ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature

Lecture 9

 - Linguistics and Literature


In this lecture on the work of Roman Jakobson, Professor Paul Fry continues his discussion of synchrony and diachrony. The relationships among formalism, semiotics, and linguistics are explored. Claude Levi-Strauss’s structural interpretation of the Oedipus myth is discussed in some detail. In order to differentiate Jakobson’s poetic functions, Professor Fry analyzes the sentence “It is raining” from six perspectives. Significant attention is paid to the use of diagrams in literary linguistic theory.

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Introduction to Theory of Literature

ENGL 300 - Lecture 9 - Linguistics and Literature

Chapter 1. Synchrony and Diachrony [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Fry: Last time I lectured under the illusion that–I really should get in the habit of looking at the syllabus–that all you had been assigned for Thursday’s lecture was the Saussure. Lo and behold, I did take a glance at the syllabus over the weekend and realized that you’d also been assigned the Levi-Strauss, so we have a little bit of ground to cover today. I think we can do it. I think I want to reserve something like a critique of structuralism for the beginning of Thursday’s lecture, because it segues very nicely into what we’ll have to say about Derrida. I already promised that somehow or another the critique of structuralism just was deconstruction. I hope to be able to demonstrate that on Thursday; but I do want to get up to the point of launching a critique of structuralism on two or three grounds, and so I hope to be able to move along fairly quickly today.

Now another thing that got left out, even given the proviso that it was only about Saussure on Thursday, was an adequate account of the relationship between synchrony and diachrony and the pivotal importance of this concept, not only for semiotics but for its aftermath in structuralism, and also for its relation to the Russian formalists; because you remember that in talking about function, the formalists who undertook to think about literary history and the problems of literary historiography were very much engaged in the notion that a function in a given text could be understood in two different ways. There was the syn-function, which was the relationship between that function and all of the other functions in the text–in other words, viewed as an aspect of that text, but there was also of the same function its auto-function, which is the way in which it persists and recurs throughout the history of literature sometimes as the dominant, sometimes latent or recessive, but always in one form or another there.

Now in Saussurian linguistics, the relationship between synchrony and diachrony is very much the same. To consider language in toto is to consider it at a given moment synchronically. That is to say, you don’t think of language as a system if at the same time you’re thinking of it unfolding historically. Jakobson, you will notice, introduces an element of time into the synchronic analysis of a semiotic system by saying that you’ve got to take account both of archaic and innovative features, but nevertheless they are simply flagged as archaic or innovative and not understood as changing in time as long as they are read or analyzed synchronically. But at the same token, a system does change through time. A semiotic system, language, the history of literature, the history of poetics–whatever it might be, changes through time, and to analyze that change through time you think of it diachronically.

Now Saussure argues that the relationship among the parts of something viewed synchronically–a semiotic system, let’s say–are not necessary in the sense that they might be any number of other relationships, but they are nevertheless fixed. That is to say, they are what’s there and they can’t be other than what they are, whereas through time, if you’re studying a semiotic system or studying language or whatever it might be, change takes place and it’s necessary. You’re looking back on it and it simply did happen, [laughs] so change is determinant in some sense. But at the same time, it’s not regular. This, by the way, is a challenge to certain ideas in traditional linguistics like, for example, the one you probably all know: the great vowel shift. A structuralist’s view of language has to argue that the great vowel shift, in which every vowel sound goes up a notch in some mysterious period between the medieval and the early modern, that this only has the appearance of regularity but that it is actually a diachronic phenomenon that can’t be understood in terms of regularity. So the relationship between synchronic and diachronic is of that kind.

