Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multicultural Politics

By Satya P. Mohanty | Go to book overview

2 REFERENCE AND THE SOCIAL BASIS OF LANGUAGE

I began the preceding chapter by staging my discussion of various competing positions in contemporary literary theory around a notion of the "meaning" of texts. It became evident that understood in this general way, such seemingly diverse projects as marxist criticism, feminism, and deconstruction in fact have a great deal in common. They share in particular an emphasis on the conventional nature of social meanings, and thus on the ideological nature of textual interpretation itself. But in exploring Paul de Man's claim about language, I ran up against several underexamined issues having to do with the nature of "reference" and the exact nature of the "sociality" of language. These issues are important in debates over specific interpretations and, primarily, because they point to theoretical questions involved in all social and cultural explanation. Meanings may be conventional and hence ideologically decomposable, but how exactly is the meaning of a linguistic text related to the nature of language as a social phenomenon? Linguistic texts are polysemous and productive, but in what nonessentialist way can we explain this productivity? Is the ineliminable heteroglossia of language or even the self-deconstructing nature of "literary" language as de Man defines it an ontological "given," or is it to be itself interpreted and specified relationally (as the Peircean notion of the interpretant suggests)--in relation to the various contexts of linguistic use? Finally, how does language hook up with "the world," and what basic account of the referential dimensions of language must we have to understand its ongoing semiosis? It is the aim of the present chapter

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