Sunday, 3 December 2000

From "The Shape of the Signifier"

By Walter Benn Michaels.

All you can say is there are areological formations that from one angle (or from a certain distance or at a certain time of day or in certain kinds of light) have the shape of letters and that from another angle don't. The question of whether those formations really are letters regardless of your perspective makes no sense because, as long as the relevant criterion is formal (is shape), the question of whether the formations really are letters is a question that is crucially about your perspective. Hence the commitment to the primacy of the materiality of the signifier - to shape - is also a commitment to the primacy of experience - to the subject-position. Because what something looks like must be what it looks like to someone, the appeal to the shape of the signifier is at the same time an appeal to the position and hence, I will argue, to the identity of its interpreter.

From the standpoint of the recent history of literary theory, the simultaneity of these appeals helps explain how the commitment to the materiality of the signifier that was so central to theory in the seventies and early eighties could so easily become (what it, in effect, already was) the commitment to those categories of personhood (race, gender, above all, culture) that were so central to theory in the late eighties and the nineties.

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