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Theorizing Meter: A Clarification

March 5, 2012

In my previous post, I did not distinguish with any particular rigor between two questions: whether meter is meaning, and whether meter has meaning.

This is partly because the Derridian in me believes the two questions to be in principle indistinguishable: the signifier is always already a signified and vice versa.  “Having meaning” is precisely what it is to “be meaning.”

But because this is not a particularly self-evident claim (its Derridian heritage only makes it less so, both for those to whom Derrida is himself an object of suspicion and for those to whom he speaks more eloquently than anyone else against taking claims as self-evident). I should perhaps take the two questions separately, and explain what I mean when I say that meter neither is nor has meaning, except inasmuch as we can talk about it at all, whereby both are necessarily the case.

1. Meter is not meaning.  That is, the meter of a poem is an aspect of its language other than — if perhaps not wholly separable from — its meaning: the meaning is elsewhere.  This, I take it, is a less radical claim.  A line of hexameter is “in” or “characterized by” the hexameter; it does not “mean” the hexameter.  It means the wrath of Achilles or some such thing.

Nonetheless, as soon as we speak of “meter,” meter becomes a meaning: it becomes the meaning of the word “meter,” for one, or however else we choose to designate it.  Meter, like most stuff, becomes meaning when it enters language; this fact is only interesting — and therefore important to emphasize — insofar as meter, unlike most stuff, was already “within language,” just in a radically different sense.

2. Meter has no meaning. This is a bolder claim, and, I take it, one many metricians would be prepared to dispute.  I set forth my reasons for insisting on it rather elliptically in my previous post, and doing anything more by way of arguing for it would require more time and space than I can spare here and now.  Suffice it to say that I take it as evidence that meter cannot be a fundamentally meaning-having thing how simplistic and unsatisfying attempts to fit it out with meaning tend to be, and the way in which precisely what is non-metrical (e.g., metrical variations) stands a better chance of bearing meaning in the traditional sense.

Nonetheless, as we talk about meter, we are also giving it a meaning: that is, the meaning of the things we’re saying about it.  If M.L. West says, “Meter is measure,” meter comes to mean whatever it is that measure means.  And not only the word “meter,” but also the phenomenon itself comes to stand as a symbol of the knowledge we take ourselves to have about it.  The same thing happens with just about anything we can talk about, trees and tables and all.  Normally, however, it doesn’t give us too much trouble: whether or not we are right to do so, we are comfortable making a distinction between tree-as-thing and tree-as-signifier, and granting the former a certain kind of importance.  But because meter is a kind of stuff-in-language, and language seems self-evidently to consist in signifiers, the temptation is always to treat meter as simply another layer of signifiers.

I think this temptation must be resisted no less stringently than we are learning to resist the temptation to treat trees and tables “simply” as things-in-the-world: we must begin to investigate meter “simply” as a thing-in-language.

All of this may or may not relate to what they call “the materiality of the signifier.”

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