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  • Floating Signifiers in John Barth's Sabbatical
  • Gordon E. Slethaug (bio)

Titles do not necessarily signify the content of books, but they are, as John Barth has observed in "The Title of This Book," important considerations in the production of a text and may simultaneously refer to themselves, the book in which they appear, and the world beyond that book (ix-xii). Subtitles are another matter, and Barth asserts in "The Subtitle of This Book" that they should be avoided or used in a more straightforward way (xiii-xiv).

Although the title of his most recent book of fiction, Sabbatical, nicely exemplifies his desire for referentiality and self-referentiality, Barth violates his own credo by including in the subtitle an ambiguous logo that seems to reflect all of the qualities he ascribes to titles in general. This logo resembles three large wedges of pie arranged in a circle.1

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Between the pieces is a Y-shaped passageway leading to a tiny circle in the center. Abstract in design, this logo is not immediately meaningful, even though, embedded within the title page, it seems to herald some import. It is like an introductory emblem, illustration, or map; but, whereas traditionally these give a sense of design to the fiction—a rational purpose—without actually giving away plot or details, this logo is essentially indeterminate, having no fixed signification; it remains ever elusive, assuming multiple associations and indefinitely deferring meaning. It is, as Jacques Derrida would say, a faus titre, a false lead, that breaches the intentionality of the title and refuses signification in theme (Archeology 13-14).2 An indeterminate signifier itself, it refers to several other signs within the text, including the yacht that plays a prominent role in the novel, the chart of the Bay, the topography of the voyage, and the personal decisions of the main characters, Susan and Fenn. Most importantly, as a signifier of form and structure, the logo points to what the semiologists call, with particular aptness in a novel dealing with sailing, a floating narration. This floating narration or discourse is an extrapolation [End Page 647] of Saussure's notion of arbitrary signifiers, Jakobson's and Jespersen's "shifters," Levi-Strauss's mythemes, and Lacan's floating signifiers, all of which stress the lack of fixed or ascertainable content and meaning (Leitch 12-17; Jakobson passim). In Derrida's opinion a floating signifier is a wild card that "cannot be assigned a fixed spot in the play of differences" (Dissemination 93).

As part of a title, a logo is an unconventional feature, although it is appropriate for a book about a nine-month sabbatical voyage that culminates in a journey up Chesapeake Bay. The aptness of the floating signifier is evident in the repeated verbal and imagistic patterns of floating—the yacht's, Fenn's and Susan's swimming in the water, and the narrative's structure. The text verbally calls attention to the concept by referring to the "floatink fleshbeck" and by observing that "Mims and I were floating" and that "we were these big, elastic floating eggs." Even though the narrator explains that "We can't float dialect-puns in our story," they also reinforce the concept of floating. Even Fenn's name is ambiguous and "watery" (171, 173, 205).

No sign remains diachronically or synchronically constant; signifiers and signifieds are continuous only in their fluidity. When cultures change, so do the values attributed to signifiers, and within a given culture no sign is denotative of one thing only; its connotative value depends wholly upon context. Accordingly, the introductory logo in Sabbatical has no signification without its specific context, and even then the particularities of the context keep the meanings fluid. Such fluidity is part of "the great machine of opposition (including that of form and content) wherein a text displaces its program: what the text programs, what programs the text, and what on all sides breaches the program, limits it in its very own opening, and defeats in advance its teleology, undecides its circle" (Archeology 108). This is, as Jacques Ehrmann remarks, the play of signs, "the inevitable floating of discourse and its ambiguities...


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pp. 647-656
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