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• The Devolution of Nuclear Associability

We are all too familiar with Saussaure’s and likewise all too familiar with the notion that the lineseparating the signifier and signified is somehow sliding or shifting. And finally, we are as familiar with the instructional icon: As elementary as these concepts might now seem, I begin with them as Semiotics begins with them.

So, I ask you to imagine a character Adam. Adam is deficient in a singular linguistic way. He is never quite able to say what he means. Adam often gets very close, but never realizes his intention. Adam might attempt to explain the Pythagorean Theorem, but can only manage to get across that the sum of the squares of two sides of a triangle equals the square of the third side, being unable to make clear that the third side is the hypotenuse. Likewise, if Adam means to draw our attention to a right triangle, he can only manage triangle.So, that space or gap between the signified and the signifier is never quite crossed. We get: [End Page 116]

Since nature abhors a vacuum, something must fill that space. To say that it is nothing merely begs the question. For if Adam, with his peculiar problem were to intend to mean triangle, he would only be able to convey geometric shape. We have then:

If we place above this Adam’s attempt to offer the Pythagorean Theorem, then we see a ladder of sorts, which we might consider bounded on either side by some associative thread: [End Page 117]

We can well imagine how this disability of Adam’s can prove frustrating. Especially when he attempts to, say, summon help to his burning house, he being capable only of directing the firefighters to a house near his or to one which looks much like his, his meaning becoming twisted in his frantic efforts, much as our meaning often twists. [End Page 118]

Meaningis difficult enough without metaphor and metonymy. But imagine Adam undertaking to say something subtle and metaphoric. His meaning will not only fall short, but might, in fact must, be misconstrued by misdirection. His ladder of meaning breaks:

And depending on the situation in which his attempt is made, his broken meaning can accept (un)intentional connotational import, which we’ll call contextual clutter, and so looks like this: [End Page 119]

That newmeaning cannot be denied (whether acquired randomly or designedly), but it was not, in fact, Adam’s intention to make that meaning. Too heavy for his initial chain, the new meaning falls off and becomes an attempt at meaning all its own which might in turn be defended, regretted or repeated and certainly twisted.

The picture is yet another familiar one. I submit that it is an accurate and even a final representation of meaning. This is the stuff of meaning. Meaning is what we are and we are meaning. Meaning is molecular.

Percival Everett

Percival Everett is a professor of English at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. His numerous books of fiction include Frenzy, God’s Country, and Watershed.