On Possible and Actual Theses by Lessig

In several places in his recent book Code, Larry Lessig develops the idea of a "latent ambiguity." A text which is perfectly clear and unambiguous when it is written can come to become unclear and ambiguous merely through the passage of time and the changing of circumstances around it. Lessig's prime example is the Fourth Amendment, which defends against unreasonable searches and seizures. In the last century, the question has arisen as to whether this Amendment protects physical security -- your right not to have King George's men knocking down your door looking for unflattering portratits of the King -- or privacy -- your right not to have King George's men knowing whether you possess unflattering portraits of the King.

This ambiguity pops up because, given the nature of evidence, police forces, and portraits (as physical objects), the only way King George's men really had of finding crude caricatures was to bust down your door and come in looking. Any abstract intrusion the state could make on your privacy came part-and-parcel with a corresponding physical intrusion. But time and technology have separated these concepts: the birth of the telephone was also the birth of wiretapping, and suddenly the Feds could find out what you were up to without posing any physical hardship on you yourself. The Fourth Amendment had seemed perfectly clear before, but now it became consistent with each of two distinct and opposed interpretations.

Lessig intends his analysis of latent ambiguities to focus our attention on those places where he feels a new clarity is required, he would find those ambiguities which have sprung their traps on us and beat them back with a new set of decisions and distinctions. As much as I agree with him on this point (as, indeed, on almost every point he raises), I think also that there are times when the latent, the ambiguous, should be celebrated, should be stared at in wonder, these old dogs teaching us new tricks. The text which can survive, cut adrift from its original meanings, and live to have not one, but multiple new meanings, the text which can hide modestly within itself and shamefully lead on two suitors so, does this not speak of its powers?

I have a scrap of plasticine paper in my desk which reads "Break At Starline And Tear Away." What does this mean? It's the plot outline of a melodramatic play about ruined Hollywood careers. It's the signoff of a nostalgic astronaut making one more voyage into the cosmos. It's a set of directions to a highly evocative street corner. It's poetry, pure and plain.

It also happens to be the backing label from a sticky nametag, but that was in its old life, before its latent ambiguity revealed itself, back when industrial simplicity was the name of the game. And I like it so much better in its new multiplicity -- it says so much more, it raises up so many more meanings. The ambiguity is what makes it. Prophecy is boring: once you've figured out what that ranting dude was actually talking about, you're like all, well, duh, do you want card tricks with that? But ambiguity? Ambiguity is beautiful, the Starline sails onward and outward, gloriously not quite making sense, leaving puzzles and mystery in its wake, it no longer says enough to be fully meaningful. And every extension one makes from it, every attempt to add some bits and bots of reality to rebuild a complete meaning, every extension could work, yes, but remains still unproven, and all these extensions coexist and jostle, take their places at the Starline and tear away from each other, and it means infinitely more than it did before.

Take an old form and marvel at its new meanings, as time passes and entropy kicks down the door, meanings tend towards disintegration, but before they finally collapse in a chaotic cloud of dust they bifurcate and split again, and in that liminal transitional region there is something lurking, waiting for those brave enough to venture into those shadowy zones, and if you walk though the mists of meaning, you may spin around and there it is, wagging its tails at you and looking at you with soulful eyes into which anything could be read. Animals need to be dead before you can read their entrails, but they can't be sausage, either.

For centuries, if not millennia, the highest mark of erudition and scholarly distinction in China was etymology, tracking down words and ideographs to their roots, tracing the ways in which their meanings shifted with time, finding the original long-forgotten sources for this family name or that character. This alone is not yet wonderful. What is wonderful is that the vast majority of the etymological work carried out generations of scholars, all the way from the original Confucians to the Neo-Confucians, was almost entirely spurious. False trails, tempting coincidences, explanations with too much rhetorical force for their own good, the result is a corpus of possibilities that make everything mean too much, give everyone a third grandfather and a second nose. The humble words couldn't care less what the scholars say about them, they mean more or less what people use them to mean, and so what if their history isn't what people say it was, sure, sure, but isn't it more fun to know that your family's town takes its name from a river in Yenan province, and for a mountain in the east, and also in commemoration of a battle fought against the Hsiung-Nu, and to honor the patron of your great-great-great-grandfather's elder brother?

Sometimes I think this stuff should be taught in schools -- show the kids a boring old fact or two, and ask them to scry a little, to interrogate the cast-off fragments of history for other possibilities. Change the context and you change the function, as a Frenchman once said about a toilet bowl, and in our crazy fast-paced juxtaposition of a modern world, learning how to reassimilate something within radically differing contexts might actually be a useful skill, might make the kiddos ask some probing questions about their WWF action figures, the toy as a toy, the toy as a reminder of a beloved hero, what it means to act the part of a wrestler, the toy sitting in a box on a shelf in the store with hundreds of identical twins, the toy in a television commercial and whether it looks like the one you've got or not, and the toy as an object -- will Stone Cold turn into Hot Plastic in the microwave? Useful, sure, and maybe, just maybe, if they hang onto this habit of looking for latent ambiguities and hidden meanings, if they remember the beauty of seeing fresh possibilities, they'll go out into the world and breathe a little poetry into the things everyone else has given up for lost.