more notes on the dictionary syllabus

A subject line with no pun?  Heresy!

For reasons that are unclear to me, I hadn’t thought until recently to include “The Third Meaning” in the dictionary syllabus.  On one hand, obviously, it is not about a dictionary or a lexicon per se, nor is it  structured as such (as other texts I’ve considered are).  But I think it would be a good way to generate ideas for the “family” discourse lexicon if I use the structure outlined for the course some days ago.  Some options:

  • Have students define/describe each level meaning for a series of family snapshots
  • Like Barthes, ask students to identify what element in a snapshot captures the third meaning.  Ask students to conduct image searches based around that element.  Write about the distinctions between how that element is active in the original versus how it is active in the found images
  • There might be a collaborative dimension possible; ask students to compare photos from their own families.  Is the punctum effect the same for each viewer?  Hmmm.

Just some preliminary thoughts.

I think “Third Meaning” would fit nicely because a) it generates invention practices (see above), and b) it speaks to something I’m interested in investigating in this syllabus.  To whit: one thing Barthes’s essay questions is the relationship btw referentiality and inferentiality.  In terms of the image, as Barthes notes, it contains elements that are, for lack of a better phrase, concretely referential: this is a picture of a woman wearing glasses in a dress screaming.  And the second meaning, the obvious meaning, the intended implications of the image: this woman is terrorized by the repressive power of the tsar.  So far, we might compare these two levels to the denotative and connotative levels of word-meanings (this is a slight oversimplification, granted).  Dictionaries, obviously, account for the denotative meaning of words, and can at least gesture to the connotative meanings of words by labeling definitions and pejorative, obscene, colloquial etc. (though this does not wholly account for the emotional sense of connotative meanings).  But the dictionary fails when confronted by punctum–as Barthes notes, it is that which escapes language, or if you will, it invites language, invites inquiry … it encourages the desire to know.  So the third meaning is the place where the assumptions of functionality and purpose and referentiality embodied in the dictionary break down.  And, by using an image to define something, we challenge the dictionary’s assumption of the primacy of the word (spoken or especially written) and use that—paradoxically perhaps—to generate writing.

“The Eiffel tower” might complement this as well.


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