20 November 2015
Architectural Association, London
Caroline Rabourdin, AA Media Studies and History and Theory Studies tutor and PhD candidate at UAL, explores the space between meanings that language is capable of creating.
Inky tinky pobblebockle abblesquabs? – Flosky! beebul trimble flosky! – Okul scratchabibblebongibo, viddle squibble tog-a-tog, ferrymoyassity amsky flamsky ramsky damsky crocklefether squiggs.
These are the words of Edward Lear in a letter to his friend Evelyn Baring. They are also the first of Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s book The Violence of language in which he explains that all linguistic and semantic studies fail in their attempt to decipher the letter. Linguistic studies, like many analytical sciences, don’t like ambiguity. Phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, none of those safe and established Saussurean probes can make sense of the words on the page, yet Lecercle eventually manages to make sense of what looks like words and sentences. He goes looking for meaning in various interpretations of his own, through connotations instead of denotations, though he concedes the method itself leads to results that remain unstable; Flinkywisty pomm for instance could mean Best Wishes just as well as it might Go to Hell! Still, he professes that the author intends for nonsense to make sense. In another book, titled Philosophy of Nonsense, starring Lewis Carroll as the main object of study, Lecercle explains that nonsense is not so much the negation of meaning but an oscillation between meanings and adds that ‘writing outside sense proves to be surprisingly difficult, for meaning puts up a fight’. We seek to understand; we want to make sense, for otherwise we are condemned to perpetual movement. When we are confronted with polysemy, with the single expression of multiple meanings, we try and settle for one of them,
Lewis Carroll, Henry Holiday, Hunting of the Snark, Plate 4
we vacillate endlessly to assess the appropriateness of one, or the other, or one, or the other, or one, or the other… we move, we sway.We dwell in this dynamic space, somewhere in the middle, oscillating between meanings without ever landing on the shore. As Derrida declaims to his perplexed audience, waiting for the title of his ‘Title to be Specified’ conference: ce malaise dure, the unease endures.
But this moment of discomfit, these doubts drifting about the waves or the semantic froth in the air, you don’t dominate them.
They leave you awash on the border of a shore where you want to arrive safe and sound or even, I would say, arrive yourself. 2
Here nonsense is a bodily experience, one that betrays our desire to make sense, to reach and arrive, somewhere stable. Nonsense only serves to exemplify, to amplify, what we always do but seldom notice: our propensity to reach for meaning. By positioning our body, by locating ourselves firmly on the ground, meaning will eventually be fixed, and whole. Yet no sooner should you land on the shore, than another might call. You will be drawn.
What happens to you (in hearing the titleer) certainly is neither for nought nor void, nor even totally indeterminate. You hear something quite well (the titleer), you begin to press towards several possible meanings of words […] (the title…here, in three words, for example, or of a common noun placed and suspended like a title, if at least – another conceptual possibility opened – you knew the Old French word (the titrier spelled t.i.t.r.i.e.r [or the titleer spelled t.i.t.l.e.e.r.]).3
And so the title here, like the letter from Edward Lear, lacks the fixed meaning one is looking for. In his essay Derrida says – the essay originated as a verbal address, a lecture delivered in 1979 in two distinct locations, one in Belgium, the other in Germany – that titles themselves are devoid of meaning. They only make sense in relation to the content to which they are near.
1. Edward Lear, quoted in Jean-Jacques Lecercle, The Violence of Language, London: Routledge, 1990.
2. Jacques Derrida, Title to be specified, in Parages, trans. Tom Conley, Stanford University Press, 2011.
For more information:
Caroline Rabourdin Site
Taking Measure, Media Studies Course, PR2015
The Essay As Form, History and Theory Course