The displacement of the author in post-structuralism is an attack on an ideology
of higher knowledge and power, and on the notion of individual ownership of
texts and meanings. Granting those arguments, it seems still to be desirable to
retain the term ‘writer’ for someone who engages in the practice of textual
production. Writers can then be described in terms of their various cultural,
institutional and economic situations: what publishers publish them, what media
they use, what associations they belong to, how they are paid and/or otherwise
employed. (Similar questions can be asked about readers.) The circumstances
of linguistic practice determine the modes of discourse, and therefore the ranges
of meaning, available to speakers and writers; this is a commonplace assumption
in the ethnography of communication (see, for example, Bauman and Sherzer,
1974; Gumperz and Hymes, 1972), and is implicit in materialist analyses of
textual production and consumption (see Eagleton, 1976). A radical claim of
linguistics which may help us understand the situation of writer, text and context
is that discourses and their significances pre-exist the act of writing; the writer
may choose the words and structures, but communication takes place only
because they are already impregnated with social meanings. It is in this sense
that we can say that writers, like any communicating subjects, are semiotically
constituted by their texts, and it is in this way that textual illusions such as the
‘implied author’ (Booth, 1961) are constructed for the reader.
An awareness of and respect for an ‘author’ who controls the text of the
‘work’ correlatively implies an inferior and inactive reader, a passive reader
who is acted upon by the work. Apologists for ‘Literature’ take their cue from
Horace’s dictum that poetry is ‘dulce et utile’, sweet and useful; ‘Literature’
has the dual goal to ‘delight’ and ‘instruct’ the reader. The key term for the
first half of the conjunction is ‘pleasure’, defined variously: it could be a feeling
of the sublime, the relief of a cathartic purging of violent feelings, a
harmonization of impulses (Richards, 1924), even just an agreeable feeling of
admiration for the poet’s skill: in the review of Larkin mentioned above,
Saussure, as the reader will remember, argues that meaning in language is
just a matter of difference. 'Cat' is 'cat' because it is not 'cap' or 'bat'. But
how far is one to press this process of difference? 'Cat' is also what it is
because it is not 'cad' or 'mat', and 'mat' is what it is because it is not 'map'
or 'hat'. Where is one supposed to stop? It would seem that this process of
difference in language can be traced round infinitely: but if this is so, what
has become of Saussure's idea that language forms a closed, stable system? If
every sign is what it is because it is not all the other signs, every sign would
seem to be made up of a potentially infinite tissue of differences. Defining a
sign would therefore appear to be a more tricky business than one might
have thought. Saussure's langue suggests a delimited structure of meaning;
but where in language do you draw the line?
Another way of putting Saussure's point about the differential nature of
meaning is to say that meaning is always the result of a division or 'articulation'
of signs. The signifier 'boat' gives us the concept or signified 'boat'
because it divides itselffrom the signifier 'moat'. The signified, that is to say,
is the product of the differencebetween two signifiers. But it is also the
product ofthe difference between a lot of other signifiers: 'coat', 'boar', 'bolt'
and so on. This questions Saussure's view of the sign as a neat symmetrical
unity between one signifier and one signified. For the signified 'boat' is really
the product ofa complex interaction of signifiers, which has no obvious endpoint.
Meaning is the spin-off of a potentially endless play of signifiers,
rather than a concept tied firmly to the tail of a particular signifier. The
signifier does not yield us up a signified directly, as a mirror yields up an
image: there is no harmonious one-to-one set of correspondences between
the level of the signifiers and the level of the signifieds in language. To
complicate matters even further, there is no fixed distinction between
signifiers and signifieds either. If you want to know the meaning (or signified)
of a signifier, you can look it up in the dictionary; but all you will find
will be yet more signifiers, whose signifieds you can in turn look up, and so .
on. The process we are discussing is not only in theory infinite but somehow
circular: signifiers keep transforming into signifieds and vice versa, and you
will never arrive at a final signified which is not a signifier in itself. If
structuralism divided the sign from the referent, this kind of thinking
often known as 'post-structuralism' goes a step further: it divides the
signifier from the signified.
Another way of putting what we have just said is that meaning is not
immediately present in a sign. Since the meaning of a sign is a matter of what
the sign is not, its meaning is always in some sense absent from it too.
Meaning, if you like, is scattered or dispersed along the whole chain of
signifiers: it cannot be easily nailed down, it is never fully present in anyone
sign alone, but is rather a kind of constant flickering of presence and absence
together. Reading a text is more like tracing this process of constant
flickering than it is like counting the beads on a necklace. There is also
another sense in which we can never quite close our fists over meaning,
which arises from the fact that language is a temporal process. When I read
a sentence, the meaning of it is always somehow suspended, something
deferred or still to come: one signifier relays me to another, and that to
another, earlier meanings are modified by later ones, and although the
sentence may come to an end the process of language itself does not. There
is always more meaning where that came from. I do not grasp the sense of
the sentence just by mechanically piling one word on the other: for the
words to compose some relatively coherent meaning at all, each one of them
must, so to speak, contain the trace of the ones which have gone before, and
hold itself open to the trace of those which are coming after. Each sign in
the chain of meaning is somehow scored over or traced through with all
the others, to form a complex tissue which is never exhaustible; and to this
extent no sign is ever 'pure' or 'fully meaningful'. At the same time as this
is happening, I can detect in each sign, even if only unconsciously, traces of
the other words which it has excluded in orderto be itself. 'Cat' is what it is
only by fending off 'cap' and 'bat', but these other possible signs, because
they are actually constitutive of its identity, still somehow inhere within it.