Semiotic Economies

Quadriga Observe the consequences of the few paragraphs we’ve walked through. Granted that there’s no subsistent “meaning”, and granted that verbal meaning is an atypical instance of the more general phenomenon of expression and inference, I submit that words in verbal communication function in the same way as gestures do in the frantically-mimed communication of someone who has just bit his tongue (for instance); there is no single exact right meaning to them. One may propose an indefinite number of meanings, depending on one’s interests. A psychoanalyst listens to your speech with specific interest to things that you are not saying, to things that you didn’t intend to say, on the basis of which she quite justly says “The meaning of these omissions and those unintended slips is….” Her assertion is not simply the assertion of a personal preference for viewing your slips and evasions in a particular way; you are both participants in a semiotic economy in which slips and evasions constitute an intelligible basis for interpretive inference.

“So can anything means anything? Are there no boundaries?” This question crops up all the time. Now, we know two things from the start: First, and this is important, we know full well that anybody can say “X means Y” no matter how daft we may think that assertion. At the same time, second, no assertion about meaning stands on its own; under most circumstances, such assertions carry the unstated subtext “In the semiotic economy of psychoanalysis…” or “Among all speakers of more-or-less standard English…” or “Assuming the speaker knew the word’s usual semantic range…”. Since those qualifying subtexts almost always remain tacit, though, it’s easy for people to mismatch assumed qualifications (“I thought we were talking about our relationship, and she thought we were talking about welfare policy”). Sometimes speakers deliberately operate with asymmetrical assumptions (psychotherapy again, for instance). And sometimes we deliberately interpret statements from one (presumed) semiotic economy in terms of another. But — and this is the key issue — no interpretive mandate can prospectively regulate the interpretations someone offers. (I’ve written about this before, in “Twisting To Destruction”; interpretive rules can function descriptively, but no interpretation was ever precluded because there was a rule against it.) Anything can mean anything to somebody, in some semiotic economy or another; the only boundaries come from our interest in participating in certain discourses, discourses where transgressive interpretive behaviour would be unwelcome.

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