Now matters are complicated a little bit on those occasions in your reading when people are talking about the way in which a mass of material–a system of language or other semiotic system, let’s say–is inferred from existing data: in other words, the way in which I infer language, langue, from a sentence, parole–I’m actually concealing from you that in fact Saussure uses a third term, langage, to talk about the sum of all sentences, but we won’t get into that–the way in which language is inferred from parole. Now language, in other words, is viewed as something in space, that is to say–or as Levi-Strauss calls it, “revertible time,” meaning you can go backward and forward within it, but the temporal unfolding is not the important thing about it. So in space, whereas parole, speech, unfolds in time so that parole, because it is temporal–because any speech any of us makes is in a certain sense historical, [laughs> because the beginning of the sentence is earlier in history than the end of the sentence–for that reason, there’s a relationship between diachrony and the unfolding of parole, or of a sentence or of an utterance which is parallel, though at the same time admittedly confusing. One doesn’t really want to talk about a sentence as diachronic, but at the same time it does exist on that horizontal axis in which things in a combinatory way unfold in time.

Chapter 2. The Emergence of Structuralism [00:06:47]

All right. So much then for synchrony and diachrony, something we can’t get away from. It’s in a way the central fact of structuralism but which I don’t think I did adequate justice to at the end of the last lecture. Now structuralism. There was an incredible aura about structuralism in the 1960s. It crashed on the shores of the United States coming in from France in a way that stunned, amazed, and transformed people’s lives. People like Kant reading Hume woke up from their dogmatic slumbers or, at least, that they felt that that’s what they were doing when encountering structuralism. I think to me it happened when I was a graduate student at Harvard and absolutely nobody else was paying any attention to it at all. At Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Cornell people were paying attention to it, but at Harvard I was initiated to structuralism by a bright undergraduate who seemed to be the only [laughs] person in Cambridge who knew anything about structuralism. Boy, did he know about structuralism, and he got me up to speed as quickly as he could; but it was a phenomenon that was transformative intellectually for people in the academic, and beyond the academic, world all over the country. Of course it led, in all sorts of ways, to most of what’s been going on in theory ever since.

The amazing thing about it is that as a flourishing and undisputed French contribution to literary theory, it lasted two years because in 1966 at a famous conference, Jacques Derrida, whom we’ll be reading on Thursday, blew it out of the water. I’ll come back to that. At the same time, to say that it really only lasted two years simply isn’t fair. The lasting contribution of structuralism as it’s indebted to semiotics, but on its own terms as well, is something one still feels and senses throughout literary theory. The concrete contributions, not all between 1964 when the first structuralist texts were translated in this country and 1966 when the conference in Baltimore took place, but the lasting concrete contributions are also terribly important. There’s a wonderful book called On Racine by Roland Barthes. Those of you interested in French neoclassical theater cannot imagine, if you haven’t read it already, reading a more bracing book. There is an essay on Baudelaire, “Les Chats,” or “The Cats,” written conjointly by Levi-Strauss and Jakobson, an extraordinary performance which was the model of a good deal else that was done in the academy during that period. The anthropologist Edmund Leach wrote a structuralist analysis of Genesis in the Bible. Indeed, it’s no accident that he writes about Genesis, as I will indicate in a minute.

Then subsequently, and in addition to all of that, probably the most lasting and rich contributions of the structuralists were in the field that we know as narratology. We’ll be taking a look at that when we read Peter Brooks’ text in conjunction with Freud a couple of weeks from now, but in the meantime the key texts in narratology are, again, by Roland Barthes in a long, long essay called “The Structural Analysis of Narrative” in which he approaches a James Bond novel as a system of binary pairs and unpacks a deep structure in the novel as a result of this binary analysis; important books by Tzvetan Todorov, crucial among them The Grammar of The Decameron; and then a good deal of work published in a series of books called Figures by Gérard Genette, whom you will find quoted repeatedly in the work of Paul de Man that you’ll be reading for next Tuesday. All of this work and a great deal else in the theory of narrative, narratology, is directly indebted to, or is actually an aspect of, structuralist thought.

