Thursday, December 07, 2006

Week 16, Nietzsche and de Saussure

Friedrich Nietzsche and Ferdinand de Saussure. Nietzsche's “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (870-884). De Saussure's “Introduction” to Course in General Linguistics and Part One, Chapter I (956-77).

Page-by Page Notes on Friedrich Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (870-884).

874-75. It makes sense to attend to Nietzsche’s rhetorical strategy. He begins with a question: given our dissimulative, self-important ways, where does anything like a “truth drive” come from? But as we might have guessed, Nietzsche’s goal isn’t simply to hand us “the truth about truth,” and by 878 he has more or less finished with that question. He’s interested in something anterior and more fundamental about us, something more unsettling and yet also, perhaps, more worthwhile—something that he will explain most fully at the bottom of 881 and onwards.

876-77. At the top of page 876, we are told that the process whereby the conceptual twins “truth/lie” are born begins with “the Social Contract.” As Nietzsche explains, “necessity and boredom” ( a need for peace and for community) lead to the tacit invocation and acceptance of this contract. Afterwards, “that which is to count as ‘truth’ . . . becomes fixed, i.e. a way of designating things is invented which has the same validity and force everywhere, and the legislation of language also produces the first laws of truth….” This development doesn’t in itself account for the acquisition of an interior drive towards “truth,” but it’s the beginning of the process. People desire “the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth,” and whatever doesn’t produce such consequences is designated by common consent as untruth. At 876 middle, Nietzsche raises one of modern philosophy’s most basic questions: regarding linguistic conventions, “Is language the full and adequate expression of all realities” To put this question another way, are words and the material world commensurate, or are they completely different orders? In a sense, the question is unanswerable since, after all, we would have to know exactly what “the world” is in order to say whether or not language can describe it fully. Even so, Nietzsche’s analysis of the movement from sensory perception to speech is compelling and comes close to a firm “No.”

Let’s look at how this movement occurs: “What is a word? The copy of a nervous stimulation in sounds,” writes Nietzsche. As he describes this “copying” process, “The stimulation of a nerve is first translated into an image: first metaphor! The image is then imitated by a sound: second metaphor! And each time there is a complete leap from one sphere into the heart of another, new sphere….We believe that when we speak of trees, colours, snow, and flowers, we have knowledge of the things themselves, and yet we possess only metaphors of things which in no way correspond to the original entities.” So whether or not language can correspond to the material realm, the empirical facts of perception show that it doesn’t. Well, we’ve all been told not to mix our metaphors – only Shakespeare was supposed get a free pass there, right? It turns out that we’re all sinners against the light in that regard: we can’t perceive and describe anything without performing what Nietzsche classifies as a fundamentally creative double-metaphorizing operation. What we call perception and experience are, to borrow a phrase, “always already” (immer wieder, toujours déjà, and all that jazz) The point he makes on 877 has some affinity to what romantic philosophers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Sage of Highgate, say: all perception is active, creative. The empiricists’ claim that we are passive recipients of the sensory perceptions that then (in their scheme, at least) become the basis of our knowledge-systems is a pure fabrication, and really quite an admirable one in its way. And what’s in a concept? Why, nothing. Nietzsche’s explanation here is incisive: “Every concept comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent.” Just as it is certain that no leaf is ever exactly the same as any other leaf, it is equally certain that the concept ‘leaf’ is formed by dropping those individual differences arbitrarily, by forgetting those features which differentiate one thing from another, so that the concept then gives rise to the notion that something other than leaves exists in nature, something which would be ‘leaf,’ a primal form, say, from which all leaves were woven.” But that’s crazy Cloud-Cuckooland talk straight from the Thinkery of Aristophanes’ Plato: there is no LEAF - of - which -all - individual - leaves - are - copies. In nature, as Nietzsche reminds us on 878, there are no species, forms, or types—therefore, the individual entity in the usual sense arises from a distinction we cannot prove to be legitimate. And much as we love Dr. Johnson, we really can’t be with him on his character Rasselas’ demand that artists shouldn’t streak their tulips. Johnson’s neoclassical “general idea” of a tulip, which is supposed to “recall the original to every mind,” does no such thing. It is a useful abstraction, a “concept,” that makes us suppose we’ve comprehended something universal and orderly about nature when in fact we haven’t. Nietzsche’s point isn’t that our metaphoric translation of stimuli into images into sounds is unnecessary; it’s that it has nothing to do with TRUTH.

All sorts of fine things can be done with substantive lies (i.e. nouns)—above all, they serve as false but compelling “causes” for natural actions, as in Nietzsche’s famous deconstruction of causality in The Genealogy of Morals: I say “lightning flashes,” and think I’ve explained something about nature. But really what I’ve done is invent an abstraction, a noun (a substantive, a substance, an essential thing), to account for “flashing” or “flashes.” What I’ve done is produce, ex post facto, a tautological expression that explains precisely nothing. Language isn’t caused by the external world, at least not directly. The same remarkable fiction governs statements connecting “doers” as the source and cause of their “deeds.” The “I” who is said to do the deed is just as much a fiction as “leaf” or “lightning.” (All honor to Lord Krishna in The Baghavad-Gita, who says much the same thing about the illusion of selfhood. Of course, Nietzsche doesn’t believe in Krishna, who attributes all actions to himself as “Doer in Chief.”) Again, none of this has anything to do with truth. It’s much closer to everybody’s favorite right-wing parodist Steven Colbert’s notion of “truthiness.” “I,” “leaf,” the “general tulip,” and “lightning” are truthy—they’re useful and they make us feel good.

