The Operative Origin of Meaning

"The linguistic significance of a given utterance is understood against the background of language, while its actual meaning is understood against the background of other concrete utterances on the same theme, a background made up of contradictory opinions, points of view and value judgments--that is, precisely that background that, as we see, complicates the path of any word toward its object (The Dialogic Imagination 281)."

Bahktin is careful to distinguish between "linguistic significance" and his notion of "meaning" as it relates to the utterance. Significance, he implies, rests in inert, abstract language. Meaning, however, is transitory, operant, and open to individual modification. Thus, meaning cannot ever be apprehended as fully as it can in an inter-communicative context. The speaker has to append additional emotional, ideological, or explicatory baggage to the word in order for meaning to operate at its full potential. The listener receives meaning, and understands it in whatever way his or her consciousness will allow. Conveyed in this light, significance alone seems only to make up the skeleton for transmissible communication, while social context gives it its flesh and blood to create meaning. If prose is to create the effect of more fully understandable meaning, it must do so by the use of multiple interacting voices.

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