Illustration from Ferdinand de Saussure's "Course in General Linguistics"
I see no sign that the Five Man Electrical Band was or is especially enamored of structuralism--or, for that matter, of post-structuralism. Still, recently it's been very hard for Scruffy and me to go on our twice-daily walk without the chorus of "Signs" popping into my head, at least--especially the chorus's perhaps not-so-rhetorical question.
Long-time and/or attentive readers of this blog know that a persistent theme in these Stretch of River posts is trying to make sense of stuff that I see along the river. That is the central activity of Structuralism. No news there. Here's the thing I've been pondering: how to make the distinction between things that mean and things that simply are. This is the territory of Wallace Stevens, another source of inspiration for good old Blog Meridian. The recent mornings' cooler weather signifies the approach of fall because I am familiar with calendars and weather patterns for North America and, for that matter, in my own experience I recollect the past well enough that I know that every year about this time the mornings begin to turn cooler. But at another level, these changes signify what I say they do only because I say they do, not because, so far as I know, they have any meaning apart from me. It helps to confirm that I am not mad that the general consensus among my fellow human beings is also that, yes, Fall is y-cumen in, but that still doesn't mean that the cooler weather means anything in and of itself. The planet is tilted on its axis, and as its position shifts relative to the sun its surfaces will gradually warm and cool. Those things are simply, irreducibly so--there is no further why (though Milton in Paradise Lost says, in effect, Are you sure about that?). The search for meaning, or for is-ness, for that matter, at times, bears some similarity to trying to reach the horizon. In some sense, myth and science seek to do the exact same thing: find Thoreau's firm foundation and rocks in place.
does it "mean" anything that on Friday morning at about 6:00, as we passed by the office building on the river, that in one of the corner offices we could see a TV playing a black-and-white film having something to do with boxing? The minute I ask the question, I imply that it does. But does it signify prior to my asking it? Sure, you say: it does for the person who is watching. But I could see no one watching the set (the back of the desk chair was turned toward the window). We could see the set long enough to assume that its showing that film wasn't an accident, but, well, we were just passing through, Scruffy's business being a rather more urgent concern than the puzzling-out of this mystery. How long a time need we have dallied to determine the deliberate--or accidental--nature of the film's being shown?
The moment was and remains a mystery it for me: it lacks a fixed explanation. In post-structural parlance, it is indeterminate. But while that implies that there is something inherent in the moment that makes it so, it's actually my not knowing that makes it so. This is where occurs the work of narrative, (very) broadly defined: the establishing of a causality that seeks to explain and thus remove or reduce a signifier's indeterminacy. Darwin's pondering of finches' beaks and Joan Didion's pondering of "shimmering" images in "Why I Write"--it's the exact same starting point. Something's unknowability has nothing to do with the thing itself.