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«Texts, verbal and written, ensue from a tension between a cathodeand-anode like shuttling in a dichotomy of words and things that is as old as the ...»

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Signifier, Signified, and Multiplicity

of Context

Ahmad K. Ardat It

Texts, verbal and written, ensue from a tension between a

cathode----and-anode like shuttling in a dichotomy of words and

things that is as old as the material and social worlds. In fact words and

things are forbear-nodes of the one and same dichotomy that originated

in antiquity and preserved intermittently but insistently throughout

the periods of history of western thought under different linguistic

rubric-nodes, the latest of which, in the field of linguistics, is Ferdinand de Saussure's signifier and signified, offshoots of the dichotomy-nodes, rhetoric and logic or form and content respectively.

As far back as recorded literary history is manifest, men of thought have been concerned with the transaction between substance and its form. Thee has always been a query about the nature of such a transaction and whether it was potent enough to fuse substance into form and vice versa; or was it so impotent that it kept both elements of the transaction asunder. In a survey study that covers the history of the form-content dichotomy from the sophists to the end of the nineteenth century, the present author reached the conclusion that form and content have always been L._1d will always be polarities as long as the addresser and addressee are human beings and as long as language cannot do away with its associative value-system.' The present paper addresses itself to the question of form and content still, but in the light of Saussure's signifier and signified this time, and in application taking Shakespeare's "Sonnet 18" as a

• Dr. Ardat is Associate Professor of Stylistics at King Saud University,Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

25 representing sample for analysis. The core and crux of the article is that signifier (form) cannot be one with signified (content), and the latter cannot be a valence of the former. The relationship between them is arbitrary, resulting almost always in a multiplicity of context.

Signifier and signified could succinctly be defined as sound image and conception respectively. Saussure's Course in General Linguistics talks of the inseparability of the signifier and the signified- "Language can '" be compared with a sheet of paper: thought is the front and the sound the back; one cannot cut the front without cutting the back at the same time; likewise in language, one can "neither divide sounds from thought nor thought from sound" (1974, 113). Such a statement has given many the illusion of the transparency of language. The true case is otherwise with Saussure, however. It is true that he talks of signifiers as fixed entities; but he never talks of signified as such. Signifieds are not fixed and cannot be so. The signifier, according to Saussure, is a social fact, physically and materially there, prior to the intention of the individual communicator. That is to say; a signifier has priority over signified and hence there can be no signified without a signifier­ "Words are things before things become words, and they become things again when they do" (1959, 113).

About three quarters of a century after Saussure, Jan Mukarovsky concurs with Saussure to establish the precedence of the signifier over the signified when he notes that "the function of poetic language consists in the maximum foregrounding of the utterance" (1964, 19).

Jacques Derrida about twelve years later further challenges the notion that postulates the transparency of language. In "Signature Event Context," he believes that the signified is not actualized transparently through signifiers, because when the word is realized either verbally or graphematically, it can break away from every given meaning (1964, 185-6). He highlights a gap, which he calls difference, between reading which is dominated by the signifier, and intention, which is supposedly signified conscious on the part of the original speaker or writer.

Derrida's difference makes expedient the idea of a variety of potential contexts as juxtaposed with the traditional notion of an original context that works as a source of meaning.

Jaques Lacan agrees with Derrida when he admits that the signifier in its materiality comes first and that it is only on this basis that completed meaning is possible with the signifier linked to the signified to make a sign (Macksey and Donato, 194). However, Lacan, like 26 Derrida, denies the feasibility of one meaning and that is due to the arbitrariness of the sign, i.e. the arbitrariness of Saussures's combination in his formula (~ ) where "S" stands for the signifiers and "s" for the signified. Lacan reverses the formula to read: (~ ). He gives an example where what appears to the same signified, a door, can be marked with two different signifiers, "Ladies" or "Gentlemen" (1977, 151).

What Lacan tries to prove by that sly example is that illusion can enter the sign-system because the identification of the signified depends upon human judgments, which can, notoriously and justifiably, differ.

Saussure's metaphor defining signifier and signified as the two sides of a sheet of paper is removed here and a wide gap opens up between signifier and signified. Part of the problem issues from the status of the signifier as a determiner of meaning before the signified.

Linguistically speaking, and to begin with, the signifier attains its power from its constituents, the phonemes that are distinct as phonemes; first, individually in their relationship with each other; and second, collectively in their relationship with the signified. Consider, for instance, the morpheme "ill" repeated six times with the same intonation. Bear with me; this is not an exercise in futility. What seemed to be one signified, repeated six times, was in fact six signifieds-six of the different shades of the morpheme "ill" in the dictionary. Now add the following consonants initially, each at a time to the morpheme "ill": "b," "f," "g," "h," "k,", "m." The result is ''bill,'' "fill," "gill," "hill," ''kill,'' and "mill." It is the initial consonant that has determined the meaning of each of these six words. So, we can say that a phoneme is a linguistic unit working in a system of "difference." In other words, the words in question acquire their semantic identities because their initial phonemes oppose each other. Because ''b'' is not "f," therefore, ''bill'' is not "fill." Each phoneme is defined in terms of what is not.

Consequently, the morphemes (''bill,'' "fill"..."mill") also have value by virtue of their being not any other morphemes. Signs, says Saussure, owe their capacity for signification not to the world but to their difference from each other in the network of signs which is the si,gnifying system. Such as a statement, of course, puts in question or more precisely decenters the "metaphysics of presence" that has dominated western thought for centuries. The equation of the (S-- NP + VP) is no longer valid if not considered in conjunction with its vertical expansion, which Saussure calls the associative axis 27 (though paradigmatic axis has become the conventional term in modern linguistics).

