I attempted to type out an comment in response to ADAllen's perceptive and interesting post, "The Death of Denotation?", which Blogger promptly ate. (Boo.) However, it got me to thinking even more, so I decided to create a post for my own site here about what I thought. (ADAllen and I differ slightly, I believe, on our respective approaches to language and communication, which leads us to some great conversations.)
She hopes that the death of denotation (the "dictionary" definition of a word) would signal a time where "each individual is responsible for making meaning", leading to an improvement of us as communicators. I agree with much of what she says, but I also have some problems. For one, language doesn't occur in isolation--it requires a group and community to use words and agree about what they denote. Denotation is, often, the meaning that a community of speakers/listeners have determined to be the meaning of a word.
Connotation occurs--in ways that philosophers like de Saussure, Bakhtin, and Derrida examined--when an utterance refers to other utterances in some way; it recalls the uses of language and lends new meaning to an utterance (interdiscurvisity and intertextuality). And understandings of meaning differ from individual to individual. But the word must still roughly mean the same thing from speaker to speaker for communication to take place--denotation must still exist.
Perhaps the perceived death of denotation comes with an increasing awareness of the interplay between denotation and connotation. Because we are able to think about language abstractly as systems of signs and examine the implications of certain uses of languages, this leads us to believe that denotation no longer exists. However, I have to point back to my assertion that language is not an individual making meaning--meaning is determined within a community of at least two, with a speaker creating an utterance and a listener receiving it and determining meaning based off of past experiences with other utterances. Meaning is not made in isolation; it requires the participation of others, the participation of past, present, and future listeners and speakers.
And ADAllen asserts at the end of her post that we do still need denotation because we need that neutral ground in language. (Though, many would argue that no language is neutral). Basically it ends up that no language is truly neutral because it the interdiscursive nature of text, nor is it purely connotative because meaning is made by a community. Meaning is both outside the individual and inside the individual simultaneously.
See now? I ended up disagreeing with ADAllen, coming around to her side, and then disagreeing with her again. Language is a slippery, tricky idea, (that somehow needs to be concrete) which is why so many philosophers and theorists are concerned with its use.