sue watling

Adding to my regular theme of reasons for blogging I’m adding  procrastination when deadlines loom. Assignment title: How useful is the ‘subject of language’ approach in helping us to understand identity?

The bible is full of aphorisms. Some are less useful than others such as ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ plus long lists of other shalt nots (fornication,  idolatry, adultery,  etc). But the most useful edict of all appears at the start of genesis; ‘in the beginning there was the word’.

We make sense of our left-brain world through the logic and lists of language. Via agreed consensus, it names our realities and is the tool for defining knowledge.  Semiotics; the first science of linguistics proposed by Saussure, bought us the triple S of signifier, signified and sign through which we see that meaning is never fixed. When Gertrude Stein wrote ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’ she wasn’t being obtuse; she was using repetition in an attempt to pin the language down. The word rose has multiple significations (romance, valentine, beauty, interflora) so we use it in a notional way, we evoke the idea of a rose; recognisable to each of us in individual ways. We can’t capture a rose; we can only create a linguistic category of rose-ness. The single rose in our hand is a rose – but the word itself is conceptual and its meaning dependent on the cultural surround. 

Language is cultural, it reflects dominant social constructs. The language of gender is one of the best examples of this. As sex is fundamental to identity it’s clear that the language we use to ‘know’ ourselves is constrained by the environment in which we live. Boys don’t wear pink’ not because of the colour pink is pink is pink but because of the associations of the word.  It’s difficult to escape language. Even if we become subjective, work on intuition, develop sensory perception, adopt Zen, we have little control over the ways we are seen by others. Is the subject of language approach useful in understanding identity; yes, you could say that. I just need a few more thousand words in which to say it.

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