ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 8

 - Semiotics and Structuralism


In this lecture, Professor Paul Fry explores the semiotics movement through the work of its founding theorist, Ferdinand de Saussure. The relationship of semiotics to hermeneutics, New Criticism, and Russian formalism is considered. Key semiotic binaries–such as langue and parole, signifier and signified, and synchrony and diachrony–are explored. Considerable time is spent applying semiotics theory to the example of a “red light” in a variety of semiotic contexts.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 8 - Semiotics and Structuralism

Chapter 1. What is Semiology? [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: So I’m going to be pointing to the board, at least in theory. I suppose I expect to be pointing to the board a little bit more today than ordinarily. The usual function of my [chalk] equivalent of Power Point isn’t quite the same today because I’m taking an interest in some of these diagrammatic matters as well and, as I say, I will be pointing to them.

All right. So to begin I’m actually going to postpone something that you’re probably already wondering about, although it will come into this lecture on a couple of occasions–that is to say, the full relationship in terms of the influence of both movements–between the Russian formalists and Saussure’s notion of semiology and semiotics–until next week when we discuss Roman Jakobson’s essay, “Linguistics and Poetics,” where I think the relationship between the two movements in which he himself was involved will become clearer and will come into focus more naturally than if I tried to outline what the connection between the two movements is now. So that is an aspect of our sequence of lectures, beginning with the last one, that will be postponed until next week.

Now semiotics is not in itself a literary theory. As we’ll learn from Jakobson next week, literature can be understood–or what he calls the study of literature, “poetics”–can be understood as a subfield of semiotics, but semiotics is not in itself a literary theory. In other words, perhaps to your frustration, what you read today has nothing at all, in and of itself, to tell you about literature. This isn’t the last time this will happen during the course of the syllabus, but then of course, our job is to bring out the implications for literature of texts that we read that don’t have any direct bearing on literary study. The important thing about Saussure and the discipline of semiotics is the incredible influence that it has had on virtually every form of subsequent literary theory. That’s what we need to keep in mind. Semiotics evolves into what is called “structuralism,” which we’ll be considering next week. That in turn, as it were, bequeaths its terminology and its set of issues and frameworks for thinking to deconstruction, to Lacanian psychoanalysis, to French Marxism, and to binary theories of race, colonization and gender–in other words, to a great deal that we will be studying subsequently on this syllabus. So while again, what we read for today is not in itself literary theory, it is nevertheless crucially formative for a great many of the developments in literary theory that we’ll be studying.

Now as an anecdotal or conjectural aside–I’ve always found this so fascinating I can never resist talking about it–there are various texts in our field–the history of criticism, literary theory–texts that are considered foundational but which curiously enough, a la Foucault, don’t actually have an author. Aristotle’s Poetics we know actually not to have been one of the texts written by Aristotle but rather to be a compendium of lecture notes put together by his students. This is one of the reasons why in the golden age of Arabic scholarship in the Middle Ages, there was so much dispute about thePoetics. The manuscripts we find from this period are full of marginal notes where the scholars are chiding each other and saying, “No, no, no. It can’t be that way.” In other words, in a way it’s a disputed text and it is not written by Aristotle, but it’s also a foundational text. Aristotle is considered the “father of criticism,” and yet he is also what Foucault would call a “founder of discursivity.”

Well, the odd thing is it’s exactly the same with Saussure, who can be considered the father or patriarch of a certain kind of literary theory as I have just indicated. Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics is not something written by Saussure but is a compendium of lecture notes written by his students in a series of lectures that he gave from 1906 to 1911 and then gathered together in book form by two of his disciples who were linguists. Now it’s odd that this text does have the same formative function. Scholars who go to Geneva go for a variety of reasons when they look at the Saussure archive. Some of them are predisposed to dislike Saussure and to hope that they can somehow discredit him by learning more about things that he thought that aren’t actually in the text. Others like Saussure and feel that he needs to be rescued [laughs] from his compositors, and yet others go in an attitude of worship and hope that the archive will yield to them full confirmation of the integrity of the text we call the Course in General Linguistics; so that in a way, the study of the Saussure archive, given the volatile relationship of that archive with the actual text that we have, is a kind of map that, if one were to study it, one could associate with the history of thinking about literary theory in the twentieth century.