Chapter 3. The Relationship Between Formalism and Semiotics [00:11:24]

Now I promised that I would talk a little bit about the relationship between formalism and semiotics as it clarifies itself in the work of writers like Levi-Strauss and, in particular, Jakobson. Structuralism takes from formalism, as you can see from Jakobson’s analysis, the idea of function. Jakobson is originally, of course, himself a member of the school of Russian formalists. He eventually immigrates to Prague, where he is in a circle of people who are already calling themselves structuralists, and moves from there to Paris and then to the United States. So Jakobson, of course, is the one figure who definitely harkens back to both worlds, having been a formalist and having become a structuralist. One can see the amalgam of these two sets of ideas in his work.

From formalism then, you get the idea of function and the relationship between syn-function and auto-function, which becomes the relationship between synchrony and diachrony. From semiotics you get the idea of negative knowledge–that is to say, in Levi-Strauss’ analysis of the Oedipus myth, for example, the notion that there is no true version, there’s no originary version, and there’s no sort of positive version of the myth of which everything else is a version. You simply know what you know as it is differentiated from the other things that you know–one of the essential premises of semiotics, which is essential, at the same time, in structuralism, because here’s where structuralism can be understood as an entity in itself. Unlike formalism, structuralism has an ambition with respect to the object, to the nature of the object, which is quite new.

I think that the best way to epitomize that is to turn to an aphorism of Roland Barthes’ in the essay “The Structuralist Activity,” on page 871 toward the bottom of the right-hand column, where Barthes says, “Structural man takes the real, decomposes it, then recomposes it…” This is the moment in which you can see the radical difference between what structuralism is doing and what formalism is doing. Formalism takes the object and it doesn’t decompose it. It sees the object as it is; it just breaks it down into its respective functions, showing them dynamically in relationship with each other and as a system of dominance and subordination, all of it understood as the way in which something is made, the way in which it is put together–but there’s no question of anything other than the object. Gogol’s “Overcoat,” Cervantes’Don Quixote, Sterne’s Tristam Shandy: these are objects, and there’s no question of somehow or another creating a virtual object, for example “the novel,” out of one’s remarks about individual texts. In a way, though, that’s what, as you can see again from Levi-Strauss’ analysis of the Oedipus myth, structuralism is doing.

As Barthes says, “Structural man takes the real, decomposes it, then recomposes it…” What he means by that is that you take a bunch of variants or versions, you take a bunch of data–not necessarily all the data, but a representative amount of the data relevant to any given idea or concept–and then you say, and this is where he gets into the idea of gross constituent units: “What are the basic constituent units of all of these items of data? Oh, yeah. I see we can put them into a pattern.” We’ll work on this a little bit in a minute. “Yeah, I see how this is working. As a matter of fact, there is a kind of virtual object that I can begin to observe as I organize the data that I garner from all the individual entities or versions that fall under this umbrella.” That’s the recomposition not of any particular object, but of a kind of virtual object which begins to emerge from one’s analysis: in the case of Levi-Strauss’ text, the meaning of the Oedipus myth. That’s the virtual object that structuralist analysis arrives at by arranging, analyzing and classifying the data that it can get from all of the available versions of the Oedipus myth. So structuralism decomposes but not just for the sake of seeing how something works, like taking apart the parts of an engine, but rather in order to lend the parts to an analysis of a body of materials that makes it possible to recompose all of those parts in a new virtual object. That’s what’s going on in what Barthes calls “the structuralist activity.”

