Course in General Enantiosemiology

January 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

How to describe an obscure word that designates words that have many contradictory meanings? Perhaps enumerating synonyms of the enantioseme will trigger a memory or epiphany in the reader. Here are a few, some of which will appear throughout the essay: antiphrasis, antilogy, amphibology, Janus words, chrosimos, enantiodrome, & didh present in the Arabic literary tradition. In spite of its unusualness, by the large number of synonyms — with their subtle variation — we can deduce that while there has been some need for the concept a definitive & well-circulated study is missing that would regulate & universalize the idea under any one of these lexemes.

I give preference to the word “enantioseme” of those listed because it is the only one among the series to recall semiology by its root seme, at the same stroke recalling Ferdinand de Saussure & the important work he did in distinguishing between the sign, the signifier, the signified, & the referent on which the essay that follows has its foundation. Against Saussure, I will not argue that “any conceptual difference perceived by the mind seeks to find expression through a distinct signifier, and two ideas that are no longer distinct in the mind tend to merge into the same signifier” (Course in General Linguistics 121). This belief has carried through academic writing, especially scientific writing, & the popular imagination sometimes as a misconception, at other times as a simplification.

In a rationalistic sense, all polysemous instances might be thought of as enantiosemes, for to be another thing as well as yourself is always to be a contradiction of Being. It is against essence — not only announcing the signifier as absurd, but the signified also. It is a radical shift away from the theological basis of all signs.

In theoretical works, the enantioseme doesn’t have an extensive presence. Of the writers whose fame & value is established, it is only Roland Barthes that makes use of the term [& it was in this context I first introduced the enatioseme here]. It appears twice in the pseudo-autobiographical Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes & nowhere else. The first time is in relation to money & his own poverty growing up in contrast to his desire to be a writer. In the second instance, a definition is begun & the association of the first is extended: “Certain languages, it seems, possess enantiosemes, words which have the same form and contrary meanings. In the same way, for him, a word can be good or bad, without warning: the ‘bourgeoisie’ is good when it is considered in its historical, ascensional, progressive role; it is bad when in power” (62). We see that it designates the term in its psychological complexity.

Our instinct is to comply with the intended meaning. What does Barthes do? “Each time he encounters one of these double words, R.B., on the contrary, insists on keeping both meanings, as if one were winking at the other & as if the word’s meaning were in that wink, so that one & the same word, in one & the same sentence, means at one & the same time two different things, & so that one delights, semantically, in the one by the other” (72).

Enantiosemiology, it follows, is a tool in the fight against monological thinking, an amendment of past attempts to emancipate meaning from its oppressive rigidity. Superficially, it is the same as semiology — certainly borne of the same instinct. Yet there is a fundamental difference between them: the dichotomy between homogenization [the side of semiology] & pluralism [enantiosemiology], elaborated in the previous post. The enantioseme requires its practitioners to always keep the alternatives in sight, alongside the intended use. In a way, it resembles Adorno’s anti-philosophy that develops a methodology for thinking rather than a new system. Then, the primary function of enantiosemiology in academia is as a method of generating new ideas.

But it is not all in language, of course. The enantioseme is a word in action, a word made dynamic by the interplay of complex meaning. This is especially perceptible in the instance of minorities reappropriating once derogatory terms; this employment of the enantioseme is an act of resistance, showing refusal of consensus. Although, political correct neologisms are the standard defense mechanism against such categorization & discrimination, the enantioseme doesn’t rely on a denial of persecution & instead always carries the history of that persecution in itself. [Denial is a second form of oppression.]

There is clearly an ideology of inclusivity siphoning the lifeblood of the enatioseme from which enantiosemiology achieves its forceful challenge towards exclusionary signification [which would always be the domain of unfreedom]. In my final post of last year, I validated a form of resistance often excluded from intellectual consideration: protest external to the established grammar of behaviour & thought. The idea was to discredit the notion that serious resistance must communicate with hegemonic powers directly by claiming that resistance is only possible once their web of signification is left behind. What lay behind that post — dormant — was this study of enantiosemiology.

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