Tansy Hardy

Report on presentation to BSRLM Semiotics working group, March 1 1997

I reported on my search for accounts for phenomena identified in my researches in maths education, and how I have used Jacques Lacan's 'Graph of meaning' (Zizek 1989) as a tool to develop such accounts. A Lacanian, post structuralist account gives primacy to the production of meaning and so enables me to develop an account for how we as teachers work on signifiers that surround us in maths education to create meaning of our practices.

I used Lacan's framework, which views signs in relation to one another, focusing on a chain of signifiers and considers how we move within a chain of signifiers, to look at how I ( the meaning maker ) see myself in relation to these signs; how I position myself in relation to this order. This chain of signifiers becomes ordered through the intervention of a certain nodal point which `quilts' them, stopping them sliding and fixing their meaning. In Lacan's graph, this nodal point, the master signifier ( here O ) gives meaning to some other signifier. Its meaning is a function of O - s(O).

To illustrate - in the symbolic order of Communism this master signifier determines the sense I make of, say, the signifier 'Freedom'. Putting `class struggle' in the nodal position O, it orientates the meaning of other elements of the chain, such as `democracy' ( `real' democracy as opposed to `bourgeois formal democracy' ) or `feminism' ( the exploitation of women as resulting from the class-conditioned division of labour ) giving them meaning ( s(O) ) in relation to itself.

The same process can be seen if 'Thatcherism' is placed at this nodal position and the signifier `freedom' is viewed through it. The sense of `freedom of choice' generated as epitomised by parental choice of schools for their children and citizens' charters is very different from the meaning attributed to `freedom' through other symbolic orders.

I have a similar account from an educational context of how the meaning of `broad and balanced' when viewed through `Thatcherism' is fixed within that symbolic order; how its position in early National Curriculum documentation was never open for interpretation with meaning being fixed by the discourse of that moment, the discursive practice of which it was part.

I considered how the process of identification of myself in relation to any symbolic order can account for teachers' sense of limitation of their practice and control from elsewhere. In the graph of meaning above I view the master signifier O and myself in relation to it. I produce meaning for the hollow symbols through O which pins their meaning down. This happens retroactively. This gives me a sense of `so that's what it all means !' I then identify myself in relation to this master signifier ( producing I(O) ). Do I belong to the symbolic order formed ? Am I inside or outside ? If the symbolic order was that of Mathematics by viewing some key element of mathematics I will identify myself in relation to this order - either I see myself as a `mathematician' or 'not mathematician.

Similarly I gave an example of viewing through the master signifier `child-centred learning' to give meaning to my classroom interactions. If I recognise these meanings I would identify myself and my teaching as `child- centred'. If I do, however, this would also fix the meaning of other elements on the chain, other aspects of my classroom practice, tying me in to the symbolic order, a sense of compulsion, of limiting the interpretations I can make of other interactions and my classroom practice would be, to some degree, reduced to consideration of the elements in that field. So there is a sense in which I am not free to determine all meanings. If I subscribe to one I am tied into others by the quilting process - the order, the ideological field.

Drawing on the observation that teachers with very diverse forms of practice may use the same signifier to describe their teaching. I gave similar accounts for teachers' identification of their practice as 'practical' or their teaching and assessment of Ma1 at GCSE as 'integral'. The way they created meaning for the signifier 'practical work' or 'integral' is determined by the master signifier ( and the field and chain of signifiers they work within ). This works like a form of selective hearing and seeing - considering only certain aspects of children's mathematical activity, acknowledging only particular characteristics of their work, being aware of only certain aspects of one's teaching interactions, hearing only certain words from within documentation. This selective viewing can influence, or more strongly, determine one's interpretation of events and lead to radically different assessments.


Zizek, Slavoj, 1989 The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, London

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