Posted by: HAT | May 7, 2009

More on Meaning

I love this picture.  What does that mean?

I love this picture. What does that mean?

More thoughts on meaning.

(1) I keep returning to the significance of labeling the drives, energy, desire, pleasure etc. addressed in psychoanalytic theory “sexual.” Of course I wouldn’t have done that, probably — which means something. However, and more to the point for me, what if anything makes that label necessary (“Why is that ‘sexual’?” “Why is that ‘a dog’?”), or even apt, rather than some other? Why arrange all those meanings — associations, links, connections, relationships, arrangements, cardinal and ordinal positionings, etc. — that way? Why those inclusions, and exclusions? What other way or ways might we arrange them? What would happen if we did that?

(For instance, “needs” according to Grosz1 have something to do with the Real; they refer insistently to something — whether we know it or not — that we’ll literally die if we don’t get, whether or not we want to. But the last time I checked, sex was not something that people will literally die if they don’t get. — granted, the species would die out, if doing without went too far, but individuals would not, presumably, any earlier than were going to already — So isn’t it funny-like that eating & peeing & pooping which at some pre-conscious infantile pre-thematized level theoretically have ties to instincts, being matters of life and death, would theoretically be assimilated to sex/sexual desire/sexual satisfactions — that we would follow along after Freud and label them sexual, read the matters of life and death in light of something else, rather than reading that something else in light of the matters of life and death? Or even reading them all in light of some other item on the agenda?)

Aside: I haven’t understood yet why the imaginary dyad relationship doesn’t permit learning and development. I just don’t get that.

Presumably not arbitrary. Presumably has something to do with the meaning of “sexual” in the context of the formulation of these ideas. Which then further modify or perhaps augment the meaning of “sexual.”

(2) Something about difference, similarity, synonymy, and learning. Adorno raises the question more than once of whether “like knows like, or like knows unlike.” Irigaray talks about difference, the impossibility of a sexual relation, the erasure of difference, the imposition of “the same” on sexual difference — which all references, as well as I can understand at this point, a reduction of new problems and “the unknown” to old, soluble problems and “the known.” Tried and true procedure, but might it also turn out that we only know this procedure and no other for what we call “learning”? And also, possibly, that what we call “learning” has an other, or others, has other forms, other contents, than we have so far . . . learned? This question of possible new experience might also work as the point of contact with Agamben’s thought, on potentialities, on “the outside,” and in some obscure way the souls in limbo who have always already forgotten God and so “are infused with a joy with no outlet.”2

I think I am starting to understand why this question of how people can possibly learn anything keeps turning up. If I need to learn something that I don’t already know, don’t already have a category or a word for, don’t already have language for, that doesn’t fit into my language, that my language doesn’t stretch to or cover, which means my ideas don’t already stretch to it or cover it, and so it also presumably isn’t part of the experience that language encodes . . . can I learn it? Can I even experience it?

What if I cannot encounter anything but what I already have linguistic apparatus to encounter? [worst case]

What if I can, but it doesn’t mean anything? (Can’t mean anything, because “meaning” by definition has something to do with the system or systems within which something called “meaning” takes place? [still pretty bad. if we want to stick with “taking place” language, then we could think of “utopia” as the place where this meaning could take place. But that makes that place radically inaccessible to us, as a meaningful alternative, from within our current world. This inaccessibility points again to the radical impossibility of the utopian text.3]

Or, perhaps I can, and it might even mean something, but I can’t communicate that meaning to someone else, because of the limitations of the common system we need to use? (“Words fail me . . .”) [problematic but somewhat more hopeful — e.g., maybe i could take you there, then you could encounter it too — if it weren’t too transient for that — or maybe i could use some medium other than language . . . if such a medium existed . . . ?? art?? music?? something rather more complex, some more complex form of language like a novel that would convey something of the . . . experience?? voilà focus on aesthetics?? or maybe I could reconstruct the conditions of the experience, maybe if we undertook a specific practice or set of practices, that would reproduce the conditions of this experience? Voilà, religion?? But note that all this activity will itself have an impact on the language/meaning-creating systems in which we operate, that we use . . . so that, like a mobile, everything moves all the time, even when we act as if it were holding still.]

[OK, I just can’t get quite this pessimistic about language. By far the more intractable problem, it seems to me, is mobilizing comrades and effective forces of transformation once you glimpse alternative possibilities. Still Hegelian after all these years, it also seems to me we don’t need to see “all the way” to utopia — as far as the next right step would suffice. As Mary Poppins says, “Enough is as good as a feast.”]
[On the other hand — as my pastor says frequently in sermons — all the angels say “Don’t be afraid!” Presumably not merely coincidentally, or gratuitously. Whether we can take a step into possible meaninglessness, what renders such a step actually (even probabilistically) promising rather than only terrifying, reckless, and imbecile — those strike me as prudent questions, answers to which I would like to have.]


1Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction (London/New York: Routledge, 1990) p. 60.

2Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) p. 6.

3Fredric Jameson, “”Progress vs. Utopia, or Can We Imagine the Future?” in Archaeologies of the Future (London/New York: Verso, 2005) 281-295, p. 293-4. (But note, the essay has a date of 1982)



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