Chapter 4. Levi-Strauss and the Meaning of the Oedipus Myth [00:27:33]

So quickly let’s take a look at the Levi-Strauss chart, if you want to call it that, of the Oedipus myth which is on page 864 in your text and just say a word or two about it. He takes a lot of versions. Let’s not trouble ourselves with how many. He doesn’t have nearly as many versions by the way as he would have if he were studying a North American Indian myth or the sorts of myths that he did study in a variety of versions as an anthropologist, but he has some versions–one of them, by the way, Freud’s version, one of them Sophocles’ version, and a variety of versions besides those. He says, “Hmm, as you look at these various versions [gestures towards graph on chalkboard], you can see that certain things are basically happening, and they fall into certain discrete categories. We can put them in columns–that is to say, in terms of the way in which they share a common theme, but we can also put those columns in a row so that we can analyze the way in which the columns relate to each other.” For example, there’s a group of events, happenstances, sort of naming accidents and so on, that falls into a column called “over-determination of blood relations.” That is to say, when Antigone tries to bury her brother and goes to the wall for that, in ways that you might find excessive, that’s an over-determination of blood relations.

Then you notice that at the same time, there’s a series of actions in the myth–going all the way back to Oedipus’ family history and then down through the history of his offspring and so on–a series of actions which have to do with the undervaluation of blood relations. People, well, they don’t really seem to care as much about blood relations as they should, and as a result of that, bad things happen, too. Then there’s a column of issues which have to do with the way in which recurrently, in all of the versions of the myth, there seems to be a strange preoccupation with that which is born from the earth: monsters, the teeth of monsters that are scattered and become the alphabet in the story of Cadmos, and the variety of ways in which heroes have to confront monsters as Oedipus confronts the sphinx. All of these monsters are understood as not being born from parents, or as being born from two things, but instead as emerging from the earth. They are thonic, or “autochthonous” in Levi-Strauss’ word.

There seems to be a strange preoccupation with autochthony in this myth, but this is offset by the way in which–that is to say, with fending off autochthony, as if the crucial thing were to insist on the binary parental relationship that produces us, to be reassured in our humanity by the idea that one of us is born from two. But then on the other hand, there are all kinds of things in the myth which are also preoccupied with autochthony in precisely the opposite way. Lambda, the letter that begins so many of the names of the figures in Oedipus’ genealogy–Labdacus, Laius and so on–lambda looks like a limping person, right? Oedipus means “swell foot,” “one who limps.” What emerges in the fourth column is the idea that there are signs of autochthony in our own makeup. The reason we limp is that we have a foot of clay, that something of the earth from which we were born sticks to us, and this is a recurrent pattern, a recurrent idea, in the unfolding of the Oedipus myth. It’s a peculiar thing, but notice that this is one of those occasions on which the myth explodes into other cultures. Adam means “red clay.” Adam is born from the earth in the sense that red clay is taken from the earth and he is created, and there seems to be this same preoccupation with autochthony in the Oedipus myth as well, one of the interesting links of that myth with the Christian myth of the origin of man.

So you’ve got four columns: over-evaluation of blood relations, under-evaluation of blood relations, denial of autochthony, and persistence of autochthony. I’m going to leave it at that for now because we’ll come back later to see what interesting thing is going on in the way in which these four columns, all about two versus one: that is to say, whether or not we are born from two or born from one. I want to come back to that in the context of showing that in a certain way, the question of whether things–ideas, for example–come from two, two different things, or whether ideas come from one object, is after all this question is itself an allegory of the structuralist activity. That’s what structuralism itself is about. That’s what makes it so interesting and even perhaps peculiar that Levi-Strauss is able to find not just any thought in a myth but the very thinking that he himself is doing about the myth. That, of course, may have something to do with your sense that surely decomposing in order to recompose, creating a virtual systemic object–notice that I have made this a dotted line [gestures towards chalkboard]–that there is a kind of a circularity in that. I hope I have explained Levi-Strauss’ four columns intelligibly, but if you look at those [laughs] four columns you say to yourself, “How on earth did he come up with that?” He himself says, “Oh, well, maybe I could have done it some other way,” and you say to yourself, “How can this become decisive? How can it become authoritative?” Right?

