Digital Hall of Fame: The Quilting Point

The quilting point was introduced in Jacques Lacan’s 1956 seminar on psychoses. He defined the quilting point as a kind of “anchor” or “button” that stitches together the flux of signification. We can understand this in both a general and specific sense. Most generally, the quilting point is a way to punctuate or mark a chain of words. This happens frequently in ordinary language, where words in a sentence accumulate one after another, only conferring their meaning with the arrival of… the… last… word. The final signifier acts as a punctuating point that retroactively fixes the meaning of all the signifiers that came before it.

Lacan made this clear in his diagram for the “graph of desire” (version 1) reproduced in the Écrits (681). In that diagram the chain of signification–for example words in a sentence–precedes temporally from left to right in a horizontal arc (S to S’). At the same time, the subjective process of meaning-making intervenes from the bottom and runs counter to the arc. Bruce Fink has teased out the metaphor in literal terms: the S-S’ signifying chain is “fabric,” while the horseshoe arc of meaning-making piercing upward from the bottom is “thread.” Meaning emerges by stitching upward, pulling taut leftward against the flow of signifiers, then anchoring the stitch downward (Fink, Lacan To The Letter, 114). Making meaning is thus a retroactive suture requiring two puncture points; meaning does not simply issue linearly from the act of speaking or writing. The quilting point is a knot that holds and fixes the flux of signification.

Lacan, Graph of Desire (version 1), from Écrits, 435.

With the quilting point Lacan bucked the the logic of the conventional digital series. The logic of the digital series stipulates an inaugural monad, followed by subsequent repetitions of the monad in order to construct the series of whole numbers. Interestingly, Lacan embraced a kind of digital method, even as he deployed a different arithmetic. For Lacan, there was no such thing as an inaugural monad; instead he simply began from preexisting chains of signification, for example those of the voice or written text. Then, rather than issuing linearly toward a culminating terminus, Lacan reversed the causality, so that meaning-making ran against the flow of signification. For Lacan signification was not so much a consequence of the series as it was a piercing or suturing into the series. The chain of signification is pierced or cut, and the point of the cut is the quilting point.

Which bring us to the more specific definition of quilting point. In its fullest sense the quilting point is not just about creating order out of disorder within a signifying chain. The quilting point also bonds the two halves of the semiotic sign together. This is an example of metonymic slippage: the quilting point constitutes the sign, as part, but it also makes up the signifying chain, as whole.

To understand how, we must recall that Lacan was relying on a description of the sign introduced years earlier by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics. Based on Saussure’s lectures at the University of Geneva during the years 1906-1911, the book was compiled posthumously by his students and first published in 1916. Toward the beginning of those transcribed lectures, Saussure famously defined the linguistic sign as a whole entity split in half, one half being the concept carried by the sign (the “signified”; what the sign means), the other half being the sound-image of the sign (the “signifier”; how the sign looks and sounds).

Later in the text Saussure would marshal metaphor to help explain this linguistic atom. The signified and the signifier were like the wind blowing across the surface of a lake, Saussure explained with a touch of poetry. “If the atmospheric pressure changes, the surface of the water will be broken up into a series of divisions, waves; the waves resemble the union or coupling of thought with phonic substance,” that is, signified with signifier (112). Then, reining in his rhetoric slightly, Saussure proposed that the linguistic sign was like two sides of a sheet of paper, signifier and signified remaining inseparable yet perfectly distinct, wherein “one cannot cut the front without cutting the back at the same time” (113). Although I remark on Saussure’s rhetorical style with some hesitation, cognizant that the text was compiled by others.

Saussure’s “Uncharted Nebula,” from Course in General Linguistics, 112.

While Saussure’s wafer-shaped diagram of the sign is the most well-known, signifier and signified forming two halves of a circle, he also offered a “nebula” diagram later in the work. The signifieds of thinking formed an “indefinite plane of jumbled ideas,” went Saussure’s lecture, while the domain of signifiers was an “equally vague plane of sounds” (112). The “arbitrary” nature of the sign had already been introduced pages earlier, yet here Saussure expounded just how arbitrary it was to be a thinking and speaking subject. “Our thought…is only a shapeless and indistinct mass,” he contended, “without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula [la pensée est comme une nébuleuse où rien n’est nécessairement délimité]” (111, 112). What were wind and waves in one sense were now also undelimited clouds in another. Indeed the transcription of Saussure’s lectures offers a rich jargon of analogicity on these pages: not just “waves” and “nebula” but also words like “floating,” “jumbled,” “chaotic,” and “shapeless” (112).

A series of vertical lines pierce through Saussure’s nebula, punctuating the diagram with cuts in series from left to right. The lines indicate how ideas and sounds are bound together, how the two halves of the sign become anchored together. In Saussure’s lectures these lines were described as “a series of contiguous subdivisions” that mark off the two planes, signifieds up above and signifiers down below (112).

This was Lacan’s inspiration for the quilting point; this is why he adopted the metaphor of quilting or upholstery. Just as with “the upholsterer’s needle,” Lacan explained in his seminar from the summer of 1956, “this is the point at which the signified and the signifier are knotted together” (Seminar III, 268). Lacan literalized Saussure’s diagram, imagining the two nebula as horizontal skeins of fabric, punctured and bound at six points by suturing filament. Saussure’s diagram was not simply a drawing of the nebulous interaction of idea and sound, but a diagram of the sign itself. The quilting point makes the sign, and in fact is the sign in a very real sense.

In his masterful account of puncturing and punctuation, Peter Szendy noted the humor of such an interpretation. Lacan, in essence, had to pretend that Saussure’s diagram was “the cross-section of a mattress,” thereby giving Lacan license to deploy metaphors drawn from upholstery and quilting. “Lacan therefore describes the movement of a needle that enters and exits: the button point, like all sewing [points de couture], thus seems to involve a multiplicity of stitches–at least two–in order to ‘[knot] the signified to the signifier.'” (Szendy, Of Stigmatology, 33-34).

For his part, Slavoj Žižek pushes the interpretation even further, stressing that, for Lacan, it was not a balanced bond formed between two equal terms (signifier and signified). Rather, the signifier is the guilty party, the instigator of the puncture. Hence the signifier does not so much anchor itself to the signified as disrupt it. Mimicking Lacan’s language, Žižek described this action as a “falling,” that “the ‘quilting point’…[is] the point at which the signifier falls into the signified” (Žižek, Less Than Nothing, 599). This, again, requires a creative interpretation of Saussure’s nebula, because the signifier (at bottom point “B” in the diagram) would need to defy gravity and fall upward into the signified (at top position “A”). Nevertheless the gist is clear. The quilting point is a piercing or puncturing of an existing signifying chain, which results in the fixing of meaning, no matter how temporary or arbitrary.

Saussure and Lacan help conclude an intellectual journey going back to Euclid’s semeion. What is the signifying capacity of a mere point, dimensionless and infinitesimal? How can a dimensionless point furnish a quantum of signification? In a sense Saussure and Lacan reverse the question. It is not that the point is a sign, as in Euclid, but that the sign is a point. Whether as the marking points on Saussure’s semiotic nebula, or Lacan’s quilting point for fixing the chain of signification, the point is both a cut that punctuates meaning and also a mark that portends it.

taken from here

Foto: Sylvia John

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