878. But if we really want to know where the drive to truth comes from, explains Nietzsche, we must bear in mind that we aren’t even aware that we perform the above-described metaphoric and creative translations to produce language and conceptual systems. Like Colbert, we love truthiness, but unlike him, we perceivers and speakers are always on the air, deadpan, completely ensconced in our rock-solid Colbert-World. If it feels right, believe it, we might say. At 878 middle we find the heart of Nietzsche’s explanation of where that mysterious “truth-drive” comes from: “[people] lie unconsciously in the way we have described, and in accordance with centuries-old habits—and precisely because of this unconsciousness, precisely because of this forgetting, they arrive at the feeling of truth. The feeling that one is obliged to describe one thing as red, another as cold, and a third as dumb, prompts a moral impulse which pertains to truth…. As creatures of reason, human beings now make their actions subject to the rule of abstractions; they no longer tolerate being swept away by sudden impressions and sensuous perceptions….” There you have it: forgetting makes important things happen—a theme Nietzsche returns to again and again in his texts: “truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions….” Underlying grand illusions like truth, good/evil, civilization, science, the autonomous individual self, event, causality, god, and so forth is this capacity to forget how such concepts were first articulated. We’re all “salespeople” for such illusions, and, as an old friend of mine likes to say, “In the end, salespeople are the biggest suckers for the sale.” Why? Because, to borrow a line from Hamlet, “they [do] make love to this employment”; they’re enamored of the idea of the sale far more than the goods to be sold. If lying centers and grounds us, how can we be expected to give up such a fruitful occupation? As Nietzsche says, “Everything which distinguishes human beings from animals depends on this ability to sublimate sensuous metaphors into a schema, in other words, to dissolve an image into a concept” (878). And what accompanies this “humanity” of ours? Why, “the construction of a pyramidal order based on castes and degrees, the creation of a new world of laws, privileges, subordinations, definitions and borders, which now confronts the other, sensuously perceived world as something firmer, more general, more familiar, more human, and hence as something regulatory and imperative” (878 bottom). In a few words, the allied principles of rank and regularity. In sum, we acquire a taste for truth, an inner need for it; an unconscious manner of “lying” leads to a “feeling for truth.”

879. Paul de Man generally defines “ideology” as the confounding of words and the world. We seem to do this inevitably, and are most confounded of all when we think we are most certain of ourselves and our world. At 879 bottom, Nietzsche says much the same thing: our whole web of understanding is a product of anthropomorphization; “forgetting that the original metaphors of perception were indeed metaphors, he takes them for the things themselves.” Notice his near-simultaneous comic buildup and takedown of this process: first he says man is to be “admired” as a “mighty architectural genius who succeeds in erecting the infinitely complicated cathedral of concepts on moving foundations, or even, one might say, on flowing water.” Shades of “Kubla Khan,” no? And then he says of these concepts we reasoning creatures have spun out of ourselves, “If someone hides something behind a bush, looks for it in the same place and then finds it there, his seeking and finding is nothing much to boast about….” In Civilization and Its Discontents (1939), Freud would later poke fun of scientific endeavor (as Nietzsche does in the present essay’s Section 2) in similar terms, comparing its great discoveries to a man sticking his leg out from the covers on a chilly evening so he can feel warm and comforted when he puts the leg under the covers again. Marx’s great line comes to mind in this regard, too, although the context is different: “Mankind . . . inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve” (“Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859).

880-84. By now, the question about the origin of the truth-drive has come to sound a bit too truth-driven. Nietzsche is interested in leading us to consider a more fundamental “drive.” At 881 bottom, he writes, “That drive to form metaphors, that fundamental human drive which cannot be left out of consideration for even a second without also leaving out human beings themselves, is in truth not defeated, indeed hardly even tamed, by the process whereby a regular and rigid new world is built from its own sublimated products—concepts—in order to imprison it in a fortress. The drive seeks out a channel and a new area for its activity, and finds it in myth and in art generally.” In so far as we want to keep using terms like “humanity” and distinguishing ourselves from “the animals,” it is this drive—something which really does (unlike the truth-drive, which is acquired and derivative, a necessary bad habit) appear to be primordial and innate. We don’t pick up or learn how to perform the multi-step metaphoric translations previously discussed; we just do it. That other kind of dull-making creativity—the building of a stable sense of self and society—indeed builds upon this metaphoric drive as that which is to be “forgotten.” But what is forgotten, in Nietzsche’s scheme, doesn’t simply go away; the metaphoric drive is no more eradicated than Freud’s later “libidinal energy” disappears when it is repressed. In Nietzsche’s perceptual-instinctive economy and in Freud’s psychic one, what is repressed will return. And here, the return takes the form of artistic process, a process that seems to delight in making a break from the prison-house of concepts and staying close to the chaos and instability of raw perception. It isn’t that the artist returns to a time when “people saw things as they really were”: that is a ridiculous formulation because there never was such a time. No, art is a kind of “pretence” that seems most proper to “the intellect” (882 bottom paragraph) and gives the pretence-maker a sense of mastery.

With this exuberant praise of the artist, the person of intuition, we come to that all-important Nietzschean issue of attitude or style. What happens when we consistently admit to what Nietzsche has confronted us with about our sense of self and our security in language and the world’s truth? What attitude shall we strike up? Do we make like the Stoic who, “If a veritable storm-cloud empties itself on his head . . . wraps himself in his cloak and slowly walks away from under it” (884)? Do we engage in what Nietzsche calls Christianity’s “denial of life,” insisting to the bitter end on moral observance, on renunciation, from each believer and yet demanding an endlessly deferred, otherworldly security and justice because none is really to be had in this “valley of the shadow of death”? (Nietzsche interprets Christ’s redemptive sacrifice as part of the denial of life since the offer of redemption makes human suffering unnecessary: there’s a clear path out of the woods, so to speak, and no inherent need to get lost in them, unless it be from willful perversity.) It seems that Nietzsche instead urges us to be more like the ancient Greeks, who (at least before that decadent character Plato got hold of them) did not believe they could demand that the cosmos or universe yield them justice, security, or peace. As in their great tragedies, suffering is shown to be necessary, and we dare not demand that the gods be just. They are what they are. At 883 first paragraph, Nietzsche describes the “liberated intellect’s way of thinking and living: “The vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions. No regular way leads from these intuitions into the land of the ghostly schemata and abstractions.” He goes on to suggest that Greek culture established “the rule of art over life” where humanity’s “neediness” was persistently denied and where “the radiance of metaphorical visions” prevailed over reason. The Greeks had a tragic vision of life, then, and they were open to suffering, open to experience without the props of intelligibility. Consider Sappho’s fragment on love: “Eros seizes and shakes my very soul / Like the wind on the mountain / Shaking ancient oaks.” She wouldn’t be open to erotic experience if she weren’t strong enough, like the rooted oak braving the wind, to withstand the sway of her own passions (which the ancients figure as a god, an external force not unlike a great wind or storm). Ultimately, I think that’s Nietzsche’s vision of life, too: openness to experience, staying “true” not to “the Truth” but rather to the intuitive and metaphoric quality in human perception and thought. There is, again, no question of a return to truth; there is only the possibility of awakening to a sense of deception’s heady immediacy rather than moving ever farther away from it. Both the society-building “distortion” and the artist’s “pretence” and deceptiveness are, at base, creative—the first is creative in a constructive, comforting way, while the second is creative in a destructive, challenging way. Perhaps these two modes of creativity, like Nietzsche’s Apollo and Dionysus in another early text of his, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, are so intimately sourced and related that we can’t “think” them rightly in isolation from each other; perhaps they both need each other.

