“Signifier” and “Signified” (and a bit on Barthes)

   On Steinberg’s use of “signifier” and “signified”: I’m still not entirely sure of the significance of the names of these chapters, but given the themes of performance of gender occurring in the book, I might guess that the chapter called “signifier” is named to draw out attention to the outward representations in the chapter. What meaning do we derive from the representations she gives us? She discusses her tendency to be a pretty little thing, always garnering adoration from her father’s female companions. Perhaps this is what we are supposed to read as her signifier: she is a girl, performing her expected performance.

   In the chapter “Signified”, the narrator continuously brings in the idea of needing a man, and a child, and these are things that make a woman happy. She describes the ridiculous idea of turning to a coffee barista to complete this domestic trinity. I think she’s really getting at the idea that women are meant to look like, and consequently represent, our conventional idea of “women” all day long, and this conflicts with the fact that the narrator has no “signified” underneath: her performance of woman is an empty act, and she is reluctant to follow through beyond her outer performance. To briefly get into semiotics (based in Saussure’s theories), the narrator is a sign for something, but the link is broken: she represents something she actually isn’t.

   Clearly Steinberg is playing with language in a way that both gives us deeper understanding and alienates us. She uses vague words to demonstrate gender stereotypes, and then makes it clear that she both is and is not a good representation, or signifier: she’s a nice girl–but she’s not a nice girl.

   To bring Barthes in, the thing that’s crucial about his philosophy is that it’s essentially a paradox. He argues for the impossibility of gaining the intended meaning from language–but does so in the form of language. He tells us we can’t understand him, or any author–but we read his philosophy, and we do. Thus, the paradox.

   For Barthes, words have so many meanings that it’s impossible to whittle down the possibilities and find the author’s intentions in a phrase. Consequently, we can’t express ourselves and expect we are being understood (if you said to Barthes, “I understand and agree with you”, he would say “No, you don’t”).  “Love” is incredibly complicated, but “I” before it and “you” after do not clarify anything for Barthes; it only makes the misunderstanding worse. To compare him to a linguist who argues against this, Derrida would claim that the addition of “I” and “you” to the sentence are crucial, as the relationships between the words is where we, the readers, build meaning.

   In using “adorable” and other female-oriented phrases, Steinberg seems to be telling us she is not the signifier: she is not really adorable, but on the surface, she lets people think she is. Barthes might say in using “adorable”, the narrator only limits and obscures herself in endless definitions and meanings; I think the narrator uses “adorable” to tell us exactly who she is by who she isn’t. Don’t we know more about the author as she uses more and more words that she tells us don’t represent her? It’s like a character sketch built on what the character should be, but isn’t–which is exactly what most women feel they are reduced to by social pressures.


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