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The aesthetic realm of meaning
In the previous issue of Synergy, Part 1 of this article describes the nature of historical inquiry and the historian’s way of knowing. The article describes how historians and archeologists are unravelling the mystery of the Nazca civilisation, which existed in Peru from 100 A.D. to 600 A.D. Evidence that yields the truth about Nazca’s past is culled from the mysterious legacy of lines and drawings scratched into the surface of the land. These geoglyphs take the form of animals, flowers, plants, objects, or anthropomorphic figures. Speculation about their origin and meaning ranges from the supernatural to the extraterrestrial. This phenomenon serves as a metaphor for the way historians build deep understanding and new knowledge:
Like our students, archeologists are digging for information that is buried beneath the surface. They too struggle with sorting and evaluating information to make meaning of what they find in order to discover new knowledge (Gordon, 2009).
When students engage with information they have initiated an inquiry process. Their sustained success depends on the help and intervention they receive in order to find meaning in the information. Implicit in the interventions designed and applied by classroom teachers and teacher-librarians are assumptions of what classroom teachers and teacher-librarians mean by ‘inquiry’ and ‘deep understanding’.
This article defines aesthetic inquiry that is specific to the arts: Literature, music, dance, and the visual arts. The underlying premise is that there are realms to which academic disciplines belong. These realms serve as prisms that break down the light of human knowledge into distinct ‘colours’, or realms of meaning. This has consequences for how artists view the world and human experience, and how they express those views. It is a kind of inquiry, or way of knowing, that is characterised by imagination, rather than empirical methods. Phenix (1964) defines six realms of meaning. Each realm encompasses disciplines traditionally studied in schools (e.g., mathematics, science, history), as well as disciplines not usually included in primary and secondary school curricula (e.g., personal knowledge, moral knowledge, philosophy). These realms of meaning are useful for determining how to teach for meaning and deep understanding. This has important implications for inquiry situated in classrooms and school libraries. The rainbow concept of realms of meaning precludes a one-size-fits-all approach to ‘doing research’. Instead it suggests multiple models of inquiry grounded in the distinct and unique intellectual traditions of the academic disciplines. This article looks at the artist’s way of knowing, specifically through the study of literature, which belongs to the aesthetic realm of meaning. This realm informs the teaching of literature and the questions that such an approach raises about the role of the teacher-librarian in English and Language Arts inquiry. Examining oral traditions and artefacts left behind by the Nazca civilisation offers insights into how the visual artist, the storyteller, and the writer view the world through imagination.
Literature and the medium of language
The Nazca civilisation did not leave a recorded history or evidence of a written language so there is no literature that represents their aesthetic understanding of the world. Instead oral tradition has carried their stories across generations. The story found below has survived the journey and will serve to illustrate key concepts about the aesthetic realm.
Flesh-eating giants arrived by sea on reed rafts that were as large as big ships and landed in what is now known as Santa Elena. The giants are described as monstrous, with enormous heads and hair hanging down about their shoulders. Their eyes were as large as small plates. There were no women with them; the men were dressed in animal skins or nothing at all. They set up their camp like a village and dug wells in the rock until they came to water. After they built cisterns to distribute the water, they destroyed and ate everything in site, including fifty native people who were outnumbered by the giants. The giants were eventually defeated by an angel who slew them with a single stroke of a sharp, bright sword and a fearful fire from heaven that consumed them (Cieza de León, 1883).
As fantastic as this story seems, there may be some truth to it, as evidenced by a Peruvian museum exhibit of the bones that remain of the Giants of Saint Elena (Fig. 1).
Figure 1: Remains of the Giants of Santa Elena
Is this exhibit genuine? Is the story based on fact? Is it a mythological representation of a real event, or is it pure fiction? These are questions historians would ask because they are interested in what really happened in the past. Aesthetics, however, is not interested in finding out what is true and not true in the literal sense. Literary language is essentially fictional; it is not designed to convey literal truth. Literary works, even when based on facts or delivered as a realistic story, are ideal abstractions. Aesthetic understanding is attained through direct perception of these abstractions, rather than through concepts (Phenix, 1964). Nor is the understanding expressed in propositions, as with scientific knowledge, but in particular objects.
For example, a weaving or piece of pottery, such as the Nazca objects shown in Fig. 2, can only be understood as unique objects that convey meaning through the medium of wool or clay. In the case of the story of the Saint Elena giants, the medium for expression is language. What makes the weaving, the pottery, and the story aesthetic objects of art is the medium that expresses their meaning, whether it is wool, clay, or language. The medium conveys details that make the work of art unique. In the Nazca story, these details are conveyed through descriptive propositions such as, ‘The men were wearing animal skins or nothing at all’. These propositions contribute to the content of the work of art but their truth or falsity is not the measure of the aesthetic meaning of the work.
Figure 2: Nazca Objects of Art
Similarly, the ability of a student to recall details of plot or descriptions of character and setting do not constitute aesthetic understanding. Tests, research papers, or any learning outcome that assesses knowledge and understanding based on this kind of detail cannot assess the learner’s grasp of the work’s meaning. Such understanding is the perception of the literary work as a particular, complex organisation of verbal symbols that communicate ideational, emotional, and sensuous meanings unique to that work (Phenix, 1964). This is more obvious in the case of a weaving or piece of pottery, since the medium of wool or clay is concrete, with observable properties such as colour, texture, and form. Language, however, is abstract and is experienced through imagination rather than directly through the senses.
It would seem that the literary arts have the advantage of using the commonly accepted and widely understood medium of language. However, language can create barriers to literary understanding. Though the same vocabulary and grammar apply to literary language and everyday language, or language applied to other realms and discipline such as history, the kind of language used varies. Hence students may confuse literary, or the aesthetic meanings of words, with their meanings in other realms. A major problem in the study of literature is to distinguish the various functions of language. Language used for aesthetic purposes conveys different meanings from language used for non-aesthetic purposes. In literature, language is deliberately exploited for its expressive effect rather than to describe things. Language is used to stimulate contemplation. Language is intended as a source of aesthetic delight and not as a means to another end. The language of art is non-discursive; it is not exclusively meant to tell a story. It is symbolic and metaphoric, offering layers of interpretation. This poses challenges for the design of learning experiences for aesthetic learning. Technology is a viable tool to meet this challenge. It offers a digital medium where web 2.0 tools, such as Wallwisher, encourage learners to play with language.
Through language, various patterns of sound and of imagery, symbol, metaphor, and myth are organised into a single expressive whole (Phenix, 1964). Literature differs from ordinary language in exploiting the rhythmic possibilities of language. There is an increased regularity in poetic devices and syntax, such as rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration. The art of literature depends on the possibility of using language figuratively, rather than literally or discursively. Figurative language includes literary images which stand for something inner and ideal. Images may be connected with the senses, and attach meaning to objects that become symbols. Symbols emerge as objects that refer to something other than themselves. A critical literary concept is metaphor, which contains an analogy between two different things and uses both image and symbol. When literary language is explicitly taught in the context of the literature, students move toward understanding the meaning of the literary work.
It seems that the single most important contribution that the school library can make to helping students develop a sensitivity to language as an art medium is to provide a strong poetry collection and to raise the profile of literary language through poetry slams and readings, poetry writing, musical lyrics, and web 2.0 tools. These initiatives, designed and implemented in collaboration with classroom teachers, are intended not as ends in themselves, but as strategies to develop an understanding of literary language as the medium for aesthetic understanding.