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Petrusevska 1

Biljana Petrusevska
Prof. Zoran Ancevski, PhD
Anglo-Saxon Literary Theories
28th June 2011
The Difference in Meaning
Meaning is a slippery slope. It is a topic which as been discussed since the first scrutiny of
language emerged in ancient times. The relationship that it describes was as dubious as the
power of the gods and the morality of men, and its manifold was put to the question. There
are things in the world which do have a meaning of their own, but not the kind that we might
comprehend in the same way it naturally is, independent of language. The power of
perception and its finality have been thoughtfully eradicated and things that are not always
bound with a meaning, have the air of it wrapped in the preconception brought on by their
next of kin. For language and meaning in it, are anything but natural, between reality outside
as persons head, and this notion has been in play for quite some time in the literary world.
This is exactly the type of meaning we will turn our attention to in this paper, the one
communicated through the u se of language, whose woes are attributed to distribution of
signs in sign relations, reference or equivalence making it such a heart-wrenching business.
We will view it linguistically and differentially.
To account for meaning is to set forth the relations of contrast and the possibilities of
combination that constitute a language. As to discovering what elements form a meaning, the
actions are quite as hopeless as our attempts to uncover the tools. Notions of thought,
intention and understanding, a certain cognitive content or sense along with extension,
reference and denotation, have all been mentioned in relation to these utensils. And the
function of an object is also an important aspect, closely related to the meaning of things, as

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Paul de Man 1 mentions in his collection of essays entitled Blindness and Insight, it is very
possible when thinking of a certain word and its meaning, we relate it to the purpose of that
object it is to signify. Some would say that a meaning is equal to the totality of the sensory
appearances.
There have been arguments identifying meaning with an idea, and one could not
unreservedly object to this notion, but this also carries along the presumption that meaning is
confined solely in the mind of human beings, and doesnt exist beyond it. The difficulty with
this theory is that an idea is not able to comprehend all the aspects of a certain object at once,
only a certain number of them, whereas meaning can slither though so many fingers and still
escape not fully researched. If we consider meaning from the conditioning of truth, we may
fall into some complex waters and not find a proper way out, not even mentioning a solution
along the way. The more practical approach has long been antonymous with meaning, for it
was believed that the affairs of the mind could not be approached scientifically, because it
was not graspable. It is interesting to mention, before we continue with the discussion of the
theories regarding the subject, that the hermeneutical and linguistic approaches to meaning do
create and interesting combination to dwell upon. Something which terribly reminds us of a
certain type of reading we shall also discuss further on in this paper.
In the twentieth century when literary theory has begun to develop as a science,
meaning has quite changed its positioning and level, and especially so regarding the previous
theories which took the lead in this field. A sequence of genuine coherence has flowed from
the advent of linguistics introduced into this discipline by the Russian formalists 2, which
broke off the preceding procession of theories regarding meaning; the most significant being
hermeneutics. Whilst hermeneutics is by definition interested in discovering the meaning,
1

Paul de Man (1919 1983) American deconstructionist, literary critic and theorist, famously known
as part of the Yale School of deconstruction
2
Russian formalism was an influential school of literary criticism in Russia from the 1910s to the
1930s, where many influential Russian and Soviet scholars participated, including Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri
Tynianov and Roman Jakobson.

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Russian formalism differs very sharply because it strives to hinder our arrival at meaning. It
is set on distinguishing literature from other forms of language, which should more
specifically be done though the use of formal devices. What they're interested in, to put it in a
simpler way is precisely the way in which "literariness," or rather its devices can be used to
impede ones quick grasping of the text.
One of the first formalists and one of the most distinguished literary theoreticians,
Roman Jakobson has always remained a faithful follower of linguistics and was steered by its
guidelines, as did many other literary theoreticians and critics. For him the process of
rediscovering the meaning, which had been masterfully disguised by the craftsman, comes
down to identifying the quanta of language 3, implicating the classification of the smallest
units of language which bare a signifying value. Off course here he deals with phonology and
phonetics and tries to uncover, systematically, what governing rules could also apply to the
meaning of these units. And yet one can still not find a connection between these signifiers
and the objects they signify, no natural link is present. However, it is widely known, that a
theory which obtains meaning from linguistic conventions, doesnt completely cover all the
necessary credentials. What I mean by this is that no matter what the speaker intends to
communicate with a certain linguistic sequence, it not in his or her power to control the effect
of that utterance, manifested in different occasions and to different people.
Influenced greatly by Ferdinand de Saussure 4, he promoted the belief that each word
or each verbal sign has two sides, and is a unity of those two. They are the material face of
the sign and the intelligible side, meaning underneath that facade. This combination of
signifier and signified has a diagrammatic representation as the two sides of a coin, present at

