Saussure and Barthes


Language as arbitrary and differential: implications for literature

Saussure insists that language is “form and not a substance”. Unlike speech, language is not a function of the individual speaker as it belongs in the public sphere where the speaker only passively assimilates it. As a social product, language is “a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others”. For Saussure, words are about ideas not objects, so a word as signifier does not name things but conveys a plurality of meaning that is both momentary and fluid.

There are two sides to the relationship between the signified and signifier. First, it is arbitrary as there is no natural link between words and object. Secondly, it is differential because a sign is not linked to other signs naturally. We cannot know a thing positively as a thing that just is. We can only know it negatively by what it isn’t in relation to all other terms in a particular language system.

Here language as synchrony and speech as diachrony form a thought/moment relationship that allows us to ‘know’ things by what they are not in a conventional context. Signs do not function through their intrinsic value but through their relative position to others. The value of a sound can only be determined by its context.

The paradox, as Saussure points out, is that if a dissimilar thing can be exchanged for another thing (a toonie for a muffin), but can also be compared with similar things (a toonie and a loonie), then its value is not fixed. “Its content is really fixed only by the occurrence of everything that exists outside it.” Following Saussure’s argument then, language is never fixed in time by an individual speaker. On the contrary, the ability to communicate an idea depends on those who are receiving the communication. In this way meaning is constructed from any utterance by its context, by who is speaking to whom at which moment in time. This “momentary” character of language has interesting implications for our understanding of art, in all its forms, which seeks dialogue with an audience, whether an observer, listener, reader, etc…

If we apply Saussure’s argument to literature, the author cannot communicate an individual interpretation of the world to the reader because the reader’s interpretation at a particular moment of time also creates the “message”. In other words, a text does not have meaning in itself and separate from the reader.

Therefore, we can say that a piece of literature is not an object of art but a continually morphing “language”.

Another idea I find very interesting is that if we can only know things by understanding what they are not, perhaps this is how we create our own identity within a conventional space. We construct identities by establishing what we are not. I am female because I am not male, or I am white because I am not black. Paradoxically, I need the ‘other’ to create my identity.


Signs infinitely deferred: the death of the author

“Language knows a ‘subject’ not a ‘person’, and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language ‘hold together’, suffices, …to exhaust it.”

For Barthes, the notion of the author as creator of meaning in a text is dead as it is a multiplicity of writings that make up a text which is interpreted and given meaning by the reader in the “here and now”. In other words a text is never original and never reveals a fixed meaning.

This idea corresponds with Saussure’s conception of language as dependent on ‘momentary’ context; however, wouldn’t Saussure include the author’s voice in the production of language? Also, Bakhtin does not wholly do away with the author, whose ‘style’ is always evident in a text. Perhaps they would view the author as co-author with the reader rather than originator/genius of the text.

Interdisciplinarity and the epistemological slide: Barthes’ propositions on the relativization of writer reader and critic.

Barthes differentiates between the work as a fragment of substance that displays reality and can only be moderately symbolic, and the text, a methodological field that demonstrates the real and is radically symbolic.

Unlike the work, the text cannot be contained in a hierarchy as it is continuously being created and therefore experienced only in the act of production. Thus, text is language that subverts dominant discourse

Coinciding with Saussure’s definition of language, text is always paradoxical for its creation depends on the differences between discourses. As Bakhtin observes, the text cannot exist with a unified voice. The infinite deferment of the signified relies on the play of readings that abolishes the distance between writer and reader.

In this playing, or jotrissance, the writer becomes a guest reader who adds to the palimpsest of perspectives that form an irreducible and metonymic/stereographic plurality. Not organic or hermeneutic, this irreducible quality is due to the overlapping of difference produced in the act of reading. Moreover, the difference is only repeatable as difference and therefore the experience is semelfactive.

In other words there is no Father of the text, which is a network that is repeatedly being broken through the practical collaboration between readers. The separation between reader and author in a work reduces it to a product for consumption whereas a text produces a space of pleasure where circulating languages blur the lines between reader, writer and critic.

Hello interdisciplinary studies!

I’m very interested in the notion that if ideas are handed to us on a platter, so to speak, we are not creatively engaged and therefore not producing meaning. With a simple wooden toy a child can be creative; however, a complex toy that requires no imagination to operate soon becomes boring. Similarly, when all the actors have fringes in a film about Caesar, we are being told that they are Roman. In other words, someone is doing the interpreting for us. The sign is confused with the signified.

2 thoughts on “Saussure and Barthes

  1. I found very interesting your last idea in Saussure`s part related to the construction of identity by what we are not. This opposition has became, for hundres of years, one of the main ways of identity definition. One example could be when Colon arrived to America and after many years people realized that was actually a new continent. Then, they had to make the distinction about “them” and “us”, and for many authors, in that moment, europe was created. Is interesting tha language seems to act in the same way. Maybe we can read it as a patron of building identity. Anyway, one of the hardest elements to work with is precisel identity. Perhaps, Saussuer is the one that is taking the idea from the identity construction and applying to linguistic.

  2. I don’t know if Saussure would say a novel is not a form of art. Maybe a continually morphing language is art. Maybe that is how art is constructed. What is art? I think it is a difficult proposition to make based on Saussure.

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