Posted by: HAT | May 7, 2009

On “Meaning”

A view from my office window.  This rose-breasted grosbeak and family seems to have taken up residence nearby and has become a regular.

A view from my office window. This rose-breasted grosbeak and family seems to have taken up residence nearby and has become a regular.

Now reading: Elizabeth Grosz, Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction (London/New York: Routledge, 1990). Have managed to make it through the second chapter, “ego and the imaginary,” which also contains a hint of foreshadowing about the symbolic order. I don’t understand it as well as I want to, especially the analysis of jealousy (maybe this means I have even more problems in that area than I have already recognized), and will probably have to read it again if I want to understand the Lacanian categories well enough to follow some of what Irigaray says. (Bleah — no offense to Elizabeth Grosz, but if I have a cup of tea, reading about Lacan isn’t it.) Nevertheless, this has had the effect of making me think harder about meaning.

I think this foregrounding of “meaning” helps. The problem of why it makes any sense to look at what people have said about utopia, i.e., “utopian discourse,” still plagues me — when I stop to think about it, which because of the disturbing effect this has I do as little as I can force myself to. But this is just a special case of the problem of why it makes any sense to look at what people have said about anything, a special case of the problem of justifying studying the humanities, one of my recurrent unresolved problems. But it begins to look almost soluble in light of the category of “meaning.”

Lacan’s theory is a theory of meaning. Freud’s theory is a theory of meaning.

(Presenting this as an epiphany, as I must, will probably and sadly mean to some that I have not been paying enough attention for a few decades.)

Once we accept that, we can start seeing meaning everywhere. “Meaning” motivates the “close readings” and other forms or methods of interpretation – exegesis – hermeneutics. Think of the “reading” of symptoms and signs à la Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic. Think of Dewey and the notion of naturalistic or what we might call functional or experiential signs, noticeable attributes that carry information (“good to eat,” “probably sticky,” “looks breakable,” . . .) Think of the fetishism of commodities and its analysis — what does it mean that commodities enter into relationships with one another while people become bystanders, as if unimplicated? [Well, it means that we are living in a social formation characterized by a capitalist mode of production, in which social relations are mediated by the market and the money economy . . . or something like that.]

I don’t know whether the notion of “meaning” by itself explains that much — but, for that matter, I might want to understand “explanation” as a specific structure of meaning.

An important one. But not the only one. Not even the only one that matters for doing things in the world. Although — can’t separate my self from my bias here — when it comes to doing things in the world, I can’t see how any meaning that matters would be inexpressible in the form of explanation. (So I have a difficult time doing things that don’t seem to resolve themselves into explanation. It seems so pointless. What I want to know is why.)

    This reminds me of my daughter, when she was learning to speak English, asking me unanswerable why questions — “Why is that a dog?” “Why is that a tree?” — as if the names of things were those names for some reason. Adorno refers to this phenomenon, too, in Negative Dialectics.

    This, in turn, points to the phenomenon of the differend and those insights or demands that can’t be articulated in the terms of the dominant discourse. And as an aside: we might think it takes energy, work to keep things repressed, to keep not noticing things — let’s say, for the sake of argument, the kind of Real things science likes to be about. But phenomena like blind spots are well-known. And while you might think it takes lots of energy to keep something in our collective metaphorical blind spot, maybe it doesn’t. Suppose — for the sake of argument — most of the energy required is the energy it takes to organize things in a certain way at the outset, and then a bit to train people to use those procedures, and only those procedures, that result in a certain angle of vision. Then, you don’t have to “keep on repressing” in an active way. The repression (ignorance, unconsciousness) is a fairly automatic result of routine practice. What would take lots of energy would be to see things/think of things in any other way. To notice something new, something different.

So, remembering that we know of different structures of meaning, like explanation of variance, or revelation of character, or signification of relationship, or metonymy & metaphor, or linguistic/symbolic . . . identification [of x] as element of system or fabric or network of relations . . .

Remembering that we know of, know some different structures of meaning, and for that reason might need to work at staying clear about which one or ones we are using or thinking of in a particular context, at least consciously, . . .

But then taking increasingly seriously the notion that desire itself might mean something, and that objects of desire might become objects of desire because of their meaning or meanings within a system of constitution of meaning . . .

Then something a person might learn by studying what some people say, have said about utopia, by paying attention to words about utopia, might be something about what some things mean — and maybe not just to these people, but to other people, for whom these people are spokespeople.

What do those words mean?
What does that desire mean?
What does it mean when people say they want whatever it is they say they want?


  1. […] myself I am not crazy, and also to find it for the purposes of citation (ESD, 147-150), I see that the grosbeak has returned! Along with not one but two […]

  2. […] developed a fondness for him and a sentimental attachment that is a matter of public record (here, here, here, and […]

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