Meaning versus Significance as Explained by Instagram Autumn Mania

Image © Suburban Misfit
Image © Suburban Misfit
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
(Sir Philip Sidney,  Astrophil and Stella, sonnet 1: 5-8)


The autumn semester has started at Cardiff University, which means lots of new students, and new classes for me to teach. The past few weeks have made me think long and hard (again) about why exactly I study art and culture, what role those two terms play in contemporary society, and how I can explain to students why reading medieval sonnets really matters. Inevitably, the first few seminar discussions involve a lot of plot-telling rather than analysis, and so much time is spent on figuring out what something says and how it says it that it’s difficult to get beyond that, much less explain why we should.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), autumn also means lots of new tweets about #PSL, and lots of new #autumnleaf pics on Instagram, both of which provide rich food for thought if you work in popular culture. Eugene Wolters over at the Critical Theory blog has already explored how the Pumpkin Spice Latte can be used to explain Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum. I’m out to make a much less ambitious connection today – specifically, how hashtagged pictures of autumn leaves illustrate the difference between meaning and significance.

I’m referring here to the work of E. D. Hirsch, a critic whose opinions about authorial intention and the origins of meaning I actually fundamentally disagree with, but whose distinction between the terms ‘meaning’ and ‘significance’ I still find useful. As such, I’m going to explain how he defines these two terms and then go on to abuse his definition for my own ends. For Hirsch, the ‘meaning’ of a text is something that does not change, while a text’s ‘significance’ alters depending on where, how, and by whom it is read. If we ignore the way context influences the things we literally see or notice in a text, and thus how significance influences meaning, then we can hijack these terms for a moment to talk about leaf pics. In this instance ‘meaning’ describes what a text is, and ‘significance’ describes what it does.

Image Mark Nolan
Image © Mark Nolan

When someone posts a picture of an Autumn leaf (#autumnleaf #adventure #travel #wanderlust, etc.), they are reading their surroundings at the level of meaning, and their post essentially replicates that meaning. ‘Look: a leaf’, their picture is saying. Aside from the new associations generated by the hashtags, the process is a closed circuit; the leaves fall, the photo is taken and assumes its place among all the other photos of fallen leaves, and autumn leaf piles are recreated on social media. The season ends, the leaves go away, and the pictures are swept to the gutters of feeds, walls, and profiles everywhere, out of sight and out of mind.

All art potentially functions like this. It’s created, it’s consumed, and then it’s forgotten. It’s meaningful (or potentially full of meaning), but perhaps not significant, or worth commenting on.

This is, of course, a matter of perspective, and given that I’m talking about leaf pics right now, clearly the phenomenon as a whole has enough significance to be noticed by at least one person (two if you count this list). In any case, it’s only by commenting on art, or by giving it ‘significance’, that it is immortalised and made relevant. Why are people so fascinated by autumn leaves? What motivates a person to stop and crouch down in the middle of the street, phone in hand, to document and share (with wonder) an event that happens regularly every year? Is it the shared experience of sharing they’re after? Why this, and not another experience?

These are the significant questions, and though meaning can help you to answer these questions, it is a means rather than an end. For me, studying culture and literature is less about unearthing meaning, and more about getting at (and generating) significance. Whether you do it inside or outside a classroom, learning to tell the difference between meaning and significance doesn’t just help you to figure out why reading love sonnets or looking at Autumn leaf pics can be productive. It starts to tell you how they have been productive, and for whom, and opens up a new way of looking at things that you hadn’t previously considered. If you believe (as I do) that change is – exhilaratingly  – the only real constant, and that we should strive to break out of our comfort zones, being able to think ‘otherwise‘ is invaluable.

Image © Ginny
Image © Ginny

When you stop looking for meaning and start exploring and forging significance, you will find like minds in unexpected places. You may discover that the world is at once a much bigger, and a much smaller place than you first suspected. Isn’t that worth the effort, even if it means scrolling through endless pages of other people’s leaves?

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