To conclude with a thought about philosophy and “theory” after Nietzsche, that grand concept humanity itself is just the sort of conceptual sham whose deconstruction (since Nietzsche’s way of handling his subjects is fairly labeled proto-deconstructive) such an attitude or style is meant to embrace, isn’t it? It, too, is a product of the distortional truth-drive Nietzsche has been examining. We don’t simply propagate ideology in the everyday sense—we are ideological constructions. Other modern authors have taken up an attitude, so to speak, about this great deflation of human puffery and certainty. Michel Foucault writes with antihumanist brio in The Order of Things (in French, differently titled Words and Things—Les mots et les choses), “it is comforting . . . and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form” (xxiii). Martin Heidegger is also instructive regarding the gist of Nietzsche’s deconstructive and antihumanist efforts. In his “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger suggests that humanists have reduced thought itself to a kind of techne or instrument, one which entails a permanent split between subject and object. Mind comes to know “world” through the instrumentality of thought, thereby shoring up its own firmness at the expense of authenticity. This kind of “thought” has surely stepped away from all that is proper and worthy of “thinking.” Much of Heidegger’s project involves the destruction of this humanistic, philosophical imposition upon thinking. De Man, while in dialogue with Heidegger’s texts, counsels something like perpetual vigilance when it comes to the question of ideology. Jacques Derrida, as a thinker and stylist, has a strong affinity with Nietzsche, insisting as he does on rigorous, yet somehow cheerful, deconstruction of anything that appears likely to set itself up (and of course without acknowledging what it’s doing) as the newest latest metaphysical grounding of certainty. In Derrida’s view, structuralism—of which the notes of Ferdinand de Saussure the linguist and, later, the published work of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, serve as prime examples—is just such a back-door metaphysical center, the unquestioned principle of intelligibility of what might as well acknowledge itself as a new version of a systemic philosophy, with its drive either to dismiss the world outright (some have said de Saussure’s emphasis on the synchronic dimension of language does that because he dismisses the troubled word-world connection issue out of hand) or to account for it altogether, as, say, the sophisticated Idealism of Hegel or the thoroughgoing materialism of Marx might be said to attempt. In a strong sense, both Nietzsche and Derrida and others who think along the same lines reject the notion (so pervasive here in America, by the way, with our move-it-along-now logical positivist tradition) that we can either simply accept or simply dismiss the ontological and epistemological concerns of traditional western philosophy. As I mentioned regarding de Man earlier, just when we have made a clean break with the past and its concerns, that’s when they have the most power to script and dominate what we do in the present. The one who thinks he or she has dismissed ideology (or Dame Philosophy) with a contemptuous wave of the hand is almost surely the biggest dupe of all. So when structuralism develops into the robust semiological adventure it becomes in the 1950’s and 1960’s (mostly in Europe; it never fully caught on here in the States), when what Derrida himself calls “the hyperinflation of the signifier” takes hold and everyone tries to explain everything after the manner of the structural linguist’s mode of analysis, it is then that the unexamined principle of “structure” should disturb us most of all. As the French saying goes about love relationships, “ni sans toi ni avec toi”: to paraphrase, “I can’t live without the other but I can’t live with the other, either.” I can’t even really decide the issue one way or the other, because if I do, it’s nearly certain that the troubles I’ve repressed will come back to haunt me when I least expect them to. Well, structuralism proper isn’t exactly in vogue nowadays, but such observations never really go out of style since they apply with equal force to anything that comes along (cultural studies, feminism, neo-formalism, whatever) and becomes the fashion in academic fields. Given that it is difficult today to distinguish between “literary theory,” philosophy, social theory, and so forth, it’s good to keep in mind this complex of concerns as you move forwards to a consideration of contemporary theory.

General Notes on Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (884-95).

Here the focus is on a genre (tragedy) from an ancient culture (the Greeks) that both produces and unsettles the Apollo/Dionysus split. Apollo is the god of light, reason, the lovely dream of order, justifying life’s tribulations in a purely aesthetic way. Dionysus is the god of wine, intoxication, and surrender of the calm, self-contained ego to forces both within and beyond that ego. But both gods are necessary to each other and cannot be kept separate. If tragedy can lead us to this insight, art is very significant, and in no way inferior to philosophy or theology.

At base, Greek tragedy offers a way to embrace one’s fate as a human being; it justifies suffering by creating beauty from it that does not simply disown the process of generation (of that beauty). End note for 894—together, Apollo and Dionysus account for the acceptance of life, amor fati, as opposed to Christianity’s supposed “denial of life.”

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 1st edition. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch.
New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN: 0393974294.

General Notes on Ferdinand de Saussure’s “Introduction” to A Course in General Linguistics and Part One, Chapter I (956-77).

1) What was the aim of structuralism as a developing movement that really got going after the eclipse of Sartre’s humanistic existentialism in the 1950’s and 1960’s? Well, the goal was that “structure” could serve as a single unifying principle: the structuralist method would unify the human sciences. Discarding all that old philosophical nonsense about “meaning” and “essence,” structuralists would go forth and discover the how of things—how they fit together, how they work, what allows them to mean anything in the first place—rather than fixating on the question of what things mean. Structuralism give us an upbeat, scientific view of language. It takes a potentially Nietzschean insight into the “arbitrariness” of language in relation to the material world and turns that insight into something positive rather than destructive: our structuralists are a bit like Kant, at least in terms of attitude: let’s admit that we can’t get at “meaning” or “things themselves.” But so what? What we can render intelligible is how things work, and that’s well worth understanding. With de Saussure, language becomes a subject to be studied in its own right as a functioning system from which meaning emerges; it is not merely a pointing device towards the material world, and it is not merely a hindrance getting in the way of our attempts to deal with that world. Words and the world are two different provinces, and there’s no natural connection between them.

2) What does this movement try to replace? It replaces humanist conceptions of the mind and of language. Some general assumptions in the humanist strain would be the following:

A. Humans are the central force in and meaning of a world that we can rationally apprehend. Remember the ancient Greek saying: “Man is the measure of all things” (Protagoras). Kantian Idealism is a sophisticated example of this view in its attempt to show each individual mind’s power to render the phenomenal world intelligible. Our world is intelligible; We can live comfortably in it and perhaps even achieve mastery over it. Earlier theories had more straightforwardly posited (or denied) a “real world out there,” but they struggled mightily also to establish the notion that individual consciousness, individual reason, is king.