You can see what he’s doing–and by the way you can confirm it by thinking of things that he leaves out. Jocasta hangs herself, but he doesn’t mention that. It’s not in any of the four columns, but obviously that has something to do–you can take your choice–either between the over-determination or under-determination of blood relations. She feels guilty because she committed incest, right? Oedipus at his birth is hamstrung and exposed on Mount Cithaeron. Levi-Strauss doesn’t mention that either, but obviously that’s why Oedipus limps. Oedipus is a limping person like the letter lambda, right? So plainly that must have something to do with the persistence of autochthony. Finally, if you read Oedipus at Colonus, at the end of it Oedipus, when he dies, is swallowed up by the earth; “dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return.” The equivalent of this in the Oedipus myth is that “where I came from [the earth] is where I will go.” He becomes a kind of genius of the place at Colonus. As a result of having been swallowed up there, he becomes a kind of presiding spirit or genius of the place. So all of those things which we ourselves thought of–he didn’t think of them and he didn’t put them in his diagram–can, however, be put in his diagram. If that’s the case, we have to say to ourselves, “There might be something in this. Maybe this is a plausible and interesting way of arranging these materials.” So I really do think that ought to be said in defense of what may seem, however, to be a somewhat arbitrary exercise.

Chapter 5. The Poetic Function [00:26:19]

Now turning to Jakobson, you may say with all this emphasis I’ve been throwing on “decomposing in order to recompose” that you don’t see that going on in what Jakobson is saying. You may say to yourself, “Well, he seems to be just doing formalism. He breaks any speech act into six functions. He talks about the inter-determinacy of those six functions with a certain result. That sounds just like formalism,” you say. Well, one way to show the way in which what Jakobson is doing is structuralist is to say that after all in this essay–there’s a lot more of the essay, by the way, which your editor doesn’t give you. It’s mostly about versification, which is the long-standing specialty of Jakobson’s work: Russian versification, Czech versification and so on, a little technical, but it is all about the poetic function. After all, this essay is about the poetic function, what the formalists would call literariness.

But Jakobson has a real contribution to make to this notion of the poetic function, and what it is is basically this: the poetic function–and I’m going to quote this for the first time. It’s on page 858 in the left-hand column and it’s a mouthful. “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” Now you understand. “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” What is the principle of equivalence? If you’ve got that, you’ve got a good deal of it. The principle of equivalence can be understood as what Jakobson in the “aphasia” essay calls “metaphor,” that is to say the way in which–you remember last time I talked about how signs cluster in the vertical axis [gestures towards chalkboard], and if we understand language as a system, there are some signs that relate to other signs in ways that they probably don’t relate to yet other signs. Then I had an incredible lapse of memory. I couldn’t remember a synonym for “ship,” but I hope that I got my point across to you and indicated that there are varieties of ways in which any given sign clusters with other signs. Those ways of clustering are what Jakobson calls “the principle of equivalence.”

What is it? Well, it’s the way in which signs either are similar to each other or are dissimilar to each other. If that sounds too vague, maybe it’s better not to use language of difference or similarity but actually to use language of opposition: in other words, the way in which signs are virtually synonymous, or the way in which signs are really and truly opposed to each other. Obviously, it stretches just as in versification. You don’t just have full rhyme; you have slant rhyme. These relationships stretch in varieties of ways of this kind, but the principle of equivalence is the way in which signs understood as phonemes, lexemes, tagmemes–how ever you want to understand them–the way in which signs are similar or dissimilar. The readiness with which we combine signs of that kind is what a person attending to the poetic function looks for. If the utterance seems to involve a predominance of equivalences of various kinds, then this utterance, which is unfolding on the axis of combination, right [gestures towards chalkboard], is the result of having projected that principle of equivalence–call it metaphor, call it a principle of similarity or dissimilarity–from the axis of selection; that is to say, that axis, perhaps a virtual one, in which language is a system to the axis of combination, that real axis–because nobody doubts the existence of speech–that real axis in which language is not a system but has become speech unfolding in time.

