Ambiguity (Narrative, Symbolic)

Ambiguity (Narrative, Symbolic): Transcendence, Transcendent, Transcendent Signified versus Immanence, Immanent, Immanent Signified – This short exercise in literary theory/philosophy works best if you have drawing implements and a few minutes to think…

[Draw picture on board of a box, huge, full of junk. Label "Moby-Dick."]

[Draw picture on board of a small, gift-wrapped box, beautiful, boring. Label "non-ambiguous fiction."]

[Draw cool stuff made with the parts in Box 1. An adventure, a theology, a negation of man's ability to know Being, a gay love story, a black gay love adventure, none of these things, Kafka, the sinking of Kapital, the resurrection of nomadic power (he kills the eagle, at the last), the story of the understanding-whale of man, the story of the crucible or becoming-self of a proto-Modern neurasthenic, etc.]

[Draw only 1 thing, coming out of Box 2. Say, the story of Predator. OR the story of a Harlequin romance paperback. OR a news story. Etc. Each of these can only be made with one gift-wrapped box.]



Of course there is no ultimate or transcendent signified, because the immanent (immediate, present, surface) signifiers always call to mind more, other signifiers. This sets up a chain of substitutions: “White = grace = bird = freedom = America = slavery = blackness…” Or: “White = terror = the sea = Jonah’s flight to Gades/Cadiz = the limits of the Imperium = north Africa = Algeria = French concepts of ‘blackness’ = black = space = quietude = grace…” Except that both of these are present at once, and each of their clements is equally likely to be present or absent at any given moment, in any reading…

Substitution and the availability of meanings, as opposed to the imposition of a Meaning, is quite obvious with whiteness in Moby-Dick, but it happens, especially at the unconscious level, with all texts. All signs ultimately consist of signifiers that substitute for their “true meanings” only other signifiers, creating a play, a matrix of potential meanings, rather than a one-to-one correspondence between “real Reality,” out there (what we call Being, which resists signification) and each chunk of Reality’s “sign,” or perfect arbitrary representative, in our heads, on our pages, out of our mouths. Everything, in consciousness, is a play of machines (English, German, Latin… Marxism, the Enlightenment, Buddhism… imperial power, nomadic power, dream-shamanic power…) that intersect and allow us to create for ourselves—as reader-speaker-auto-prophets—our own stories and meanings.

So you think you have decoded the super secret ninja bonus meaning of a story: But all you’ve done, really, is to make the meaning that you think the “author” “wanted” you to make.

There are no authors, only writers of texts, people who make sign-machines, and READERS. Readers are the bosses. Reading is the more active act. It’s like the difference between working at Lego, stamping out little yellow bricks, and actually making a castle with them. Reading is the taking up of signs and making meanings.

This is most obvious, narratively, in the choose-your-own-adventure style of Coover.

This is most obvious, symbolically/thematically/spiritually, in the choose-your-own-purpose-in-life Sur-narratives (“sur” as in “Surreal” means “hyper,” at least a la Breton, in French) of Kafka, Melville, and especially Donald Barthelme.

The point of all this is that we are headed, and have been for some time, away from simple/naive readings, passive one-to-one readings, and toward a level of connection, surface-as-only-content (topology versus false depth, false soil-digging and root-finding and tree-climbing and flying, when there is in literature, as in physics, it turns out, only a twisting surface along which we can move). This is very exciting.

When I say that you cannot locate one “meaning” of whiteness or the doubloon, what I mean is that you cannot locate only one meaning, and that you certainly cannot locate “the meaning that Melville intended,” precisely because Melville himself (like Kafka) could not locate and did not “mean” one meaning.

You, as a Reader, are now in the driver’s seat. You make castles and tell stories. You make meanings. You can locate where writers were more or less interested (Melville = whales). You can read what they said about their works. But ultimately their works are not their own, but their Readers’.

Leave A Comment