Language and meaning

In class, there were a few questioned asked about language and meaning: How does language have the ability to capture an experience? Or does it? And is language stable? And what are the implications of its stability or instability. 

In the next four readings, Signifier through Cowgirl. This comes up a lot, and I have some tentative answers. 

First, maybe language doesn’t capture meaning completely. Maybe it “signifies” an experience. Maybe “words are about desire” (49), and maybe that desire is the desire to share an experience. Maybe words show the desire to communicate a meaning, “Not as a metaphor. Not as a signifier” (49), but to capture the experience exactly as it is felt by the experiencer and to share that: maybe so that others will understand and empathize. But, since language seems to be signifiers, maybe it’s impossible to actually achieve what we desire to achieve with words. 

I think that communication requires some imagination: Language can’t do it all. The narrator of Underthings says, “I can’t describe the sound it [the book hitting her face] made. But, imagine, if you can, the sound” (61).  If we want to understand each other through language, both the speaker and the listener have to work for it. The speaker must use mutually-accepted signifiers, and the listener must use imagination. 

Also, I think it can be said that language is stable but that the meaning it creates is not stable. Like Gertrude Stein was saying, language depends on the context in which it is used. For example, in Underthings, the narrator says, “What if there was no bird…What if I made up the bird” and later “What if I was holding the book like this…standing there like this…made a face like this” (74). In these two paragraphs, she seems to be saying, first, that understanding and communication of an experience depends on how it is told (what language is used). If she hadn’t said there was a bird (or hadn’t begun her story with the bird – the discussion of how she started the story also indicates the importance of language’s context), the reader would understand the experience differently. Then, she repeats “like this,” never being specific or explaining what exactly “this” is. I think this lack of precise language leaves room for many possible meanings and leaves room for the listener/reader to imagine. 

Then in Universe, the narrator speaks of a doctor and a patient and says, “One knew what he was thinking. / One now was fluent in the doctor’s face” (79). This is interesting because she narrator makes “doctor’s face” a language in this moment. People are usually “fluent” in languages. What’s interesting is that, here, “doctor’s face” is comprehensible. It captured experience; it captured what the doctor was thinking. Somehow, the doctor’s face is a language that is stable and that does convey meaning. And it seems to do it better than spoken or written language can.

Finally, in Cowgirl, there is the metaphor of “pulling the plug,” and the narrator says that “it was possible a metaphor; but it was easier to say a plug” (87) than to say kill one’s father because it was “virtual” (87). In this case, it seems that the metaphor/signifier does not help convey true meaning, but rather it helps to hide or mask true meaning. In this way, language’s instability can be helpful, or can serve a purpose. 


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