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This article is taken from PN Review 88, Volume 19 Number 2, November - December 1992.

The Miracle Michael Grant

A CONCEPT FUNDAMENTAL to modern literary theory is that of 'the primacy of the signifier'. One effect of this idea, expressed in its purest form by Lacan and Derrida, is to underpin an unquestioned and pervasive atheism. This position follows as a consequence of the general suspicion of meaning that the theory gives rise to, inasmuch as the signifier - understood in this context as the self-difference internal to all language use- divides meaning from itself. On this view, meaning is not possible without difference and is engendered by it. As a result, it can be further argued that meaning must itself be difference. Thus meaning, insofar as it can be said to exist at all, is no more than an after-effect of the processes of differentiation whereby it has been produced. Hence, if we think we are able to say what we mean, we delude ourselves. All meaning is in constant flight from itself, the meaning of any utterance being occluded by the very fact of its being uttered. We can never say what we mean, or mean what we say, since the process of speaking, enunciation, comes between the intended meaning and its expression. Any attempt to clarify our meaning is, of course, subject to the same problem. As a result, meaning is always beyond us: we are condemned by every word we utter to re-present the lack or self-division from which meaning originates. As Lacan puts it, what representation represents is the lack of the function ...


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