This is really all neither here nor there. I just find it interesting that two people who are incontestably [laughs] founders of discursivity in the field that we study are in fact not strictly speaking authors, [laughs] somehow or another confirming the insight of Foucault in the essay that we began by reading. Anyway, enough of that. We have to try to figure out what Saussure is up to. Let’s move on to begin to do so.

What is semiology? It’s the study of existing, conventional, communicative systems. All of these systems we can call “languages,” and “language”–that is to say, the words that we use when we speak to each other–is one of those systems. Other systems: the gestures that mimes use, semaphores, railroad semaphores and a stoplight–red, green, yellow–are all semiotic systems. In other words, all of them are modes of communication with which we function, the intelligibility of which allows us to negotiate the world around us. Semiotics has expanded into every imaginable aspect of thought. There is a Darwinian semiotics, understanding the relationships among species in semiotic terms. There is, in other words, a semiotics of virtually every imaginable thing understood as a language made up of a system of signs–signs we’ll be getting to in a minute–but in the meantime, it’s important to understand what semiology actually is. That’s what it is.

Oh, I meant to ask you. How many of you did not bring the passages that I sent to you by e-mail last night? All right. We have them here and they’ll be passed around. We have about twenty-five copies, so don’t take one if you don’t need it.

Chapter 2. “Langue” and “Parole,” “Signified” and “Signifier” [00:08:34]

I am going to be turning to the second passage on the sheet in which something about the nature of these systems, I think, can be made clear. “Language,” says Saussure, “is not a function of the speaker.” Here of course he is talking about human language. “It is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual.” Now what does this mean? The fact that human language is not my language–that is to say, the fact that it doesn’t originate in me, the fact that it’s not, in other words, my private language–suggests, of course, a certain loss because it means that when I speak, when I use language in speech, I’m using something that is not strictly my own. It’s conventional–that is to say, it belongs in the public sphere to all of us, and there’s perhaps a certain sort of Romantic loss in that. Wouldn’t it be nice if language in some sense were my own?

But the incredible gain which makes language something like the object of science that Saussure is hoping to secure–this is one of the things, obviously, that he has in common with the formalists–the incredible gain is that if language is not private, if it’s not my own, if it’s not something that I can make up as I go along, and if, in other words, it is conventional, belonging to all of us, then that’s precisely what allows it to be communicative. It is a system of signs, in other words, that we can make use of, that we recognize as signs precisely because they exist among us as something that can be shared in common. This then is the object of Saussure’s attention as a linguist and as a semiotician.

Now what’s implied in this idea is that language is something that we use. The best way to say it and the quickest way to say it is that I don’t speak language. Language as something that exists as an aggregate all at once, arguably–and this is something that’s going to come up again and again as we come back to these coordinates that we’ll be touching on from time to time today also–arguably, language as an aggregate is something virtual. You remember that Freud said we have to infer the unconscious from the erratic behavior of consciousness. There’s got to be something back there, so we’re going to call it “the unconscious” and we’re going to try to describe it. It is very much the same with language, or “langue” as Saussure calls it. What we do is speak, and when we speak, of course, we say correctly that we “use” language, but we still need to know what language is and we need to understand the relationship between language and speech.

Now we can understand language as a kind of aggregate of everything that’s in the lexicon, in the dictionary, together with everything that would be in some sort of ideal or utterly systematized set of rules of grammar and syntax, but there is no real aggregate of that kind. In other words, it exists, it’s there to be put together partly as a matter of experiment and partly as a matter of conjecture by the linguists; but as a composite thing existing in a spatial simultaneity, synchronically, language is something that in a very real sense, as is the case with Freud’s unconscious, we infer from speech. Now speech is what we do. Speech is the way in which we appropriate, deploy and make use of language, and Saussure calls that “parole.” Parole is the unfolding in time of a set of possibilities given in space, that set of possibilities being what Saussure calls “langue.”