The principle of the poetic function, however, can be understood then as the metaphorization of what is otherwise metonymic. In other words, if I put together a sentence, what I’m doing is I’m putting words next to each other, and that’s what metonymy is. Metonymy is a selection of signs, if you will, that go appropriately next to each other according to the rules of grammar and syntax and according to the rules of logic, right; but also perhaps in the ways in which the rhetorical device of metonymy can be understood. If I say “hut” instead of “house”–I’m using an example actually taken from Jakobson’s “aphasia” essay–and if I say, “The hut is small,” there is a metonymic relationship implied with houses, shacks, mansions, and other sorts of edifice, but which can only really be resolved, perhaps, by the unfolding of the logic of the sentence as in when I say, “The hut is small.” So combinatory processes–borrowing the rhetorical term “metonymy” as “that which is next to each other”–are basically metonymic. The available signs to be selected, on the other hand, on the axis of selection are selected for certain purposes if they are metaphoric. Obviously, if I’m just making a sentence, I’m not selecting signs because they’re metaphoric. I select them because they go easily next to each other, either for reasons of grammar or syntax or logic.

Chapter 6. Jacobson’s Six Functions [00:32:49]

Now let’s look at Jakobson’s six functions [gestures towards board] taken all together. I think this is by no means difficult, and I think that Jakobson’s analysis of the six functions is just absolutely, totally brilliant. In fact, I’m so profoundly convinced by what Jakobson says about these six functions that I really think there isn’t much [laughs] else to say about an utterance. Obviously in different registers there’s lots to say, but in the spirit of Jakobsonian analysis there’s no possible complaint you can make about this except possibly one, which I probably won’t get to until next time. In the meantime, it’s just staggeringly effective.

Let me use the example of an expression which is surely as uninteresting–I’ve groped as much as I could to find the most uninteresting possible expression to show the way in which any utterance whatsoever entails these six functions: “It is raining.” Oh, boy, “Excitement rains,” as they say. In any case, let’s say that I am an addresser–that is to say, I’m a Romantic poet. I say–probably ill advisedly if I’m a poet, but I’m a Romantic poet–I say, sort of waking everybody up when I say it, “It is raining.” All right. What do I mean [laughs] if I’m a Romantic poet? What I mean to say is “I’m singing in the rain” or “It’s raining in my heart.” In other words, I’m expressing something emotional in saying “It is raining,” so that sense of the expression “It is raining” is what Jakobson calls the emotive function.

Now I’m being addressed. The thrust of the message is toward the addressee. It’s being spoken by an addresser, but it’s aimed at an addressee. That addressee is a small child going out the door without his coat on, and his mother or father says, “It is raining,” right, which means–of course as a conative function, as a command, as something which has a design on the addressee–what it means is “Put your coat on.” But you don’t necessarily say, “Put your coat on.” You say, “It is raining,” and that’s the conative function. That’s what Jakobson calls “the set to the addressee”: that is to say, the basic dominant bearing that the message has, the “set,” is a set to the addressee.

Now there’s a context for any utterance. This much I suppose none of us would think to disagree with: I’m a weatherman, I’m a meteorologist, right? I don’t even have to look out the window. I look at my charts and I announce confidently through the microphone, “It is raining.” Right? Everybody takes me seriously. The referential function of “It is raining” is supposed to convey information. I’m a weatherman, and I’m supposed to know what I’m talking about. So if a weatherman tells me “It is raining,” I believe that it is raining. I put my hand out the door and, sure enough, it is raining, and the referential function–the dominant in the expression “It is raining” as referential function–has been confirmed. I don’t expect the weatherman to be telling me somehow secretly that he’s crying when he says “It is raining,” right? [laughter] Right? I expect him to tell me the truth about the weather, right, and that’s what I’m listening to him for.

