Theory Teacher's Blog

Language, Babies, and the Face of the Signifier

If you want to begin to understand post-structuralist theory about language, spend some time with children. And better yet, spend time with children while you are so stuffed with turkey, cranberry sauce, rice stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, candied yams, baked ham, green peas and pearl onions, brussel sprouts, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and several glasses of pinot noir that you can’t do anything but sit, hold your aching, distended belly, and watch them play with their Christmas presents. Not having any children of my own, I don’t get to observe children often or for extended periods of time (and usually I find them to be very confusing little creations anyway), but this Christmas I got to watch my sister’s sixteen-month-year-old twins. This is the age when babies are just beginning to enter language but aren’t quite there yet, and Christmas is a holiday excessively loaded with symbols and meaning.

So, let me start by describing a little moment that might sound pretty familiar to many parents. It’s time for the baby’s after-dinner snack; the mother has a roll and breaks off a piece of it for the baby. The baby brushes it away, knocking it to the floor. He reaches for the roll in the mother’s hand, so she breaks off another piece, but again the baby brushes it aside and reaches for the roll in the mother’s hand. The mother says, “it’s the same roll, sweetheart.” But of course the baby knows that it’s not the same roll. The “real” roll is the roll that mom is withholding, not the piece of it she’s giving. What does the baby really want? Perhaps it’s not a piece of bread the baby wants but control of the roll. And what is the roll here? If we want to be precise, we recognize that it’s not simply what the child desires, because what does the child desire? Another roll, some other food, or anything else potentially interesting might easily be substituted. And therefore, likewise, what the roll means in this situation is not simply mom or dad’s power to withhold what’s desired, because we don’t really know what’s desired. Rather, what the roll indicates is mom and dad’s power to codify desire itself — to organize (or territorialize) desire into the content and schedule of eating time, sleeping time, playing time, etc. 

So, what has this to do with theorists such as Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze? In his lecture, “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” (or “Agency of the Letter” in the old translation), Lacan observes a sliding between the signifier and the signified; the word and the thing the word is supposed to mean don’t quite line up the way we assume they are supposed to. Syntax and grammar are not neatly logical. From that fact, Lacan and Deleuze are critical of the kind of linguistics that assumes a natural correspondence between words and things (i.e., the notion that the word “roll” represents a determinate object.) To illustrate his claim, Lacan briefly mentions the example of how babies learn language. If you hold up a roll or a pen or whatever and teach the child the word “roll” or “pen,” how is the child to know that the second and third objects you hold up are also rolls or pens (especially if they are different colors and shapes)? How is the child to know that the word you are saying is a common noun and not a proper noun “Pen” with a capital, proprietary “P”? Hence, words have meaning because they are part of a web of meaning that must be repeated and doubled. The word “pen” acquires its meaning only after it’s repeated enough times across a range of different pens and a range of different contexts, but it’s not just a matter of repetition. There is also a doubling because it is not just one signifier for each signified, but at least two signifiers when we are learning language — not just the word “pen” but also the finger pointing to the object. And not just those two, but also the word’s relationship to other words (doubled a second and third and fourth… time. And of course this is the genius of Dr. Seuss’s books, in which language doubles over, laughing hysterically, with every rhyming couplet.) In sum, meaning is social.

But it is not only “social” in a neutral, bland sense of the word social. Deleuze and Guattari take it further in the chapter “On Several Regimes of Signs” in their book Thousand Plateaus. It’s also a matter of power and the multiplicity of very physical relations (i.e., bodies and spaces, not just linguistic or formal significances.) After all, whose finger is doing all the pointing?… Whose finger indeed? Does the finger not belong to a body, and does that body not have a face?… Of course it does!

Let’s take another example. Earlier the day began with the opening of Christmas presents. The meaning of Christmas presents is full of ritualized expectations about the value of the gift, the relationship between giver and receiver, etc. Everyone knows this; it’s intuitively obvious. But what’s less intuitively obvious is the power behind the giving-and-withholding that the ritual of receiving conceals and mystifies. And our own adult refusal to acknowledge the mystification (even though we all know it) is what makes Christmas with babies so amusing. The family insists on the ritual of giving and receiving because of the significance it has for the very meaning of the word “family” and the unity and coherence of the family line. Especially in the case where grandparents and a newborn are both present, it signifies the transfer of the words “mom and dad” from one generation to the next, a transfer signified by the cards on the baby’s presents which say “from mom and dad” even though the baby can’t read.

The baby, however, is more interested in the cameras taking pictures of the event than the event itself. Just as we ourselves are, they are more interested in the doubling of the event than the simple exchange of gifts. And this is the joke that we all share over wine later while we are eating: a couple hundred dollars have been spent on presents for the baby, but the baby wants to play with the cameras, with the cell phones, with the light switches, with the door handles, and even with the dishwasher — all the things he’s not supposed to touch. And what all these objects have in common is that they are all tools that mom and dad use to organize space and time and social relationships. They are expressions of the social body (i.e., and for the baby, they are expressions of mom and dad’s face.)

And so, by observing a baby, we get a wee little inkling of the complicated social nature of language and how meanings are made. But this is just a beginning….


December 26, 2010 Posted by | language | Leave a comment