Tracing Semiosis One



and Psychoanalysis

Earl Jackson, Jr.


Tracing Semiosis

in Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary

This is an email message sent to me by Scott Davis, a
graduate student in literature at UCSC, and one of my teaching assistants
in „Semiotics and Psychoanalysis.“ This message is the beginning of a clarification
and formalization of what we’re doing in the class in terms of semiotics
and signification as both an analytic method and as a multifaceted critical
practice. My response follows.

Subj: anguished

Date: Wed, Jan 31, 1996 12:00 PST

From: Scott
C. Davis

To: Earl
Jackson, Jr.


The following plea landed on my server recently:

I am still super confused.

How exactly do I trace a line
of semiosis through a text ? Help!

I have to confess to some uncertainty myself. Could
you perhaps gloss this phrase: „trace a line of semiosis“?

 The interpretant I have at present could be represented
by the following: Semiotics, of course, a system of meaning-making, how
does a specific narrative allow the reader (any reader, particular readers)
to ‚make sense‘ of the text? What ‚other knowledges‘ (baggages) does the
reader ’need to know‘ or is expected to know, or is prompted to know through
the specific forms of the narrative?
How does the ground work/allow work here? But also the specific forms through
which subjectivity (subject of speech, speaking subject, spoken subject)
is ‚granted,‘ what possibilities await the spoken subject (you, dear reader)
here? In a text like Sarah Canary, each of the principal ‚characters‘ (Chin,
BJ, Adelaide, Harold) ‚make sense‘ of their world through specific and
idiosyncatic ways, ways to which we have access through the form of free
indirect discourse.

A character such as Adelaide, for example, ‚makes
‚ of the world through seeing it largely as a structure of motivated
misogyny, a misogyny ‚racialised‘ through specific forms and practices.
This practice, of course, is only sensible through the discourse of anthropology,
here conditioned as a series of answers to the question „How do they (the
Chinese, the Scandinavians) treat ‚their‘ women?“ Another gloss on Levi-Strauss,
and another critique; how are living people reduceable to kin-emes, or
perhaps misogyne-emes? The discourse of cultural anthropology, as it’s
critiqued through a series of works (Rosaldo, Clifford, Pratt) has as its
blind spot the implicit assumption that only ‚they‘ have culture (as a
definable field), ‚we‘ have…psychology?

Adelaide never specifies the particularities of an „American“
, even as she ’speaks‘ it throughout her sections of the novel.

(example, example, example) Recalling de
, the ‚monster‘ here, the ‚riddle‘ is gendered by each of the
principals („Ghost-lover,“ „Sarah Canary,“ „Lydia Palmer,“ „Wild Woman“),
yet each principal ‚fails‘ the question of the Sphinx, finding ‚other answers‘
to ‚her‘ question (yes, even Harold, he superadequates the answer: in the
‚properly‘ Oedipal answer, „man“ is metonymically linked to the „me“ of
here, „man“ doesn’t even enter the frame; Harold’s answer is „Me, only
me“ which refuses the contiguous link to a sexed- and mortal -subject of
which „me, Harold“ would be a metonym. Of course, this may also be psychosis,
or „bad subjectivity“ -right, the subject doesn’t properly miscognize -me’connait-
the hail of interpellation. He’s kind of like Milton’s Satan in that regard:
I will
be where It was
“ is here
I am It
(without the clichées, right, he’s not really in ‚our
he gets it right, but too much so). The real achievement of the novel,
then, is the way in which, through these ‚wrong
,‘ the spoken subject of the narrative
doesn’t need to subdue or solve
the ‚riddle.‘
Indeed, as each discourse has alerted us all along, SC
is, and remains, an ‚enigma.‘ (de Lauretis) „Tracing a line of semiosis“
through this text thus involves grappling with the specific modes (of which
there are at least four) through which the narrative allows the reader
to arrive at this space. I’ve only just realised I’ve addressed q#2 as
a gloss on how to address q#1 (without actually doing the work of either,
eg). Hmmm. What are your thoughts?

Scott Davis


involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well.

was the river, this is the sea.



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and Psychoanalysis

Earl Jackson, Jr.