THE ROAD IS CLEAR.note Let us assume that we are confronted with this sentence as the first one in a text, as it appears here. As is the case any time we pick up a new book or article of any kind, we are put in a position to make sense of the sentence completely out of context. Of course, we may know something of the genre of the work we've picked up; we may know for example that "The road is clear" is the first sentence in a novel or perhaps in a theoretical disquisition, which affects our interpretation of that sentence (more on that later). Still, when we first enter a work of any sort, we are put off guard for a space until we figure out the context of the initial utterances. What does a road have to do with the paragraphs to come, one automatically asks oneself? Is the author perhaps using a metaphor to suggest that he is prepared to begin his analysis or is there an actual road being referred to? In short, how precisely does this sentence make sense? I will here suggest that there are four major fields that must be activated in order to make sense of this (or any other) utterance. The following four fields attempt to bring to bear on this simple sentence some of the major schools of thinking currently influencing the study of narrative. As the poststructuralists remind us, language bears no necessary relationship to the things it represents. The sounds we use to pronounce "road" and the signs we use to write the word, "road," refer to the meaning of road only because English-language convention says it does. One goal of narratological theory is to figure out how exactly words come to refer at all, how words come to make sense. As I suggest here, one can argue that there are four major ways by which reference or sense-making works—and these four forms of referentiality conform to the various schools of thought on the nature of narrative:

    1. Extra-referentiality: referring outside of the text to a material reality, even if only an imagined one.
    2. Self-referentiality: referring internally to the oppositions and structures created by any given work.
    3. Inter-referentialty: referring to the dialogic context of speaking individuals and their intentions.
    4. Supra-referentiality: referring to a transcendent principle that grounds our faith in the production of meaning.

The Extra-Referential Field and the Diegetic Function

In this particular case ("The road is clear"), one can say that, given the larger context, one automatically suspends judgment in the hope that subsequent sentences might clarify the situation. A certain narrative hermeneutic takes hold, then, especially if one were to accept momentarily the metaphoric reading of the sentence and its logical next step: follow me now down my argument's path. (Of course, by following this metaphorical reading, the reader also suppresses the impulse to interpret road literally and simply as extra-referential.) Even on its own, however, the sentence would still possess a certain narrative kernel. Michael Riffaterre has in fact argued for the inherent narrativity of any lexical term. His example: "The action having a drink or just the idea of a drink, in any narrative or indeed any conceptualization, depends on the availability of a verbal sequence: ordering and obtaining the drink (conflated into making oneself a drink, if the epic of thirst conquered is a private quest); drinking the drink with the proairesis of slow sipping, fast bottoms-up, or spilling; paying for it, and so on" (Fictional 4). Just so, even the sentence "The road is clear" suggests, despite the static nature of the verb, a narrative in potentia: "let us cross"; or "let us follow it"; or perhaps the sentence merely describes a calm moment before or after some minimal event. (The road must be clear, for example, before a chicken can cross it.) Stasis can in itself, then, constitute a narrative situation. Of course, "road" may already be an overdetermined word, so much so that seeing a clear, unused road seems to run counter to our expectation of some action, some temporal crossing. One need only think of the analogical and chronotopic power of "the crossroad" as motif. Beyond this logical (and analogical) connection of road with narrative, however, one cannot help but begin to hypostatize the situation by imagining an actual road (we are presented, after all, with a description of a minimally drawn, diegetic world) or by simply asking diegetic questions: "What road?"; "Why is it clear?"; "Has the road always been clear?" In short, one must turn to and activate the extra-referential field to some degree.

In other words, we are dealing here with the very need we have to represent reality to ourselves and to narrativize or to give consecutive order to that reality. Narrative is an integral part of how we deal meaningfully with the world and with our own "selves" as subjects developing over time. Its orientation is generally to change, but only insofar as it bounds the metonymic movement of time within a greater structure of teleological closure. Narrative is therefore indispensable to systems of psychic, social, and linguistic control, for it helps us to define a stable sense of identity, community, and logical progression. It is a meta-code by which we construct intelligible "reality." As Hayden White puts it, "far from being one code among many that a culture may utilize for endowing experience with meaning, narrative is a meta-code, a human universal on the basis of which transcultural messages about the nature of a shared reality can be transmitted" (Content 1). Though no text can completely escape the reader's tendency to structure writing in terms of narrative (extra)referentiality, history (as a genre) can be seen as an example of writing predominantly structured by this desire for an external referent.