Saussure calls the horizontal expansion of the sentence the syntag­ matic axis which works out signification in collaboration with the paradigmatic axis. Imagine the morpheme "ill" in a zero context. It will trigger for the subject as many meanings as that subject is familar with. When used in context, it will trigger as many meanings, but unconsciously this time. A reader who is unable to read the words "cobbler," "sole," "mend," "awl" in the light of their associative value scale in the dialogue between Flavius and the commoner or Marullus and the commoner in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (I, i) would hardly be likely to be termed a serious reader of Shakespeare. The same thing could be said of those students of poetry who are incapacitated by metaphors, metonymy, and the like. Comprehension of any context depends on an on-going process of shuttling between the signifier along the syntagmatic chain and its values down the paradigmatic axis.

Syntax moves lineally and cumulatively to the right so as to solidify its presence as an element of signification and at the same time activate a semantic move, first along the syntagmatic chain and second down the paradigmatic axis. The second move is dependent on the first and cannot actualize itself without it.

The "I" of "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" is determined by "shall." The movement from "shall" to "I" to "compare" is syntag­ matic, i.e, grammatically controlled. The syntagmatic chain comprises signifiers that do not carry as much literary meaning in themselves as they do in their relation to (1) other signifiers along the syntagmatic chain and (2) associative values listed down the paradigmatic axis.

Consequently, signification can be roughly diagramed in the following


Signification = Signifier + Signifier's environment + associative values.

and graphically, it may be illustrated as follows, too:

28 The lineal movement, represented by the signifier's environment, is equivalent to the syntagrnatic chain; the circular movement symbolizes the consciousness of the speaker and dances around the signifier; and the spiral movement represents part of the unconscious of the reader in its interaction with its associative value system. The same process applies to every signifier along the syntagrnatic chain.

–  –  –

c --It is true that some of the associative-value-node titles may appear irrelevant and could not be assigned a positive/negative value.

However, when taken in conjunction with other node-titles, their worth becomes quite apparent. The signifiers of a text work as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that are accidentally mixed with the pieces of another jigsaw puzzle. To get one fixed, one cannot escape the process of sorting, comparing and contrasting, a process equivalent to the negative/positive process in our case. The node-titles of place, time, gender, for instance, may not mean much when taken individually;

but when considered collectively, they throw some light on the signifier under question, the "1." When we get [+ English], [+ Elizabethan] [+ male], the theme of immortality becomes clearer to us, historically speaking. The Elizabethan "1" was the center of all surroundings, the measure of all things around, owing to the confidence given him by his countrymen's defeating of the "Invincible Armada." Such a victory rendered him overconfident on the natural scale, eventually to make the collective "1" (encompassing our textual "1") also over confident.

But when we find out that the feeling of overconfidence cannot be but temporal, we discover that the sonnet's "1" has coaxed itself into a contradictory situation-unconscious awareness of temporality against conscious immortality. Consider also the relationship between the "1," the "thee," and the latter's with its associative values, "he" and "she."

"Thee" would be valued l-hel and [s-she], a probability that the addressee in the sonnet could be a "he" or a "she." The distance between the reader and the sonnet's "I" depends on the number of values screened and scrutinized. But the task of narrowing the distance to the point where the reader can assume the role of the speaker is more complex than it seems, especially when a signifier like the "1" is under consideration.

The "I" is a problematic word. It is problematic owing to its contra­ dictory nature of producer and consumer at one and the same time.

Catherine Belsey reveals two contradictory sides to the "1," the all-knowing and the less-knowing subject. "The "1" is the kind of super subject, experiencing life at a higher level of intensity than ordinary people and absorbed in a world of sclfhood which the phenomenal world, perceived as external and antithetical, either nourishes or constrains" (Belsey, 68). Being such, the "I" is assumed to be in com­ plete control of its material. The truth of the matter though is not so, because the "super-subject" status it produces is only an "illusory active" "1," the source of action appearing to be a pure ego without 30 origin," as Barthes writes (1972, 144). No matter how "super" is that "1," by pretending omniscience, it is always at the mercy of the system it uses to promote its credentials. Derrida asserts that the "1" cannot be conceived outside language, and it is language that forces an individual to posit himself as the subject of the sentence. "He [I] becomes a speaking subject only by conforming to his speech... to the system of linguistic perceptions taken as the system of differences" (Derrida, 1973,145-6). In addition to what Derrida says, we should not forget that language is experienced as nomenclature (because its existence precedes our understanding of the world). Therefore, the perception and language of the subject, ''1,'' then become a priori, i.e.

determined (Macherey, 1978, 78, 137; Althusser, 1967, 167). And if that subject, "1," wishes to overlook that determinism, it begins to suppress the language it uses in favor of a quest for meaning. Such suppression is unconscious and the words that are determined a priori by relation­ ships outside the "I's" control are those listed down the paradigmatic axis, words and/or values on whose grounds the syntagmatic chain actualizes itself as a substitute experience in the mind of the reader.

These are the same words that the conscious ''1'' has tried to suppress and the very same words that the representing reader tries to clarify in order to revive the text itself. However, we have to retract the word "same," for in fact it was not meant to mean the same but to make a point. When committed to paper, a word stops meaning what it was supposed to mean and it is futile to slave away at the endeavor of getting to the "true" meaning of that word, sentence, or text. The words of the speaker cannot be those the reader broods over.

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