Now language is a system of signs. What is a sign? Saussure’s famous diagrams make it clear enough. [Gestures to board.] We have above the line a concept and we have below the line a sound image. In other words, I think of something and that thinking of something corresponds to a sound image that I have ready to hand for it. That can be understood in terms of thinking of the concept “tree”–that’s why this is in quotation marks, I speak Latin–and knowing that the sound image correlative to the concept tree is “arbor,” right, I can think of [laughs] something like that [drawing of a tree], something in some way resembling that. By the same token–I still speak Latin–the sound image corresponding to it is “arbor.” I may or may not get back to this today, but in this question mark [on the board next to a sign diagram in which the signified tree is written over the signifier arbor, neither of them in quotation marks] is the secret of deconstruction, all right?– just [laughter] to keep you poised and on tenterhooks.

In the meantime, what Saussure is doing with this relationship above and below the line is, he is saying that there is anarbitrary relationship between the concept and the sound image. The concept he calls a “signified” and the sound image he calls a “signifier.” A sign, in other words, is made up of two sides in, as it were, a thought moment: a relationship between that which is signified and that which signifies it. It’s to be understood that we have to think of them together. They’re not divisible. Their relationship is necessary but, as we’ll see in a minute, arbitrary, and each sign is like that. The way in which we put signs together is to take these bundles, these binary relationships between a concept and a sound image, and adjust them in an unfolding sequence. That’s how we speak. That’s how we make a sentence.

All right. So in a way the idea that a signifier, a sound that I make, arbor, refers to a concept and by implication, by a very powerful and strong and necessary implication, not to a thing–is not in itself new. The idea that a word signifies an idea and not an object is already fully developed in John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding and is more or less commonly agreed on ever afterwards and is, as I say, in itself a conventional thought that Saussure adapts and makes use of. But what is new in Saussure and what really is foundational in semiotics as a science is two things that Saussure then goes on to say about the sign. The first thing he has to say is that the signified-signifier relationship, as I said, is arbitrary. And the second thing he has to say is that the way in which we know one sign from another–either studying language in the aggregate, whereby clusters of signs exist in associational relation to each other, or studying it in speech acts, in speech, whereby signs exist next to each other in a sequence–the way in which we understand what a sign means is differential. So that what’s new in Saussure’s thinking about the relationship between signified and signifier is that the sign tied up in this relationship is both arbitrary and differential.

Chapter 3. Positive and Negative Knowledge: Arbitrary and Differential [00:27:08]

Okay. This is a first walk through some essential ideas. I want to go back to the distinction between language and speech and refer you to the first passage which–now all of you have it–is on your sheet, because like the Russian formalists, Saussure is chiefly concerned in outlining what he means by “semiology” to establish the semiological project as a science. Like the Russian formalists–and in a way like the New Critics–talking about their “academic” colleagues, Saussure is vexed by the messiness and lack of system in the study of linguistics. This is what he says in this first passage. He says:

If we study speech from several viewpoints simultaneously, the object of linguistics appears to us as a confused mass of heterogeneous and unrelated things.

This is speech. [Gestures towards the horizontal axis of the coordinates on the board.] I’m a linguist and so what do I do? I study speech, I study speeches, and if I do so, and if I keep thinking about it in a variety of ways, all sorts of frameworks jostle for attention. Saussure continues:

This procedure opens the door to several sciences, psychology, anthropology, normative grammar, philology and so on which are distinct from linguistics but which claim speech in view of the faulty method of linguistics as one of their objects. As I see it, there is only one solution to all the foregoing difficulties. From the very outset [and this is [laughs] a really peculiar mixed metaphor] we must put both feet on the ground of language and use language as the norm of all the other manifestations of speech.

It’s as if he’s trying to hold language down. [laughs] “Stay there. Stay there.” We put both feet on the ground of language so that we have it intelligible to us as a system, as something that can be understood, precisely, differentially, that can be understood in the variety of ways in which language organizes signs.