All right. Now “the set to the contact.” Jakobson gives you those wonderful examples from Dorothy Parker’s representation of a date: “Oh, boy. Well, here we are, yeah, here we are, [laughs] yeah, we sure are here,” and so on, right–in other words, in a state of abject and acute nervousness filling the air with words, right, so that you’re on a date, right, and you can’t think of anything to say. [laughs] I really feel sorry for you. [laughs] [laughter] You’re on a date and you can’t think of anything to say so you say, “It is raining,” and of course your interlocutor says, “Yeah, it’s raining,” and you say, “It’s raining hard,” and she says, “Well, yeah. Maybe it’ll stop soon.” So the conversation continues, and that’s phatic function–checking to make sure the contact is working: “testing one, two, three; can you hear me?” That’s what the set to the contact is: anything that confirms that you’re actually sort of in communication with somebody, and anything we can say has that component. I mean, if I’m a physicist and I’m going out on a date with another physicist, I say, “E equals MC squared.” Only I’m not saying “E equals MC squared”; I’m filling the air with words. So once again, it’s the set to the contact, and any message in the right context has that function. The set to the code is when we’re not sure that we adequately share the code with another person on a given occasion so that we back away from simply saying things to make sure that what we’re saying is clear, in other words to define them. I say, “There’s a mare in the field.” Somebody says, “What is a mare?” “Well, it’s a female horse.” “Well, it’s a female horse” is the metalingual function.

But we’re talking about “It is raining.” This is where it really gets interesting. [laughs] The most interesting thing about “It is raining” in terms of these six functions is metalingual, because what on earth is “it”? Right? Somebody tells me “It is raining.” I say, “What? What are you talking about? What is ‘it’? I have absolutely no idea what you’re saying.” I’ve noticed that other languages have this same weird phenomenon” “Il pleut,” “Es regnet.” What on earth does any of that mean? What is “il”? What is “es”? What is “it”? Is it God? Is it Jupiter Pluvius? Is it the cloud canopy? Well, it sort of is the cloud canopy, but that’s sort of clearly not what’s meant by “it,” right? “It” is a kind of grammatical and syntactical anomaly which is extremely difficult even for linguists to analyze and to explain; so that when I try to say, “It is raining,” I can expect, if I am talking to a literalist, of course, the metalingual function to kick in and, in fact, bite me in the shin. It’s no picnic with the metalingual function in mind saying, “It is raining.” What kind of a definition of “it” is “It’s raining?” [laughs]

So problems arise but they’re interesting problems, and they are a function, one of the six functions, of the expression “It is raining.” Poetic function is unfortunately not very interesting. That’s the one drawback of this example, but there’s still plenty to say: “ih-ih” and the “ih” in raining, which one can hear–the double “ih” in raining, the monosyllables suggesting a kind of a quick declaration of something followed by a sense of duration that one always feels when one is aware of rain coming: that “It is rainnnnnnning,” so that the duration of prolongation of the word has a kind of semantic value indicating to us that this is something ongoing–in other words, a variety of ways in which the poetic function of “It is raining” can be considered. For the poetic function to be dominant–as I suggested when I said a Romantic poet wouldn’t be very smart if he or she said “It was raining”–would really be taxing for anyone who wanted to make it so. But any function could be the dominant in a certain situation of any given utterance.

So that then, sort of, perhaps serves to suffice as an analysis of Jakobson’s understanding of the structure of an utterance. It has a structure insofar–that is to say a metaphoric as opposed to a metonymic structure insofar as we observe the presence of some kind of pressure from the axis of selection, the principle of equivalence and the axis of selection, bringing itself to bear on the way in which the combination takes place. It’s just incredible that you say, “It is raining.” What could be more prosaic than “It is raining?” All of a sudden you notice that string of “i’s.” You notice all kinds of other things about it. The way in which the most banal utterance is combined is likely in one form or another almost unavoidable. I suppose I should use the strong argument and say “unavoidably”: is likely unavoidably to entail aspects of the poetic function. Where the poetic function is dominant you have literariness, and that of course, is the old object of scientific attention of the Russian formalists; but it is refined in a way that, I think, is structuralist by Jakobson because he insists on the binary nature of the process of combining elements from the axis of selection if they are equivalent–binary being “same,” “opposite,” “similar,” “dissimilar,” and the variety of patterns in which those relations, “same,” “opposite,” “similar,” and “dissimilar,” can be launched into use.

