Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Arbitrary Nature of the Sign

Attempting to divine the meaning of a text is a slippery business. One may favor the approach that Husserl's phenomenology takes, which seeks to explore human consciousness to find the universal essence of things through the particulars that instantiate them, or Heidegger's hermeneutics, which teaches that meaning does not originate in the artist, but reveals itself in language. Hirsche states that meaning lies in whatever the author intended when he was writing the text; while Gadamer's reception theory posits that meaning is "actualized" by the reader (Eagleton 59-86).

The theories are complex, numerous, and diverse; therefore, for the purposes of this blog entry, we will focus on Ferdinand de Saussur's structuralist approach, which posits that meaning is derived from language and that, "poems are to be viewed as 'functional structures', in which signifiers and signifieds are governed by a single complex set of relations. Also, meaning is not 'substantial' but 'relational' and concentrates on form rather than content (Eagleton 86). One problem with this approach is that if every text is reduced to its structure, then there is a danger of equating a work like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice with Beach Blanket Bingo because they both have the same "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" structure. Structuralism misses a lot by privileging structure over content. It judges a work by its skeletal structure and pays no attention to how the author fleshes out the story with tone, setting, and character development(Eagleton 86).

The text is reduced to a series of signifiers (sounds or images), signifieds (concepts), and the formulas that connect them. And it is important to note that the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary. Concepts, such as photo or playground, are not linked by any "inner relationship" to the sounds or letter symbols that signify them, as the signifiers change over time and vary across different cultures and languages (Rivkin and Ryan 62). Each sign in the system is defined by its difference from other signs and its meaning is relational. One can understand the meaning of individual words by their context, how the word is constructed, and by their syntactic position. If a word is placed in a certain position in a sentence, then it may function as a verb as opposed to an adjective. If moved, then it may become a noun. In this way, structure can give meaning to words—even nonsense words. Saussur's Course in General Linguistics mentions Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem The Jabberwocky to illustrate this point (Rivkin and Ryan 61). For example, let us examine the line where the narrator warns the boy about two different monsters by stating, "Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun / The frumious Bandersnatch" (7-8). The words "Jubjub," "frumious," and "Bandersnatch" are all nonsense words; however, we are able to determine their meaning by their position in the sentence. "Bandersnatch" is a noun because it is in the direct object position and "Jubjub" and "frumious" are adjectives because they modify the nouns that they precede. We can further define these nonsense words by their context. Since the boy is being told to beware the "Jubjub bird" and to shun the "frumious Bandersnatch," we know that the words must represent something sinister or evil and can replace them with words such as "evil" or "man-eating" or "monstrous" in order to make sense of nonsense. I included a clip of a reading of The Jabberwocky to illustrate that meaning can be derived from the underlying structures of language and that our tacit understanding of these structures allows us to find meaning in a text, even if it is largely nonsensical.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

de Saussure, Ferdinand. "Course in General Linguistics." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael. New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 59-71.

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