Monday, 13 February 2012

What is Madness? 2
When words and things come apart

To continue with my reading of chapter 2 of What is Madness?: Leader cites Sechehaye's patient Renee:

My eyes met a chair, then a table; they were alive too, asserting their presence. I attempted to escape their hold by calling out their names. I said "Chair, jug, table, it is a chair." But the word echoed hollowly, deprived of all meaning: it had left the object, was divorced from it, so much so that on the one hand it was a living, mocking thing, on the other, a name, robbed of sense, an envelope emptied of content. Nor was I able to bring the two together, but stood rooted there before them, filled with fear and impotence.

After quoting this Leader writes that here (43-4):
The language of reality breaks down, and we are confronted with the gap that separates signifier - Renee's words - and object. ... These examples show how language can ... literally come apart... They suggest that what we tend to take for granted as reality is actually made up of different levels: bricks, newspapers, tables and chairs can all lose their everyday meaning and become enigmatic and threatening. To lose their everyday meaning implies that meaning is not intrinsic to them: they are what we call 'signifiers', and they can become disconnected from their usual meanings, called 'signifieds'. Reality involves a soldering together of signifier and signified, so that we don't perpetually ask what things mean. But in psychosis, at certain moments, these dimensions come apart...
As I read this I'm wondering if it is only I who experience this as almost somewhat thought-disordered in its failure to specify or disambiguate the meaning of phrases such as 'the language of reality', 'the gap that separates signifier and object', etc. I'm also left wondering whether or not 'different levels of reality' mean the same as 'different dimensions of reality', and what these really amount to. The colon suggests to us that bricks, newspapers, tables and chairs are from different 'levels', but this doesn't help us disambiguate 'level' because we don't (well, I don't) naturally experience these objects as being arranged in different dimensions or levels.

(Putting such concerns aside, this passage does at least give us some hermeneutic grounds for our earlier suggestion that Leader's talk of 'reality' is best taken as referring to someone's experience in the same kind of way as we might talk of Henry's 'world', 'existence', 'reality' - to someone's experience of objects rather than to objects experienced or not.)

What puzzles me especially though is the question of what is supposed to be the signifier and what the signified. At the start of the paragraph we have the idea that it is Renee's words ('table', 'chair') which are signifiers, and my assumption was therefore that what the signifieds are are the things to which these terms refer: i.e. the tables and chairs. I imagined, that is, that the problem was going to be described as one of signifiers (terms) coming apart from signifieds (objects). But then later on we are told that it is tables and chairs themselves which are signifiers, and that it is their usual meanings which are the signifieds. So here Leader seems to be saying that the coming apart is of objects and their meanings, not words and their objects. At this point I am completely lost, and unsure how I am supposed to get my bearings. Leader doesn't provide any further disambiguation at this point, providing us with a text which therefore cannot yet be read to be understood.

One way of making what Leader says make sense would be to suppose that he meant to write of 'bricks', 'newspapers', 'tables' and 'chairs', not of bricks, newspapers, tables and chairs. - i.e. he meant to write about the nouns and not about their referents. Then again, perhaps I am too imposing by far in making such free use of distinctions like 'meanings', 'words' and 'things'. Saussure, for example, wrote that "A sign is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and a sound pattern" (Course... p. 66). Reading on further we find him suggesting that "A sound pattern is the hearer's psychological impression of a sound." So here the idea seems to be that signs, which bind together a speaker's psychological impression of patterns of sound (whatever that is supposed to be - I have no clear sense of what this might mean for Saussure) with their meanings/objects (to conflate these two for a moment). This is what happens for Renee, after all: her words became empty envelopes, unable in some or other sense to conjur their objects.

What exactly Renee means by her experience of objects being 'alive', and of her own words (which, note, are the right words for these objects, and so in this sense meaningful) somehow correlatively being sapped of meaning, is somewhat obscure. (Louis Sass has offered us what I find to be the most persuasive reading of Renee's state of mind, but this is a matter for another day.) Whatever she means, however, is not aptly picked up for me by Leader's Saussurian talk of signifiers and signifieds which at worst conflates words and their objects (which are the signifiers?) and at best merely redescribes, without explaining, the psychopathology.

Addendum:

On page 73 Leader is clear that in writing of signifiers he is talking about things - 'a knife, a door, a bottle, etc.' Signifieds are therefore meanings, signifiers are things.