Signs, signifiers, meanings and intentions

According to Weedon (1987), Derrida questions

Saussure's logocentrism in which signs have an already fixed meaning recognized by the self-consciousness of the rational speaking subject. ... The effect of representation, in which meaning is apparently fixed, is but a temporary retrospective fixing. Signifiers are always located in a discursive context and the temporary fixing of meaning in a specific reading of a signifier depends on this discursive context (p. 25).

For example, the meaning of the signifier 'woman' varies from ideal to victim to object of sexual desire, according to its context. This meaning, says Weedon, is always open to challenge and redefinition with shifts in its discursive context. Thus the meaning of 'woman' is subject to change, depending upon how social and historical practices contribute to the construction of possible 'subject positions'. This introduces the notion of how 'subjectivity' is discursively constructed and located in the text. Weedon defines 'subjectivity' as the term used to "refer to the conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions of the individual, her sense of herself and her ways of understanding her relation to the world" (Weedon, 1987, pp. 32-5; and see subject positions). Even within a particular culture there will be competing and conflicting discourses; therefore both the signified (concept) and signifier (sound or written image) are open to constant rereading and reinterpretation.

Jenny Pinkus, August 1996

It is only a short step from the deconstruction of the author's intention to the disappearance of the object of language as well. The author's intention ceases to be an important locus of meaning, as does the world outside discourse. As Derrida attempted to demonstrate in the case of various lines of philosophy, such writing is indeed just that, a form of writing. It gains its meaning not from that which it supposes to exist or to which it putatively refers (logic, mental representation, a priori ideas, and the like) but by its reference to other philosophic texts. For philosophy, then, there is nothing outside the world of texts. The discipline can continue to exist indefinitely as a self-referring enterprise. This line of argument leads, in turn, to the analysis of philosophic texts in terms of the literary strategies by which their outcomes are achieved.

Ken Gergen

(1994: 39)

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