B. Our various languages can describe or relate to the world around us correctly—at least once we build up a system of concepts sophisticated enough to describe complex phenomena accurately. There are many views on how this can happen, but here is just one: C17 authors such as Bacon and Locke said that words are the signs of ideas, and ideas are the signs of things; they would actually agree somewhat with the modern-day structuralists at least in saying that words and things are not directly or naturally linked together. (Locke was a linguistic nominalist, that is.) The Lockean view makes language rather dangerous in that if we aren’t careful, words might lead us away from the truth about things themselves; overreliance on them and on relations between them might obscure the world’s clarity and distinct diversity. Still, there seems to be an equally powerful insistence that we can strip away layers of error from languages and make them more accurately correspond to our ideas, and thus, indirectly, to things. Bacon in particular denounces the many “idols” of thinking (and language) to which fallen humanity is prone, and at times wishes language would just get out of the way so we can study our natural environment in a scientific, inductive way.

C. Language is linked to our consciousness, our intentions, our meanings. Man, both individually and collectively, is a meaning-making animal: we use language in tool-like fashion as free-acting individuals, building up a social environment around us or shaping it around the words given us by God. For example, Aristotle sees language as linked to our mental states; they are symptomatic of a state of consciousness. (Expressive theory might profitably be considered the obverse, not the absolute opponent, of this general view: it isn’t clear that there are distinct, anterior states of mind or spirit that can then be reliably “expressed” and made available to common understanding. It would be fair to suggest that especially in the realm of emotion there are “things going on inside our heads” before language comes into play, but we can’t do much with such goings-on until language comes into play.)

It may be worth remarking here that such theories always insist upon the primacy of the spoken word over the written—that’s because the written word is seen as merely a derivative or even “bad” copy of the spoken word. The farther we go from our speech, the notion goes, the farther we move from truth, self-presence, and full consciousness of our authentic being. After all, as Plato points out in the Phaedrus, you don’t even need to be present for what you have written to be read, and it can be read in the most promiscuous ways. In one form or another, we can find this idea in Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Locke, and (according to Derrida and other deconstructive theorists) any other western philosopher you’d care to mention. Consciousness and the spoken word are jointly king; writing is a potentially harmful parasite feeding upon that sovereign’s legitimate authority.

3) Back to the basic claims of structuralism. With what does it replace humanistic principles?

A. We, as individuals and in groups, are not the measure of all things. Instead, STRUCTURE produces the effect of meaning or intelligibility. The structural operations governing whatever we are investigating give rise to the effect of meaning. One can study things as diverse as so-called primitive cultures and modern fashion with the same methodology. De Saussure is not talking in these specific philosophical terms, but later authors involved with structuralism sponsor such claims. The anthropological studies of Claude Lévi-Strauss are a fine example of structuralism at work.

B. Language does not designate an external reality. It is the structure of language that we must focus on first and foremost rather than trying to link it to external reality.

C. Language speaks man, to hijack a phrase from Heidegger’s anti-scientific philosophy to describe a more pro-scientific one. The speaking “I” does not author meaning by manipulating language; instead, the “I” or consciousness is an effect of linguistic structure. Meaning doesn’t arise from an individual’s experience or intentions but rather from the oppositions and workings, the “grammar” or rules of the language systems in question. The system makes meaning, not us, and we ourselves are creatures of the linguistic and social systems we think we have created. De Saussure himself does not fully draw this conclusion, but others who come after him certainly do.

Page-by-Page Notes on Ferdinand de Saussure’s “Introduction” to A Course in General Linguistics and Part One, Chapter I (956-77).

960-61. “Language is a well-defined object in the heterogeneous mass of speech facts. . . . It is the social side of speech, outside the individual who can never create nor modify it by himself; it exists only by virtue of a sort of contract signed by the members of a community.” Language is a social phenomenon, not a personal possession or acquisition, and it exists by virtue of a tacit contract.

961. “Language, unlike speaking, is something that we can study separately. . . . [L]anguage is a system of signs in which the only essential thing is the union of meanings and sound-images, and in which both parts of the sign are psychological.” The opposition here is between langue (a language such as French, English, Spanish or German, considered as an integral sign system) and parole (individual utterances). De Saussure, as what we would now call a structuralist, is saying that we can step back from the chaotic mass of actual utterances and study language as a system: how does the effect of meaning emerge within the system? It may seem that de Saussure has turned language into something entirely abstract, but that isn’t what he’s aiming to do.

Instead, he is suggesting that the half of the sign that he characterizes as a “sound-image” is an impression in the brain of the person who has heard another person speaking. You say something, I hear you, and an impression, a “sound-image,” is formed or manifested in my mind. De Saussure says that “language is a storehouse of sound-images, and writing is the tangible form of those images.” So he’s referring to a “concrete” event in the mind of the auditor or listener (a mental reality, we might call it), and, with regard to writing, to tangible marks on a surface. We may recall Nietzsche’s remarks in “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” about the metaphoric leaps that allow us to speak with unfounded but impressive confidence in our ability to describe the world’s objects and events with our words. De Saussure, as we shall see, admits that the relationship between words and the world is arbitrary, but the admission causes neither anxiety nor a proto-deconstructive urge to tear apart the notion that language makes intelligibility possible. Instead, his approach is cheerfully scientific: how does language work as a system that generates what we call “meaning”?

962. “A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; it would be a part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call I semiology. . . .” This sounds like a fine idea, so why hasn’t it been worked out, asks de Saussure? The answer he gives involves the investment people have always had in an essentialist understanding of language: “people see nothing than a name-giving system in language, thereby prohibiting any research into its true nature.” When non-linguists consider how words signify, that is, they feel most comfortable with the process of which Milton gives us an eloquent summation in Book 8 of Paradise Lost, wherein God invites Adam to give all the animals their proper names:

all the Earth
To thee and to thy Race I give; as Lords
Possess it, and all things that therein live,
Or live in Sea, or Aire, Beast, Fish, and Fowle.
In signe whereof each Bird and Beast behold
After thir kindes; I bring them to receave
From thee thir Names, and pay thee fealtie
With low subjection; understand the same (8.338-345 )

This Adamic naming process implies that Adam’s mind (as furnished by God) contains unimpeachable knowledge of each creature’s true name; all he has to do is speak that name, and the creature so named will be rightly signified for all time. In this view, words point to or name a pre-established reality. Words, therefore, are neither more nor less than indicators of the natural and divinely ordained nature of things. But in de Saussure’s view, this Adamic conception of language is flat wrong. The individual does not connect words with things in this manner, and in fact, neither does the community of speakers: “the distinguishing characteristic of the sign—but the one that is least apparent at first sight—is that in some way it always eludes the individual or social will.” The community doesn’t come together and make Adam-like choices about word-and-thing connections any more than an individual Adam would, and de Saussure evidently doesn’t mean to suggest that it does in using the term “contract.” If we want to know as fully as possible how language signifies, we must move beyond this essentialist, instrumental conception and “learn what it has in common with all other semiological systems.” De Saussure is confident that future semiologists will be able to accomplish the task he lays out for them.