Description is subsumed within narrative in this understanding of narrative extra-referentiality, following Gérard Genette's conclusion that "the study of the relations between the narrative and the descriptive amount..., in essence, to a consideration of the diegetic functions of description, that is to say, the role played by the descriptive passages or aspects in the general economy of narrative" (Figures 134). In this way, it is possible to combine in this one economy the two fundamental characteristics of narrative: sequentiality and representation. Both of these can be subsumed under the myth of the historical referent ("real time" and "real space" respectively), which, it must be made clear, can never be fully or "really" constituted in the medium of narrative. (As we have seen, narrative is, by its very nature, a re-ordering of real temporality and spatiality.) We must therefore speak, instead, of "diegesis" (understood here in the sense inherited from film theory: the spatiotemporal universe in which the story is situated).


The Self-Referential Field and the Significatory Function

One can similarly argue that any utterance follows a certain self-referential logic, if only by the very fact that we are dealing with semantic terms that inevitably imply their opposites. We cannot understand how a road can be clear, for example, without also understanding what it means for a road to be busy. Indeed, it is precisely the accrued association of busyness with the term "road" that makes the sentence cry out for some narrative action to resolve the connoted tension. According to semiotics, any term automatically implies its contrary—life implies death, positive implies negative; such an opposition constitutes, at an elemental level, a semiotic system. A. J. Greimas has, however, illustrated that we can take this semiotic rule even further, for according to his squaring of this opposition any such semiotic system, any contrary such as life and death, also implies the negation of each term in the binary, a contradictory pair, which in this example would be nonlife and nondeath. These contradictory terms, though "simple negatives of the two dominant terms," as Fredric Jameson explains in the Foreword to Greimas's On Meaning, "include far more than either: thus 'nonwhite' includes more than 'black,' 'nonmale' more than 'female'" (xiv) and, following my example, "nonlife" includes more than "death." Alternate terms for the contradictory axis therefore often suggest themselves or are suggested by the text under analysis: nonlife might, for example, be filled in by "machine" in a science fiction narrative about a post-Holocaust world. Once you lay out the terms on the graph (Fig. 1), a relation of implication (or similarity) also exists logically between terms on the vertical axes: life and not-death, for example, or death and not-life. The sentence, "The road is clear," follows a similar logic of binary (or rather "quadrary") opposition, for, beyond the dominant binary of activity versus quiescence, we could unpack the tension of the sentence by arguing that a clear road is so suggestive and, one might even say, unnerving (think of one's feelings walking down a deserted road late at night) because of what's missing: the element of the human, divorced from its concrete, urban, industrial (and, one could argue, inhuman) surroundings. Even such a simple sentence could therefore be mapped onto a Greimassian square (Fig. 2). We are thus able to extract an impacted and dynamic field of semantic possibilities from even the simplest sentence. I would go further: the self-referential field must be engaged to some degree in order for sense to be made out of any extended utterance given the inescapable role of binaries in the determination of meaning.


