritual, and speech define in-groups and out-groups; people fight sacredness wars in information space, and by doing so, define boundaries by which to navigate. People signaling loyalty to a particular political belief are rarely listened to by those on the other side; the boundary is only mildly permeable. Rather, both sides together are building a wall that helps both navigate their social-informational world in a simple manner. (I am reminded of Peter Turchin’s thesis that wars and frontiers of fighting were responsible for the formation of large agrarian empires – conflict builds and defines information space, a creative force as well as destructive.) Judging from social media, people seem to be very aware of their political enemies, expending large amounts of effort directed toward them. Compare a language boundary: people speaking different languages are hardly aware of each other, so this kind of boundary is not as useful for navigation. Conflict creates a visible boundary.

Regions are domains within information space, defining the different selves that people present to the world. Mathematics and football are domains encompassing both subject matter and a particular manner of speaking, interacting, and behaving. Work, school, home, church, and Twitter are domains (though there may be multiple domains within each). A region can be defined by a boundary of conflict, or split by it.

Paths, I think, are stories, in a broad sense: shared understandings of sequential causality. As we move through information space, acting on the world and being acted on by it, stories help us plan our behavior, and help us form a useful, communicable understanding of what happened to us. They are the way we get to and come away from the “places” we go to in information and social space. Knowing the script, or causal sequence, for a restaurant, a date, a temple, or a construction site help us form expectations and plan; stories help us “get to” our destinations. And turning experiences into stories helps us come to terms with, learn, and communicate what happened; we can “come away” from our experiences. Paths may be well-traveled or bushwhacked fresh; stories can be old and shared by many, or entirely new.

What are these places that we go between using stories? Nodes can be understood as rituals: destinations that are entered into in information space, the metaphorical places where we spend our time and perform activities. If I am correct, then a lack of ritual (or a ritual aversion) may be correlated with experiencing derealization, being lost in information space. Like transportation “nodes” (e.g. train stations, airports), many rituals are associated with transition (graduations, weddings, Mister Rogers changing his shoes as he arrives “home”). But many rituals are the destinations themselves: socializing, dancing, singing, having dinner or tea, having sex.

Mountains last for millions of years. Buildings last for decades and stay in the same place. But nothing is static in information space. So what are the landmarks here, the unchanging (or predictably changing) features that anchor our mental maps? Since nothing is unchanging in this landscape, I think we must create landmarks, or perhaps the illusion of landmarks. Ultimate values (in the sense of Baumeister’s first need for meaning, above) must be carefully maintained through shared social signaling in order to seem unchanging. Identities are a kind of socially maintained landmark, either the identities of existing, living people, or the identities of deceased ancestors, historical figures, narrative characters, or deities. Baumeister’s illusory “fulfillment states” (imagined future states of perfect happiness) can be unchanging landmarks precisely because they do not exist. If unchanging or predictably changing landmarks are necessary for the navigation of information space, and if they cannot really exist, then “seeing through” this healthy illusion poses a risk for explorers.

A map of information space

A map of information space

Healthy Illusion

All of information space is, in a sense, made up. But there are many senses in which it is real: it is stored in human brains (and their technological extensions) as experience and memory, and the patterns identified often correspond to regularities in the world. However, information space is constantly changing. Our information world is changing much faster than that of our ancestors. In navigating this nauseating landscape, we need fixed points that do not exist. This points to a salubrious role for both bullshit and absurd conflict. Fighting about politics, sports, or religion, or believing in harmless bullshit like the persistence of personal identity or Newtonian mechanics, may play a major role in keeping us at home in reality. Without our silly conflict and illusions, we may ironically become more lost and adrift, less able to navigate. As boring and irritating as culture wars, clichés, stupid internet memes, spectator sports, and flagrant wrongness may be, they may be among the very things keeping us oriented in the ever-changing sea of information space.

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. See!? This is what happens when one becomes fully urbanized … (both the essay & its author).

  2. Allison Schneider says:

    It’s funny and accurate that you point out “the show must go on” as an ultimate value in theater. I’ve only ever thought about ultimate values as broad cosmic things but I guess there are plenty of domain-specific ones as well. What are others?

  3. Ben Hakes says:

    Sarah, very insightful piece. I think you’re spot in your treatment of nodes as rituals. Times when I have felt derealization most strongly seem to always come in ‘ritual deserts’. Also, the piece made me think about immigrant cultures, and how rituals or nodes help them navigate new worlds, both geographically and informatically. Cultures with more intense or dense nodes probably are the ones that stick closest together (again, geographically and informatically), and potentially assimilate less to the new ‘landmarks’ or fulfillment states of new cultures.

  4. I’d vouch for spectator sports against the other kinds of “healthy illusions” listed. It can be healthy if it gets one into eventually doing some playing, and there’s a cognitive-aesthetic aspect if one gets into predicting what players will do that is more pronounced than what I can see in the other kinds (that doesn’t mean that whatever experiences the reader of this comment have had regarding spectator sports will be like that, or that what I identify as positive is something they value, just speaking from personal experience)