963. What is the nature of linguistic signs? De Saussure again counters the notion that words simply name things in the outside world, and adds that there aren’t any pre-existing ideas to which words might be said to relate, either. Words neither point to external things nor refer us to anterior ideas about those things. Instead, he asserts, “both terms involved in the linguistic sign are psychological and are united in the brain by an associative bond. . . . The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image. The latter is not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses.” It is understandably difficult for de Saussure to describe precisely what he means by the term “sound-image” since, after all, it is not something we can gain access to directly: it is an event that happens in the brain, and not something we can grasp by empirical means. As he points out, “Without moving our lips or tongue, we can talk to ourselves or recite mentally a selection of verse.” (Historically, this silent relationship to language, at least with respect to reading, was once far less the rule than it is today, but that fact doesn’t diminish the value of de Saussure’s argument. He is simply saying that it is possible to speak to ourselves or to read without muscular activity; so language can, evidently, be understood as purely a mental activity, and this quality makes it possible to analyze it structurally.)

964. “I call the combination of a concept and a sound-image a sign. . . . I propose to retain the word sign [signe] to designate the whole and to replace concept and sound-image respectively by signified [signifié] and signifier [signifiant]; the last two terms have the advantage of indicating the opposition that separates them from each other and from the whole of which they are parts.” The new terms, de Saussure implies, should help clear away the deadwood and help us better understand the elements of a sign. I would suggest further that there isn’t a simple deictic (pointing) or referential relationship between the signifier and the signified; de Saussure’s preference is to speak of an “associative bond” (963) between the two elements.

965. Here de Saussure addresses the arbitrary and conventional nature of language. He says, “No one disputes the principle of the arbitrary nature of the sign, but it is often easier to discover a truth than to assign it to its proper place.” At base, the term “arbitrary” means that words are not intimately or necessarily connected to things themselves. That the signified or signifié for “tree” is associated in Latin with the signifiant or signifier arbor, or in Attic Greek with dendron, or in German with Baum, is a matter of convention, a matter of common agreement spanning centuries of usage. De Saussure elaborates on the point somewhat by distinguishing the symbol from ordinary language. With respect to a symbol, he says, arbitrariness isn’t the right word to use: “One characteristic of the symbol is that it is never wholly arbitrary; it is not empty, for there is the rudiment of a natural bond between the signifier and the signified. The symbol of justice, a pair of scales, could not be replaced by just any other symbol, such as a chariot.” The associations between a symbol and what it symbolizes will always be appropriate to the culture in which it functions.

When it comes to ordinary language, however, arbitrariness reigns supreme, and by it de Saussure means that “the choice of the signifier” is “unmotivated, i.e. arbitrary in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified.” In German, for instance, the crustacean we call “lobster” in English is signified by the word Hummer. If signifiers can differ so widely, it’s obvious that the words or signifiers aren’t naturally connected with what they signify: the signifier saying der Hummer doesn’t lead us towards some mysterious essence of the creature in question. It may help to consider that some experts recommend for adult language acquisition the adoption of a system known as “linkword,” which encourages learners to link a word in their native language to another native-language word that sounds like the foreign word they want to remember, and keep thinking about the connection for at least ten seconds. (There are other methods, such as the Roman Room and the Town, which add a sense of location to the mix.) An example: if you want to fix der Hummer in your memory, you might imagine a man sitting in the passenger seat of a Hummer 2 with a lobster at the steering wheel. Silly, perhaps, but rather effective—I bring it up because it reinforces the arbitrariness of linguistic associations generally. There’s no natural connection between a gas-guzzling Hummer and a big red crustacean, but that doesn’t make any difference—the point is just to learn the word so you can use it in common with a particular linguistic community, within which, of course, der Hummer is commonly accepted as the right signifier for a noteworthy crustacean. The association between der Hummer and its signified may not be based on anything so ludicrous as my whimsical association (and certainly isn’t the product of willful individual choice). Still, however it came to be what it is, it’s no more “natural” than my environment-stomping, narcissistic, Hummer-driving lobster.

966. De Saussure addresses the insistence by some people that special cases such as onomatopoeic words and interjections disprove the arbitrariness thesis. But as he points out, even these words differ from one language to the next: English-speakers say “bow-wow” to imitate a dog’s barking, while the French say ouaoua. Similar, perhaps, but not quite the same. And interjections differ even more markedly, so they prove nothing.

966. As for the linearity of the signifier, de Saussure says, “its consequences are incalculable.” Why is the principle or fact of linearity so important? Well, the linear unfolding of signification allows meaning to emerge. The individual sign does not in itself fix discrete meaning. Here is how I would gloss de Saussure’s point: when we hear spoken utterances or read a series of words on the page, they unfold as an “internal impression” within our minds. This impression isn’t available simultaneously, the way a grouping of pictorial symbols might be. The utterance unfolds in our minds over a span of time and “unidirectionally,” so to speak. Meaning is a product not of individual units in isolation but rather of the relationship amongst the terms as they unfold. De Saussure’s language is, “auditory signifiers have at their command only the dimension of time. Their elements are presented in succession; they form a chain. This feature becomes readily apparent when they are represented in writing and the spatial line of graphic marks is substituted for succession in time.” (He uses the word “auditory,” but I think he wants us to understand that he’s invoking the “psychological impression” he had mentioned earlier, in his remarks about the “sound-image” before he replaced that term with signifiant.) Without an understanding of this basic fact, we would probably be stuck with the outmoded idea that self-contained “words” point to “things” or at least to self-contained “ideas.”

967. “Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula. There are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language.” It is difficult to conceive of “what’s going on in our heads” before language comes into play. For practical, analytic purposes, nothing precedes the system of signs by which we live. (Perhaps there are ways of dealing with “pre-linguistic cognition” tolerably well with reference to evolutionary programming, or, more philosophically, along the lines of Nietzsche’s remarks about nature as chaotic realm whose alleged “laws” are most likely nothing more than impositions spun our own web of duplicitous desire and dire need. But none of this sort of speculation is de Saussure’s concern.) De Saussure writes further, “The characteristic role of language with respect to thought is not to create a material phonic means for expressing ideas but to serve as a link between thought and sound, under conditions that of necessity bring about the reciprocal delimitations of units.” Then follow his twin metaphors of “air in contact with a sheet of water” and “a sheet of paper” to represent the “union or coupling of thought with phonic substance.” The point of the metaphors is that “one can neither divide sound from thought nor thought from sound. . . .” Sound (whether by that word we mean physical sound or the “impression” it makes) does not express thought; rather, its combination with thought “produces a form, not a substance” that constitutes a vital part of the signifying process. It’s the fact of combination that matters here, not sound or thought in supposed isolation from each other.