When different languages are divided into phonemes, or discrete sound components in order to be
more easily identified, were called the quanta of language by Roman Jakobson
4
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 1913) was a Swiss linguist considered one of the fathers of 20thcentury linguistics. His works influenced many subsequent scholars and schools.

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the same time, though Jakobson admits him self, that this structure has remained little
understood due to the fact that the relation between sound and meaning could not be traced.
Jakobson acknowledges that there is no meaning in and by itself, and this meaning
shall always belong to the something we use as a sign; how it thereof develops, is a
completely dissimilar matter. His research showed that similarities between the basic sounds
in many languages do exist, phenomena he termed linguistic universals, rejecting at the same
time all attempts to accept a wordless or even a signless, asemiotic thinking. This difference
in value present between the experiences of the various meanings of a given representative is
a disheartening picture of the chaotic multitude of facts inevitably suggested within. Saussure
wrote: In language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally
implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only
differences without positive terms.
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida 5, also a revolutionary figure in the literary
theory, is the one dealing with this multitude of denotations and connotations contained into a
sign. Dying awaiting (one another at) the limits of truth is the quote that opens Derridas
work Aporias, which deals with the eponymous subject at length. The limits he mentions are
the very subject that most plagues his work, for the margins and boundaries and the things
beyond them are a very doubtful subject indeed. They are inside the meaning and outside it at
the same time, and none can be truly discarded on account of the other. The meaning of a
certain text is forever-changing and this activity of production is endless. Its evolution is
able to even catch itself off guard and elevate or disfigure in an instant. The impasse (aporia)
is what we come to, when all the possibilities of resolving a matter have come to an end. It,
however, is not finite, but it is only so till the next change occurs and time passes over to a

J. Derrida developed the critical theory known as deconstruction and his work has been labelled
as post-structuralism and associated with post-modern philosophy.

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new field. The influence of the hermeneutical circle is evident here, but it further turns into a
spiral of movement, which takes us anxiously on to the next theory.
Roman Jakobson has always encouraged interdisciplinary use of theories, and is how
he coined the term of structuralism, but further on abandoned it when it went astray from
what he previously intended. At about the same time he started using the term semiotic(s),
being concerned not only with the similarities but also with the profound differences among
various sign systems. For him the primary and most important semiotic system is verbal
language, which can be related to his research in linguistic universalities. And this clashes
greatly with Derridas disposition on the subject of speech vs. writing, which takes up a great
part of his earlier work.
One of the perhaps most controversial aspects of structuralist scholars 6, that Derrida
profoundly objects to, are the binary oppositions all of meaning is narrowed down to.
Structuralist linguistics did deal with the widely acknowledged claim that meaning is
differential, but they became too focused on creating and recognising a typology of such
fixed differential structures in any system being analysed. These pairs represent related terms
and concepts with conflicting meanings, and they are so strongly opposed and different, that
they define each other so. As we already mentioned they are considered as fundamental to
any work of language and thought. They are organisers of the array of meanings and simplify
the process of recognizing what is underneath it all. Some of the most famous binary pairs
are: man and woman, black and white, day and night, good and evil, the sun and the moon,
up and down, left and right, presence/absence, speech/writing 7 etc. These basic symbols are
constructed on the same claim that it is difference which created meaning and each is defined
6

Structuralism is an intellectual movement that developed in France in the 1950s and 1960s, in which
human culture is analysed semiotically (i.e., as a system of signs).Structuralism originated in the structural
linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics (which are
centered mainly around Jakobsons work). So again we encounter Jakobsons influence, but it is always taken to
some different end, in this case quite drastically into a typology, something that he himself objected to.
7
This is an especially significant aspect of Derridas theories, known as the overthrowing of the
primacy of speech.

