31 May 2006

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying... ?

A post over at Evil Bender's blog got me thinking about what it is to signify. EB linked to posts about the blogtroversy (I apologize for that, Lord) surrounding author/theorist/jerk Jeff Goldstein, whom I don't especially want to link to here because I just wasted half an hour of my life by reading several of his long, rambling blog entries and I would like to prevent others from sharing my pain. Goldstein's argument, as I understand it, is that meaning is fundamentally created by the signifier at the time of inscription rather than by the reader at the time of interpretation.

As a naive student of literature and language, I have a number of problems with this theoretical construct. First of all, while I must admit that the act of signification provides the potential for meaning to be created, I would argue that it does not comprise the Author creating a meaning. Rather, it is the user of an arbitrary, physical, symbolic system using that system to record an approximation of whatever meaning exists in her head (how "meaning" is generated there is another question entirely). There is no meaning inherent in those symbols except as they exist in a historical relationship to the user who generated them and to other users of the arbitrary system. Thus, we really can't say that any meaning "exists" independently of those who can interpret it.

Furthermore, since a symbolic system is necessarily a faulty approximation of "actual" meaning, no two users of an arbitrary symbolic system will interpret it in the same fashion. User A will interpret a signification in one manner (which depends in large part on his historical moment and prior experience with the symbolic system), whereas User B generally will interpret it in a different manner (although not always in a manner that is incompatible with A's interpretation). Since the person who first generated the signification made a point of choosing which symbols and systemic features to use, we can presume that she had a specific purpose in mind for her choice of each. We cannot, however, assume that her interpretation of the signification is somehow more valid or meaningful than anyone else's. Why not? Because meaning is generated by users who are familiar with a system.

There is nothing especially privileged about the creator of signification, except that her creation has some potential to remind her of what she was thinking when she created it. The general purpose of a communicative symbolic system, however, is to allow the generator to create a shared perception with others who are familiar with the system. Thus, in order for such communication to be successful, the generator and interpreter(s) of the signification must share some degree of expertise in the use of the system. If either side is somehow deficient, the communication will not work. Thus, if no one could understand or benefit from Shakespeare's writings, then Shakespeare would be, for all practical purposes, an insignificant author -- regardless of what he had written.

From here, I could go on rants about aesthetics or political motivations for linguistic theories, but I want Chiptole, so you just forget about it, mister.

4 comments:

marshwiggle said...

Chipotle trumps!

Evil Bender said...

It does indeed, even though its probably worse for you than a Big Mac. (Sad, but true.)

Excellent analysis, by the way.

The Lizard Queen said...

How is it that I'd never heard of this legendary "Chipotle" until it was mentioned on Shakespeare's Sister?

And, indeed, excellent analyisis. :)

marshwiggle said...

don't feel bad, I'd never heard of it until I worked for it.