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.


Jessie Sams said...

I absolutely think you're onto something fascinating here. Within semantics, linguists argue how words, phrases, entire utterances have meaning; while there is not one general consensus among the competing theories, there is the general notion that experience drives meaning. That is, words on any given page or words coming out of any speaker's mouth only have meaning because a speaking/writing community has agreed on what the signs (the words) signify (the meanings). If no one is reading or listening, then I would think only the meaning of the message is thwarted by only belonging to the speaker/writer. In linguistics, we tend to liken the exchange of meaning with sending a package, where the language is the box, meaning is its contents, and transmission of the package is the medium chosen (e.g., spoken or written form). The analogy isn't a perfect one, but it serves to make it easier to speak about how meaning is transferred from one person to the next.

In the case of the text, a writer is sending a message via written form; if no one reads that message, the meaning cannot be "unwrapped" from the words used to convey it. The words themselves are not the meaning--the unwrapping (in this case, the process of reading) reveals meaning behind the words. The words remain as an outer packaging, if you will, of the meaning the author wishes to convey; however, if the text is read in different contexts from what it was originally written in (or if the author does not share the receiver's use of language), then the meaning being "unwrapped" from the text will be different from the author's original intentions. The words have not changed--the situation has.

If you're interested in reading linguistic texts on the transferral of meaning, let me know.

I've read over this several times now and am hoping it makes sense... My brain is addled by allergies at the moment. :)

Spaceman Spiff said...
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Spaceman Spiff said...

I'm uncertain about whether you're right about energy not being "in" batteries... in physics, energy is precisely the *potential* to do work. And because of the difference in voltage between the ends of the circuit, there exists in the battery such a potential, i.e. energy. Now, just like words on a page, the right circumstances are required to turn that energy into useful work. But even if that never happens, there is energy in the battery because it *could* happen.

Might the same thing be true of texts? Perhaps meaning is not "in" the texts precisely, but rather the potential for meaning given the right circumstances?

Bryan Tarpley said...

Jesse! Thanks for joining the discussion. I like the package analogy, and I think it's useful; especially the unwrapping part. The place where I think it breaks down is where it's expected for the package to contain something (meaning). I don't think words contain anything--they're more like relays or transistors.

David -- I've always felt the idea of potential energy in physics is bonk. I think it's more helpful to think in terms of powers an object possesses, and to think of reality as being comprised by three domains (Bhaskar came up with these in his _Realist Theory of Science_):

1. The domain of the real, which includes all objects and all of their potential powers, any powers that come into play and create events, and any of these events experienced by subjects.

2. The domain of the actual, which included all objects and any powers that actually come into play to create events, and any of these events experienced by subjects.

3. The domain of the empirical, which only includes any events experienced by subjects.

So, when the battery is at rest, "energy" only belongs to the domain of the real, it's only a potential event. When the battery discharges while no one experiences it, "energy" belongs to the real and the actual. When we observe the battery actually perform work, "energy" belongs to all three domains.

In the case of meaning, it never occurs unless someone is experiencing it. "Meaning" can't occur while no one is experiencing it (even if they're experiencing it in dreams).

Spaceman Spiff said...

I'm actually familiar with Bhaskar's distinction and I quite like it. The problem with your categorizing energy as only in the domain of the real is that the energy of a batter can be measured without it being discharged. That is, there is an experimental setup in which the energy can be made a part of the empirical (say, by measuring with a volt-meter).

As far as potential energy, I really don't know in what way you could say it's "bonk." It's an incredibly useful and essential idea in classical mechanics, thermodynamics, quantum physics, etc. So it's hard to just throw it out (at least, if we want the conservation of energy to be a meaningful physical law).

I agree that meaning never occurs unless someone experiences it. That's why I said that texts contain the potential for meaning rather than meaning itself.

Bryan Tarpley said...


I think the rewriting of classical physics is precisely what Bhaskar was interested in. The problem with relying on empiricism to come up with "knowledge" is that this knowledge is contingent upon the empirical domain of ontology, and is subject to all the problems of anything else determined by inductive logic. By relegating things with potential to the "real domain" (and thus inaccessible to subjective experience), we acknowledge that saying something has potential for causing 'x' is, while helpful, a very limiting kind of statement. you can only measure "potential energy" by setting up an artificially constructed environment (like a laboratory). the same goes for meaning. we can say a text has potential meaning, but we have to qualify that by specifying the environment in which it might occur.

Blah. Basically we agree. I just don't think you can stop at saying texts have potential meaning. You also have to bring the specific context into play.

Spaceman Spiff said...

I am in *no way* advocating empiricism. Ontologically and epistemologically I think critical realism makes a lot more sense. Just saying that (I think) energy is a quantity in the real, the actual, and (in some cases) the empirical, when it's measured, or when a battery is used to do useful work.

I've got no problem agreeing that context is important for meaning to occur. That's included when I say that meaning can only be made actual and/or empirical through a text in the right circumstances (just like potential energy).