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as what its not. One can not know what light it, unless they have experienced darkness. But
there is also another aspect to the binary oppositions, and that is that one is always considered
as dominant to the other, in an illusory order and a faulty hierarchy.
But this is the very point where Derrida interferes. If one defines the other, than how
could they exclude one another, without being both present at the same time? Deconstruction
of the binary pairs shows us that this Western way of thinking under grid with strong
oppositions, dominance given to one of the two 8, is lacking strong foundations. If good is
superior to evil, than what stops it from removing it altogether, and why would it need it to be
understood as good. This theory provides us with an interesting manner in which to interpret
a certain text, and access as many meanings as possible. But also there is deconstructions
dual strategy, not only to reverse the priorities, but also show the corruption and
contamination of the opposition, so that any dualism found there should be exposed for its
perpetual scrutiny. To this end, Derrida usually coins some new term, or refashions and old
one and adds it to his array of concepts (not signifiers, for he believes they are more than
that) put to a similar end. Such a word is the trace, which denotes the type of meaning
deconstruction manages to uncover while analysing a literary piece or any work of language.
It is the best you can get in terms of finding out a proper explanation, a fleeting pattern of
incongruities created by the logic of the text, which can be juxtaposed and brought to the
surface for further examination. Some of the other terms include: the supplement 9, the
hymen, the pharmakon 10, criture and archi-criture, the already mentioned differance and
aporia, etc.

one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not suspect it (Derrida, Of
Grammatology 24)
9
Derrida points out, if supplementarity is a necessarily indefinite process, writing is the
supplement par excellence since it proposes itself as the supplement of the supplement, sign of a sign, taking the
place of a speech already significant (OG 281).
10
in Plato (drug or tincture, salutary or maleficent)

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In his work, Derrida sought to show how the differences on which any signifying
system depends are not fixed, but get caught up and entangled with each other. The main
aspects here are historicity and primal temporality, regarding a content that has been retained
from some specific moment in time, which does create complex difficulties, not to mention
plentiful. The paradoxes of time are truly complex, but to make things clearer we must
concentrate on whether the presence can be contemplated as unified and would that allow for
temporality to be truly effective, for then the presence would not be durable. So again we
must reach an impasse, for they are irreconcilable. The finite vs. infinite is another binary pair
important to Derrida, which strike right in the core of his research.
Jakobson and other theoreticians such as Saussure, Plato 11, Rousseau 12, and LeviStrauss 13 have valorised verbal language, because they believed writing to be twice removed,
as a written down symbol of the actual word or sign denoting the object referred to. Derrida
on the other hand claims that speech can also be viewed as a derivative of written language
and due to the arbitrariness of the sign recognised by all of the above theoreticians; it is not
possible for us to be understood in a conversation in the exact same way in which we hear our
selves think. Further more it is even a difficulty to express our thoughts exactly as we hear
them in our mind. Finally we can conclude that for Jakobson meaning is predetermined in a
text, whereas for Derrida meaning is not at all present in a text.
The opposition is clear between these monuments along the same path, each offering
their account on the subject of meaning, and yet when researching these subjects one comes
upon a single word very often. That word is difference which, or as Derrida would say
11

a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues,


and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. He believed
that poetry has no value, because it is twice removed from reality
12
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 1778) - a major Genevan philosopher, writer, and composer of 18thcenturyRomanticism. He argued that the arts and sciences have not been beneficial to humankind, because they
arose not from authentic human needs but rather as a result of pride and vanity.
13
Claude Lvi-Strauss (1908 2009) was a French anthropologist and ethnologist, and has been called,
the "father of modern anthropology".