968. “The arbitrary nature of the sign explains in turn why the social fact alone can create a linguistic system. The community is necessary if values that owe their existence solely to usage and general acceptance are to be set up; by himself the individual is incapable of fixing a single value.” Well, that explains Humpty Dumpty’s failure to impress Alice with his linguistic cleverness in Through the Looking-Glass:

[T]here are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents--’

‘Certainly,’ said Alice.

‘And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t--till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master--that’s all.’

Poor Humpty!—not only was he pushed off the wall by shadowy conspirators, but now de Saussure comes along and invalidates his eccentric notions about language: the signifying system itself “is to be master,” not the single person who speaks it, and indeed not even the entire community as an agglomeration of individuals.

Furthermore, writes de Saussure, “to consider a term as simply the union of a certain sound with a certain concept is grossly misleading. To define it in this way would isolate the term from its system; it would mean assuming that one can start from the terms and construct the system by adding them together.” A structural linguist, by contrast, must begin with the system in its integrity and completeness, and gain an appreciation of its smaller “parts” or elements within that complete system. Meaning or signification is relational, not a matter of discrete substances or essences that are to be “conveyed” to us by language as a medium or conduit.

968-70. “How,” asks de Saussure, “does value differ from signification?” (968) The words are by no means synonyms, even though it’s tempting to conflate them. By signification, explains de Saussure, we should understand the vertical relationship between signified and signifier, as in his diagrams picturing an oval shape with “signified” in the top half of the oval and “signifier” in the bottom half. By value is meant the horizontal relationships between signifiers and signifiers, signifieds and signifieds. If I say, “sheep,” an English speaker will know that I’m referring to a certain wooly quadruped; if I say “mutton,” an English speaker will know that I’m referring to something like “lamb stew.” But if a French person says, le mouton, he or she can refer to either of what in English would be very different things: Dolly the living sheep, or a piece of dead meat on a plate. Clearly, says de Saussure, mouton shares a signification with the English words “mutton” and “sheep,” but its value (as a term within the larger system of language) is not identical with the English words’ value since it has two significations and the English words each have only one. Mouton offers a wider range of possibilities than does either “mutton” or “sheep,” and this distinction only becomes clear when we compare the terms, or, more precisely, when we place mouton/mutton, mouton/sheep, sheep/sheep, sheep/mutton alongside one another horizontally. (De Saussure’s diagram, according to the Norton editor’s introduction, is somewhat misleading in that it posits a smoother parallelism in the relationship amongst combinations of signifiers/signifieds than really obtains.) Within a single language, says de Saussure, “all words used to express related ideas limit each other reciprocally; synonyms like French rédouter ‘dread,’ craindre ‘fear,’ and avoir peur ‘be afraid’ have value only through their opposition: if redouter did not exist, all its content would go to its competitors” (969). To put things simply, if you want to approach the value of a verb such as “to fear,” you must place it in a working relationship with other verbs that are used to signify sometimes similar and yet not identical states of mind and body: “to dread,” “to be terrified,” to be anxious,” “to be alarmed,” etc. Similarly, “to judge,” “to distinguish,” “to weigh the merits of something,” “to condemn,” “to pronounce sentence,” “to opine,” etc. share some common elements, but are not reducible to one another. In sum, there isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between one word and one idea. Instead, de Saussure is implying, a language consists of thousands upon thousands of signifier/signified associations yielding an amazing range of possibilities.

As de Saussure writes, “Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others. . .” (969). In other words, it is a sign’s relationship to a range of other signs that determines the value of that single sign. It would be still better to suggest that value emerges from the relationship between ranges of signifiers, and between ranges of signifieds. I say this in keeping with de Saussure’s statement as follows: “all values . . . are always composed: (1) of a dissimilar thing that can be exchanged for the thing of which the value is to be determined; and (2) of similar things that can be compared with the thing of which the value is to be determined.” // Both factors are necessary for the existence of a value. To determine what a five-franc piece is worth one must therefore know: (1) that it can be exchanged for a fixed quantity of a different thing, e.g. bread; and (2) that it can be compared with a similar value of the same system, e.g. a one-franc piece, or with coins of another system. . .” (969). By analogy, a signifier is similar to another signifier, and signifiers or “words” differ fundamentally from the concepts or ideas they may signify. Therefore, both the similar part of the equation and the dissimilar one must be considered in determining the value of a sign, which is the term de Saussure uses to characterize the associated signifier and signified.

As de Saussure defines value (or, very loosely, “meaning”), it emerges by way of differential relations, and the relations are purely negative: that is, values are not defined in relation to an essence or positive content, but rather by what they are not. There is no way to reduce “the world” to simplicity or perfect order by means of a set of magic pointing devices (i.e. single words that mean single things, to speak very broadly). I suppose it’s tempting—and perhaps even somewhat useful, for the moment—to indulge ourselves in a statement such as, “any one language consists of a vast number signifiers, and there are a vast number of actions, feelings, ‘ideas,’ events, and circumstances with which they have become and can become associated. Language makes it possible to live productively in the presence of what would seem to be great potential for chaos.” Of course, this sort of pronouncement assumes just the sort of “pre-/extra-linguistic reality” that de Saussure’s whole outlook is determined to deny us. What we can say confidently, according to de Saussure, is that the effect we call “meaning” is produced by the operation of the system. Meaning cannot be extracted from the system and finalized as if it referred to solid and discrete things we can describe, understand, and have done with. Of a given word, de Saussure writes, “Its content is really fixed only by the concurrence of everything that exists outside it. Being part of a system, it is endowed not only with a signification but also and especially with a value, and this is something quite different” (970).

