Of/About, part 1: Important Distractions

Oh yeah, you loved that “aboutness” article.  Admit it, you were thinking, “This is relevant to my interests!  Now I totally understand subject classification!”  Well, first, don’t worry, Part 2 of this will be about actually using Ofness and Aboutness in ways that matter to you as a metadata librarian, because we had articles about that, as well.  But I write this part for two reasons:

  1. It amuses me to do so, and I like to mess with peoples’ minds.  I didn’t get degrees in cognitive science and psychology so I would use them.  No, I did it so I can write an amusing article twenty years later.
  2. It is important to understand that our ideas of subject assignment came about after some difficulties, and that those difficulties mean that one should be both willing to step beyond those ideas on occasion AND very suspicious when those occasions occur.

But first, some jokes and anecdotes.

  • A man sees a psychiatrist, who shows him some inkblots.  First one, the man says, “Two people having sex.” Second one, “two people having sex.”  Even the one that looks like a tree is “an orgy.”  Psychiatrist says, “I believe you’re obsessed with sex.”  Man replies, “Me?  You’re the ones showing me all of these dirty pictures!”
  • Man at a fine restaurant asks for a matchbook.  Waiter sneers and says, “Here, sir, we use lighters,” bringing one out of his vest pocket.  Man says, “How am I going to pick my teeth with a lighter?”
  • Melville really had thought that his novel was about whaling.
  • Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” was a sentence designed to be grammatical, but nonsensical.  Each of the words have meaning, but put together the meanings seems to dissolve.  Of course, that never stops anyone from giving it meanings.

Anyhow, I want you to step beyond the fuzziness of “aboutness” and embrace the fuzziness of “ofness” (temporarily).  For example, what is this?


It’s not a pipe.  In fact, it says right there, in French (trust me if you don’t speak French).  But it’s of a pipe, right?  Well, sure.  Oh wait, the painting is of a pipe, but the painting is in Los Angeles.  This is a picture of said painting.  Well, a file that shows that picture, given the right mediation.  Okay, a copy of that file stored on your local machine.  I guess the ofness continues to shine through all of those transformations, right?  Unless you’ve never seen a pipe before, then you’re taking my word.  Make sure you ask a few more people.  Try to get them to say why they’re so sure it’s a pipe.  I spent an entire class in psycholinguistics trying to answer how we know what any object we perceive is.

Or, how about this picture?


We all know what this is of, right?  Right, I even have the LCSH for it: “Women travelers–France”.  Okay, fine, “Trees–France”.  I also see security barriers and sunglasses.  Oh goodness, you’re going to make me say it, right? LCSH: “Radio and television towers”.  Hah!  See, it’s informative; you didn’t even know that was a (possibly the most lucrative) use for it, did you?  According to our assigned article, I’ve answered the question “Is this image informative regarding [possible term]?”

Okay, to be more concrete, much thought in the 20th century went into the ideas that meaning and purpose, even the meaning we think of as “ofness,” is not sitting in the subject, but is constructed by the observer.  Even if the author or creator of an object had a different meaning or purpose in mind, whatever meaning is gotten by the observer counts (sorry, Melville) (and Tolkien, who hated allegory).  We don’t, however, construct these meanings for, well, no purpose; the meanings help us to navigate our world, as well as communicate with others so that they can get our meanings without first-hand experience.

We take shortcuts, though.  We like to work on the assumption that our meanings (at least, of non-unique events and objects) are shared.  When someone says cilantro tastes like soap, we wonder how they could think that.  My mom, my sister, and I once spent TWO minutes pointing out a brilliant flower in a field to my dad until we remembered he’s red-green colorblind.  In the article “Torquetums, flute cases, and puff sleeves: A study in folksonomic and expert image tagging,” look at the expert’s tag list in the end.  Did you say, “Wow, now THAT’S useful,” or did you say, “What the what, now?”

Librarians are good at keeping these issues in mind. Our answers to many questions, beyond certain ethical standards, are, “Well, what do the patrons want?”  In part 2, we see what we can learn to answer that question in relation to ofness and aboutness.

Of/About, part 1: Important Distractions

5 thoughts on “Of/About, part 1: Important Distractions

  1. I once took an American lit course very like what you describe–one of the major themes was considering the way in which the characters in each of the works constructed his or her own world according to some internal logic, even if it seemed to be in opposition to the “reality” presented by the author. Thanks for pulling that out of the article and presenting it so amusingly!


    1. Oh, goodness, don’t get me started on that dress. It’s switching on me. I had to find another picture of it in a spot I had seen before just to be sure that there weren’t two different pictures.


  2. Nice post (and comments)! All kinds of issues arise when thinking “objectively” about subject analysis, and by “objective”, I mean a one size fits all approach … not that you’re suggesting that, of course! … because as you say, meaning can (and likely rightly) be conceived as dependent on the observer. So the natural question becomes: Who are our observers? And that will be a question that really only our client, the Bryant Museum, can (and will) answer for us! 🙂


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