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- Stephen William Foster
- "Symbolism and the Problematics of Postmodern Representation"
What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms -- in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people; truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are ... -- Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie in an Extra Moral Sense
In his well-known fable "The Library of Babel," Jorges Luis Borges (1962) tells of a totalizing architecture, an archive of all possible books in all conceivable languages. It contains all possible permutations and errors, and -- somewhere -- the book that catalogues all the others. This representation of all possible "knowledge" seems to promise a power which is inchoate yet alluring; the librarians travel frantically from one part of the library to the next, desperately searching for this book of books, in order to determine its secret meaning. Borges's image, however, can be read not as stating the obvious point that there is a "crisis of representation," but as representing ("describing") the process of struggle with this problematic which resonates powerfully with a social world saturated with uncertainty and disenchantment. This postmodern world raises many questions: Where and what is power? How can knowledge be stabilized? What systems of categories are viable? Are there truths? What is interpretation? How can we know what anything means?
Answers to these and related questions are not readily forthcoming either from philosophical reflection or from a close "analysis of the facts"; precisely because of such conditions, representation, imagery, metaphor, and symbols swim up out of the cacophony of discourse as constructs which promise or intimate meaning, but do not disclose it. Hence the tension which motivates interpretation, the reason for the librarians' sprint from one part of the archive to another, ceaselessly raiding and rummaging through the shelves (no full stop except in death). Anthropologists and literary critics have become eloquent commentators on this complex of dilemmas and paradoxes. Recent work in both fields have given frequent testimony to this problematic and suggests a self-conscious, sporadically self-reflective acknowledgement of its importance.
From this perspective, a critical evaluation or cultural analysis of interpretation, in the sense of "the interpretation of symbolism, " is long overdue. In this essay, I will suggest some beginning points for such a project by deconstructing symbolic anthropology, taking a case in point, in order to define, with intended irony, what Borges and others "mean" by raising the issue of meaning, the problematics of representation. This problematic furthermore situates the movement that can be observed from symbol to discourse as a locus of interpretation. Historically, symbolic analysis has been understood as a method of "decoding" what symbols (or texts and their elements) "mean." The paradigm of structural linguistics and semiology took the question of meaning as a matter of establishing stable relations between symbols or signifiers and denotative and connotative "sense." Literary studies and anthropology have both applied this understanding of the relation of symbols and meaning to the domain of culture, that is, to social discourse broadly conceived.
With the dawn of postmodernity, the stability of this relation between symbols and meaning has become problematized (Harvey, 1989). What a symbol means is no longer any one "thing" (if it ever was). There is no referential foundation or substrate, but only symbolic forms scattered and situated by the forces of rhetoric and the configurations of power as they prevail on a given occasion or at a particular historical moment. This formulation raises suspicions about what anthropology does when it interprets symbols and what literary studies does when it reads texts. (pp. 117-118)
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