972. On 970, de Saussure had written that “concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system. Their most precise characteristic is in being what the others are not.” On 972, he reinforces this theme: “Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it.” It’s possible to fix on this notion of “no ideas before language” to an extreme, as some have taken license from de Saussure to do. I don’t know that modern linguistics would fully support this radical assertion about the primacy of language (even though a simple return to pre-Saussurean language models seems unlikely). I would recommend Roy Harris’ book Saussure and His Interpreters (2005) as a means of understanding how de Saussure has been enlisted by other theorists in areas beyond his own concern of linguistics. But fundamentally and aside from the back-and-forth terminology shifts between the phonic or material fact of language and language understood purely in terms of “structure” (which may stem from the Course’s status as lecture notes and not a polished text) I would say that if there is one troubling assertion above others in de Saussure, it would have to be his insistence that nothing worth considering (my phrase, not his) is going on in our minds before language comes into play. I’m guessing that the truth is far more complex and that a considerable body of evidence (intelligent animals who nonetheless don’t seem to have much by way of signifying capacity, people with brain injuries who “think in pictures,” and so forth) might be brought to bear in re-examining the Twentieth Century’s claims about the all-encompassing significance of language in human life.

972. Also on this page, de Saussure briefly mentions writing, and his two main claims about it are as follows: 1) “The signs used in writing are arbitrary; there is no connection, for example, between the letter t and the sound that it designates” and 2) “The value of letters is purely negative and differential. The same person can write t, for instance, in different ways.” On the whole, argues Jacques Derrida in his early deconstructive texts, de Saussure privileges speech over writing just as western philosophers have long done: writing is treated as more or less a copy of speech, and therefore derivative. The basic problem with such treatment is that it contradicts de Saussure’s own anti-essentialist claims: there’s no reason why speech should be the privileged object of analysis rather than writing if neither is really any closer to some supposedly anterior truth or reality.

973. “Although both the signified and the signifier are purely differential and negative when considered separately, their combination is a positive fact; it is even the sole type of facts that language has, for maintaining the parallelism between the two classes of differences is the distinctive function of the linguistic institution.” What he’s talking about here is binary oppositions: when we relate one complete sign to another, the firm association between the sign’s two terms (signifié/signifiant) runs up against the firm association between another complete sign’s two terms. Now we must speak not of difference, as we would in comparing signifier to signifier or signified to signified, but instead of opposition. Furthermore, he writes, “The entire mechanism of language, with which we shall be concerned later, is based on oppositions of this kind . . . .” There is still a relationship to account for, but it’s a relationship that maintains firm boundaries between one term and another: each sign is treated as a “positive fact,” and must not be confounded with another. De Saussure is saying that language works as a system of binary oppositions. He knows that we invest a great deal of importance in maintaining our binary pairings; it is how we structure our understanding of ourselves and the world, and as such it is the ally of the basic principles regarding logical propositions, “identity or non-contradiction” and “the excluded middle”: p and not-p can’t both be true; either p or not-p must be true. Later on, deconstructive theorists and others who challenge structuralism will point out that binary oppositions are inherently hierarchical: they force us to rank things and people and categories as “one or the other,” “superior/ inferior,” “presence/absence,” “speech/writing,” and so forth. Nietzsche’s “truth/falsehood” (Wahrheit/Lüge) is just such a binary pairing, and his unsettling of their claim to mutually exclusive integrity in his 1873 essay “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinn” (“On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense”) is instructive for those who want to understand how deconstruction works.

974-77. “Relations and differences between linguistic terms fall into two distinct groups, each of which generates a certain class of values” (974). The classes de Saussure calls syntagmatic and associative: “The syntagmatic relation is in praesentia. It is based on two or more terms that occur in an effective series. Against this, the associative relation unites terms in absentia in a potential mnemonic series” (975). With respect to syntagmatic association, de Saussure drives home the point that this kind of relation only seems to belong to physical speaking, but in fact it belongs to language: we can only come to grips with a word like indécorable, he says, in relation to other words in the system that are also prefixed with in- or im-. But he suggest also that “in the syntagm there is no clear-cut boundary between the language fact, which is a sign of collective usage, and the fact that belongs to speaking and depends on individual freedom.”

Associative relations, implies de Saussure, are even more complicated: “Mental association creates other groups besides those based on the comparing of terms that have something in common. . .” (966). As he explains, if we take a word such as enseignement, associations may be called up from the root of the word, enseign-, or from its suffix, -ment. In addition, associations may stem from “the analogy of the concepts signified” and from other factors such as “the similarity of the sound-images” (966). Thus, says de Saussure, “there is at times a double similarity of meaning and form, at times similarity only of form or of meaning. A word can always evoke everything that can be associated with it in one way or another” (966). This kind of evocation, he says, is neither predictable nor necessarily finite in quantity: “A particular word is like the center of a constellation; it is the point of convergence of an indefinite number of co-ordinated terms.”

Post-Structuralism: Barthes and Derrida as Two Examples Among Many. By way of a shorthand introduction to the uses that have been made of Saussurean linguistics by post-structuralist theorists, it’s worth inferring from the last few pages of our selection that de Saussure’s remarks about “associative relations” could point us towards the endless play of language that authors such as Roland Barthes find so promising later on, or to the more rigorous practice of “deconstruction” on the part of authors such as Jacques Derrida in the 1960’s-90’s. I take these to be two of the main uses with respect to literary criticism and theory, while the third, of course, has to do with the application of Saussurean linguistics to huge swaths of cultural phenomena, of the sort practiced by the brilliant structural anthologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. That third usage I will have to leave aside since it is beyond the scope of this posting.

As for the first use, the blissful and never-ending slide from signifier to signifier really isn’t a model to which de Saussure would want to affix his imprimatur; we don’t hear him extolling our commitment to language in terms of erotic bliss à la Barthes’ privileging of readerly jouissance in essays such as “Le plaisir du texte” (“The Pleasure of the Text”). Still, a possible claim based on de Saussure’s framework is that “meaning” can’t be confined and reduced to the immediate context of an utterance or to a series of words on the page. De Saussure himself seems to take an almost Kantian approach to the events or transformation he says must be occurring in a listener or reader’s mind while it is processing speech. In essence, all speakers and listeners speak and listen in the same way. The possibility of crisp, relatively final communication, of “clarity of meaning” seems intact in de Saussure’s Cours Generale: it flows from his understanding of the linguistic system as the ground of coherent meaning. This system is beyond and bigger than any single individual, or even the entire community of speakers of a given language. We process language in a more or less unconscious manner, and de Saussure’s assumption is apparently that each of us will process, will “understand,” language in a way that accords with its transpersonal, systemic, universal manner of functioning.

