In his essay, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious” (excerpted in my Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2nd Edition), Lacan explores the ways in which the signifier takes its meaning solely as it relates to other signifiers. It does not make reference to the real (like Saussure, Lacan brackets the referent), nor does it identify directly with the signified (which Lacan considers off limits to the language center of the individual). As to how the signifier takes on meaning in utterance, Lacan says:
“…the signifier, by its very nature, always anticipates meaning by unfolding its dimension before it.[…] ‘I shall never…’, ‘All the same it is…’, ‘And yet there may be…’. Such sentences are not without meaning, a meaning all the more oppressive in that it is content to make us wait for it.[…] From which we can say that it is in the chain of the signifier that the meaning ‘insists’ but that none of its elements ‘consists’ in the signification of which it is at the moment capable.” (1175)
Lacan’s concept of the way that meaning unfolds has implications for our understanding of syntactical power. It suggests the power that we locate in Jamesian style. James’s sentences often seem endlessly to postpone the completion of meaning that we long for. Indeed, often the entire structure of his stories is based on a continual unfolding and revealing. (This is the signifying chain on the level of narrative structure). The mysterious, oppressive atmosphere of so many of his stories might be traced to this quality of the signifier. The same quality of linguistic uncertainty is employed by Poe and other writers of mystery and detective fiction: they ‘work’ only insofar as they postpone final meaning at least until the end of the story. (James often seems to refuse it even then.)
The same set of tools which are employed by James and Poe in the interest of suspense, mystery, or negative tension are used by Steve Martin in the interest of comedy. In his memoir, Born Standing Up, Martin discusses his theory of comedy. To paraphrase, he recalls a realization that most comedy worked on the principle of a punchline, so that even those routines without an explicit punchline followed a pattern of build up and release. What concerned Martin was the fact that this often led to automatic laughter, a laughter which resulted from the release of tension. This seemed too contrived to be real, and in the interest of subverting the tendency, he developed his comedy routines so that they forever gave the impression of being on the cusp of a punchline. In this way, his routine was forever building toward a moment of release which never materialized. Audiences were not ‘handed’ there moments of release prepackaged in punchlines, and so were forced to carve out their own moments. The laughter that resulted, while at first more piecemeal and fraught with tension, seemed for Martin to be truer. People were not just laughing because that’s what they were supposed to do. Indeed, they were laughing because they had to, because there was no other option for them to release the continually built-up tension of the comedic moment.