The Non-Fixity of Meaning
The plurality of language and the impossibility of fixing meaning once and for all are basic principles of poststructuralism.
(Weedon, 1997: 82)
As a ‘post’-theorization, poststructuralism follows on from the work of structuralist theories of language. This is an important point because it draws attention to what is both common and distinctive to structuralism and poststructuralism. In particular, it is de Saussure’s structuralist linguistics that is viewed as being a significant forerunner to poststructuralist approaches. Beasley (1999: 90) notes that for de Saussure ‘meaning is formulated within language and is not somehow to be found outside the ways in which discourse operates’. Language is, therefore, not simply an expression of a preconceived meaning but instead language creates meaning. This point is not at issue for poststructuralist theorists. Poststructuralism places considerable emphasis on the role of language in shaping how we know.
In addition, de Saussure argued that language has an underlying structure. This underlying structure is comprised of oppositions through which meaning derives. I indicated in the Introduction that the meanings of naivete are drawn from what we would also understand as not being naive. In this case naivete’s meanings arise through ideas of wisdom and experience. In this way we can conceive of meaning as derived from a ‘web of other concepts from which it is differentiated’ (ibid.). Again, poststructuralism gives considerable attention to the structuring of meaning through oppositional and dualistic relations.
There are two points of divergence, however, between de Saussure’s structural linguistics and poststructuralist accounts of meaning. One of these is that whereas de Saussure stressed the fixity of a central underlying structure to language, poststructuralism stresses quite the opposite. That is that meaning is fragmented and shifting. Indeed, as Weedon (1997) notes, the impossibility of fixing meaning is central to poststructuralist theorizing. Alvesson and Skoldberg comment that a major implication of moving away from a belief in a central structure of language is that language becomes an open play of never-ending meaning within time relations. Thus, poststructuralism: ‘breaks with the conception of a dominating centre which would govern the structure, and with the conception that the synchronic, timeless, would be more important than the diachronic, narrative, that which goes on in time’ (2000: 148).
Finlayson (1999) illustrates how the approach to meaning as multiple and temporal draws on the notion of hierarchical binary oppositions. The most classic example of this is that of the binary male-female. It is this relational nature of meaning that is seen to give rise to its instability. This is important because it draws attention to how meanings are derived. In the male-female binary, to be a woman requires us to have a corresponding concept of man. Without this relation the terms alone would have no reference point from which to derive their meaning. Nonetheless, it is the relation between these binaries that gives rise to the instability of meaning production and reproduction. In particular ‘the first term in a binary opposition can never be completely stable or secure, since it is dependent on that which is excluded’ (Finlayson, 1999: 64). As understandings of male change, so do those of female and vice versa.
Although meanings cannot be fixed, we live our lives as though they are. The appearance of fixity is maintained through ‘the suppression of its opposite’ (ibid.: 63). In everyday discourse the fact that what it means to be masculine relies on what it means to be feminine is hidden from view. We are not conscious, for example, that every time we use the word ‘woman’, we are using the reference point of man to derive our meanings. As Davies (1997a: 9) notes, ‘This construction operates in a variety of intersecting ways, most of which are neither conscious nor intended. They are more like an effect of what we might call ‘‘speaking – as-usual’’.’
The notion of an array of deferred meanings is often summarized in terms of Derrida’s conceptualization of differance. Differance is derived from the French verb ‘differer’, which means to defer or to put off. Johnson (2000) notes that while the closest English translation is that of ‘deferment’, this loses the complexity of associations that arise in the French. These are particularly those of temporality, movement and process that institute difference ‘while at the same time holding it in reserve, deferring its presentation or operation’ (ibid.: 41). Thus:
Each linguistic signifier comes laced with deferrals to, and difference from, an absent ‘other’ – the negated binary – that is also in play. Differance – Derrida’s term for these deferrals and differance – is not a name for a thing, but rather ‘the movement according to which language, or any code, any system of referral in general, is constituted ‘‘historically’’ as a weave of differences’. Thus, the terms ‘movement’, ‘is constituted’ and ‘historically’ need to be understood as ‘beyond the metaphysical language in which they are retained’ (1968, p. 65). (Battersby, 1998: 91-100)
Weedon (1997) comments that the issue of differance does not imply that meaning disappears completely. Differance does focus our attention on the temporal implications of meaning and how meaning is open to challenge. However ‘the degree to which meanings are vulnerable at a particular moment will depend on the discursive power relations within which they are located’ (Weedon, 1997: 82). Thus, a second point of divergence between de Saussure’s linguistics and poststructuralism is the attention that is given to the relations of power within language. One way of illustrating this is through the attention that has been given to the analysis of dualism and the processes of deconstruction.