Critical Realism in Literary Theory, pt 1.5: Transcendent Semiosis

This model I've been putting forth raises some questions. I can imagine someone accusing me of trying to bring about the death of meaning. This would be at once an overstatement and a misunderstanding. I thought of another analogy the other day which I find helpful. Think of a computer. It is designed by its "author" to perform a function, but that function is not realized until someone plugs it in, boots it up, and uses it. No one would point at a calculator and say "that plastic case contains calculation." Instead, you would say "that calculator can be used to calculate."

But why insist on such a subtle distinction? As I said earlier, the various moments which comprise the act of reading require various disciplines to fully determine the [most efficient] function of a text. But I think there's an even more important payoff. Think of Biblical hermeneuticists, who devote time and energy into interpreting a text because they believe what God intends for humanity is encoded into this collection of words. By thinking in terms of semiosis rather than inherent meaning, they are forced to acknowledge that this decoding will always be ongoing. At least until people unplug the computer, or stop reading the Bible.

Consider what Umberto Eco says about hermeneutics:
The problem with the actual world is that, since the dawn of time, humans have been wondering whether there is a message and, if so, whether this message makes sense. With fictional universes, we know without a doubt that they do have a message and that an authorial entity stands behind them as creator, as well as within them as a set of reading instructions.

Thus, our quest for the model author is an Ersatz for that other quest, in the course of which the Image of the Father fades into the Fog of the Infinity, and we never stop wondering why there is something rather than nothing.
So, if for Eco interpreting a text is an Ersatz for interpreting life itself, according to this model the meaning-making we engage in when we read a text is, in my opinion, more than just a substitution for the meaning-making we engage in as societies. Through semiosis, we as communities of readers cultivate our own ecology of meaning--something that is living rather than just in flux, something much more like the electrons pulsing through a computer than just the hard drive itself.

Critical Realism in Literary Theory, pt 1: Semiosis

This is an expansion on my last post, in which I gloss over why I think Critical Realism (CR) should break into literary theory.

From my friend Greg, whose opinions matter to me greatly:
Can the solution to the hermeneutical fixation *solely* on the meaning of the text be legitimately compensated by an assertion that meaning is *not* found in words [as signs]? It seems to me that it would be much more reasonable given the problem to say that meaning is not *only* found in the semiotic function but also in the performative function of words (to say nothing of the author's subjectivity).

Just to be sure I'm accurately representing Fairclough, Jessop, and Sayer's 2001 article "Critical Realism and Semiosis," let me make clear that what they prescribe is exactly what you suggest: that even-handed attention should be given to both the constantive (semiotic) and performative (extra-semiotic) functions of a text. I am going to differ with them, however, in suggesting that focusing on the constative (or denotative) function of a text reveals that we still believe that texts somehow hold meaning when no one is reading them. I'd like to debunk this notion. I don't believe that texts magically contain meaning within their margins. This misconception is similar to the misconception that people have about batteries, that somehow energy is coursing within the battery casing like a hamster on an exercise wheel.

In both cases (meaning in text and energy in battery), a process has been misidentified as an object. In the case of a battery, what one might mistake for "energy" is actually a process in which two chemicals interact with each other once the positive and negative terminals form a loop. This produces an electric current, which can then be used as energy. In the case of a text, a collection of signs lies there on the pages. Once read by a subject, the reading of each word sets off a kind of Pavlovian reflex in the mind of the reader, conjuring a meme that the reader associates with this word. This meme (or idea-gene) is shaped by the reader's experiences with those words (how the word has been used by others [social component] and how the word has been used successfully by the reader [human agency component]). Each of these memes are filtered through the reader's current mental/emotional milieu, and have a feedback effect, in which they in turn affect the reader's meme->word association and mental/emotional milieu. What I'm describing here is a series of events that form a process (semiosis, or the creation of meaning), not an object.

Critical Realism is helpful here, because it asserts that reality is comprised of objects (texts) that possess emergent powers (the power to catalyze semiosis in the mind of the reader) which interact to form processes (semiosis). But what does thinking in terms of semiosis instead of meaning buy us?

It helps debunk the idea that texts are a magical flagon of meaning to be poured out by English professors or theologians. Texts become more like a cultural artifact whose exhaustive study must also involve sociologists, historians, linguists, etc. I envision the text to be like a patient who interfaces with a wide variety of medical professionals (clerks, nurses, physicians, surgeons, x-ray technicians, anesthesiologists, etc). Except, instead of trying to cure the text of a disease (hermeneutics sees a text as a puzzle that needs solving, a patient that needs curing), the text becomes the cure--as a locus for interdisciplinary studies (involving all of the humanities). The text forces us to read humanity itself.

Critical Realism and Literary Theory

I've been busy. I've been after the in-breaking of Critical Realism in literary theory. Here's why:

In 1975, Roy Bhaskar, a philosopher of science, published A Realist Theory of Science, in which he affirms fallibism (he acknowledges that knowledge is socially constructed and relativistic). He maintains, however, that there exists an objective reality quite independent of our knowledge of it, and that this reality is stratified, with layers of depth that subjective knowledge can penetrate while never reaching the bottom. After subsequent publications, and after breaking into the field of sociology, Bhaskar's theories became known as Critical Realism. I contend that Critical Realism should also break into literature in order to provide a counter to the post-postmodern condition in three ways: By resurrecting the human agent from her burial under socialization, by providing a model for coping with the arbitrariness of signs, and by providing a method for provisionally evaluating truth propositions.

Margaret Archer, a prominent Critical Realist sociologist, terms the subject buried under socialization Society's Being: "Society's Being thus impoverishes humanity, by subtracting from our human powers and accrediting all of them--selfhood, reflexivity, thought, memory, emotionality and belief--to society's discourse." And yet, Archer argues that “Society's being requires [a] sense of self in order for a social agent to know that social obligations pertain to her.” This self is what prioritizes between physical wellbeing, performative skill in the workplace, and social self-worth. The self is not subsumed by social identity; they are placed in a dialectical relationship. Archer would no doubt prescribe that we turn off the television long enough to spend some time thinking for ourselves instead of being blinded by a flood of images.

Norman Fairclough, Bob Jessop, and Andrew Sayer have embarked on a project to integrate semiosis (the creation of meaning) into Critical Realism's account of social structure. They would argue that the arbitrary nature of signs has been so problematic because hermeneutics has focused solely on determining the meaning of a text. Their solution is to give even-handed attention to the effects of words by considering them more like chemicals in a complex reaction, to validate the extra-semiotic dimension of reading, and realize that meaning is not found in words but the subjects who read them. They would advise us to quit fixating on words as symbols which may or may not point to objects in the world, and to instead realize that words are more like events which take place in socially situated contexts.

Ruth Groff is a Critical Realist whose most recent monograph expounds upon a theory of truth which posits that propositions are true if and only if what they claim is actually the case. Because all knowledge is theory-laden and therefore fallible, propositions can never be said to be definitively true. Groff believes, however, that we can be reasonably justified in believing a proposition is true when any opposing propositions that can be falsified have been eliminated, when any remaining propositions wield less explanatory power, and when an interdisciplinary consensus has been reached that belief in a given proposition is justified. She might advise us to quit opting out of passing provisional judgment on things.

I recently presented this in the context of a paper at the South Central MLA.