It might be worth pausing over the variety of ways in which we can think of signs in language, all of which have to do with the way in which a given sign might be chosen to go into a speech sentence. Take the word “ship.” “Ship” is very closely related in sound to certain other words. We won’t specify them for fear of a Freudian slip, but that is one cluster. That is one associational matrix or network that one can think of in the arrangement of that sign in language, but there are also synonyms for “ship”: “bark, “boat,” “bateau,” a great many other synonyms–“sailboat,” whatever. They, too, exist in a cluster: “steamship,” “ocean liner,” in other words, words that don’t sound at all the same, but are contiguous in synonymity. They cluster in that way. And then furthermore “ship” is also the opposite of certain things, so that it would also enter into a relationship with “train,” “car,” “truck,” “mule,” modes of transportation, right? In all of these ways, “ship” is clustered associationally in language in ways that make it available to be chosen, available to be chosen as appropriate for a certain semantic context that we try to develop when we speak.

So that’s the way a sign works in language. This is the tip of the iceberg for any given sign. By the way, in what I’m saying, I oversimplify by supposing that the basic unit of language is a word. The linguists know that that’s not at all necessarily the case. Linguists can work at different levels of abstraction with language. Sometimes the basic unit is the phrase, but some other times the basic unit is the phoneme–that is to say, the single sound unit–or if one’s studying language as a system of writing it might be the syllable. It could be the letter understood either graphically or audibly, and the variety of ways in which one can choose a basic unit in the study of linguistics means that you need a special word for that unit, which is characteristically “the tagmeme.” In other words, whatever you are thinking of as your systematizing, your understanding, of language, and as the basic constituent unit–“the word” being probably one of the less popular choices, [laughs] even though that’s the one I’ve just used–the blanket term for that is “the tagmeme.” So you can understand the associational nature of signs also as tagmemic.

Then of course, since there is a certain amount of semantic payoff, let’s say, even when you’re talking about a phoneme–especially because, as Saussure will say, and as I’ll get back to, in the misleading onomatopoetic drift of language, perhaps a certain sound has certain connotations, meaning the sound may cluster in an associational network. But depending on the unit chosen, the associational networks will differ.

But at any level they will still exist as a matrix. In other words, how else could we have any sense of systematicity in language? It is always probably the case that when I speak I won’t choose just any word. e. e. cummings actually boldly experimented with this principle and he attracted the attention of the linguists, particularly a linguist named Dell Hymes. e. e. cummings wrote sentences like “He danced his did” where “did” is obviously not a word you would have supposed to be in any way involved in a relevant associational cluster. “He danced his did”: that is in every sense a misfire, as one school of thinking about language would call it, and yet at the same time, cummings thumbs his nose at us and deliberately uses that word almost as though he were issuing a critique of semiotics but at the same time such that semiotics would probably have available to it its ways and means of refutation. A certain amount of ingenuity is all that’s required to notice that the “d” sound or “duh” reiterates the “d,” the “duh” sound in “danced,” and that there are all sorts of combinatory pressures on his consciousness to choose “did” as opposed to some other seemingly irrelevant word.

So in any case, you can still, even with these egregious examples, understand language even in its infinite variety nevertheless as associational and as clustering its available signs in ways that make them more readily to hand for choice than they might be, all other things being equal. Well, in any case, so language is a system of signs. The signs are both arbitrary and differential.

Now what does this mean? This is actually the second thing, maybe, that we learn under the influence of what we call “literary theory” and the thinking that surrounds it about the nature of perception. If the sign is both arbitrary and differential–that is to say, if there is no such thing as a natural sign, something that is linked by nature, by the nature of the thing and the word together with the thing–if on one side of the border, as Saussure puts it, we look at a cow and say, “ochs,” and if on the other side of the border we look at a cow and say, “boeuf,” and if we cross a considerable body of water and we look at a cow and say “cow,” plainly the relationship between the thing and the sign–the matrix signifier, signified–just doesn’t exist. So signs are arbitrary– and they’re also differential. I have to be able to distinguish between all the signs I use in any communicative sequence. How do I do it? By putting in signs which are not other signs. The sign is not linked to the natural world by any natural means, and the sign is not linked to other signs by any natural means. I don’t know a unit of language– which I use to communicate with you– positively. I know it negatively. I know it only because it is not everything else. Its direct relationship with the thing that’s most closely adjacent to it somehow either through similarity or dissimilarity can never be a relationship of identity. It’s not that other thing, but, generally speaking, the point about a sign is that it’s not any other thing. This is true even in homonyms. This is true even of seemingly identical signs, because each has its use value and is only intelligible as that which it exists to mean in a certain context.

