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“The Index Nothing Affirmeth”: The Semiotic Formation of a Literary Mandate in James Joyce’s “The Sisters”

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 245-262 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0055

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My purpose in this essay is to consider certain aspects of the way James Joyce discovers and deploys the central semiotic resource of literary language, indexicality, to stage in “The Sisters” the–to adapt a Hollywoodism to Giambattista Vico’s writing—precorso of his literary mandate.1 “The Sisters,” of course, was Joyce’s first publication, published under the name Stephen Daedalus in the Irish Homestead on 13 August 1904 and much revised by Joyce in the summer of 1906 to be the first of the then fourteen-part story cycle of Dubliners. These revisions involved primarily the addition of multiple micro-indices that shaped “The Sisters” as the macro-index or riddle that stands as first text or opening frame of the Joycean canon. The history and particular textuality of “The Sisters” have always given it pride of place in the inauguration of Joyce’s literary mandate, a primacy asserted by Fritz Senn, Thomas Staley, and many others in the rich and complex critical reception of this story.2 I am using mandate in the general sense of Slavoj Žižek’s well-known adaptation of Jacques Lacan’s fourth order of “symptom as sinthome [as] a certain signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment: it is a signifier as a bearer of jouis-sense, enjoyment-in-sense.”3 Specifically, I am interested in that “certain signifying formation” as it manifests itself in the disposition of the index in Joyce’s opening frame. To focus on this disposition, I want to examine closely three scenes: the first from Stephen Hero that represents directly the “certain signifying formation” of the artistic mandate and the second and third from “The Sisters.” In these scenes, the “signifying formation” disposes itself in a triune or trinitarian structure of the sign that C. S. Peirce, an American forty years older than Joyce and completely unknown to him, was defining, in his major contribution to semiotics, as the index.4 The index, as Peirce so strikingly describes it in the passage cited below, is itself the sign type that compels attention.

In 1903 and 1904, Peirce was beginning the last great revision of and addition to his triadic classification of the sign, starting with his Lowell Institute Lectures in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in October 1903.5 Peirce divided semiosis or sign-making and sign-interpreting into a firstness or icon or resemblance, a secondness or index or indication, and a thirdness or symbol or arbitrariness:

A regular progression of one, two, three may be remarked in the three orders of signs, Icon, Index, Symbol. The Icon has no dynamical connection with the object it represents; it simply happens that its qualities resemble those of that object, and excite analogous sensations in the mind for which it is a likeness. . . . [T]he index is physically connected with its object; they make an organic pair, but the interpreting mind has nothing to do with this connection. . . . The symbol is connected with its object by virtue of the idea of the symbol-using mind, without which no such connection would exist.


In short, the iconic sign resembles its object; the indexical points to its object; the symbolic arbitrarily signifies its object by convention. The three sign types characterize all complex sign systems; but they assume especially significant patterns in artistic texts like Joyce’s, which have a high degree of semiotic or sign-making and sign-interpreting self-reference.

For example, in the famous scene near the end of the “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy imagines making a complex visual and verbal text of his wife:

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music...

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