Meaning in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

In an introductory essay on Finnegan’s Wake, Len Platt writes,

As the Wake is a book obsessed by story telling, so it is a book that desperately tries to establish meaning. But just as its narrative is subject to the most severe disruptions and dislocations, so with its drive towards truth telling and knowledge. As virtually any phrase, sentence, paragraph or page will show, the capacity of the Wake for communication is constantly under seige, at every level from the single word, to the sentence, passage, page, episode, and, indeed, the book. It is not that the Wake has no meaning, or that it produces from its bizarre amalgamations some version of superior meaning. The typical condition of the Wake is rather that it has over-meaning, too many competing possibilities which run entirely counter to the expectations raised by the will to knowledge, equally so characteristic of the Wake.

For Luhmann, meaning is an actualization or selection from among an infinite horizon of possibilities. Meaning is a two-sided form with the actualized meaning on the marked side and all the other potential meanings on the unmarked side. The communication system selects a meaning from a horizon of possible meanings. Meaning is always contingent; the selected meaning is never the only possible meaning.  The possible or virtual meanings not chosen remain latent and can be selected later if the first selection doesn’t fit well enough.

As Baecker discusses, in society there is always a surplus of meaning, which can be thought of as a structure or medial substratum. Here’s an example: The font color palette in a word processor is the medial substratum, and a user selects from this palette–actualizing just one possibility. The other colors, of course, remain latent; they aren’t forgotten. So in order for a shade of red to be a color, there must be all the other colors that are not red. There must be a surplus of colors, just as there must be a surplus of meanings in communication.

Returning to Platt’s statement on Finnegans Wake,

The typical condition of the Wake is rather that is has over-meaning, too many competing possibilities which run entirely counter to the expectations . . .

In encountering Finnegans Wake, the reader doesn’t expect a word, phrase, or sentence to have so many possible meanings or allusions. Consider the opening passage of the book, which is actually a continuation of the final page:

    riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Here is an annotation for the word vicus:

village, hamlet; row of houses, quarter of a city + vicious circle – situation in which a cause produces a result that itself produces the original cause + Giambattista Vico.


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