So it is always the case that I can only know what I know if it’s a question of being communicated with, having something rendered intelligible for me, negatively. I can’t know it because it just is that sign. I don’t know it positively. I’m about to give an example of this which I hope will flesh out what I’m trying to get across; in the meantime, let’s look at a couple of passages in Saussure that may make the point. Now not on the version of the sheet that I passed out today [laughs] but on the version that I sent electronically last night, there is a fifth passage, and that passage is actually a combination of formulations by Saussure that are in two separate parts of your text. The first one is on page 844. Can this possibly be correct? I [laughs] hope it can. No, it is not correct. It’s page 845, the lower left-hand column where Saussure says:

Language is a system of interdependent terms in which the value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence of the others as in the diagram, [just below it]…

In other words, the value of a term–I say something, I utter a sound–the value of that sound cannot be determined except by its context. I can’t know it except by the way in which it differs from everything that surrounds it.

He goes on to say–this is on page 847 about halfway down the left-hand column:

… [A] segment of language can never in the final analysis be based on anything except its noncoincidence with the rest. Arbitrary and differential are two correlative qualities.

And then again another passage on page 846, the right-hand column halfway down: “… [C]oncepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with other terms of the system.” Now probably this is hard to accept intuitively. We feel as we process the world around us that we know things for and as what they are. I look at something and I know what it is, forgetting that possibly I only know what it is because of a context in which indeed it is not those other things that are linked to it.

Chapter 4. Example: the Red Stoplight [00:33:11]

Now I want to take an example. I could use any example but I’m going to use something which plainly does move around among various semiotic systems. It’s a piece of language but it also belongs to other sorts of semiotic systems as we’ll immediately see. I want to use the example of the red light. Now in a stoplight, which is probably just about the simplest semiotic system that we have–it only has three, one is tempted to say, variables plainly differing from each other: red, yellow and green–we have two ways of thinking about the red light. If we think that our knowledge is positive, we say “red” in a red light means stop. It comes spontaneously to us to say “red light” means “stop.”

Now if all we have to go on is just this semiotic system, it’s going to be kind of hard to put up resistance to that sort of thinking because by the same token we’ll say “yellow” means “pause,” “green” means “go.” These three lights with their respective colors just do positively mean these things. Everybody knows it, and I’m certainly not thinking when I approach an intersection that when the red light goes on–I’m not saying to myself, “Oh, not yellow, not green.” [laughter] My mind just doesn’t work that way. All right, but still it’s a red light, right, and our hypothesis is that the red light has positive value in the sense that it means a certain thing. It means, we say, “stop.” Well, suppose the red light appeared on or as the nose of a reindeer. In that case the red light would be a beacon which means “forward,” “go,” “follow me,” “damn the torpedoes.” Right? [laughs] We’ve got to get these presents distributed. No time to waste. And we race off–perhaps risking an accident, who knows? [laughs] –we race off under the compulsion of the meaning of the red light, which is “go,” right?

Now by the way, there’s an anecdote, the truth of which I’ve never been able to ascertain, that during the cultural revolution in China, Madame Mao very much disapproved of the fact that red lights meant “stop” because red is, of course, the color of progress. It ought to mean “to go forward” with everything behind it, but needless to say her thoughts on the subject were never implemented because [laughs] if one day red light means “stop” and the next day red light means “go,” there might be a few problems. This, by the way, is a way of showing the fact that everything which appears in a semiotic system is conventional, right? I mean, there is an emptying out of positive meaning in the very awareness that, after all, the red light could mean “go”–I’m about to go on and give more examples. It’s conventional. Whatever the convention is within a system of differences, that’s what makes the sign intelligible.

