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Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Meaning of Meaning

Probably the seminal moment of my Ph.D. work: I took the conservative position that words have meanings—I called them primary meanings—that writers can play with as they wish but not erase. “No,” I was told. “This is not true. Read Derrida.” I read Derrida, and Barthes, and Lacan, read about the sliding of the signified over the icy surface of the signifier. I understood. Words have no meaning not only because they do not exist (what is a word but the idealized sewing together of signifier and signified) but because what does exist—signifiers on the one hand and signifieds on the other—can never remain bonded. Meanings never quite settle; postcards never quite arrive. This is how meaning is. This is how it works. This is the metaphysical state of meaning. This is not however how words are experienced. Words are experienced as though they exist and as though meaning is something they have. And in any language the meanings experienced by person A are likely to coincide deeply with those of person B. It’s what makes the effect of communication via language possible. This “as if” must be kept in mind whenever one pursues questions of meaning. Words do not have meanings but they have histories. Or rather, "having" being impossible with signifiers, each of us has a history with each word we have encountered, histories of which we are never more than partly aware of. Each word bumps against that history like a steel ball in a pinball game lighting or unlighting all the bumpers.

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