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diffrance (a deliberate misspelling of diffrence), the thing which makes meaning so
undeterminable. Its irreconcilability is indisputable. Philosophically viewed, difference is a
concept that stretches further with the passing of time. This is the very element that is called
by many names intertextuality and it is one of the fiercest enemies any linguists, translators
or literary theoreticians have before them, when dealing with a certain work.
Its synonyms include: dissimilarity, distinctness, alteration, anomaly, antithesis,
asymmetry, change, characteristic, contrariness, contrast, deviation, digression, disparity,
dissemblance, distinction, divergence, diversity, exception, heterogeneity, idiosyncrasy,
inequality,

nonconformity, peculiarity,

separateness,

singularity,

unconformity,

variance, variation. So one can clearly notice that it is difficult to determine whether there is
a negative or a positive charge to this word, for it contains both types of connotations, and
those subtexts contain their own implications. But in view of Jakobson and Derridas
theories, we do sense a certain coloration of the terms they use.
For Jakobson, the difference in meaning, or mayhap the difference in form is a
positive and desired element, and therefore he deepened the interest in it:
The distinctive feature of poetry lies in the fact that a word is perceived as a word and
not merely a proxy for the denoted object or an outburst of emotion, that words and
their arrangement, their meaning, their outward and inward form acquire weight and
value of their own. (Jakobson)
For him meanings and the words that carry them are just devices of the writer, raw
materials for the craftsman to bend at his will, when creating a work of art. This material is
equalled with the verbal and words draw their meaning from the others around them in a
poem or text, not from the things they refer to in the outside world and this relates to the
closed system of arbitrary signs put forward by Saussure. What we can say about this is that
Jakobson is glad to be rid of the pursuit of meaning, and this may be because he is aware of

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the prison house that awaits him once he delves into such a quest. And we know very well
that it is not a matter which bows to the logic of mankind, but there is one who put his limits
to the test, and challenged language to a duel. But Derrida would not have agreed with this
introduction of his character. He has always claimed that he is nor attacking literary theories,
nor the very existence of meaning in language, but is investigating the contexts in which it is
used, thoroughly, to the very margins and beyond. His rhetoric of borders has truly left a
mark on the philosophy for literature, language and meaning.
But why should he doubt the existence of meaning? His arguments are that words
only point to other words, that our thoughts could not exist as such, without words. We do not
think of something otherworldly and then pick the appropriate word. It is already there, fully
formed in our mind and it takes on a new form constantly. Lets take for example his coined
term diffrance; it is interesting to us because it is a vital symbol of deconstruction in general
and of his identifiable work more particularly. It is a word that could be a synonym to apart in
some contexts, and yet it unifies not only two words (on the most basic level), but more than
two meanings.

Derrida uses it to showcase the deferral and difference of meaning,

principally regarding the written and spoken language, not visible at first glance. And yet it
brings so many ideas together and that is because it cannot be exhaustively defined, and its
smith insists that it is not a word or a concept, since it changes meanings in relation to the
context into which it is used.
A person held in great regard by Jakobson is Charles Sanders Peirce, an American
philosopher, logician, mathematician, and scientist, who defined meaning as the translation
of a sign into another system of signs. This certainly endorses Jakobson and Saussures views
on linguistics and literature, but it also brings translation into the equation. And it is clear to
any translator, that it is not as simple a process as it might seem to an outsider to the
profession. It is difficult to transfer meaning from one persons mind to their words and for a

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communication between two speakers of the same language to occur, not to mention
transferring meaning from one language to the other. That task has been condemned to failure
from the very beginning.
But it is very proper to approach the notion of meaning in terms of translation,
because this makes the difficulty of it ever so tangible, that it is evident something will
always go askew. No matter how diligent the translator, he will never completely transfer the
meaning from one to another text, because it has never been there throughout fully. Derrida
for one, was committed to the rigorous analysis of the literal meaning of a text, but also to
find within that meaning, in all the corners of the text that were uncared for (this would also
include footnotes), some problems within that actually point towards unconventional
denotations.
This occupation with meaning brings deconstruction and Derrida closer to
hermeneutics, where formalism (and Jakobson) greatly differed. His own ideas and works are
heavily laden with Martin Heideggers ideas 14 and concepts regarding the meaning. However
his meaning is strongly intertwined with being, united in one term Dasein 15, which is
something Derrida also seems to support. Heideggers conception of a destructive retrieve
seeks to open texts up to alternative and usually repressed meanings that reside at least partly
outside of the metaphysical tradition. His deconstruction argues that in any text one can find
some places of ambiguousness and vagueness that disclose any unwavering meaning and
which any writer might wish to inflict upon his or her text. So far the adjectives attributed to
meaning are: temporal, changing, unstable, differential, slippery, unrealised, historical and
futuristic at the same time. To interpret an intent we must understand it, says Heidegger.

