The Relativity of Meaning

If Mark Taylor’s intent in Erring[1] is to hopelessly confuse his readers with an endless stream of symbolic reversals and logical contradictions, he masterfully achieves this objective! Erring is a tortuous journey requiring from the reader (or “wanderer,” as Taylor would put it) an inordinate amount of patience and mental endurance. This journey, as Taylor emphasizes, is in fact a journey without a beginning and an end, so for starters, even the traditional concept of a journey itself is called into question here. Yet after having read Erring and suffered its unrelenting intellectual pace beyond exhaustion to the point of shear frustration and annoyance, the reader experiences after all a slight hint of clarity, cohesion, and an admittedly disturbing desire to start over again from the very beginning with a newfound hope of discovering what might have been missed during the first attempt along Erring’s twisty, circular, senseless path to nowhere. Armed with the understanding that for Erring to make sense it must be allowed not to make sense, the reader may begin anew.

It should serve as a fairly obvious warning to the faint of heart that in the prelude to Erring Taylor describes his deconstructive criticism as that which “unravels the very fabric of most Western theology and philosophy” (Taylor, 10). As Taylor further explains to the reader who is perhaps still oblivious to the truly daunting substance of the chapters ahead, “When subjected to a deconstructive critique, the structure of relationship that both joins and separates opposites is reformulated in such a way that contraries are not merely reversed but are recast to dissolve their original propriety and proper identity” (Taylor, 10). Properly understood, Taylor’s objective here is to loosen the logical connectors and the structural integrity of the established mindset and to dismantle the apparatus that is responsible for the ordinary production of meaning. Once the connectors are removed and structure is compromised, intellectual chaos arguably ensues. The point of Erring, it would seem, is to show the reader how a few simple twists and turns may expose the inherent weaknesses and limitations within the formation of identities and the ascension to meaning.

Taylor in this deconstructive enterprise is decidedly intent on dispelling any illusion of permanent truth. For Taylor, “The radical temporality of signification renders meaning both transitional and transitory. Floating signifiers yield only migratory meaning. Within this nomadic economy, meaning, which can neither settle nor be settled, is an event that is always arising and passing away. As a result of this endless drift of meaning, erring can never be overcome” (Taylor, 175). The suggestion that signification is radically temporal implies that meaning is inseparable from its historical context. Meaning is the product of historical movement and any particular instance of meaning is inextricably linked to the specific historical circumstances which gave rise to it. Since history evolves with the passage of time, or to put it slightly differently, with the movement from one temporal period to another, it follows that meaning or truth should also evolve in the same fashion. Meaning, therefore, is “migratory” in the sense that it cannot be fixed and is always fleeting. Meaning understood as the product of “floating signifiers” is susceptible to adjustment and revision as the present moment elapses and transforms into the next. Meaning thus understood denies the possibility of a “transcendental signified,” that is to say a permanent truth immune to temporal movement and historical variation. Since meaning evolves with history and is thus constantly subject to revision, it is always essentially an error waiting to be discovered. Truth is, in this sense, an “optical illusion,” and to the extent that we abide by the particular edition of meaning that characterizes the present moment, we are always in some sense erring, since today’s meaning will inevitably prove to be tomorrow’s falsity. Yet despite the unreliable nature of meaning when considered over time, we still cling to so-called “truth” as a means of protecting ourselves against instability: “The monologism of truth is pre-scribed to ease the distress induced by the uncertainty that arises from the polymorphous play of appearances” (Taylor, 175). For Taylor, the “floating signifiers” which constitute meaning engage in a “play of appearances” which results in the “optical illusion” of truth. But truth, although illusory, serves the important purpose of providing stability to what would otherwise be a hopelessly unstable conceptual framework.

