Semiotics – A case of overinterpretation? (2)

Paradise lost?

Hermetism – Unilinearity

Meaning  in writing entered its first crisis of instability in the melting pot of the second century, a crossroad of peoples and ideas where all were tolerated.  Greek rationalist thinkers,   in order to be able to define the world in terms of causes, developed the idea of a ‘unilinear  chain’ whereby if a movement goes from A to B, then nothing can make it go from B to A.  This unilinearity was based on three principles:

1. the principle of identity (A=A),

2. the principle of non-contradiction ( it is impossible for something both to be A and not to be A at the same time)

3. and the principle of the excluded middle (either A is true or A is false; there are no chances for third possibilities) (Collini, S., 1990:27).

But the  Hermetic thought that was to replace rationalism  claimed that it was now possible for many things to be true at the same time, even if these were in contradiction, therefore rendering the principle of the excluded middle invalid. And this principle applied to books as well, the supposed holders of truth. The only way out of this dilemma was to consider every word in books an allegory. Books, hermetics discovered,  are saying something other than what they really appear to be saying.   The quandary was solved by looking for a revelation beyond human utterances, an unprecedented revelation that will speak of as a still secret-truth. Truth then became identified with what is not said and must be understood beyond or beneath the surface of a text. Interpretation became indefinite and secretive. Every time a secret was unearthed, it referred to another secret in a progressive movement towards  a final secret that did not exist.

The Hermetics’ belief that everything is secret survived through the centuries and was revitalised during the European Renaissance, becoming source to a large portion of what is understood as ‘modern culture’.  It is this common history that links ancient hermetism and many contemporary approaches. The following understanding of texts can be found in both:

  • The text is an open-ended universe where the interpreter can discover infinite interconnections
  • Language mirrors the inadequacy of thought
  • Texts are miscarried universes

Contemporary thought – a single intention or limitless contextual possibilities

The instability of all meaning in writing derives from Saussure’s insistence on the arbitrariness of the signifier.  He insisted on the notion of ‘abstract objectivism’ which treated language as a ‘pure system of laws governing all phonetic, grammatical and lexical forms that confront individual speakers as inviolable norms over which they have no control’. (Holquist, 1990:42).

Going a bit further, some of the leading strands of recent contemporary critical thought, especially the American-criticism school that calls itself  ‘Deconstruction’ school, associated to P de Man and J Hillis Miller, license the reader to produce a limitless, uncheckable flow of interpretations.  ‘Deconstruction’ stresses that meaning is context bound – a function of relations within or between texts – but that context itself is boundless.  For these authors,  new contextual possibilities are endless, so that the one thing we cannot do is set limits.

As opposed to this radical reader-oriented theory of interpretation is the one extolled by those who say that the only valid interpretation aims at finding the original intention of the author.  Umberto Eco suggests that between the intention of the author and the intention of the reader there is a third possibility: intentio operis or the intention of the text.  (Rorty, R., 1982:151). It is necessary to discover, Eco proclaims, if what is found is what the texts says by virtue of its textual coherence and of an original underlying signification system or what the addressees found in it by virtue of their own systems of expectations.  The problem is to try to define what the intention of the text is, for its intention is not displayed by the textual surface. One must look for, infer the text’s intention. Only when one does so it is possible to speak of the text’s intention as a result of a speculation on the part of the reader.

However, Eco explains, this is not a one way conjecture. A text is conceived to produce its Model Reader: the reader who reads the text as it is in some sense designed to be read. Since the intention of the text  is to produce a Model Reader able to make speculations about it, the initiative of the Model Reader is to figure out a Model Author that is not the empirical one and that, in the end, coincides with the intention of the text.  In the course of such a complex interaction between the knowledge of the reader and the knowledge she imputes to an author, she is not speculating about the author’s intention but about the text’s intention or about the intention of that Model Author that she is able to recognise in terms of textual strategy.  But the prickliest concern that emerges is how can one prove a conjecture  about the intentio operis? The only way, Eco suggests, is to check it upon the text as a coherent whole. Any interpretation given of a certain portion of a text can be accepted if it is confirmed by, and must be rejected if it is challenged by, another portion of the same text.  (Collini, S., 1990:65)

Eco’s purpose for creating such a distinction springs perhaps from the need he sees to respect the distinction between what he calls ‘internal textual coherence’ and what he calls ‘the uncontrollable drives of the reader”. (Collini, S., 1990:95).  Pragmatic authors, however, prefer to believe that the coherence of the text is not something it has before it is described. Its coherence is no more than the fact that somebody has found something interesting to say about a group of marks or noises. The coherence, according to Richard Rorty, is not internal or external to anything; it is merely a function of what has been said so far about certain marks. (Collini, S., 1990:97-98) The notion that there is something a given text is really about, something which rigorous application of a method will reveal is mere occultism for pragmatists. The thought that a commentator has discovered what a text is really doing – demystifying and ideological construct, deconstructing hierarchical oppositions, reinforcing stereotypical images -,  rather than merely being capable of being used for these purposes is black magic for Rorty and his school of thought.  The essence to them, is the distinction between knowing what you want to get out of a text in advance and hoping that the text will help you want something different – that it will help you change your life (Collini, S., 1990:106). Rorty presents a picture of a form of criticism which does not just process all it reads through its established conceptual frame, but which is, rather, the result of an encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, or line which  has made a difference to the critic’s conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself; an encounter which has re-arranged her priorities and purposes (Collini, 1990:107).

Wayne Booth (1979:243) formulated an opposition between understanding  and  overstanding.  Understanding, he conceived as Eco does, as asking the questions and finding the answers that the text insists on. ‘Once upon a time there were three little pigs’ demands that we ask ‘ So what happened’ and not ‘why three?’ or ‘what is the concrete historical context?’, for instance.  Overstanding, on the other hand, consists of pursuing questions that the text does not pose to its model reader. It can be, according to Booth, very productive to ask questions the text does not encourage one to ask about.  To illustrate the pursuit of overstanding he asks,

‘What do you have to say, you seemingly innocent child’s tale of three little pigs and a wicked wolf, about the culture that preserves and responds to you? About the unconscious dreams of the author or folk that created you? About the history of narrative suspense? About the relations of the lighter and the darker races? About triadic patterns in human history? About the Trinity? About laziness and industry, family structure, domestic architecture, dietary practice, standards of justice and revenge?’

If interpretation is reconstruction of the intention of the text, then these are questions that don’t lead the way; they ask about what the text does and how: how it relates to other texts and to other practices; what it conceals or represses; what it propounds or conspires with. Many of the most interesting forms of modern criticism ask not what the work has in mind but what it forgets, not what it says but what it takes for granted.  Social semiotics is perhaps, a case of overinterpretation but for those who see communication as a process, not as a disembodied set of meanings or texts, overinterpretation might be the alternative form of study.

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One thought on “Semiotics – A case of overinterpretation? (2)

  1. Eco’s point, about the signifier, signified + text is very interesting for me. Especially in what this means for the signified; the reader, and the penchant to ‘overstand’ – another interesting point. Thanks very much! You have a loyal reader!

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