All right. Just some other examples: a red light over a street door. Well, that doesn’t mean “stop.” That means “go in,” “come in,” right? And of course it exists in a semiotic relationship to a white light over a street door which means “this is my house; if you wish you can ring the bell but I’d just as soon you stayed out.” This light is probably on to keep burglars away and so: “stop,” right? The red light is intelligible, in other words, within that semiotic system. Now over an auditorium door–and of course we’ve already been gazing at that light back there, and it’s not a good example. I wish it didn’t say “exit,” but it does say “exit,” because that kind of weakens my point, but over many auditorium doors a red light just hangs there. Obviously, it doesn’t mean “come in” in the sense of the red light over a street door. It means “go out,” right? “This is the way out. This is the way you get out of here,” not “This is the way you get in here.” There are a lot of ways in which a red light means neither “stop” nor “go,” but we are sort of confining ourselves so far to the ways in which a red light has something to do with locomotion or the lack thereof. In each new system, you can see it takes on a new meaning always with respect to whatever it is not.

Well, we can continue. On a light-up valentine it means “don’t stop, go.” It has the function, in other words, of negating its own meaning in another semiotic system, in this case the semiotic system of the stoplight. On an ambulance or a police car–admittedly, many of these lights are blue these days but let’s suppose that, tradition prevailing, that they are still red–they mean “get out of the way” or “stop,” right? In other words, they probably bear a distant relation to the semiotics of the stoplight, and that’s probably why red was chosen for ambulances and police cars: because they put into your head the notion of “stop.” But it’s a notion that’s complicated in this case by the equally imperative notion “get out of the way,” which doesn’t at all necessarily entail stopping but rather accelerating in a different direction.

All of that somewhat complicates the picture, but at the same time, I think you can see that there is a connection between those semiotic systems. It’s a weak system in terms of color. In the case of the ambulance and police car, it’s more a question of brightness. As I say, red tends to be chosen, but then if you get lab experiments showing that that particular color of gas blue is somehow or another sort of more invasive of your consciousness than red is, then you move away from the arbitrariness of the choice of red as a color. As I say, there’s a certain instability which could never apply in the semiotics of the stoplight because there it’s not so much a question of the brightness of the color–although that has been experimented with, as you know–but rather the insistence that the color is just that color.

Then finally–and here is where, in a way, this is perhaps the most interesting thing because it forces us to show the complexity, to see the complexity, of semiotic relationships: a red light, just to return to the Christian holiday, a red light on a Christmas tree. Now our first thought is, Oh, aha, that has no meaning, right? It’s no use talking about the negative relationship between a red light and a green light and a yellow, white, or blue one–whatever the other colors on the Christmas tree are–because they all have the same value. They’re all bright, they’re all cheerful, they all say “Merry Christmas,” etc., etc., etc. So what are you supposed to do with that? Here you’ve got a red light which doesn’t seem to enter into this sense of the arbitrary and differential.

Well, that’s because it’s actually not a gross constituent unit in a semiotic system, right? “Bright lights” is the gross constituent unit and the variety of those bright lights, which is a matter of aesthetics, is, ironically enough, neutralized by the common signifier governing our understanding of them, which is “bright lights”–in this case, particularly on a tree or festooning another ornament that has some sort of comparable value. Once you get that, once you get the value, “Christmas tree,” as opposed to “red lights,” “red lights” being perhaps a part of some Christmas trees, then you see that you’re back in a semiotic system and a very obvious one, because a Christmas tree is a not-menorah, not-Kwanzaa candles. A Christmas tree, in other words, is a sign that can only be understood intelligibly in terms of a certain cultural understanding. We think of course, oh, we know what that is, and of course probably we do, but we’re misled in supposing that that’s the key to the understanding of it as a sign, because it’s very possible to imagine a circumstance in which someone wouldn’t know what it was, forcing us despite its familiarity to ask ourselves, “Well, what is it and how do we know what it is?” Then we realize once again that we can only know what it is if we come to understand–in this case, probably, it’s best to say a cultural system, understood as a semiosis, within which it appears.

