Field, Meaning, Relation

What is the field? This is the question that we have been exploring together as a class, or rather, as members of a “field team” embarking on a “field school,” as we prepare to depart for France. This, here, is some of what I have been thinking.

For an appropriately literary starting point, I would like to begin with a theory encountered in my studies at Simon Fraser, one that I think will prove useful. The concept of a lexical field (which, I just learned, was developed in the thirties by a German linguist Jost Trier—thank you Wikipedia) is, what I would term, an associative model of meaning. Though (as the linked article helpfully notes) Trier’s original formulation has been modified, the basic concept still holds. 

Take a text and look at the words it contains. Imagine them floating freely, separate from syntactic structure but contained in a sort of word-cloud-esque environment. This is the lexical field. The words “acquire[] their meaning through their relationships to other words within the same word-field. An extension of the sense of one word narrows the meaning of neighbouring words, with the words in a field fitting neatly together like a mosaic.” What does this mean? When I set out to write this post, the term “lexical field” was bouncing around in my head. So I googled it, and read the wiki page for it. In the process, I encountered the term “mosaic” (now cited above) and have included it here. Thus, the lexical field of this text, and (importantly for later) my own brain, associates these two terms with each other, by virtue of their collocation. Thus, “an associative model of meaning.”

Now, as the wiki explains, Trier’s original theorization “assumes that lexical fields are easily definable closed sets, with no overlapping meanings or gaps.” So, even though the model has the potential for semantic fluidity it is largely static. For instance, this would mean that the lexical field of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises1 (which we are reading for class) is always the same. One would have to actually change the words of the text to change the semantic meaning of its “field” or “mosaic.” This conception of the theory has largely been displaced, and upon my own brief reflection it seems unfortunately limited. The mosaic can never be complete. There are without question words or phrases that would have borne a certain connotative significance to Hemingway lost to us now. And, without question, there will be differences (some small, some potentially massive) in the connotative significance that my classmates and I will draw from the text. So, contrary to the introduction of my last post, reading is not, in fact, simply a consumptive task, but a productive one. Every time a text is read it is reproduced. Meaning is created in relationship. The Sun Also Rises may exist as a discrete object in the world, but it only gains significance through its interactions with readers, and these are numerous beyond counting. The lexical field is never closed. Every reader recreates the text, because every reader brings their own lexical field to the act of reading.

Here it is necessary to return to a term I briefly referred to in my previous post, the habitus. To lean on Wikipedia once more, the habitus is a “structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste.” Which is to say, my habitus is made up of those connotations and associations that perpetually inform my interactions with the world, the lexical field of my mind. When I encounter different objects, people, or situations I automatically associate other objects, people, or situations with them. When I encounter The Sun Also Rises, for instance, I know that it was written by Hemingway and that Hemingway is one of the literary greats. I know that Hemingway was a journalist and that he was known for his spare, economical style. I know that he lived in Paris for a while, and that he hung out with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I also know that many dislike him for the way he talks about women and his hypermasculine posing. So you can see that before I even begin the book I have already associated with it a whole range of meanings not expressly denoted by the words contained within it. And in the process, a new text is born, a new object, entirely unique to my own experience of the original. No two people ever read the same book.

This holds true for my upcoming journey. The “field” that I am soon to enter into is more than a city, more than a country. It is a body of connotations and associations, a glorious, sprawling mosaic of meanings that I will be dropped into and become enmeshed with, bringing to it all my own connotations and associations, all my own knowings of what it is and isn’t, and, in the process, creating something new and different and other. There is no Paris. There is no field. There is only what we make of it.


  1. Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Harper Perennial Classics, 2012. Kindle. 

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