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  • Synopsis: A Theory of Symbolic Representation
  • David Allen Black (bio)


A new theory: why

It is not without trepidation that I sketch out a new theory. 1 A new theory—by which I mean a new way of talking about old things, a new set of verbal tools with which to gain purchase on familiar practices—may well be the last thing we need. Moreover, theorizing goes against the present tide of recombination—which, indeed, turns out to be reticence under a different name. Somewhere along the line, the valuable insight that our thought is relative and contingent gave way to a preoccupation with saying so, and with “applying” the theories of others to our own questions. What might have been scholarship—even scholarship which acknowledges its roots—becomes instead a falsely modest ventriloquism, served willy-nilly upon the dead.

What I offer here grows out of the study of narrative theory and semiotics; however, it is neither one nor the other. It is a theory of symbolic representation, which means that it operates at the same logical level as narrative theory and semiotics. I do not mean this pre-emptively. Rather—and on the contrary—I mean it in the spirit of an explicit repudiation of the scarcity mentality which so tightly grips academic thought (e.g., if psychoanalytic criticism is “right”, textual exegesis must be “wrong”, etc.).

We need a new theory, because we need a way of talking about what actually happens in practice without committing ourselves, in our theory, to what we perceive as the mistakes of that practice. In brief, the relevant difference between usage and theory in matters of symbolic representation is this: theory (correctly, in my opinion) suspects the notion of immanent meaning, while usage completely and unswervingly accepts it. In other words, we live in a world where we speak referentially, and where the mechanics of reference are by and large accepted at face value. Moreover—and importantly—this applies across the board. I know many theorists who repudiate the idea of immanent meaning, but who discuss their own lives anecdotally in exactly the same manner [End Page 423] as non-theorists. In fact, we often seem to pepper our casual conversation with witticisms derived from, yet ultimately at the expense of, our insights into the relativity of discourse and the arbitrariness of speech.

But the point is not to engage in a game of theoretical “Simon Says,” where anyone caught espousing belief in an essential connectedness between the utterance and its referent is “out.” Rather, the point is to find a way out of the impasse—an impasse which offers us too few choices. It is all very well to banish immanent meaning in theory; but when the theorist’s back is turned, discourse and referent find each other again. If theory exerts a centripedal influence, the opposite is true of usage; and instead of further stratifying everything (including people) on the criterion of sophistication, we need a way to get at everything.

A new theory of symbolic representation must enable us to speak, without acquiescence but equally without censure, of what actually happens; to acknowledge the metaphysical behavior of events, without embracing the underlying metaphysics; and to exhibit flexibility with respect to the matter of truth value, neither doing away with the idea that discourses may point to the truth, nor suggesting either that every truth can be pointed to or that every discourse points to one.

Versions and referents: a visualization

My interest in theorizing about these matters grows out of a fascination with a particular phenomenon, namely that of the version. Versions are a relatively high-level construct; that is, they are complex, not atomic. But they display the most important and recalcitrant aspects of referentiality; and we traffic in them. We also traffic in isolated words, but my concern here, ultimately, is with abundance, and with the textual emanence which purports to contain, and yet not completely to be, the referent with extent in space and time. Nothing, it seems to me, is as important in this regard, and as deserving of continued reflection, as the axiom that there can be such a thing as more...

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pp. 423-436
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Ceased Publication
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