This brief essay is the thirteenth in a series addressing the emergence of meaning, by James Leonard.
(Please note: the following material is Â© copyright James Leonard 2006 and may not be used in any way without permission from author)
You might not think there is an art to drafting a “connect-the-dots” activity for children, but there is. To our adult eyes, the resulting puzzle may not be as challenging as a New York Times Sunday crossword. But I have distinct childhood memories of both disappointing and satisfying connect-the-dots.
A bad connect-the-dots would give away too much too quickly. The dots would run the perimeter of the depicted object at tight regular intervals like a perforated line. The intended image was unmistakable and complete, even to eyes of a five year old, long before placing crayon to paper. Connecting the dots was just a formality.
A good connect-the-dots always left me guessing, “What will this be?” The dots were often highly irregular in their spacing, with clusters and bunches separated by large amounts of paper. The cleverest ones would do more than just trace the silhouette of an image. The path would carry my crayon through the center of the object, sometimes even crossing lines I had just drawn. And in the best circumstances, it wasn’t until I was three fourths through the puzzle that the image would reveal itself.
These connect-the-dots, the good ones, often inspired my imagination. As a child, I would wonder if there was more than one way to connect the dots, more than one picture hidden on that page. As an adult, I now make connections between this activity and human tendencies towards shamanistic arts. I am fascinated by our inclinations to read metaphoric omens in nature and trust our abilities to intuitively discern patterns in arbitrary scatterings of complex systems: fragments of tea leaves, wrinkles on one’s hands, scatterings of cast stones, geocentric mappings of the planets, ink blots on paper.
All our shamanistic practices work a bit like a connect-the-dots, except there is no contrived or intended image behind the patterns we find and the connections we make. Instead of a puzzle with a solution, shamanistic practices generate their meanings in realtime as the dots are connected. But just like a good connect-the-dots, sometimes the meaning is not apparent until three quarters of the dots have been connected. Here’s the twist though: unlike a predetermined image that lies in hiding, meaning that is generated does not exist until it is perceived. It is as if generative meaning pops into existence, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly. A fine, fuzzy line divides the meaningful and the meaningless, similar to the line between the living and the not living. This characteristic compels me to declare: meaning is an emergent phenomenon.
(essay 1: wandering; essay 2: the whole; essay 3: news; essay 4: belief; essay 5: debbie; essay 6: consciousness; essay7: culture; essay 8: prototyping; essay 9: fitness; essay 10: exploration; essay 11: meaning; essay 12: pie)