A point Taylor stresses throughout Erring is the relativity of meaning and the non-exclusivity of opposites. For Taylor, “The coimplication of differing viewpoints establishes the contextuality of all perspectives. Every interpretive stance is inextricably entangled in a formative context. This contextuality carries important semantic implications. Since perspectives are radically relational, meaning is irreducibly relative” (Taylor, 173). Since a specific viewpoint always depends on the existence of other viewpoints, all viewpoints are to some extent dependent on each other. Indeed, a particular perspective only makes sense in relation to other perspectives, in the same way that the color red can only be conceived in relation to other colors (blue, yellow, etc.). Since all perspectives dependent on each other for coherence, they mutually comprise the context required for their own existence. Furthermore, since meaning is derived from perspectives which are radically relational, meaning must also be relational. The crucial point is, however, that if meaning is relative, then it is far too complex to be contained within the firm categories employed in ordinary discourse. For Taylor, “The relativity of meaning presupposes the nonexclusivity of opposites. This complex interplay of differences escapes reflection that remains bound to and by hard-and-fast distinctions and firm definitions” (Taylor, 173). Our commonly employed categories and definitions are usually defined in relation to their opposites (for example, rest is understood as the opposite of movement; permanence is nothing but the opposite of change; life is, strictly speaking, the opposite of death, etc.). Implicit within this semantic structure is the exclusivity of opposites (for example, a body is either at rest or in movement; one is either alive or dead, etc.). But for Taylor, since every instance of meaning is derived from perspectives which are themselves dependent on the existence of other perspectives, that is to say, since meaning is itself always relative, the definitions and distinctions built into the language of opposites we commonly use to categorize and signify things appear by their very nature to deny the inherent complexity of the structure of meaning as such. Simple, oppositional categories create artificial barriers that lock meaning into predetermined categories, and we err insofar as we continue to abide by these inhibiting categories and ignore the “complex interplay of differences” which resonates beyond those artificially constructed barriers.

Another significant target of deconstruction for Taylor in Erring is the historical narrative. Taylor draws our attention to the fact that the historical narrative always revolves around a center point which serves as its organizing focus: “I have stressed that narrativization ties together the dangling threads of chronicle by forming a centered structure. The overall coherence of historical narrative requires a specific center, one that refers back to an inaugural moment and ahead to a conclusive moment. The center governs the pattern of the plot by forming the prism through which all events are reflected and refracted. This organizing focus functions as a point of orientation; it protects striving subjects from the confusion and conflict wrought by decentering and excentricity” (Taylor, 156). In much the same way that “hard-and-fast distinctions and firm definitions” save us from the potentially destabilizing effects of radically relational meaning, narrative organized around a central “prism” instils customary structure and thus avoids contradiction and confusion. The structure of the historical narrative which unfolds between inaugural and conclusive moments implies a temporal progression from past to present to future, yet as Taylor points out, “time is not made up of three separate tenses or three discreet moments. There is but one tense of time, the present. The present, moreover, is comprised of three inseparable modalities. Memory and expectation join in the present” (Taylor, 43). Narrative which, by design, seems to suggest the existence of three separate tenses obscures the fact that “we have no access to hard, immediate, irrefutable facts, historical or otherwise” (Taylor, 67). Historical data conveyed in the narrative should not be understood as directly-accessed historical facts, as if the narrative had the ability to bring us back in time to witness specific historical events with full honesty and precision. Rather, events having occurred in the past are transcribed by the author of the narrative as memories of past events experienced in the present. Furthermore, this transposition of the past into the present by way of the narrative involves creative acts of selection and interpretation on behalf of the narrator, and in this sense the historical narrative is somewhat imaginary. For Taylor, the conventional distinction between facts and interpretation obscures the degree to which the two work together to produce a cohesive story. As Taylor (quoting Hayden Smith) explains, “It is not the case that a fact is one thing and its interpretation another. The fact is presented where and how it is in the discourse in order to sanction the interpretation to which it is meant to contribute. And the interpretation derives its force of plausibility from the order and manner in which the facts are presented in the discourse” (Taylor, 67). The historical narrative can therefore be understood as the creative output of the orchestrated interplay of selected facts and the interpretations they conveniently support. This orchestration is a creative process which applies equally to fact and fiction since it is by way of this orchestration that both the narrative and the novel acquire their coherency and their power of illumination. As Taylor explains, “We experience the ‘fictionalization’ of history as an ‘explanation’ for the same reason that we experience great fiction as an illumination of a world that we inhabit along with the author” (Taylor, 71). In other words, “The novel and the history must both … make sense” (Taylor, 67).

[1] Taylor, Mark C. 1984. Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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