Vision and voice

People love to watch an artist draw. He draws a line and slowly it becomes a shape. He adds more lines, and introduces shading. So far, the relationships are all within the page; a composition takes form. But the drawing suggests that it is a drawing of something — but of what? Here is where the suspense is concentrated. The interrelated elements on the page taken as a whole point beyond themselves, to realities beyond the page. In figurative art, the reference is to physical objects. But this is only the basest reality. Beyond it is mood, and the mood is connected to the figures. And beyond that, there are layers of symbol, starting with shared cultural meanings, proceeding onward to more obscure and personal intimations.

I think storytelling is a mode of speech that imitates drawing. Human beings are predominantly visual, and whatever modes of thought make use of the visual modes of thought gain an advantage.

Maybe objectivity is preferred over subjectivity because objectivity is more optical. When we don’t want to follow some involved line of thought, when we don’t want to reach the conclusion by the path of personal realization, but just want the bottom-line result, what do we ask for? A synopsis.


Martin Buber: “The Greeks established the hegemony of the sense of sight over the other senses, thus making the optical world into the world, into which the data of the other senses are now to be entered. Correspondingly, they also gave to philosophizing, which for the Indian was still only a bold attempt to catch hold of one’s own self, an optical character, that is, the character of the contemplation of particular objects.”

More and more, I am understanding Judaism to be a perpetually developing religion of time and speech subsuming space and sight, eternally at odds with the eternalizing religions of space and sight which look forward to the end of time (which entails an end to speech). Jews hear truth and say truth. In the process truth is revealed. Truth is a relationship. “Gentiles” see the truth and assert the truth. Truth is a thing.

To flatten the history of the Jews into a series of factual ethical assertions strung together on a thread of narrative is to misunderstand it (almost) completely.


Here’s the Ricoeur passage that set me off on this line of thought:

…polysemy is the pivot of semantics. …we there come marvelously upon what I have called the exchanges between the structure and the event. In fact this process presents itself as a convergence of two factors, a factor of expansion and, at the limit, of surcharge. By virtue of the cumulative process… the word tends to be charged with use-values, but the projection of this cumulative process into the system of signs implies that the new meaning finds its place within the system. The expansion, and, if the case obtains, the surcharge is arrested by the mutual limitation of signs within the system. In this sense we can speak of a limiting action of the field, opposed to the tendency to expansion, which results from the cumulative process of the word. Thus is explained what one could call a regulated polysemy, which is the law of our language. Words have more than one sense, but they do not have an infinity of meanings.

This example shows how semantic systems differ from semiological systems. The latter can be treated without any reference to history; they are intemporal systems because they are potential. Phonology gives the best illustration of this. Only the binary oppositions between distinctive units play a role. In semantics, in contrast, the differentiation of meanings results from the equilibrium between two processes, a process of expansion and a process of limitation, which force words to shape themselves a place amid others, to hierarchize their use-values. This process of differentiation is irreducible to a simple taxonomy. Regulated polysemy is of the panchronic order, that is, both synchronic and diachronic to the degree that a history projects itself into states of systems, which henceforth are only instantaneous cross-sections in the process of sense, in the process of nomination.

We then understand what happens when the word returns to the discourse along with its semantic richness. All our words being polysemic to some degree the univocity or plurivocity of our discourse is not the accomplishment of words but of contexts. In the case of univocal discourse, that is, of discourse which tolerates only one meaning, it is the task of the context to hide the semantic richness of words, to reduce it by establishing what Greiman calls an isotopy, that is, a frame of reference, a theme, an identical topic for all the words of the sentence (for example, if I develop a geometrical “theme,” the word volume will be interpreted as a body in space; if the theme concerns the library, the word volume will be interpreted as designating a book). If the context tolerates or even preserves several isotopies at the same time, we will be dealing with an actually symbolic language, which, in saying one thing, says something else. Instead of sifting out one dimension of meaning, the context allows several to pass, indeed, consolidates several of them, which run together in the manner of the superimposed texts of a palimpsest. The polysemy of our words is then liberated. Thus the poem allows all the semantic values to be mutually reinforced. More than one interpretation is then justified by the structure of a discourse which permits multiple dimensions of meaning to be realized at the same time.

In short, language is in celebration. It is indeed in a structure that this abundance is ordered and deployed; but the structure of the sentence does not, strictly speaking, create anything. It collaborates with the polysemy of our words to produce this effect of meaning that we call symbolic discourse, and the polysemy itself of our words results from the concurrence of the metaphorical process with the limiting action of the semantic field.


Leave a Reply