Chapter 7. Metalanguage and Poetic Function [00:43:48]

Now I’ve actually reached the point at which possibly I could get involved in some elements of critique, and I suppose I’ll begin. I may not finish but we can always carry over into the next lecture. So since we’ve been talking about Jakobson, let me call your attention to one problem in what seems to me otherwise to be a truly remarkable exercise of thought. That problem arises on page 858. He himself recognizes that it’s a problem. He acknowledges it’s a problem, but he wants to say that he’s solved it in saying what he says. It’s about two thirds of the way down the page and it’s about the relationship between the poetic function and the metalingual function, between the set to the message and the set to the code, as he puts it. This is what he says:

It may be objected [Yes, and here we are objecting, right?] that metalanguage also makes a sequential use of equivalent units when combining synonymic expressions into an equational sentence: A = A (“Mare is the female of the horse”). Poetry and metalanguage, however, are in diametrical opposition to each other [They’re not the same, right? They’re in diametrical opposition to each other]: in metalanguage the sequence is used to build an equation [in other words, to prove that one term can be understood in terms of other terms], whereas in poetry the equation is used to build a sequence.

Okay. Now in one sense this is true, obviously. Yes, that is, I know when I’m speaking metalanguage and I know when I’m speaking poetry. Maybe you know it too, but what Jakobson has actually done is he’s sort of exposed a structuralist nerve, because he has appealed to intention: that is to say, he’s said the metalingual expression has one intention and the poetic expression has another intention. What does that mean? It has a genesis; it has an origin in an intending consciousness just as in traditions that are not structuralist, things have origins in prior causes and not in their structural relationship between two things. In other words, if structuralism is a critique of genesis, as is the case with Edmund Leach’s analysis of the biblical text Genesis, as is the case certainly with Levi-Strauss’ understanding of the Oedipus myth, from two and not from one–if structuralism is a critique of genesis, what happens when you have to make a distinction between two entities in your system, the poetic function and the metalingual function, in terms of their genesis: that is to say, in terms of the intention that stands behind them?

As I said, the example seems trivial because we’re all more than prepared to agree with Jakobson that we know the difference when we see it between the metalingual and the poetic functions, but he’s not actually saying we know the difference when we see it. Maybe it would have been better if he had said, “Well, anybody can see what’s metalingual and what’s poetic.” Maybe it would have been better if he had. What he says instead is that metalingual is intended to do one thing; poetic is intended to do another thing.

That opens, actually, a can of worms about all six functions. I stand here in front of you and I say “It is raining.” How do you know what I am intending, right: whether I’m nervous and sort of just being phatic; whether I am really unhappy or happy; whether I think you’re crazy–it is in fact raining outside and I don’t see any coats; or whether I am actually sort of just masquerading as an English professor–I am really a meteorologist? You don’t know any of these things. You have to infer an intention, right? If you infer an intention in order to make these distinctions, how can the structuralist imperative of structure rather than genesis be preserved intact? How can we insist that we know things negatively and not positively if we have to infer a direct cause, a positive cause, in order to grasp distinctions even between the six functions? That’s a rhetorical question with which I don’t necessarily agree but it is a potential objection that you may wish to explore on your own.

Now the critique of Levi-Strauss I have already hinted at, but there’s another aspect of it too. That I will defer until next time because you’ll find that the essay of Derrida’s that you’re reading is largely about Levi-Strauss, so it will make a natural segue between what we’re talking about today and what we’ll be talking about Thursday, to return first to certain aspects of Levi-Strauss’ argument and then get going with what Derrida is saying. Thank you. See you then.

[end of transcript]

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