So this last version of the red light introduces interesting complications which I don’t think should confuse us. I think they should actually show us a little bit more about how we can understand the organization of the things around us and within us as systems of signs. We know that we’ve already learned from Heidegger and the hermeneutic tradition that we know them as something, but it remained to show how we know them. That is to say, we don’t know them positively. I mean, Heidegger raises the interesting fact that we spontaneously recognize something. But that’s one of the things which could be dangerous for semiotics because it would make us think or assume that we know things positively–without thinking, in other words, “I know that that’s an exit sign, I don’t know that it’s a white thing with red marks on it, but I know that it’s an exit sign”; but I can’t know that, the Saussurian argument goes, without knowing that it is not all the things that it’s not. If it were all the things that it’s not, or if it were identical to all the things that somehow or another it’s not, then I would be in a very difficult situation because I wouldn’t have any means of knowing it in particular. The very fact that I need to know it in particular is what makes me need to know it negatively. In other words, we now know two things about how we perceive things from the standpoint of this subject matter, and it’s very useful to put them together, the fact that we always know things first–before we “just have them there before us”– but at the same time the fact that it’s misleading to think that our knowing them first means that we know them positively; we know them first but we also know them negatively, in negation of other things.

Chapter 5. Synchrony and Diachrony [00:45:55]

Okay. So let me just return once again to the way in which sign systems are intelligible because lots of- there are going to be lots of moments in a course like this in which what we seem to be saying is that, “Oh, we can’t know anything,” or “We don’t know what we know,” or “How do we know what we know?” Maybe we’re skirting rhetorical questions of that kind, but we’re really not. What we’re talking about today is how we do know things. Right? If we take semiotics seriously, it gives us a rather sophisticated means of understanding precisely how we know things, but it insists that we know things because of their conventional nature: that is to say, because they are conventions existing within a system of conventions insofar as we recognize them–things, signs–as existing, because if we’re thinking about a thing, we’re thinking about that thing as a sign in semiotics. If we don’t know that, if we don’t recognize its existence in a system–if we can’t think what system it belongs to, perhaps to put it in a better way–that’s tantamount to saying we really don’t know what it is. I think the more we think about it, the more we realize that we only know what it is if we know the system that it belongs to, which is to say, all of the things related to it which it is not. Right?

Okay. So the intelligibility of sign systems is their conventionality. That’s why it’s impossible for anybody to come along and say, “Oh, I don’t like the fact that the red light is red. It’s symbolically the wrong move. Let’s make the red light the symbol of ‘go.’” And now with the ecological movement it would be very difficult to make the green light the symbol of “stop,” and in any case all sorts of complications would arise. [laughs] Right? But in the meantime you see that we can’t mess with conventional systems by imposing the individuality of our will on them and expecting anything to change. A seeming exception is the fact that sometimes individuals can, through the exertion of their influence and prestige, actually change the way we speak about things. This is a seeming exception. Think about the way Jesse Jackson almost single-handedly convinced us that we should use the expression “African American” even though it’s a cumbersome, polysyllabic expression which you would think somehow or another would be intuitively rejected because it’s so hard to say, but it worked. He convinced us all to say “African American.” You say to yourself, “Ah ha! There is an example of somebody taking language by the scruff of the neck and changing it as an individual, exerting an individual will over against the conventional nature of language.”

The semiotician’s answer to this is it never could have happened simply as an act of agency, as an act of will. It had to be acquiesced in. You needed the community that makes use of linguistic conventions to acquiesce in a change of use. Remember, language exists synchronically: it only exists in a moment, in a moment of simultaneity. We study language diachronically–that is to say, we study its history. We study its unfolding in time. Now this unfolding is not, according to the semioticians–and here’s another link with the Russian formalists–is not a question of studying the way in which language is changed from without–that is to say, studying the way in which, for example, an individual can rise up and insist on changing one of the signs; but rather a sequence of synchronic cross-sections. From moment to moment, language changes, but if we’re to understand it as language we have to honor its simultaneity. In that case, we understand it as a sequence of cross-sections rather than something that somehow organically changes through time. At each cross-section, people are either willing to use a certain sign in a certain way or they’re not. That’s the crucial thing: if they’re not willing, the use of the sign doesn’t work, which confirms the idea that nothing can be changed simply by individual agency in and of itself.

All right. I need to come back to synchrony and diachrony. I’ll do so next time and probably in subsequent lectures because we’re going to keep using these coordinates. We’re going to keep using the things that exist in space, virtual or not, and the things that unfold in time in their relationship with each other as we continue to try to understand these basic principles which shape so much of subsequent literary theory. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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