Academic journal article
By Burnham, Clint
English Studies in Canada , Vol. 36, No. 4
Ferguson and the Reminder of the Remainder
Sometimes the subordinate clause is while you still have friends. Causality abets restless energy; ensues credit. If stool the size of an infant's head is removed from one's cadaver, it's a sign. Adjust connective degenerations. What appears to the eye and touch after twenty or thirty years is the same after forty or sixty, singing, cords, casts, stuck to the bottom. (Deanna Ferguson, "Swoop Contract," The Relative Minor, 51)
Jacques Lacan's notion of the signifying chain holds that language functions as a structure to give meaning to signifiers and, further, that those signifiers constitute how memory works (or, in the case of repression, does not). In one formulation of the role of signifiers, things are remembered for the subject by the "signifying chain"--by words (Fink 20). And in an uncanny parallel to Lusk's text, Lacan notes the case of "the man who withdrew to an island to forget--to forget what? he forgot--so the Minister, by not making use of the letter, comes to forget it. This is expressed by the persistence of his conduct. But the letter, no more than the neurotic's unconscious, does not forget him" (E 34/24-25).
The signifying chain works in the following way. Take the ordinary sign: "Thank you for not smoking." We do not know what "thank you" means here until the end of the sentence, of the chain. "Thank you for not ..." what? We may know the dictionary meaning of "thank you"--of common gratitude--but not its meaning in this sign, until the chain is complete. "Smoking" gives meaning to "thank you."
Looking at Deanna Ferguson's excerpt, then, we can add a second meaning to the notion of the signifying chain: not only does a sentence only make sense once it is complete, but when sentences are removed from their context they do not make sense. Thus "stuck to the bottom" at the end of the Deanna Ferguson quotation would resonate with, or echo, for the reader of the entire poem, the line from the opening paragraph "Failing tomato juice, macaroni stuck to the bottom, she squawked" (wc 136). But that reference or resonance or echo does not mean that the phrase now means food or macaroni stuck to the bottom of a pot; what the reference means is the technical or formal device of collaging in a phrase from earlier in the poem; it means that the stuff of the poem is drawn from itself as well as from other texts, other meanings. The text is an intertext; the text is dialogic. Meaning in the sense of a fixed, definable essence is resisted, is never arrived at.
It's also important to realize that it is not just this kind of poetry which is subject to the signifying chain. All language is. We can return to the "Thank you for not smoking" sign, for instance, and note that there are still further indeterminacies at work here: for not smoking what? (Indeed, in the context of Vancouver, a city in which lately one is more likely to be censured for smoking tobacco than marijuana, the question is not merely mischievous.) Or for not smoking where? When? Ever? Or just right now, right here. These questions, this opening up of the signifying chain, which we ignore in our everyday use of language (or, Lacan would say, in the everyday use language makes of us), are what this writing is engaged with. And the refusal of meaning going on here is also connected to how some critics have seen Lacan's own writing functioning. As Bruce Fink, a clinician and the translator of a recent edition of Lacan's Ecrits argues:
[I]t is precisely insofar as understanding involves nothing more than situating one configuration of signifiers within another that Lacan is so adamant about refusing to understand, about striving to defer understanding, because in the process of understanding, everything is brought back to the level of the status quo, to the level of what is already known. Lacan's writing itself overflows with extravagant, preposterous, and mixed metaphors, precisely to jolt one out of the easy reductionism inherent in the very process of understanding. …