Meaning(s) in Finnegans Wake

Reading Finnegans Wake tends to be a destabilizing experience in a lot of different ways.  It’s a socially destabilizing book. It undermines nationalistic, linguistic, cultural identities–and it specifically works against fascism.  In an introductory essay on Finnegans 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 an uncrossable horizon of possibilities. Meaning is a two-sided form with the actualized meaning on the marked side and all the other potential/unselected meanings on the unmarked side. The communication system selects a meaning from a horizon of possibilities. 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 opportunity arises.

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 that color. 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.

That’s just one word.

Platt continues,

It is ‘difficult’ and challenging not as a result of some secret ambition to achieve some greater truth beyond but, rather, in the sense that its bizarre mix ups and entanglements so much undermine the drive for order and stability in the world.

This reference to in/stability is links Joyce’s work to Luhmannian social theory. Instability is actually necessary for communication to carry on.

On Wakese, here is the abstract from an essay on Joyce:


When James Joyce began to create the Work in Progress that would become Finnegans Wake, he no longer worked as a teacher, yet the Wake includes more explicit references to Berlitz, where he first taught English full-time, than any of his previous works do. It is also in the Wakethat Joyce takes some of the ideas and issues that arose from his English-language-teaching experience to their furthest extreme. Whereas in Ulysses, Joyce draws into question distinctions between native and foreign speakers of a tongue by creating characters whose use of English cannot easily be classified as native or nonnative, in Finnegans Wake, he creates a lect (a term that refers to a language variety without specifying it as a dialect, an independent language, an idiolect, or otherwise) that does not, and cannot, have native speakers outside the pages of the book; it is also a lect that resists mastery even as it encourages a kind of exuberant fluency. The learning of this language demands a pedagogy that takes Joyce’s own antiauthoritarian approach to teaching to its furthest possible expression. Wakese, with its refusal of standardization, cannot be taught in an authoritarian way because no one can be an absolute expert on it,1 and the depictions of pedagogy within the Wake, especially in its tenth chapter (here referred to by the fairly common name “Night Lessons”, in order to emphasize its pedagogical framework), support an anarchic ideal of education.


Switaj E. (2016) “Night Lessons” in Wakese: The Furthest Extreme of Joyce’s Anarchic Pedagogy. In: James Joyce’s Teaching Life and Methods. Palgrave Macmillan, New York

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