The Inter-Referential Field and the Dialogic Function

An inter-referential field also plays a part in our interpretations, since we must assume to some degree a certain intention (as much as a certain degree of convention) at the heart of even such a simple and apparently decontextualized utterance as "The road is clear." To be more precise, a reader or a hearer, in being addressed by any given sentence, must mediate the two poles of intentionality and citationality upon which the production of meaning depends. In this, I adopt Jacques Derrida's extension of J. L. Austin's conclusions in How To Do Things With Words. Derrida, in his response to Searle's critique of his "Signature Event Context," makes clear that that article "at no time... invoke[s] the absence, pure and simple, of intentionality. Nor is there any break, simple or radical, with intentionality" ("Limited" 193). Rather, Derrida asks, and here I myself must cite his "Signature": "Could a performative statement succeed if its formulation did not repeat a 'coded' or iterable statement, in other words if the expressions I use to open a meeting, launch a ship or a marriage were not identifiable as conforming to an iterable model, and therefore if they were not identifiable in a way as 'citation'?" (Margins 326). Intention and citation therefore mark the two poles of interlocutory understanding, of dialogue, although these "poles" are by no means perfectly distinguishable: "What is at work here," Derrida states in the later article, "is something like a law of undecidable contamination" ("Limited" 197). To some degree an addressee will always be attempting to reconstruct a certain context and intention in order to "make sense" of a given text. In my use of "The road is clear," for example, the reader realizes, after a while, that the sentence has been offered as an example in a theoretical disquisition and that a particular intention is at work. Yet one can easily imagine a situation in which the intention of the person speaking or writing the sentence is quite different. Between two spies meeting on a dark and stormy night in a paperback thriller from the fifties, the sentence could just as well mean, "the submarines have landed," if that meaning had been decided upon and so encoded on an earlier occasion. The sentence can mean so many different things in different contexts, however, precisely because it follows a code and can be cited, because it "conform[s] to an iterable model." For this reason, it can then be re-used in a completely different context and with a completely different intention. It is this citational nature of all discourse that both makes intentionality possible and limits its purity. It is also what impels Mikhail Bakhtin's understanding of the inherent dialogism of all discourse and why Bakhtin concludes that "Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker's intentions; it is populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others" (Dialogism 294). To put it in Derridean terms, the use of language inevitably includes, to some degree, the citing of previous uses. This is the case in even the most quotidian uses of language. One can add, however, that free indirect discourse, parody, and irony—those literary phenomena so integral to Bakhtin's analysis of literary dialogism—would not be possible without the interplay that occurs between the intentional and citational aspects of all discourse.

Dialogism, the function of the inter-referential field, therefore refers to the moment when linguistic systems (be they related to a specific region, text, or identity) confront the dialogizing context of other systems (other dialects, other genres, other characters). The dialogical economy works in tension with the substitutive binary oppositions of signification and the referential-metonymic structures of diegesis, pointing instead to a plurality of ontologically or stylistically defined points of view in dialogic interaction within the single work. It structures the interstices between the perspectives of different characters, between generic forms (as in, for example, parody or travesty), between (inter)texts, between authorial voice and reader. Dialogue thus traverses the liminal barrier between linguistic "identities" as they confront each other in context, or when they anticipate an other who will respond.

Even the most monologistic and generically determined work must include within it some "loophole" or "sideward glance" whereby it anticipates the answering consciousness of a reader. No text, then, can escape the structuring logic of this economy. In addition, not only is every word "directed toward an answer" and thus "cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word that it anticipates" (Bakhtin, Dialogic 280), but every text is also necessarily caught up in the "internal dialogization" of all discourse:

The living utterance, having taken meaning and shape at a particular historical moment in a socially specific environment, cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object [or referent] of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue. (Bakhtin, Dialogic 276)

Even without the construction of a specific subject in a text, a reader must continue to mediate between discourse's dialogic, as much as socio-ideological, positionings. Even without a centering subject-position to steer by (or perhaps because of just such a lack), the reader continues to circumnavigate the inter-referential field as if around its absent cause. Despite (or, again, because of) this radically inter-referential, dialogic nature of the utterance, the generating and structuring desire of this field is the desire for a "unitary language," for stable "purviews" (to borrow two terms from Bakhtin) from which to ensure "direct unconditional intentionality" (Dialogic 286); hence, the grounding myth is that of the stable and definable subject.

The Supra-Referential Field and the Sublime Function

Can we now go further and argue that a supra-referential field also plays a part in the sense-making process? My contention is, in fact, that one must also have faith, so to speak, in language's ability finally to determine some relatively stable meaning in the communicative process. The very arbitrariness of the sign, the fact that there is no intrinsic connection between signifiers and their signifieds, would seem to suggest that, to some degree, one must constantly make a leap beyond the inherent heterogeneity of linguistic signification, even if the place we land is never quite solid—its stability always illusory. As in the inter-referential field, we can distinguish two poles (never pure) that ensure, on the one hand, the dynamic generation of determined meaning and, on the other, its indeterminable obverse. I will begin with the latter by turning to a quote from Jean-François Lyotard, who describes that indeterminable obverse as a "faith in the inexhaustibility of the perceivable." Lyotard's analogy is to seeing but he then aligns this experience with the writing (and I would add the reading) process:

Similarly, writing plunges into the field of phrases, moving forward by means of adumbrations, groping towards what it "means" and never unaware, when it stops, that it's only suspending its exploration for a moment (a moment that might last a lifetime) and that there remains, beyond the writing that has stopped, an infinity of words, phrases and meanings in a latent state, held in abeyance, with as many things "to be said" as at the beginning. (Inhuman 17)