14

Martin Heidegger (1889 1976) was an influential German philosopher known for
his existential and phenomenological explorations of the "question of Being." His best-known book, Being and
Time, is considered to be one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century and he has been
influential beyond philosophy, in literature, psychology, and artificial intelligence.
15
Dasein is a German word famously used by Martin Heidegger in his major work Being and Time,
which generally translates to being, i.e. being in its ontological and philosophical sense

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Relationships are not added to our reality, which did not exist there previously. And thus
stems our meaning from our own understandings, not only from the natural elements of
things, but also tinted with our intent. For the interpreter of a text, the foreknowledge is the
text itself, and he or she is stuck in the circulus vitiosus 16.
The key to a text is never even present to the author themselves, for the written
always defers its meaning. Jakobson believed that with each new layer of creating the work,
the authors gives power to new legions of meaning, and by doing this he or she gives the
work more than the apparent particularities. They change substantially by climbing the ladder
of linguistic systems, and each one of these stages is clear by its specific properties and by its
degree of submission to the rules of the code and to the requirements of the context. Contrary
to this Derrida argues that meaning is not derived from these fixed properties and difference
between the static systems in linguistics, but that the meanings which are produced are
always

incomplete,

partial

and

infinitely

deferred

along

chain

of

differing/deferring signifiers. At the same time this process produces a confusion of the
meanings found along the way and depends on some minimal differences.
Something that is similar in all of these theoreticians books is that meaning only
arises from difference. Saussure claimed the same, and Jakobson guided his research with it
in mind. Derrida re re-emphasizes the point that meaning isn't in the signifier itself, but that it
only exists in a network, in relation to other things. Diffrance comes before being, and thus
is the idea of origin, of some natural and true meaning, thrown in the gutter. But in the postmodern world there is rarely one that believes in the existence of meaning, and even more
numerous are the ones that dont even bother looking for it. On this view, meaning is a matter
of institution rather than nature.

"Vicious circle in logic is a fallacy involving the presupposition of a proposition in one of the
premises. In Heideggers Sein und Zeit, this represents the circle in which a literary interpreter is stuck in, when
he deals with knowledge he already possesses.
16

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So we are back at the beginning, the origin, a discussion lead in so many places and
times, it has lost its starting point. Where the true meaning is derived from and even more
difficult what it is, presents a worldly challenge, as well as wordy one. It is intertwined with
the inevitable changing and loss of the world and one can not control them selves as to the
manner in which they affect each other, as well as to what trace they catch on. The case is
similar with Jakobson and Derrida, each taking a different approach, strictly speaking as to
what is to be done with meaning.
Both did not deny that there is meaning outside an idiom, but it is not one we are
aware of, and not the kind we been discussing in this paper. The one that we are aware of,
however, is only conceived thus in the human mind, and it is shaped in such a way with the
creation of language. It is our perception of things that is dependent on consciousness, and
tinted by its colouring, but it is nit completely missing. What we seem to do is add finiteness
to a world that is constantly changing, and that is why it is never absolute or prior to
temporalizing existence. There lies the question of searching for the origin.
Nevertheless the answer is yet to be located. We all strive towards finding some sense
in all that is happening around us. We seek the meaning of our existence and actions, but we
are also afraid of the finalisation that might pop out at the same time. And lastly we hope to
unify all of the sensations, experiences and knowledge into one functioning familiarity. The
existence of new and different horizons is what creates a disturbance in this serenity, but is
simultaneously gives us a new pleasure that there is more out there to be found out. It is
finiteness we fear or wish for.