In practice, of course, we make this assumption every day of our lives as communicators. I am making it even now as I write: I’m assuming that I am setting down some more or less definite, interrelated set of ideas that will reach you more or less intact, that will mean pretty much the same things to you as they mean to me. That we make this assumption empirically, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s correct, or that it must always be correct, or even that it’s the only way to think about the significance of language, speaking, and writing. Roland Barthes’ call to jouissance (from the French verb jouir, to enjoy, to play, to “come” sexually) asserts in a rather Humpty-Dumpty-like, decisive way that there’s no need to privilege decisiveness, finality, and clarity over playfulness. When de Saussure writes, “A word can always evoke everything that can be associated with it in one way or another,” Barthes is delighted to take him up on the proposition: the experience of reading literature (please excuse the term—Barthes understandably rejects it as a firm category) can and should become an engagement with the endless play of signifiers on the page. De Saussure’s emphasis on differential relations and his acceptance of the great complexity of possible “associative relations,” that is, opens up the possibility of foregrounding the signifier and putting the signified on the backburner, so to speak. In his early work, Barthes takes the de-mythologizing of the signified as discrete meaning-unit to great lengths. Perhaps we can know that we are using commonly accepted signifiers when we speak or write; but we can’t know for certain that the hearer or reader’s understanding is going to follow some pre-ordained, culturally correct path (or, what amounts to almost the same thing, to the path or range of possibilities sanctioned by the “linguistic system”). How exactly would we know that? And if we insist on its happening, Barthes might say, aren’t we just imposing in an authoritarian manner a particular way of looking at language that supports all sorts of hierarchies and “unfairnesses” that have had their day and don’t deserve our support? This is very much a “radical-sixties” way of inflecting Saussurean linguistics.

The second use is apparent most dramatically in Derridean deconstruction, which underlies the more celebratory notions I outlined above. What Derrida offers is a rigorous (though by no means dour, as some claim) “take-down” (but also an abiding-with) older categories of thought, older ways of understanding what happens when we speak, read, and think. For a fuller appreciation of this author, it’s best to go to his early essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” to Of Grammatology, and to other works such as Disseminations. We can learn something about Derrida’s take on de Saussure from his coinage of the term différance based on the French word that can mean either “to differ” or “to defer” (différer), similarly to its Latin root, differre. The essay “Différance” in Margins of Philosophy makes for very complex reading, so may the decon-gods forgive me my trespasses as I forgive others. (I imagine them to look something like the Polynesian Tiki, though I’m not certain why.)

Well, we know about the verb différer now, but what of the common noun stemming from this verb? La différence cannot, in fact, mean what in English we mean by “deferral” or temporal putting-off. It can only mean “difference” in the sense of “being other than.” But différance (with an “a”) both differs from the meaning of différence and defers us in our quest to put a cap on the meaning of that word. Both the coinage and the older word are pronounced the same way, so we can’t settle the word’s meaning by reference to speech. Even a native speaker of French can locate the alterity neither in a phonic (audible) speech act nor in the unfolding of what de Saussure calls the “sound-image” impression that the speaking of a word triggers in our minds. The difference between différenceand différance is unavailable whether it comes from the voice of another person or whether we “listen to the voice in our own head,” so to speak. You can only see that difference, when you resort to graphic marks on a page. As the online Dictionary of Philosophy says concisely, “If the spoken word requires the written to function properly, then the spoken is itself always at a distance from any supposed clarity of consciousness. It is this originary breach that Derrida associates with the terms arche-writing and différance.” If we thought that we could learn everything we needed to know about language as a system from speech, we were mistaken: if anything, it is writing that might lay claim to the attentions of linguists and philosophers, not speech. Positing even the emergence (much less the pre-linguistic existence) of clear, settled meanings or ideas in “language” modeled after speech just became a much more dubious proposition, it seems.

Ultimately, I believe, Derrida’s différence example conveys a disturbing insight about language that the unexamined privileging of speech over writing elides: speech partakes of the nature of writing, and as anyone who has read Plato’s Phaedrus knows, writing and reading what has been written makes it painfully obvious to us just how tenuous our hold on “understanding” is: from the outset we confront the possibility of perpetual drift and inherent miscommunication. There can be no fully or permanently satisfying return (though there can be many partly or entirely disguised unsatisfying returns) to the myth of originary meaning, to the sign that is grounded only in itself and that therefore grounds the entire system of meanings, to the comforts of intentionality and the integrity of consciousness, etc. If such claims are made and accepted, the questions one faces are the ones Nietzsche proposed, among them being, “What styles to adopt? What attitudes to take up, and towards what? What avenues of insight to pursue? What stance to adopt towards past ideas, texts, and events?

Suggestion: if all of this talk about writing, or écriture, as Derrida often calls it, seems maddeningly difficult, you might try the following meditative experiment to help you get a handle on what is being posited about the self-consciousness that responds to and participates in language: sit down and be still for a while, and try to attend to the flow of thoughts in your mind. Try after a while to trace the connections between one thought and another; try to “get back to the source” of your ideas or series of idea. I feel certain that you won’t be able to do it—at least not in any impressive, final way. You cannot “get back to the origin of your thoughts.” Why? Well, perhaps because there isn’t one: it’s all a web of feelings, thoughts, sensations, and whatnot, and there’s never going to be a final resting place for any of it—at least until the final irony, death, “kindly stops for you,” to adapt a line from Emily Dickinson.

Final Thoughts on de Saussure. The desacralization and de-essentialization of language has proven important to some who deal with political science and social theory. Much modern literary theory of whatever sort is generally founded upon a Saussurean model of how language “means,” or at least de Saussure serves as a point of departure. You could say that de Saussure is like Kant in this regard: just as philosophy has never been quite the same after Kant’s sophisticated reworking of the relationship between man and nature, freedom and necessity (and throw in Hegel’s refined dialectic here, too), most theorists have come to accept de Saussure’s conception of language as ruling out any simple return to earlier ways of thinking about language. Today, de Saussure is hardly the last word about language (again, I would recommend Roy Harris’ 2005 book Saussure and His Interpreters) , but one really can’t go back to Plato’s Cratylus, with its assertion that words and things are intimately connected: that just seems like confusion. At their best, de Saussure’s linguistics teaches us to take linguistic artifacts seriously without treating them as set in conversation-stopping, sacred stone. And “linguistic artifacts” is a broad enough category, of course, to encompass a Jane Austen novel and the United States Constitution. Moreover, the idea that language (not “mind” or “spirit”) is the primary mode of self-consciousness turns out to be a powerful one, even if it need not go unchallenged: much of what many of us find unacceptable and cruel in our social and political arrangements can be understood in terms of the great power of language to define us and thereby to include or exclude, affirm or deny, encourage or repress, reward or brutalize, etc. This direction is not the one in which Ferdinand de Saussure tries to take us, to be sure—he was a linguist, not a political scientist—but post-essentialist linguistics and other disciplines are often put to such analytic use. Perhaps language not only “makes man” but also, in some instances, “makes man miserable.”

Edition: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.

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