Your experience of the sentence "The road is clear" in this essay should, by now, provide a good example of just this sort of indeterminacy: there is always "an infinity of words, phrases and meanings in a latent state" behind any use of language. A "faith in the inexhaustibility of the perceivable" nonetheless meets another faith which operates in our quotidian perceptions: a certain faith that meaning can indeed be determined, that the heterogeneity of experience can indeed be transcended. Once one loses that faith, all that would be left is a litany of incoherent phrases. Why did the chicken cross the road, you ask? Because he did not want the road to double-cross him. And yet, the latter faith (in determinable meaning) can only ever belie the former. (In fact, the very breakdown and inadequacy of signification that inevitably accompanies the sublime is often figured as proof for the sublime's transcendent nature.) A certain subreption must therefore take place at some point, by which I mean, following the first and second definition of the word in the OED, "The suppression of the truth or concealment of the facts with a view to obtaining a faculty, dispensation, etc." and "A fallacious or deceptive representation." The fact of meaning's indeterminacy must be misrecognized, "held in abeyance," in order for a determinate meaning to be constituted. One can go further, as one could in describing the dynamic relationship that exists between the intentionality and citationality of all discourse: we cannot recognize meaning without first misrecognizing its inherent indeterminacy in language.

This subreption can take many forms. The most elemental one may be the fiducial subreption that allows us to perceive an object through the following black marks of ink: The road is clear. It is this leap of faith (demanded by language and structured by language's arbitrary nature) that also structures our heterogeneous social mediations of the symbolic field (a field which, Jacques Lacan will tell you, is equally arbitrary). Slavoj Zizek, for example, argues in The Sublime Object of Ideology, an extended exploration of the sublime mechanism in terms of psychoanalysis, that a certain surplus of the real over every symbolization both undergirds and undermines the ideological fantasies that constitute social existence: "Every attempt at symbolization-totalization... is an attempt to suture an original cleft—an attempt which is, in the last resort, by definition doomed to failure" (6). The same process of sense-making operates in the fetishist subreption that galvanizes a market economy. In contradistinction to the extra-referential, the self-referential, and the inter-referential fields, then, we must define a fourth supra-referential economy that structures, along with the others, our desire to interpret even the most elemental phrase.

Thomas Weiskel, in his description of Kant's conception of the sublime, defines three distinctive phases in this sublime experience. The individual mind begins in the first phase "in a determinate relation to the object," which is "the state of normal perception or comprehension, the syntagmatic linearity of reading or taking a walk or remembering or whatnot." During this stage "No discrepancy or dissonance interrupts representation, the smooth correspondence of inner and outer" (23). At this point, we find ourselves at the referential pole, according to Weiskel's formulations, though we could add that differential relations of meaning (self-referentiality) as well as the conception of the subject (inter-referentiality) remain stable as well. In the second phase, "the habitual relation of mind and object suddenly breaks down" (23), and we are led to the third, or "reactive," phase of the sublime moment. At this point, "the mind recovers the balance of outer and inner by constituting a fresh relation between itself and the object such that the very indeterminacy which erupted in phase two is taken as symbolizing the mind's relation to a transcendent order" (24). The very breakdown of reference, signification, and subjectivity in the second phase marks the passage into the sublime, becomes in fact a sign for, as in Wordsworth's Prelude, "The types and symbols of Eternity." Texts will attempt to inscribe the authority of this economy by positing this absent presence as a transcendental principle that then, paradoxically, grounds or gives authority to writing.

Every text, insofar as it must deal with the absence or lack that is inherent in writing, insofar as it must posit a "beyond textuality," employs to some extent the economy of the sublime. Jacques Derrida terms this possibility "the becoming-theological of all discourse." Elaborating upon this point, he writes: "From the moment a proposition takes a negative form, the negativity that manifests itself need only be pushed to the limit, and it at least resembles an apophatic theology" ("How to Avoid Speaking" 76). Julia Kristeva comes even closer to affirming the existence of the sublime or of the transcendent in all textuality: "all literature is probably a version of apocalypse that seems to me rooted, no matter what its socio-historical conditions might be, on the fragile border... where identities... do not exist or only barely so—double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject" (Powers 207).

Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "The Road Is Clear: Application." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory.[date of last update, which you can find on the home page]. Purdue U. [date you accessed the site]. <>.






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