How to Question and How it is Understood (Theory Toolbox)

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Moving forward with creating art objects, it is important to be able to ask the question “why” when concerning the material you are discussing, and how that information is understood. The first three chapters of Theory Toolbox will get you started with considering what information you pick up, how to question it, and how then to take that information and use it for your work.


Theory Toolbox

Chapter 1: Why Theory?

Chapter one describes to its readers the importance of questioning everything. There are many “natural facts” (things we do not question) in life, because “that’s just how they are.” But, chapter one introduces the idea that everything is suspect, and we actually should be questioning everything. An example of questioning natural facts would be in a classroom, specifically an art studio. If your teacher gives you specific directions on how to do something, it is important to ask why. Why does a certain project need to be done this way? Can I find a way to do it differently and still meet the guidelines? These types of questions open you up to all kinds of new possibilities when being creative.

Chapter 2: Author/ity

Chapter two discusses the role of the author when creating meaning and defines the word “canonicity.” the text defines this term by stating that people achieve greatness by being perceived by the world as great. But, its all about cultural context. there are many great works that exist without an author, but they are canonized because of the fact that they are widely perceived as being great works. the text then goes into the discussion about the “death of the author,” or, to put it in less dramatic terms; what happens when the author’s intention doesn’t hold as much ground as the interpreted meaning does. The authors meaning doesn’t always have to be considered because people have to ability to interpret text and create their own meaning from it.

Chapter 3: Reading

Chapter two discusses authors, and chapter three goes into detail about the role of the reader and their ability to draw meaning from text. A signifier is a word that signifies what the word stands for, but the referent has to do with the context of the word. For example, the word “ring” can represent either a physical object, or an action, the meaning of word depends on the context. All words once meant nothing, but words are given meaning when society assigns it a meaning. Another point made in the book is the difference between metaphor and metonymy. a metaphor uses like or as to describe something as something else. for example, “she hit the ground like a sack of potatoes.” While a metonymy is the act of replacing the “official” brand name of an object for something else, like calling my MacBook Pro my laptop.


Text Book: The Theory Toolbox

In the Theory Toolbox, the concepts within the book start with what a “natural fact” is. According to chapter one of the Theory Toolbox, a “natural fact” is something that someone has always seen and believed in the same way and won’t see it differently. A “natural fact” is basically an opinion that someone has never seen the other side of, therefore making it a natural belief for them. It becomes something that people won’t even want to learn differently, because something else would not be natural to them.

Moving forward in chapter one, we are faced with the first theoretical point. In the Theory Toolbox, it is revealed that the first theoretical point is that you should be suspicious of everything. The reasoning given for this theoretical point is that a “natural fact” cannot just exist. Everything must come from somewhere, everything has a meaning. You can’t just learn something and not be suspicious of it, you could be learning it the complete wrong way. If you don’t ask the right questions, how can anything you know be true?

Putting theory into use, in an example such as the requirements given for an assignment in class, you might have something bigger than you first thought. For example, if you are given project requirements such as having to have work that is neat, clean, and smoothly sanded all on top of a pedestal, theory brings in some fantastic questions about the assignment. You can ask questions such as what does being neat, clean and smoothly sanded mean, or what counts as a pedestal? When you put being suspicious of everything into use, it shows you how the Theory Toolbox are only beginning to help you understand these concepts of theory.

In chapter two of the Theory Toolbox, it gets more into the author side of theory. It begins with the concept of “canonicity”, which is described as the establishment of authority and greatness to people’s work, but only under the category of historical literature. The Canon mainly exists of white western European men, who also decided what would qualify as a part of the Canon. For example, someone could write an amazing story, poem, or any other work of literature, and it might not be accepted as a part of the Canon because it doesn’t have correct historical context or that it was not praised from the beginning. Something great could also not be accepted because it isn’t very relevant or essential to the great works that are a part of the Canon.  Pretty much, it’s almost saying that if you aren’t a part of the Canon, then your work isn’t as important.

When it comes to the author, the Theory Toolbox explains that the function of the author isn’t just to write the text. The author’s function is described as though the author has zero control over what their text means, but it is also a guarantee for meaning. Because the author is behind the text, that means that there will never not be a meaning for it, even if it is subtle. The author’s function also ties into the concept of the “death of the author”. Not meant to be taken as a literal death, the “death of the author” simply means that there comes a period when the author is no longer needed to explain the meaning of the text. Instead, more of the questions are directed to the author, and are about what they originally meant. The author dying, is almost like the opposite, because you are getting closer to the meaning of the life that they put into the text.

Diving into chapter three of the Theory Toolbox, it sort of circles back to the basis of opinions with the statement “Opinions are like assholes: everyone’s got one”. The idea behind this statement that the Theory Toolbox gives, is that no one thing is better than the other, which also ties into that if there were no facts, everyone’s interpretations would just become the facts. Basically, everyone has an opinion, which could be a fact or not, but no one opinion is better or has more meaning that the other.

Moving far along through chapter three of the Theory Toolbox, it brings up the concepts of words, and how they relate to each other. To start off, a signifier is a word, but it is the symbol or sign of a word, what we have learned what that word is. If you chose a word such as knife, the first thing that would come into mind is a sharp metal tool used to cut or stab things, because that is what we have always been told a knife is. The signifier is what a word represents as to what culture has taught us about the word.

After the signifier, comes the referent. A referent is what the word refers to, the thing that the word represents. Going back to the knife, the referent for the word knife would be a sharp metal tool with a handle to hold that has a blade attached. When you see a knife, you know that the object is called by the word knife. Along with a knife being a part of the word knife, it brings you into a word signified, which is basically the connotations of a word, what you associate the word with. With the word knife, it could signify things like danger, injury, or even foods that it is used to cut like bread or vegetables. All these things are small meanings for one simple word, it makes you think about other meanings words could have.

Along with other examples tying into the meanings or words, it brings us into how words have meanings in specific contexts. Words cannot just mean something that you think of on your own or something natural, they only have meanings when we learn what culture has taught us about the meaning. For example, you can’t look at a knife and say that it is used as a device to take care of your teeth because that is not the meaning that culture has given us about the word. Because of this, we run into metaphors and metonymies.

Metaphors are when you put words into a figure of speech to bring different meanings to words, whereas metonymy is how different words can be used to all mean the same thing as one original word. Back to the knife again, you could put it into a metaphor like “My mother’s final words to me were a knife into my gut.” which would show how that a knife could mean pain. But with metonymy, it is how other words such as blade, weapon, and blunt instrument can all mean the same thing as a knife. As this is the last concept the Theory Toolbox gives us in the first three chapters, it really gives you a new meaning to theory, how it relates to everything, and why it is important. It shows us how we do not need to just believe everything we are told, but that everything will and does have a meaning, even if it isn’t clear at first.


AR 1065 Design & Meaning Handbook Copyright © by Phil Lonergan. All Rights Reserved.

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